The thing, in short, is most like an intensely intricate dance, with endless figures—with elaborate, innumerable, and sometimes indescribable stage directions. And the whole of it is written down carefully by M. Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crebillon.
He might have occupied his time much better? Perhaps, as to the subject of occupation. But with that we have, if not nothing, very little to do. The point is, How did he handle these better-let-alone subjects? and what contribution, in so handling them, did he make to the general development of the novel?
I am bound to say that I think, with the caution given above, he handled them, when he was at his best, singularly well, and gave hints, to be taken or left as they chose, to handlers of less disputable subjects than his.
One at least of the most remarkable things about him is connected with this very disputableness. Voltaire and Sterne were no doubt greater men than Crebillon fils: and though both of them dealt with the same class of subject, they also dealt with others, while he did not. But, curiously enough, the reproach of sniggering, which lies so heavily on Laurence Sterne and Francois Arouet, does not lie on Crebillon. He has an audacity of grave persiflage which is sometimes almost Swiftian in a lower sphere: and it saves him from the unpardonable sin of the snigger. He has also—as, to have this grave persiflage, he almost necessarily must have—a singularly clear and flexible style, which is only made more piquant by the "-assiez's" and "-ussiez's" of the older language. Further, and of still greater importance for the novelist, he has a pretty wit, which sometimes almost approaches humour, and, if not a diabolically, a diablotinically acute perception of human nature as it affects his subject. This perception rarely fails: and conventional, and very unhealthily conventional, as the Crebillon world is, the people who inhabit it are made real people. He is, in those best things of his at least, never "out." We can see the ever-victorious duke (M. de Clerval of the Hasard is perhaps the closest to the Richelieu model of all Crebillon's coxcomb-gallants), who, even after a lady has given him most unequivocal proofs of her affection, refuses for a long time, if not finally, to say that he loves her, because he has himself a graduated scheme of values in that direction, and though she may have touched his heart, etc., she has not quite come up to his "love" standard. And we know, too, though she is less common, the philosophical Marquise herself, who, "possessing" the most notoriously inconstant lover in all Paris (this same M. de Clerval, it happens), maintains her comparative indifference to the circumstance, alleging that even when he is most inconstant he is always "very affectionate, though a little extinguished." And in fact he goes off to her from the very fireside, where such curious things have chanced. Extravagant as are the situations in La Nuit et le Moment, the other best thing, they are, but for the longueurs already censured, singularly verisimilar on their own postulates. The trusty coachman, who always drives particularly slowly when a lady accompanies his master in the carriage, but would never think of obeying the check-string if his master's own voice did not authorise it; the invaluable soubrette who will sit up to any hour to play propriety, when her mistress is according a tete-a-tete, but who, most naturally, always falls asleep—these complete, at the lower end of the scale, what the dukes and the countesses have begun at the upper. And Crebillon, despite his verbosity, is never at a loss for pointed sayings to relieve and froth it up. Nor are these mere mots or pointes or conceits—there is a singular amount of life-wisdom in them, and a short anthology might be made here, if there were room for it, which would entirely vindicate the assertion.
[Sidenote: Inequality of his general work—a survey of it.]
It is true that the praises just given to Crebillon do not (as was indeed hinted above) apply to the whole of his work, or even to the larger part of it. An unfavourable critic might indeed say that, in strictness, they only apply to parts of Le Sopha and to the two little dialogue-stories just referred to. The method is, no doubt, one by no means easy to apply on the great scale, and the restriction of the subject adds to the difficulty. The longest regular stories of all, Ah! Quel Conte! and Le Sopha itself, though they should have been mentioned in reverse order, are resumptions of the Hamiltonian idea of chaining things on to the Arabian Nights. Crebillon, however, does not actually resuscitate Shahriar and the sisters, but substitutes a later Caliph, Shah Baham, and his Sultana. The Sultan is exceedingly stupid, but also very talkative, and fond of interrupting his vizier and the other tale-tellers with wiseacreries; the Sultana is an acute enough lady, who governs her tongue in order to save her neck. The framework is not bad for a short story, but becomes a little tedious when it is made to enshrine two volumes, one of them pretty big. It is better in Le Sopha than in Ah! Quel Conte! and some of the tales that it gives us in the former are almost equal to the two excepted dialogues. Moreover, it is unluckily true that Ah! Quel Conte! (an ejaculation of the Sultana's at the beginning) might be, as Crebillon himself doubtless foresaw, repeated with a sinister meaning by a reader at the end. Tanzai et Neadarne or L'Ecumoire, another fairy story, though livelier in its incidents than Ah! Quel Conte!—nay, though it contains some of Crebillon's smartest sayings, and has perhaps his nicest heroine,—is heavy on the whole, and in it, the author's gauffre-like lightness of "impropriety" being absent, the tone approaches nearer to that dismallest form of literature or non-literature—the deliberate obscene.
Les Egarements du Coeur et de l'Esprit, on the other hand—one of the author's earliest books—is the furthest from that most undesirable consummation, and one of the most curious, if not of the most amusing, of all. It recounts, from the mouth of the neophyte himself, the "forming" of a very young man—almost a boy—to this strange kind of commerce, by an elderly, but not yet old, and still attractive coquette, Madame de Lursay, whose earlier life has scandalised even the not easily scandalisable society of her time (we are not told quite how), but who has recovered a reputation very slightly tarnished. The hero is flattered, but for a long time too timid and innocent to avail himself of the advantages offered to him; while, before very long, Madame de Lursay's wiles are interfered with by an "Inconnue-Ingenue," with whom he falls in deep calf-love of a quasi-genuine kind. The book includes sketches of the half-bravo gallants of the time, and is not negligible: but it is not vividly interesting.
Still less so, though they contain some very lively passages, and are the chief locus for Crebillon's treatment of the actual trio of husband, wife, and lover, are the Lettres de la Marquise de M—— au Comte de P——. The scene in which the husband—unfaithful, peevish, and a petit maitre—enters his wife's room to find an ancient, gouty Marquis, who cannot get off his knees quick enough, and terminates the situation with all the aplomb of the Regency, is rather nice: and the gradual "slide" of the at first quite virtuous writer (the wife herself, of course) is well depicted. But love-letters which are neither half-badinage—which these are not—nor wholly passionate—which these never are till the last, when the writer is describing a state of things which Crebillon could not manage at all—are very difficult things to bring off, and Claude Prosper is not quite equal to the situation.
It will thus be seen that the objectors whom we have called A and B—or at least B—will find that they or he need not read all the pages of all the seven volumes to justify their views: and some other work, still to be mentioned, completes the exhibition. I confess, indeed, once more unblushingly, that I have not read every page of them myself. Had they fallen in my way forty years ago I should, no doubt, have done so; but forty years of critical experience and exercise give one the power, and grant one the right, of a more summary procedure in respect of matter thus postponed, unless it is perceived to be of very exceptional quality. These larger works of Crebillon's are not good, though they are not by any means so bad as those of Prevost. There are nuggets, of the shrewd sense and the neat phrase with which he has been credited, in nearly all of them: and these the skilled prospector of reading gold will always detect and profit by. But, barring the possibility of a collection of such, the Oeuvres Choisies of Crebillon need not contain more than the best parts of Le Sopha, the two comparatively short dialogue-tales, and a longer passage or two from Tanzai et Neadarne. It would constitute (I was going to say a respectable, but as that is hardly the right word, I will say rather) a tolerable volume. Even in a wider representation Les Heureux Orphelins and Lettres Atheniennes would yield very little.
The first begins sensationally with the discovery, by a young English squire in his own park, of a foundling girl and boy—not of his own production—whom he brings up; and it ends with a tedious description of how somebody founded the first petite maison in England—a worthy work indeed. It is also noteworthy for a piece of bad manners, which, one regrets to say, French writers have too often committed; lords and ladies of the best known names and titles in or near Crebillon's own day—such as Oxford, Suffolk, Pembroke—being introduced with the utmost nonchalance. Our novelists have many faults to charge themselves with, and Anthony Trollope, in The Three Clerks, produced a Frenchman with perhaps as impossible a name as any English travesty in French literature. But I do not remember any one introducing, in a not historical novel, a Duc de la Tremoille or a member of any of the branches of Rohan, at a time when actual bearers of these titles existed in France. As for the Lettres Atheniennes, if it were not for completeness, I should scarcely even mention them. Alcibiades is the chief male writer; Aspasia the chief female; but all of them, male and female, are equally destitute of Atticism and of interest. The contrast of the contrasts between Crebillon's and Prevost's best and worst work is one of the oddest things in letters. One wonders how Prevost came to write anything so admirable as Manon Lescaut; one wonders how Crebillon came to write anything so insufficient as the two books just criticised, and even others.
