19th-century French Poets and Novelists (Part I) | G.W.M. Reynolds

A Reprint of an Article by George W.M. Reynolds

Part One.

The “Quarterly Review” some time ago put forth a fulminating article against French novels.[1] In this article the origin of political revolution in France was attributed to the depraved taste of the nation with regard to literature, a proposition no less ridiculous than unfounded. To suppose that the insurrection of 1830,—an insurrection having for its object the working of a great and glorious change in the liberties of a mighty people,—depended on the licentiousness of novels and dramas, is to believe that the heated imaginations of men were fired rather by the contents of a circulating library than influenced by a just sense of wrong and oppression. That certain political pamphlets or articles in liberal journals may more or less guide the public mind, and teach the indolent and careless to think for themselves, is certain; but that works abounding with voluptuousness and licentiousness can produce the same results is a speculation as palpably false, as it is adventurously put forward.

Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” (Wikimedia Commons)

These preliminary remarks may seem to imply an acknowledgment on our parts, that the aspersion generally cast on French novels by the writer in the “Quarterly Review” is correct and well founded. Such acknowledgment, however, we do not mean to make unconditionally nor without qualification.

The writer in the “Quarterly” has a most marvellous facility of stringing together a variety of epithets that we only expect to see in the police reports of the “Weekly Dispatch” or “Bell’s Life in London.” “A vulgar, stupid, and ugly maid-servant of an obscure house had attractions for Jean Jacques Rousseau;” and what then? Why, it follows that his taste was not the best in the world, and that this, as far as regarded himself, was a matter more to deplore than to condemn. “A baser, meaner, filthier scoundrel never polluted society than Rousseau.” This is partially true: but does the fact depreciate the value of his excellent writings? Is it not the substance of the book we look at, and not the man who wrote it? Supposing it had been published anonymously, would the world have found its style more faultless, its argument more pointed, its elucidations more clear, and its exposition of tyranny and injustice more palpable than while it bore his name? And are the theories of the “Contrat Social” as vain, as absurd, and as fatal in their practice as the writer in the “Quarterly” would endeavour to make them appear? No—for the sovereignty of the people is indisputably the people’s right; and no one can deny a nation’s privilege to choose its own governors. As for Rousseau’s works, in which he attacks the fundamental principles and the excellence of the doctrines of the Christian religion, who shall dare, in times of research and enterprise, to revile a man because, not having any power over volition, he differs in his sectarian principles from the rest of a small portion of the denizens of earth? It is only from the propagation of theories that correct systems arise. The diversified speculations of men afford grounds for the thinking philosopher to arrive at axioms and to banish doubts. Had Tycho Bréhé never written, Copernicus would have remained silent: had not the industrious Newton investigated the errors of Descartes, the world might still have been in comparative darkness relative to many propositions now demonstrated.

But, according to the “Quarterly,” had a revolution taken place in England some fifty or sixty years ago, it might have been attributed to the works of Fielding and Smollett; at least this is a parallel to the reasoning of the said “Quarterly.” But we beg to inform our readers that no French novels contain such indecent pictures nor such gross language as are to be met with in the writings of those authors; and, to go back two centuries and a half, in no French dramas are there found scenes equal in licentiousness to those that the reader meets with in “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” “Cymbeline,” “Troilus and Cressida,” &c., of Shakespeare.

After some rambling abuse, equally remarkable for its want of talent and of truth, the writer in the “Quarterly” commences his grand cannonade with a formidable attack on M. Charles Paul de Kock. We are far from quoting the works of this author as specimens of morality, but we mean to assert that the occasional scenes, where a certain looseness prevails, are not so essentially prejudicial to the cause of virtue and of temperance, nor painted in such glowing colours, as the critic in the “Quarterly” would seem to infer. As for any vulgarity of style, Paul de Kock’s wit cannot be called vulgar nor low: but we strongly suspect that the said critic is not very familiar with the French language, and consequently is not aware of the exact meaning of certain words which he fancies to have certain parallels in his own tongue. We could give many instances of this nature, but prefer leaving our readers to the results of their own reflections. In “Le Barbier de Paris” there are many admirable touches of deep feeling; the whole is a true picture of human life in these ages of chivalry and barbarism in which the scene is laid; and if Walter Scott consecrated the actions of the savage and licentious ruffians of the olden time, who were called “gentle knights,” P. de Kock has not at least been guilty of exaggeration in his delineation of the good and bad qualities of ancient characters, morals, and manners. But as de Kock is one of the most important and most celebrated of French novelists, we shall proceed to examine his principal works in detail.

