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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2 - To the Close of the 19th Century
by George Saintsbury
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Of course it may be said, "You should not give judgments on things with which you are evidently out of sympathy." But I do not acknowledge any palpable hit. If certain purposes of the opposite kind were obtruded here in the same fashion—if Victor (as he might have done in earlier days) had hymned Royalism instead of Republicanism, or (as perhaps he would never have done) had indulged in praise of severe laws and restricted education,[104] and other things, I should be "in sympathy," but I hope and believe that I should not be "out of" criticism. Unless strictly adjusted to the scale and degree suitable to a novel—as Sir Walter has, I think, restricted his Mariolatry and his Jacobitism, and so forth—I should bar them as I bar these.[105] And it is the fact that they are not so restricted, with the concomitant faults which, again purely from the point of view of novel-criticism as such, I have ventured to find, that makes me consider Les Miserables a failure as a novel. Once again, too, I find few of the really good and great things—which in so vast a book by such a writer are there, and could not fail to be there—to be essentially and specially good and great according to the novel standard. They are, with the rarest exceptions, the stuff of drama or of poetry, not of novel. That there are such exceptions—the treacherous feast of the students to the mistresses they are about to desert; the escapes of Valjean from the ambushes laid for him by Thenardier and Javert; some of the Saint-Merry fighting; the guesting of the children by Gavroche in the elephant; and others—is true. But they are oases in a desert; and, save when they would be better done in poetry, they do not after all seem to me to be much better done than they might have been by others—the comparative weakness of Hugo in conversation of the kind suitable for prose fiction making itself felt. That at least is what the present writer's notion of criticism puts into his mouth to say; and he can say no other.

[Sidenote: Les Travailleurs de la Mer.]

Les Travailleurs de la Mer, on the other hand, is, according to some persons, among whom that present writer desires to be included, the summit of Victor Hugo's achievements in prose fiction. It has his "signatures" of absurdity in fair measure. There is the celebrated "Bug-Pipe" which a Highlander of the garrison of Guernsey sold (I am afraid contrary to military law) to the hero, and on which that hero performed the "melancholy air" of "Bonny Dundee."[106] There is the equally celebrated "First of the Fourth" (Premiere de la Quatrieme), which is believed to be Hugonic for the Firth of Forth. There are some others. There is an elaborate presentation of a quite impossibly named clergyman, who is, it seems, an anticipator of "le Puseysme" and an actual high-churchman, who talks as never high-churchman talked from Laud to Pusey himself, but rather like the Reverend Gabriel Kettledrummle (with whom Hugo was probably acquainted "in translations, Sir! in translations").[107] Gilliatt, the hero, is a not very human prig outside those extraordinary performances, of which more later, and his consummate end. Deruchette, the heroine, is, like Cosette, a pretty nullity.[108] As always, the author will not "get under way"; and short as the book is, and valuable as is its shortness, it could be cut down to two-thirds at least with advantage. Clubin and Rantaine, the villains, are pure melodrama; Mess Lethierry, the good old man, is rather an old fool, and not so very good. The real business of the book—the salvage by Gilliatt of the steamer wrecked on the Douvres—is, as a schoolboy would say, or would have said, "jolly impossible." But the book as a whole is, despite or because of its tragic quality, almost impossibly "jolly."

[Sidenote: The genius loci.]

For here—as he did previously (by the help of the form that was more his own and of Jersey) in the Contemplations—he had now got in prose, by that of the smaller, more isolated, and less contaminated[109] island, into his own proper country, the dominion of the Angel of the Visions of the Sea. He has told us in his own grandiloquent way, which so often led him wrong, that when he settled to exile in the Channel Islands, his son Francois observed, "Je traduirai Shakespeare," and he said, "Je contemplerai l'ocean." He did; and good came of it. Students of his biography may know that in the dwelling which he called Hauteville House (a name which, I regret to say, already and properly belonged to another) he slept and mainly lived in a high garret with much glass window, overlooking the strait between Guernsey and Sark. These "gazebos," as they used to be called, are common in St. Peter Port, and I myself enjoyed the possession of a more modest and quite unfamous one for some time. They are worth inhabiting and looking from, be the weather fair or foul. Moreover, he was, I believe, a very good walker, and in both the islands made the best of opportunities which are unmatched elsewhere. Whether he boated much I do not know. The profusion of nautical terms with which he "deaves" us (as the old Scotch word has it) would rather lead me to think not. He was in this inferior to Prospero; but I hope it is not blasphemy to say that, mutatis mutandis, he had something of the banished Duke of Milan in him, and that, in the one case as in the other, it was the island that brought it out. And he acknowledged it in his Dedication to "Guernesey—severe et douce."

[Sidenote: Guernsey at the time.]

Severe et Douce! I lived in Guernsey as a Master at Elizabeth College from 1868, two years after Victor Hugo wrote that dedication, to 1874, when he still kept house there, but had not, since the "Annee Terrible," occupied it much. I suppose the "severity" must be granted to an island of solid granite and to the rocks and tides and sea-mists that surround it. But in the ordinary life there in my time there was little to "asperate" the douceur. Perhaps it does not require so very much to sweeten things in general between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-nine. But the things in general themselves were dulcet enough. The beauty of the place—extraordinarily varied in its triangle of some half-score miles or a little less on each side—was not then in the least interfered with by the excessive commercial glass-housing which, I believe, has come in since. For what my friend of many days, the late Mr. Reynolds of Brasenose and East Ham, a constant visitor in summer, used to call "necessary luxuries," it was still unique. When I went there you could buy not undrinkable or poisonous Hollands at four shillings a gallon, and brandy—not, of course, exactly cognac or fine champagne, but deserving the same epithets—for six. If you were a luxurious person, you paid half-a-crown a bottle for the genuine produce of the Charente, little or not at all inferior to Martell or Hennessy, and a florin for excellent Scotch or Irish whiskey.[110] Fourpence half-penny gave you a quarter-pound slab of gold-leaf tobacco, than which I never wish to smoke better.

But this easy supplying of the bodily needs of the "horse with wings" and his "heavy rider" was as nothing to other things which strengthened the wings of the spirit and lightened the weight of the burden it bore. I have not been a great traveller outside the kingdom of England: and you may doubtless, in the whole of Europe or of the globe, find more magnificent things than you can possibly find in an island of the dimensions given. But for a miniature and manageable assemblage of amenities I do not think you can easily beat Guernsey. The town of St. Peter Port, and its two castles, Fort George above and Castle Cornet below, looking on the strait above mentioned, with the curiously contrasted islets of Herm and Jethou in its midst; the wonderful coast, first south- and then westward, set with tiny coves of perfection like Bec-du-Nez, and larger bays, across the mouth of which, after a storm and in calm sunny weather, you see lines of foam stretching from headland to headland, out of the white clots of which the weakest imagination can fancy Aphrodite rising and floating shorewards, to vanish as she touches the beach; the great western promontory of Pleinmont, a scarcely lessened Land's End, with the Hanois rocks beyond; the tamer but still not tame western, northern, and north-eastern coasts, with the Druid-haunted level of L'Ancresse and the minor port of St. Samson—all these furnish, even to the well-girt man, an extraordinary number[111] of walks, ranging from an hour's to a day's and more there and back; while in the valleys of the interior you find scenery which might be as far from the sea as Warwickshire, or on the heights springs which tell you that they must have come from the neighbourhood of the Mount of Dol or the Forest of Broceliande.

With such colour and form of locality to serve, not merely as inspiration but as actual scene and setting, such genius as Hugo's could hardly fail. The thing is sad and delightful and great. As life, you may say, it could not have happened; as literature it could not but have happened, and has happened, at its best, divinely well. The contrast of the long agony of effort and its triumph on the Douvres, with the swift collapse of any possible reward at St. Samson, is simply a windfall of the Muses to this spoiled and, it must be confessed, often self-spoiling child of theirs. There are, of course, absurdities still, and of a different kind from the bug-pipe. I have always wished to know what the experiences of the fortunate and reverend but sheepish Ebenezer had been at Oxford—he must certainly have held a King Charles scholarship in his day—during that full-blooded time of the Regency. The circumstances of the marriage are almost purely Hugonian, though it does Hugo credit that he admires the service which he travesties so remarkably. But the Dieu (not diable) au corps which he now enjoys enables him to change into a beauty (in the wholly natural gabble of Mess Lethierry on the recovery of the la Durande) those long speeches which have been already noted as blots. And, beauty or blot, it would not have mattered. All is in the contrast of the mighty but conquered Douvres and the comparatively insignificant rocklet—there are hundreds like it on every granite coast—where Death the Consoler sets on Gilliatt's head the only crown possible for his impossible feat, and where the dislike of the ignorant peasantry, the brute resistance of machinery and material, the violence of the storm, the devilish ambush of the pieuvre, and all other evils are terminated and evaded and sanctified by the embrace and the euthanasia of the sea. Perhaps it is poetry rather than novel or even romance—in substance it is too abstract and elemental for either of the less majestical branches of inventive literature. But it is great. "By God! 'tis good," and, to lengthen somewhat Ben's famous challenge, "if you like, you may" put it with, and not so far from, in whatever order you please—the deaths of Cleopatra and of Colonel Newcome.

