France - Fiction And Firesides
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
" DO Frenchmen ever work ? " once a clever English friend asked me. " According to novels, the only occupation of men over the water is to run after other men's wives " !
French writers of fiction stand as culprits at the bar. So gravely have they sinned against truth and the fitness of things that the average novel must be accepted as a travesty, no more resembling French domestic life than the traditional caricature of John Bull by our neighbours resembles the typical Englishman. Were middle-class homes, indeed, of a piece with certain portraitures, the words " family " and " fireside " were mere figures of speech and simulacra over the water.
The misconceptions created by so-called realistic novels are almost ineradicable. In an enthusiastic work on French expansion by a naturalized Frenchman, the writer implores his literary brethren to weigh their responsibilities. "Frenchmen," he writes, "ought to set their faces uncompromisingly against turpitudes so antagonistic to national influence" (" L'Expansion Française," par M. Novikoff: Paris).
On this subject, a writer I have before quoted observed thirty years ago, "Without doubt the world described by M. Flaubert (in ` Madame Bovary') exists, but is it the whole world ? And if a novelist confines himself to holes and corners of society, as a delineator of society, can he be called truthful ?" Elsewhere he wrote of Paul Féval's once famous Fanny," " This aversion to the truth among my friends and associates alarms and afflicts me."
What would Philarète Chasles have thought of " L' Héritier " by Guy de Maupassant, Flaubert's most celebrated disciple ? In so far as style, composition, and, up to a certain point, characterization go, the story is a masterpiece. It would be difficult to find more exquisite pictures of suburban Paris, or more finely turned impressions of atmosphere. The writer's skill is to be deplored, since the incident on which the plot turns is not only nauseous in the extreme, but grotesque in its exaggeration of complacent immorality.
And what would the same critic have said to Daudet's " L'Immortel " ? Here we find ourselves in a very different social sphere to those described in " Madame Bovary" and " L'Héritier." The immorality is here of still deeper dye.
Madame Astier is the wife of an Immortel, i.e. a member of the French Academy, the highest honour to which a literary man can aspire. We are asked to believe that this woman could stint the family board of necessaries, lie, plot, and deceive her husband, even stoop to vice, for the sake of a dissolute son.
In novels of later date we find a disregard, not only of morality, but of seemliness that is positively appalling.
Take, by way of example, two stories that appeared two or three years ago---" Âme obscure " and " Le journal d'une femme de chambre." Well may stay-at-home readers ask themselves the question, Does the word " home," as we understand it, really exist in France ? Yet both these loathesome works have found admiring critics. It was on the strength of a review in a Paris newspaper that I ordered the first, and the second was lauded to the skies in an English review.
There is also another point to be considered. No wave of Puritanism has ever swept over French life and literature. As a contemporary philosopher writes, " France missed her Reformation, and the consequences are felt to this day" (M. Coste, "Sociologie Objective" Clarifying, refining influences must come from other sources.
It is hardly necessary to say that such works are not found upon drawing-room tables on the other side of the channel. In the case of young daughters, maternal censor-ship is rigid, the Russian blacking-out system not more so. Objectionable fiction finds its public among "young men about town," rich ne'er-do-wells, idlers generally, and among old and pious ladies, who, having led immaculate and somewhat prosy existences, are anxious to know disreputable folks and their ways from hearsay. The native patronage of such novels would not, however, suffice to keep their authors going. As M. Novikoff explains in the volume before mentioned, French fiction of this kind sells much more largely beyond the frontier than on French soil. Russia is by far the best customer of the so-called realistic novelist, Germany and England following suit. Any one who has lived among our neighbours must have come to this conclusion unaided by statistics. Thrifty folks will think twice before spending three francs and a half on a book to be thrown away when read. If occasionally middle-class Darbies and Joans do purchase a volume only mentionable among their contemporaries, they will thus indulge themselves out of sheer curiosity, and enjoy a new sensation.
