III. THE FRENCH NOVEL

It was this same Marivaux who gave a new form to the novel in France. In 1731 he published Part I of La Vie de Marianne. It was well received; he continued to offer further installments until 1741, when there were eleven; he left it unfinished (though he survived till 1763) because his aim had been not so much to tell a tale as to analyze character, particularly in woman, especially in love. Nothing could be more arresting than the opening scene: a band of robbers hold up a stagecoach, and kill everybody in it except Marianne, who survives to tell the story in her old age. The heroine and supposed author keeps her intriguing anonymity to the end; she transmits the manuscript to a friend with the caution, “Do not forget that you have promised never to say who I am; I wish to be known only to you.”14

As her parents were among the casualties, Marianne is brought up by a charitable bourgeoise, becomes a salesgirl in a lingerie shop, and swells into charms that arouse M. de Climal. He brings her small gifts, then costly gifts, and soon asks for her person as his reward. She rejects him, and sends back his presents after some hesitations which Marivaux describes with delicate understanding. We should have said that meanwhile she had met Climal’s nephew, M. de Valville, who has less money than his uncle, but also less years. Valville, however, keeps Marianne in suspense for a thousand pages, and goes off with another woman; at which point Marivaux’s story ends.

This was the outstanding psychological novel of eighteenth-century France, to be rivaled only by Choderlos de Laclos’ Liaisons dangereuses (1782). It recalled Mme. de La Fayette’s Princesse de Clèves (1678), hardly equaled it in delicacy of feeling or beauty of style, but surpassed it in the dissection of motive and sentiment. Here is a woman who, like Richardson’s Pamela, preserves her honor, but for its marketable worth; she knows that women have only frail and perishable values to offer for the monogamous support of the polygamous male. It is a subtler picture than Richardson’s. Pamela (1740) was begun nine years after Marianne, and may have been influenced by it; in return Richardson’s Clarissa (1747) helped Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse.

Marivaux reflected the sturdy and cautious morals of the middle class; Crébillon fils found his interest in the reckless license of the aristocracy. Known as “Crébillon le gai” in contrast to his father, “Crébillon le tragique” (who called his son the worst of his many productions), Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon grew up in the Paris of the Regency, whose morals quite outweighed his Jesuit education. For several years he shared his father’s garret, ravens, dogs, and cats. In 1734, aged twenty-seven, he achieved fame by his novel L’Écumoire—The Surface-Skimmer; this might have been the title of all his heroes and books, for in them love, as Chamfort put it, is merely the “contact of two skins.”15 The story was laid in Japan, but it was so transparent a satire on Church and state in France, and on the tiny Duchesse du Maine (“the Fairy Cucumber”), that Cardinal Fleury banished him from Paris for five years.

Returning, the author issued in 1740 his most notorious novel, Le Sopha, which earned him a briefer banishment. The scene was Agra, but the morals were Parisian. The “sultan” is bored, and calls for stories. The young courtier Amanzei obliges by telling how, in a previous incarnation, he had been a sofa; and he recalls some of the sins that had tested his springs. The succession of adulteries is increasingly detailed. Crébillon took special delight in the story of Almahide and Mochles, who, after verbose boasting of their chastity, confess that their thoughts are as unchaste as other people’s conduct; they conclude that there could be no greater guilt in the action than in the thought; whereupon they suit the deed to the word. This, however, was an exceptional case; Crébillon’s women usually require some financial quid for their quo; so Amina counted her quid carefully, and “complied with her lover’s desire only after she had made quite sure that he had not blundered in his arithmetic.”16

The book had its calculated success, and found readers in many languages, all addicted to irregular conjugations. Laurence Sterne confessed to having been influenced by the novels of Crébillon; Horace Walpole preferred them to Fielding’s; the virtuous Thomas Gray’s conception of Paradise was “to read eternally new romances by Marivaux and Crébillon.”17 Lady Henrietta Stafford rushed over from England, became Crébillon’s mistress, the mother of his child, then his wife; we are told that he “made her a model husband.”18 In 1752 he joined Alexis Piron and Charles Collé in founding the Caveau (Cave), a club for gay wits notable for irreverence and pranks. In 1759, by a reductio ad absurdum, he was appointed royal censor of literature; and when, after irritating delays, his father died (1762), the son inherited his pension. All’s well that ends well.

Crébillon’s books lost their popularity long before his death, but meanwhile a learned cleric had written a novel that still lives and moves today. The life of Antoine François Prévost d’Exiles, known as the Abbé Prévost, was as varied and troubled as the careers that came from his pen. Born in Artois in 1697, educated by the Jesuits, he became a novice in the Jesuit order (1713), left it to join the army, worked his way up to a commission, fell in love, suffered a broken heart, and became a Benedictine monk (1719) and priest (1726). Thenceforth, marvelous to relate, he supported himself almost entirely by his pen.

Even before abandoning monastic life he had begun a romance, Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité, of which the first four volumes were published at Paris in 1728. After a year in England he moved to Holland. In 1730 he began to publish a second romance, Le Philosophe anglais, ou Histoire de Monsieur Cleveland, fils naturel de Cromwell; this—one of the earliest historical novels—he drew out to eight volumes in the next nine years. In 1731 he published at Amsterdam Volumes V-VII of theMémoires;Volume VII was separately published at Paris (1731) as Les Aventures du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, par Monsieur D. It was forbidden by the French government, and entered at once upon its still continuing popularity. “Paris,” we are told, “went wild over it; … people rushed for the book as if to a fire.”19

The story of Manon is enclosed in a clumsy mechanism of make-believe. Twelve prostitutes are in a vehicle en route to Le Havre for deportation to America. The Marquis, the nameless “man of quality” who is supposed to author all seven volumes of theMémories, is struck by the beauty of one of the girls, whose face is later described as one “that could bring back the world to idolatry.”20 He sees also the desolate Chevalier des Grieux, who gazes in tears at his former mistress, Manon, and mourns that he is too bankrupt to follow her into exile. The Marquis, doubly touched, gives Des Grieux four louis d’or, which enabled the Chevalier to accompany Manon to Louisiana. Two years later the Marquis sees him at Calais, and takes him home. The remainder of the little volume is Des Grieux’s account of his romance.

