A New Voice in French Fiction

I

What voice is this I hear,
Buoyant as morning, and as morning clear ?
Say, has some wet bird-haunted English lawn
Lent it the music of its trees at dawn ?
Or was it from some sun-fleck’d mountain-brook
That the sweet voice its upland clearness took?

M. EDOUARD ROD, the accomplished French critic, commenting in the Figaro on a novel by Mme. Marcelle Tinayre, says, “ It is one of the most perfect, most delightful stories that I know.” So emphatic an utterance from a man of eminence in literature, a novelist himself, arrests the most casual attention to hear what he may say about the novel and its author.

Mademoiselle Marcelle Chasteau — I take this account from M. Rod — was, when she married M. Julien Tinayre, but sixteen years old, and so much of a girl that she shed tears at not being allowed to wear her wedding dress upon the wedding journey. The couple went to Brittany for their honey-moon, and stayed while their purse, which had no great endurance, held out. Reduced to a few francs, they spent half on a stone hatchet as a memento, either of their trip, according to the natural inference from M. Rod’s words, or (as I think) of those prehistoric men whose mute incapacity to express themselves otherwise than in stone hatchets has always seemed peculiarly pathetic to lovers.

On their way back to Paris, while changing cars, they left their lunch-basket behind ; in fact there were various indications of a complete readiness to neglect all that was neither love nor art. One infers from Mme. Tinayre’s novels that on her return to Paris she frequented an intellectual society interested in social questions and not unsuccessful in divesting itself of sundry traditional opinions.

M. Tinayre was an engraver in wood, and not long after their marriage, by some chance cause, his art lost much of its pecuniary value, and as the five-franc bits decreased their family increased. Mme. Tinayre was obliged to make mercantile proof of those gifts which, as her friends must always have known, confronted the experiences of life in a markedly exceptional manner. Slight of figure, with large, handsome black eyes, a clear voice, and a pleasant readiness of speech, Mme. Tinayre was endowed with energy and courage. She resolved to contribute to the family purse, and wrote a novel. The manuscript was accepted by the Nouvelle Revue; and though the book did not attract general attention, it made its way among that group of people in Paris to whom a novel is an affair of importance. A second novel soon followed; the third was crowned by the Academy, and Mme. Tinayre was escorted by the critics amid general applause to the front rank of contemporary novelists. Since then she has written steadily, and also, for a time, edited a féministe review, La Fronde.

Besides the compliment I quoted to begin with, M. Rod pays her many others; he says, “The desire to be seen, to be talked of (le désir de paraître), most treacherous of the temptations that lie in wait for artists at the moment when their names emerge from obscurity, does not hurry her work.” And he adds, “She goes her own way tranquilly, like an artist more concerned to perfect her art than to make gain from it, — like a laborer who loves labor for the pleasure that comes as the work gains in delicacy and advances to completion.”

In this country, the immense forces that discourage reticence — our unfortunate belief in the virtue of publicity, our disgust with the diffidence that does not warm itself in the public gaze, our indignation with the pride that is careless of our notice — create a social duty to “paraître” with all its attendant ceremonies; they bring reporters to the door, put photographs in the Sunday newspapers, reckon the tally of copies sold and royalties received, and reiterate demands for the novelist’s opinion upon any and all matters. Mme. Tinayre, however, according to M. Rod, does not assent to our practice, — “She stubbornly resists the temptations of popularity, and has the courage to remain herself.”

This courage to disregard popular currents of admiration and set a course by those stars which for the steersman shine fixed in the firmament, is the quality that most excites M. Rod’s admiration; for even in Paris the currents, tides, and eddies of literary fashions are very strong. But he does not stop there; he brings us to a matter of much more intimate concern. He says, “I do not think that there is any novelist among our contemporaries who knows so well how to study, how to handle, how to take apart and put together love in itself, without finding it necessary to follow the prescribed practice of ancient traditions (in other ways most excellent) and contrast love with duty, — as a painter contrasts light with shade. I am not sure that any novelist has ever done this so well.”

