A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1 - From the Beginning to 1800
by George Saintsbury
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[70] The author, more suo, intimates that the Court ladies by no means shared these hostile feelings, and would have willingly been in Melior's place.

[71] He induces him to turn Christian on the supposition of being his companion; and then gives him the slip. The neophyte's expressions on the occasion are not wholly edifying.

[72] The good palfrey is found and in a state to carry his master, who is quite unable to walk. One hopes they did not leave the beast to the lions, tigers, wyverns, etc., for he could hardly hope for such a literal "stroke of luck" again.

[73] The name will suggest, to those who have some wine-lore, no less a vintage than Chateau Yquem. Nothing could be better for a person in the Count's condition as a restorative.

[74] These two directions obviously refer to the common mediaeval "wimple" arrangement.



[Sidenote: Prose novelettes of the thirteenth century. Aucassin et Nicolette not quite typical.]

The title of this chapter may seem an oversight or an impertinence, considering that large parts of an earlier one have been occupied with discussions and translations of the prose Arthurian Romances. It was, however, expressly pointed out that the priority of these is a matter of opinion, not of judgment; and it may be here quite frankly admitted that one of the most serious arguments against that priority is the extreme lateness of Old French Prose in any finished literary form. The excuse, however, if excuse be needed, does not turn on any such hinge as this. It was desired to treat, in the last two chapters, romance matter proper of the larger kind, whether that matter took the form of prose or of verse. Here, on the other hand, the object is to deal with the smaller but more miscellaneous body of fictitious matter (part, no doubt, of a larger) which presents it tolerably early, and in character foretells the immense development of the kind which French was to see later.[75] A portion of this body, sufficient for us, is contained in two little volumes of the Bibliotheque Elzevirienne, published rather less than sixty years ago (1856 and 1858) by MM. L. Moland and Ch. d'Hericault, the first devoted to thirteenth-, the second to fourteenth-century work. One of these, the now world-famous Aucassin et Nicolette, has been so much written about and so often translated already that it cannot be necessary to say a great deal about it here. It is, moreover, of a mixed kind, a cante-fable or blend of prose and verse, with a considerable touch of the dramatic in it. Its extraordinary charm is a thing long ago settled; but it is, on the whole, more of a dramatic and lyrical romance—to recouple or releash kinds which Mr. Browning had perhaps best never have put asunder—than of a pure prose tale.

[Sidenote: L'Empereur Constant more so.]

Its companions in the thirteenth-century volume are four in number, and if none of them has the peculiar charm, so none has the technical disqualification (if that be not too strong a word) of Aucassin et Nicolette. The first, shortest, and, save for one or two points, least remarkable, L'Empereur Constant, is a very much abbreviated and in more than one sense prosaic version of the story out of which Mr. William Morris made his delightful The Man Born to be King. Probably of Greek or Greek-Eastern origin, it begins with an astrological passage in which the Emperor, childless except for a girl, becomes informed of the imminent birth of a man-child, who shall marry his daughter and succeed him. He discovers the, as it seems, luckless baby; has it brought to him, and with his own hand attempts to disembowel it, but allows himself, most improbably,[76] to be dissuaded from finishing the operation. The benevolent knight who has prevented the completion of the crime takes the infant to a monastery, where (after a quaint scene of haggling about fees with the surgeon) the victim is patched up, grows to be a fine youth, and comes across the Emperor, to whom the abbot guilelessly, but in this case naturally enough,[77] betrays the secret. The Emperor's murderous thoughts as naturally revive, and the frustration of them by means of the Princess's falling in love with the youth, the changing of "the letters of Bellerophon," and the Emperor's resignation to the inevitable, follow the same course as in the English poem. The latter part is better than the earlier; and the writer is evidently (as how should he not be?) a novice; but his work is the kind of experiment from which better things will come.

[Sidenote: Le Roi Flore et la Belle Jehane.]

These marks of the novice are even more noticeable in a much longer story, Le Roi Flore et la Belle Jehane, which is found not only in the same printed volume, but in the same original MS. The fault of this is curious, and—if not to a mere reader for pastime, to a student of fiction—extremely interesting. It is one not at all unknown at the present day, and capable of being used as an argument in favour of the doctrine of the Unities: that is to say, the mixture, by arbitrary and violent process, of two stories which have nothing whatever to do with each other, except that they are, wilfully and with no reason, buckled together at the end. The first, thin and uninteresting enough, is of a certain King Florus, who has a wife, dearly beloved, but barren. After some years and some very unmanly shilly-shallyings, he puts her away, and marries another, with whom (one is feebly glad to find) he is no more lucky, but who has herself the luck to die after some years. Meanwhile, King Florus being left "in a cool barge for future use," the second item, a really interesting story, is, with some intervals, carried on. A Count of high rank and great possessions has an only daughter, whom, after experience of the valour and general worthiness of one of his vassals of no great "having," he bestows on this knight, Robert, the pair being really in love with each other. But another vassal knight of greater wealth, Raoul, plots with one of the wicked old women who abound in these stories, and engages Robert in a rash wager of all his possessions, that during one of those pilgrimages to "St. James," which come in so handy, and are generally so unreasonable, he will dishonour the lady. He fails, but, in a manner not distantly related to the Imogen-Iachimo scene, acquires what seems to be damning acquaintance with the young Countess's person-marks. Robert and Jehane are actually married; but the felon knight immediately afterwards brings his charge, and Robert pays his debt, and flies, a ruined man, from, as he thinks, his faithless wife, though he takes no vengeance on her. Jehane disguises herself as a man, joins him on his journey, supports him with her own means for a time, and enters into partnership with him in merchandise at Marseilles, he remaining ignorant of her sex and relation to him. At last things come right: the felon knight is forced in single combat (a long and good one) to acknowledge his lie and give up his plunder, and the excellent but somewhat obtuse Robert recovers his wife as well. A good end if ever there was one, and not a badly told tale in parts. But, from some utterly mistaken idea of craftsmanship, the teller must needs kill Robert for no earthly reason, except in order that Jehane may become the third wife of Florus and bear him children. A more disastrous "sixth act" has seldom been imagined; for most readers will have forgotten all about Florus, who has had neither art nor part in the main story; few can care whether the King has children or not; and still fewer can be other than disgusted at the notion of Jehane, brave, loving, and clever, being, as a widow, made a mere child-bearing machine to an oldish and rather contemptible second husband. But, once more, the mistake is interesting, and is probably the first example of that fatal error of not knowing when to leave off, which is even worse than the commoner one (to be found in some great artists) of "huddling up the story." The only thing to be said in excuse is that you could cut his majesty Florus out of the title and tale at once without even the slightest difficulty, and with no need to mend or meddle in any other way.

The remaining stories of the thirteenth-century volume are curiously contrasted. One is a short prose version of that exquisite chanson de geste, Amis et Amiles, of which it has been said above that any one who cannot "taste" it need never hope to understand mediaeval literature. The full beauty of the verse story does not appear in the prose; but some does.

[Sidenote: Le Comtesse de Ponthieu.]

Of the other, the so-called "Comtesse de Ponthieu" (though she is not really this, being only the Count's daughter and the wife of a vassal), I thought rather badly when I first read it thirty or forty years ago, and till the present occasion I have never read it since. Now I think better of it, especially as a story suggestive in story-telling art. The original stumbling-block, which I still see, though I can get over or round it better now, was, I think, the character of the heroine, who inherits not merely the tendency to play fast and loose with successive husbands, which is observable in both chanson and roman heroines, but something of the very unlovely savagery which is also sometimes characteristic of them; while the hero also is put in "unpleasant" circumstances. He is a gentleman and a good knight, and though only a vassal of the Count of Ponthieu, he, as has been said, marries the Count's daughter, entirely to her and her father's satisfaction. But they are childless, and the inevitable "monseigneur Saint Jakeme" (St. James of Compostella) suggests himself for pilgrimage. Thiebault, the knight, obtains leave from his lady to go, and she, by a device not unprettily told, gets from him leave to go too. Unfortunately and unwisely they send their suite on one morning, and ride alone through a forest, where they are set upon by eight banditti. Thiebault fights these odds without flinching, and actually kills three, but is overpowered by sheer numbers. They do not kill him, but bind and toss him into a thicket, after which they take vengeance of outrage on the lady and depart, fearing the return of the meyney. Thiebault feels that his unhappy wife is guiltless, but unluckily does not assure her of this, merely asking her to deliver him. So she, seeing a sword of one of the slain robbers, picks it up, and, "full of great ire and evil will," cries, "I will deliver you, sir," and, instead of cutting his bonds, tries to run him through. But she only grazes him, and actually cuts the thongs, so that he shakes himself free, starts up, and wrests the sword from her with the simple words, "Lady, it is not to-day that you will kill me." To which she replies, "And right sorry I am therefor."[78] Their followers come up; the pair are clothed and set out again on their journey. But Thiebault, though treating his wife with the greatest attention, leaves her at a monastery, accomplishes his pilgrimage alone, and on his return escorts her to Ponthieu as if nothing had happened. Still—though no one knows this or indeed anything about her actual misfortune and intended crime—he does not live with her as his wife. After a time the Count, who is, as another story has it, a "harbitrary" Count, insists that Thiebault shall tell him some incident of his voyage, and the husband (here is the weak point of the whole) recounts the actual adventure, though not as of himself and his lady. The Count will not stand ambiguity, and at last extorts the truth, which the lady confirms, repeating her sorrow that she had not slain her husband. Now the Count is, as has been said, an arbitrary Count, and one day, his county having, as our Harold knew to his cost, a sea-coast to it, somewhat less disputable than those of Bohemia and the Ardennes, embarks, with only his daughter, son-in-law, son, and a few retainers, taking with him a nice new cask. Into this, despite the prayers of her husband and brother, he puts the lady, and flings it overboard. She is picked up half-suffocated by mariners, who carry her to "Aymarie" and sell her to the Sultan. She is very beautiful, and the Sultan promptly proposes conversion and marriage. She makes no difficulty, bears him two children, and is apparently quite happy. But meanwhile the Count of Ponthieu begins—his son and son-in-law have never ceased—to feel that he has exercised the paternal rights rather harshly; the Archbishop of Rheims very properly confirms his ideas on this point, and all three go outremer on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. They are captured by the Saracens of Aymarie, imprisoned, starved, and finally in immediate danger of being shot to death as an amusement for the Sultan's bodyguard. But the Sultaness has found out who they are, visits them in prison, and "reconciliations and forgivenesses of injuries" follow.