The book is therefore a success; but that success is an evident tour de force, and it is nearly as evident to any student of the subject that such a tour de force was not likely to be repeated, and that the thing owed its actual salvage to a rather strict limitation of subject and treatment—a limitation hitherto unknown in the writer and itself unlikely to recur. Also that there were certain things in it—especially the travesties of names and subjects of which the author practically knew nothing—the repetition and extension of which was likely to be damaging, if not fatal. In two or three years the "fatality" of which Victor Hugo himself was dangerously fond of talking (the warning of Herodotus in the dawn about things which it is not lawful to mention has been too often neglected) had its revenge.

[Sidenote: L'Homme Qui Rit.]

L'Homme Qui Rit is probably the maddest book in recognised literature; certainly the maddest written by an author of supreme genius without the faintest notion that he was making himself ridiculous. The genius is still there, and passage on passage shows us the real "prose-poetry," that is to say, the prose which ought to have been written in verse. The scheme of the quartette—Ursus, the misanthrope-Good-Samaritan; Homo, the amiable wolf; Gwynplaine, the tortured and guiltless child and youth; Dea, the adorable maiden—is unexceptionable per se, and it could have been worked out in verse or drama perfectly, though the actual termination—Gwynplaine's suicide in the sea after Dea's death—is perhaps too close and too easy a "variation of the same thing" on Gilliatt's parallel self-immolation after Deruchette's marriage.[112] Not a few opening or episodic parts—the picture of the caravan; the struggle of the child Gwynplaine with the elements to save not so much himself as the baby Dea; the revulsions of his temptations and persecutions later; and yet others[113]—show the poet and the master.

But the way in which these things are merged in and spoilt by a torrent of silliness, sciolism, and sheer nonsense is, even after one has known the book for forty years and more, still astounding.

One could laugh almost indulgently over the "bug-pipe" and the "First of the Fourth"; one could, being of those who win, laugh quite indulgently over the little outbursts of spite in Les Travailleurs at the institutions and ways of the country which had, despite some rather unpardonable liberties, given its regular and royal asylum to the exiled republican and almost anarchist author. Certainly, also, one can laugh over L'Homme Qui Rit and its picture of the English aristocracy. But of such laughter, as of all carnal pleasures (to steal from Kingsley), cometh satiety, and the satiety is rather early reached in this same book. One of the chief "persons of distinction" in many ways whom I have ever come across, the late Mr. G. S. Venables—a lawyer of no mean expertness; one of the earliest and one of the greatest of those "gentlemen of the Press" who at the middle of the nineteenth century lifted journalism out of the gutter; a familiar of every kind of the best society, and a person of infinite though somewhat saturnine wit—had a phrase of contempt for absurd utterances by persons who ought to have known better. "It was," he said, "like a drunk child." The major part of L'Homme Qui Rit is like the utterance of a drunk child who had something of the pseudo-Homeric Margites in him, who "knew a great many things and knew them all badly." I could fill fifty pages here easily enough, and with a kind of low amusement to myself and perhaps others, by enumerating the absurdities of L'Homme Qui Rit. As far as I remember, when the book appeared, divers good people (the bad people merely sneered) took immense pains to discover how and why this great man of letters made so much greater a fool of himself. This was quite lost labour; and without attempting the explanation at all, a very small selection of the facts, being in a manner indispensable, may be given.

The mysterious society of "Comprachicos" (Spanish for "child-buyers"), on whose malpractices the whole book is founded; the entirely false conception of the English House of Lords, which gives much of the superstructure; the confusion of English and French times and seasons, manners and customs, which enables the writer to muddle up Henri-Trois and Louis-Quinze, Good Queen Bess and Good Queen Anne: these and other things of the kind can be passed over. For things like some of them occur in much saner novelists than Hugo; and Sir Walter himself is notoriously not free from indisputable anachronisms.[114] But you have barely reached the fiftieth page when you come to a "Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie, Baron Clancharlie et Hunkerville, Marquis de Corleone en Sicile," whose English peerage dates from Edward the Elder (the origin of his Sicilian title is not stated, but it was probably conferred by Hiero or Dionysius), and whose name "Clancharlie" has nothing whatever to do with Scotland or Ireland. This worthy peer (who, as a Cromwellian, exiled himself after the Restoration) had, like others of the godly, a bastard son, enjoying at "temp. of tale" the remarkable courtesy title of "Lord David Dirry-Moir," but called by the rabble, with whom his sporting tastes make him a great favourite, "Tom-Jim-Jack." Most "love-children" of peers would be contented (if they ever had them) with courtesy titles; but Lord David has been further favoured by Fortune and King James II., who has first induced the comprachicos to trepan and mutilate Clancharlie's real heir (afterwards Gwynplaine, the eponymous hero of the book), and has then made Lord David a "pair substitue"[115] on condition that he marries one of the king's natural daughters, the Duchess Josiane, a duchess with no duchy ever mentioned. In regard to her Hugo proceeds to exhibit his etymological powers, ignoring entirely the agreeable heroine of Bevis of Hampton, and suggesting either an abbreviation of "Josefa y Ana" (at this time, we are gravely informed, there was a prevalent English fashion of taking Spanish names) or else a feminine of "Josias." Moreover, among dozens of other instances of this Bedlam nomenclature, we have a "combat of box" between the Irishman "Phelem-ghe-Madone" (because Irishmen are often Roman Catholics?) and the Scotchman "Helmsgail" (there is a place called Helmsdale in Scotland, and if "gael" why not "gail"?), to the latter of whom a knee is given by "Lord Desertum" (Desart? Dysart? what?).

And so it goes on. There is the immortal scene (or rather half-volume) in which, Hugo having heard or read of peine forte et dure, we find sheriffs who discharge the duty of Old Bailey judges, fragments of Law Latin (it is really a pity that he did not get hold of our inimitable Law French), and above all, and pervading all, that most fearful wildfowl the "wapentake," with his "iron weapon." He, with his satellite the justicier-quorum (but, one weeps to see, not "custalorum" or "rotalorum"), is concerned with the torture of Hardquanonne[116]—the original malefactor[117] in Gwynplaine's case—and thereby restores Gwynplaine to his (unsubstituted) rank in the English peerage, when he himself is anticipating similar treatment. There is the presentation by the librarian of the House of Lords of a "little red book" which is the passport to the House itself: and the very unmannerly reception by his brother peers, from which he is in a manner rescued by the chivalrous Lord David Dirry-Moir at the price of a box on the ears for depriving him of his "substitution." There is the misconduct of the Duchess Josiane, divinely beautiful and diabolically wicked, who covets the monster Gwynplaine as a lover, and discards him when, on his peerification, he is commanded to her by Queen Anne as a husband. And then, after all this tedious insanity and a great deal more, there is the finale of the despair of Gwynplaine, of his recovery of the dying Dea in a ship just starting for Holland, of her own death, and of his suicide in the all-healing sea—a "reconciliation" not far short of the greatest things in literature.

Now I am not of those unhappy ones who cannot away with the mixture of tragedy and farce. I have not only read too much, but lived too long for that. But then the farce must be in life conceivable and in literature conscious. Shakespeare, and even men much inferior to Shakespeare, have been able to provide for this stipulation munificently.

With Victor Hugo, generally more or less and intensively here, it was unfortunately different. His irony was almost always his weakest point; or rather it was a kind of hit-or-miss weapon, with which he cut himself as often as he cut his inimical objects or persons. The intense absurdity of his personified wapentakes, of his Tom-Jim-Jacks, of his courtesy-title bastards, he deliberately declined (as in the anecdote above given) to see. But these things, done and evidently thought fine by the doer, almost put to rout the most determined and expert sifter of the faults and merits of genius. You cannot enjoy a Garden of Eden when at every other step you plunge into a morass of mire. You cannot drink a draught of nectar, arranged on the plan of certain glasses of liqueur, in superimposed layers of different savour and colour, when every other layer is "stummed" folly or nauseous bad taste. A novel is not like a book of poems, where, as you see that you have hit on a failure, you turn the page and find a success. To which it may be added finally that while erudition of any kind is a doubtful set-off to fiction, the presentation of ragbag erudition of this kind is, to speak moderately and in his own words of something else, "a rather hideous thing."[118]

Still, with readers of a certain quality, the good omens may to some extent shame the ill even here. The death of Dea, with its sequel, is very nearly perfect; it only wants the verse of which its author was such an absolute master, instead of the prose, where he alternately triumphed and bungled, to make it so. And one need not be a common paradoxer to take either side on the question whether on the whole the omen, if not the actuality, of L'Homme Qui Rit or that of Les Travailleurs de la Mer was the happier. For, while the earlier and better book showed how faults were hardening and might grow worse still, the later showed how these very faults, attaining their utmost possible development, could not entirely stifle the rarer gifts. I do not remember that anybody in 1869 took this apparently aleatory side of the argument. If he did he was justified in 1874.

[Sidenote: Quatre-Vingt-Treize.]

