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The Minor French Novelists by By Henry James

 

I.

SAINTE-BEUVE, whose literary judgments are always worth noting, whether they strike us as correct or not, has somewhere a happy sentence about Charles de Bernard—-about “that ease and irresponsible grace which was the gift of this first of Balzac's pupils—-of him who might have been superior to the master if a pupil ever was so, and especially if he had done more—-if, in short, he had lived.” I call these words happy in spite of their slight fundamental unsoundness. Charles de Bernard was only in a very imperfect sense a pupil of Balzac. His style has as little as possible in common with that of his great contemporary, and he is guilty of no visible attempt to tread in his footsteps. The two writers belong to two very distinct categories—-Balzac to the type of mind that takes things hard and Charles de Bernard to the type of mind that takes things easy. The author of “Gerfaut” was Balzac's protégé rather than his pupil, and though we have Sainte-Beuve's affirmation that Balzac's literary vanity was the “most gross and rapacious” he had ever known, it does not appear that he took umbrage at his “pupil's” ripening talent. How many budding reputations Balzac may have endeavoured to drive to the wall, we are of course unable to say; but there are at least two recorded cases of his extending to unfriended genius an open hand. When Stendhal, who for a long time was at once the most powerful and the most obscure of romancers, published his “Chartreuse de Parme,” Balzac greeted the book in a long, florid, redundant review, with a series of the handsomest compliments that one literary man ever paid to another. And his admiration was perfectly sincere; the artist was captivated by the artist. In a similar fashion, in 1834, when Charles de Bernard, after coming up to Paris from his native Besançon, to seek his literary fortune, and quite failing to find it, had returned to his provincial nest in some discouragement, Balzac, struck with the promise of a volume of verse which had been the principal result of his excursion, sought him out, urged him to try again, and gave him some fraternal literary advice. He “started” him, as the phrase is. It is true that he started him left foot foremost, and his advice has a singular sound. He recommended him to try his hand at historical novels—-something in the line of Walter Scott. Fortunately Charles de Bernard had taken his own measure. He began to write tales, but they were anything but historical. They were short stories of the day, in the lightest style of improvisation. “Gerfaut,” his first regular novel, and on the whole his best, alone reveals some traces of Balzac's advice. There is an old castle, and a good deal of killing, a secret closet in the wall, and a very good portrait of a feudal nobleman born too late.

Charles de Bernard has at the present day hardly more than an historical value, and his novels are not to be recommended to people who have anything of especial importance at hand to read. But in speaking of the secondary French novelists it is but fair to allow him a comfortable niche, for if he is not especially worth looking up, he at least leaves you a very friendly feeling for him if he comes in your way. He is old-fashioned, exploded, ineffectively realistic; his cleverness is not the cleverness of the present hour; his art and his artifice seem a trifle primitive and meagre; and yet for all that he is more enjoyable than many of his highly perfected modern successors. If the prime purpose of a novel is to give us pleasure, Charles de Bernard is a better novelist than Gustave Flaubert. “Gerfaut” and “Les Ailes d'Icare” proceed doubtless from a very much less powerful and original mind than “Madame Bovary”; but they are at any rate works of entertainment, of amenity. “Realism,” as we understand it now, has been invented since this writer's day, and however much one may admire and applaud it, we cannot but feel that it was a good fortune for a charming story-teller to have come a little before it. And since Balzac has been mentioned, it may really be said that when it comes to being agreeable Charles de Bernard need not shrink from comparison with even so imposing a name. He is slight and loose in tissue, pale in colouring; in a word, a second-rate genius. Balzac is a genius of all time; he towers and overshadows; and yet if half a dozen volumes of each writer were standing on your shelf, and you felt an impulse to taste of the sweets of fiction, you were wiser to take down Charles de Bernard than Balzac. The writer of these lines feels for the author of “Gerfaut” that particular kindness which many people who relish the beautiful qualities of the French mind in their purity entertain for the talents which flourished and fell before the second empire set its seal upon things. It is not taking the matter too tragically to say that Charles de Bernard just escaped. Certainly many of the brilliant writers of the same generation have lived through the empire and held their own against it. To George Sand and Victor Hugo the empire could give nothing, and it could take nothing away from them. But Charles de Bernard was not of that calibre; he ranks, in the degree of his talent, with the Feydeaus, the Octave Feuillets, the Edmond Abouts of literature. Readers who appreciate shades of difference, and who, while they admire the extreme cleverness of these writers, find something that defies personal sympathy in their tone, will discover a great deal to relish in Charles de Bernard. Whether he too would have been corrupted, and his easy, natural manner would have learned the perversities and sophistries of the “decadence,” is more than I can say. At any rate, fortune was kind to him; she never gave him a chance. She broke him smoothly off, and in compensation for the brevity of his career she made him a type of some of the agreeable things that were about to pass away. He may represent, to an imaginative critic, the old French cleverness as distinguished from the new. The lightness, the ease, the gayety, the urbanity, the good taste, the good spirits, the discretion—-of all those charming things that have traditionally marked the cultivated French character at its best Charles de Bernard is an excellent illustration. And he exhibits them in no antique, angular form; he is modern; he is of his time; and they have had a chance to blossom and expand to the height of the modern tone. But he seems to me the last of the light writers in whom these gifts are fresh and free. In the later generation the tone undergoes an indefinable transformation. The cleverness is greater than ever, but the charm is gone; the music is elaborate, but the instrument is cracked. The note grows strident, the sweet savour turns acrid. The gayety becomes forced and hard and the urbanity ironical; the lightness turns to levity. Charles de Bernard answers to one's notion of the Frenchman of an earlier date, who was before all things good company—-who had in a supreme degree the sociable virtues. Thackeray, in his “Paris Sketch-Book,” devotes a chapter to him (he was then a contemporary), and gives an abstract of one of his novels. He evidently relished this urbane quality in him, and I remember even to have seen it somewhere affirmed that he had taken him for his model, and declared that it was the height of his own ambition to do for English society what Charles de Bernard had done for French. This last strikes me as a rather apocryphal tale; Charles de Bernard was a satirist, but his satire is to that of “Vanity Fair” what lemonade is to prime Burgundy. In Thackeray there are, morally, many Charles de Bernards. It is as against Eugène Sue and George Sand (whom he seems rather unphilosophically to lump together) that he praises the author of “Les Ailes d'Icare,” and he especially commends his gentlemanly tone. The “gentlemanly tone,” with its merits and limitations, is an incontestable characteristic of our author. It may be said that in a thoroughly agreeable style good breeding is never an aggressive quality, and that a gentleman who keeps reminding you that he is a gentleman is a very ambiguous personage. But Charles de Bernard is gentlemanly by juxtaposition, as it were. He quietly goes his way, and it is only when you compare his gait with his neighbours that you see how very well he holds himself. The truth is, that many of his companions in this matter swagger most damnably; and here again, curiously (to return to Balzac), is another point at which the small man is superior to the great. The tone of good breeding Balzac never in any degree possessed; the greatest genius in his line conceivable, he was most absolutely and positively not a gentleman. He sweats blood and water to appear one, but his effort only serves to betray more vividly his magnificent bourgeois temperament. M. de Pontmartin, the author of the biographical sketch prefixed to the collected edition of Charles de Bernard's novels, has some rather felicitous remarks, upon the difference, in this respect, between his hero and the latter's rivals. “Eugène Sue and Alexandre Dumas, who have had their phase of rubbing shoulders (or of trying to) with the aristocracy, their repeated attempts at flattery and advances to what the hairdressers and the milliners call the 'monde élégant,' have never been able to produce anything but caricatures when they endeavoured to represent it. Its doors were open to them; they found a passport in the irresistible although imprudent curiosity of its members; the models were there in position, before their eyes; they were dying with the desire to persuade their readers that they lived the same life and breathed the same air; that they were not naturalized, but indigenous. No expenditure of dazzling description, bespangled with armorial mottoes and shields; no female portraits à la Lawrence, smothered in silk, and lace, and velvet; no inventories of coach-makers and architects, tailors and jewellers—-nothing of all this was spared. But, alas, it might have been; the struggle was vain! The false note sounded in the finest place—-the long ear peeped out of the thickest of the lions skin.” This is very well though it is painful to have to record that M. de Pontmartin too, who understands the matter so well, has been accused of snobbery by no less acute a literary detective than Sainte-Beuve. But Charles de Bernard, though he often wrote of the monde élégant, was emphatically not a snob. The point of view of the man who is conscious of good blood in his veins was the one he instinctively took; but in dealing with the people and things that usually excite the snobbish passion, he is always perfectly simple. He is never pretentious; he is easy, natural, and impartially civil.

