The history of the novel in the eighteenth century corresponds with the general movement of ideas; the novel begins as art, and proceeds to propagandism. ALAIN-RENÉ LESAGE, born at Sarzeau, near Vannes, in 1668, belongs as much to the seventeenth as to the eighteenth century. His life of nearly eighty years (died 1747) was the honourable life of a bourgeois, who was also a man of genius, and who maintained his own independence and that of his wife and children by the steadfast diligence of his pen. He was no passionate reformer, no preacher of ideas; he observed life and human nature with shrewd common-sense, seeing men in general as creatures in whom good and evil are mixed; his imagination combined and vivified all he had observed; and he recorded the results of his study of the world in a style admirable for naturalness and ease, though these were not attained without the careful practice of literary art.
From translations for the readers of fiction and for the theatre, he advanced to free adaptations, and from these to work which may be called truly original. Directed by the Abbé de Lyonne to Spanish literature, he endeavoured in his early plays to preserve what was brilliant and ingenious in the works of Spanish dramatists, and to avoid what was strained and extravagant. In his Crispin Rival de son Maître (1707), in which the roguish valet aspires to carry off his master's betrothed and her fortune, he borrows only the idea of Mendoza's play; the conduct of the action, the dialogue, the characters are his own. His prose story of the same year, Le Diable Boiteux, owes but little to the suggestion derived from Guevara; it is, in fact, more nearly related to the Caractères of La Bruyère; when Asmodeus discloses what had been hidden under the house-roofs of the city, a succession of various human types are presented, and, as in the case of La Bruyère, contemporaries attempted to identify these with actual living persons.
In his remarkable satiric comedy Turcaret, and in his realistic novel Gil Blas, Lesage enters into full possession of his own genius. Turcaret, ou le Financier, was completed early in 1708; the efforts of the financiers to hinder its performance served in the end to enhance its brief and brilliant success. The pitiless amasser of wealth, Turcaret, is himself the dupe of a coquette, who in her turn is the victim of a more contemptible swindler. Lesage, presenting a fragment of the manners and morals of his day, keeps us in exceedingly ill company, but the comic force of the play lightens the oppression of its repulsive characters. It is the first masterpiece of the eighteenth-century comédie de moeurs.
Much of Lesage's dramatic work was produced only for the hour or the moment—pieces thrown off, sometimes with brilliance and wit, for the Théâtres de la Foire, where farces, vaudevilles, and comic opera were popular. They served to pay for the bread of his household. His great comedy, however, a comedy in a hundred acts, is the story of Gil Blas. Its composition was part of his employment during many years; the first volumes appeared in 1715, the last volume in 1735. The question of a Spanish original for the story is settled—there was none; but from Spanish fiction and from Spanish history Lesage borrowed what suited his purpose, without in any way compromising his originality. To the picaresque tales (and among these may be noted a distant precursor of Gil Blas in the Francion of Charles Sorel) he added his own humanity, and in place of a series of vulgar adventures we are given a broad picture of social life; the comedy of manners and intrigue grows, as the author proceeds, into a comedy of character, and to this something of the historical novel is added. The unity of the book is found in the person of Gil Blas himself: he is far from being a hero, but he is capable of receiving all impressions; he is an excellent observer of life, his temper is bright, he is free from ill-nature; we meet in him a pleasant companion, and accompany him with sympathy through the amusing Odyssey of his varied career.
As a moralist Lesage is the reverse of severe, but he is far from being base. "All is easy and good-humoured," wrote Sir Walter Scott, "gay, light, and lively; even the cavern of the robbers is illuminated with a ray of that wit with which Lesage enlightens his whole narrative. It is a work which renders the reader pleased with himself and with mankind, where faults are placed before him in the light of follies rather than vices, and where misfortunes are so interwoven with the ludicrous that we laugh in the very act of sympathising with them." In the earlier portion incidents preponderate over character; in the close, some signs of the writer's fatigue appear. Of Lesage's other tales and translations, Le Bachelier de Salamanque (1736) takes deservedly the highest rank.
With PIERRE CARLET DE CHAMBLAIN DE MARIVAUX (1688-1763) the novel ceases to be primarily a study of manners or a romance of adventures; it becomes an analysis of passions to which manners and adventures are subordinate. As a journalist he may be said to have proceeded from Addison; by his novels he prepared the way for Richardson and for Rousseau. His early travesties of Homer and of Fénelon's Télémaque seem to indicate a tendency towards realism, but Marivaux's realism took the form not so much of observation of society in its breadth and variety as of psychological analysis. If he did not know the broad highway of the heart, he traversed many of its secret paths. His was a feminine spirit, delicate, fragile, curious, unconcerned about general ideas; and yet, while untiring in his anatomy of the passions, he was not truly passionate; his heart may be said to have been in his head.