The writings of Paul de Kock are numerous. Amongst his best are “Le Barbier de Paris,” “Soeur Anne,” “Jean,” “M. Dupont,” and “Le Cocu.” The first of these here enumerated is a romance somewhat in the Radcliffe style;—the adoption, by a barber, of a girl whose father is unknown, a secret source of wealth which the barber possesses, then a marquis, to whose vicious pleasures the barber is a pander. That marquis falls in love with Blanche, the adopted girl, an enlévement necessarily succeeds, and the dénouement of the tale elucidates the mysteries in the regular German fashion. Touquet, the barber, has murdered the supposed father of Blanche, and Blanche is the marquis’s daughter. The last chapter is peculiarly interesting. Blanche is immured in a chamber in the marquis’s country-house—the window of that chamber looks upon a lake; she is resolved how to act, should the nobleman dare attempt to force the door of her apartment, and she expects the succour of her lover Urban, who is actually in the vicinity of the chateau. Presently the marquis approaches the door of her room; but it is to embrace her whom he has only a few moments ago discovered to be his child. Blanche trembles, but she has decided in her own mind what step to take. She fancies the intended ravisher of innocence is near, and she leaps from the window; the lake receives her beneath. Her lover, who is in the park, sees the fall and throws himself into the water. He succeeds in dragging her to the land; and at that moment the marquis, who had followed his daughter, swam also on shore. They endeavoured to recover her; the one implored her to open her eyes in the name of a parent, the other in that of a lover. But Blanche answered not—the vital spark had fled, and she remained a corpse between the two individuals who deplored her.

(c) Gallica-BNF

There is one very excellent character in the “Barber of Paris ;” it is the Chevalier Chaudoreille, who never opens his lips but to tell a lie. He is employed by the barber in a variety of ways, and universally endeavours to pass himself off as a great man. “Those women,” said he, “those women, cadédis!” (his favourite oath) “are ruinous! Sacredié! were it not for them I should be rich; but I ruin myself for their smiles. Eh! bien—never mind: I have only to look kindly with my killing eyes upon some duchess or dowager, and I can be bravely clad in a minute.” This worthy gentleman is a native of Gascony, and of course as great a rogue as he is a liar. Paul de Kock is fond of lashing the failings of men through the medium of characters of this kind. He shows us the folly of assuming that which we are not entitled to; he represents the inconsistency of affecting the rich and the valiant, the gallant and the gay, when both pocket and stomach are empty. Chaudoreille, who proclaims himself a very raffiné d’honneur, is the greatest coward in the world. Hence may we learn to mistrust the empty vaunts and superficial boastings of those individuals who “have killed their man,” or who “are ready to go out whenever they have an opportunity.”

“ Soeur Anne” is a most affecting tale. A poor dumb girl becomes the victim of the seducer’s desires. The son and heir of a rich nobleman succeeds in possessing himself of her person, and although he faithfully remains near her during the first few months of illicit pleasure, circumstances oblige him eventually to return home to the paternal dwelling. Time wears away; he marries; and “Sister Anne” leaves her cottage, to go to Paris and seek her lover. A thousand perils is she obliged to encounter; a hundred difficulties is she condemned to experience. Her lover’s wife is in the country and she finds her way accidentally to the mansion of Celine, for that is the name of her successful rival, and by that rival she is received in friendship, in ignorance of who she is. Her lover is away from home; he returns—then comes the sad dénouement of the tale. “Sister Anne” has a child, the fruit of her illicit amour, and she and her infant sleep in a wing detached from the main body of the house. Her apartment catches fire—she is with her lover in the garden—the sight of the devouring flames unties her tongue—and, as an accident originally struck her dumb, so now a similar occurrence restores her long-lost faculty of speech. “My child—my child—oh! save my child!” and the child is saved: but “Soeur Anne” lives not to see it grow, nor to hear the word “Mother” from its lisping tongue—she dies in early youth, broken-hearted, and only consoled by the assurance of a paternal home for her child.

Dubourg in “Soeur Anne” is the parallel to Chaudoreille in “Le Barbier de Paris;” but his character is, if anything, more amusing; and the various shifts to which he and a poor tutor are reduced, in order to obtain wherewith to support life, the ridiculous impositions put upon that tutor (Ménard) by Dubourg, and the infamous lies he is the author of, added to the dilemmas into which he works himself and his companions by means of his falsehoods—these again point out useful lessons, afford good examples, and place the vices of the world forcibly in their proper light.