After this, things go in an easily guessable manner. The Countess-Sultana beguiles her easy-going lord into granting her the lives of the prisoners one after another, for which she rewards him by carrying them off, with her son by the second marriage, to Italy, where the boy is baptized. "The Apostle" (as the Pope is usually called in Romance), by a rather extensive exercise of his Apostleship, gives everybody absolution, confirms the original marriage of Thiebault and the lady who had been so obstinately sorry that she had not killed him, and who had suffered the paynim spousals so easily; and all goes merrily. There is a postscript which tells how the daughter of the Sultan and the Countess, who is termed La Bele Caitive, captivates and marries a Turk of great rank, and becomes the mother of no less a person than the great Saladin himself—a consummation no doubt very satisfactory to the Miss Martha Buskbodies of the mediaeval world.

Now this story might seem to one who read it hastily, carelessly, or as "not in the vein," to be partly extravagant, partly disagreeable, and, despite its generous allowance of incident, rather dull, especially if contrasted with its next neighbour in the printed volume, Aucassin et Nicolette itself. I am afraid there may have been some of these uncritical conditions about my own first reading. But a little study shows some remarkable points in it, though the original writer has not known how to manage them. The central and most startling one—the attempt of the Countess to murder her husband—is, when you think of it, not at all unnatural. The lady is half mad with her shame; the witness, victim, and, as she thinks, probable avenger of that shame is helpless before her, and in his first words at any rate seems to think merely of himself and not of her. Whether this violent outburst of feeling was not likely to result in as violent a revulsion of tenderness is rather a psychological probability than artistically certain. And Thiebault, though an excellent fellow, is a clumsy one. His actual behaviour is somewhat of that "killing-with-kindness" order which exasperates when it does not itself kill or actually reconcile; and, whether out of delicacy or not, he does not give his wife the only proof that he acknowledges the involuntariness of her actual misfortune, and forgives the voluntariness of her intended crime. His telling the story is inexcusable: and neither his preference of his allegiance as a vassal to his duty as knight, lover, and husband in the case of the Count's cruelty, nor his final acceptance of so many and such peculiar bygones can be called very pretty. But there are possibilities in the story, if they are not exactly made into good gifts.

[Sidenote: Those of the fourteenth. Asseneth.]

The contents of the fourteenth-century volume are, with one exception, much less interesting in themselves; but from the point of view of the present enquiry they hardly yield to their predecessors. They are three in number: Asseneth, Foulques Fitzwarin, and Troilus. The first, which is very short, is an account of Joseph's courtship of his future wife, in which entirely guiltless proceeding he behaves at first very much as if the daughter of Potipherah were fruit as much forbidden as the wife of Potiphar. For on her being proposed to him (he has come to her father, splendidly dressed and brilliantly handsome, on a mission from Pharaoh) he at first replies that he will love her as his sister. This, considering the Jewish habit of exchanging the names, might not be ominous. But when the damsel, at her father's bidding, offers to kiss him, Joseph puts his hand on her chest and pushes her back, accompanying the action with words (even more insulting in detail than in substance) to the effect that it is not for God-fearing man to kiss an idolatress. (At this point one would rather like to kick Joseph.) However, when, naturally enough, she cries with vexation, the irreproachable but most unlikable patriarch condescends to pat her on the head and bless her. This she takes humbly and thankfully; deplores his absence, for he is compelled to return to his master; renounces her gods; is consoled by an angel, who feeds her with a miraculous honeycomb possessing a sort of sacramental force, and announces her marriage to Joseph, which takes place almost immediately.

It will be at once seen, by those who know something of the matter, that this is entirely in the style of large portions of the Graal romances; and so it gives us a fresh and interesting division of the new short prose tale, allying itself to some extent with the allegory which was to be so fruitful both in verse and in prose. It is not particularly attractive in substance; but is not badly told, and would have made (what it was very likely used as) a good sermon-story.

[Sidenote: Troilus.]

As Asseneth, the first of the three, is by far the shortest, so Troilus, the last, is by far the longest. It is, in fact, nearly twenty times the length of the history of Joseph's pious impoliteness, and makes up something like two-thirds of the whole collection. But, except as a variant of one of the famous stories of the world (v. sup. Chap. IV.), it has little interest, and is not even directly taken from Benoit de Sainte-Maure, but from Guido delle Colonne and Boccaccio, of whose Filostrato it is, in fact, a mere translation, made apparently by a known person of high station, Pierre de Beauvau, one of the chief nobles of Anjou, at the close of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth century. It thus brings itself into direct connection with Chaucer's poem, and has some small importance for literary history generally. But it has not much for us. It was not Boccaccio's verse but his prose that was really to influence the French Novel.

[Sidenote: Foulques Fitzwarin.]

With the middle piece of the volume, Foulques Fitzwarin, it is very different. It is true that the present writer was once "smitten friendly" by a disciple of the modern severe historical school, who declared that the adventures of Fitzwarin, though of course adulterated, were an important historical document, and nothing so frivolous as a novel. One has, however, a reed-like faculty of getting up again from such smitings: and for my part I do not hesitate once more to call Foulques Fitzwarin the first historical prose novel in modern literature. French in language, as we have it, it is thoroughly English in subject, and, beyond all doubt, in the original place of composition, while there is no reason to doubt the assertion that there were older verse-renderings of the story both in English and French. In fact, they may turn up yet. But the thing as it stands is a very desirable and even delectable thing, and well deserved its actual publication, not merely in the French collection, of which we are speaking, but in the papers of the too short-lived English Warton Club.

For it is not only our first historical novel, but also the first, as far as England is concerned, of those outlaw stories which have always delighted worthy English youth from Robin Hood to The Black Arrow. The Fitzwarins, as concerns their personalities and genealogies, may be surrendered without a pang to the historian, though he shall not have the marrow of the story. They never seem to have been quite happy except when they were in a state of "utlagation," and it was not only John against whom they rebelled, for one of them died on the Barons' side at Lewes.

The compiler, whoever he was—it has been said already and cannot be said too often, that every recompiler in the Middle Ages felt it (like the man in that "foolish" writer, as some call him, Plato) a sacred duty to add something to the common stock,—was not exactly a master of his craft, but certainly showed admirable zeal. There never was a more curious macedoine than this story. Part of it is, beyond all doubt, traditional history, with place-names all right, though distorted by that curious inability to transpronounce or trans-spell which made the French of the thirteenth century call Lincoln "Nicole," and their descendants of the seventeenth call Kensington "Stintinton." Part is mere stock or common-form Romance, as when Foulques goes to sea and has adventures with the usual dragons and their usual captive princesses. Part, though not quite dependent on the general stock, is indebted to that of a particular kind, as in the repeated catching of the King by the outlaws. But it is all more or less good reading; and there are two episodes in the earlier part which (one of them especially) merit more detailed account.

The first still has something of a general character about it. It is the story of a certain Payn Peveril (for we meet many familiar names), who seems to have been a real person though wrongly dated here, and has one of those nocturnal combats with demon knights, the best known examples of which are those recounted in Marmion and its notes. Peveril's antagonist, however—or rather the mask which the antagonist takes,—connects with the oldest legendary history of the island, for he reanimates the body of Gogmagog, the famous Cornish giant, whom Corineus slew. The diabolic Gogmagog, however, seems neither to have stayed in Cornwall nor gone to Cambridgeshire, though (oddly enough the French editors do not seem to have noticed this) Payn Peveril actually held fiefs in the neighbourhood of those exalted mountains called now by the name of his foe. He had a hard fight; but luckily his arms were or with a cross edentee azure, and this cross constantly turned the giant-devil's mace-strokes, while it also weakened him, and he had besides to bear the strokes of Peveril's sword. So he gave in, remarking with as much truth as King Padella in similar circumstances, that it was no good fighting under these conditions. Then he tells a story of some length about the original Gogmagog and his treasure. The secret of this he will not reveal, but tells Peveril that he will be lord of Blanche-lande in Shropshire, and vanishes with the usual unpleasant accompaniment—tiel pueur dont Payn quida devier. He left his mace, which the knight kept as a testimony to anybody who did not believe the story.

