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A French Critic On Bath
by [?]

Among other pleasant premonitions of the present entente cordiale between France and England is the increased attention which, for some time past, our friends of Outre Manche have been devoting to our literature. That this is wholly of recent growth, is not, of course, to be inferred. It must be nearly five-and-forty years since M. Hippolyte Taine issued his logical and orderly Histoire de la Litterature Anglaise; while other isolated efforts of insight and importance–such as the Laurence Sterne of M. Paul Stapfer, and the excellent Le Public et les Hommes de Lettres en Angleterre au XVIII^e Siecle of the late M. Alexandre Beljame of the Sorbonne–are already of distant date. But during the last two decades the appearance of similar productions has been more recurrent and more marked. From one eminent writer alone–M. J.-J. Jusserand–we have received an entire series of studies of exceptional charm, variety, and accomplishment. M. Felix Rabbe has given us a sympathetic analysis of Shelley; M. Auguste Angellier,–himself a poet of individuality and distinction,–what has been rightly described as a “splendid work” on Burns;[1] while M. Emile Legouis, in a minute examination of “The Prelude,” has contrasted and compared the orthodox Wordsworth of maturity with the juvenile semi-atheist of Coleridge. Travelling farther afield, M. W. Thomas has devoted an exhaustive volume to Young of the Night Thoughts; M. Leon Morel, another to Thomson; and, incidentally, a flood of fresh light has been thrown upon the birth and growth of the English Novel by the admirable Jean-Jacques Rousseau et les Origines du Cosmopolitisme Litteraire of the late Joseph Texte–an investigation unquestionably of the ripest scholarship, and the most extended research. And now once more there are signs that French lucidity and French precision are about to enter upon other conquests; and we have M. Barbeau’s study of a famous old English watering-place[2]–appropriately dedicated, as is another of the books already mentioned, to M. Beljame.[3]

[Notes:

1: A volume of Pages Choisies de Auguste Angellier, Prose et Vers, with an Introduction by M. Legouis, has recently (1908) been issued by the Clarendon Press. It contains lengthy extracts from M. Angellier’s study of Burns.

2:
Une Ville d’Eaux anglaise au XVIIIe Siecle, La Societe Elegante et Litteraire a Bath sous la Reine Anne et sous les Georges. Par A. Barbeau. Paris, Picard, 1904.

3: The list grows apace. To the above, among others, must now be added M. Rene Huchon’s brilliant little essay on Mrs. Montagu, and his elaborate study of Crabbe, to say nothing of M. Jules Derocquigny’s Lamb, M. Jules Douady’s Hazlitt, and M. Joseph Aynard’s Coleridge.]

At first sight, topography, even when combined with social sketches, may seem less suited to a foreigner and an outsider than it would be to a resident and a native. In the attitude of the latter to the land in which he lives or has been born, there is always an inherent something of the soil for which even trained powers of comparison, and a special perceptive faculty, are but imperfect substitutes. On the other hand, the visitor from over-sea is, in many respects, better placed for observation than the inhabitant. He enjoys not a little–it has been often said–of the position of posterity. He takes in more at a glance; he leaves out less; he is disturbed by no apprehensions of explaining what is obvious, or discovering what is known. As a consequence, he sets down much which, from long familiarity, an indigenous critic would be disposed to discard, although it might not be, in itself, either uninteresting or superfluous. And if, instead of dealing with the present and actual, his concern is with history and the past, his external standpoint becomes a strength rather than a weakness. He can survey his subject with a detachment which is wholly favourable to his project; and he can give it, with less difficulty than another, the advantages of scientific treatment and an artistic setting. Finally, if his theme have definite limits–as for instance an appreciable beginning, middle, and end–he must be held to be exceptionally fortunate. And this, either from happy guessing, or sheer good luck, is M. Barbeau’s case. All these conditions are present in the annals of the once popular pleasure-resort of which he has elected to tell the story. It arose gradually; it grew through a century of unexampled prosperity; it sank again to the level of a county-town. If it should ever arise again,–and it is by no means a ville morte,–it will be in an entirely different way. The particular Bath of the eighteenth century–the Bath of Queen Anne and the Georges, of Nash and Fielding and Sheridan, of Anstey and Mrs. Siddons, of Wesley and Lady Huntingdon, of Quin and Gainsborough and Lawrence and a hundred others–is no more. It is a case of Fuit Ilium. It has gone for ever; and can never be revived in the old circumstances. To borrow an apposite expression from M. Texte, it is an organism whose evolution has accomplished its course.