1902 Encyclopedia > France > French Prose Fiction since 1830

(Part 71)


Prose Fiction since 1830

Even more remarkable, because more absolutely novel, was the outburst of prose fiction which followed 1830. We have said that in this department the productions of France since the discrediting of the Scudéry romances had not on the whole been remarkable, and had been produced at considerable intervals. Madame de Lafayette, Le Sage, Marivaux, the Abbé Prévost, Diderot, J.J. Rousseau, Bernardin de St Pierre, and Fiévée had all of them produced work excellent in its way, and comprising in a more or less rudimentary condition most varieties of the novel. But none of them had, in the French phrase, made a school. And at no time had prose fiction been composed in any considerable quantities. The immense influence which, as we have seen, Walter Scott exercised was perhaps the direct cause of the attention paid to prose fiction; the facility, too, with which all the fancies, tastes, and beliefs of the time could be embodied in such work may have had considerable importance. But it is difficult on nay theory of cause and effect to account for the appearance in less than ten years of such a group of novelists as Hugo, Gautier, Dumas, Mérimée, Balzac, George Sand. Jules Sandeau, and Charles de Bernard, names to which might be added others scarcely inferior. There is hardly anything else resembling it in literature, except the great cluster of English dramatists in the beginning of the 17th century, and of English dramatists in the beginning of the 19th; and it is remarkable that the excellence of the first group has been maintained by a fresh generation,—Murger, About, Feuillet, Flaubert, Erckmann-Chatrian, Droz, Daudet, Cherbuliez, and Gaboriau, forming a company of diadochi not far inferior to their predecessors. The romance writing of France during the period has taken two different directions,—the first that of the novel of incident, the second that of analysis and character. The first, now mainly deserted, was that which, as was natural when Scott was the model. Was formerly most trodden; the second required the astonishing genius of Geroge Sand and of Balzac to attract students to it. The novels of Victor Higo are novels of incident, with a string infusion of purpose, and considerable but rather ideal character drawing. They are in fact lengthy prose drames rather than romances proper, and they are found no imitators, probably because no other genius was equal to the task. They display, however, the powers of the matter at their fullest. On the other hand, Alexandre Dumas originally composed his novels in close imitation of Scott, and they are much less dramatic than narrative in character, so that they lend themselves to almost indefinite continuation, and there is often no particular reason why they should terminate even at the end of the score or so of volumes to which they sometimes actually extend. Of this purely narrative kind, which hardly even attempts anything but the boldest character drawing, the best of them, such as Vingt Ans Aprés, Les Trois Mousquetaires, La Reine Margot, are probably the best specimens extant. Dumas possesses almost alone among novelists the secret of writing interminable dialogue without being tedious. Of something the same kind, but of a far lower stamp, are the novels of Eugene Sue (1804-1857). Dumas and Sue were accompanied and followed by a cast crowd of companions, independent or imitative. Alfred de Vigny has already attempted the historical novel in Cing1-Mars. Henri de La Touche, an excellent critic who formed George Sand, but a mediocre novelist, may be mentioned, and perhaps also Roger de Beauvoir and Frédéric Soulié. Paul Féval and Amédée Achard are of the same school, and some of the attempts of Jules Janin (1804-1874), more celebrated as a critic, mat also be connected with it. By degrees, however, the taste for the novel of incident, at least of an historical kind, died out till it was revived in another form, and with an admixture of domestic interest, by MM. Erckmann Chartrian. The last and one of the most splendid instances of the old style was Le Capitaine Fracasse, which Théophile Gautier wrote in his old age as a kind of tour de force. The last named writer in his earlier days had modified the incident novel in many short tales, a kind of writing for which French has always been famous, and in which Gautier’s sketches are masterpieces. His only other long novel, Mademoiselle de Moupin, belongs rather to the class of analysis. With Gautier as a writer, whose literary characteristics even excel his purely tale-telling powers, may be classed Prosper Mérimée (1803-1871), one of the most exquisite 19th century masters of the language. Already, however, in 1830 the tide was setting strongly in favour of novels of contemporary life and manners. These were of course susceptible of extremely various treatment. For many years Paul de Kock, a writer who did not trouble himself about classics or romantics or any such matter, continued the tradition of Marivaux, Crebillon fils, and Pigault Lebrun, in a series of not very moral or polished but lively and amusing sketches of life principally of the bourgeois type. Later Charles de Bernard (1805-1850), with infinitely greater wit, elegance, propriety, and literary skill, did the same thing for the higher classes of French society. But the two great masters of the novel of character and manners as opposed to that of history and incident are Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) and aurora Dudevant, commonly called George Sand (1793-1876). Their influence affected the entire body of novelists who succeeded them, with very few exceptions. At the head of these exceptions may be placed Jules Sandeau (b. 1811), who after writing a certain number of novels in a less individual style, at last made for himself a special subject in a certain kind of domestic novel, where the passions set in motion are less boisterous than those usually preferred by the French novelists, and reliance is mainly placed on minute character drawing and shades of colour sober in hue but very carefully adjusted (Catherine Mademoiselle de Penarvan, Mademoiselle de la Seigliére). In the same class of the more quiet and purely domestic novelists may be placed X. B. Saintine (Picciola), Madame C. Reybaud (Cleméntine, Le Cadet de Colobriéres), J.T. de St Germain (Pour un Epingle, La feuille de Coudlier), Madame Craven (Récit d’une Soer, Fleurange). Henri Beyle, who wrote under the nom de plum of Stendhal, also