It may be said, "This being so, why have you given half a chapter to these two writers, even with Lesage and Marivaux to carry it off?" The reason is that this is (or attempts to be) a history of the French novel, and that, in such a history, the canons of importance are not the same as those of the novel itself. Gil Blas, Marianne, Manon Lescaut, and perhaps even Le Hasard au Coin du Feu are interesting in themselves; but the whole work of their authors is important, and therefore interesting, to the historical student. For these authors carried further—a great deal further—the process of laying the foundations and providing the materials and plant for what was to come. Of actual masterpieces they only achieved the great, but not equally great, one of Gil Blas and the little one of Manon Lescaut. But it is not by masterpieces alone that the world of literature lives in the sense of prolonging its life. One may even say—touching the unclean thing paradox for a moment, and purifying oneself with incense, and salt, and wine—that the masterpieces of literature are more beautiful and memorable and delectable in themselves than fertile in results. They catch up the sum of their own possibilities, and utter it in such a fashion that there is no more to say in that fashion. The dreary imitation Iliads, the impossible sham Divina Commedias, the Sheridan-Knowles Shakespearian plays, rise up and terrify or bore us. Whereas these second-rate experimenters, these adventurers in quest of what they themselves hardly know, strike out paths, throw seed, sketch designs which others afterwards pursue, and plant out, and fill up. There are probably not many persons now who would echo Gray's wish for eternal romances of either Marivaux or Crebillon; and the accompanying remarks in the same letter on Joseph Andrews, though they show some appreciation of the best characters, are quite inappreciative of the merit of the novel as a whole. For eternal variations of Joseph Andrews, "Passe!" as a French Gray might have said.
Nevertheless, I am myself pretty sure that Marivaux at least helped Richardson and Fielding, and there can be no doubt that Crebillon helped Sterne. And what is more important to our present purpose, they and their companions in this chapter helped the novel in general, and the French novel in particular, to an extent far more considerable. We may not, of course, take the course of literary history—general or particular—which has been, as the course which in any case must have been. But at the same time we cannot neglect the facts. And it is a quite certain fact that, for the whole of the last half of the eighteenth century, and nearly the whole of the first quarter of the nineteenth, the French novel, as a novel, made singularly little progress. We shall have to deal in the next chapter, if not in the next two chapters, with at least two persons of far greater powers than any one mentioned in the last two. But we shall perhaps be able to show cause why even Voltaire and Rousseau, why certainly Diderot, why Marmontel and almost every one else till we come, not in this volume, to Chateaubriand, whose own position is a little doubtful, somehow failed to attain the position of a great advancer of the novel.
These others, whatever their shortcomings, had advanced it by bringing it, in various ways, a great deal nearer to its actual ideal of a completed picture of real human life. Lesage had blended with his representation a good deal of the conventional picaresque; Marivaux had abused preciousness of language and petty psychology; Prevost, save in that marvellous windfall of his and the Muses which the historian of novels can hardly mention without taking off his hat if he has one on, or making his best bow if he has not, had gone wandering after impossible and uninteresting will-o'-the-wisps; Crebillon had done worse than "abide in his inn," he had abided almost always in his polite bordello. But all of them had meant to be real; and all of them had, if only now and then, to an extent which even Madame de la Fayette had scarcely achieved before, attained reality.
 In fact it has been said, and may be said again, that Lesage is one of the prophets who have never had so much justice done them in their own countries as abroad.
 The first part of Gil Blas appeared in 1715; and nearly twenty years later gossip said that the fourth was not ready, though the author had been paid in advance for it six or seven years earlier.
 I have never read it in the original, being, though a great admirer of Spanish, but slightly versed therein.
 This, which is a sort of Appendix to the Diable Boiteux, is much the best of these opera minora.
 He had a temper of the most Breton-Bretonnant type—not ill-natured but sturdy and independent, recalcitrant alike to ill-treatment and to patronage. He got on neither at the Bar, his first profession, nor with the regular actors, and he took vengeance in his books on both; while at least one famous anecdote shows his way of treating a patron—indeed, as it happened, a patroness—who presumed.
 Asmodeus, according to his usual station in the infernal hierarchy, is demon de la luxure: but any fears or hopes which may be aroused by this description, and the circumstances of the action, will be disappointed. Lesage has plenty of risky situations, but his language is strictly "proper."
 Against this may be cited his equally anecdotic acceptance of Regnard, who was also "run" against Moliere. But Regnard was a "classic" and orthodox in his way; Lesage was a free-lance, and even a Romantic before Romanticism. Boileau knew that evil, as evil seemed to him, had come from Spain; he saw more coming in this, and if he anticipated more still in the future, 1830 proved him no false prophet.
 In other words, there is a unity of personality in the attitude which the hero takes to and in them.
 And in it too, of course; as well as in Spain's remarkable but too soon re-enslaved criticism.
 As he says of himself (vii. x.): Enfin, apres un severe examen je tombais d'accord avec moi-meme, que si je n'etais pas un fripon, il ne s'en fallait guere. And the Duke of Lerma tells him later, "M. de Santillane, a ce que je vois, vous avez ete tant soit peu picaro."
 The two most undoubted cases—his ugly and, unluckily, repeated acceptance of the part of Pandarus-Leporello—were only too ordinary rascalities in the seventeenth century. The books of the chronicles of England and France show us not merely clerks and valets but gentlemen of every rank, from esquire to duke, eagerly accepting this office.
 In a curious passage of Bk. XII. Chap. I. in which Gil disclaims paternity and resigns it to Marialva. This may have been prompted by a desire to lessen the turpitude of the go-between business; but it is a clumsy device, and makes Gil look a fool as well as a knave.
 One of Lesage's triumphs is the way in which, almost to the last, "M. de Santillane," despite the rogueries practised often on and sometimes by him, retains a certain gullibility, or at least ingenuousness.
 Not of course as opposed to "romantic," but as = "chief and principal."
 The reader must not forget that this formidable word means "privateer" rather than "pirate" in French, and that this was the golden age of the business in that country.
 Those who are curious may find something on him by the present writer, not identical with the above account, in an essay entitled A Study of Sensibility, reprinted in Essays on French Novelists (London, 1891), and partly, but outside of the Marivaux part, reproduced in Chap. XII. of the present volume.
 By M. Gustave Larroumet. Paris, 1882.
 I need hardly say that I am not referring to things like Rebecca and Rowena or A Legend of the Rhine, which "burst the outer shell of sin," and, like Mrs. Martha Gwynne in the epitaph, "hatch themselves a cherubin" in each case.
 The reader will perhaps excuse the reminder that the sense in which we (almost exclusively) use this word, and which it had gained in French itself by the time of Talleyrand's famous double-edged sarcasm on person and world (Il n'est pas parvenu: il est arrive), was not quite original. The parvenu was simply a person who had "got on": the disobliging slur of implication on his former position, and perhaps on his means of freeing himself from it, came later. It is doubtful whether there is much, if indeed there is any, of this slur in Marivaux's title.
 It is the acme of what may be called innocent corruption. She does not care for her master, nor apparently for vicious pleasure, nor—certainly—for money as such. She does care for Jacob, and wants to marry him; the money will make this possible; so she earns it by the means that present themselves, and puts it at his disposal.
 He is proof against his master's threats if he refuses; as well as against the money if he accepts. Unluckily for Genevieve, when he breaks away she faints. Her door and the money-box are both left open, and the latter disappears.
 Here and elsewhere the curious cheapness of French living (despite what history tells of crushing taxation, etc.) appears. The locus classicus for this is generally taken to be Mme. de Maintenon's well-known letter about her brother's housekeeping. But here, well into another century, Mlle. Habert's 4000 livres a year are supposed to be at least relative affluence, while in Marianne (v. inf.) M. de Climal thinks 500 or 600 enough to tempt her, and his final bequest of double that annuity is represented as making a far from despicable dot even for a good marriage.
 The much greater blood-thirstiness of the French highwayman, as compared with the English, has been sometimes attributed by humanitarians to the "wheel"—and has often been considered by persons of sense as justifying that implement.
 The Devil's Advocate may say that Marianne turns out to be of English extraction after all—but it is not Marivaux who tells us so.
 To question or qualify Marianne's virtue, even in the slightest degree, may seem ungracious; for it certainly withstands what to some girls would have been the hardest test of all—that is to say, not so much the offer of riches if she consents, as the apparent certainty of utter destitution if she refuses. At the same time, the Devil's Advocate need not be a Kelly or a Cockburn to make out some damaging suggestions. Her vague, and in no way solidly justified, but decided family pride seems to have a good deal to do with her refusal; and though this shows the value of the said family pride, it is not exactly virtue in itself. Still more would appear to be due to the character of the suit and the suitor. M. de Climal is not only old and unattractive; not only a sneak and a libertine; but he is a clumsy person, and he has not, as he might have done, taken Marianne's measure. The mere shock of his sudden transformation from a pious protector into a prospective "keeper," who is making a bid for a new concubine, has evidently an immense effect on her quick nervous temperament. She is not at all the kind of girl to like to be the plaything of an old man; and she is perfectly shrewd enough to see that vengeance, and fear as regards his nephew, have as much as anything else, or more, to do with the way in which he brusques his addresses and hurries his gift. Further, she has already conceived a fancy, at least, for that nephew himself; and one sees the "jury droop," as Dickens has put it, with which the Counsel of the Prince of the Air would hint that, if the offers had come in a more seductive fashion from Valville himself, they might not have been so summarily rejected. But let it be observed that these considerations, while possibly unfair to Marianne, are not in the least derogatory to Marivaux himself. On the contrary, it is greatly to his credit that he should have created a character of sufficient lifelikeness and sufficient complexity to serve as basis for "problem"-discussions of the kind.
 To put the drift of the above in other words, we do not need to hear any more of Marianne in any position, because we have had enough shown us to know generally what she would do, say, and think, in all positions.
 It has been observed that there is actually a Meredithian quality in Aristides of Smyrna, though he wrote no novel. A tale in Greek, to illustrate the parallel, would be an admirable subject for a University Prize.
