The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
A Gossip on French Books.

By Mrs. Lane.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pgs. 721-722

I was unpacking the newly-arrived box of foreign library books, when my cousin, Mrs. Norton, entered the room.

"More books," she exclaimed; "I never knew such a house as this for books. French ones too," she continued, taking one up, "I wonder you like having them about with all your flock of girls."

"My dear Rosa," I replied, "you don't suppose I let the girls read every book that comes into the house, but all the same you will see that they have been well catered for even in French literature."

My cousin had married late in life and might be called rather strait-laced in her ideas, and she replied rather severely:

"I dare say there are many books you would allow Effie and Alice to read which I should not think suitable for dear Marion. For my part I think one must give up as hopeless any attempt to keep up French reading when the schoolroom days are over. I was told Erckman-Chatrian's tales were safe, but Marion said they were dull."

"I am afraid I sympathise with Marion," I replied; "I never could understand the popularity of these books, or of Malot's 'Sans Famille' with English people, except that the British idea seems to be that wholesomeness and dulness are necessary accompaniments of foreign literature. But though I know these are the sheet anchors of the British matron's attachment to the French tongue, there are plenty of other works of fiction as harmless and a good deal more entertaining. You allow your girl to take the 'Monthly Packet,' and I could find you in French literature plenty of works of fiction of the same stamp, and as pure in tone. I grant you there is not the same choice or quantity in French, but I think that rather comes from the different manners and customs of the people than from any distinct desire on the part of the writers to write stories of immoral tendency. I speak of the best authors, who feel the responsibility of authorship. Fiction must more or less represent the manners and customs of its own land, and is written for the benefit of the natives of that land; foreigners have no right to criticise it merely from their own standpoint."

"You must excuse my saying," interposed Mrs. Norton, "that I think every Christian nation has a right to protest against pernicious literature, and that a nation like the French, that has a literature that one may say is as a whole unfit to put into the hands of a girl, stands self-condemned."

"There I cannot agree with you; would you let Marion have the unchecked run of the circulating library, not to speak of the well-filled shelves of the library at Norton Manor?"

"Certainly not."

"So you own that even English fiction is not above reproach in this respect. But as I maintain that fiction is but the representation of the ordinary society of its native land, it is rather the society we must blame than the authors who represent society as they find it. Love must form the stock theme of the novelist, and where social custom makes the pure love of youth and maiden 'taboo,' at all events in an interesting form, however much we regret it, we must not be surprised if writers seek their love episodes at a more impure source. French novelists write for French readers, and one of our English novels treating of 'the course of true love that never did run smooth' would strike a French mother as deeply immoral, inculcating that young people have a right to settle their own matrimonial affairs in opposition to their parents and guardians. An ordinary French engagement and marriage is a very prosaic affair, even when there is sincere affection, and does not lend itself readily to the novelist's art. Till lately no well brought up French girl ever read fiction before her marriage, and therefore there was no demand for harmless tales to suit such readers; now, however, a more wholesome feeling has set in, and several writers of repute have set themselves the task of writing for their young compatriots, though I still notice that in these the incidents are not very varied when the heroine is French, and that if there is any attempt at depicting an unsanctioned attachment the scene is laid in some foreign country so as not to horrify the French mother."

Whilst I had been talking I had been sorting the books, and had now arranged them in three piles. Seeing my cousin's look of enquiry I proceeded to explain.

"This smallest heap is for the schoolroom party, mostly, as you will see, that charming 'Bibliotheque Rose,' published by Hachette. My children prefer those by Madame de Segur, but I believe all the series is nice and not dull. Here is also an old book that used to be the delight of their elders, 'Le Petit Robinson de Paris,' and 'Le Tresor de Feves,' containing fairy tales by some of the leading French authors. With these and two little periodicals, 'Mon Journal' for the youngest, and 'Le Journal de la Jeunesse' for May and Emily, I find French reading is no penance in the schoolroom."

"But do you read all these books yourself before giving them to your young people? Or how can you be sure that they are fit for them?"

"The first-rate French booksellers, such as Rolandi and Hachette, can always be trusted to recommend nice books for children. They have such a large educational 'clientele' that they know well what English parents like, and will always give their customers the benefit of their advice. For the elder girls' reading, however, I hardly ever take any one's recommendation, but skim them through myself before placing them in their hands. I have had some singular recommendations before now, and think that a good many people profess to read French without really understanding what they are reading about. All these in this pile I have looked through, and if you would like to take any names for Marion I can safely recommend them. One difficulty with French writers is, that while one book of an author may be charming, the next may be excessively objectionable, and that one can scarcely ever trust to an author's reputation as to whether or not his works are suitable for girls' perusal. When Malot's 'Sans Famille' took the British public by storm, there was a subsequent run on his works, and much anger and vituperation on the part of British parents at the very different tone of the majority of these. With the exception of Madame Craven and the Princesse Cantacuzene, I do not know of any French novelists whose works can be reckoned upon as being unobjectionable in tone and plot, and many English people think the former too distinctly Roman Catholic in tone. Even Henri Greville occasionally writes objectionable stories, though as a rule her tone is excellent, even when the plots are unsuitable for girl readers. Here is a charming recent one of hers, 'La Fille de Dosia,' a sequel to the equally charming 'Dosia' published some years ago."