His literary career was very short; his novels were all published between 1838 and 1847—-a period of nine years. His life was uneventful; it was altogether in his works. The author of the short memoir I have mentioned notes the singular fact that although his novels are essentially what are called novels of manners, he led a secluded life and went very little into the world. Gayety and hilarity abound in his tales, and yet M. de Pontmartin intimates that the man himself was rather sombre. “He had long had the good taste to prefer domestic life to the vie de salon, and in the evening he liked much better to remain with his wife and children than to go into the world in pursuit of models and originals. And nevertheless, muffled in from the outer world, inaccessible or deaf to its sounds, solitary, almost misanthropic, he seems to have listened at doors or painted from nature. He guessed what he did not see; he heard what he did not listen to!” He had this mark of a man of genius—-he divined. His literary personality was apparently quite distinct from his private one, and this, taken in connection with the extreme facility and neatness of his style, entitles him in a measure to be called a man of genius. His inspiration was his own, and he was an excellent writer. If his inspiration was his own, however, it must be added that it was never of a very high order. The most general praise one can give his novels is that they are extremely amusing. The humour is neither broad nor coarse; it is always discriminating, and it is often delicate; but it is humour of the second-rate sort. It is not rich nor suggestive; your entertainment begins and ends with your laugh. Many of his tales are very short, so that half a dozen go into a volume. These are always highly readable, and if you begin one you will be sure to finish it. The best of his novels, “Les Ailes d'Icare,” “Un Homme Sérieux,” “Le Gentilhomme Campagnard,” are no less clever; and yet it may be that here and there an even well-disposed render will lay them down at the end of a hundred pages. For a serious writer, he will say, you are really too light; it is all too smooth and shallow, too much arranged. Once at least, however, in “Gerfaut,” Charles de Bernard seems to have felt the impulse to grasp a subject nearer its roots. In spite of a number of signs of immaturity, this is his solidest and most effective work. His tales are usually comedies; this is a tragedy. The reader cares little for his hero, who is a gentleman of a type excessively familiar in French literature—-a distinguished man of letters, of restless imagination, who comes down to the Château de Bergenheim for the express purpose of seducing its pretty mistress, and who, when installed among its comforts, and smothered in hospitality by the husband, proceeds in the most scientific manner to bombard the affections of the wife. Nor are we much more interested in Mme. de Bergenheim herself, who surrenders after a barely nominal siege, and without having at all convinced us that her affections are worth possessing. But the book, in spite of a diffuseness of which afterward the author was rarely guilty, is written with infinite spirit and point, and some of the subordinate figures are forcibly and wittily sketched. Nothing could be lighter and more picturesquely humorous than the portrait of Marillac, the irrepressible Bohemian and fidus Achates of “Gerfaut.” “Talent apart, Marillac was an artist tooth and nail—-an artist from the point, or rather from the plateau of his great crop of hair to the tips of his boots, which he would have liked to pull out to the mediaeval longitude; for he excelled especially in dressing for his profession, and possessed the longest moustaches of literature. If he had no great amount of art in his brain, he had at least its name perpetually in his mouth. Art!—-to pronounce the word he rounded his lips like M. Jourdain saying O! Farces or pictures, poetry or music, he did a bit of everything, like a horse who is warranted good either for the shafts or the saddle. When he came out of the musical shafts he bravely got into the literary harness, which he considered his veritable vocation and his principal glory. He signed his name 'Marillac, man of letters.' Nevertheless, in spite of a profound disdain for the bourgeois, whom he always spoke of as a grocer, and for the French Academy, to which he had taken an oath never to belong, one could accuse him of no serious defects. One could forgive him being an artist before everything, in spite of everything, an artist—-damnation!” A still better image is that of Christian de Bergenheim, the husband of the decidedly inexpensive heroine. It reads, for definiteness and vigour, like a page torn from Balzac. “He was one of those men whom Napoleon had in some sort brought to life again—-the type which had been gradually dying out since the feudal ages; a man of action exclusively, spending nothing superfluous in imagination or sensibility, and, on momentous occasions, never letting his soul travel further than the swing of his sabre. The complete absence of that sense which most people call morbid irritability and others poetry had caused the springs of his character to keep their native hardness and stiffness. His soul lacked wings to leave the world of the real; but this incapacity had its compensation. It was impossible to apply a more vigorous arm than his to anything that came under the head of material resistance. He lived neither yesterday nor to-morrow; he lived to-day. Of small account before or after, he displayed at the critical moment an energy the more powerful that no waste, no leakage of untimely emotion, had diminished its force. The few ideas contained in his brain had become clear, hard, and impenetrable, like diamonds. By the inner light of these fixed stars he walked in all things, as one walks in the sunshine, his head erect, straight before him, ready to crush with his foot all obstacles and interruptions.” A few passages of that sort, scattered through his novels, mark Charles de Bernard's maximum as an analyst. But if this is the maximum, the average is very high. He has described all sorts of social types, narrated all kinds of intrigues, always ingeniously, vividly, and with a natural epicurean irony. Considering that I do not recommend the reader who is unacquainted with him to make any great point of retracing his steps along the crowded highway of what we nowadays call culture, to bend over our author where his march stopped and left him, it may seem that I am lingering too long upon Charles de Bernard. But there is another word to say, and it is an interesting one. Charles de Bernard's talent is great—-very great, greater than the impression it leaves; and the reason why this clever man remains so persistently second-rate is, to my sense, because he had no morality. By this I of course do not mean that he did not choose to write didactic tales, winding up with a goodly lecture, and a distribution of prizes and punishments. I mean that he had no moral emotion, no preference, no instincts—-no moral imagination, in a word. His morality was altogether traditional, and such as it was it seems to have held him in a very loose grasp. It was not the current social notion of right and wrong, of honour and dishonour, that he embodied, but something even less consistent. What we find in him is not the average morality, but a morality decidedly below the average. He doesn't care, he doesn't feel, and his indifference is not philosophic. He has no heat of his own, save that of the raconteur; his laugh is always good-natured, but always cold. He describes all sorts of mean and ignoble things, without in the least gauging their quality. He belongs to the intellectual family—-and very large it is in France—-of the amusing author of “Gil Blas.” All its members know how to write, and how, up to a certain point, to observe; but their observation has no reflex action, as it were, and they remain extremely clever and extremely dry. Yet for all this the author of these lines is conscious of a tender regard for Charles de Bernard which he would be sorry not to confess to, in conclusion. He remembers often turning over, as a child, an old back-parlour volume of the “keepsake” genus, bound in tarnished watered silk, as such volumes were apt to be. It was called, if memory serves him, the “Idler in France,” and it was written—-if written is the word—-by the Countess of Blessington. With the text he was too timorous to grapple; but the volume was embellished with beautiful steel plates, depicting the delights of the French capital. There was the good old crooked, dirty, picturesque Paris of Charles X. and Louis Philippe—-the Paris ignorant of Louis Napoleon and Baron Hausmann, the new Boulevards and the American quarter. There were pictures of the old Boulevards and the Palais Royal, the staircase at the Opera, the table d'hôte at the Hôtel des Princes, a salon in the Chaussée d'Antin. The gentlemen all wore high rolling coat-collars and straps to their trousers; the ladies wore large-brimmed bonnets and cross-laced slippers. The Paris of these antediluvian Parisians seemed to my fancy a paradise; and I suppose that a part of my lurking tenderness for Charles de Bernard rests upon the fact that it appears to live again in his pages.