This is not bad; but the other, which is either true or extraordinarily well invented, is far finer, and, with some omissions, must be analysed and partly translated. Those who know the singular beauty of Ludlow Town and Castle will be able to "stage" it to advantage, but this is not absolutely necessary to its appreciation as a story.

The Peverils have died out by this time, and the honour and lands have gone by marriage to Guarin of Metz, whose son, Foulques Fitzguarin or Warin, starts the subjects of the general story. When the first Foulkes is eighteen, there is war between Sir Joce of Dinan (the name then given to Ludlow) and the Lacies. In one of their skirmishes Sir Walter de Lacy is wounded and captured, with a young knight of his party, Sir Ernault de Lyls. They have courteous treatment in Ludlow Castle, and Ernault makes love to Marion de la Briere, a most gentle damsel, who is the chief maid of the lady of the castle, and as such, of course, herself a lady. He promises her marriage, and she provides him and his chief with means of escape. Whether Lisle (as his name probably was) had at this time any treacherous intentions is not said or hinted. But Lacy, naturally enough, resents his defeat, and watches for an opportunity of revanche; while Sir Joce[lyn], on the other hand, takes his prisoners' escape philosophically, and does not seem to make any enquiry into its cause. At first Lacy thinks of bringing over his Irish vassals to aid him; but his English neighbours not unnaturally regard this step with dislike, and a sort of peace is made between the enemies. A match is arranged between Sir Joce's daughter Hawyse and Foulques Fitzwarin. Joce then quits Ludlow for a time, leaving, however, a strong garrison there. Marion, who feigns illness, is also left. And now begins the tragic and striking part of the story.

The next day after Joce had gone, Marion sent a message to Sir Ernault de Lyls, begging him, for the great love that there was between them, not to forget the pledges they had exchanged, but to come quickly to speak with her at the castle of Dinan, because the lord and the lady and the bulk of the servants had gone to Hertilande—also to come to the same place by which he had left the castle. [He replies asking her to send him the exact height of the wall (which she unsuspiciously does by the usual means of a silk thread) and also the number of the household left. Then he seeks his chief, and tells him, with a mixture of some truth, that the object of the Hertilande journey is to gather strength against Lacy, capture his castle of Ewyas, and kill himself—intelligence which he falsely attributes to Marion. He has, of course, little difficulty in persuading Lacy to take the initiative. Sir Ernault is entrusted with a considerable mixed force, and comes by night to the castle.] The night was very dark, so that no sentinel saw them. Sir Ernault took a squire to carry the ladder of hide, and they went to the window where Marion was waiting for them. And when she saw them, never was any so joyful: so she dropped a cord right down and drew up the hide ladder and fastened it to a battlement. Then Ernault lightly scaled the tower, and took his love in his arms and kissed her: and they made great joy of each other and went into another room and supped, and then went to their couch, and left the ladder hanging.

But the squire who had carried it went to the forces hidden in the garden and elsewhere, and took them to the ladder. And one hundred men, well armed, mounted by it and descended by the Pendover tower and went by the wall behind the chapel, and found the sentinel too heavy with sleep to defend himself: and the knights and the sergeants were cut to pieces crying for mercy in their beds. But Sir Ernault's companions were pitiless, and many a white sheet was dyed red with blood. And at last they tossed the watchman into the deep fosse and broke his neck.

Now Marion de la Briere lay by her lover Sir Ernault and knew nothing of the treason he had done. But she heard a great noise in the castle and rose from her bed, and looked out and heard more clearly the cry of the massacred, and saw knights in white armour. Wherefore she understood that Sir Ernault had deceived and betrayed her, and began to weep bitterly and said, "Ah! that I was ever of mother born: for that by my crime I have lost my lord Sir Joce, who bred me so gently, his castle, and his good folk. Had I not been, nothing had been lost. Alas! that I ever believed this knight! for by his lies he has ruined me, and what is worse, my lord too." Then, all weeping, she drew Sir Ernault's sword and said, "Sir knight! awake, for you have brought strange company into my lord's castle without his leave. I brought in only you and your squire. And since you have deceived me you cannot rightly blame me if I give you your deserts—at least you shall never boast to any other mistress that by deceiving me you conquered the castle and the land of Dinan!" The knight started up, but Marion, with the sword she held drawn, ran him straight through the body, and he died at once. She herself, knowing that if she were taken, ill were the death she should die, and knowing not what to do, let herself fall from a window and broke her neck.

Now this, I venture to think, is not an ordinary story. Tales of treachery, onslaught, massacre, are not rare in the Middle Ages, nor need we go as far as the Middle Ages for them. But the almost heroic insouciance with which the traitor knight forgets everything except his immediate enjoyment, and, provided he has his mistress at his will, concerns himself not in the slightest degree as to what becomes of his companions, is not an every-day touch. Nor is the strong contrast of the chambers of feast and dalliance—undisturbed, voluptuous, terrestrial-paradisaic—with "the horror and the hell" in the courts below. Nor, last of all, the picture of the more than half innocent Marion, night-garbed or ungarbed, but with sword drawn, first hanging over her slumbering betrayer, then dealing the stroke of vengeance, and then falling—white against the dark towers and the darker ravines at their base—to her self-doomed judgment.

[Sidenote: Something on these,]

Even more, however, than in individual points of interest or excitement, the general survey of these two volumes gives matter for thought on our subject. Here are some half-dozen stories or a little more. It is not much, some one may say, for the produce of two hundred years. But what it lacks in volume (and that will be soon made up in French, while it is to be remembered that we have practically nothing to match it in English) it makes up in variety. The peculiarity, some would say the defect, of mediaeval literature—its sheep-like tendency to go in flocks—is quite absent. Not more than two of the eight, Le Roi Flore and La Comtesse de Ponthieu, can be said to be of the same class, even giving the word class a fairly elastic sense. They are short prose Romans d'aventures. But Asseneth is a mystical allegory; Aucassin et Nicolette is a sort of idyll, almost a lyric, in which the adventure is entirely subordinated to the emotional and poetical interest; L'Empereur Constant, though with something of the Roman d'aventures in it, has a tendency towards a moralitas ("there is no armour against fate") which never appears in the pure adventurous kind; Troilus is an abridgment of a classical romance; and Foulques Fitzwarin is, as has been said, an embryonic historical novel. Most, if not all, moreover, give openings for, and one or two even proceed into, character- and even "problem"-writing of the most advanced novel kind. In one or two also, no doubt, that aggression and encroachment of allegory (which is one of the chief notes of these two centuries) makes itself felt, though not to the extent which we shall notice in the next chapter. But almost everywhere a strong nisus towards actual tale-telling and the rapid acquisition of proper "plant" for such telling, become evident. In particular, conversation—a thing difficult to bring anyhow into verse-narrative, and impossible there to keep up satisfactorily in various moods—begins to find its way. We may turn, in the next chapter, to matter mostly or wholly in verse forms. But prose fiction is started all the same.

[Sidenote: And on the short story generally.]

Before we do so, however, it may not be improper to point out that the short story undoubtedly holds—of itself—a peculiar and almost prerogative place in the history and morphology or the novel. After a long and rather unintelligible unpopularity in English—it never suffered in this way in French—it has been, according to the way of the world, a little over-exalted of late perhaps. It is undoubtedly a very difficult thing to do well, and it would be absurd to pretend that any of the foregoing examples is done thoroughly well. The Italian novella had to come and show the way.[79] But the short story, even of the rudimentary sort which we have been considering, cannot help being a powerful schoolmaster to bring folk to good practice in the larger kind. The faults and the merits of that kind, as such, appear in it after a fashion which can hardly fail to be instructive and suggestive. The faults so frequently charged against that "dear defunct" in our own tongue, the three-volume novel—the faults of long-windedness, of otiose padding, of unnecessary episodes, etc., are almost mechanically or mathematically impossible in the nouvelle. The long book provides pastime in its literal sense, and if it is not obvious in the other the accustomed reader, unless outraged by some extraordinary dulness or silences, goes on, partly like the Pickwickian horse because he can't well help it, and partly because he hopes that something may turn up. In the case of the short he sees almost at once whether it is going to have any interest, and if there is none such apparent he throws it aside.

Moreover, as in almost every other case, the shortness is appropriate to exercise; while the prose form does not encourage those terrible chevilles—repetitions of stock adjective and substantive and verb and phrase generally—which are so common in verse, and especially in octosyllabic verse. It is therefore in many ways healthy, and the space allotted to these early examples of it will not, it is hoped, seem to any impartial reader excessive.


[75] The position of "origin" assigned already to the sacred matter of the Saint's Life may perhaps be continued here as regards the Sermon. It was, as ought to be pretty generally known, the not ungenial habit of the mediaeval preacher to tell stories freely. We have them in AElfric's and other English homilies long before there was any regular French prose; and we have, later, large and numerous collections of them—compiled more or less expressly for the use of the clergy—in Latin, English, and French. The Latin story is, in fact, very wide-ranging and sometimes quite of the novel (at least nouvelle) kind, as any one may see in Wright's Latin Stories, Percy Society, 1842.