One enormous advantage of Quatre-Vingt-Treize over its immediate predecessor lay on the surface—an advantage enormous in all cases, but almost incalculable in this particular one. In L'Homme Qui Rit Victor Hugo had been dealing with a subject about which he knew practically nothing, and about which he was prepared to believe, or even practise, anything. Here, though he was still prepared to believe a great deal, he yet knew a very great deal more. A little room for his eccentricities remained, and long after the truth had become a matter of registered history, he could accept the legendary lies about the Vengeur; but there was no danger of his giving us French wapentakes brandishing iron-weapons, or calling a French noble by any appellation comparable to Lord Linnaeus[119] Clancharlie.

But, it may be said, is not the removal of these annoyances more than compensated, in the bad sense, by things inseparable from such a subject, as treated by such an author?—the glorification of "Quatre-Vingt-Treize" itself, and, in particular, of the Convention—that remarkable assembly which seems to have made up its mind to prove for all time that, in democracies, the scum comes to the top?—that assembly in which Fabre d'Eglantine stood for poetry, Marat for humanitarianism, Robespierre for justice, Hebert and Chaumette for decency, Sieyes and Chabot for different forms of religion, the composers of the Republican Calendar[120] for common sense? where the only suggestion of a great man was Danton, and the only substitutes for an honest one were the prigs and pedants of the Gironde? To which the only critical answer must be, even when the critic does not contest the correctness of this description—"Why, no!"

It is better, no doubt, that a novelist, and that everybody else, should be a bien-pensant; but, as in the case of the poet, it will not necessarily affect his goodness in his art if he is not. He had, indeed, best not air his opinions, whatever they are, at too great length; but what they are matters little or nothing. A Tory critic who cannot admire Shelley or Swinburne, Dickens or Thackeray, because of their politics, is merely an ass, an animal unfortunately to be found in the stables or paddocks of every party. On the other hand, absurdities and faults of taste matter very much.

Now from these latter, which had nearly ruined L'Homme Qui Rit, Quatre-Vingt-Treize, if not entirely free, suffers comparatively little. The early and celebrated incident of the carronade running amuck shows characteristic neglect of burlesque possibilities (and, as I believe some experts have maintained, of actual ones), but it has the qualities of the Hugonian defects. An arm-chair critic may ask, Where was the English fleet in the Channel when a French one was allowed to come out and slowly mob the Claymore to destruction, without, as far as one sees, any interference or counter-effort, though the expedition of that remarkable corvette formed part of an elaborate and carefully prepared offensive?[121] Undoubtedly, the Convention scenes must be allowed—even by sympathisers with the Revolution—to be clumsy stopgaps, unnecessary to the action and possessed of little intrinsic value in themselves. The old fault of verbosity and "watering out" recurs; and so does the reappearance, with very slight change, of figures and situations. Cimourdain in character is very much of a more respectable Claude Frollo; and in conduct, mutatis not so very many mutandis, almost as much of a less respectable Javert. The death of Gauvain is far less effective than that of Sydney Carton, which had preceded it; and the enormous harangue of the Marquis to the nephew who is about to liberate him, though it may be intended to heighten the peripeteia, merely gives fresh evidence of Hugo's want of proportion and of his flux of rhetoric.

All this and more is true; yet Quatre-Vingt-Treize is, "in its fine wrong way," a great book, and with Les Travailleurs de la Mer, completes the pillars, such as they are, which support Hugo's position as a novelist. The rescue of the children by Lantenac is superb, though you may find twenty cavils against it easily: and the whole presentation of the Marquis, except perhaps the speech referred to, is one of the best pictures of the ancienne noblesse in literature, one which—to reverse the contrast just made—annihilates Dickens's caricature thereof in A Tale of Two Cities. The single-handed defence of La Tourgue by "L'Imanus" has of course a good deal of the hyperbole which began with Quasimodo's similar act in Notre-Dame; but the reader who cannot "let himself go" with it is to be pitied. Nowhere is Hugo's child-worship more agreeably shown than in the three first chapters of the third volume. And, sinking particulars for a more general view, one may say that through the whole book, to an extent surpassing even Les Travailleurs de la Mer as such, there is the great Victorian souffle and surge, the rush as of mighty winds and mightier waters, which carries the reader resistlessly through and over all obstacles.

[Sidenote: Final remarks.]

Yet although Hugo thus terminated his career as a novelist, if not in the odour of sanctity, at any rate in a comfortable cloud of incense due to a comparative success; although he had (it is true on a much smaller scale) even transcended that success in Les Travailleurs de la Mer; although, as a mere novice, he had proved himself a more than tolerable tale-teller in Bug-Jargal, it is not possible, for any critical historian of the novel as such, to pronounce him a great artist, or even a tolerable craftsman, in the kind as a whole. It has already been several times remarked in detail, and may now be repeated in general, that the things which we enjoy in his books of this kind are seldom things which it is the special business of the novelist to produce, and practically never those which are his chief business. In no single instance perhaps, with the doubtful exception of Gilliatt's battle with brute matter and elemental forces, is "the tale the thing" purely as tale. Very seldom do we even want to know what is going to happen—the childishly simple, but also childishly genuine demand of the reader of romance as such, if not even of the novel also. Scarcely once do we—at least do I—take that interest in the development of character which is the special subject of appetite of readers of the novel, as such and by itself. The baits and the rewards are now splendour of style; now magnificence of imagery; sometimes grandeur of idea; often pathos; not seldom the delight of battle in this or that sense. These are all excellent seasonings of novelry; but they are not the root of the matter, the piece de resistance of the feast.

Unfortunately, too, Hugo not merely cannot, or at any rate does not, give the hungry sheep their proper food—an interesting story worked out by interesting characters—but will persist in giving them things as suitable (granting them to be in the abstract nourishing) as turnips to the carnivora or legs of mutton to the sheep which walk on them. It would, of course, not be just to press too strongly the objections to the novel of purpose, though to the present writer they seem almost insuperable. But it is not merely purpose in the ordinary sense which leads Victor astray, or rather (for he was much too wilful a person to be led) which he invents for himself to follow, with his eyes open, and knowing perfectly well what he is doing. His digressions are not parabases of the kind which some people object to in Fielding and still more in Thackeray—addresses to the reader on points more or less intimately connected with the subject itself. A certain exception has been made in favour of some of the architectural parts of Notre-Dame de Paris, but it has been admitted that this will not cover "Ceci Tuera Cela" nor much else. For the presence of the history of the sewers of Paris in Les Miserables and any number of other things; for not a little of the first volume of Les Travailleurs itself; for about half, if not more, of L'Homme Qui Rit, starting from Ursus's Black-book of fancy pleasances, palaces, and estates belonging to the fellow-peers of Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie and Hunkerville; for not a few chapters even of Quatre-Vingt-Treize, there is no excuse at all. They are simply repulsive or at least unwelcome "pledgets" of unsucculent matter stuck into the body of fiction, as (but with how different results!) lardons or pistachios or truffles are stuck into another kind of composition.

It is partly, but not wholly, due to this deplorable habit of irrelevant divagation that Hugo will never allow his stories to "march" (at least to begin with marching),[122] Quatre-Vingt-Treize being here the only exception among the longer romances, for even Les Travailleurs de la Mer never gets into stride till nearly the whole of the first volume is passed. But the habit, however great a nuisance it may be to the reader, is of some interest to the student and the historian, for the very reason that it does not seem to be wholly an outcome of the other habit of digression. It would thus be, in part at least, a survival of that odd old "inability to begin" which we noticed several times in the last volume, aggravated by the irrepressible wilfulness of the writer, and by his determination not to do like other people, who had by this time mostly got over the difficulty.

If any further "dull moral" is wanted it may be the obvious lesson that overpowering popularity of a particular form is sometimes a misfortune, as that of allegory was in the Middle Ages and that of didactics in the eighteenth century. If it had not been almost incumbent on any Frenchman who aimed at achieving popularity in the mid-nineteenth century to attempt the novel, it is not very likely that Hugo would have attempted it. It may be doubted whether we should have lost any of the best things—we should only have had them in the compacter and higher shape of more Orientales, more Chants du Crepuscule, more Legendes, and so forth. We should have lost the easily losable laugh over bug-pipe and wapentake—for though Hugo sometimes thought sillily in verse he did not often let silliness touch his expression in the more majestical harmony—and we should have been spared an immensely greater body of matter which now provokes a yawn or a sigh.

This is, it may be said, after all a question of taste. Perhaps. But it can hardly be denied by any critical student of fiction that while Hugo's novel-work has added much splendid matter to literature, it has practically nowhere advanced, nor even satisfactorily exemplified, the art of the novel. It is here as an exception—marvellous, magnificent, and as such to be fully treated; actually an honour to the art of which it discards the requirements, but an exception merely and one which proves, inasmuch as it justifies, the cautions it defies.[123]

FOOTNOTES:

[93] Mr. Swinburne's magnificent paeans are "vatical" certainly, but scarcely critical, save now and then. Mr. Stevenson wrote on the Romances, but not on "the whole."

[94] See note in Vol. I. p. 472 of this History, and in the present volume, sup. p. 40.

[95] These crazes were not in origin, though they probably were in influence, political: Hugo held more than one of them while he was still a Royalist.

[96] She is of course not really Spanish or a gipsy, but is presented as such at first.