II.

 

BUT since those days the novel has flourished more and more, and if all that is needful to make us like a certain order of things is to see it vividly and picturesquely portrayed, we should long since have been won over to an æsthetic tendresse for the empire. The empire has had its novelists by the dozen; emulation, competition, and the extraordinary favour which this branch of literature has come to enjoy, have rendered them incomparably skilful and audacious. For entertainment of a high flavour we have only to choose at hazard. If at the same time, however, we are modestly inclined to edification, there must be a certain logic in our choice. The array is somewhat embarrassing; to the term “minor novelists” a formidable host responds. Octave Feuillet, Gustave Flaubert, Ernest Feydeau, Edmond About, Mme. de Goncourt, Gustave Droz, the younger Dumas, Victor Cherbuliez, Erckmann-Chatrian—-these are some of the names that immediately present themselves. All these names, with one exception (that of Alexandre Dumas), represent a constellation of romances more or less brilliant; and in their intervals glitters here and there a single star—-some very clever tale by an author who has tried or succeeded but once. A couple of examples of this latter class are the exquisite “Dominique” of Eugène Fromentin and the crude and vulgar, but powerful and touching “Divorce” of Mme. André Léo. When we cannot look at everything, we must look at what is most characteristic. The most characteristic work in this line, in France, of the last five and twenty years, is the realistic, descriptive novel which sprang out of Balzac, began in its effort at intensity of illusion where Balzac left off, and which, whether or no it has surpassed him, has at least exceeded him. Everything in France proceeds by “schools,” and there is no artist so bungling that he will not find another to call him “dear master.” Gustave Flaubert is of the school of Balzac; the brothers De Goncourt and Emile Zola are of the school of Flaubert. This last writer is altogether the most characteristic and powerful representative of what has lately been most original in the evolution of the French imagination, and he has for ourselves the further merit that he must always be strange and curious. English literature has certainly been doing some very odd things of late, and striving hard to prove that she could be everything that individual writers chose to make her. But at the best we are all flies in amber, and however furiously we may buzz and rattle, the amber sticks to our wings. It is not in the temper of English vision to see things as M. Flaubert sees them, and it is not in the genius of the English language to present them as he presents them. With all respect to “Madame Bovary,” “Madame Bovary is fortunately an inimitable work.