In the opening of the eighteenth century there was a revival of preciosity, which Molière had never really killed, and in the salon of Madame de Lambert, Marivaux may have learned something of his metaphysics of love and something of his subtleties or affectations of style. He anticipates the sensibility of the later part of the century; but sensibility with Marivaux is not profound, and it is relieved by intellectual vivacity. His conception of love has in it not a little of mere gallantry. Like later eighteenth-century writers, he at once exalts "virtue," and indulges his fancy in a licence which does not tend towards good morals or manners. His Vie de Marianne (1731-41), which occupied him during many years, is a picture of social life, and a study, sometimes infinitely subtle, of the emotions of his heroine; her genius for coquetry is finely allied to her maiden pride; the hypocrite, M. de Climal—old angel fallen—is a new variety of the family of Tartufe. Le Paysan Parvenu (1735-36), which tells of the successes of one whom women favour, is on a lower level of art and of morals. Both novels were left unfinished; and while both attract, they also repel, and finally weary the reader.2 Their influence was considerable in converting the romance of adventures into the romance of emotional incident and analysis.
2 The twelfth part of Marianne is by Madam Riccoboni. Only five parts of the Paysan are by Marivaux.
The work of Marivaux for the stage is more important than his work in prose fiction. His comedy has been described as the tragedy of Racine transposed, with love leading to marriage, not to death. Love is his central theme—sometimes in conflict with self-love—and women are his protagonists. He discovers passion in its germ, and traces it through its shy developments. His plays are little romances handled in dramatic fashion; each records some delicate adventure of the heart. He wrote much for the Comédie-Italienne, where he did not suffer from the tyranny of rules and models, and where his graceful fancy had free play. Of his large repertoire, the most admirable pieces are Le Jeu de l'Amour et du Hasard (1730) and Les Fausses Confidences (1732). In the former the heroine and her chambermaid exchange costumes; the hero and his valet make a like exchange; yet love is not misled, and heroine and hero find each other through their disguises. In Les Fausses Confidences the young widow Araminte is won to a second love in spite of her resolve, and becomes the happy victim of her own tender heart and of the devices of her assailants. The "marivaudage" of Marivaux is sometimes a refined and novel mode of expressing delicate shades and half-shades of feeling; sometimes an over-refined or over-subtle attempt to express ingenuities of sentiment, and the result is then frigid, pretentious, or pedantic. No one excelled him in the art, described by Voltaire, of weighing flies' eggs in gossamer scales.
The Abbé A.-F. PRÉVOST D'EXILES (1697-1763) is remembered by a single tale of rare power and beauty, Manon Lescaut, but his work in literature was voluminous and varied. Having deserted his Benedictine monastery in 1728, he led for a time an irregular and wandering life in England and Holland; then returning to Paris, he gained a living by swift and ceaseless production for the booksellers. In his journal, Le Pour et le Contre, he did much to inform his countrymen respecting English literature, and among his translations are those of Richardson's Pamela, Sir Charles Grandison, and Clarissa Harlowe. Many of his novels are melodramatic narratives of romantic adventure, having a certain kinship to our later romances of Anne Radcliffe and Matthew Gregory Lewis, in which horror and pity, blood and tears abound. Sometimes, however, when he writes of passion, we feel that he is engaged in no sport of the imagination, but transcribing the impulsive speech of his own tumultuous heart. The Mémoires d'un Homme de Qualité, Cléveland, Le Doyen de Killerine are tragic narratives, in which love is the presiding power.
Manon Lescaut, which appeared in 1731, as an episode of the first of these, is a tale of fatal and irresistible passion. The heroine is divided in heart between her mundane tastes for luxury and her love for the Chevalier des Grieux. He, knowing her inconstancy and infirmity, yet cannot escape from the tyranny of the spell which has subdued him; his whole life is absorbed and lost in his devotion to Manon, and he is with her in the American wilds at the moment of her piteous death. The admirable literary style of Manon Lescaut is unfelt and disappears, so directly does it bring us into contact with the motions of a human heart.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, philosophy, on the one hand, invaded the novel and the short tale; on the other hand it was invaded by a flood of sentiment. An irritated and irritating sensuality could accommodate itself either to sentiment or to philosophy. Voltaire's tales are, in narrative form, criticisms of belief or opinion which scintillate with ironic wit. His disciple, Marmontel, would "render virtue amiable" in his Contes Moraux (1761), and cure the ravage of passion with a canary's song. His more ambitious Bélisaire seems to a modern reader a masterpiece in the genre ennuyeux. His Incas is exotic without colour or credibility. Florian, with little skill, imitated the Incas and Télémaque, or was feebly idyllic and conventionally pastoral as a follower of the Swiss Gessner. Restif de la Bretonne could be gross, corrupt, declamatory, sentimental, humanitarian in turns or all together. Three names are eminent—that of Diderot, who flung his good and evil powers, mingling and fermenting, into his novels as into all else; that of Rousseau, who interpreted passion, preached its restraints, depicted the charms of the domestic interior, and presented the glories of external nature in La Nouvelle Héloise; that of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, who reaches a hand to Rousseau on the one side, and on the other to Chateaubriand.