II

Our interest in “love in itself.” the greatest of all matters that concern our lives, is so elementary, and a right conception of it is of such intimate and permeating consequence to us, that the fact of the divergence between our ideas and French ideas in regard to it is a source of disquiet, even of dismay, to those who think that all ideas, and particularly inherited ideas, should be subject to the criticism of reason. We know that the French, at least when free from excitement, are an eminently reasonable people; they have considered this subject in the light of reason, and they believe that they have shaped their conduct by rational reflection, so far at least as such matters are plastic to the conclusions of reason; their achievements in other matters of human conduct give weight to their conclusions in this. Even those who are most resolute to adhere to our Puritan traditions, most satisfied with our solution of the problem, most averse to a discussion concerning the basis of their connubial prosperity, — which discussion they find, as prosperous people are wont to do, both unpleasant and unnecessary, — can hardly, in view of the immense number of persons who are not successful, refuse to lend their earnest attention to any arguments on the other side, or, at least, to learn whether the French view is really what, in our hasty way, we perhaps too readily assume it to be. If, then, Mme. Tinayre, more than any of her contemporaries, knows the real nature of “ love in itself ” and commands the ear of Paris, she is eminently a person to whom we should listen.

So difficult is it, however, to listen with impartiality to arguments from the other side, that it is but prudent to prepare ourselves by taking our station upon some common ground where both sides agree. Such common ground we find in two matters that border upon our subject. The first concerns the value of delicacy; the second, the value of passion.

That the French possess delicacy is obvious from their cultivation of manners; from the importance they assign to the outward concerns of physical life, —streets, trees, flowers, — and to the familiar pettinesses of existence, — dinners, café-au-lait, dressmaking; from their appreciation of a new play by Rostand, of a new statue by Rodin, of a new experiment in color by Besnard; from the prose in their newspapers; and from a score of other matters that greet the American traveler with freshness,charm, and grace.

Nor is the divergence due to any failure on our part to appreciate the value of passion. On the contrary, whatever our own deficiencies, personal or national, may be, we acknowledge passion to be the noblest and most desirable motive power in the world. In religion, in art, in literature, whether embodied in the fullness of freedom or in the still more effective methods of restraint, passion is the material of greatness; and passion is necessary in life itself not less than in the arts. We accept Milton’s saying concerning poetry as equally true of life. Life should be “simple, sensuous, and passionate.” The most exalted lives, those in which the possibilities of human nature are most completely achieved, are simple, their contours rise high and bold; they are sensuous, receiving in the ripening imagination all the images that the ministering senses gather from the vast variety of the world; they are passionate, using the heat of emotion to forge the temper of genius or of character.

Why, then, if we agree so well with the French on the worth of delicacy and passion, do we differ so widely in the relation of delicacy and passion to this matter before us ?

A certain weight must be attached to their imputation of hypocrisy to us, — hypocrisy, in the sense that our literature does not reflect our life. Some earlier and also some modern English writers write plainly enough, but on the whole English literature does not profess to mirror certain parts of our behavior, which, if unemphasized, we think may perhaps thrive less vigorously. Another cause is that the French, guided by reason as they would say, regard the institution of matrimony as a rational regulation of the fact of sex, as a compromise between the rights of the individual and the rights of society. The man obeys, but under protest; he is willing to sacrifice his liberty so far, but, beyond that point, he regards self-abnegation as fanatical asceticism. Marriage, under French usage, is a partnership, in which such matters as character, tastes, education, birth, and property are to be considered; contracting families scrutinize the proposed bride and groom as if coming up for admittance into a club. This system purposely excludes any provision for passion, and that neglected force is left to shift for itself. They look at our custom of marrying for love with amazement, as we should look at a grocer’s cart that started on its rounds at twenty miles an hour. Our system confines its view to the romantic dreams of youth and regards matrimony rather as a holiday cruise than a voyage for life, and hopes to bring passion into harness by compelling it to concentrate itself in a single sentiment, instead of dissipating its strength here and there. We may err in our endeavor to regard men and women as disembodied spirits; and yet we cannot but think that the French err in their resolution to be sensible and regard men and women as animals taken in the toils of society. Our theory may look too far into the future; theirs lingers too far in the brutal past.