“Madame Bovary” was M. Flaubert's first novel, and it has remained altogether his best. He has produced little, and his works bear the marks of the most careful preparation. His second performance was “Salammbô,” an archæological novel of the highest pretensions. Salammbô is a Carthaginian princess, the elder sister of Hannibal. After this came, at a long interval, “L'Education Sentimentale,” a tale of the present day, and lastly appeared “La Tentation de St. Antoine”—-archæology again, but in the shape of something that was neither novel nor drama; a sort of free imitation of the mediaeval “mystery.” “Madame Bovary” was a great success—-a success of merit, and, as they say in France, a success of scandal; but the public verdict has not been flattering to its companions. The mass of the public find them dull, and wonder how a writer can expend such an immensity of talent in making himself unreadable; to a discriminating taste, however, M. Flaubert can write nothing that does not repay attention.

The “scandal” in relation to “Madame Bovary” was that the book was judicially impeached and prosecuted for immorality. The defence was eloquent, and the writer was acquitted, and the later editions of the book contain, in an appendix, a full report of the trial. It is a work upon which it is possible to be very paradoxical, or rather in relation to which sincere opinion may easily have the air of paradox. It is a book adapted for the reverse of what is called family reading, and yet I remember thinking, the first time I read it, in the heat of my admiration for its power, that it would make the most useful of Sunday-school tracts. In Taine's elaborate satire, “The Opinions of M. Graindorge,” there is a report of a conversation at a dinner party between an English spinster of didactic habits and a decidedly audacious Frenchman. He begs to recommend to her a work which he has lately been reading and which cannot fail to win the approval of all persons interested in the propagation of virtue. The lady lends a sympathetic car, and he gives a rapid sketch of the tale—-the history of a wicked woman who goes from one abomination to another, until at last the judgment of heaven descends upon her, and, blighted and blasted, she perishes miserably. The lady grasps her pencil and note-book and begs for the name of the edifying volume, and the gentleman leans across the dinner table and answers with a smile—-"'Madame Bovary; or, The Consequences of Misconduct.'“ This is a very pretty epigram, but it is more than an epigram. It may be very seriously maintained that M. Flaubert's masterpiece is the pearl of “Sunday reading.” Practically M. Flaubert is a potent moralist; whether, when he wrote his book, he was so theoretically is a matter best known to himself. Every out-and-out realist who provokes curious meditation may claim that he is a moralist, for that, after all, is the most that the moralists can do for us. They sow the seeds of virtue; they can hardly pretend to raise the crop. Excellence in this matter consists in the tale and the moral hanging well together, and this they are certainly more likely to do when there has been a definite intention—-that intention of which artists who cultivate “art for art" are usually so extremely mistrustful; exhibiting thereby, surely, a most injurious disbelief in the illimitable alchemy of art. We may say on the whole doubtless that the highly didactic character of “Madame Bovary” is an accident, inasmuch as the works that have followed it, both from its author's and from other hands, have been things to read much less for meditations than for sensation's sake. M. Flaubert's theory as a novelist, briefly expressed, is to begin on the outside. Human life, he says, is before all things a spectacle, a thing to be looked at, seen, apprehended, enjoyed with the eyes. What our eyes show us is all that we are sure of; with this we will, at any rate, begin. As this is infinitely curious and entertaining, if we know how to look at it, and as such looking consumes a great deal of time and space, it is very possible that with this also we may end. We admit nevertheless that there is something else, beneath and behind, that belongs to the realm of vagueness and uncertainty, and into this we must occasionally dip. It crops up sometimes irrepressibly, and of course we don't positively count it out. On the whole, we will leave it to take care of itself, and let it come off as it may. If we propose to represent the pictorial side of life, of course we must do it thoroughly well—-we must be complete. There must be no botching, no bungling, no scamping; it must be a very serious matter. We will “render” things—-anything, everything, from a chimney-pot to the shoulders of a duchess—-as painters render them. We believe there is a certain particular phrase, better than any other, for everything in the world, and the thoroughly accomplished writer ends by finding it. We care only for what is —-we know nothing about what ought to be. Human life is interesting, because we are in it and of it; all kinds of curious things are taking place in it (we don't analyse the curious—-for artists it is an ultimate fact); we select as many of them as possible. Some of the most curious are the most disagreeable, but the chance for “rendering” in the disagreeable is as great as anywhere else (some people think even greater), and moreover the disagreeable is extremely characteristic. The real is the most satisfactory thing in the world, and if once we fairly get into it, nothing shall frighten us back.