“Jean” is exquisitely witty. In few of his works has Paul de Kock displayed so much humour as in this. All the peculiarities of the French, youthful and aged, are brought to view. The first chapter is delicious; M. Durand, a herbalist, is called up in the middle of the night to fetch the doctor and the nurse for his wife, who is about to give birth to a child. M. Durand is not the bravest man in existence; and as he traverses one of the streets of Paris, he sees a drunken wretch reeling about in that glorious state which defies all control. The attenuated imagination of M. Durand instantly converts the drunkard into a thief so that the poor herbalist takes to his heels, and hurries towards the street where the nurse lives. He forgets the number of the house, and, in his affright, he knocks at the Tosi of several, crying out “La garde! la garde!” (The nurse! the nurse!) which also means “The guard! the guard!” He arrives home without any accident, and gives his wife, and a neighbour who has kindly dropped in, a fine description of his walk, or rather run. Meantime the labour-pains increase: a loud knocking at the front door seems to promise the assistance of the nurse or the doctor; the door opens, and as Madame Durand gives birth to a son, who should enter the room but a corporal and four soldiers, crying in a terrible voice, “Where are the robbers?”

The fact was, that the neighbourhood, alarmed by the cries of Durand in the street, and hearing him hallooing after “la garde!” fancied he was summoning military assistance instead of a nurse; and up to the period when the history takes leave of her, the servant continually declared that Monsieur Durand had expressly called in a regiment of soldiers to see his wife brought to bed.

There are some admirable characters in “Jean.” Belle-queue the retired barber, Mistigris the dancing-master, and father Chopard, are exquisite. There is also Madame Ledoux, the widow of three husbands, and the mother of fourteen children. In conversation she universally alludes to the sheriffs-officer, the stationer, or the cabinet-maker, her departed lords; and she is continually making comparisons between other people’s children and her thirteenth, or ninth, or seventh child, she forgets which; but she declares in Madame Durand’s case that she has never known so military an accouchement. She had heard of military funerals, military weddings, but never of military births.

John, the hero of this novel, is at first a good-for-nothing fellow, who does nought but drink, smoke, play billiards, and spend money, He is moreover fond of all childish tricks, and swears most horribly. But love, all-powerful love, before whose darts fall vanquished kings, princes, and nobles—love,

Who rules the court, the camp, the grove,

And men below, and saints above;

For love is heav’n, and heav’n is love—

love makes him reflect, causes him to look into himself, shows him to himself in all his deformity of manners and habits, and obliges him to abandon his low-life pursuits: in fine, he becomes an altered man. The conclusion is easily divined. How should the novel end save in a marriage? The lady, Caroline Dorville, the object of Jean’s attachment, becomes sensible of the youth’s merits since his change of behaviour; she also entertains a reciprocal attachment, and, despite of the mean devices of their enemies, they are united in matrimonial bonds.

“Where is the moral,” the “Quarterly Review” may ask, “in this novel?” The moral is, that however bad our propensities may be, however degraded are our associates, however vicious our pursuits, repentance is seldom too late, and a joyous dawn may brighten on the clouds of an obscure night. Paul de Kock knows well how to keep up the interest of his tales till the last. In those where there are mysteries, few would guess the dénouement; and in those where there are not, the mind is never wearied of dwelling upon the work, although no elucidation of anything as yet unaccounted for be anticipated at the end. We know but very few novels where there is no mystery, and only one where there is no heroine; this is “Caleb Williams,” for Miss Melville cannot be called the heroine of the tale; her history is merely an episode. We know many books written for amusement and not for instruction, where there is no heroine, but only that one novel.

Even to the events and the adventures of childhood M. de Kock gives an essential interest. The early years of Jean are the most amusing parts of the book. But let us say one word upon “M. Dupont.”