These are superficial explanations or rather manifestations of differences thatlie deep in national character, but they serve to remind us that both nations have approached the subject before us from different historical experiences; and we must take that fact into account in any judgment upon the difference between the two systems. Under our system English novelists concern themselves with love that leads to the altar; under the other, French novelists concern themselves with love (if that be the proper translation of amour) outside the marital relations, “because,” as M. Rod says, “ it is impossible to write a love-story except about love of that extra-matrimonial sort, for the other love has no story.”

Mme. Tinayre, hedged in by her national system, is forced to write her love stories without the English goal of the church wedding; she is obliged to take the setting of social life as she finds it; and the careless reader, who lightly skips through her pages, might for a moment imagine that she had adopted the conventional attitude of the French novelist. But this apparent coincidence of point of view is confined to the setting of the story. As to the matter within the setting, “love in itself,” Mme. Tinayre is a passionate idealist. She believes, with the strength and freshness of maidenhood, that the great bond of love does incorporate man and woman and make them one, and is the most sacred thing in life. She looks down on the city of Paris, with its charm, its gayety, its beauty, its wayward men and women, like Saint Genevieve, troubled in spirit, and longs with a mother’s yearning to persuade them that blessed are the true in heart.

The seeming contradiction between this ideal and the career of her heroines is the contradiction between the course of true love in a well-ordered world and the course of true love deflected and impeded by the faulty and vulgar conceptions (a heritage of our animal origin) that have obtained acceptance in the social world with which she is familiar. Her passionate desire for the union of man and woman in a garden of Eden has a most romantic freshness; and the American reader will find her a more militant adherent to the cause of ideal innocence and more of a preacher than any English or American novelist now living.

III

Hellé — the novel takes its title from the name of the heroine — was the third or fourth of Mme. Tinayre’s novels. It is one of those convenient, comfortable, polite little yellow-covered books that satisfy the physical requirements of hand and eye; and in the centre of the cover, under the title, is printed the patent of literary nobility, Ouvrage couronné par l’Académie française. This is the only coronet now granted in France, and survives to show that democracy, however strong in other matters, does not control French literature. With us democracy has been more triumphant and emblazons its coronet of 500,000 copies sold (or 1,000,000, — whatever it may be), on the frontispiece. We feel a comfortable security in accepting the vox populi as the chosen oracle of the Divine Taste in literature; but in France, where older ideas linger, a small company of gentlemen, the most distinguished for their excellence in various matters, principally in literature, take upon themselves the task of pronouncing that a book is good without waiting for the guidance of a plébiscite. Such an approbation is eagerly coveted, seriously sought, and exerts a widespread influence on literary standards; incidentally, it is of great comfort to readers. Not to speak irreverently, the phrase ouvrage couronné is like the double asterisk with which Baedeker marks those objects deemed most worthy of the tourist’s economical attention.

Hellé expressed Mme. Tinayre’s first feeling of reaction against that class of novels which we generically call French. It sounded a challenge and put forward. under the form of our own love stories, Mme. Tinayre’s theory of a successful solution of the great problem that confronts us all. It displayed a boldness, a directness, a freshness of personal utterance, rare in the present homogeneous flow of French novels. The heroine, an orphan, is brought up in the country by her uncle, a Greek scholar, who teaches her his own Greek-tinged approbations and disapprobations concerning life and literature, and his aversion to the mediæval and Christian influences, which still, in his opinion, regulate too much of modern life. Hellé, bred a pagan, and free from the ignorances, reticences, insipidities, and also the infiltered sophistications of a jeune fille, grows up, as her name implies, a young Hellene. She is indeed charming, and the scenery in which her girlhood is passed — the old French country-house, dignified and serious, the garden, the woods and walks beyond, the French sky overhead, the south wind blowing — is very simply and charmingly done. The uncle himself suggests the type, now become classical, embodied in Emile Souvestre’s Un philosophe sous les toits.

When Hellé is grown up, her uncle, very proud of his handsome, high-minded, intellectual young pagan, takes her to Paris to introduce her to society, or more truly, to look for a husband. He wishes for a man to whom he may, with quiet mind and happy heart, bequeath her; the girl, herself, is possessed with the idea of a Greek demi-god, whom she shall adore. Two lovers of different types present themselves, one a young poet, handsome, clever, admired of women, a frequenter of salons, a professing worshiper of Greece; the other, a social reformer, a serious, almost sombre, enthusiast, who has given away his fortune in order to devote himself to the task of diminishing the huge sum of social injustice. The latter wins the uncle’s esteem, frequents the house, persuades Hellé to interest herself in the concerns of justice and charity, and declares his love for her. The poet, fresh from the Isles of Greece, reciting alcaics to a silver lyre, also admires Hellé’s beauty, her divergence from the common type, and makes love to her very prettily. On the occasion of the first representation of his Greek masque, in the midst of, applause and excitement, stirred by music and poetry, she imagines that he is her demi-god and the two become betrothed. The uncle is already dead, and so a cousin of the bridegroom, a lady of fashionable interests and aptitudes, undertakes to lead the bride-to-be into the green pastures of her social world. In the course of this pilgrimage a critical situation arises in which the poet reveals a mean nature. The poetic spell is broken; Hellé realizes that she has let herself be deceived by the romantic dreams of inexperience; she turns, with a hungry soul, to the rejected suitor who is wholly and truly possessed by the great enthusiasms, — love, loyalty, justice, truth. The two are married; and if one is tempted to add “lived together happily ever afterwards,” the addition springs from a complete and childlike sympathy.

The freshness, the innocence (not of ignorance but of aspiration), the romance of the story, ring a chime like memories of youth; the simple proportions of the plot, the unaffected presentation of the characters, the light that illumines the book, like the first flush of an heroic morning, persuade the reader’s judgment to confirm the decision of his sentiment. No wonder that the Academy, breathing in the fresh air of ardent hope and noble belief, was eager to bestow the well-deserved coronet.

The Storm-bird (l’Oiseau d’orage), written a year earlier than Hellé, was not published, I believe, until a year later. This is the novel M. Rod judged “most delightful,” “most perfect.” The plot is of the simplest and most conventional nature. There are three characters, the plain, affectionate, unsuspicious husband, the delicate, over-sensitive wife, and the jeune premier. The culmination of the plot is reached about the middle of the book; the jeune premier flits away, leaving the wife to the bitterness of disillusion. It is impossible for an ordinary American to imagine that a wife of refined mind and manners could subordinate so readily her affection for her husband to what from the first presents itself as a very bald temptation. M. Rod, however, in the freedom of his larger experience, is not troubled, and finds the story “délicieux.” And for us also the narrative of the heroine’s disillusion and repentance is admirable. Its truthfulness and impetuous emotion show tender sympathy, sweet womanliness, and a loving heart, and go far to support M. Rod’s verdict, “most perfect.”

La Rcbelle, written in the years 1904-05, displays enlarged experience of life, close study of that experience, strength and ease in making use of it, and an unshaken, unshakable optimism. The heroine, the rebel, has an odious husband; she cooks for him, tends him, physics him, endures his “Balzacian” humors, and fulfills all the obligations that she recognizes. Life with him is literally unendurable; she obtains strength to support it in the love of another. The husband dies; the lover passes on, abandoning the heroine and their little boy. It is then that the hero, Noël Delysle, comes upon the scene. He is a man of strong and deep feelings, full of high discontent with social injustice, young and sensitive; he entertains a proud disdain for the vulgarity of the ordinary ways of social life, but he sips with some frequency the fly-blown honey which that social life offers. The heroine, on her part, is refined, delicate, and womanly. The friendship between the two, which starts with strictly Platonic intentions, slowly ripens into love. But there is one obstacle to their complete intermingling of soul. The more Delysle loves her, the more jealous he becomes of her first lover. With a man’s longing for complete proprietorship he insists upon knowing all her past, and she cloaks nothing. He wishes her to say that her feeling for her first lover was a caprice; but she rejects any disguise of the truth; love alone justified her conduct, and she would not do herself the wrong to deny its genuineness and intensity. Delysle professes to believe in a full charter of liberty for a woman; but this claim upon her past held by another man and embodied in their child is more than he can bear. Possessed by the instinct of personal dignity, she continues to accept and justify her past, and thinks him unreasonable. Their union trembles on the brink of disruption. But as her love grows and comes to dominate her wholly, she begins to hate that past, which is not his, and renounces it passionately. More, however, is necessary; he must be able to accept that renunciation as fully as she offers it. Her child falls ill and very nearly dies. In his sympathy for her agony, love triumphs over jealousy; he longs for the life of her child, his rival’s child, as if it were his own. The child recovers; but her past has been blotted out, his love has quenched all jealousy, and the lovers are bound each to each by a love “strong as death, deep as the grave,” built upon trust, loyalty, and truth.

IV

Mme. Tinayre’s novels are didactic, they express decided opinions; but her fresh, maidenly personality, unshaken, undisturbed by contact with the intellectual life of Paris, shines brilliantly in them all; and though we are reminded of the old editor of La Fronde, who has forsaken the féministe revue for the larger scope of the novel, that is merely because she is still absorbed in the enfranchisement of woman. Mme. Tinayre approaches her subject from a distinctly feminine point of view; she is wholly dominated by a poetic sense of the worth of romantic love. For her the highest attainment of man and woman is true love. All cannot attain it; for true love is the prize of the noblest capacity for love, — as the achievements of genius are the prizes of genius, — and cannot be won by any who are not strong in truth, loyalty, purity of heart, and deep desire.

Dalle più alte stelle
Discende uno splendore
Che’l desir tira a quelle,
E quel si chiama amore.

Nevertheless, when this splendor that mortals call love comes down from the highest stars, it reveals not merely to the lovers themselves but to all the world a perfect human ideal. It is a grace emanating from the nature of the universe that descends upon the elect, and through them blesses all men. Man and woman, by it incorporate, become one complete being; and from their union springs a nobler race. Mme. Tinayre finds the chief obstacle to the realization of this Platonic ideal in the social restraints that shut women out of the freedom accorded to men. Checked and thwarted by lack of freedom, a woman cannot forsake all else and follow the ideal of her heart; nor will a man, for the sake of a being less free, less amply grown than himself, exert his full capacity for love. The aim of Mme. Tinayre and her fellow chartists is to secure for women the full stature of womanhood that Nature grants, by releasing them from the peculiar burdens, economic, social, ethical, that past centuries have put upon them. This is reasonable. Freedom, not Equality, is their cry. The taunt of the partisans of “masculine superiority,” that Nature has established inequality between man and woman, is irrelevant and ill-bred. There is no equality in the universe except among isosceles triangles; Nature has a mad passion for differences. The féministes wish not to thwart Nature but to return to her.

Mme. Tinayre boldly confronts the most difficult and delicate part of this proposed enfranchisement of woman. She has a profound, a devout belief in the holiness of Nature; if men and women will love one another with all their power of love, the regeneration of the world will be secure. In Hellé, true love was attained in conformity with a social system such as we have here in America.

In L’Oiseau d’orage illusion put on the form of reality — false Duessa appeared in the guise of Una — and the offense brought its own punishment. In La Rebelle the road was encompassed by false paths and the heroine went astray, but, keeping her eyes fixed on her guiding star, she found her right road and attained.

Where such poetic beliefs obtain, conformity with the conventions of social expediency is of secondary importance. Ecclesiastical rites, if they are the public proclamation of a true marriage, are touched by the nobility and by the religious character of the inward love, but depend wholly for their sacredness upon that love. A mariage de convenance, which almost inevitably bars the wife from all chance of true love, becomes not merely inexpedient but wicked; and ought not in reason to debar a woman from her spiritual right to give and receive love, honor, and respect. Most clearly, a legal union that does not bind the husband does not bind the wife. In all her doctrines, Mme. Tinayre expresses the cause of the individual soul as against the claims of society.