[76] This is one, and one of the most glaring, of the betises which at some times have been urged against Romance at large. They are not, as a matter of fact, very frequent; but their occurrence certainly does show the essentially uncritical character of the time.

[77] For of course the knight did not tell the whole story.

[78] I.e. not sorry for having tried to kill him, but sorry that she had not done so.

[79] In prose. For the very important part played by the home verse fabliaux see next chapter.



[Sidenote: The connection with prose fiction of allegory.]

It was shown in the last chapter that fiction, and even prose fiction, of very varied character began to develop itself in French during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By the fifteenth the development was very much greater, and the "disrhyming" of romances, the beginnings of which were very early, came to be a regular, not an occasional, process; while, by its latter part, verse had become not the usual, but the exceptional vehicle of romance, and prose romances of enormous length were popular. But earlier there had still been some obstacles in the way of the prose novel proper. It was the period of the rise and reign of Allegory, and France, preceptress of almost all Europe in most literary kinds, proved herself such in this with the unparalleled example of the Roman de la Rose. But the Roman de la Rose was itself in verse—the earlier part of it at least in real poetry—and most of its innumerable imitations were in verse likewise. Moreover, though France again had been the first to receive and to turn to use the riches of Eastern apologue, the most famous example of which is The Seven Wise Masters, these rather serious matters do not seem to have especially commended themselves to the French people. The place of composition of the most famous of all, the Gesta Romanorum, has been fairly settled to be England, though the original language of composition is not likely to have been other than Latin. At any rate, the style of serious allegory, in prose which should also be literature, never really caught hold of the French taste.

Comic tale-telling, on the other hand, was germane to the very soul of the race, and had shown itself in chanson and roman episodes at a very early date. But it had been so abundantly, and in so popular a manner, associated with verse as a vehicle in those pieces, in the great beast-epic of Renart, and above all in the fabliaux and in the earliest farces, that the connection was hard to separate. None of the stories discussed in the last chapter has, it may be noticed, the least comic touch or turn.

[Sidenote: And of the fabliaux.]

As we go on we must disengage ourselves more and more (though with occasional returns to it) from attention to verse; and the two great compositions in that form, the Romance of the Rose and the Story of the Fox, especially the former, hardly require much writing about to any educated person. They are indeed most strongly contrasted examples of two modes of tale-telling, both in a manner allegoric, but in other respects utterly different. The mere story of the Rose, apart from the dreamy or satiric digressions and developments of its two parts and the elaborate descriptions of the first, can be told in a page or two. An abstract of the various Renart books, to give any idea of their real character, would, on the other hand, have to be nearly as long as the less spun-out versions themselves. But the verse fabliaux can hardly be passed over so lightly. Many of them formed the actual bases of the prose nouvelles that succeeded them; not a few have found repeated presentation in literature; and, above all, they deserve the immense praise of having deliberately introduced ordinary life, and not conventionalised manners, into literary treatment. We have taken some pains to point out touches of that life which are observable in Saint's Life and Romance, in chanson and early prose tale. But here the case is altered. Almost everything is real; a good deal is what is called, in one of the senses of a rather misused word, downright "realism."

Few people who have ever heard of the fabliaux can need to be told that this realism in their case implies extreme freedom of treatment, extending very commonly to the undoubtedly coarse and not seldom to the merely dirty. There are some—most of them well known by modern imitations such as Leigh Hunt's "Palfrey"—which are quite guiltless in this respect; but the great majority deal with the usual comic farrago of satire on women, husbands, monks, and other stock subjects of raillery, all of which at the time invited "sculduddery." To translate some of the more amusing, one would require not merely Chaucerian licence of treatment but Chaucerian peculiarities of dialect in order to avoid mere vulgarity. Even Prior, who is our only modern English fabliau-writer of real literary merit—the work of people like Hanbury Williams and Hall Stevenson being mostly mere pornography—could hardly have managed such a piece as "Le Sot Chevalier"—a riotously "improper" but excessively funny example—without running the risk of losing that recommendation of being "a lady's book" with which Johnson rather capriciously tempered his more general undervaluation. Sometimes, on the other hand, the joke is trivial enough, as in the English-French word-play of anel for agnel (or -neau), which substitutes "donkey" for "lamb"; or, in the other, on the comparison of a proper name, "Estula," with its component syllables "es tu la?" But the important point on the whole is that, proper or improper, romantic or trivial, they all exhibit a constant improvement in the mere art of telling; in discarding of the stock phrases, the long-winded speeches, and the general paraphernalia of verse; in sticking and leading up smartly to the point; in coining sharp, lively phrase; in the co-ordination of incident and the excision of superfluities. Often they passed without difficulty into direct dramatic presentation in short farces. But on the whole their obvious destiny was to be "unrhymed" and to make their appearance in the famous form of the nouvelle or novella, in regard to which it is hard to say whether Italy was most indebted to France for substance, or France to Italy for form.

[Sidenote: The rise of the nouvelle itself.]

It was not, however, merely the intense conservatism of the Middle Ages as to literary form which kept back the prose nouvelle to such an extent that, as we have seen, only a few examples survive from the two whole centuries between 1200 and 1400, while not one of these is of the kind most characteristic ever since, or at least until quite recent days, of French tale-telling. The French octosyllabic couplet, in which the fabliaux were without exception or with hardly an exception composed, can, in a long story, become very tiresome because of its want of weight and grasp, and the temptations it offers to a weak rhymester to stuff it with endless tags. But for a short tale in deft hands it can apply its lightness in the best fashion, and put its points with no lack of sting. The fabliau-writer or reciter was not required—one imagines that he would have found scant audiences if he had tried it—to spin a long yarn; he had got to come to his jokes and his business pretty rapidly; and, as La Fontaine has shown to thousands who have never known—perhaps have never heard of—his early masters, he had an instrument which would answer to his desires perfectly if only he knew how to finger it.

At the same time, both the lover of poetry and the lover of tale must acknowledge that, though alliance between them is not in the least an unholy one, and has produced great and charming children, the best of the poetry is always a sort of extra bonus or solace to the tale, and the tale not unfrequently seems as if it could get on better without the poetry. The one can only aspire somewhat irrelevantly; the other can never attain quite its full development. So it was no ill day when the prose nouvelle came to its own in France.

[Sidenote: Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles.]

The first remarkable collection was the famous Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, traditionally attributed to Louis XI. when Dauphin and an exile in Brabant, with the assistance of friends and courtiers, but more recently selected by critics that way minded as part of the baggage they have "commandeered" for Antoine de la Salle. The question of authorship is of scarcely the slightest importance to us; though the point last mentioned is worth mentioning, because we shall have to notice the favoured candidate in this history again. There are certainly some of the hundred that he might have written.

In the careless way in which literary history used to be dealt with, the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles were held to be mere imitation of the Decameron and other Italian things. It is, of course, much more than probable that the Italian novella had not a little to do with the precipitation of the French nouvelle from its state of solution in the fabliau. But the person or persons who, in imitating the Decameron, produced the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles had a great deal more to do—and did a great deal less—than this mere imitation of their original. As for a group of included tales, the already-mentioned Seven Wise Masters[80] was known in France much before Boccaccio's time. The title was indeed admittedly Italian, but such an obvious one as to require no positive borrowing, and there is in the French book no story-framework like that of the plague and the country-house visit; no cheerful personalities like Fiammetta or Dioneo make not merely the intervals but the stories themselves alive with a special interest. Above all, there is nothing like the extraordinary mixture of unity and variety—a pure gift of genius—which succeeds in making the Decameron a real book as well as a bundle of narratives. Nor is there anything like the literary brilliancy of the actual style and handling.

Nevertheless, Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles is a book of great interest and value, despite serious defects due to its time generally and to its place in the history of fiction in particular. Its obscenity, on which even Sir Walter Scott, the least censorious or prudish-prurient of men, and with Southey, the great witness against false squeamishness, has been severe,[81] is unfortunately undeniable. But it is to be doubted whether Sir Walter knew much of the fabliaux; if he had he would have seen first, that this sort of thing had become an almost indispensable fashion in the short story, and secondly, that there is here considerable improvement on the fabliaux themselves, there being much less mere schoolboy crudity of dirty detail and phrase, though the situations may remain the same. It suffers occasionally from the heavy and rhetorical style which beset all European literature (except Italian, which itself did not wholly escape) in the fifteenth century. But still one can see in it that improvement of narrative method and diction which has been referred to: and occasionally, amid the crowd of tricky wives, tricked husbands, too obliging and too hardly treated chambermaids, ribald priests and monks, and the like, one comes across quite different things and persons, which are, as the phrase goes, almost startlingly modern, with a mixture of the unmodern heightening the appeal. One of the most striking of these—not very likely to be detected or suspected by a careless reader under its sub-title of "La Demoiselle Cavaliere," and by no means fully summarised in the quaint short argument which is in all cases subjoined—may be briefly analysed.

[Sidenote: Analysis of "La Demoiselle Cavaliere".]

