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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

It can seldom be more in place than with Beyle


In

fact the book, pleasant or unpleasant, if we reflect on what the French novel was at the time, deserves a very high place. Compare it with others, and nowhere, except in Balzac, will you find anything like it for firm analysis of character, while I confess that it seems to me to be more strictly human of this world, and at the same time more original,[141] than a good deal of the _Comedie_.

[Sidenote: The resuscitated work--_Lamiel_.]

The question, "Would a novelist in altered circumstances have given us more or better novels?" is sometimes treated as _ultra vires_ or _nihil ad rem_ on the critic's part. I myself have been accused rather of limiting than of extending the province of the literary critic; yet I think this question is, sometimes at least, in place. If so, it can seldom be more in place than with Beyle, first because of the unusually mperfect character of his actual published work; and secondly, because of the still more unusual abundance of half-done work, or of fragments of self-criticism, which what has been called the "Beyle resurrection" of the close of the last century has furnished. Indeed the unfinished and scarcely more than half-drafted novel of _Lamiel_ almost by itself suggests the question and supplies the answer. That answer--except from favourers of the grime-novel which, oddly enough, whether by coincidence or common causation became so popular at about the time of this "resurrection"--can

hardly be favourable. _Lamiel_ is a very grubby little book. The eponymous heroine is adopted as a child by a parish beadle and his wife, who do not at all maltreat her, except by bringing her up in ways of extreme propriety, which she detests, taking delight in the histories of Mandrin, Cartouche and Co. At early maidenhood she is pitched upon as _lectrice_, and in a way favourite, by the great lady of the neighbourhood, the Duchess of Miossens; and in this position first attracts the attention of a peculiarly diabolical little dwarf doctor, who, bar the comic[142] element, reminds one rather of Quilp. His designs are, however, baulked in a most Beylian manner; for Lamiel (who, by a pleasing chance, was at first called "Amiel"--a delightfully _other_ Amiel!) coolly bestows some money upon a peasant to "teach her what love is," and literally asks the Gebirian question about the ocean, "Is this all?" after receiving the lesson. Further, in the more and more unfinished parts of the book, she levants for a time with the young duke, quits him, becomes a professional hetaera in Paris, but never takes any fancy to the business of her avocation till she meets an all-conquering criminal, Valbayre.[143] The scenario tells us that, Valbayre having been caught by justice, she sets fire to the Palace thereof, and her own bones are discovered in the ashes.

This, though Beyle at least meant to season the misanthropy with irony (he might be compared with Meredith for some slightly cryptic views of "the Comic Spirit"), is rather poor stuff, and certainly shows no improvement or likelihood of improvement on the earlier productions. It is even somewhat lamentable, not so much for the presence of grime as because of the absence of any other attraction. _Le Rouge et le Noir_ is not exactly rose-pink, but it derives hardly any, if any, interest from its smirches of mud and blood and blackness. In _Lamiel_ there is little else. Moreover, that unchallengeable "possibility of humanity" which redeems not merely _Le Rouge et le Noir_ but the less exciting books, is wanting here. Sansfin, the doctor, is a mere monstrosity in mind as well as in body, and, except perhaps when she ejaculates (as more briefly reported above), "Comment! ce fameux amour, _ce n'est que ca_?" Lamiel herself is not made interesting.


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