stands by himself. His chief work in the line of fiction is La Chartreuse de Parme, an exceedingly powerful novel of the analytical kind, and he also composed a considerable number of critical and miscellaneous works. Last among the independents must be mentioned Henry Murger (1822-1861), the painter of what is called Bohemian life, that is to say, the struggles, difficulties, and amusements of students, youthful artists, and men of letters. In this peculiar style, which may perhaps be regarded as an irregular descendants of the picaroon romance, Murger has no rival; and he is also, though on no extensive scale, a poet of great pathos. But with this exceptions, the influences of the writers we have mentioned, sometimes combined, more often separate, maybe traced throughout the whole of later novel literature. George Sand began with books strongly tingled with the spirit of revolt against moral and social arrangements, and she sometimes diverged into very curious paths of pseudo-philosophy, such as was popular in the second quarter of the century. At times, too, as in Lucrezia Floriani and some other works, she did not hesitate to draw largely on her on personal adventures and experiences. But latterly she devoted herself rather to sketches of country life and manners, and to novels involving bold if not very careful sketches of character and more or less dramatic situations. She was one of the most fertile of novelists, continuing to the end of her long life to pour forth fiction at the rate pf many volumes a year. This fertility and the inexhaustible supply of comparatively novel imaginations with which she kept it up, is one of the most remarkable characteristics of her work, and in this respect she is perhaps second only to Sir Walter Scott; but there is at the same time a certain want of finish about her fertility, and she is not generally found to be an author whose readers return to her individual works, as in the case with less productive but more laborious writers. Of her different styles may be mentioned as fairly characteristics, Lélia, Lucrezia Floriani, Consuelo, La Mare au Diable, La Petite Fadette, François le Champy, Mademoiselle de la Quintinie. Considering the shorter length of his life the productiveness of Balzac was almost more astonishing, especially if we consider that much of his early work is never reprinted, and had passed entirely out of remembrance. He is, moreover, the most remarkable example in literature of untiring work and determination to achieve success despite the greatest discopuragements. His early work was, as we have said, worse than unsuccessful. It was positively bad; and even the partiality which was usually shown to the early work of a man of genius has found it impossible to reverse the verdict of his first readers. After more than a score of unsuccessful attempts, Les Chouans at the last made its mark, and for twenty years from that time the astonishing productions composing the so-called Comédie Humaine were poured forth successively. The sub-titles which Balzac imposed upon the different batches, Scènes de la Vie Parisienne, De la Vie de Province, De la Vie Intime, &c., show like the general title a deliberate intention on the author’s part to cover the whole ground of human, at least of French life. Such an attempt could not succeed wholly; yet the amount of success attained is astonishing. Balzac has however, with some justice been accused of creating the world which he described, and his personages, wonderful as is the accuracy and force with which many of the characteristics of humanity are exemplified in them, are somehow not altogether human, owing to the specially French fault which we noticed in Racine and Molière of insisting too much on the ruling passion. Since these two great novelists, many other have arisen, partly to tread in their steps, partly to strike out independent paths. Octave feuillet, beginning his career by apprenticeship to Alexandre Dumas and the historical novel, soon found his way in a very different style of composition, the roman intime of fashionable life, in which, notwithstanding some grave defects, he has attained much popularity. The so-called realist side of Balzac has been developed by Gustave Flaubert (b. 1821), who, to all his master’s acuteness, and more than his knowledge of human nature, adds culture, scholarship, and a literary power over the language inferior to that of no writer of the century. Madame Bovary and L’Éducation Sentimentale are studies of contemporary life; in Salammbô and La Tentation de St Antoine erudition and antiquarian knowledge furnish the subjects for the display of the highest literary skill. Of about the same date (b. 1828) Edmond. About, before he abandoned novel-writing, devoted himself chiefly to sketches of abundant but always refined wit (L’Homme á l’Oreille cassée, Le Nez d’un Notaire), and sometimes to foreign scenes (Tolla, le roi des Montagnes). Champfleury (b. 1821), an associate of Murger, deserves notice for stories of the extravaganza kind. During the whole of the second empire of the most popular writers was Ernest Feydeau (1821-1874), a writer of great ability, but morbid and affected in the choice and treatment of his subjects (Fanny, Sylvie, Catherine d’Overmeire). In the last ten years many writers of the realist school have endeavoured to outdo their predecessors in unflinching fidelity, nominally carrying out the principles of Balzac and Flaubert, but in reality rather reverting to the extravagance of the very earliest romantic school, such as that of Jules Janin in L’ne Mort, and Petrus Borel in Champavert. Emile Zola, for instance, in parts of his long series Les Rougon-Macquart, descends to mere thieves’ Latin and rhyparography. Emile Gaboriau, taking up that side of Balzac’s talent which devoted itself to inextricable mysteries, criminal trials, and the like, produced M. Le coq, Le Crime d’Orcival, La Degringolade, &c.; and Adolphe Belot for a time endeavoured to out-Feydeau Feydeau in La Femme de Feu and other works. Of a different stamp, and less of a mere exaggerator, is Victor Cherbuliez, who has produced in Le Roman d’une hone Femme a good novel of the analytic class, and in Le Comte Kostia, Ladislas Bolski, &c., less successful romances of incident. Gustave Droz deserves praise for extraordinary witty and finely drawn domestic sketches, and Alphonse Daudet has written novels of manners the popularity of which is too recent to allow us to judge its chances of continuance.

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