Vice and crime have, of course, their thickly populated walks in France as elsewhere. The sanctity of home is guarded jealously as the gates of Paradise by flaming brand. Not wider apart the, fragrant valley of Roenabed and the ebon halls of Eblis in Beckfords wonderful tale, than French family life and Bohemia, whether gilded or tatterdemalion. I.
It is characteristic of the French mind to seek vicarious emotion, and enjoy what is called les sublimes horreurs (" sublime horrors"). Here we have an explanation of other proclivities, among these the enthusiasm for Sarah Bernhardt's most harrowing rôles.
I well remember, when in Algeria many years ago, visiting with a friend an old lady just upon ninety. As she sunned herself in the garden, she had on her lap perhaps the "creepiest " book—as boys would say—ever written, " Les derniers jours d'un Condamné."
" Not very lively reading that," observed my companion ; the other replying
" Mais quel récit saissisant ! " (" But what an enthral-ling narrative ! ").
But the existence of such novels as " Une âme obscure," and " Le journal d'une femme de chambre" requires further elucidation. Why should capable, above all reputed, writers fix upon themes alike in subject and treatment so grotesquely untrue to life and so repellent ?
The plain truth of the matter is, that average existence, especially middle-class existence, in France is too uneventful, too eminently respectable, for sensational or dramatic handling. In support of this theory let me instance two contemporary writers, both to the fore in literary ranks.
M. Hanotaux lately published a delightful volume of sketches not quite felicitously titled " L' énergie Française." In one exquisitely worded chapter, he sketches daily routine in an ancient cathedral city. Monotonous as was the domestic round of " Cranford " and " Our village," it must be set down as "a giddy round of vain delights " compared with that of Laon.
All who have lived in +French country towns and villages realize the veracity of the picture. So slowly the clock often moves, so unbroken is the sameness of week after week, that a catastrophe, the unforeseen, seem positively banished from French soil. Take another picture of everyday life from the pen of that usually incisive writer, Edouard Rod.
Minded to produce a story after the English model, that is to say, one that should be irreproachable, M. Rod gives us " Mademoiselle Annette," which can no more be compared in interest and vivacity to the " Small House at Allington," or " The Chronicles of Carlingford," than Daudet's " Jack " can be compared to the David Copper-field " of his great forerunner and model.
Prosiest of prosy stories, in truth, is " Mademoiselle Annette," not a touch of romance, humour, or moving pathos enlivening its pages. Only the genius of a Balzac could have made such dry bones to live. The theme of " Eugènie Grandet " is hardly more exciting, yet that story is one of undying interest. Balzac stands absolutely alone as an exponent of bourgeois life, and vile although are many types, others are of singular beauty and elevation ---the village priest in the " Curé du Village," the charming wife of César Birotteau, Docteur Benassis, and many others.
Society is so constituted in France that the novelist is thus forced back upon the exceptional and far-fetched, the annals of vice and crime. Nowadays readers require a different sensationalism in literature to that furnished by their predecessors Eugène, Sue, and Dumas. And as French firesides are the reverse of sensational, popular writers look for inspiration elsewhere.
Whilst being in no sense an apology for the bad novel, such a fact may be accepted as, at least, partly explanative. We must remember that there are no romantic marriages in France, very little that falls under the head of love-making, and nothing whaterver that answers to German schwärmerci, an intensive expression of our own sentimentality. To be fantasque, that is to say, to have romantic, unconventional notions, is a term of severe reproach ; woe be to that Frenchwoman who incurs it.
Tradition, bringing up, material interests, are all opposed to the freedom which renders English girlhood a prolific theme for the novelist. No well-bred French girl ever enjoys an innocent flirtation, much more a harmless escapade. Nor must she relish them on paper till she has entered into the partnership of marriage.
Again, the domestic circle in France is essentially that, and very rarely anything more. The vast majority of middle-class folks spend their entire lives within such circumscribed limits, in no wise affected by extraneous influences. The same may be said of vast numbers with us ; but English people, no matter their rank or condition, move about more freely than our neighbours, and even those of moderate means at some time or other travel abroad. Very few English families are without Indian or colonial branches, an element considerably adding to the movement and interest of daily life.