Monsieur Dupont is a grocer, and he falls in love, very naturally, with a beautiful girl, whose nomenclature is far from sentimental. “‘Miss Montounet”—atrocious appellation!—has, however, her own cher ami, Adolphe. Adolphe is the unsuccessful suitor—Dupont becomes the bridegroom. And here there are certain details of the marriage ceremony which decency obliges us to pass over: suffice it to say that M. Dupont insists upon having thistles tied to the horses’ tails, and nosegays placed between their ears. The occasional remarks of an old clerk, Bidois, are particularly piquant. In this character Paul de Kock combines much of humour, honesty, and curiosity: Bidois has all the wit of Dubourg and Chaudoreille, without their viciousness; and his patience on many occasions is worthy of an imitator of the ancient Job. Distress and sorrow on the part of Eugéne, late Eugéne Montounet, now Dupont, are the consequences of the marriage; and she dreams of nothing but Adolphe, whom poverty had rendered unsuccessful in his suit. She moreover bars her doors against Dupont, and the disconsolate husband in vain wishes for an heir to his wealth. Circumstances oblige Dupont to undertake a journey to a distant town; in the meantime Eugéne has proofs of Adolphe’s infidelity; she sees him with a mistress, and repents of her conduct towards her lawful husband. She therefore writes to Dupont, and tells him of her change of disposition in his favour. The enraptured Dupont hastens to return to his wife; his speed gives occasion for many pleasant remarks and many laughable occurrences on the road; and the publicity he gave to the object of his journey afforded much amusement to the innkeepers and servants whom he encountered at the various hotels. But, alas! Dupont never reached his home! By means of a power which authors have at their control, and which they can use at discretion to disembarrass themselves of troublesome characters in their works, even as the immortal Shakespeare was fain to do with Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet;” by means of death, for an author’s agency in such dilemmas is no other, Paul de Kock gets rid of Dupont and concludes his tale with the happy reconciliation of Eugéne and Adolphe (who is now a rich man through the decease of an uncle), and their speedy union. From this narrative parents may learn how useless and dangerous it is to thwart the inclinations of their children; and old men will see the folly of making young girls miserable by entangling them in a matrimonial web, which the unfortunate victims of hoary lust or paternal avarice regard as the fly does the dwelling of the spider, while the old husband is as obnoxious as the spider itself.

Having expended a considerable portion of his venom on Paul de Kock, the critic in the “Quarterly” proceeds to attack Victor Hugo, and asserts without advancing one iota of any kind of proof, without even quoting one passage from the book, that “ ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ is an imitation of Walter Scott, whom it resembles as much as Goose Gibbie in his helmet and buff coat might resemble the noble chivalry of Lord Evandale.” We are therefore to suppose, first, that because the scenes of “Quentin Durward” and “Notre Dame de Paris” are laid in the time of Louis the Eleventh of France, and that “Quentin Durward” was written prior to the other work, “Notre Dame de Paris” is consequently an imitation of “Quentin Durward;” and secondly, because the critic declares the romance of Victor Hugo to be despicable when compared with the novel of Walter Scott, that we must believe him and allow his opinion to be infallible. But he has no right to make an assertion which illiberal prejudices occasioned, without advancing some argument to support it; for if he think that the mere fact of his article being in the “Quarterly” will consecrate misrepresentation, he is essentially mistaken.

Victor Hugo (Wikimedia Commons)

The romantic genius of Victor Hugo is appalled by no literary undertaking, and shrinks from no labour, however difficult, however grand be the subject. We maintain that he has successfully competed with the our Northern writer now no more; we have seen him throw round a low girl—an obscure being—that halo of all-absorbing interest which hitherto had been attached to queens or princesses, and which never may be forgotten by him who has read “Notre Dame de Paris.” But the age of romance has yielded to a brighter one—when facts are less darkened by the shadows of gloom, of terror, and of mystery, which the votaries of the Maturin and the Radcliffe schools, following the example of their German predecessors, were delighted to mingle amongst the incidents of their tales. Victor Hugo attempted to revive in part that exploded style, and to introduce fresh horrors[2] to the world instead of the light, the witty, and the captivating novels so successfully produced by some of his cotemporary countrymen. As well might he have endeavoured to propagate for any length of time the physics of Descartes or the theories of Leibnitz. He failed—and he stood, and he stands alone as the patron of a school whose decay is not to be deplored.

George W M Reynolds’s translation of Songs of Twilight (1836)

He has since flown to the other resources of his richly treasured mind, like the bee vacillating from flower to flower whence he collects the varied stores that are soon to become the delight of men. But if he have not been so eminent in tragedy as the strength of his former writings seemed to prognosticate, we may scarcely marvel; for there is that same vein of romance, that soul-harrowing interest, that “pleasing pain,” that love of aught terrible, pervading his plays, which originally marked his novels. Still the language of many passages in these plays is striking, powerful, affecting, or beautiful; let us quote an instance. The sentence we would cite is in “Lucrece Borgia”—it is addressed by a son to his mother—a son who is not aware that he is speaking to his mother:—

“I know that I have a mother, and that she is unhappy; and willingly would I lay down my present life to see her weep, and all my future hopes in another to see her smile.” Sublimity, tenderness, hope, despair, passion, and energy, are all combined in these few words!