 Two descriptions of "Marivaudage" (which, by the way, was partly anticipated by Fontenelle)—both, if I do not mistake, by Crebillon fils—are famous: "Putting down not only everything you said and thought, but also everything you would like to have thought and said, but did not," and, "Introducing to each other words which never had thought of being acquainted." Both of these perhaps hit the modern forms of the phenomenon even harder than they hit their original butt.
 It is only fair to the poor Prioress to say that there is hardly a heroine in fiction who is more deeply in love with her own pretty little self than Marianne.
 One does not know whether it was prudence, or that materialism which, though he was no philosophe, he shared with most of his contemporaries, which prevented Marivaux from completing this sharp though mildly worded criticism. The above-mentioned profane have hinted that both the placidity and the indifference of the persons concerned, whether Catholic or Calvinist, arise from their certainty of their own safety in another world, and their looking down on less "guaranteed" creatures in this. It may be just permissible to add that a comparison of Chaucer's and Marivaux's prioresses will suggest itself to many persons, and should be found delectable by all fit ones.
 His books on Margaret of Anjou and William the Conqueror are odd crosses between actual historical essays and the still unborn historical novel.
 Mlle. de Launay, better known as Mme. de Staal-Delaunay, saw, as most would have seen, a resemblance in this to the famous Mlle. Aisse's. But the latter was bought as a little child by her provident "protector," M. de Ferreol. Mlle. Aisse herself had earlier read the Memoires d'un Homme de Qualite and did not think much of them. But this was the earlier part. It would be odd if she had not appreciated Manon had she read it: but she died in the year of its appearance.
 The excellent but rather stupid editor of the [Dutch] Oeuvres Choisies above noticed has given abstracts of Prevost's novels as well as of Richardson's, which the Abbe translated. These, with Sainte-Beuve's of the Memoires, will help those who want something more than what is in the text, while declining the Sahara of the original. But, curiously enough, the Dutchman does not deal with the end of Cleveland.
 He had a fit of apoplexy when walking, and instead of being bled was actually cut open by a village super-Sangrado, who thought him dead and only brought him to life—to expire actually in torment.
 Crebillon pere, tragedian and academician, is one of the persons who have never had justice done to them: perhaps because they never quite did justice to themselves. His plays are unequal, rhetorical, and as over-heavy as his son's work is over-light. But, if we want to find the true tragic touch of verse in the French eighteenth century, we must go to him.
 "Be it mine to read endless romances of Marivaux and Crebillon."
 Learnt, no doubt, to a great extent from Anthony Hamilton, with whose family, as has been noticed, he had early relations.
 He goes further, and points out that, as she is his really beloved Marquise's most intimate friend, she surely wouldn't wish him to declare himself false to that other lady?—having also previously observed that, after what has occurred, he could never think of deceiving his Celie herself by false declarations. These topsy-turvinesses are among Crebillon's best points, and infinitely superior to the silly "platitudes reversed" which have tried to produce the same effect in more recent times.
 It has been said more than once that Crebillon had early access to Hamilton's MSS. He refers directly to the Facardins in Ah! Quel Conte! and makes one of his characters claim to be grand-daughter of Cristalline la Curieuse herself.
 Nor perhaps even then, for passion is absolutely unknown to our author. One touch of it would send the curious Rupert's drop of his microcosm to shivers, as Manon Lescaut itself in his time, and Adolphe long after, show.
 Some remarks are made by "Madame Hepenny"—a very pleasing phoneticism, and, though an actual name, not likely to offend any actual person.
 No sneer is intended in this adjective. Except in one or two of the personages of Les Egarements, Crebillon's intended gentlemen are nearly always well-bred, however ill-moralled they may be, and his ladies (with the same caution) are ladies. It is with him, in this last point at any rate, as with our own Congreve, whom he rather closely resembles in some ways: though I was amused the other day to find some twentieth-century critical objections to actresses' rendering of Love for Love as "too well-bred." The fact is that the tradition of "breeding" never broke down in France till the philosophe period, while with us it lasted till—when shall we say?
THE PHILOSOPHE NOVEL
[Sidenote: The use of the novel for "purpose"—Voltaire.]
It has been for some time a commonplace—though, like most commonplaces, it is probably much more often simply borrowed than an actual and (even in the sense of communis) original perception of the borrowers—that nothing shows the comparative inevitableness of the novel in the eighteenth century better than the use of it by persons who would, at other times, have used quite different forms to subserve similar purposes. The chief instance of this with us is, of course, Johnson in Rasselas, but it is much more variously and voluminously, if not in any single instance much better, illustrated in France by the three great leaders of the philosophe movement; by considerable, if second-rate figures, more or less connected with that movement, like Marmontel and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre; and by many lesser writers.
There can be no question that, in more ways than one, Voltaire deserves the first place in this chapter, not only by age, by volume, and by variety of general literary ability, but because he, perhaps more than any of the others, is a tale-teller born. That he owes a good deal to Hamilton, and something directly to Hamilton's master, Saint-Evremond, has been granted elsewhere; but that he is dependent on these models to such an extent as to make his actual production unlikely if the models had not been ready for him, may be roundly denied. There are in literature some things which must have existed, and of which it is not frivolous to say that if their actual authors had not been there, or had declined to write them, they would have found somebody else to do it. Of these, Candide is evidently one, and more than one of Candide's smaller companions have at least something of the same characteristic. Yet one may also say that if Voltaire himself had not written these, he must have written other things of the kind. The mordant wit, the easy, fluent, rippling style, so entirely free from boisterousness yet with constant "wap" of wavelet and bursting of foam-bubble; above all, the pure unadulterated faculty of tale-telling, must have found vent and play somehow. It had been well if the playfulness had not been, as playfulness too often is, of what contemporary English called an "unlucky" (that is, a "mischievous") kind; and if the author had not been constantly longing to make somebody or many bodies uncomfortable, to damage and defile shrines, to exhibit a misanthropy more really misanthropic, because less passionate and tragical, than Swift's, and, in fact, as his patron, persecutor, and counterpart, Frederick the Jonathan-Wildly Great, most justly observed of him, to "play monkey-tricks," albeit monkey-tricks of immense talent, if not actually of genius. If the recent attempts to interpret monkey-speech were to come to something, and if, as a consequence, monkeys were taught to write, one may be sure that prose fiction would be their favourite department, and that their productions would be, though almost certainly disreputable, quite certainly amusing. In fact there would probably be some among these which would be claimed, by critics of a certain type, as hitherto unknown works of Voltaire himself.
Yet if the straightforward tale had not, owing to the influences discussed in the foregoing chapters, acquired a firm hold, it is at least possible that he would not have adopted it (for originality of form was not Voltaire's forte), but would have taken the dialogue, or something else capable of serving his purpose. As it was, the particular field or garden had already been marked out and hedged after a fashion; tools and methods of cultivation had been prepared; and he set to work to cultivate it with the application and intelligence recommended in the famous moral of his most famous tale—a moral which, it is only fair to say, he did carry out almost invariably. A garden of very questionable plants was his, it may be; but that is another matter. The fact and the success of the cultivation are both undeniable.
[Sidenote: General characteristics of his tales.]
At the same time, Voltaire—if indeed, as was doubted just now, he be a genius at all—is not a genius, or even a djinn, of the kind that creates and leaves something Melchisedec-like; alone and isolated from what comes before and what comes after. He is an immense talent—perhaps the greatest talent-but-not-genius ever known—who utilises and improves and develops rather than invents. It is from this that his faculty of never boring, except when he has got upon the Scriptures, comes; it is because of this also that he never conceives anything really, simply, absolutely great. His land is never exactly weary, but there is no imposing and sheltering and refreshing rock in it. These romans and contes and nouvelles of his stimulate, but they do not either rest or refresh. They have what is, to some persons at any rate, the theatrical quality, not the poetical or best-prosaic. But as nearly consummate works of art, or at least craft, they stand almost alone.
He had seen the effect of which the fairy tale of the sophisticated kind was capable, and the attraction which it had for both vulgars, the great and the small: and he made the most of it. He kept and heightened its haut gout; he discarded the limitations to a very partial and conventional society which Crebillon put on it; but he limited it in other ways to commonplace and rather vulgar fancy, without the touches of imagination which Hamilton had imparted. Yet he infused an even more accurate appreciation of certain phases of human nature than those predecessors or partial contemporaries of his who were discussed in the last chapter had introduced; he practicalised it to the nth, and he made it almost invariably subordinate to a direct, though a sometimes more or less ignoble, purpose. There is no doubt that he had learnt a great deal from Lucian and from Lucian's French imitators, perhaps as far back as Bonaventure des Periers; there is, I think, little that he had added as much as he could add from Swift. His stolen or borrowed possessions from these sources, and especially this last, remind one in essence rather of the pilferings of a "light horseman," or river-pirate who has hung round an "old three-decker," like that celebrated in Mr. Kipling's admirable poem, and has caught something even of the light from "her tall poop-lanterns shining so far above him," besides picking up overboard trifles, and cutting loose boats and cables. But when he gets to shore and to his own workshop, his almost unequalled power of sheer wit, and his general craftsmanship, bring out of these lootings something admirable in its own way.