Some such words as these may stand as a rough sketch of the sort of intellectual conviction under which “Madame Bovary” was written. The theory in this case at least was applied with brilliant success; it produced a masterpiece. Realism seems to me with “Madame Bovary” to have said its last word. I doubt whether the same process will ever produce anything better. In M. Flaubert's own hands it has distinctly failed to do so. “L'Education Sentimentale” is in comparison mechanical and inanimate. The great good fortune of “Madame Bovary” is that here the theory seems to have been invented after the fact. The author began to describe because he had laid up a great fund of disinterested observations; he had been looking at things for years, for his own edification, in that particular way. The imitative talents in the same line, those whose highest ambition is to “do” their Balzac or their Flaubert, give us the sense of looking at the world only with the most mercenary motives—-of going about to stare at things only for the sake of their forthcoming novel. M. Flaubert knew what he was describing—-knew it extraordinarily well. One can hardly congratulate him on his knowledge; anything drearier, more sordid, more vulgar, and sterile, and desolate than the greater part of the subject-matter of the book it would be impossible to conceive. “Mœurs de Province,” the sub-title runs, and the work is the most striking possible example of that remarkable passion which possesses most Frenchmen of talent for making out their provincial life to be the most hideous thing on earth. Emma Bovary is the daughter of a small farmer, who has been able to send her to boarding-school, and to give her something of an “elegant" education. She is pretty and graceful, and she marries a small country doctor—-the kindest, simplest, and stupidest of husbands. He takes her to live in a squalid little country town, called Yonville-l'Abbaye, near Rouen; she is luxurious and sentimental she wastes away with ennui, and loneliness, and hatred of her narrow lot and absent opportunities, and on the very first chance she takes a lover. With him she is happy for a few months, and then he deserts her brutally and cynically. She falls violently ill, and comes near dying; then she gets well, and takes another lover of a different kind. All the world—-the very little world of Yonville-l'Abbaye—-sees and knows and gossips; her husband alone neither sees nor suspects. Meanwhile she has been spending money remorselessly and insanely; she has made promissory notes, and she is smothered in debt. She had undermined the ground beneath her husband's feet; her second lover leaves her; she is ruined, dishonoured, utterly at bay. She goes back as a beggar to her first lover, and he refuses to give her a sou. She tries to sell herself and fails; then, in impatience and desperation, she collapses. She takes poison and dies horribly, and the bailiffs come down on her husband, who is still heroically ignorant. At last he learns, and it is too much for him; he loses all courage, and dies one day on his garden bench, leaving twelve francs fifty centimes to his little girl, who is sent to get her living in a cotton mill. The tale is a tragedy, unillumined and unredeemed, and it might seem, on this rapid and imperfect showing, to be rather a vulgar tragedy. Women who get into trouble with the extreme facility of Mme. Bovary, and by the same method, are unfortunately not rare, and the better opinion seems to be that they deserve but a limited degree of sympathy. The history of M. Flaubert's heroine is nevertheless full of substance and meaning. In spite of the elaborate system of portraiture to which she is subjected, in spite of being minutely described in all her attitudes and all her moods, from the hem of her garment to the texture of her finger-nails, she remains a living creature, and as a living creature she interests us. The only thing that poor Charles Bovary, after her death, can find to say to her lovers is, “It's the fault of fatality.” And in fact, as we enter into the situation, it is. M. Flaubert gives his readers the impression of having known few kinds of women, but he has evidently known intimately this particular kind. We see the process of her history; we see how it marches from step to step to its horrible termination, and we do not perceive how it could well have done otherwise. It is a case of the passion for luxury, for elegance, for the worlds most agreeable and comfortable things, of an intense and complex imagination, corrupt almost in the germ, and finding corruption, and feeding on it, in the most unlikely and unfavouring places—-it is a case of all this being pressed back upon itself with a force which makes an explosion inevitable. Mme. Bovary has an insatiable hunger for pleasure, and she lives amid dreariness; she is ignorant, vain, naturally depraved; of the things she dreams about not an intimation ever reaches her; so she makes her trouée, as the French say, bores her opening, scrapes and scratches her way out into the light where she can. The reader may protest against a heroine who is “naturally depraved.” You are welcome, he may say, to make of a heroine what you please, to carry her where you please; but in mercy don't set us down to a young lady of whom, on the first page, there is nothing better to be said than that. But all this is a question of degree. Mme. Bovary is typical, like all powerfully conceived figures in fiction. There are a great many potential Mme. Bovary's, a great many young women, vain, ignorant, leading dreary, vulgar, intolerable lives, and possessed of irritable nerves and of a high natural appreciation of luxury, of admiration, of agreeable sensations, of what they consider the natural rights of pretty women, who are more or less launched upon the rapid slope which she descended to the bottom. The gentleman who recommended her history to the English lady at M. Taine's dinner party would say that her history was in intention a solemn warning to such young women not to allow themselves to think too much about the things they cannot have. Does M. Flaubert in this case complete his intention? does he suggest an alternative—-a remedy? plenty of plain sewing, serious reading, general housework? M. Flaubert keeps well out of the province of remedies; he simply relates his facts, in all their elaborate horror. The accumulation of detail is so immense, the vividness of portraiture of people, of things, of places, of times and hours, is so poignant and convincing, that one is dragged into the very current and tissue of the story; the reader seems to have lived in it all, more than in any novel can recall. At the end the intensity of illusion becomes horrible; overwhelmed with disgust and pity, the reader closes the book.