[97] Stated in the Preface to Cromwell, the critical division of his fourfold attack on neo-Classicism, as Les Orientales were the poetical, Hernani was the dramatic, and Notre-Dame itself the prose-narrative.

[98] It is scarcely excessive to say that this mixture of wilful temper and unbridled theorising was the Saturnian influence, or the "infortune of Mart," in Hugo's horoscope throughout.

[99] Unless anybody chooses to say that the gallows and the guillotine are Hugo's monsters here.

[100] The failure of the riskiest and most important scene of the whole (where her surrender of herself to Phoebus is counteracted by Frollo's stabbing the soldier, the act itself leading to Esmeralda's incarceration) is glaring.

[101] Le Beau Pecopin in his Rhine-book is, of course, fairly substantial in one sense, but it is only an episode or inset-tale in something else, which is neither novel or romance.

[102] It must be four or five times the length of Scott's average, more than twice that of the longest books with which Dickens and Thackeray used to occupy nearly two years in monthly instalments, and very nearly, if not quite, that of Dumas' longest and most "spun-out" achievements in Monte Cristo, the Vicomte de Bragelonne and La Comtesse de Charny.

[103] I am not forgetting or contradicting what was said above (page 26) of Rene. But Rene does very little except when he kills the she-beavers; Marius is always doing something, and doing it offensively.

[104] The "Je ne sais pas lire" argument has more than once suggested to me a certain historical comparison. There have probably never been in all history two more abominable scoundrels for cold-blooded cruelty, the worst of all vices, than Eccelino da Romano and the late Mr. Broadhead, patron saint and great exemplar of Trade-Unionism. Broadhead could certainly read. Could Ezzelin? I do not know. But if he could not, the Hugonic belief in the efficacy of reading is not strongly supported. If he could, it is definitely damaged.

[105] Vide what is said below on Quatre-Vingt-Treize.

[106] After the lapse of more than half a century some readers may have forgotten, and more may never have heard, the anecdote connected with this. It was rashly and somewhat foolishly pointed out to the poet-romancer himself that the air of "Bonny Dundee" was the very reverse of melancholy, and that he must have mistaken the name. His reply was the most categoric declaration possible of his general attitude, in such cases, "Et moi, je l'appelle 'Bonny Dundee.'" Victor locutus est: causa finita est (he liked tags of not recondite Latin himself). And the leading case governs those of the bug-pipe and the (later) wapentake and justicier-quorum, and all the other wondrous things of which but a few can be mentioned here.

[107] I do not know whether any one has ever attempted to estimate his actual debt to Scott. There are better classics of inquiry, but in the class many worse subjects.

[108] In the opening scene she is something worse. If her writing "Gilliatt" in the snow had been a sort of rustic challenge of the "malo me petit, et fugit ad salices" kind, there might have been something (not much) to say for her. But she did not know Gilliatt; she did not want to know him; and the proceeding was either mere silly childishness, or else one of those pieces of bad taste of which her great creator was unluckily by no means incapable.

[109] I use this adjective in no contumelious sense, and certainly not because I have lived in Guernsey and only visited Jersey. To the impartial denizen of either, the rivalry of the two is as amusing as is that of Edinburgh and Glasgow, of Liverpool and Manchester, or of Bradford and Leeds. But, at any rate at the time of which I am speaking, Jersey was much more haunted by outsiders (in several senses of that word) than Guernsey. Residents—whether for the purposes unblushingly avowed by that sometime favourite of the stage, Mr. Eccles, or for the reasons less horrifying to the United Kingdom Alliance—found themselves more at home in "Caesarea" than in "Sarnia," and the "five-pounder," as the summer tripper was despiteously called by natives, liked to go as far as he could for his money, and found St. Helier's "livelier" than St. Peter Port.

[110] Really good wines were proportionally cheap; but the little isle was not quite so good at beer, except some remarkable old ale, which one small brewery had ventured on, and which my friends of the 22nd Regiment discovered and (very wisely) drank up.—It may surprise honest fanatics and annoy others to hear that, despite the cheapness and abundance of their bugbear, there was no serious crime of any kind in Guernsey during the six years I knew it, and no disorder worth speaking of, even among sailors and newly arrived troops.

[111] The shape of the island; the position of its only "residential" town of any size in the middle of one of the coasts, so that the roads spread fan-wise from it; the absence of any large flat space except in the northern parish of "The Vale"; the geological formation which tends, as in Devonshire, to sink the roads into deep and sometimes "water" lanes; lastly, perhaps, the extreme subdivision of property, which multiplies the ways of communication—these things contribute to this "pedestrian-paradise" character. There are many places where, with plenty of good walking "objectives," you can get to none of them without a disgusting repetition of the same initial grind. In Guernsey, except as regards the sea, which never wearies, there is no such even partial monotony.

[112] It is well known that even among great writers this habit of duplication is often, though very far from always, present. Hugo is specially liable to it. The oddest example I remember is that the approach to the Dutch ship at the end of L'Homme Qui Rit reproduces on the Thames almost exactly the details of the iron gate of the sewers on the Seine, where Thenardier treacherously exposes Valjean to the clutches of Javert, in Les Miserables, though of course the use made of it is quite different.

[113] It must be remembered that this also belongs to the Channel Islands division: and the Angel of the Sea has still some part in it.

[114] Those of Ivanhoe and Kenilworth have enraged pedants and amused the elect for a century. But I do not remember much notice being taken of that jump of half a millennium and one year more in The Talisman, where Count Henry of Champagne "smiles like a sparkling goblet of his own wine." This was in 1192, while the ever-blessed Dom Perignon did not make champagne "sparkle" till 1693. Idolatry may suggest that "sparkling" is a perpetual epithet of wine; but I fear this will not do.

[115] Substitue means "entailed" in technical French. But I know no instance of this kind of "contingent remainder" in England.

[116] A compound (as Victor himself might suggest) of "Hardyknut" and "Sine qua non"? Or "Hardbake"?

[117] He has been found out through the agency of one "Barkilphedro" (Barkis-Phaedrus?), an Irishman of familiar sept, who is "Decanter of the Bottles of the Sea," and who finds, in one of his trovers, a derelict gourd of confession thrown overboard by the Comprachicos when wrecked (in another half-volume earlier) all over the Channel from Portland to Alderney.

[118] Perhaps there is no more conspicuous instance of irritating futility in this way than the famous [Greek: anagke] and [Greek: anagneia] of Notre-Dame. Of course anybody who knows no Greek can see that the first four letters of the two words are the same. But anybody who knows some Greek knows that the similarity is purely literal, such as exists between "Chateaubriand" and "Chat Botte" and that the [Greek: an] has a different origin in the two cases. Moreover, [Greek: anagneia], "uncleanness," is about the last word one would choose to express the liaison of thought—"The dread constraint of physical passion" or "Lust is Fate"—which Hugo wishes to indicate. It is a mere jingle, suggestive of a schoolboy turning over the dictionary.

[119] That the only person at all likely to be "name-father" of this name was not born till a considerable time after his name-child's death would perhaps be worth remarking in another writer. In Hugo it hardly counts.

[120] Let me do even them one justice in this connection. They did not suppose that the only way to make people get up earlier was to make these people's clocks and watches tell lies.

[121] There is a smaller point which might be taken up. Undoubtedly there were many double traitors on both sides in the other Great War. But, like all their kind, they had a knack for being found out. Dumas would, I think, have given us something satisfactory as to the "aristocrat" at Jersey who betrayed the Claymore to the Revolutionary authorities.

[122] It is impossible, with him, not to think of Baudelaire's great line in L'Albatros (which some may have read even before Les Travailleurs)—

"Ses ailes de geant l'empechent de marcher,"

though the sense is not absolutely coextensive.

[123] If I have spoken above "so that the Congregation be thereby offended," let me point out that there is no other way of dealing with the subject critically, except perhaps by leaving a page blank save for such words, in the middle of it, as "Victor Hugo is Victor Hugo; and he is for each reader to take or to leave." He would, I think, have rather liked this; I should not, as a person, dislike it; but I fear it might not suit with my duty as a critic and a historian.



CHAPTER IV

BEYLE AND BALZAC

There may possibly be some readers who might prefer that the two novelists whose names head this chapter should be treated each in a chapter to himself. But after trying several plans (for I can assure such readers that the arrangement of this History has been the reverse of haphazard) I have thought it best to yoke them. That they have more in common with each other, not merely than either has with Hugo or Dumas, or even George Sand, but than either of these three has with the others, few will deny. And as a practising novelist Beyle has hardly substance enough to stand by himself, though as an influence—for a time and that no short one and still existing—scarcely any writer in our whole list has been more efficacious. It is not my purpose, nor, I think, my duty, to say much about their relations to each other; indeed Beyle delayed his novel-work so long, and Balzac codified his own so carefully and so early, that the examination of the question would need to be meticulous, and might even be a little futile in a general history, though it is an interesting subject for a monograph. It is enough to say that, generally, both belong to the analytical rather than to the synthetical branch of novel-writing, and may almost be said between them to have introduced the analytical romance; that they compose their palettes of sombre and neutral rather than of brilliant colours; that actual "story interest" is not what they, as a rule,[124] aim at. Finally—though this may be a proposition likely to be disputed with some heat in one case if not in both—their conception of humanity has a certain "other-worldliness" about it, though it is as far as possible from being what is usually understood by the adjective "unworldly" and though the forms thereof in the two only partially coincide.