In one of the great baronial households of Brabant there lived, after the usual condition of gentle servitude, a youth named Gerard, who fell in love, after quite honourable and seemly fashion, with Katherine, the daughter of the house—a fact which, naturally, they thought known only to themselves, when, as naturally, everybody in the Court had become aware of it. "For the better prevention of scandal," an immediate marriage being apparently out of the question because of Gerard's inferiority in rank to his mistress, it is decided by the intervention of friends that Gerard shall take his leave of the Brabantine "family." There is a parting of the most laudable kind, in which Katherine bestows on her lover a ring, and a pledge that she will never marry any one else, and he responds suitably. Then he sets out, and on arriving at Bar has no difficulty in establishing himself in another great household. Katherine meanwhile is beset with suitors of the best rank and fortune; but will have nothing to say to any of them, till one day comes the formidable moment when a mediaeval father determines that his daughter shall marry a certain person, will she nill she. But if mediaeval fatherhood was arbitrary, mediaeval religion was supreme, and a demand to go on pilgrimage before an important change of life could hardly be refused. In fact, the parents, taking the proposal as a mere preliminary of obedience, consent joyfully, and offer a splendid suite of knights and damsels, "Nous lui baillerons ung tel gentilhomme et une telle demoiselle, Ysabeau et Marguerite et Jehanneton." But "no," says Mistress Katherine sagely. The road to St. Nicolas of Warengeville is not too safe for people travelling with a costly outfit and a train of women. Let her, dressed as a man, and a bastard uncle of hers (who is evidently the "Will Wimble" of the house) go quietly on little horses, and it will save time, trouble, money, and danger. This the innocent parents consider to show "great sense and good will," and the pair start in German dress—Katherine as master, the uncle as man,—comfortably, too, as one may imagine (for uncles and nieces generally get on well together, and the bend sinister need do no harm). They accomplish their pilgrimage (a touch worth noticing in Katherine's character), and then only does she reveal her plan to her companion. She tells him, not without a little bribery, that she wants to go and see Gerard en Barrois, and to stay there for a short time; but he is to have no doubt of her keeping her honour safe. He consents, partly with an eye to the future main chance (for she is her father's sole heir), and partly because elle est si bonne qu'il n'y fault guere guet sur elle. Katherine, taking the name of Conrad, finds the place, presents herself to the maitre d'ostel, an ancient squire, as desirous of entertainment or retainment, and is very handsomely received. After dinner and due service done to the master, the old squire having heard that Katherine—Conrad—is of Brabant, naturally introduces her countryman Gerard to her. He does not in the least recognise her, and what strikes her as stranger, neither during their own dinner nor after says a word about Brabant itself. Conrad is regularly admitted to Monseigneur's service, and, as a countryman, is to share Gerard's room. They are perfectly good friends, go to see their horses together, etc., but still the formerly passionate lover says not a word of Brabant or his Brabanconian love, and poor Katherine concludes that she has been "put with forgotten sins"—not a bad phrase, though it might be misconstrued. Being, however, as has been already seen, both a plucky girl and a clever one, she determines to carry her part through. At last, when they go to their respective couches in the same chamber, she herself faces the subject, and asks him if he knows any persons in Brabant. "Oh yes." "Does he know" her own father, his former master? "Yes." "They say," said she, "that there are pretty girls there: did you not know any?" "Precious few," quoth he, "and I cared nothing about them. Do let me go to sleep! I am dead tired." "What!" said she, "can you sleep when there is talk of pretty girls? You are not much of a lover." But he slept "like a pig."

Nevertheless, Katherine does not give up hope, though the next day things are much the same, Gerard talking of nothing but hounds and hawks, Conrad of pretty girls. At last the visitor declares that he [she] does not care for the Barrois, and will go back to Brabant. "Why?" says Gerard, "what better hunting, etc., can you get there than here?" "It has nothing," says Conrad, "like the women of Brabant," adding, in reply to a jest of his, an ambiguous declaration that she is actually in love. "Then why did you leave her?" says Gerard—about the first sensible word he has uttered. She makes a fiery answer as to Love sometimes banishing from his servants all sense and reason. But for the time the subject again drops. It is, however, reopened at night, and some small pity comes on one for the recreant Gerard, inasmuch as she keeps him awake by wailing about her love. At last she "draws" the sluggard to some extent. "Has not he been in love, and does not he know all about it? But he was never such a fool as Conrad, and he is sure that Conrad's lady is not such either." Another try, and she gets the acknowledgment of treason out of him. He tells her (what she knows too well) how he loved a noble damsel in Brabant and had to leave her, and it really annoyed him for a few days (it is good to imagine Katherine's face, even in the dark, at this), though of course he never lost his appetite or committed any folly of that sort. But he knew his Ovid (he tells her), and as soon as he came to Bar he made love to a pretty girl there who was quite amiable to him, and now he never thinks of the other. There is more talk, and Katherine insists that he shall introduce her to his new lady, that she may try this remedy of counter-love. He consents with perfect nonchalance, and is at last allowed to go to sleep. No details are given of the conversation with the rival,[82] except the bitterness of Katherine's heart at the fact, and at seeing the ring she had given to Gerard on his hand. This she actually has the pluck to play with, and, securing it, to slip on her own. But the man being obviously past praying or caring for, she arranges with her uncle to depart early in the morning, writes a letter telling Gerard of the whole thing and renouncing him, passes the night silently, leaves the letter, rises quietly and early, and departs, yet "weeping tenderly," not for the man, but for her own lost love. The pair reach home safely, and says the tale-teller, with an agreeable dryness often found here,[83] "There were some who asked them the adventures of their journey, but whatever they answered they did not boast of the chief one." The conclusion is so spirited and at the very end so scenic and even modern (or, much better, universal), that it must be given in direct translation, with a few chevilles (or pieces of padding) left out.

As for Gerard, when he woke and found his companion gone, he thought it must be late, jumped up in haste, and seized his jerkin: but, as he thrust his hand in one of the sleeves, there dropped out a letter which surprised him, for he certainly did not remember having put any there. He picked it up and saw it subscribed "To the disloyal Gerard." If he was startled before he was more so now: but he opened it at last, and saw the signature "Katherine, surnamed Conrad." Even yet he knew not what to think of it: but as he read the blood rose to his face and his heart fluttered, and his whole manner was changed. Still, he read it through, and learnt how his disloyalty had come to the knowledge of her who had wished him so well; and that not at second hand, but from himself to herself; what trouble she had taken to find him; and how (which stung him most) he had slept three nights in her company after all. [After thinking some time he decides to follow her, and arrives in Brabant on the very day of her marriage: for she has, in the circumstances, kept her word to her parents.] Then he tried to go up to her and salute her, and make some wretched excuse for his fault. But he was not allowed, for she turned her shoulder on him, and he could never manage to speak to her all through the day. He even stepped forward once to lead her out to dance, but she refused him flatly before all the company, many of whom heard her. And immediately afterwards another gentleman came, who bade the minstrels strike up, and she stepped down from her dais in full view of Gerard and went to dance with him. And so did the disloyal lover lose his lady.

Now whether this, as the book asserts and as is not at all improbable, is a true story or not, cannot matter to any sensible person one farthing. What does matter is that it is a by no means badly told story, that it resorts to no illegitimate sources or seasonings of interest, and that it offers opportunities for amplification and "diversity of administration" to almost any extent. One can fancy it told, at much greater length and with more or less adjustment to different times, by great novelists of the most widely varying classes—by Scott and by Dumas, by Charles Reade and by George Meredith, to mention no living writer, as might easily be done. Both hero and heroine have more character between them than you could extract out of fifty of the usual nouvelles, and each lends him or herself to endless further development. Not a few of the separate scenes—the good parents fussing over their daughter's intended cavalcade and her thrifty and ingenious objections; the journey of the uncle and niece (any of the first three of the great novelists mentioned above would have made chapters of this); the dramatic and risky passages at the castle en Barrois; the contrast of Katherine's passion and Gerard's sluggishness; and the fashion in which this latter at once brings on the lout's defeat and saves the lady from danger at his hands—all this is novel-matter of almost the first class as regards incident, with no lack of character-openings to boot. Nor could anybody want a better "curtain" than the falling back of the scorned and baffled false lover, the concert of the minstrels, and Katherine's stately stepping down the dais to complete the insult by dancing with another.

[Sidenote: The interest of named personages.]

One more general point may be noticed in connection with the superiority of this story, and that is the accession of interest, at first sight trivial but really important, which comes from the naming of the personages. Both in the earlier fabliaux and in these Nouvelles themselves, by far the larger number of the actors are simply called by class-names—a "knight," a "damsel," a "merchant and his wife," a "priest," a "varlet." It may seem childish to allow the mere addition of a couple of names like Gerard and Katherine to make this difference of interest, but the fact is that there is a good deal of childishness in human nature, and especially in the enjoyment of story.[84] Only by very slow degrees were writers of fiction to learn the great difference that small matters of this kind make, and how the mere "anecdote," the dry argument or abstract of incident, can be amplified, varied, transformed from a remainder biscuit to an abundant and almost inexhaustible feast, by touches of individual character, setting of interiors, details of conversation, description, nomenclature, and what not. Quite early, as we saw in the case of the St. Alexis, persons of narrative gift stumbled upon things of the kind; but it was only after long delays, and hints of many half-conscious kinds, that they became part of recognised craft. Even with such a master of that craft as Boccaccio before them, not all the Italian novelists could catch the pattern; and the French, perhaps naturally enough, were slower still.