He was an exemplary, wellborn youth, who excelled in everything at college in Amiens. His parents intended him for the order of the Knights of Malta, and in their fond hopes “they already had me wearing the Cross.”21 But Manon passed by, and all was changed. She was then fifteen; he was seventeen, and “had never given a thought to the difference of the sexes.” This arrested development was at once accelerated. Manon tells him that she has been sent to Amiens, against her will, to become a nun. He offers to rescue her; they elope to Paris. Their mutual admiration seemed a sufficient covenant; “we dispensed with the rites of the Church, and found ourselves man and wife without having given it a thought.” His brother discovers him, has him arrested, and takes him back to the father, who informs him that Manon has already become the mistress of the banker Monsieur B. Des Grieux proposes to go and kill B.; the father locks up his son. A friend, Tiburge, comes, confirms the claim that Manon is B.’s mistress, and urges Des Grieux to take holy orders. The youth enters the Seminary of St.-Sulpice, and becomes an abbé. “I thought myself absolutely purged from the wickedness of love.” Two years later he comes up for public examination and disputation at the Sorbonne. Manon is in the audience; she makes her way to him, confesses her infidelity, but swears that she has sinned with B. only to raise money for Des Grieux. They elope again.

They take a house in suburban Chaillot. They live expensively on the sixty thousand francs received by Manon from Monsieur B.; Des Grieux, dis-abbéed and re-chevaliered, hopes to win forgiveness and francs from his father, or to inherit property on his father’s death. They are robbed, and find themselves suddenly penniless. “I realized then that one can love money without being a miser.… I knew Manon; … however faithful and fond she might be in good fortune, one could not count on her in want. She cared too much for pleasure and plenty to sacrifice them for me.”22 And he loves her more than honor. He lets her brothers teach him how to cheat at cards. He wins a small fortune, but is robbed again. Manon leaves him for a wealthy old voluptuary, explaining in a note, “I am working to make my Chevalier rich and happy.” He joins with her in a plot to get money out of the old man; they succeed, abscond, are arrested. She is committed to the common hospital as a prostitute, he is sent to a monastery. From this he escapes by shooting dead the porter who guards the gate. He borrows money and bribes the hospital attendants to let Manon escape. She vows eternal love.

When their funds are exhausted she allows a moneyed heir to set her up as mistress. She is again arrested, and Des Grieux’s father persuades the authorities to deport her. Des Grieux attempts to rescue her en route; failing, he embarks with her to New Orleans. There she learns to bear poverty, and to give Des Grieux complete fidelity. They return to the practices of religion. But the colonial governor’s son falls in love with her. As she and Des Grieux have still neglected to secure a legal marriage, the governor exercises his right to assign her to any colonist; he bids her accept his son. Des Grieux kills the son in a duel. He and Manon escape from New Orleans into the wilderness, on foot. After weary miles she faints, and dies. “For two days and two nights I stayed with my lips pressed to the face and hands of my dear Manon.” He digs her grave there with his hands, buries her, and lies down on the grave to die. But his good friend Tiburge, who meanwhile has come from France, finds him, and takes him back to Calais, to the Marquis, to tell his tale.

Manon Lescaut became the fountainhead of a Mississippi of romans larmoyants, romances wet with tears. Every woman, even if she is not “at heart a rake,” weeps over Manon’s grave and Des Grieux’s grief, forgiving her financial stratagems and his caitiff crimes. Prévost struck a new note by endowing his hero and heroine with so many faults; he made them real by baring Manon’s supreme love of pleasure, and her lover’s capacity for parasitism, cheating, theft, and homicide; she is an old type of heroine, he is assuredly a new type of hero. The book might have reached a starker power had he been left to die on Manon’s grave.

Perhaps Prévost told the story with such feeling because he had himself all the ardor of Des Grieux. It was an autobiography before the event. But he was no parasitic idler. He translated the three enormous novels of Richardson into French, and these translations inaugurated in France that craze for Richardson which found such diverse expression in Rousseau and Diderot. He translated Middleton’s Life of Cicero, and Hume’s History of England. He wrote several minor novels, and many volumes of the Histoire générale des voyages. In 1733, at Amsterdam, he fell in love with another man’s mistress. Learning that the Benedictines had secured an order for his imprisonment, he fled to England, taking the lady with him. In London he earned his bread by tutoring. On December 15 he was arrested on a charge by one of his pupils that he had forged a note for fifty pounds—a crime for which the statutory penalty was death. He was soon released, for reasons unknown. He returned to France (1734) and rejoined the Benedictine order. In 1753 he was appointed to the Priory of St.-Georges-de-Gennes.

His death, ten years later, led to a legend told as fact by his grandniece to Sainte-Beuve: that Prévost was stricken with apoplexy while walking in the woods of Chantilly; that a doctor, thinking him dead, cut him open to find the cause of his death; that Prévost was still alive, but that the post-mortem killed him.23 The story is now generally rejected.24

Prévost’s influence was immense. It shared in shaping Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse; it moved the toug-hminded, tenderhearted Diderot to write sentimental drames larmoyants; it took a completely idealistic turn in Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie;it reappeared in the Dame aux camélias (1848) of Dumas fils; it played a part in the Romantic movement till Flaubert introduced Madame Bovary (1857); and Manon still lives and dies in opera.

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