[Sidenote: Beyle—his peculiarity.]

Of the books of Henri Beyle, otherwise Stendhal,[125] to say that they are not like anything else will only seem banal to those who bring the banality with them. To annoy these further by opposing pedantry to banality, one might say that the aseity is quintessential. There never—to be a man of great power, almost genius, a commanding influence, and something like the founder of a characteristic school of literature—was such a habitans in sicco as Beyle; indeed his substance and his atmosphere are not so much dry as desiccated. The dryness is not like that which was attributed in the last volume to Hamilton, which is the dryness of wine: it is almost the dryness of ashes. By bringing some humour of your own[126] you may confection a sort of grim comedy out of parts of his work, but that is all. At the same time, he has an astonishing command of such reality, and even vitality, as will (one cannot say survive but) remain over the process of desiccation.

That Beyle was not such a passionless person as he gave himself out to be in his published works was of course always suspected, and more than suspected, by readers with any knowledge of human nature. It was finally proved by the autobiographic Vie de Henri Brulard, and the other remains which were at last given to the world, nearly half a century after the author's death, by M. Casimir Stryienski. But the great part which he played in producing a new kind of novel is properly concerned with the earlier and larger division of the work, though the posthumous stuff reinforces this.

[Sidenote: Armance.]

Some one, I believe, has said—many people may have said—that you never get a much truer notion, though you may afterwards get a clearer and fuller, of a writer than from his earliest work.[127] Armance, Beyle's first published novel,[128] though by no means the one which has received most attention, is certainly illuminating. Or rather, perhaps one should say that it poses the puzzle which Beyle himself put briefly in the words quoted by his editor and biographer: "Qu'ai-j'ete? que suis-je? En verite je serais bien embarrasse de le dire." To tell equal truth, it is but a dull book in itself, surcharged with a vague political spite, containing no personage whom we are permitted to like (it would be quite possible to like Armance de Zohiloff if we were only told less about her and allowed to see and hear more of her), and possessing, for a hero, one of the most obnoxious and foolish prigs that I can remember in any novel. Octave de Malivert unites varieties of detestableness in a way which might be interesting if (to speak with only apparent flippancy) it were made so. He is commonplace in his adoration of his mother and his neglect (though his historian calls it "respect") of his father; he is constantly a prig, as when he is shocked at people for paying more attention to him when they hear that his parents are going to be indemnified to a large extent for the thefts of their property at the Revolution; he is such a sneak and such a snob that he is always eavesdropping to hear what people say about him; such a bounder that he disturbs his neighbours by talking loud at the play; such a brute that he deliberately kills a rather harmless coxcomb of a marquis who rebukes him for making this tapage; and such a still greater brute (for in the duel he had himself been wounded) that he throws out of the window an unfortunate lackey who gets in his way at a party where Octave has, as usual, lost his temper. Finally, he is a combination of prig, sneak, cad, brute, and fool when (having picked up and read a forged letter which is not addressed to him, though it has been put by enemies in his way) he believes, without any enquiry, that his unlucky cousin Armance, to whom he is at last engaged, is deceiving him, but marries her all the same, lives with her (she loves him frantically) for a few days, and then, pretending to go to the succour of the Greeks, poisons himself on board ship—rather more, as far as one can make out, in order to annoy her than for any other reason. That there are the elements, and something more than the elements, of a powerful story in this is of course evident; there nearly always are such elements in Beyle, and that is why he has his place here. But, as has been said, the story is almost as dull as it is disagreeable. Unluckily, too, it is, like most of his other books, pervaded by an unpleasant suggestion that the disagreeableness is intimately connected with the author's own nature. As with Julien Sorel (v. inf.) so with Octave de Malivert, one feels that, though Beyle would never have behaved exactly like his book-child, that book-child has a great deal too much of the uncanny and semi-diabolical doubles of some occult stories in it—is, in fact, an incarnation of the bad Beyle, the seamy side of Beyle, the creature that Beyle might have been but for the grace of that God in whom he did not believe. Which things, however one may have schooled oneself not to let book and author interfere with each other, are not comfortable.

It ought, however, to be said that Armance is an early and remarkable Romantic experiment in several ways, not least in the foreign mottoes, English, Portuguese, Spanish, and German, which are prefixed to the chapters. Unluckily some of them[129] are obviously retranslated from French versions unverified by the originals, and once there is a most curious blunder. Pope's description of Belinda's neck and cross, not quite in the original words but otherwise exact, is attributed to—Schiller!

[Sidenote: La Chartreuse de Parme.]

I have read, I believe, as much criticism as most men, possibly, indeed, a little more than most, and I ought long ago to have been beyond the reach of shocking, startling, or any other movement of surprise at any critical utterance whatsoever. But I own that an access of fou rire once came upon me when I was told in a printed page that La Chartreuse de Parme was a "very lively and very amusing book." A book of great and peculiar power it most undoubtedly is, a book standing out in the formidable genealogy of "psychological" novels as (salva reverentia) certain names stand out from the others in the greater list that opens the first chapter of St. Matthew. But "lively"? and "amusing"? Wondrous hot indeed is this snow, and more lustrous than any ebony are the clerestories towards the south-north of this structure.

[Sidenote: The Waterloo episode.]

[Sidenote: The subject and general colour.]

To begin with, there rests on the whole book that oppression of recit which has been not unfrequently dwelt upon in the last volume, and sometimes this. Of the 440 pages, tightly printed, of the usual reprint, I should say that two-thirds at least are solid, or merely broken by one or two paragraphs, which are seldom conversational. This, it may be said, is a purely mechanical objection. But it is not so. Although the action is laid in the time contemporary with the writer and writing, from the fall of Napoleon onwards, and in the country (Italy) that he knew best, the whole cast and scheme are historical, the method is that of a lecturer at a panorama, who describes and points while the panorama itself passes a long way off behind a screen of clear but thick glass. In two or perhaps three mostly minute parts or scenes this description may seem unjust. One, the first, the longest, and the best, is perhaps also the best-known of all Beyle's work: it is the sketch of the debacle after Waterloo. (It is not wonderful that Beyle should know something about retreats, for, though he was not at Waterloo, he had come through the Moscow trial.) This is a really marvellous thing and intensely interesting, though, as is almost always the case with the author, strangely unexciting. The interest is purely intellectual, and is actually increased by comparison with Hugo's imaginative account of the battle itself; but you do not care the snap of a finger whether the hero, Fabrice, gets off or not. Another patch later, where this same Fabrice is attacked by, and after a rough-and-tumble struggle kills, his saltimbanque rival in the affections of a low-class actress, and then has a series of escapes from the Austrian police on the banks of the Po, has a little more of the exciting about it. So perhaps for some—I am not sure that it has for me—may have the final, or provisionally final, escape from the Farnese Tower. And there is, even outside of these passages, a good deal of scattered incident.

But these interesting plums, such as even they are, are stuck in an enormous pudding of presentation of the intrigues and vicissitudes of a petty Italian court,[130] in which, and in the persons who take part in them, I at least find it difficult to take the very slightest interest. Fabrice del Dongo himself,[131] with whom every woman falls in love, and who candidly confesses that he does not know whether he has ever been really in love with any woman—though there is one possible exception precedent, his aunt, the Duchess of Sanseverina, and one subsequent, Clelia Conti, who saves him from prison, as above—is depicted with extraordinary science of human nature. But it is a science which, once more, excludes passion, humour, gusto—all the fluids of real or fictitious life. Fabrice is like (only "much more also") the simulacra of humanity that were popular in music-halls a few years ago. He walks, talks, fights, eats, drinks, thinks even, and makes love if he does not feel it, exactly like a human being. Except the "fluids" just mentioned, it is impossible to mention anything human that he lacks. But he lacks these, and by not having them lacks everything that moves the reader.

And so it is more or less with all of them: with the Duchess and Clelia least perhaps, but even with them to some extent; with the Duchess's first cicisbeo and then husband, Count Mosca, prime minister of the Duke of Parma; with his master, the feebly cruel and feebly tyrannical Ranuce-Ernest IV.; with the opposition intriguers at court; with the Archbishop, to whom Fabrice is made, by the influence of Count and Duchess, coadjutor and actual successor; with Clelia's father and her very much belated husband—with all of them in short. You cannot say they are "out"; on the contrary they do and say exactly what in the circumstances they would do and say. Their creator's remarks about them are sometimes of a marvellous subtlety, expressed in a laconism which seems to regard Marivaudage or Meredithese with an aristocratic disdain. But at other times this laconic letter literally killeth. Perhaps two examples of the two effects should be given:

(Fabrice has found favour in the eyes and arms of the actress Marietta)

The love of this pretty Marietta gave Fabrice all the charms of the sweetest friendship. And this made him think of the happiness of the same kind which he might have found with the Duchess herself.

If this is not "piercing to the accepted hells beneath" with a diamond-pointed plunger, I know not what is.