Candide is almost "great," and though the breed of Dr. Pangloss in its original kind is nearly extinct, the England which suffered the approach, and has scarcely yet allowed itself to comprehend the reality, of the war of 1914, ought to know that there have been and are Panglossotins of almost appalling variety. The book does not really require the smatches of sculduddery, which he has smeared over it, to be amusing; for its lifelikeness carries it through. As is well known, Johnson admitted the parallel with Rasselas, which is among the most extraordinary coincidences of literature. I have often wondered whether anybody ever took the trouble to print the two together. There would be many advantages in doing so; but they might perhaps be counter-balanced by the fact that some of the most fervent admirers of Rasselas would be infinitely shocked by Candide, and that perhaps more of the special lovers of Candide would find themselves bored to extinction by Rasselas. Let those who can not only value but enjoy both be thankful, but not proud.
Many people have written about the Consolations of Old Age, not seldom, it is to be feared, in a "Who's afraid?" sort of spirit. But there are a few, an apple or two by the banks of Ulai, which we may pluck as the night approaches. One is almost necessarily accidental, for it would be rash and somewhat cold-blooded to plan it. It consists in the reading, after many years, of a book once familiar almost to the point of knowing by heart, and then laid aside, not from weariness or disgust, but merely as things happened. This, as in some other books mentioned in this history, was the case with the present writer in respect of Candide. From twenty to forty, or thereabouts, I must have read it over and over again; the sentences drop into their places almost without exercising any effort of memory to recognise them. From forty to seventy I do not think I read it at all; because no reason made reading necessary, and chance left it untouched on the shelf. Sometimes, as everybody knows, the result of renewed acquaintance in such cases is more or less severe disappointment; in a few of the happiest, increased pleasure. But it is perhaps the severest test of a classic (in the exact but limited sense of that word) that its effect shall be practically unchanged, shall have been established in the mind and taste with such a combination of solidity and nettete, that no change is possible. I do not think I have ever found this to be more the case than with the history of Candide (who was such a good fellow, without being in the least a prig, as I am afraid Zadig was, that one wonders how Voltaire came to think of him) and of Mademoiselle Cunegonde (nobody will ever know anything about style who does not feel what the continual repetition in Candide's mouth of the "Mademoiselle" does) of the indomitable Pangloss, and the detestable baron, and the forgivable Paquette, and that philosopher Martin, who did not "let cheerfulness break in," and the admirable Cacambo, who shows that, much as he hated Rousseau, Voltaire himself was not proof against the noble savage mania.
As a piece (v. sup.) of art or craft, the thing is beyond praise or pay. It could not be improved, on its own specification, except that perhaps the author might have told us how Mademoiselle Cunegonde, who had kept her beauty through some very severe experiences, suddenly lost it. It is idle as literary, though not as historical, criticism to say, as has been often said about the Byng passage, that Voltaire's smartness rather "goes off through the touch-hole," seeing that the admiral's execution did very considerably "encourage the others." It is superfluous to urge the unnecessary "smuts," which are sometimes not in the least amusing. All these and other sought-for knots are lost in the admirable smoothness of this reed, which waves in the winds of time with unwitherable greenness, and slips through the hand, as you stroke it, with a coaxing tickle. To praise its detail would again be idle—nobody ought to read such praise who can read itself; and if anybody, having read its first page, fails to see that it is, and how it is, praiseworthy, he never will or would be converted if all the eulogies of the most golden-mouthed critics of the world were poured upon him in a steady shower. As a whole it is undoubtedly the best, and (except part of Zadig) it is nowhere else matched in the book of the romances of Voltaire, while for those who demand "purposes" and "morals," it stands almost alone. It is the comic "Vanity of Human Wishes" in prose, as Rasselas is the tragic or, at least, serious version: and, as has been said, the two make an unsurpassable sandwich, or, at least, tartine. Nor could it have been told, in any other way than by prose fiction, with anything like the same effect, either as regards critical judgment or popular acceptance.
[Sidenote: Zadig and its satellites.]
Zadig, as has been indicated already, probably ranks in point of merit next to Candide. If it had stopped about half-way, there could be no doubt about the matter. The reader is caught at once by one of the most famous and one of the most Voltairian of phrases, "Il savait de la metaphysique ce qu'on a su dans tous les ages, c'est-a-dire fort peu de chose," a little more discussion of which saying, and of others like it, may perhaps be given later. The successive disappointments of the almost too perfect hero are given with the simplicity just edged with irony which is Voltaire's when he is at his best, though he undoubtedly learnt it from the masters already assigned, and—the suggestion would have made him very angry, and would probably have attracted one of his most Yahoo-like descents on this humble and devoted head—from Lesage. But though the said head has no objection—much the reverse—to "happy endings," the romance-finish of Zadig has always seemed to it a mistake. Still, how many mistakes would one pardon if they came after such a success? Babouc, the first of those miniature contes (they are hardly "tales" in one sense), which Voltaire managed so admirably, has the part-advantage part-disadvantage of being likewise the first of a series of satires on French society, which, piquant as they are, would certainly have been both more piquant and more weighty if there had been fewer of them. It is full of the perfect, if not great, Voltairian phrases,—the involuntary Mene Tekel, "Babouc conclut qu'une telle societe ne pouvait subsister"; the palinode after a fashion, "Il s'affectionnait a la ville, dont le peuple etait doux [oh! Nemesis!] poli et bien-faisant, quoique leger, medisant et plein de vanite"; and the characteristic collection of parallel between Babouc and Jonah, surely not objectionable even to the most orthodox, "Mais quand on a ete trois jours dans le corps d'une baleine on n'est pas de si bonne humeur que quand on a ete a l'opera, a la comedie et qu'on a soupe en bonne compagnie."
Memnon, ou La Sagesse Humaine is still less of a tale, only a lively sarcastic apologue; but he would be a strange person who would quarrel with its half-dozen pages, and much the same may be said of the Voyages de Scarmentado. Still, one feels in both of them, and in many of the others, that they are after all not much more than chips of an inferior rehandling of Gulliver. Micromegas, as has been said, does not disguise its composition as something of the kind; but the desire to annoy Fontenelle, while complimenting him after a fashion as the "dwarf of Saturn," and perhaps other strokes of personal scratching, have put Voltaire on his mettle. You will not easily find a better Voltairism of its particular class than, "Il faut bien citer ce qu'on ne comprend point du tout, dans la langue qu'on entend le moins." But, as so often happens, the cracker in the tail is here the principal point. Micromegas, the native of Sirius, who may be Voltaire himself, or anybody else—after his joint tour through the universes (much more amusing than that of the late Mr. Bailey's Festus), with the smaller but still gigantic Saturnian—writes a philosophical treatise to instruct us poor microbes of the earth, and it is taken to Paris, to the secretary of the Academy of Science (Fontenelle himself). "Quand le secretaire l'eut ouvert il ne vit rien qu'un livre tout blanc. 'Ah!' dit-il, 'je m'en etais bien doute.'" Voltaire did a great deal of harm in the world, and perhaps no solid good; but it is things like this which make one feel that it would have been, a loss had there been no Voltaire.
L'Ingenu, which follows Candide in the regular editions, falls perhaps as a whole below all these, and L'Homme aux Quarante Ecus, which follows it, hardly concerns us at all, being mere political economy of a sort in dialogue. L'Ingenu is a story, and has many amusing things in it. But it is open to the poser that if Voltaire really accepted the noble savage business he was rather silly, and that if he did not, the piece is a stale and not very biting satire. It is, moreover, somewhat exceptionally full (there is only one to beat it) of the vulgar little sniggers which suggest the eunuch even more than the schoolboy, and the conclusion is abominable. The seducer and, indirectly, murderer Saint-Pouange may only have done after his kind in regard to Mlle. de Saint-Yves; but the Ingenu himself neither acted up to his Huron education, nor to his extraction as a French gentleman, in forgiving the man and taking service under him.
[Sidenote: La Princesse de Babylone.]
La Princesse de Babylone is more like Hamilton than almost any other of the tales, and this, it need hardly be said here, is high praise, even for a work of Voltaire. For it means that it has what we commonly find in that work, and also something that we do not. But it has that defect which has been noticed already in Zadig, and which, by its absence, constitutes the supremacy of Candide. There is in it a sort of "break in the middle." The earlier stages of the courtship of Formosante are quite interesting; but when she and her lover begin separately to wander over the world, in order that their chronicler may make satiric observations on the nations thereof, one feels inclined to say, as Mr. Mowbray Morris said to Mr. Matthew Arnold (who thought it was Mr. Traill):
Can't you give us something new?
[Sidenote: Some minors.]
Le Blanc et le Noir rises yet again, and though it has perhaps not many of Voltaire's mots de flamme, it is more of a fairy moral tale—neither a merely fantastic mow, nor sicklied over with its morality—than almost any other. It is noteworthy, too, that the author has hardly any recourse to his usual clove of garlic to give seasoning. Jeannot et Colin might have been Marmontel's or Miss Edgeworth's, being merely the usual story of two rustic lads, one of whom becomes rich and corrupt till, later, he is succoured by the other. Now Marmontel and Miss Edgeworth are excellent persons and writers; but their work is not work for Voltaire.