The material of fiction in the two countries is, however, chiefly affected by social usages and ideals. The French domestic story must perforce become a roman tour jeunes filler, a story for girls. Goody-goody such tales never are ; they are often well written, and deserve the name of literature. The tragedy of life, the profound springs of action, are never therein touched upon.
When I look back upon twenty-five years' experience of French domestic life, I can only recall two incidents which a novelist could have turned to good account. The first was an affair involving family honour and good repute, several households being brought low by the malversations of one member. The second was a case of mistaken identity that very nearly proved as tragic. A young man, the son of friends, was charged with robbery and murder, and although the accusation was disproved a few hours later, the shock almost killed his father.
Both circumstances lent themselves admirably to dramatic treatment ; and more than once have I said to myself, if only a novelist had the slightest chance of being true to foreign life, here were abundant materials for my pen. Quieter themes have also tempted me from time to time. But no matter how well we may know our neighbours, English stories of French life are doomed to failure !
One novelette coming under this category affords a striking instance in point. An English writer had set himself the somewhat difficult task of describing a clerical interior, the home of a village priest. Two egregious incongruities marked the attempt.
Here was a country curé listening in the evening to Beethoven's Sonatas played by a young niece !
Now, in the first place, you might search France through without finding a piano in a rustic presbytère in the second, you would as vainly seek a village priest appreciative of German classic music ; and, thirdly, the notion of a young girl keeping house for a bachelor uncle, above all, an ecclesiastic, is in the highest degree preposterous.
French writers, when dealing with English contemporary life, are at a still greater disadvantage, so little hitherto have our neighbours cared to live amongst us. Picturesque effects, happy approximations, may be achieved on both sides. But the inmost heart of a people, inherited characteristics, national temperament, how unreachable must these ever be by an outsider.
In one class of the modern French novel a certain licence is admissible, even obligatory. I allude to the latest development of fiction in France, the novel with a purpose.
In his famous Rougon-Macquart series, Zola, from the reader's point of view, set a somewhat disconcerting example. Didactic novels are no longer entities, but part ..of a cycle. Thus a story called " Bonnes Mères " (ironical for "over-fond mothers ") was announced as the second of nine volumes, all having a distinct moral and intellectual affinity ! The story brings out in scenes alternately diverting and sordid, the exaggerated views of certain French parents concerning the marriage of their children, and the theories still upheld by clauses of the Code Civil, In " Bonnes Mères," all our sympathy is with the hero and heroine, commonplace, amiable young people, as anxious as possible to fall in love with each other after being duly married by their respective mothers, aided by two marieuses, or matchmakers. The two latter, mercenary old ladies, are represented as having the run of fashionable society, and receiving handsome sums for their matchmaking services. The unfortunate young couple soon discover that, far from escaping maternal control, wedlock has placed them under tutelage more galling. The author pleads for a revision of the Code Civil, and more individuality in the home.
" La Source Fatale " ("The fatal source "), by A. Couvreur, is the third of a series devoted to social questions. The author's purpose is set forth in his preface, namely, to expose " the alcoholic scourge that crowds our prisons, hospitals, and lunatic asylums, that demoralizes the race, physically, morally, and mentally."
We have here the powerful picture of a promising and happy life wrecked by absinthe- drinking. M. Couvreur sets to work scientifically and philosophically. His hero's downhill career is followed stage by stage with unsparing detail and accurate diagnosis. The once healthful, wholesome-minded, self-controlled gentleman gradually sinks into sensual excess, sottishness, and mania, his last frenzied act being to fire tie distillery of which he was formerly secretary.
But novels with a purpose in France, as with ourselves deal with the abnormal, and are no reflex of average character and careers.
As I have already averred, French home life is unsuitable for romance. Domestic existence flows evenly as the streams beautifying native landscape, all kinds of sweet and pleasant objects reflected in their waves, but one mile very much resembling another, from source to outflow little in the way of diversity or surprise.