But much later, quite towards the end of the book, the author has to tell how Fabrice again and Clelia "forgot all but love" in one of their stolen meetings to arrange his escape.

(He has, by the way, told a lie to make her think he is poisoned)

She was so beautiful—half-dressed and in a state of extreme passion as she was—that Fabrice could not resist an almost involuntary movement. No resistance was opposed.[132]

Now I am not (see Addenda and Corrigenda of the last volume) avid of expatiations of the Laclosian kind. But this is really a little too much of the "Spanish-fleet-taken-and-burnt-as-per-margin" order.

[Sidenote: L'Abbesse de Castro, etc.]

Much the same characteristics, but necessarily on a small scale, appear in the short stories usually found under the title of the first and longest of them, L'Abbesse de Castro. Two of these, Mina de Wangel and Le Philtre, are historiettes of the passion which is absent from La Chartreuse de Parme; but each is tainted with the macabre touch which Beyle affected or which (for that word is hardly fair) was natural to him. In one a German girl of high rank and great wealth falls in love with a married man, separates him from his wife by a gross deception, lives with him for a time; and when he leaves her on finding out the fraud, blows her brains out. In the other a Spanish lady, seduced and maltreated by a creole circus-rider of the worst character, declares to a more honourable lover her incurable passion for the scoundrel and takes the veil. The rest are stories of the Italian Renaissance, grimy and gory as usual. Vittoria Accoramboni herself figures, but there is no evidence that Beyle (although he had some knowledge of English literature[133]) knew at the time our glorious "White Devil," and his story dwells little on her faults and much on the punishment of her murderers. L'Abbesse de Castro itself, La Duchesse de Palliano, San Francesco a Ripa, Vanina Vanini are all of the same type and all full of the gloomier items seen by the Dreamer of Fair Women—

Scaffolds, still sheets of water, divers woes, Ranges of glimmering vaults with iron grates,

and blood everywhere. And these unmerry tales are always recounted ab extra; in fact, many of them are real or pretended abstracts from chronicles of the very kind which furnished Browning with the matter of The Ring and the Book. It is, however, more apt and more curious to compare them with the scenes of Gerard's experiences with the princess in The Cloister and the Hearth, as instances of different handling of the same matter by two novelists of talent almost, if not quite, reaching genius.

[Sidenote: Le Rouge et le Noir.]

This singular aloofness, this separation of subject and spectator by a vast and impenetrable though translucent wall, as in a museum or a morgue, is characteristic of all Beyle's books more or less. In fact, he somewhere confesses—the confession having, as always in persons of anything like his stamp, the nature of a boast—that he cannot write otherwise than in recit, that the broken conversational or dramatic method is impossible to him. But an almost startling change—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say reinforcement—of this method appears in what seems to me by far the most remarkable and epoch-making of his books, Le Rouge et le Noir. That there is a strong autobiographic element in this, though vigorously and almost violently "transposed," must have been evident to any critical reader long ago. It became not merely evident but evidenced by the fresh matter published thirty years since.

[Sidenote: Beyle's masterpiece, and why.]

The book is a long one; it drags in parts; and, long as it is, there is stuff in it for a much longer—indeed preferably for two or three. It is not only a roman passionnel, as Beyle understood passion, not only a collection of Parisian and Provincial scenes, but a romance of secret diplomacy, and one of Seminarist life, with constant side-excursions of Voltairianism, in religion, of the revolutionary element in politics which Voltaire did not ostensibly favour, however much he may have been responsible for it, of private cynicism, and above all and most consistently of all, of that psychological realism, which is perhaps a more different thing from psychological reality than our clever ones for two generations have been willing to admit, or, perhaps, able to perceive.

That—to adopt a division which foolish folk have sneered at directly and indirectly, but which is valuable and almost necessary in the case of second-class literature—it is rather an unpleasant than a pleasant book, must be pretty well apparent from what has been already said of its author and itself. That it is a powerful one follows almost in the same way. But what has to be said, for the first, if not also the last, time in reference to Beyle's fiction, is that it is interesting.

[Sidenote: Julien Sorel and Mathilde de la Mole.]

The interest depends almost entirely—I really do not think it would be rash to say entirely—upon the hero and one of the heroines. The other personages are dramatically and psychologically competent, but Beyle has—perhaps save in one or two cases intentionally—made them something of comparses or "supers." There may be two opinions about the other heroine, Madame de Renal, Julien Sorel's first and last love, his victim in two senses and directly the cause of his death, though he was not directly the cause of hers. She seems to me merely what the French call a femmelette, feebly amorous, feebly fond of her children, feebly estranged from and unfaithful to her husband, feebly though fatally jealous of and a traitress to her lover—feebly everything. Shakespeare or Miss Austen[134] could have made such a character interesting, Beyle could not. Nor do the other "seconds"—Julien's brutal peasant father and brothers, the notables of Verrieres, the husband, M. de Renal (himself a gentillatre, as well as a man of business, a bully, and a blockhead), and the hero's just failure of a father-in-law, the Marquis de la Mole—seem to me to come up to the mark. But, after all, they furnish forth the action, and are necessary in their various ways to set forth the character of that hero and his second love, almost in the mediaeval sense his wife and his widow, Mathilde de la Mole, heiress, great lady, fille folle de son corps, and, in a kind of way, Queen Whims.

Julien Sorel, allowance being made for his date, is one of the most remarkable heroes of fiction. He is physically handsome, in fact beautiful,[135] intellectually very clever, and possessed, in especial, of a marvellous memory; also, though not well educated early, capable of learning anything in a very short time—but presented in these favourable lights without any exaggeration. A distinguished Lord Justice was said by his admirers, at the beginning of his manhood, to have obtained more marks in examinations than any youthful person in the United Kingdom: and Julien, with equal opportunities, would probably have done the same in France. Morally, in no limited sense of the word, he does not possess a single good quality, and does possess most bad ones, with the possible exceptions of gluttony and avarice. That, being in each case a family tutor or employe under trust, he seduces the wife of his first employer and the daughter of the second, cannot, in the peculiar circumstances, be said to count. This is, as it were, the starting-point, the necessary handicap, in the competition of this kind of novel. It is as he is, and in reference to what he does, after this is put aside, that he has to be considered. He is not a stage villain, though he has the peculiar, and in the circumstances important, if highly-to-be-deprecated habit of carrying pocket-pistols. He is not a Byronic hero with a terrible but misty past. He is not like Valmont of the Liaisons Dangereuses,[136] a professional and passionless lady-killer. He is not a swindler nor (though he sometimes comes near to this also) a conspirator like Count Fosco of The Woman in White. One might make a long list of such negatives if it were worth while. He is only an utterly selfish, arrogant, envious, and generally bad-blooded[137] young man, whom circumstances partly, and his own misdeeds helping them, first corrupt and then destroy. You never sympathise with him for one moment, except in a peculiar fashion to be noted presently; but at the same time he neither quite bores you nor quite disgusts you. Homo est, and it is Beyle's having made him so that makes Beyle a sort of genius and much more than a sort of novelist.

But I am not certain that Mathilde is not even a greater creation, though again it is, except quite towards the end, equally impossible to like her. Femina est, though sometimes furens, oftener still furiosa (in a still wider sense than that in which Mr. Norris has[138] ingeniously "feminated" Orlando Furioso), and, in part of her conduct already alluded to, as destitute of any morality as Julien himself. Although there could hardly be (and no doubt had better not be) many like her, she is real and true, and there are not a few redeeming features in her artistically and even personally. She is, as has been said, both rich and noble, the famous lover of the third Valois Marguerite being an (I suppose collateral) ancestor of hers.[139] Her father is not merely a patrician but a Minister at the close of the French Restoration; she may marry any one she likes; and has, in fact, a train of admirers whom she alternately cajoles and snubs. Julien is taken into the household as half private secretary, half librarian; is especially favoured by her father, and treated by her brother (one of Beyle's few thoroughly good fellows) almost on equal terms. But his bad blood and his want of breeding make him stiff and mysterious, and Mathilde takes a perverse fancy to him, the growth of which is skilfully drawn. Although she is nothing so little as a Lelia or an Indiana or a Valentine (vide next chapter), she is idiosyncratically romantic, and at last it is a case of ladders up to the window, "the irreparable," and various wild performances on her part and her lover's. But this is all comparatively banal. Beyle's touch of genius only reappears later. An extraordinary but (when one comes to think of it) not in the least unnatural series of "ups and downs" follows. Julien's bad blood and vulgar nature make him presume on the advantage he has obtained; Mathilde's morgue and hot-headedness make her feel degraded by what she has given. She neglects him and he becomes quite frantic about her; he takes sudden dudgeon and she becomes frantically desirous of him. This spiritual or emotional man-and-woman-in-the-weather-house business continues; but at last, with ambages and minor peripeteias impossible to abstract, it so comes about that the great and proud Marquis de La Mole, startlingly but not quite improbably, chooses to recognise this traitor and seducer as a possible by-blow of nobility, gets him a commission, endows him handsomely, and all but gives his consent to a marriage.