The Lettres d'Amabed are the dirtiest and the dullest of the whole batch, and the Histoire de Jenni, though not particularly dirty, is very dull indeed, being the "History of a Good Deist," a thing without which (as Mr. Carlyle used to say) we could do. The same sort of "purpose" mars Les Oreilles du Comte de Chesterfield, in which, after the first page, there is practically nothing about Lord Chesterfield or his deafness, but which contains a good deal of Voltaire's crispest writing, especially the definition of that English freedom which he sometimes used to extol. With thirty guineas a year, the materialist doctor Sidrac informs the unfortunate Goudman, who has lost a living by the said deafness, "on peut dire tout ce qu'on pense de la compagnie des Indes, du parlement, de nos colonies, du roi, de l'etat en general, de l'homme et de Dieu—ce qui est un grand amusement." But the piece itself would be more amusing if Voltaire could let the Bible alone, though he does not here come under the stroke of Diderot's sledge-hammer as he does in Amabed.
One seldom, however, echoes this last wish, and remembers the stroke referred to, more than in reference to Le Taureau Blanc. Here, if there were nobody who reverenced the volume which begins with Genesis and ends with Revelation, the whole thing would be utterly dead and stupid: except for a few crispnesses of the Egyptian Mambres, which could, almost without a single exception, have been uttered on any other theme. The identification of Nebuchadnezzar with the bull Apis is not precisely an effort of genius; but the assembling, and putting through their paces, of Balaam's ass and Jonah's whale, the serpent of Eden, and the raven of the Ark, with the three prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, and with an historical King Amasis and an unhistorical Princess Amaside thrown in, is less a conte a dormir debout, as Voltaire's countrymen and he himself would say, than a tale to make a man sleep when he is running at full speed—a very dried poppy-head of the garden of tales. On the other hand, the very short and very early Le Crocheteur Borgne, which, curiously enough, Voltaire never printed, and the not much longer Cosi-Sancta, which he printed in his queer ostrich-like manner, are, though a little naughty, quite nice; and have a freshness and demure grace about their naughtiness which contrasts remarkably with the ugly and wearisome snigger of later work.
[Sidenote: Voltaire—the Kehl edition—and Plato.]
The half-dozen others, filling scarce twenty pages between them, which conclude the usual collection, need little comment; but a "Kehl" note to the first of them is for considerable thoughts:
M. de Voltaire s'est egaye quelquefois sur Platon, dont le galimatias, regarde autrefois comme sublime, a fait plus de mal au genre humain qu'on ne le croit communement.
One should not hurry over this, but muse a little. In copying the note, I felt almost inclined to write "M. de Platon" in order to put the whole thing in a consistent key; for somehow "Plato" by itself, even in the French form, transports one into such a very different world that adjustment of clocks and compasses becomes at once necessary and difficult. "Galimatias" is good, "autrefois" is possibly better, the "evils inflicted on the human race" better still, but egaye perhaps best of all. The monkey, we know, makes itself gay with the elephant, and probably would do so with the lion and the tiger if these animals had not an unpleasant way of dealing with jokers. And the tomtit and canary have, no doubt, at least private agreement that the utterances of the nightingale are galimatias, while the carrion crow thinks the eagle a fool for dwelling so high and flying so much higher. But as for the other side of the matter, how thin and poor and puerile even those smartest things of Voltaire's, some of which have been quoted and praised, sound, if one attempts to read them after the last sentence of the Apology, or after passage on passage of the rest of the "galimatias" of Plato!
Nevertheless, though you may answer a fool according to his folly, you should not, especially when he is not a fool absolute, judge him solely thereby. When Voltaire was making himself gay with Plato, with the Bible, and with some other things, he was talking, not merely of something which he did not completely understand, but of something altogether outside the range of his comprehension. But in the judgment of literature the process of "cancelling" does not exist. A quality is not destroyed or neutralised by a defect, and, properly speaking (though it is hard for the critic to observe this), to strike a balance between the two is impossible. It is right to enter the non-values; but the values remain and require chief attention.
[Sidenote: An attempt at different evaluation of himself.]
From what has been already said, it will be clear that there is no disposition here to give Voltaire anything short of the fullest credit, both as an individual writer of prose fiction and as a link in the chain of its French producers. He worked for the most part in miniature, and even Candide runs but to its bare hundred pages. But these are of the first quality in their own way, and give the book the same position for the century, in satiric and comic fiction, which Manon Lescaut holds in that of passion. That both should have taken this form, while, earlier, Manon, if written at all, would probably have been a poem, and Candide would have been a treatise, shows on the one side the importance of the position which the novel had assumed, and on the other the immense advantages which it gave, as a kind, to the artist in literature. I like poetry better than anything, but though the subject could have been, and often has been, treated satirically in verse, a verse narrative could hardly have avoided inferiority, while even Berkeley (who himself borrowed a little of novel-form for Alciphron) could not have made Candide more effective than it is. It is of course true that Voltaire's powers as a "fictionist" were probably limited in fact, to the departments, or the department, which he actually occupied, and out of which he wisely did not go. He must have a satiric purpose, and he must be allowed a very free choice of subject and seasoning. In particular, it may be noted that he has no grasp whatever of individual character. Even Candide is but a "humour," and Pangloss a very decided one; as are Martin, Gordon in L'Ingenu, and others. His women are all slightly varied outline-sketches of what he thought women in general were, not persons. Plot he never attempted; and racy as his dialogue often is, it is on the whole merely a setting for these very sparkles of wit some of which have been quoted.
It is in these scintillations, after all, that the chief delight of his tales consists; and though, as has been honestly confessed and shown, he learnt this to some extent from others, he made the thing definitely his own. When the Babylonian public has been slightly "elevated" by the refreshments distributed at the great tournament for the hand of the Princess Formosante, it decides that war, etc., is folly, and that the essence of human nature is to enjoy itself, "Cette excellente morale," says Voltaire gravely, "n'a jamais ete dementie" (the words really should be made to come at the foot of a page so that you might have to turn over before coming to the conclusion of the sentence) "que par les faits." Again, in the description of the Utopia of the Gangarides (same story), where not only men but beasts and birds are all perfectly wise, well conducted, and happy, a paragraph of quite sober description, without any flinging up of heels or thrusting of tongue in cheek, ends, "Nous avons surtout des perroquets qui prechent a merveille," and for once Voltaire exercises on himself the Swiftian control, which he too often neglected, and drops his beloved satire of clerics after this gentle touch at it.
He is of course not constantly at his best; but he is so often enough to make him, as was said at the beginning, very delectable reading, especially for the second time and later, which will be admitted to be no common praise. When you read him for the first time his bad taste, his obsession with certain subjects, his repetition of the same gibes, and other things which have been duly mentioned, strike and may disgust—will certainly more or less displease anybody but a partisan on the same side. On a second or later reading you are prepared for them, and either skip them altogether or pass them by without special notice, repeating the enjoyment of what is better in an unalloyed fashion. And so doth the excellent old chestnut-myth, which probably most of us have heard told with all innocence as an original witticism, justify itself, and one should "prefer the second hour" of the reading to the first. But if there is a first there will almost certainly be a second, and it will be a very great pity if there is no reading at all.
* * * * *
[Sidenote: Rousseau—the novel-character of the Confessions.]
According to the estimate of the common or vulgate (I do not say "vulgar," though in the best English there is little or no difference) literary history, Rousseau ranks far higher in the scale of novel-writing than Voltaire, having left long and ambitious books of the kind against Voltaire's handful of short, shorter, and shortest stories. It might be possible to accept this in one sense, but in one which would utterly disconcert the usual valuers. The Confessions, if it were not an autobiography, would be one of the great novels of the world. A large part of it is probably or certainly "fictionised"; if the whole were fictitious, it would lose much of its repulsiveness, retain (except for a few very matter-of-fact judges) all its interest, and gain the enormous advantage of art over mere reportage of fact. Of course Rousseau's art of another kind, his mere mastery of style and presentation, does redeem this reportage to some extent; but this would remain if the thing were wholly fiction, and the other art of invention, divination, mimesis—call it what you will—would come in. Yet it is not worth while to be idly unlike other people and claim it as an actual novel. It may be worth while to point out how it displays some of the great gifts of the novel-writer. The first of these—the greatest and, in fact, the mother of all the rest—is the sheer faculty, so often mentioned but not, alas! so invariably found, of telling the tale and holding the reader, not with any glittering eye or any enchantment, white or black, but with the pure grasping—or, as French admirably has it, "enfisting"—power of the tale itself. Round this there cluster—or, rather, in this necessarily abide—the subsidiary arts of managing the various parts of the story, of constructing characters sufficient to carry it on, of varnishing it with description, and to some extent, though naturally to a lesser one than if it had been fiction pure and simple, "lacing" it, in both senses of the word, with dialogue. Commonplace (but not the best commonplace) taste often cries "Oh! if this were only true!" The wiser mind is fain sometimes—not often, for things are not often good enough—to say, "Oh! if this were only false!"
[Sidenote: The ambiguous position of Emile.]
