The novel in the nineteenth century has yielded itself to every tendency of the age; it has endeavoured to revive the past, to paint the present, to embody a social or political doctrine, to express private and personal sentiment, to analyse the processes of the heart, to idealise life in the magic mirror of the imagination. The literature of prose fiction produced by writers who felt the influence of the romantic movement tended on the one hand towards lyrism, the passionate utterance of individual emotion—George Sand's early tales are conspicuous examples; on the other hand it turned to history, seeking to effect a living and coloured evocation of former ages. The most impressive of these evocations was assuredly Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris. It was not the earliest; Vigny's Cinq-Mars preceded Notre-Dame by five years. The writer had laboriously mastered those details which help to make up the romantic mise en scène; but he sought less to interpret historical truth by the imagination than to employ the material of history as a vehicle for what he conceived to be ideal truth. In Mérimée's Chronique de Charles IX. (1829), which also preceded Hugo's romance, the historical, or, if not this, the archæological spirit is present; it skilfully sets a tale of the imagination in a framework of history.
Hugo's narratives are eminent by virtue of his imagination as a poet; they are lyrical, dramatic, epic; as a reconstitution of history their value is little or is none. The historical novel fell into the hands of Alexandre Dumas. No one can deny the brilliance, the animation, the bustle, the audacity, the inexhaustible invention of Les Trois Mousquetaires and its high-spirited fellows. There were times when no company was so inspiriting to us as that of the gallant Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. Let the critics assure us that Dumas' history is untrue, his characters superficial, his action incredible; we admit it, and we are caught again by the flash of life, the fanfaronade of adventure. We throw Eugène Sue to the critics that we may save Alexandre Dumas. But Dumas' brain worked faster than his hand—or any human hand—could obey its orders; the mine of his inventive faculty needed a commercial company and an army of diggers for its exploitation. He constituted himself the managing director of this company; twelve hundred volumes are said to have been the output of the chief and his subordinates; the work ceased to be literature, and became mere commerce. The money that Dumas accumulated he recklessly squandered. Half genius, half charlatan, his genius decayed, and his charlatanry grew to enormous proportions. Protected by his son, he died a poor man amid the disasters of the Franco-Prussian war.