Then the final revolution comes. With again extraordinary but, as it is told, again not inconceivable audacity, Julien refers for character to his first mistress in both senses, Madame de Renal, and she "gives him away." The marquis breaks off the treaties, and Julien, leaving his quarters, journeys down to Verrieres and shoots Madame de Renal (with the pocket-pistols) in church. She does not die, and is not even very seriously wounded; but he is tried, is (according, it would seem, to a state of French law, which contrasts most remarkably with one's recent knowledge of it) condemned, and after a time is executed for a murder which has not been committed. Mathilde (who is to bear him a child and always considers herself his wife) and Madame de Renal both visit him in prison, the former making immense efforts to save him. But Julien, consistently with his character all through, is now rather bored by Mathilde and exceedingly fond of Madame de Renal, who dies shortly after him. What becomes of Mathilde we are not told, except that she devotes herself to her paulo-post-future infant. The mere summary may seem rather preposterous; the book is in a way so. But it is also, in no ordinary sense, once more real and true. It has sometimes been regarded as a childish, but I believe it to be a true, criterion of novels that the reader should feel as if he would like to have had personal dealings with the personages. I should very much like to have shot[140] Julien Sorel, though it would have been rather an honour for him. And I should very much like to have made Mathilde fall in love with me. As for Madame de Renal, she was only good for suckling fools and telling tales out of school. But I do not find fault with Beyle for drawing her, and she, too, is very human.

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

[Sidenote: The resuscitated work—Lamiel.]

The question, "Would a novelist in altered circumstances have given us more or better novels?" is sometimes treated as ultra vires or nihil ad rem on the critic's part. I myself have been accused rather of limiting than of extending the province of the literary critic; yet I think this question is, sometimes at least, in place. If so, it can seldom be more in place than with Beyle, first because of the unusually mperfect character of his actual published work; and secondly, because of the still more unusual abundance of half-done work, or of fragments of self-criticism, which what has been called the "Beyle resurrection" of the close of the last century has furnished. Indeed the unfinished and scarcely more than half-drafted novel of Lamiel almost by itself suggests the question and supplies the answer. That answer—except from favourers of the grime-novel which, oddly enough, whether by coincidence or common causation became so popular at about the time of this "resurrection"—can hardly be favourable. Lamiel is a very grubby little book. The eponymous heroine is adopted as a child by a parish beadle and his wife, who do not at all maltreat her, except by bringing her up in ways of extreme propriety, which she detests, taking delight in the histories of Mandrin, Cartouche and Co. At early maidenhood she is pitched upon as lectrice, and in a way favourite, by the great lady of the neighbourhood, the Duchess of Miossens; and in this position first attracts the attention of a peculiarly diabolical little dwarf doctor, who, bar the comic[142] element, reminds one rather of Quilp. His designs are, however, baulked in a most Beylian manner; for Lamiel (who, by a pleasing chance, was at first called "Amiel"—a delightfully other Amiel!) coolly bestows some money upon a peasant to "teach her what love is," and literally asks the Gebirian question about the ocean, "Is this all?" after receiving the lesson. Further, in the more and more unfinished parts of the book, she levants for a time with the young duke, quits him, becomes a professional hetaera in Paris, but never takes any fancy to the business of her avocation till she meets an all-conquering criminal, Valbayre.[143] The scenario tells us that, Valbayre having been caught by justice, she sets fire to the Palace thereof, and her own bones are discovered in the ashes.

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

[Sidenote: The Nouvelles Inedites.]

The Vie de Henri Brulard, of high importance for a History of Novelists, is in strictness outside the subject of a historian of the Novel, though it might be adduced to strengthen the remarks made on Rousseau's Confessions.[144] And the rest of the "resurrected" matter is also more autobiographical, or at best illustrative of Beyle's restless and "masterless" habit of pulling his work to pieces—of "never being able to be ready" (as a deservedly unpopular language has it)—than contributory to positive novel-achievement. But the first and by far the most substantive of the Nouvelles Inedites, which his amiable but not very strong-minded literary executor, Colomb, published soon after his death, needs a little notice.

[Sidenote: Le Chasseur Vert.]

Le Chasseur Vert[145] (which had three other titles, three successive prefaces, and in its finished, or rather unfinished, form is the salvage of five folio volumes of MS., the rest being at best sketched and at worst illegible) contains, in what we have of it, the account of the tribulations of a young sub-lieutenant of Lancers (with a great deal of money, a cynical but rather agreeable banker-papa, an adoring mother, and the record of an expulsion from the Polytechnique for supposed Republicanism) suddenly pitchforked into garrison, soon after the Revolution of July, at Nancy. Here, in the early years of the July monarchy, the whole of decent society is Legitimist; a very small but not easily suppressible minority Republican; while officialdom, civil and military, forms a peculiar juste milieu, supporting itself by espionage and by what Their Majesties of the present moment, the Trade Unions, call "victimisation," but in a constant state of alarm for its position, and "looking over its shoulder" with a sort of threefold squint, at the white flag, the eagles—and the guillotine. Nothing really happens, but it takes 240 pages to bring us to an actual meeting between Lieutenant Lucien Leeuwen and his previously at distance adored widow, the Marquise de Chasteller.

The book is not a very good novel, even as a fragment, and probably nothing would ever have made it so as a whole. But there is good novel-stuff in it, and it is important to a student of the novel and almost indispensable to a student of this novelist. Of the cynical papa—who, when his son comes to him in a "high-falutin" mood, requests him to go to his (the papa's) opera-box, to replace his sire with some agreeable girl-officials of that same institution, and to spend at least 200 francs on a supper for them at the Rocher—one would gladly see more. Of the barrack (or rather not-barrack) society at Nancy, the sight given, though not agreeable, is interesting, and to any one who knew something of our old army, especially before the abolition of purchase, very curious. There is no mess-room and apparently no common life at all, except on duty and at the "pension" hotel-meals, to which,—rather, it would seem, at the arbitrary will of the colonel than by "regulation,"—you have to subscribe, though you may, and indeed must, live in lodgings exactly like a particulier. Of the social-political life of the place we see rather too much, for Beyle, not content with making the politics which he does not like make themselves ridiculous—or perhaps not being able to do so—himself tells us frequently that they are ridiculous, which is not equally effective. So also, instead of putting severe or "spiritual" speeches in Lucien's mouth, he tells us that they were spiritual or severe, an assurance which, of course, we receive with due politeness, but which does not give us as much personal delectation as might be supplied by the other method. No doubt this and other things are almost direct results of that preference for recit over semi-dramatic evolution of the story by deed and word, which has been noticed. But they are damaging results all the same: and, after making the fairest allowance for its incomplete condition, the thing may be said to support, even more than Lamiel does, the conclusion already based upon the self-published stories (and most of all upon that best of them, Le Rouge et le Noir) that Beyle could never have given us a thoroughly hit-off novel.

[Sidenote: Beyle's place in the story.]

Still, there is always something unfair in making use of "Remains," and for my part I do not think that, unless they are of extraordinary merit, they should ever be published. "Death should clear all scores" in this way as in others. Yet no really critical person will think the worse of Beyle's published work because of these anecdota, though they may, as actually before us, be taken as throwing some light on what is not so good in the publicata. There can be no doubt that Beyle occupies a very important position in the history of the novel, and not of the French novel only, as the first, or almost the first, analyst of the ugly for fictitious purposes, and as showing singular power in his analysis. Unfortunately his synthetic gifts were not equally great. He had strange difficulty in making his stories march; he only now and then got them to run; and though the real life of his characters has been acknowledged, it is after all a sort of "Life-in-Death," a new manifestation of the evil power of that mysterious entity whom Coleridge, if he did not discover, first named and produced in quasi-flesh, though he left us without any indication of more than one tiny and accidental part of her dread kingdom.

He has thus the position of pere de famille, whether (to repeat the old joke) of a famille deplorable in the moral, not the sentimental, sense, must, I suppose, be left matter of opinion. The plentiful crop of monographs about him since M. Stryienski's Pompeian explorations and publications is in a manner—if only in a manner—justified by the numerous followers—not always or perhaps often conscious followers, and so even more important—in his footsteps. Nobody can say that the picaresque novelists, whether in their original country or when the fashion had spread, were given to berquinades or fairy-tales. Nobody can say that the tale-writers who preceded and followed them were apostles of virtue or painters of Golden-Age scenes. But, with some exceptions (chiefly Italian) among the latter, they did not, unless their aim were definitely tragical—an epithet which one could show, on irrefragable Aristotelian principles, to be rarely if ever applicable to Beyle and his school—they did not, as the common phrase goes, "take a gloomy view" only. There were cakes and ale; and the cakes did not always give internal pains, nor the ale a bad headache. As even Hazlitt (who has been selected, not without reason, as in many ways like Beyle) said of himself on his death-bed, rather to some folks' surprise though not to mine, most of the characters "had a happy life," though the happiness might be chequered: and some of them were "good." It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that in Beyle's books happiness does not exist, and virtue has hardly a place. There are some characters who may be said to be neutral or "on the line"; they may be not definitely unhappy or definitely bad. But this is about as far as he ever goes in that direction. And accordingly he and his followers have the fault of one-sidedness; they may (he did) see life steadily, but they do not see it whole. There is no need to preach a sermon on the text: in this book there is full need to record the fact.[146]

* * * * *

[Sidenote: Balzac—conditions of the present dealing.]