But if a severe auditor were to strike the Confessions out of Rousseau's novel-account to the good, on the score of technical insufficiency or disqualification, he could hardly refuse to do the same with Emile on the other side of the sheet. In fact its second title (de l'Education), its opening remarks, and the vastly larger part of the text, not only do not pretend to be a novel but frankly decline to be one. In what way exactly the treatise, from the mere assumption of a supposed "soaring human boy" named Emile, who serves as the victim of a few Sandford-and-Merton-like illustrations, burgeoned into the romance of actual novel-kind with Sophie in the Fifth Book, and the purely novel-natured, but unfinished and hardly begun, sequel of Emile et Sophie ou Les Solitaires, it is impossible to say. From the sketch of the intended conclusion of this latter given by Prevost it would seem that we have not lost much, though with Rousseau the treatment is so constantly above the substance that one cannot tell. As it is, the novel part is nearly worthless. Neither Emile nor Sophie is made in the least a live person; the catastrophe of their at first ideal union might be shown, by an advocate of very moderate skill, to be largely if not wholly due to the meddlesome, muddle-headed, and almost inevitably mischievous advice given to them just after their marriage by their foolish Mentor; and one neither finds nor foresees any real novel interest whatever. Anilities in the very worst style of the eighteenth century—such as the story how Emile instigated mutiny in an Algerian slave-gang, failed, made a noble protest, and instead of being impaled, flayed, burnt alive, or otherwise taught not to do so, was made overseer of his own projects of reformed discipline—are sufficiently unrefreshing in fact. And the sort of "double arrangement" foreshadowed in the professorial programme of the unwritten part, where, in something like Davenant and Dryden's degradation of The Tempest, Emile and Sophie, she still refusing to be pardoned her fault, are brought together after all, and are married, in an actual though not consummated cross-bigamy, with a mysterious couple, also marooned on a desert island, is the sort of thing that Rousseau never could have managed, though Voltaire, probably to the discontent of Mrs. Grundy, could have done it in one way, and Sir William Gilbert would have done it delightfully in another. But Jean-Jacques's absolute lack of humour would have ensured a rather ghastly failure, relieved, it may be, by a few beautiful passages.
[Sidenote: La Nouvelle Heloise.]
If, therefore, Rousseau had nothing but Emile, or even nothing but Emile and the Confessions to put to his credit, he could but obtain a position in our "utmost, last, provincial band," and that more because of his general literary powers than of special right. But, as everybody knows, there is a third book among his works which, whether universally or only by a majority, whether in whole or in part, whether with heavy deductions and allowances or with light ones, has been reckoned among the greatest and most epoch-making novels of the world. The full title of it is Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, ou Lettres de deux Amans, habitans d'une petite ville au pied des Alpes, recueillies et publiees, par J. J. Rousseau. Despite its immense fame, direct and at second-hand—for Byron's famous outburst, though scarcely less rhetorical, is decidedly more poetical than most things of his, and has inscribed itself in the general memory—one rather doubts whether the book is as much read as it once was. Quotations, references, and those half-unconscious reminiscences of borrowing which are more eloquent than anything else, have not recently been very common either in English or in French. It has had the fate—elsewhere, I think, alluded to—of one of the two kinds of great literature, that it has in a manner seeded itself out. An intense love-novel—it is some time since we have seen one till the other day—would be a descendant of Rousseau's book, but would not bear more than a family likeness to it. Yet this, of itself, is a great testimony.
[Sidenote: Its numerous and grave faults.]
Except in rhetoric or rhapsody, the allowances and deductions above referred to must be heavy; and, according to a custom honoured both by time and good result, it is well to get them off first. That peculiarity of being a novelist only par interim, much more than Aramis was a mousquetaire, appears, even in Julie, so glaringly as to be dangerous and almost fatal. The book fills, in the ordinary one-volume editions, nearly five hundred pages of very small and very close print. Of these the First Part contains rather more than a hundred, and it would be infinitely better if the whole of the rest, except a few passages (which would be almost equally good as fragments), were in the bosom of the ocean buried. Large parts of them are mere discussions of some of Rousseau's own fads; clumsy parodies of Voltaire's satiric manners-painting; waterings out of the least good traits in the hero and heroine; uninteresting and superfluous appearances of the third and only other real person, Claire; a dreary account of Julie's married life; tedious eccentricities of the impossible and not very agreeable Lord Edward Bomston, who shares with Dickens's Lord Frederick Verisopht the peculiarity of being alternately a peer and a person with a courtesy "Lord"-ship; a rather silly end for the heroine herself; and finally, a rather repulsive and quite incongruous acknowledgment of affection for the creature Saint-Preux, with a refusal to "implement" it (as they say in Scotland) matrimonially, by Claire, who is by this time a widow. If mutilating books were not a crime deserving terrible retribution in this life or after it, one could be excused for tearing off the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Parts, with the Amours de Lord Edouard which follow. If one was rich, one would be amply justified in having a copy of Part I., and the fragments above indicated, printed for oneself on vellum.
[Sidenote: The minor characters.]
But this is not all. Even the First Part—even the presentation of the three protagonists—is open to some, and even to severe, criticism. The most guiltless, but necessarily much the least important, is Claire. She is, of course, an obvious "borrow" from Richardson's lively second heroines; but she is infinitely superior to them. It is at first sight, though not perhaps for long, curious—and it is certainly a very great compliment to Madame de Warens or Vuarrens and Madame d'Houdetot, and perhaps other objects of his affections—that Rousseau, cad as he was, and impossible as it was for him to draw a gentleman, could and did draw ladies. It was horribly bad taste in both Julie and Claire to love such a creature as Saint-Preux; but then cela s'est vu from the time of the Lady of the Strachy downwards, if not from that of Princess Michal. But Claire is faithful and true as steel, and she is lively without being, as Charlotte Grandison certainly is, vulgar. She is very much more a really "reasonable woman," even putting passion aside, than the somewhat sermonising and syllogising Julie; and it would have been both agreeable and tormenting to be M. d'Orbe. (Tormenting because she only half-loved him, and agreeable because she did love him a little, and, whether it was little or much, allowed herself to be his.) He himself, slight and rather "put upon" as he is, is also much the most agreeable of the "second" male characters. Of Bomston and Wolmar we shall speak presently; and there is so little of the Baron d'Etange that one really does not know whether he was or was not something more than the tyrannical husband and father, and the ill-mannered specimen of the lesser nobility, that it pleased Saint-Preux or Rousseau to represent him as being. He had provocation enough, even in the case of his otherwise hardly pardonable insolence to Bomston.
[Sidenote: The delinquencies of Saint-Preux.]
But Saint-Preux himself? How early was the obvious jest made that he is about as little of a preux as he is of a saint? I have heard, or dreamt, of a schoolboy who, being accidentally somewhat precocious in French, and having read the book, ejaculated, "What a sweep he is!" and I remember no time of my life at which I should not have heartily agreed with that youth. I do not suppose that either of us—though perhaps we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for not doing so—founded our condemnation on Saint-Preux's "forgetfulness of all but love." That is a "forfeit," in French and English sense alike, which has itself registered and settled in various tariffs and codes, none of which concerns the present history. It is not even that he is a most unreasonable creature now and then; that can be pardoned, being understood, though he really does strain the benefit of amare et sapere etc. It is that, except when he is in the altitudes of passion, and not always then, he never "knows how to behave," as the simple and sufficient old phrase had it. If M. d'Etange had had the wits, and had deigned to do it, he might even, without knowing his deepest cause of quarrel with the treacherous tutor, have pointed out that Saint-Preux's claim to be one of God Almighty's gentlemen was as groundless as his "proofs," in the French technical sense of gentility, were non-existent. It is impossible to imagine anything in worse taste than his reply to the Baron's no doubt offensive letter, and Julie's enclosed renunciation. Even the adoring Julie herself, and the hardly less adoring Claire—the latter not in the least a prude, nor given to giving herself "airs"—are constantly obliged to pull him up for his want of delicatesse. He is evidently a coxcomb, still more evidently a prig; selfish beyond even that selfishness which is venial in a lover; not in the least, though he can exceed in wine, a "good fellow," and in many ways thoroughly unmanly. A good English school and college might have made him tolerable: but it is rather to be doubted, and it is certain that his way as a transgressor would have been hard at both. As it is, he is very largely the embodiment—and it is more charitable than uncharitable to regard him as largely the cause—of the faults of the worst kind of French, and not quite only French, novel-hero ever since.
[Sidenote: And the less charming points of Julie. Her redemption.]
One approaches Julie herself, in critical intent, with mixed feelings. One would rather say nothing but good of her, and there is plenty of good to say: how much will be seen in a moment. Most of what is not so good belongs, in fact, to the dreary bulk of sequel tacked on by mistaken judgment to that more than true history of a hundred pages, which leaves her in despair, and might well have left her altogether. Even here she is not faultless, quite independently of her sins according to Mrs. Grundy and the Pharisees. If she had not been, as Claire herself fondly but truly calls her, such a precheresse, she might not have fallen a victim to such a prig. One never can quite forgive her for loving him, except on the all-excusing ground that she loved him so much; and though she is perhaps not far beyond the licence of "All's fair, in certain conditions," there is no doubt that, like her part-pattern Clarissa, she is not passionately attached to the truth. It might be possible to add some cavils, but for the irresistible plea just glanced at, which stops one.
Quia multum amavit! Nobody—at least no woman—had loved like that in a prose novel before; nobody at all except Des Grieux, and he is but as a sketch to an elaborate picture. She will wander after Pallas, and would like to think that she would like to be of the train of Dian (one shudders at imagining the scowl and the shrug and the twist of the skirt of the goddess!). But the kiss of Aphrodite has been on her, and has mastered her whole nature. How the thing could be done, out of poetry, has always been a marvel to me; but I have explained it by the supposition that the absolute impossibility of writing poetry at this time in French necessitated the break-out in prose. Rousseau's wonderful style—so impossible to analyse, but so irresistible—does much; the animating sense of his native scenery something. But, after all, what gives the thing its irresistibleness is the strange command he had of Passion and of Sorrow—two words, the first of which is actually, in the original sense, a synonym of the second, though it has been expanded to cover the very opposite.
