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(Part 60)


18th Century Fiction

With prose fiction the case was altogether different. We have seen how the short tale of a few pages had already in the 16th century attained high if not the highest excellence ; how at three different periods the fancy for long-winded prose narration developed itself in the prose rehandlings of the chivalric poems, in the Amadis romances, and in the pertentous recitals of Gomberville and La Calprenède ; how burlesque of these romances were produced from Rabelais to Scarron ; and how at last Madame de Lafayette showed the way to something like the novel of the day. If we add the fairy story, and a small class of miniature romances, of which Aucassin et Nicolette in the 13th, and the delightful Jehan de Paris (of the 15th or 16th, in which a king of England is patriotically sacrificed) are good representatives, we shall have exhausted the list. The 18th century was quick to develop the system of the author of the Princesse de Clèves, but it did not abandon the cultivation of the romance, that is to say, fiction dealing with incident and with the simpler passions, in devoting itself to the novel, that is to say, fiction dealing with the analysis of sentiment and character. Le Sage, its first great novelist, in his Diable Boiteux and Gil Blas, went to Spain not merely for his subject but also for his inspiration and manner, following the lead of the picaroon romance of De Rojas and Scarron. Like Fielding, however, whom he much resembles, Le Sage mingled with the romance of incident the most careful attention toe character and the most lively portrayal of it, while his style and language are such as to make his work one of the classics of French literature. The novel character was really founded in France by the Abbé Prévost (1697-1763), the author of Cleveland and of the incomparable Manon Lescaut. The popularity of this style was much helped by the immense vogue in France of the works of Richardson. Side by side with it, however, and for a time enjoying still greater popularity, there flourished a very different school of fiction, of which Voltaire, whose name occupies the first or all but the first place in every branch of literature of his time, was the most brilliant cultivator. This was a direct development of the 16th century conte, and consisted usually of the treatment in a humorous, satirical, and not always over-decent fashion of contemporary foibles, beliefs, philosophies, and occupations. These tales are of every rank of excellence and merit both literary and moral, and range from the astonishing wit, grace, and humour of Candide and Zadig to the book which is Diderot’s one hardly padonable sin, and the similar but more lively efforts of Crébillon fils (1707-1777). These latter deeps led in their turn to the still lower depths of La Clos and Louvet. A third class of 18th century fiction consists of attempts to return to the humorous fatrasie of the 16th century, attempts which were as much influenced by Sterne as the sentimental novel was by Richardson. The Homme aux Quarante Écus of Voltaire has something of this character, but the most characteristic works of the style are the Jacques le Fataliste of Diderot, which shows it nearly at its best, and the Compère Mathieu, sometimes attributed to Pigault-Lebrun (1753-1835), but apparently in reality due to Du Laurens (1719-1797), which shows it at perhaps its worst. Another remarkable story-teller was Cazotte (1724-1793), whose Diable Amoureux displas much fantastic power, and connect itself with a singular fancy of the time for occult studies and diablerie, manifested later by the patronage shown to Cagliostro, Mesmer, St Germain, and others. In this connexion, too, may perhaps also be mentioned most appropriately Restif de la Bretonne, a remarkably original and voluminous writer, who was little noticed by his contemporaries and successors for the best part of a century, and whom bibliomania chiefly has of late induced French critics to resuscitate. Restiif, who was nicknamed the "Rousseau of the gutter," Rousseau du ruisseau, presents to an English imagination many of the characteristics of a non-moral Defoe. While these various schools busied themselves more or less with real life seriously depicted or purposely travestied, the great vogue and success of Télémaque produced a certain number of didactic works,in which moral or historical information was sought to be conveyed under a more or less thin guise of fiction. Such was the Voyage du Jeune Anacharsis of Barthélemy (1716-1795) ; such the Numa Pompilius and Gonzale de Cordoue of Florian (1755-1794), who also deserve notices as a writer of pastorals, fables, and short prose tales; such the Bélisaire and Les Incas of Marmontel (1728-1799). Between this class and that of the novel sentiment may perhaps be placed Paul et Virginie and La Chaumière Indienne ; though Bernardin de St Pierre (1737-1814) should perhaps properly be noticed after Rousseau and as a moralist. Diderot’s ficion-writing has already been referred to more than once, but his Religieuse deserves citation here as a powerful specimen of the novel both of analysis and polemic ; while his undoubted masterpiece, the Neveu de Rameau, though very difficult to class, comes under this head as well as under any other. There are, however, two of the novelists of this age, and of the most remarkable, who have yet to be noticed, and these are the author of Maricanne and the author of Julie. We do not mention Marivaux (1688-1763) in this connexion as the equal of Rousseau (1713-1778), but merely as being in his way almost equally original and equally remote from any suspicion of school influence. He began with burlesque writing, and was also the author of several comedies, of which Les Fausses Confidences is the principal. But it is in prose fiction that he really excels. He may claim to have, at least in the opinion of his contemporaries, invented a style, though perhaps the term marivaudage, which was applied to it, has a not altogether complimentary connotation. He may claim also to have invented the novel without a purpose, which aims simply at amusement, and at the same time does not seek to attain that end by buffoonery or by satire. Gray’s definition of happiness, "to lie on a sofa and read endless novels by Marivaux" (it is true that he added Crébillon), is well known, and the production of more pastime by means more or less harmless has since become so well-recognized a function of the novelist that Marivaux, as one of the earliest to discharge it, deserves notice. The name, however, of Jean Jacques Rousseau is of far different importance. His two great works, the Nouvelle Héloise and Émile, are as far as possible from being perfect as novels. But no novels in the world have ever had such influence as these. To a great extent this influence was due mainly to their attractions as novels, imperfect though they may be in this character, but it was beyond dispute also owing to the doctrines which they contained, and which were exhibited in novel form, They had not only a greater popularity than any other works of the same class during the century, not only a more important political and philosophical influence, but also a far greater practical influence than is generally supposed. As the fact has been lately treated as doubtful, it may be well to repeat that the Emile did actually to a great extent put a stop to the habit previously prevailing among French mothers of refusing to nurse their own infants, an that the recommendation which the same book contained that all children should be taught a trade undoubtedly contributed to the preservation and power of self-support of great numbers of the during the French Revolution. Great as has been the influence of prose fiction in various ways, this is perhaps the most direct and certain instance of its influence upon the daily life and conduct of large classes of men. Certainly it is the earliest of such instance, and this makes it remarkable in the history of literature.

Such are the principal developments of fictions during the century ; but it is remarkable that, varied as they were, and excellent as was some of the work to which they gave rise, none of these schools were directly very fertile in results or successors. The period with which we shall next have to deal, that from the outbreak of the Revolution to the death of Louis XVIII., is curiously barren of fiction of any merit. It has been frankly noticed by French writers that since the Middle Ages many if not most of their great literary developments have needed the stimulus of foreign example and importation. Thus, in part of the 16th century the influence of Italy was predominant and productive, in the 17th that of Spain, in the 18th that of England. Less powerful during the thirty years of war, English influence began again to assert itself in the 19th century. Byron and Shakespeare, well or ill understood, were responsible for much of the development on the poetical side of the romantic movement. But their influence was as nothing compared with that of Scott on the prose side, and especially on the side of prose fiction. As yet, however, this influence was remote. The result of its working was that the prose romance began once more to be written in the later days of the Restoration, with the astonishing success which in the course of the last half-century has placed the French novel in quantity and general excellence, if not in the quality of a few chosen examples, at the head of the fictitious literature of modern Europe.

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