It must be remembered, in judging the fifteenth-century French tale, that just as it was to some extent hampered by the long continuing popularity of the verse fabliau on the one hand, so it was, as we may say, "bled" on the other by the growing popularity of the farce, which consists of exactly the same material as the fabliaux and the nouvelles themselves, with the additional liveliness of voice and action. These later additions imposed not the smallest restraint on the license which had characterised and was to characterise the plain verse and prose forms,[85] and no doubt the result was all the more welcome to the taste of the time. But for that very reason the appetites and tastes, which could glut themselves with the full dramatic representation, might care less for the mere narrative, on the famous principle of segnius irritant. Nor was the political state of France during the time very favourable to letters. There are, however, two separate fifteenth-century stories which deserve notice. One of them is the rather famous, though probably not widely read, Petit Jehan de Saintre of the already mentioned Antoine de la Salle, a certain work of his this time. The other is the pleasant, though to Englishmen intentionally uncomplimentary, Jehan de Paris of an unknown writer. La Salle's book must belong to the later middle of the century, though, if he died in or about 1461, not to a very late middle. Jehan de Paris has been put by M. de Montaiglon nearer the close.

[Sidenote: Petit Jehan de Saintre.]

The history of "little John of Saintre and the Lady of the Beautiful Cousins"[86] has not struck all judges, even all English judges,[87] in the same way. Some have thought it mawkish, rhetorical, clumsily imitative of the manners of dead chivalry, and the like. Others, admitting it to be a late and "literary" presentation of the stately society it describes, rank it much higher as such. Its author was a bitter enough satirist if he wrote, as he most probably did, the famous Quinze Joyes de Mariage, one of the most unmitigated pieces of unsweetened irony—next to A Tale of a Tub and Jonathan Wild—to be found in literature; but not couched in narrative form. The same quality appears of course in the still more famous farce of Pathelin, which few good judges deny very stoutly to him, though there is little positive evidence. In the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles again, as has been said, he certainly had a hand, and possibly a great hand, as well as perhaps elsewhere. The satiric touch appears even in Petit Jehan itself; for, after all the gracious courtship of the earlier part, the dame des belles Cousines, during an absence of her lover on service, falls a by no means, as it would seem, very reluctant victim to the vulgar viciousness of a rich churchman, just like the innominatas of the nouvelles themselves. But the earlier part is gracious—a word specifically and intensively applicable to it. It may be a little unreal; does not the secondary form and sense which has been fastened upon reality—"realism"—show that, in the opinion of many people at least, reality is not gracious? The Foozles of this world who "despise all your kickshaws," the Dry-as-dusts who point out—not in the least seeing the real drift of their argument—that the fifteenth century was, in the greater part of Europe if not the whole, at a new point of morals and manners, may urge these things. But the best part of Petit Jehan remains a gracious sort of dream for gracious dreamers—a picture of a kind of Utopia of Feminism, when Feminism did not mean votes or anything foolish, but only adoration of the adorable.

[Sidenote: Jehan de Paris.]

It would be impossible to find or even to imagine anything more different than the not much later Jehan de Paris, an evident folk-tale[88] of uncertain origin, which very quickly became a popular chapbook and lasted long in that condition. Although we Englishmen provide the fun, he is certainly no Englishman who resents the fact or fails to enjoy the result, not to mention that we "could tell them tales with other endings." It is, for instance, not quite historically demonstrable that in crossing a river many English horsemen would be likely to be drowned, while all the French cavaliers got safe through; nor that, in scouring a country, the Frenchmen would score all the game and all the best beasts and poultry, while the English bag would consist of starvelings and offal. But no matter for that. The actual tale tells (with the agreeable introductory "How," which has not yet lost its zest for the right palates in chapter-headings) the story of a King and Queen of Spain who have, in recompense for help given them against turbulent barons, contracted their daughter to the King of France for his son; how they forgot this later, and betrothed her to the King of England, and how that King set out with his train, through France itself, to fetch his bride. As soon as the Dauphin (now king, for his father is dead) hears of their coming, he disguises himself under the name of John of Paris, with a splendid train of followers, much more gorgeous than the English (the "foggy islander" of course cannot make this out), and sets of quiproquos follow, in each of which the Englishman is outdone and baffled generally, till at last "John of Paris" enters Burgos in state, reveals himself, and carries off the Englishman's bride, with the natural effect of making him bien marry et courrouce, though no fight comes off.

The tale is smartly and succinctly told (there are not many more than a hundred of the small-sized and large-printed pages of the Collection Jannet-Picard), and there is a zest and verve about it which ought to please any mood that is for the time in harmony with the much talked of Comic Spirit. But it certainly does not lose attraction, and it as certainly does not fail to lend some, when it is considered side by side with the other "John," especially if both are again compared with the certainly not earlier and probably later "Prose Romances" in English, to which that rather ambitious title was given by Mr. Thoms. There is nothing in these in the very remotest degree resembling Jehan de Saintre: you must get on to the Arcadia or at least to Euphues before you come anywhere near that. There is, on the other hand, in our stuff, a sort of distant community of spirit with Jehan de Paris; but it works in an altogether lower and less imaginative sphere and fashion; no sense of art being present, and very little of craft. It is astonishing that a language which had had, if only in verse, such an unsurpassable tale-teller as Chaucer, should have been so backward. But then the whole conditions of the fifteenth century, especially in England, become only the more puzzling the longer one studies them. Even in France, it will be observed, the output of Tale is by no means large.[89] Nor shall we find it very greatly increased even in the next age, though there is one masterpiece in quantity as well as quality. But, for our purpose, the Cent Nouvelles and the two separate pieces just discussed continue, and in more and more striking manner, to show the vast possibilities when the way shall have been clearly found and the feet of the wayfarers firmly set in it.


[80] Prose as well as verse.

[81] In the very delightful imaginative introduction to Quentin Durward.

[82] This is one of the points which a modern novelist would certainly have seized; but whether to advantage or not is another question.

[83] And of course recognised by the "Antonians" as peculiar to La Salle.

[84] Only contrast "Tom, Tom, the piper's son," with "There was once a piper's son," or think how comparatively uninteresting the enormities of another hero or not-hero would have been if he had been anonymous instead of being called "Georgy-Porgy Pudding-and-Pie!" ["Puddenum" is, or used to be, the preferred if corrupt nursery form.] In more elaborate and adorned narrative the influence, not merely of the name but of the beautiful name, comes in, and that of the name itself remains. In that tragic story of Ludlow Castle which was given above (Chap. iv. pp. 84-6), something, for the present writer at least, would have been lost if the traitor had been merely "a knight" instead of Sir Ernault Lisle and the victim merely "a damsel" instead of Marion de la Briere. And would the bocca bacciata of Alaciel itself be as gracious if it was merely anybody's?

[85] The amazing farce-insets of Lyndsay's Satire of the Three Estates could be paralleled, and were no doubt suggested, by French farces of older date.

[86] Nobody seems to be entirely certain what this odd title means: though there have been some obvious and some far-fetched guesses. But it has, like other rhetoriqueur names of 1450-1550, such as "Traverser of Perilous Ways" and the like, a kind of fantastic attraction for some people.

[87] If I remember rightly, my friend the late R. L. Stevenson was wont to abuse it.

[88] As such, the substance is found in other languages. But the French itself has been traced by some to an earlier roman d'aventure, Blonde d'Oxford, in which an English heiress is carried off by a French squire.

[89] Perhaps one should guard against a possible repetition of a not uncommon critical mistake—that of inferring ignorance from absence of mention. I am quite aware that no exhaustive catalogue of known French stories in prose has been given; and the failure to supplement a former glance at the late prose versions of romance is intentional. They have nothing new in romance-, still less in novel-character for us. The Bibliotheque Elzevirienne volumes have been dwelt upon, not as a corpus, but because they appear to represent, without any unfair manipulation or "window-dressing," the kind at the time with a remarkable combination of interest both individual and contrasted.



[Sidenote: The anonymity, or at least impersonality, of authorship up to this point.]

Although—as it is hoped the foregoing chapters may have shown—the amount of energy and of talent, thrown into the department of French fiction, had from almost the earliest times been remarkably great; although French, if not France, had been the mother of almost all literatures in things fictitious, it can hardly be said that any writer of undeniable genius, entitling him to the first class in the Art of Letters, had shown himself therein. A hundred chansons de geste and as many romances d'aventures had displayed dispersed talent of a very high kind, and in the best of them, as the present writer has tried to point out, a very "extensive assortment" of the various attractions of the novel had from time to time made its appearance. But this again had been done "dispersedly," as the Shakespearean stage-direction has it. The story is sometimes well told, but the telling is constantly interrupted; the great art of novel-conversation is, as yet, almost unborn; the descriptions, though sometimes very striking, as in the case of those given from Partenopeus—the fatal revelation of Melior's charms and the galloping of the maddened palfrey along the seashore, with the dark monster-haunted wood behind and the bright moonlit sea and galley in front—are more often stock and lifeless; while, above all, the characters are rarely more than sketched, if even that. The one exception—the great Arthurian history, as liberated from its Graal-legend swaddling clothes, and its kite-and-crow battles with Saxons and rival knights, but retaining the mystical motive of the Graal-search itself and the adventures of Lancelot and other knights; combining all this into a single story, and storing it with incident for a time, and bringing it to a full and final tragic close by the loves of Lancelot himself and Guinevere—this great achievement, it has been frankly confessed, is so much muddled and distracted with episode which becomes positive digression, that some have even dismissed its pretensions to be a whole. Even those who reject this dismissal are not at one as to any single author of the conception, still less of the execution. The present writer has stated his humble, but ever more and more firm conviction that Chrestien did not do it and could not have done it; others of more note, perhaps of closer acquaintance with MS. sources, but also perhaps not uniting knowledge of the subject with more experience in general literary criticism and in special study of the Novel, will not allow Mapes to have done it.

The Roman de la Rose, beautiful as is its earlier part and ingenious as is (sometimes) its later, is, as a story, of the thinnest kind. The Roman de Renart is a vast collection of small stories of a special class, and the Fabliaux are almost a vaster collection (if you do not exclude the "waterings out" of Renart) of kinds more general. There is abundance of amusement and some charm; but nowhere are we much beyond very simple forms of fiction itself. None of the writers of nouvelles, except Antoine de la Salle, can be said to be a known personality.

[Sidenote: Rabelais unquestionably the first very great known writer.]

There has always been a good deal of controversy about Rabelais, not all of which perhaps can we escape, though it certainly will not be invited, and we have no very extensive knowledge of his life. But we have some: and that, as a man of genius, he is superior to any single person named and known in earlier French literature, can hardly be contested by any one who is neither a silly paradoxer nor a mere dullard, nor affected by some extra-literary prejudice—religious, moral, or whatever it may be. But perhaps not every one who would admit the greatness of Master Francis as a man of letters, his possession not merely of consummate wit, but of that precious thing, so much rarer in French, actual humour; his wonderful influence on the future word-book and phrase-book of his own language, nay, not every one who would go almost the whole length of the most uncompromising Pantagruelist, and would allow him profound wisdom, high aspirations for humanity, something of a complete world-philosophy—would at once admit him as a very great novelist. For my own part I have no hesitation in doing so, and to make the admission good must be the object of this chapter.

[Sidenote: But the first great novelist?]

It may almost be said that his very excellence in this way has "stood in its own light." The readableness of Rabelais is extraordinary. The present writer, after for years making of him almost an Addison according to Johnson's prescription, fell, by mere accident and occupation with other matters, into a way of not reading him, except for purposes of mere literary reference, during a long time. On three different occasions more recently, one ten or a dozen years ago, one six or seven, and the third for the purposes of this very book, he put himself again under the Master, and read him right through. It is difficult to imagine a severer test, and I am bound to confess (though I am not bound to specify) that in some, though not many, instances I have found famous and once favourite classics fail to stand it. Not so Master Francis. I do not think that I ever read him with greater interest than at this last time. Indeed I doubt whether I have ever felt the catholicon—the pervading virtue of his book—quite so strongly as I have in the days preceding that on which I write these words.

[Sidenote: Some objections considered.]

Of course Momus may find handles—he generally can. "You are suffering from morbid senile relapse into puerile enjoyment of indecency," he or Mrs. Momus (whom later ages have called Grundy) may be kind enough to say. "You were a member of the Rabelais Club of pleasant memory, and think it necessary to live up to your earlier profession." "You have said this in print before [I have not exactly done so] and are bound to stick to it," etc. etc. etc., down to that final, "You are a bad critic, and it doesn't matter what you say," which certainly, in a sense, does leave nothing to be replied. But whether this is because the accused is guilty, or because the Court does not call upon him, is a question which one may leave to others.

Laying it down, then, as a point of fact that Rabelais has this curious "holding" quality, whence does he get it? As everybody ought to know, many good people, admitting the fact, have, as he would himself have said, gone about with lanterns to seek for out-of-the-way reasons and qualities; while some people, not so good, but also accepting the fact in a way, have grasped at the above-mentioned indecency itself for an explanation. This trick requires little effort to kick it into its native gutter. The greater proportion of the "Indexable" part of Rabelais is mere nastiness, which is only attractive to a very small minority of persons at any age, while to expert readers it is but a time-deodorised dunghill by the roadside, not beautiful, but negligible. Of the other part of this kind—the "naughty" part which is not nasty and may be somewhat nice—there is, when you come to consider it dispassionately, not really so very much, and it is seldom used in a seductive fashion. It may tickle, but it does not excite; may create laughter, but never passion or even desire. Therefore it cannot be this which "holds" any reader but a mere novice or a glutton for garbage.

Less easily dismissible, but, it will seem, not less inadequate is the alleged "key"-interest of the book. Of course there are some people, and more than a person who wishes to think nobly of humanity might desire to find, who seem never to be tired of identifying Grandgousier, Gargantua, and Pantagruel himself with French kings to whom they bear not the slightest resemblance; of obliging us English by supposing us to be the Macreons (who seem to have been very respectable people, but who inhabit an island singularly unlike England in or anywhere near the time of Rabelais), and so on. But to a much larger number of persons—and one dares say to all true Pantagruelists—these interpretations are either things that the Master himself would have delighted to satirise, and would have satirised unsurpassably, or, at best, mere superfluities and supererogations. At any rate there is no possibility of finding in them the magic spell—the "Fastrada's ring," which binds youth and age alike to the unique "Alcofribas Nasier."

One must, it is supposed, increase the dose of respect (though some people, in some cases, find it hard) when considering a further quality or property—the Riddle-attraction of Rabelais. This riddle-attraction—or attractions, for it might be better spoken of in a very large plural—is of course quite undeniable in itself. There are as many second intentions in the ordinary sense, apparently obvious in Gargantua and Pantagruel, as there can have been in the scholastic among the dietary of La Quinte, or of any possible Chimaera buzzing at greatest intensity in the extremest vacuum. On the other hand, some of us are haunted by the consideration, "Was there ever any human being more likely than Francois Rabelais to echo (with the slightest change) the words ascribed to Divinity in that famous piece which is taken, on good external and ultra-internal evidence, to be Swift's?

I to such block-heads set my wit! I [pose] such fools! Go, go—you're bit."

And there is not wanting, amongst us sceptics, a further section who are quite certain that a not inconsiderable proportion of the book is not allegory at all, but sheer "bamming," while others again would transfer the hackneyed death-bed saying from author to book, and say that the whole Chronicle is "a great perhaps."

[Sidenote: And dismissed as affecting the general attraction of the book.]

These things—or at least elaborate discussions of them—lie somewhat, though not so far as may at first seem, outside our proper business. It must, however, once more be evident, from the facts and very nature of the case, that the puzzles, the riddles, the allegories cannot constitute the main and, so to speak, "universal" part of the attraction of the book. They may be a seasoning to some, a solid cut-and-come-again to others, but certainly not to the majority. Even in Gulliver—the Great Book's almost, perhaps quite, as great descendant—these attractions, though more universal in appeal and less evasively presented, certainly do not hold any such position. The fact is that both Rabelais and Swift were consummate tellers of a story, and (especially if you take the Polite Conversation into Swift's claim) consummate originators of the Novel or larger story, with more than "incidental" attraction itself. But we are not now busied with Swift.

[Sidenote: Which lies, largely if not wholly, in its story-interest.]

Not much serious objection will probably be taken to the place allotted to Master Francis as a tale-teller pure and simple, although it cannot be said that all his innumerable critics and commentators have laid sufficient stress on this. From the uncomfortable birth of Gargantua to the triumphant recessional scene from the Oracle of the Bottle, proofs are to be found in every book, every chapter almost, and indeed almost every page; and a little more detail may be given on this head later. But the presentation of Rabelais as a novelist-before-novels may cause more demur, and even suggest the presence of the now hopelessly discredited thing—paradox itself. Of course, if anybody requires regular plot as a necessary constituent, only paradox could contend for that. It has been contended—and rightly enough—that in the general scheme and the two (or if you take in Grandgousier, three) generations of histories of the good giants, Rabelais is doing nothing more than parody—is, indeed, doing little more than simply follow the traditions of Romance—Amiles and Jourdains, Guy and Rembrun, and many others. But some of us regard plot as at best a full-dress garment, at the absence of which the good-natured God or Muse of fiction is quite willing to wink. Character, if seldom elaborately presented, except in the case of Panurge, is showered, in scraps and sketches, all over the book, and description and dialogue abound.

[Sidenote: Contrast of the Moyen de Parvenir.]

