1902 Encyclopedia > France > 17th Century French Fiction

(Part 50)


17th Century Fiction

In the department of literature which comes between poetry and prose, that of romance writing, the 17th century, excepting one remarkable development, was not very fertile. It devoted itself to so many new or changed form of literature that it had no time to anticipate the modern novel. Yet at the beginning of the century one very curious form of romance writing was diligently cultivated, and its popularity, for the time immense, perhaps prevented the introduction of any stronger style, to which at the same time the poetical trifles of the literary côteries, the memoirs of the Fronde, and the dramas of the epoch of Louis XIV. were unfavourable. It is perhaps curious that, as the first quarter of the 17th century was pre-eminently the epoch of Spanish influence in France the distinctive satire of Cervantes should have been less imitated than the models which Cervantes satirized. How ever this may be, the romances of 1600 to 1650 form a class of literature vast, isolated, and , perhaps of all such classes of literature, most utterly obsolete and extinct. Taste, affections, or antiquarian diligence have, at one time or another, restored to a just, and sometimes a more than just, measure of reputation most of the literary relics of the past. Romances of chivalry, fabliaux, early drama, Provençal poetry, prose chronicles, have all had, and deservedly, their rehabilitators. But Polexandre and Cléopatre, Clélie and the Grand Cyrus, have been too heavy for all the industry and energy of literary antiquarians. As we have already hinted, the nearest ancestry which can be found for them is the romances of the Amadis type. But the Amadis, and in a less degree its followers, although long, are long in virtue of incident. The romances of the Clélie type are long in virtue of interminable discourse, moralizing, and description. Their manner is not unlike that of the Arcadia and the Euphues which preceded them in England; and they express in point of style the tendency which simultaneously manifested itself all over Europe at this period, and whose chief exponents were Gongora in Spain, Marini in Italy, and Lyly in England. Every body knows the Carte de Tendre which origianlly appeared in Clélie, and most people have heard of the shepherds and shepherdesses who figure in the Astré of D’Urfé (1567-1625), on the borders of the Lignon ; but here general knowledge ends, and there is perhaps no reason why is should go much further. It is sufficient to say that Mademoiselle de Scudéry (1607-1701) principally devotes herself to laborious gallantry and heroism, La Calpénède (1610-1663) to something which might have been the historical novel if it had been constructed on a less preposterous scale, and Gomberville (1600-1647) to moralizings and theological discussions on Jansenist principles. In the latter part of the century, the example of La Fontaine, though he himself wrote in poetry, helped to recall the tale-tellers of France to an occupation more worthy of them, more suitable to the genius of the literature, and more likely to last. The reaction against the Clélie school produced first Madame de Villedieu (Catherine Desjardins) (1631-1683), a fluent and facile novelist, who enjoyed great but not enduring popularity. The form which the prose tale took at this period was that of the fairy story. Perrault (1628-1703) and Madame d’Aulnoy (d. 1705) composed specimens of this kind which have never ceased to be popular since. Hamilton (646-1720), the author of the well-known Mémoires d Grammont, wrote similar stories of extraordinary merit in style and ingenuity. There is yet a third class of prose writing which deserves to be mentioned. It also may probably be traced to Spanish influence, that is to say, to the picaroon romances which the 16th and 17th centuries produced in Spain in large numbers. The most remarkable example of this is the Roman Comique of the burlesque writer Scarron. The Roman Bourgeois of Furetière also deserves mention as a collection of pictures of the life of the time, arranged in the most desultory manner, but drawn with great vividness, observation, and skill. A remarkable writer who had great influence on Molière, has also to be mentioned in this connexion rather than in any other. This is Cyrano de Bergerac (1620-1655), who besides composing doubtful comedies and tragedies, writing political pamphlets, and exercising the task of literary criticism in objecting to Scarron’s burlesques, produced Voyages à la Lune et au Soleil, half romantic and half satirical compositions, in which some have seen the original of Gulliver’s Travels, in which other have discovered only a not very successful imitation of Rabelais, and which, without attempting to decide these questions, may fairly be ranked in the same class of fiction with the master-pieces of Swift and Rabelais, though of course at an immense distance perhaps the most remarkable of its kind in the century, remains. Madame de Lafayette, the friend of La Rochefoucauld and of Madame de Sévigné, though she did not exactly anticipate the modern novel, showed the way to it in stories, the principal of which are Zaïde and still more La Princesse de Clèves. The latter, though a long way from Manon Lescaut, Clarissa, or Tom Jones, is a longer way still from Polexandre or the Arcadia. The novel becomes in it no longer a more or less fictitious chronicle, but an attempt at least at the display of character. La Princesse de Clèves has never been one of the works widely popular out of their own country, nor perhaps does it deserve such popularity, for it has more grace than strength ; but as an original effort in an important direction its historical value is considerable. But with this exception, the art of fictitious prose composition, except on a small scale, is certainly not one in which the century excelled, nor are any of the masterpieces which it produced to be ranked in this class.

Read the rest of this article:
France - Table of Contents

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-18 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries