Romances or History? A Belle-Esprit and a Marchionesse Debate Novels

As it is my custom to troll through the Lady’s Magazine, looking for tidbits of writing inspiration, I came across a discussion of novels circa 18th century France.  I’ve written previously on how novels were openly scorned in the Georgian era. Even instructive fictions on the deviltry of rogues like Clarissa and Pamela by Samuel Richardson were considered suspect.  History was the only subject worth reading in public spheres, but not everyone, including this open-minded Belle-Espirit, was an opponent of novels.  Rather, like Jane Austen, he advocated that men (and women) of sense would favor a romance* over the ever-popular annals of history.

Visit to a Library, 1760 | Pietro Longhi.
Visit to a Library, 1760 | Pietro Longhi.

A Contrast Between Romance and History

The Belle-Espirit and Marchionesse Debate

A Fine lady in France has generally two toilette; the first is rather reserved, because the cosmetics made use of should be secret; the second is the reign of coquetry.  At the marquise’s second toilet was her confidante madam Lorval, a counsellor and a belle-espirit.

The subject of conversation was novels, and the Marquise [Belle-Espirit] addressed himself to the counsellor on that subject.  His answer was, that there were a great many new ones.  “True,” said the Marchionesse, “but I might soon by satiated at hearing their very names.”

Belle-Espirit:  “Excuse me, my lady, there is no choice–they are all abominable.”

Marchionesse:  “Is it possible? — Why cannot there be a good romance? the subject is easy enough.  Imagination is under no restraint; the field is copious; it may seize on every object that offers, and may gather every flower it meets with in its progress.  A man must really be a —- if he cannot succeed in this line of writing.”

Belle-Espirit:  “My lady, the greatest authors have shown that it is very difficult, a very arduous attempt in this line.   To blend costume and probability; to invent a fable that is simple, fruitful in events, and full of naivete; to please, to rouse, to affect, to surprise, and be able to spin out a long narrative, is an undertaking which few writers are qualified for.  Of all the gifts with which heaven honours mortality, the imagination is the most precious, and the most universally agreeable.  It is a token of our want of reason, not to attribute much esteem to the writer of romances as to the historian.”

Marchionesse:  “Dear Sir, what a paradox!  It is true that history either satiates or shocks me; but the Historian, in the sublimity of his style, is by far superior to the composer of Romances, let him be what he may.”

Belle-Espirit:  “Why, my lady?  The question does not turn upon sublimity, but on sympathy and true.  A Romance is very often more true than a history, without intimating that it is more interesting.  How often does the Historian invent his details; they do not shock the truth, but they are cold, useless and puerile.  What obscurity, with respect to the leading causes!  The writer of Romances gives you a detail of every thing; he assigns a motive for every step which his hero takes.  The thread of events, if he be a skillful writer, is never broken.  He digs deep, he invents, he avoids contradictions, and the improbabilities which about in history, wherein we frequently cannot discover any relation.  The perusal of a romance is not unworthy of a man of sense.   I know nothing more amusing to the most florid undertaking, or to cherish the sensibility of the human heart.   There at least we view men that are good, generous, and full of virtue, and the contemplation of them diverts us from the miseries of humanity.  There is not, perhaps, any thing  of the beautiful, which does not reside in the imagination.  How many persons are there of my acquaintance, who affect to despise romances, and yet do not cease to read them!”

Marchionesse:  “You have then read them passionately, Sir?”

Belle-Espirit:  “Yes, my lady.  This kind of study, I am not ashamed to confess, has formed the most agreeable avocation of my life.”

*Definition of Romanticism in C18/C19 literature

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