"I see you have 'Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard'; that was recommended to me for Marion."

"It is very quaint and amusing, which is more than can be said for French books as a rule, as they always strike me as sadly deficient in humor. Why, even those amusing adventures of Tartarin would not be so famous in any other tongue where humor was less rare. Have you seen the new one, 'Pot Tarascon'? The fun is rather grim in that, especially as the story is a scarcely exaggerated true occurrence."

"I have never ventured on any of the series, as I did try 'Le Nabab,' and thought that all by Alphonse Daudet were in the same style, very clever, but giving the seamy side of society principally, and not suitable for Marion."

"You need have no fear on that score. As is usually the case with sequels, I think the original work, 'Tartarin de Tarascon,' surpasses its successors, but many a hearty laugh may be enjoyed over 'Tartarin sur les Alpes,' and some over this new one, though the pathetic predominates. Here is another pretty though not very recent story, 'Madelle Blaisot,' by Mario Uchard, and one by the Princesse Cantacuzene, 'Carmela.' She has written many others, and I think I may recommend hers wholesale. 'Poverina,' a very pathetic story, has been translated into English. 'Irene,' 'Le Mensonge de Sabine,' 'Fleur de Neige,' 'Exaltee,' all by her, are charming, though her stories are rather sad usually."

"Dear me," said my cousin, in some surprise; "you have two of Ohnet's; I thought his were of the regular French type."

"So most of them are in plot, though the tone is good; he may depict a corrupt society, but does not call evil good; but these two I can cordially recommend. 'La Grand Marniere' is pretty as a story, and with more incident than there usually is in the French domestic novel; whilst the short tales in this volume, 'Noir et Rose,' are gems in their way."

"I see you have one of Madame Craven's 'Le Valbriant.'"

"It is one of her best, with more story and less of that self-analysing in which her characters usually indulge. Do you know 'Terre de France,' by Julliot? That is a pretty, whole-some story, and the heroine acts with more spirit than French damsels are usually allowed to display, but as that is the result of patriotism, discarding a lover who shows the white feather in the German invasion, I suppose 'La Patrie' is allowed to balance the impropriety of a broken engagement, a terrible scandal in French eyes. If you do not know this, 'L'Abbe Constantin,' by Halevy, I think you will like it; it is rather old, but our new governess has never read it, and I got it for her benefit. It is a charming story, though the heroine has to be made an American to explain her settling her own matrimonial arrangements. Here are, I think, the gems of this collection: 'La Neuvaine de Colette,' one of the quaintest stories imaginable, and I am told founded on fact, and 'Le Jeu des Vertus,' by the Vicomte de Bornier. You may have heard of his noble plays--'Les Noces d'Attila' and 'La Fille de Roland'--as lofty in sentiment as they are fine as poetry. He has, I believe, set himself the task of reviving the sense of honour and dignity in the class to which he belongs, and though most of his stories are wanting in incident, they are perfectly pure and distinctly religious in tone. 'La Lizardiere' and 'Louise de Vauvert' are pretty tales, but I give the palm to 'Le Jeu des Vertus,' as they idea is so quaint. In the Court of Charlemagne it appears to have been the fashion for each knight and lady to take some motto implying a noble sentiment and put it into practice for a given time. The motto seems to have been decided by chance on a kind of fortune-telling board. In Bornier's tale a noble dowager persuades her guests to play at the game, and the plot shows how the different performers live up to their motto and conquer their failings."

"That sounds a nice idea. I will certainly take down all the names you have mentioned. I see you did not mention the author of 'La Neuvaine de Colette.'"

"It was published anonymously in the 'Revue des Deux Mondes.' Curiously enough several very pretty novelettes have been from time to time published in that periodical without the author's name appearing. I remember two now that struck me very much at the time--'Le Roman de Gaston Renand' and 'Jeanne Berthier.' It is a pity, as one would like to find others by the same writers."

"What are these two last ones on the girls' pile?"