Besides being the history of the most miserable of women, “Madame Bovary” is also an elaborate picture of small bourgeois rural life. Anything, in this direction, more remorseless and complete it would be hard to conceive. Into all that makes life ignoble, and vulgar, and sterile M. Flaubert has entered with an extraordinary penetration. The dullness and flatness of it all suffocate us; the pettiness and ugliness sicken us. Every one in the book is either stupid or mean, but against the shabby-coloured background two figures stand out in salient relief. One is Charles Bovary, the husband of the heroine; the other is M. Homais, the village apothecary. Bovary is introduced to us in his childhood, at school, and we see him afterward at college and during his first marriage—-a union with a widow of meagre charms, twenty years older than himself. He is the only good person of the book, but he is stupidly, helplessly good. At school “he had for correspondent a wholesale hardware merchant of the Rue Ganterie, who used to fetch him away once a month, on a Sunday, send him to walk in the harbour and look at the boats, and then bring him back to college by seven o'clock, before supper. Every Thursday evening he wrote a long letter to his mother, with red ink and three wafers; then he went over his copy books, or else read an old volume of 'Anacharsis' which was knocking about the class room. In our walks he used to talk with the servant, who was from the country like himself.” Charles Bovary is one of the persons whose merits and defects and whole earthly fortune are summed up in those only two words we can say about them, “poor fellow.” In Homais, the apothecary, M. Flaubert has really added to our knowledge of human nature—-at least as human nature is modified by French social conditions. To American readers, fortunately, this figure represents nothing familiar; we do not as yet possess any such mellow perfection of charlatanism. The apothecary is that unwholesome compound, a Philistine radical—-a père de famille, a free-thinker, a rapacious shopkeeper, a stern moralist, an ardent democrat, and an abject snob. He is a complete creation; he is taken, as the French say, sur le nife, and his talk, his accent, his pompous vocabulary, his attitudes, his vanities, his windy vacuity, are inimitably rendered. Except her two lovers, M. Homais is Mme. Bovary's sole male acquaintance, and her only social recreation is to spend the evening with his wife and her own husband in his book-shop. Her life has known, in this line, but two other events. Once she has been at a ball at the house of a neighbouring nobleman, for whom her husband had lanced an abscess in his cheek, and who sends the invitation as part payment—-a fatal ball, which has opened her eyes to her own deprivations and intolerably quickened her desires; and once she has been to the theatre at Rouen. Both of these episodes are admirably put before us, and they play a substantial part in the tale. The book is full of expressive episodes; the most successful in its hideous relief and reality is the long account of the operation performed by Charles Bovary upon the club-foot of the ostler at the inn, an operation superfluous, ridiculous, abjectly unskilful and clumsy, and which results in the amputation of the poor fellows whole leg after he has lain groaning under the reader's eyes and nose for a dozen pages, amid the flies and dirt, the brooms and pails, the comings and goings of his squalid corner of the tavern. The reader asks himself the meaning of this elaborate presentation of the most repulsive of incidents, and feels inclined at first to charge it to a sort of artistic bravado on the author's part—-a desire to complete his theory of realism by applying his resources to the simply disgusting. But he presently sees that the whole episode has a kind of metaphysical value. It completes the general picture; it characterizes the daily life of a community in which such incidents assumed the importance of leading events, and it gives the final touch to our sense of poor Charles Bovary's bungling mediocrity. Everything in the book is ugly; turning over its pages, my eyes fall upon only this one little passage in which an agreeable “effect” is rendered. It treats of Bovary's visits to Emma, at her fathers farm, before their marriage, and is a happy instance of the way in which this author's style arrests itself at every step in a picture. “Once, when it was thawing, the bark of the trees was reeking in the yard, the snow was melting on the roofs of the outbuildings. She was upon the threshold; she went in and fetched her umbrella and opened it. The umbrella, of dove-coloured silk, with the sun coming through it, lighted up her white complexion with changing reflections. Beneath it she smiled in the soft warmth, and he heard the water-drops fall one by one upon the stretched silk.” To many people “Madame Bovary” will always be a hard book to read and an impossible one to enjoy. They will complain of the abuse of description, of the want of spontaneity, of the hideousness of the subject, of the dryness, and coldness, and cynicism of the tone. Others will continue to think it a great performance. They will admit that it is not a sentimental novel, but claim that it maybe regarded as a philosophical one, and insist that the descriptions are extraordinary, and that beneath them there is always an idea which holds them up and carries them along. I cannot but think, however, that he is a very resolute partisan who would venture to make this same plea on behalf of “L'Education Sentimentale.” Here the form and method are the same as in “Madame Bovary”; the studied skill, the science, the accumulation of material, are even more striking; but the book is in a single word a dead one. “Madame Bovary” was relatively spontaneous and sincere; but to read its successor is, to the finer sense, like masticating ashes and sawdust. “L'Education Sentimentale” is elaborately and massively dreary. That a novel should have a charm seems to me the most rudimentary of principles, and there is no more charm in this laborious monument to a treacherous ideal than there is perfume in a gravel-heap. To nothing that such a writer as Gustave Flaubert accomplishes—-a writer so armed at all points, so informed, so ingenious, so serious as an artist—-can one be positively indifferent; but to think of the talent, the knowledge, the experience, the observation that lie buried, without hope of resurrection, in the pages of “L'Education Sentimentale,” is to pass a most comfortless half hour. That imagination, invention, taste, and science should concentrate themselves, for human entertainment, upon such a result, strikes me as the most unfathomable of anomalies. One feels behind all M. Flaubert's writing a large intellectual machinery. He is a scholar, a man of erudition. Of all this “Salammbô" is a most accomplished example. “Salammbô” is not easy reading, nor is it in the least agreeable; but it displays in the highest degree what is called the historical imagination. There are passages in it in which the literary expression of that refined, and subtilised; and erudite sense of the picturesque which recent years have brought to such a development seems to have reached its highest level., The “Tentation de Saint Antoine” is to my sense, to “Salammbô” what “L'Education Sentimentale” is to “Madame Bovary”—-what the shadow is to the substance. M. Flaubert seems to have had in him the material of but two spontaneous works. The successor, in each case, has been an echoes a reverberation.

III.