Victor Hugo’s last work is the “Songs of Twilight.” We have carefully perused this volume, and have reperused it with pleasure. But the object of its contents is not to be understood by a superficial reader, who, when he had arrived at the conclusion, would ask, “Wherefore are they called ‘Chants du Crepuscule?’ ” And many might ask the same question for “An Ode to the Heroes of the 29th of July”—another “To the Column in the Place Vendome”—another “To the Duke of Orleans,” and so on—these seem totally unconnected with the title of the book. But the title is explanatory of the nature of the songs; for their object is to show how the present age hovers so strangely between a state of barbarism and a state of civilization—how the mind of man and society in general are so enveloped in a species of enlightened gloom, doubt and conviction, hope and fear, dread and callousness, knowledge and ignorance, freedom and slavery, that the actual condition of the world resembles twilight. “Hence,” as the author says in his preface,

“the reader may account for those tender couplets closed by others of complaint—that calmness touched with melancholy—those sighs of delight—that feebleness suddenly reviving—that resigned infelicity—those profound sorrows which excite the very surface of the sea of poetry—those political tumults contemplated with serenity—those holy wanderings from public to domestic matters—that dread of mundane affairs proceeding darkly, and then again those intervals of joyous and burning hope that the human species yet may flourish to excel.”—Pref. p. 2.

Hugo’s verses are harmonious, but his sentiments are occasionally commonplace—his meaning is often obscure, his similes frequently feeble, and his satire robbed by mystification of half its point. On the other hand, a pure patriotic feeling of national pride, a just idea of political rights and liberties, a dread of absolute power, an admiration of all that is virtuous,—these are the principal merits of the author. The conversations in the “Songs of Twilight,” or “Chants du Cree puscule,”—conversations over which the scheme of poetic fiction, hyperbole, and amplification, throws an essential interest, although the realities of life and of mundane affairs be more attended to than the serene sympathy and unison of feeling existing between a lover and his mistress,—conversations, where the plenitude of deep thought is too frequently embarrassed with moralizing speculations and religious controversy but little suited to the schools of love; those conversations are replete with beautiful imagery and brilliant metaphor.

But we have already said sufficient on Victor Hugo’s last work: and now let us return to the abuse of the “Quarterly,” still following its criticisms on the same author. In that periodical we find “Le Dernier Jour d’un Condamné” vituperated, the reader will never guess wherefore,—simply because it is printed “in a diffuse style, divided into many chapters; and each chapter is so short and so carefully separated by blank leaves and open spaces, that of 312 pages, of which the volume consists, there are but 158, or about one-half, of letter-press.” Now as the article in the “Quarterly” is intended to be an attack on authors, and not on printers and publishers, we cannot conceive an imagination so depraved as one that can invent a sentence like that above quoted; as if Victor Hugo attended to the arrangements made by Monsieur Eugene Renduel, publisher, who purchased the copyright. The fact is that “Le Dernier Jour d’un Condamné” is one of the most useful books[3] lately published. Its principal aim is to deter men from committing crimes of so black a nature as to endanger their lives in the grasp of criminal justice, and by representing the tortures of a condemned malefactor’s mind as he draws nearer towards the fatal day, M. Hugo hoped to work a favourable impression on those individuals whose souls are deaf to the whisperings of virtue and callous to the stings of conscience. Moreover the language is fine, the ideas often grand in their conception, and the interest excited by the work unbroken, although there be no regularly connected tale.

My copy of G W M Reynolds’s translation of Le Dernier Jour d’un Condamné

With regard to “Notre Dame de Paris,” much might be said in its favour; and we would rather consult its pages as authority relative to the court of Louis XI than trust to the statements of “Quentin Durward.” The character of Esmeralda is one of the brightest inventions that ever gave lustre and interest to the work of a novelist; and certainly we must rather believe that in those times the knights and warriors were more like Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers than Quentin Durward. Quasimodo is inimitable, Claude Frolbo alone does infinite credit to the imaginative powers of any writer, and the dénouement is executed with extreme power and energy. The fifth edition of this work, consisting of thirteen thousand copies, is now nearly sold off. We were assured by Eugéne Renduel himself, that he gave 60,000 francs, or 2,400l. sterling, for the copyright of this edition only.

Having thus far combated the false reasoning and rectified the misrepresentations in the “Quarterly,” relative to French authors, we shall postpone the conclusion of our article to the next number of our magazine, and shall then take an opportunity of examining the writings of Alexandre Dumas, Lamartine, George Sand, and De Balzac.

[1] G.W.M. Reynolds, ‘The French Poets and Novelists’, The Monthly Magazine, May 1837, 524–32.

[2] Witness “Bug Jargal” and “Hans d’Island.”’

[3] This novel was published about ten years ago.—Ed.

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