"This is a pretty domestic story, 'Le Comte de Palene,' by Jean de la Brete. I am told he has written others in the same style, which I must get. The other is a book of adventure somewhat in the Rider Haggard vein, but allied to a very mild love story, 'Le Secret du Mage,' by Andre Laurie. He has also written 'La Conquete de la Lune' in the same style. They both combine a good deal of knowledge--the former of archaeology, the latter of astronomy--with an exciting story, and form part of a new series Hetzel is bringing out. By the way, talking of stories instructive and amusing together, I wonder if you know some short stories of Elie Berthet's, 'Le Monde Inconnu.' They are stories of the site of Paris, in Paleolithic, in Lake Dwelling, and finally in Druid times. They give an admirable *resume* of the results of scientific discoveries, and are sufficiently interesting as stories. Whilst on improving works for young people, have you ever come across 'Le Tour de Monde,' a weekly paper, in which are published all the most important original and translated books of travel? Some are condensed, and there are not many consecutive numbers on the same country. There is also another very nice useful weekly paper, 'La Nature,' which I think would interest Mr. Norton as well as give a great deal of interesting information for Marion and your boys. I wish there were any such paper in English, simple in style, without being childish, and containing articles that will interest the general reader. Our English 'Nature,' though unsurpassed for a thoroughly trained lover of science, is above the comprehension of the ordinary reader. Other journals that profess to teach popular science so frequently aim at propagating scoffing scepticism that I was quite delighted at discovering a French paper fulfilling my requirements and not sinning against religion."

"Bad as is the spirit of much modern scientific thought in England," remarked Mrs. Norton, "I should have thought it would be doubly virulent in a land where atheism is rampant."

"I rather doubt whether atheism is as rampant on the continent as some people aver, but I have remarked amongst all the superior writers, both in science and lighter literature, a much less aggressive desire to trample on other people's religious ideas. If they have cast off the old beliefs, the higher minded ones at least have not adopted pure materialism, and this makes, to my mind, one of the charms of French writers; they may only be actuated by the same desire as the typical Irishman of saying pleasant things, but it is an advantage to be able to place in the hands of the young, without fear of scoffing irreligion, works on science, natural history, &c., whilst even the elementary educational manuals in England are frequently made the vehicle of attacks on revealed religion. I think the most awful sermon against materialism has been preached by a French novelist, not usually reckoned a teacher of virtue; I speak of Bourget's 'Le Disciple.' It is not fit for young readers, but I would commend it to those parents who think a morality without God sufficient, especially to those who look with admiration on the exemplary lives of many professed materialists. 'Le Disciple' is the most awful refutation of such a fallacy, and one can only hope that some of those on whom the Professor is modelled will not need such a terrible proof of the logical result of their non-beliefs ere they like him are brought to acknowledge the Divine Power they have scoffed at. It is a fearful book, and not to be read as a novel, but a sermon. French authors often puzzle me; they seem to have such curious gleams of the higher life amidst their most gross imaginings. You have not looked at my pile, or you would doubtless have been horrified to see I have two of Zola's here."

"My dear, I am horrified; how can you read such nastiness?"

"It is a case of the gleam of better things I spoke of. Both are charming, and what is more I am going to read them out to the girls."

My cousin looked at me in horrified amazement.

"Few authors are masters of such beautiful French as Zola, and I always try to make the girls acquainted with the most classical authors. The reason I am going to read them out is this--both stories are not only harmless but beautiful, but 'Le Voeu d'une Morte" has the misfortune to be bound up with two or three very objectionable short stories, so that I should not like the girls to have possession of the book; the other, 'Le Reve,' a perfect idyl of a story, has one or two passages of unnecessary coarseness, which I shall omit without injuring the story. A judicious mother, herself well acquainted with French literature, can do a great deal in this way by reading aloud, and when necessary omitting scenes and passages of doubtful propriety. I have thus read many of Dumas' historical novels, and have thus imparted much historical knowledge as well as entertaining reading.:

"But," objected my cousin, "all Dumas' are about corrupt courts and intrigues between royalty and fashionable beauties. They are not fit for girls."

"No girl who has studied history in the advanced stage of schoolroom life can be ignorant of some of these intrigues, especially in reading French history. I should only read such parts as were matter of history, without entering into unnecessary details. Most of these novels are of such inordinate length that some skipping is necessary. I have also read several of Paul Feval's in the same manner, and a great part of Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables'; also his 'Travailleurs de la Mer' which is perfectly pure and charming as a story, but in his frequent disquisitions on all things in heaven and earth there are occasionally passages it is better to omit."

"But this must give you endless trouble," replied Mrs. Norton; "I should never have time for it. It must take you hours settling what you will read and what you must skip."

"Of course I only attempt this with books I know well, and even then it takes some little time to make a connected whole of what one decides to read. But in winter we have much time for reading, and I find it a stimulus both in keeping up French and History. I think a mother ought to be the head of the intellectual life of her children, and stimulate it just as regularly as she provides for their physical wants in ordering dinner and getting up their tennis parties. French is not a very favourite study with young people, unless under exceptional circumstances, so I think a mother ought to take some pains to prevent the years of learning being so much time wasted when the girl emerges from the schoolroom, and she can only do this by making the study into a pleasure by her aid and encouragement."

Typed July 2013