In dealing with Beyle's greater companion here there are certain things—not exactly difficulties, but circumstances conditioning the treatment—which should be stated. That it is well to know something about your subject has been an accepted doctrine with all save very young persons, idle paradoxers, and (according to Sir Walter Scott) the Scottish Court of Session in former days.[147] That it is also well not to know too much about it has sometimes been maintained, without any idleness in either sense of the word; the excess being thought likely to cause weariness, "staleness," and absence of interest. If this were necessarily so, it might be better for the writer once more to leave this part of the chapter (since at least the heading of it could not possibly be omitted in the history) a blank or a constellation of asterisks in Sternian fashion. For it has fallen to his lot to translate one whole novel of Balzac's,[148] to edit a translation of the entire Comedie,[149] superintending some of the volumes in narrow detail, and studying each in short, but (intentionally at least) thorough Introductions, with a very elaborate preface-study of the whole; to read all Balzac's rather voluminous miscellanea from the early novel-attempts to posthumous things, including letters; and, finally, to discuss the subject once more, with the aid or burden of many previous commentaries, in a long Review article.[150] Nevertheless, he does not feel that any disgust forbids while a clear duty calls: and he hopes to show that it is not always necessary to weary of quails as in the Biblical, partridges as in the old fabliau, and pigeons in the Dumas fils (v. inf.) version of the Parable of Satiety.

[Sidenote: Limitations of Subject.]

In no case, however, not even in that of Victor Hugo, is the easement given by the general plan of the book, in regard to biographical and other not strictly literary details, more welcome. We shall say nothing on the point whether the author of the Comedie Humaine should be called M. de Balzac or M. Balzac or M. Balssa; nothing about his family, his friends, his enemies, his strangely long-deferred, and, when it came, as strangely ill-fated marriage; little, though something necessarily, about his tastes, his commercial and other enterprises, and so forth; and not very much—something here also becoming obligatory—on his manner of producing the immense and wonderful work which he has left us. Those who are curious about such things will find ample satisfaction in the labours of M. Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, of MM. Christophe and Cerfbeer, and of others.[151] Here he is, for us, Honore de Balzac, author of the Juvenilia (saved from, as it is understood, a larger bulk still) in ten volumes; of the mighty "Comedy" itself, and, more incidentally, of the considerable epistolary and miscellaneous production referred to above. The manner in which this enormous output was put out has perhaps too much to do with its actual character to be passed over in total silence. It represents thirty years' working time almost entirely spent upon it,[152] the alternatives being the above-mentioned commercial speculations (which were almost invariably unfortunate, and involved him, during the whole of his career, in complicated indebtedness) and a good deal of travel, very frequently connected with these speculations. Of the society which formed so large a part of the life of the time and of which he wrote so often, Balzac saw little. He worked at enormous stretches, and he rewrote his work, in MS., in proof and in temporarily final print, with insatiable and indefatigable industry. To no writer could the commonplace extravagance about burning the candle at both ends be applied so truly as to Balzac. Only, his candle was shaped like a wheel with no felloes, and he burnt it at the end of every spoke and at the nave as well. How he managed to last, even to fifty, is one of the major curiosities of literary biography.

[Sidenote: And of Balzac himself.]

Of the three divisions of this vast but far from chaotic production, the miscellaneous, of course, concerns us least. It shows Balzac as a failure of a dramatist, a critic of very varying competence,[153] not a particularly effective writer merely as such, not possessed of much logical power, but having pretty wide interests and abundantly provided with what we may call the odd tools of the novelist's workshop. As a correspondent his writing has absolutely none of what may be called the "departmental" interest of great letter-writers—of Madame de Sevigne or Lady Mary, of Horace Walpole or Cowper; its attraction is not epistolary but wholly autobiographic. And it is only fair to say that, despite Balzac's immense and intense self-centredness, it leaves one on the whole with a much better opinion of him as a man than might be derived from his books or from the anecdotes about him. To adapt one of the best known of these, there was, in fact, nothing real to him but Honore de Balzac, Honore de Balzac's works and schemes, and, in rare cases (of which Madame Hanska was the chief), Honore de Balzac's loves. These constituted his subject, his universe of thought and feeling, of action and passion. But at the same time he stands apart from all the other great egotists. He differs from those of whom Byron is the chief in that he does not introduce himself prominently in his fictitious creations. He does not, like those who may take their representative in Goethe, regard everything merely as it relates to his personality. His chief peculiarity, his unique literary character, and, it may be added at once, his greatness and his weakness, all consist in the fact that he evolves a new world out of himself. Now and then he may have taken an actual human model—George Sand, Madame d'Agoult, Madame de Castries, Liszt, Latouche,[154] Remusat—as many others as anybody likes. But always these had not merely to receive the Balzacian image and superscription, but to be transmuted into creatures of a Balzacium Sidus. And it is the humanity of this planet or system, much more than of our world, whereof his Comedie is the Comedy—a Comedie Balzacienne.

[Sidenote: Balzac's "general ideas."]

But, it has been said, and the saying has been attributed to no less a critic than M. Faguet, there are no "general ideas" in Balzac.[155] One can only reply, "Heavens! Why should there be?" The celebrated unreason of "going to a gin-palace for a leg of mutton" (already quoted, and perhaps to be quoted again) is sound and sensible as compared with asking general ideas from a novelist. They are not quite absolutely forbidden to him, though he will have to be very careful lest they get in his way. But they are most emphatically not his business, except as very rare and very doubtful means to a quite different end, means absolutely insufficient by themselves and exceedingly difficult to combine with the other means which—more or fewer of them—are not only sufficient but necessary. The "slice of human life," not necessarily, but preferably ordinary, presenting probable and interesting characters, connected by sufficient plot, diversified and adorned by descriptive and other devices, and abundantly furnished with the conversation of men and women of this world, the whole forming such a whole as will amuse, thrill, affect, and in other ways, to use the all-important word once more, interest the reader,—that is what is wanted. And this definition is as rigid at least as the Aristotelian definition of tragedy and perhaps more exhaustive, as concerns the novel, including, with the necessary modifications, the romance—and the romance, including, with the necessary modifications, the novel. In it "general ideas," unless a very special and not at all usual meaning is attached to the term, can have no right of place. They may be brought in, as almost anything may be brought in if the writer is Samson enough to bring it. But they cannot be demanded of him as facts, images, emotions, style, and a very large number of other things can or may be, not, of course, all at once, but in larger or smaller selection. General ideas may and perhaps should be demanded from the philosopher, the historian, the political student. From the poet and the novelist they cannot be. And that they should be so demanded is one of the chief instances of what seems to the present writer to be the greatest mistake of French novel, as of other, criticism—its persistent relapse upon the rule-system and its refusal to judge by the result.[156]

It is all the more unreasonable to demand general ideas from Balzac himself, because he is so liberal of general imagery, and what is more, general prosopopoeia. Be the Balzacian world real, as some would have it to be, or be it removed from our mundane reality by the subtle "other-planetary" influence which is apparent to others, its complexity, its fullness, its variety, its busy and by no means unsystematic life and motion, cannot be denied. Why on earth cannot people be content with asking Platonism from Plato and Balzacity from Balzac? At any rate, it is Balzacity which will be the subject of the following pages, and if anybody wants anything else let him go elsewhere.

[Sidenote: Abstinence from abstract.]

There is hardly likely to be much grumbling at the absence of such detailed abstract or survey of individual books as has been given in cases of what may seem to be much less importance. To begin with, such a survey as is possible[157] exists already from these hands in the Introductions to the translated edition above referred to, and to paraphrase or refashion it here would probably occupy a hundred pages, if not more. Nor would the plan, elsewhere adopted, of analysing afresh one, or two, or more examples, as representative, be satisfactory. Although Balzac is in a sense one of the most intensely individual of all novelists, his individuality, as in a very few others of the greatest cases, cannot be elicited from particular works. Just as Hamlet will give you no idea of the probable treatment of As You Like It, so Eugenie Grandet contains no key to La Cousine Bette. Even the groups into which he himself rather empirically, if not quite arbitrarily, separated the Comedie, though they lend themselves a little more to specification, do not yield very much to the classifier. The Comedie, once more, is a world—a world open to the reader, "all before him." Chronological order may tell him a little about Balzac, but it will not tell him very much about Balzac's work that he cannot gain from the individual books, except in the very earliest stages. There is no doubt that the Oeuvres de Jeunesse, if not very delightful to the reader (I have myself read them not without pleasure), are very instructive; the instruction increases, while the pleasure is actually multiplied, when you come to Les Chouans and the Peau de Chagrin. But it is, after a fashion, only beyond these that the true Balzac begins, and the beginning is, to a large extent, a reaction from previous work in consequence of a discovery that the genius, without which he had acknowledged that it was all up with him,[158] did not lie that way, and that he had no hope of finding it there. Not that there is no genius in the two books mentioned; on the contrary, it is there first to be found, and in La Peau is of the first order. But their ways are not the ways in which he was to find it—and himself—more specially.

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