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Joseph Joubert (1754–1824). Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts. 1899.

Chapter XXIII.

Literary Judgments. VI. On Some Romances of the Time

A NOVEL, regarded as a work of art, should paint a flame, but not a furnace. To realise such destinies as these ladies imagine would be to plunge life into hell.

Misfortune, to be beautiful and interesting, must come from heaven, or at least from above. Here it strikes from below, it comes from too near; the sufferers have it in their blood.

Tragedy paints misfortune; but of a fine tone and fibre; calamities of another age, another world; sorrows that have little weight, little body, and last but a moment; griefs that interest the heart. Here, misfortune is present with us, it lasts for ever; it is made of iron rudely wrought; it strikes horror.

Catastrophe is all very well; but nobody likes to hear of torture. In these days we read only of the martyrs of love, some stretched on the rack of desire, others torn with remorse, all possessed by some passion that eats out their heart. In spite of all the fine qualities that are labelled and paraded before us, it is most true to say that we are looking rather at vulgar people than melancholy events. And so we give them little pity, and what we do give them is of the wrong kind.

Some have said ‘Human life is a black cloth wherein are woven a few white threads’; and others, ‘It is a white cloth wherein are woven a few black threads.’ But in these novels human life is a red and black cloth, evil interwoven with evil: nothing else.

Imagine a land that devours its own children, a starless heaven where only lightnings play, a parched earth where no dew falls, a horizon of brass round which the names of the most beautiful things go angrily echoing with a hollow and mournful sound—there is the land of the novelist. I have noticed that in these books one of the loveliest words of the language—the word happiness—rings as if it were spoken under vaults infernal; and the word pleasure is only frightful. A false and sickly sentiment breathes from every page. Youth appears as an age of fire consumed by its own flame; beauty as a victim destined only to the knife; suffering never ceases, madness is perpetual, and virtue itself, whether by what it experiences, or by the feelings that it inspires, is never without a stain. There is not a heroine in these books that might not reasonably be called a soiled and trodden rose.

I have seen the cells of the Salpêtrière and the furies of the Revolution, and I seem always by a dim combination of ideas to discern behind these monstrous scenes the bed-gowns of madwomen and the great cloak of Marat…. There are some books which naturally and inevitably produce the effect of being worse than they are, as some naturally and inevitably appear to be better than they are; the latter because they suggest ideas of beauty, goodness, perfection, which become, as it were, part of them; the former because they carry us into regions where dwell all the ugly ideas, and those also cling to them inseparably.

Fiction has no business to exist unless it is more beautiful than reality. Certainly the monstrosities of fiction may be found in the booksellers’ shops; you may buy them there for a certain number of francs, and you talk of them for a certain number of days; but they have no place in literature, because in literature the one aim of art is the beautiful: once lose sight of that, and you have the mere frightful reality.[M.A.]

How strange that women should have turned their backs on seemliness and beauty, and that women writers should have been the first to overstep these rules! There is, however, a literary moral sense, and it is more severe than any other, because it lays down the rules of taste—a faculty more delicate than chastity itself.