 

A CRITIC has not spoken fully of Gustave Flaubert unless he has spoken also of MM. de Goncourt. These gentlemen, brothers, collaborators, and extremely clever writers, have certainly plenty of talent of their own, but it may fairly be suspected that without Flaubert's example they would not have used their talent in just the way they have done. If we have nothing in English like M. Flaubert, we are still further from having anything like Edmond and Jules de Goncourt. Their works have all been published under their associated names and produced by their united hands, according to a system best known to themselves. Everything they have written exhibits a perfect superficial unity. Jules de Goncourt, the younger brother, lately died; and since then the survivor has published nothing. MM. de Goncourt have written four or five novels, but it was not as novelists that they began their career. Their first labours were historical, and they produced a series of volumes at once solid and entertaining upon the French society of the last century and the early years of the present one. These volumes are a magazine of curious facts, and indicate a high relish for psychological research. In addition MM. de Goncourt are art students, and have published several elaborate monographs on painters. It has been very well said of them that the eighteenth century is their remotest antiquity; that for them the historical imagination ends there, after a long revel in sights of its goal. If time with these writers terminates at about 1730, space comes to a stop at the limits of Paris. They are the most Parisian thing I know. Other writers—-Balzac, Sainte-Beuve, Edmond About—-are intensely French; MM. de Goncourt are essentially Parisian. Their culture, their imagination, their inspiration, are all Parisian; a culture sensibly limited, but very exquisite of its kind; an imagination in the highest degree ingenious and,, as the French say, raffiné fed upon made dishes. Their inspiration is altogether artistic, and they are artists of the most consistent kind. Their writing novels strikes me as having been a very deliberate matter. Finding themselves in possession of a singularly perfect intellectual instrument—-men of the study and of the drawing-room, with their measured and polished literary style, their acute observation of material things, their subtle Parisian imagination, their ingrained familiarity with questions of taste—-they decided that in the novel of the most consummately modern type they could manifest themselves most completely. They inevitably went into “realism,” but realism for them has been altogether a question of taste—-a studio question, as it were. They also find the disagreeable particularly characteristic, and there is something ineffably odd in seeing these elegant erudites bring their highly complex and artificial method—-the fruit of culture, and leisure, and luxury—-to bear upon the crudities and maladies of life, and pick out choice morsels of available misery upon their gold pen-points. “Germinie Lacerteux” is the history of an hysterical servant girl. “Manette Salomon” introduces us to a depraved Jewess who follows the trade of model in painters' studios, and who entangles, bewitches, and ruins a young artist of high promise. “Soeur Philomène” is the story of a sister of charity in a hospital, who falls in love with one of the house surgeons; while he, having to perform an operation upon a woman of the town whom he has once loved, and who has been stabbed by a subsequent lover—-an operation which proves fatal to the patient—-drowns his remorse in absinthe, becomes an incurable drunkard, and finally, in self-loathing, deliberately infects himself, during a dissection, with some poisonous matter, and dies in horrible tortures. With MM. de Goncourt the whole thing is a spectacle, a shaded picture, and the artist's mission is to reproduce its parts in a series of little miniatures of the highest possible finish. A novel, for them, is a succession of minute paintings on ivory, strung together like pearls on a necklace. Their first tale, indeed—-"Renée Mauperin,” which is also their most agreeable—-has more of the old-fashioned narrative quality. I use “agreeable” here in a purely relative sense. The book is an attempt to portray the young girl “of the period” in France—-but the young girl of the period at her best, the young girl whose instincts are pure and elevated. It proposes to show us what “l'éducation garçonnière et artistique” of the day makes of such a character. It does this in a very pretty fashion. I remember no French novel in which the consequences of allowing a young girl a moderate amount of liberty are more gracefully and naturally presented. But it is the people and the doings with which the charming Renée is associated that make us open our eyes. She belongs to an honourable bourgeois family who have made a handsome fortune in trade, and she has a brother who is a rising young politician and endowed with irreproachable manners and a profound ambition. The brother, to push his fortunes, determines to make a rich marriage, and selects for this purpose the pretty Mlle. Bourjot, sole heiress of numberless millions. This young lady's family insist upon his changing his name to something noble; so he obtains governmental permission to call himself Mauperin de Villacourt—-the name of a small estate belonging to his father. This is not at all to the taste of Renée, who thinks the proceeding snobbish and ignoble, and who, learning that a member of the old race of Villacourt still exists, denuded of everything but the family pride, sends him a copy of the newspaper in which her brother has given legal notice of his intention, in the hope that he will put in a protest. Meanwhile she learns, through Mlle. Bourjot herself, that young Mauperin has long been carrying on an intrigue with her mamma—-a lady old enough, in vulgar phrase, to know better. To marry Henri Mauperin under these circumstances is naturally disagreeable to Mlle. Bourjot; but the mamma and the intended at last agree to bring their relations to a close; the daughter appears to be duly informed of their decision; she is reassured and satisfied, and things for a while go forward very comfortably. At last the necessary year has elapsed since Mauperin promulgated his intention to assume the name of Villacourt, and no one has contested his right. But on the eve of the wedding day the last of the Villacourt's turns up. He is a rude, rustic nobleman, a mighty hunter and drinker, who lives in the woods, and never looks at the newspapers, even when posted to him by pretty feminine hands. The journal sent by Renée, however, has at last come under his dreamy eyes. He springs up in wrath, hastens to Paris, bursts into Mauperin's apartment, and by way of counterclaim smites him in the face. In the duel which follows Mauperin is killed, and Renée, with her brother's blood on her conscience, wastes away to death in a series of attitudes most gracefully described by MM. de Goncourt. Renée, as I have said, with her Parisian wit and her generous temper, is a very agreeable creation. Her talk throughout is excellent, though it is extremely difficult to translate. The following may serve as a specimen: “What a bore it is to be a young person—-don't you think so? I would like to see you try it!” (She is bathing in the Seine, in company with a young man to whom these remarks are addressed. But of this anon.) “You would see what that bore comes to—-the bore of being 'proper.' Suppose we were dancing now, eh? Do you think we can talk with our partner? Yes, no, yes, no—-that's all. We must stick to monosyllables. That's proper! That's the pleasure of life for us. And for everything its the same. The only thing that is really proper is to sit and swing our heels. I don't know how. And then to sit and tittle-tattle with persons of one's own sex. If we have the misfortune to let them go for a man—-oh, mamma has blown me up for that! Another thing that isn't at all proper is to read. It is only these last two years that they allow me the feuilletons in the newspapers. There are some of the crimes in the 'faits divers' that they make me skip; they are not sufficiently proper. It's like our 'accomplishments'; they must not go beyond a certain little mark. Beyond duets on the piano and heads in crayon, it becomes professional; one sets up for something. For instance, I paint in oil, and my family are in despair. I ought to do nothing but roses in water-colours.” When “Renée Mauperin” first appeared, the opening pages (from which my quotation is made) had a great success. The description of the young girl in the water is very felicitous, and is also worth quoting. “The young girl and the young man who were talking thus were in the water. Tired of swimming, drawn along by the current, they had hooked themselves to a rope which fastened one of the great boats, alongside the island. The force of the water swayed them softly to and fro at the end of the tense and quivering rope. They sank a little, then rose again. The water broke against the breast of the young girl, rose in her woollen dress as high as her neck, and threw against her from behind a little wave which a moment later was nothing but a dewdrop ready to fall from her ear. Clasping the rope a little higher than the young man, her arms were raised and her wrists turned in, to hold the cable better; her back was against the black wood of the boat. Naturally, every moment, her body floated away from that of the young man, carried against her by the current. In this hanging, retreating posture she resembled those figures of sea gods twisted by wood-carvers along the sides of galleys. A little tremor, coming from the movement of the river and the cold of the bath, seemed to give her something of the undulation of the water.”