Her consideration of this cornerstone of human society is the main substance of her novels; yet they are interesting in themselves merely as stories. Mme. Tinayre is a rarely gifted woman; and she has the charming art of depicting her own personality most clearly at the very time when she is most taken up with her subject. Her theme indeed possesses her, using her thought and hand to express itself. Not her least attraction for us foreigners is her marked French flavor. For though she differs from contemporary French novelists in almost every way, she is eminently French. She is wholly free from cynicism, and yet she is not blind to the things that make men cynics; she is wholly free from artificial sentimentality, and yet she has great sentiment; she is a free thinker, and yet a devout believer in the religion of the heart; she is a Parisian, and yet finds her interest, not in the shadows and sunny glimmerings of Parisian life, but in the human hunger for love.

She has not yet, indeed, acquired that delightful French accomplishment of rendering her thought buoyant by the mere grace and ease of her language, such as marks many a writer on the Figaro; nevertheless, she traces her literary descent from the great masters. Like a honeybee she has sipped honey from the flowers that please her. She has the frank self-expression, both premeditated and unconscious, the c’est moi que je perns of Montaigne; the optimistic trust in nature of Rousseau; the almost girlish romanticism of Victor Hugo; the fresh womanliness of George Sand; and far deeper and more formative than these is the old spirit of Celtic poetry that burned in the pleasant land of France before the Teuton invaders or even the Romans came. The Celtic idea of love is embodied in Tristram and Iseult, — a legend indeed of the Celts of Cornwall, yet its inheritance fell not to England but to France. M. Gaston Paris says, “The note that dominates this Celtic poetry is that of love. Tristram, among all the great poems of humanity, is the poem of love. To the poetry of Greece love is almost unknown; in the noble Teuton poetry love is severe and pure, it knows no passion but the vague aspiration of the youth for his betrothed, or the profound, chaste faithfulness of the wife for her husband. But Celtic poetry sings of love, free from all ties, from all restraints, from all duty other than to itself, — a love, born of fate, passionate, lawless, that carries all before it, — difficulty, danger, death, even honor.” This Celtic passion burns in Mme. Tinayre’s veins, but she has also inherited, either from her remote Frankish ancestry or some nearer German strain, the pure and severe idea of love that is inseparable from faith and truth —

“ Hang there, my soul, like fruit, till the tree die.”

She insists upon this spirit of love as the magic that can lift men and women above the vulgarity of life, above the grossness of their animal origin, that can open their eyes to the radiance of God, which is obscured by the curtains of existence without love. The very fierceness of passion is proof of its permanence; it is master by right because its rule is long as life. It is profoundly ethical, because it is the foundation of all aspiration. It dominates the body, because it possesses the soul, and, with the soul, possesses all that belongs to the soul. No disciple of Browning is more a believer than she in, “Nor soul helps flesh more now, than flesh helps soul.”

This deep informing Celtic inheritance and the various influences of French literature do not in any way obscure Mme. Tinayre’s fresh, delightful personality; they but serve to bring out its full color.

In enumerating her French traits, one must not omit a certain frankness of thought and of speech, far more common in France than with us, which, indeed, until we learn to know her, half threatens to erect a barrier between her and our sympathies. At times the American reader feels that Mme. Tinayre’s frankness is excessive, that it is not needed to make her point, that it in fact goes so far as to suggest a disregard for the safety of those dikes which civilization has set up against the spring floods of the great river of animal life; such an inference would be wholly wrong. This frankness is French; it is honest; it is serious; and, we are persuaded, it is necessary.

The argument that persuades one to this surrender of American doctrine is the trait that distinguishes Mme. Tinayre among other writers, even more than her romanticism and her advocacy of the feminine cause, which indeed are rather themes than qualities; — her maidenliness, I mean, that is innate in the conviction that love comes but once into a life, that it has a right to our absolute loyalty, and that nothing but death may gainsay it. This maidenliness, so rare in French literature, — “fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky,” — makes not only the secret of her charm but also the persuasiveness of her advocacy; it lights up her books with that purity of purpose, which (when, for instance, we lean over the bow of a ship and stare at the moonlight on the inscrutable darkness of the ocean) we feel to be our most profound human need.