But it is not on such beggarly special pleading as this that the claim shall be founded. It must rest on the unceasing, or practically unceasing, impetus of story-interest which carries the reader through. A remarkably useful contrast-parallel in this respect, may be found in that strange book, the Moyen de Parvenir. I am of those who think that it had something to do with Rabelais, that there is some of his stuff in it, even that he may have actually planned something like it. But the "make-up" is not more inferior in merit to that of Gargantua and Pantagruel than it is different in kind. The Moyen de Parvenir is full of separate stories of the fabliau kind, often amusing and well told, though exceedingly gross as a rule. These stories are "set" in a framework of promiscuous conversation, in which a large number of great real persons, ancient and modern, and a smaller one of invented characters, or rather names, take part. Most of this, though not quite all, is mere fatrasie, if not even mere jargon: and though there are glimmerings of something more than sense, they are, with evident deliberation, enveloped in clouds of nonsense. The thing is not a whole at all, and the stories have as little to do with each other or with any general drift as if they were professedly—what they are practically—a bundle of fabliaux or nouvelles. As always happens in such cases—and as the author, whether he was Beroalde or another, whether or not he worked on a canvas greater than he could fill, or tried to patch together things too good for him, no doubt intended—attempts have been made to interpret the puzzle here also; but they are quite obviously vain.

[Sidenote: A general theme possible.]

[Sidenote: A reference—to be taken up later—to the last Book.]

Such a sentence, however, cannot be pronounced in any such degree or measure on the similar attempts in the case of Gargantua and Pantagruel; for a reason which some readers may find unexpected. The unbroken vigour—unbroken even by the obstacles which it throws in its own way, like the Catalogue of the Library of Saint-Victor and the burlesque lists of adjectives, etc., which fill up whole chapters—with which the story or string of stories is carried on, may naturally suggest that there is a story or at least a theme. It is a sort of quaint alteration or catachresis of Possunt quia posse videntur. There must be a general theme, because the writer is so obviously able to handle any theme he chooses. It may be wiser—it certainly seems so to the present writer—to disbelieve in anything but occasional sallies—episodes, as it were, or even digressions—of political, religious, moral, social and other satire. It is, on the other hand, a most important thing to admit the undoubted presence—now and then, and not unfrequently—of a deliberate dropping of the satiric and burlesque mask. This supplies the presentation of the serious, kindly, and human personality of the three princes (Grandgousier, Gargantua, and Pantagruel); this the schemes of education (giving so large a proportion of the small bulk of not-nonsense written on that matter). Above all, this permits, to one taste at least, the exquisite last Book, presentation of La Quinte and the fresh roses in her hand, the originality of which, not only in the whole book in one sense, but in the particular Book in the other, is, to that taste, and such argumentative powers as accompany it, an almost absolute proof of that Book's genuineness. For if it had been by another who, unlike Rabelais, had a special tendency towards such graceful imagination, he could hardly have refrained from showing this elsewhere in this long book.[90]

[Sidenote: Running survey of the whole.]

But however this may be, it is certain that a critical reader, especially when he has reason to be startled by the external, if not actually extrinsic, oddities of and excesses of the book, will be justified in allowing—it may almost be said that he is likely to allow—the extraordinary volume of concatenated fictitious interest in the whole book or books. The usual and obvious "catenations" are indeed almost ostentatiously wanting. The absence of any real plot has been sufficiently commented on, with the temptations conferred by it to substitute a fancied unity of purpose. The birth, and what we may call the two educations, of Gargantua; the repetition, with sufficient differences, of the same plan in the opening of Pantagruel; the appearance of Panurge and the campaign against the Dipsodes; the great marriage debate; and the voyage to the Oracle of the Bottle, are connected merely in "chronicle" fashion. The character-links are hardly stronger, for though Friar John does play a more or less important part from almost the beginning to quite the end, Panurge, the most important and remarkable single figure, does not appear for a considerable time, and the rest are shadows. The scene is only in one or two chapters nominally placed in Nowhere; but as a whole it is Nowhere Else, or rather a bewildering mixture of topical assignments in a very small part of France, and allegorical or fantastic descriptions of a multitude of Utopias. And yet, once more, it is a whole story. As you read it you almost forget what lies behind, you quite forget the breaches of continuity, and press on to what is before, almost as eagerly, if not quite in the same fashion, as if the incidents and the figures were not less exciting than those of Vingt Ans Apres. Let us hope it may not be excessive to expend a few pages on a sketch of this strange story that is no story, with, it may be, some fragments of translation or paraphrase (for, as even his greatest translator, Urquhart, found, a certain amount of his own Fay ce que voudras is necessary with Rabelais) here and there.

[Sidenote: Gargantua.]

Master Francis does not exactly plunge into the middle of things; but he spends comparatively little time on the preliminaries of the ironical Prologue to the "very illustrious drinkers," on the traditionally necessary but equally ironical genealogy of the hero, on the elaborate verse amphigouri of the Fanfreluches Antidotees, and on the mock scientific discussion of extraordinarily prolonged periods of pregnancy. Without these, however, he will not come to the stupendous banquet of tripe (properly washed down, and followed by pleasant revel on the "echoing green") which determined the advent of Gargantua into the world, which enabled Grandgousier, more fortunate than his son on a future occasion, to display his amiability as a husband and a father unchecked by any great sorrow, and which was, as it were, crowned and sealed by that son's first utterance—no miserable and ordinary infant's wail, but the stentorian barytone "A boire!" which rings through the book till it passes in the sharper, but not less delectable treble of "Trinq!" And then comes a brief piece, not narrative, but as characteristic perhaps of what we may call the ironical moral of the narrative as any—a grave remonstrance with those who will not believe in ceste estrange nativite.

[Sidenote: The birth and education.]

I doubt me ye believe not this strange birth assuredly. If ye disbelieve, I care not; but a respectable man—a man of good sense—always believes what people tell him and what he finds written. Does not Solomon say (Prov. xiv.), "The innocent [simple] believeth every word" etc.? And St. Paul (1 Cor. xiii.), "Charity believeth all things"? Why should you not believe it? "Because," says you, "there is no probability[91] in it." I tell you that for this very and only reason you ought to believe with a perfect faith. For the Sorbonists say that faith is the evidence of things of no probability.[92] Is it against our law or our faith? against reason? against the Sacred Scriptures?[93] For my part I can find nothing written in the Holy Bible which is contrary thereto. But if the Will of God had been so, would you say that He could not have done it? Oh for grace' sake do not make a mess of your wits in such vain thoughts. For I tell you that nothing is impossible with God.

And Divinity being done with, the Classics and pure fantasy are drawn upon; the incredulous being finally knocked down by a citation from Pliny, and a polite request not to bother any more.

This is, of course, the kind of passage which has been brought against Rabelais, as similar ones have been brought against Swift, to justify charges of impiety. But, again, it is not necessary to bother (tabuster) about that. Any one who cannot see that it is the foolish use of reverend things and not the things themselves that the satire hits, is hardly worth argument. But there is no doubt that this sort of mortar, framework, menstruum, canvas, or whatever way it may be best metaphored, helps the apparent continuity of the work marvellously, leaving, as it were, no rough edges or ill-mended joints. It is, to use an admirable phrase of Mr. Balfour's about a greater matter, "the logical glue which holds together and makes intelligible the multiplicity" of the narrative units, or perhaps instead of "intelligible" one should here say "appreciable."

Sometimes the "glue" of ironic comment rather saturates these units of narrative than surrounds or interjoins them, and this is the case with what follows. The infantine peculiarities of Gargantua; his dress and the mystery of its blue and white colours (the blue of heaven and the white of the joy of earth); how his governesses and he played together; what smart answers he made; how he became early both a poet and an experimental philosopher—all this is recounted with a marvellous mixture of wisdom and burlesque, though sometimes, no doubt, with rather too much of haut gout seasoning. Then comes the, in Renaissance books, inevitable "Education" section, and it has been already noted briefly how different this is from most of its group (the corresponding part of Euphues may be suggested for comparison). Even Rabelais does not escape the main danger—he neglects a little to listen to the wisest voice, "Can't you let him alone?" But the contrasts in the case of Gargantua, the general tenor (that good prince profiting by his own experience for his son's benefit) in that of Pantagruel, are not too "improving," and are made by their historian's "own sauce" exceedingly piquant. Much as has been written on the subject, it is not easy to be quite certain how far the "Old" Learning was fairly treated by the "New." Rabelais and Erasmus and the authors of the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum are such a tremendous overmatch for any one on the other side, that the most judicial as well as judicious of critics must be rather puzzled as to the real merits of the case. But luckily there is no need to decide. Enjoyment, not decision, is the point, and there is no difficulty in that. How Gargantua was transferred from the learned but somewhat, as the vulgar would say, "stick-in-the-mud" tutorship of Master Thubal Holofernes, who spent eighteen years in reading De Modis Significandi with his pupil, and Master Jobelin Bride, who has "become a name"—not exactly of honour; how he was transferred to the less antiquated guidance of Ponocrates, and set out for Paris on the famous dappled mare, whose exploits in field and town were so alarming, and who had the bells of Notre Dame hung round her neck, till they were replaced rather after than because of the remonstrance of Master Janotus de Bragmardo; how for a time, and under Sorbonic direction, he wasted that time in short and useless study, with long intervals of card-playing, sleeping, etc. etc., and of course a great deal of eating and drinking, "not as he ought and as he ought not"—all this leads up to the moment when the sage Ponocrates takes him again in hand, and institutes a strenuous drill in manners, studies, manly exercises, and the like, ending with one of those extraordinary flashes of perfect style and noble meaning which it pleases Rabelais to emit from what some call his "dunghill" and others his "marine-store."

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