That is admirable; we seem to see it. MM. de Goncourt have possessed themselves of every literary secret; they have made a devout study of style. “Soeur Philomène,” as a piece of writing and of visual observation, is a masterpiece; refinement of observation, an unerring scent for the curious and morbid, can hardly go further. The book is worth reading, from beginning to end, for its exquisite art—-although the art is, to my mind, superficial, and the subject both morally and physically unsavoury. It required great skill to interest us during a whole volume in the comings and goings of a simple and ignorant man, around the sickbeds of a roomful of paupers. The authors have “got up" their subject, as the phrase is, with extraordinary care; I do not know what their personal experience of hospital wards has been, but the reader might suppose that they had spent years in one. MM. de Goncourt are dilettanti; they are raffinés and they write for raffinés; but they are worth attention because they are highly characteristic of contemporary French culture. They are even more characteristic than some stronger writers; for they are not men of genius; they are the product of the atmosphere that surrounds them; their great talent is in great part the result of sympathy, and contact, and emulation. They represent the analysis of sensation raised to its highest power, and that is apparently the most original thing that the younger French imaginative literature has achieved. But from them as from Gustave Flaubert the attentive reader receives an indefinable impression of perverted ingenuity and wasted power. The sense of the picturesque has somehow killed the spiritual sense; the moral side of the work is dry and thin. I can hardly explain it, but such a book as “Soeur Philomène,” with all its perfection of manner, gives me an impression of something I can find no other name for than cruelty. There are some things which should be sacred even to art, and art, when she is truly prosperous, is comfortably contented to let them alone. But when she begins to overhaul the baser forms of suffering and the meaner forms of vice, to turn over and turn again the thousand indecencies and impurities of life, she seems base and hungry, starving, desperate, and we think of her as one who has wasted her substance in riotous living.

I said that MM. de Goncourt did not strike me as men of genius, and I can think of but two names in the list of those whom I have called the minor French novelists that suggest the idea of genius. The first is that of Erckmann-Chatrian and the second that of Gustave Droz. The two associated story-tellers known to the world under the former of these names constitute surely a genius of the purest water. Of all the French romancers of the day they are the most simply delightful, and their exquisite sense of the decent, wholesome, human side of reality, ought to balance a multitude of infectious researches in the opposite direction. It is natural to believe, and it is impossible not to hope, that “Le Conscrit de 1813,” “Le Blocus,” “L'Ami Fritz,” “Le Joueur de Clarinette” will be read by our children's children. Gustave Droz is not by any means so clear or so complete a genius, but he has that spark of magic in his fancy, that something lightly and easily human in his humour, which are kindled in the glow of the sacred fire. One at least of the tales of M. Droz ought to stand. “Le Cahier Bleu de Mlle. Cibot” is a masterpiece, and a capital example of the charm that intense reality may have when it is reached by divination, by the winged fancy, rather than by a system more or less ingenious. After this, there are the brilliant talents—-Octave Feuillet, Edmond About, Victor Cherbuliez. These writers are all prodigiously clever, but the cleverness of M. Cherbuliez overtops that of his companions. They are clever by nature, and he is clever by art, and yet he wears his cleverness with a grace and gallantry that quite eclipses theirs. He has deliberately learned how to write novels, and he writes them incomparably well. Unfortunately he seems of late to have come to the end of his lesson his last two tales are almost painfully inferior to their predecessors. Five-and-twenty years ago, before the writers of whom these pages treat had (with one exception) presented themselves to the public, Mme. Sand was the first of French romancers. Five-and-twenty years have elapsed: these writers have exhibited all their paces, and Mme. Sand is still unsurpassed. Each of the novelists I have mentioned can do something which she cannot; but she, at her best, has resources which exceed the total aggregation of theirs. (I say advisedly at her best, for between her best and her second best there is a gulf.) She has the true, the great imagination—-the metaphysical imagination. She conceives more largely and executes more nobly; she is easy and universal and—-above all—-agreeable.

 
 
 

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