[Sidenote: And the better side of the book generally.]
But it would be unfair to Rousseau, especially in such a place as this, to confine the praise of Julie as a novel to its exhibition of passion, or even to the charm of Julie herself. Within its proper limits—which are, let it be repeated, almost if not quite exactly those of the First Part—many other gifts of the particular class of artist are shown. The dangerous letter-scheme, which lends itself so easily, and in the other parts surrenders itself so helplessly and hopelessly, to mere "piffle" about this and that, is kept well in hand. Much as Rousseau owes to Richardson, he has steered entirely clear of that system of word-for-word and incident-for-incident reporting which makes the Englishman's work so sickening to some. You have enough of each and no more, this happy mean affecting both dialogue and description. The plot (or rather the action) is constantly present, probably managed, always enlivened by the imminence of disastrous discovery. As has been already pointed out, one may dislike—or feel little interest in—some of the few characters; but it is impossible to say that they are out of drawing or keeping. Saint-Preux, objectionable and almost loathsome as he may be sometimes, is a thoroughly human creature, and is undoubtedly what Rousseau meant him to be, for the very simple reason that he is (like the Byronic hero who followed) what Rousseau wished to be, if not exactly what he was, himself. Bomston is more of a lay figure; but then the Anglais philosophe de qualite of the French imagination in the eighteenth century was a lay figure, and, as has been excellently said by De Quincey in another matter, nothing can be wrong which conforms to the principles of its own ideal. As for Julie and Claire, they once more
Answer the ends of their being created.
Even the "talking-book" is here hardly excessive, and comes legitimately under the excuse of showing how the relations between the hero and heroine originally got themselves established.
[Sidenote: But little probability of more good work in novel from its author.]
Are we, then, from the excellence of the "Confessions" in pari materia and in ipsa of Julie, to lament that Rousseau did not take to novel-writing as a special and serious occupation? Probably not. The extreme weakness and almost fadeur of the strictly novel part of Emile, and the going-off of Julie itself, are very open warnings; the mere absence of any other attempts worth mentioning is evidence of a kind; and the character of all the rest of the work, and of all this part of the work but the opening of Julie, and even of that opening itself, counsel abstention, here as everywhere, from quarrelling with Providence. Rousseau's superhuman concentration on himself, while it has inspired the relevant parts of the Confessions and of Julie, has spoilt a good deal else that we have, and would assuredly have spoilt other things that we have not. It has been observed, by all acute students of the novel, that the egotistic variety will not bear heavy crops of fruit by itself; and that it is incapable, or capable with very great difficulty, of letting the observed and so far altruistic kind grow from the same stool. Of what is sometimes called the dramatic faculty (though, in fact, it is only one side of that),—the faculty which in different guise and with different means the general novelist must also possess,—Rousseau had nothing. He could put himself in no other man's skin, being so absolutely wrapped up in his own, which was itself much too sensitive to be disturbed, much less shed. Anything or anybody that was (to use Mill's language) a permanent or even a temporary possibility of sensation to him was within his power; anything out of immediate or closely impending contact was not. Now some of the great novelists have the external power—or at least the will to use that power—alone, others have had both; but Rousseau had the internal only, and so was, except by miracle of intensive exercise, incapable of further range.
* * * * *
[Sidenote: The different case of Diderot.]
Neither of the disabilities which weighed on Voltaire and Rousseau—the incapacity of the former to construct any complex character, and of the latter to portray any but his own, or some other brought into intensest communion, actually or as a matter of wish, with his own—weighed upon the third of the great trio of philosophe leaders. There is every probability that Diderot might have been a very great novelist if he had lived a hundred years later; and not a little evidence that he only missed being such, even as it was, because of that mysterious curse which was epigrammatically expressed about him long ago (I really forget who said it first), "Good pages, no good book." So far from being self-centred or of limited interests, he could, as hardly any other man ever could, claim the hackneyed Homo sum, etc., as his rightful motto. He had, when he allowed himself to give it fair play, an admirable gift of tale-telling; he could create character, and set it to work, almost after the fashion of the very greatest novelists; his universal interest and "curiosity" included such vivid appreciation of literature, and of art, and of other things useful to the novel-writer, that he never could have been at a loss for various kinds of "seasoning." He had keen observation, an admittedly marvellous flow of ideas, and a style which (though, like everything else about him, careless) was of singular vigour and freshness when, once more, he let it have fair play. But his time, his nature, and his circumstances combined to throw in his way traps and snares and nets which he could not, or would not, avoid. His anti-religiosity, though sometimes greatly exaggerated, was a bad stumbling-block; although he was free from the snigger of Voltaire and of Sterne, you could not prevent him, as Horace Walpole complains of his distinguished sire, from blurting out the most improper remarks and stories at the most inconvenient times and in the most unsuitable companies; while his very multiscience, and his fertility of thought and imagination, kept him in a whirl which hindered his "settling" to anything. Although in one sense he had the finest and wisest critical taste of any man then living—I do not bar even Gray or even Lessing—his taste in some other ways was utterly untrustworthy and sometimes horribly bad; while even his strictly critical faculty seems never to have been exercised on his own books—a failure forming part of the "ostrich-like indifference" with which he produced and abandoned them.
[Sidenote: His gifts and the waste of them.]
It is sometimes contended, and in many cases, no doubt, is the fact, that "Selections" are disgraceful and unscholarly. But what has been said will show that this is an exceptional case. The present writer waded through the whole of twenty-volume edition of Assezat and Tourneux when it first appeared, and is very glad he did; nor is there perhaps one volume (he does not say one page, chapter, or even work) which he has not revisited more or fewer times during the forty years in which (alas! for the preterite) they remained on his shelves. But it is scarcely to be expected that every one, that many, or that more than a very few readers, have done or will do the same. It so happens, however, that Genin's Oeuvres Choisies—though it has been abused by some anti-Ydgrunites as too much Bowdlerised—gives a remarkably full and satisfactory idea of this great and seldom quite rightly valued writer. It must have cost much, besides use of paste and scissors, to do; for the extracts are often very short, and the bulk of matter to be thoroughly searched for extraction is, as has just been said, huge. A third volume might perhaps be added; but the actual two are far from unrepresentative, while the Bowdlerising is by no means ultra-Bowdlerish.
[Sidenote: The various display of them.]
The reader, even of this selection, will see how, in quite miscellaneous or heterogeneous writing, Diderot bubbles out into a perfectly told tale or anecdote, no matter what the envelope (as we may call it) of this tale or anecdote may be. All his work is more or less like conversation: and these excursus are like the stories which, if good, are among the best, just as, if bad, they are the worst, sets-off to conversation itself. Next to these come the longer histoires—as one would call them in the Heroic novel and its successors—things sometimes found by themselves, sometimes ensconced in larger work—the story of Desroches and Mme. de la Carliere, Les Deux Amis de Bourbonne, the almost famous Le Marquis des Arcis et Mme. de la Pommeraye, of which more may be said presently; and things which are not exactly tales, but which have the tale-quality in part, like the charming Regrets sur ma Vieille Robe de Chambre, Ceci n'est pas un conte, etc. Thirdly, and to be spoken of in more detail, come the things that are nearest actual novels, and in some cases are called so, Le Neveu de Rameau, the "unspeakable" Bijoux Indiscrets, Jacques le Fataliste (the matrix of Le Marquis des Arcis) and La Religieuse.
The "unspeakable" one does not need much speaking from any point of view. If it is not positively what Carlyle called it, "the beastliest of all dull novels, past, present, or to come," it really would require a most unpleasant apprenticeship to scavenging in order to discover a dirtier and duller. The framework is a flat imitation of Crebillon, the "insets" are sometimes mere pornography, and the whole thing is evidently scribbled at a gallop—it was actually a few days' work, to get money, from some French Curll or Drybutter, to give (the appropriateness of the thing at least is humorous) to the mistress of the moment, a Madame de Puisieux, who, if she was like Crebillon's heroines in morals, cannot have been like the best of them in manners. Its existence shows, of course, Diderot's worst side, that is to say, the combination of want of breeding with readiness to get money anyhow. If it is worth reading at all, which may be doubted, it is to show the real, if equivocal, value of Crebillon himself. For it is vulgar, which he never is.
[Sidenote: Le Neveu de Rameau.]
Le Neveu de Rameau, has only touches of obscenity, and it has been enormously praised by great persons. It is very clever, but it seems to me that, as a notable critic is said to have observed of something else, "it has been praised quite enough." It is a sketch, worked out in a sort of monologue, of something like Diderot's own character without his genius and without his good fellowship—a gutter-snipe of art and letters possessed of some talent and of infinite impudence. It shows Diderot's own power of observation and easy fluid representation of character and manners, but not, as I venture to think, much more.
[Sidenote: Jacques le Fataliste.]
Jacques le Fataliste is what may be called, without pedantry or preciousness, eminently a "document." It is a document of Diderot's genius only indirectly (save in part), and to those who can read not only in the lines but between them: it is a document, directly, of the insatiable and restless energy of the man, and of the damage which this restlessness, with its accompanying and inevitable want of self-criticism, imposed upon that genius. Diderot, though he did not rhapsodise about Sterne as he rhapsodised about Richardson, was, like most of his countrymen then, a great admirer of "Tristram," and in an evil hour he took it into his head to Shandyise. The book starts with an actual adaptation of Sterne, which is more than once repeated; its scheme—of a master (who is as different as possible from my Uncle Toby, except that when not in a passion he is rather good-natured, and at almost all times very easily humbugged) and a man (who is what Trim never is, both insolent and indecent)—is at least partially the same. But the most constant and the most unfortunate imitation is of Sterne's literally eccentric, or rather zigzag and pillar-to-post, fashion of narration. In the Englishman's own hands, by some prestidigitation of genius, this never becomes boring, though it probably would have become so if either book had been finished; for which reason we may be quite certain that it was not only his death which left both in fragments. In the hands of his imitators the boredom—simple or in the form of irritation—has been almost invariable; and with all his great intellectual power, his tale-telling faculty, his bonhomie, and other good qualities, Diderot has not escaped it—has, in fact, rushed upon it and compelled it to come in. It is comparatively of little moment that the main ostensible theme—the very unedifying account of the loves, or at least the erotic exercises, of Jacques and his master—is deliberately, tediously, inartistically interrupted and "put off." The great feature of the book, which has redeemed it with some who would otherwise condemn it entirely, the Arcis and La Pommeraye episode (v. inf.), is handled after a fashion which suggests Mr. Ruskin's famous denunciation in another art. The inkpot is "flung in the face of the public" by a purely farcical series of interruptions, occasioned by the affairs of the inn-landlady, who tells the story, by her servants, dog, customers, and Heaven only knows what else; while the minor incidents and accidents of the book are treated in the same way, in and out of proportion to their own importance; the author's "simple plan," though by no means "good old rule," being that everything shall be interrupted. Although, in the erotic part, the author never returns quite to his worst Bijoux Indiscrets style, he once or twice goes very near it, except that he is not quite so dull; and when the book comes to an end in a very lame and impotent fashion (the farce being kept up to the last, and even this end being "recounted" and not made part of the mainly dialogic action), one is rather relieved at there being no more. One has seen talent; one has almost glimpsed genius; but what one has been most impressed with is the glaring fashion in which both the certainty and the possibility have been thrown away.
[Sidenote: Its "Arcis-Pommeraye" episode.]
The story which has been referred to in passing as muddled, or, to adopt a better French word, for which we have no exact equivalent, affuble (travestied and overlaid) with eccentricities and interruptions, the Histoire of the Marquis des Arcis and the Marquise de la Pommeraye, has received a great deal of praise, most of which it deserves. The Marquis and the Marquise have entered upon one of the fashionable liaisons which Crebillon described in his own way. Diderot describes this one in another. The Marquis gets tired—it is fair to say that he has offered marriage at the very first, but Madame de la Pommeraye, a widow with an unpleasant first experience of the state, has declined it. He shows his tiredness in a gentlemanly manner, but not very mistakably. His mistress, who is not at first femina furens, but who possesses some feminine characteristics in a dangerous degree, as he might perhaps have found out earlier if he had been a different person, determines to make sure of it. She intimates her tiredness, and the Marquis makes his first step downwards by jumping at the release. They are—the old, old hopeless folly!—to remain friends, but friends only. But she really loves him, and after almost assuring herself that he has really ceased to love her (which, in the real language of love, means that he has never loved her at all), devises a further, a very clever, but a rather diabolical system of last proof, involving vengeance if it fails. She has known, in exercises of charity (the femme du monde has seldom quite abandoned these), a mother and daughter who, having lost their means, have taken to a questionable, or rather a very unquestionable manner of life, keeping a sort of private gaming-house, and extending to those frequenters of it who choose, what the late George Augustus Sala not inelegantly called, in an actual police-court instance, "the thorough hospitality characteristic of their domicile." She prevails on them to leave the house, get rid of all their belongings (down to clothes) which could possibly be identified, change their name, move to another quarter of Paris, and set up as devotes under the full protection of the local clergy. Then she manages an introduction, of an apparently accidental kind, to the Marquis. He falls in love at once with the daughter, who is very pretty, and with masculine (or at least some masculine) fatuity, makes Madame de la Pommeraye his confidante. She gives him rope, but he uses it, of course, only to hang himself. He tries the usual temptations; but though the mother at least would not refuse them, Madame de la Pommeraye's hand on the pair is too tight. At last he offers marriage, and—with her at least apparent consent—is married. The next day she tells him the truth. But her diabolism fails. At first there is of course a furious outburst. But the girl is beautiful, affectionate, and humble; the mother is pensioned off; the Marquis and Marquise des Arcis retire for some years to those invaluable terres, after a sojourn at which everything is forgotten; and the story ends. Diderot, by not too skilfully throwing in casuistical attacks and defences of the two principal characters, but telling us nothing of Madame de la Pommeraye's subsequent feelings or history, does what he can, unluckily after his too frequent fashion, to spoil or at least to blunt his tale. It is not necessary to imitate him by discussing the pros and cons at length. I think myself that the Marquis, both earlier and later, is made rather too much of a benet, or, in plain English, a nincompoop. But nincompoops exist: in fact how many of us are not nincompoops in certain circumstances? Madame de la Pommeraye is, I fear, rather true, and is certainly sketched with extraordinary ability. On a larger scale the thing would probably, at that time and by so hasty and careless a workman, have been quite spoilt. But it is obviously the skeleton—and something more—of a really great novel.
[Sidenote: La Religieuse.]
It may seem that a critic who speaks in this fashion, after an initial promise of laudation, is a sort of Balaam topsyturvied, and merely curses where he is expected to bless. But ample warning was given of the peculiar position of Diderot, and when we come to his latest known and by far his best novel, La Religieuse, the paradox (he was himself very fond of paradoxes, though not of the wretched things which now disgrace the name) remains. The very subject of the book, or of the greatest part of it, was for a long time, if it is not still, taboo; and even if this had not been the case, it has other drawbacks. It originated in, and to some extent still retains traces of, one of the silly and ill-bred "mystifications" in which the eighteenth and early nineteenth century delighted. It is, at least in appearance, badly tainted with purpose; and while it is actually left unfinished, the last pages of it, as they stand, are utterly unworthy of the earlier part, and in fact quite uninteresting. Momus or Zoilus must be allowed to say so much: but having heard him, let us cease to listen to the half-god or the whole philologist.
[Sidenote: Its story.]
Yet La Religieuse, for all its drawbacks, is almost a great, and might conceivably have been a very great book. Madame d'Holbach is credited by Diderot's own generosity with having suggested its crowning mot, and her influence may have been in other ways good by governing the force and fire, so often wasted or ill-directed, of Diderot's genius. Soeur Sainte-Suzanne is the youngest daughter of a respectable middle-class family. She perceives, or half-perceives (for, though no fool, she is a guileless and unsuspicious creature), that she is unwelcome there; the most certain sign of which is that, while her sisters are married and dowered handsomely, she is condemned to be a nun. She has, though quite real piety, no "vocation," and though she allows herself to be coaxed through her novitiate, she at last, in face of almost insuperable difficulties, summons up courage enough to refuse, at the very altar, the final profession. There is, of course, a terrible scandal; she has more black looks in the family than ever, and at last her mother confesses that she is an illegitimate child, and therefore hated by her putative father, whose love for his wife, however, has induced him to forgive her, and not actually renounce (as indeed, by French law, he could not) the child. Broken in heart and spirit, Suzanne at last accepts her doom. She is fortunate in one abbess, but the next persecutes her, brings all sorts of false accusations against her, strips, starves, imprisons, and actually tortures her by means of the amende honorable. She manages to get her complaints known and to secure a counsel, and though she cannot obtain liberation from her vows, the priest who conducts the ecclesiastical part of the enquiry is a just man, and utterly repudiates the methods of persecution, while he and her lay lawyer procure her transference to another convent. Here her last trial (except those of the foolish post-scrap, as we may call it) begins, as well as the most equivocal and the greatest part of the book. Her new superior is in every respect different from any she has known—of a luxurious temperament, good-natured, though capricious, and inclined to be very much too affectionate. Her temptation of the innocent Suzanne is defeated by this very innocence, and by timely revelation, though the revealer does not know what she reveals, to a "director"; and the wayward and corrupted fancy turns by degrees to actual madness, which proves fatal, Suzanne remaining unharmed, though a piece of not inexcusable eavesdropping removes the ignorance of her innocence.
[Sidenote: A hardly missed, if missed, masterpiece.]
If the subject be not simply ruled out, and the book indexed for silence, it is practically impossible to suggest that it could have been treated better. Even the earlier parts, which could easily have been made dull, are not so; and it is noteworthy that, anti-religionist as Diderot was, and directly as the book is aimed at the conventual system, all the priests who are introduced are men of honour, justice, and humanity. But the wonder is in the treatment of the "scabrous" part of the matter by the author of Diderot's other books. Whether Madame d'Holbach's influence, as has been suggested, was more widely and subtly extended than we know, or whatever else may be the cause, there is not a coarse word, not even a coarsely drawn situation, in the whole. Suzanne's innocence is, in the subtlest manner, prevented from being in the least bete. The fluctuations and ficklenesses of the abbess's passion, and in a less degree of that of another young nun, whom Suzanne has partially ousted from her favour, are marvellously and almost inoffensively drawn, and the stages by which erotomania passes into mania general and mortal, are sketched slightly, but with equal power. There is, I suppose, hardly a book which one ought to discommend to the young person more than La Religieuse. There are not many in which the powers required by the novelist, in delineating morbid, and not only morbid, character, are more brilliantly shown.