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SELECTIONS FROM THE BEST FRENCH WRITERS, FROM THE
BIOGRAPHIES AND AN INTRODUCTORY SKETCH
OF THE HISTORY OF
THE FRENCH LANGUAGE
RICHARD A. PLETZ M. A.
LATE DEMY OF MAGD. COLL, OXON. AND TAYLORIAN SCHOLAR,
ASSISTANT-MASTER AT RADLEY COLLEGE.
The Manual of French Literature which we present to the public to-day is the English edition of the Manuel de Littérature française by DR CHARLES Pletz, late second master of the Royal French College, Berlin. This work, of which the fifth edition has just appeared', has met with some favour in Germany, Belgium, and Holland, and is extensively used in the upper classes of German public schools. It differs from the present volume in that the biographies, analyses, and notes which it contains, are written in French, and that the latter are more especially designed for German readers. Now it is a consummation much to be desired that the standard in the upper French classes should be high enough to allow of the use of such a book: i. e. that the boys in them should be able to read average French easily and without more than an occasional reference to the dictionary; but at present this is unfortunately far from being the case in most English schools. The reasons are not far to seek: the principal being that the importance of Modern Languages as a subject of study is not yet sufficiently recognized either by the Schools themselves or by the Universities, and hence that the time at the disposal of the French master is utterly inadequate. We believe that at most schools it does not exceed two or three hours a week, an amount which certainly does not allow of any portion of it being devoted to anything but grammatical study and reading. This consideration, coupled with numerous requests from masters who were acquainted with the French edition and were desirous of using the book, induced us to prepare an English edition, which, while providing the same amount of extracts from French authors, should save the student trouble by presenting the biographies etc. in an English form. A further motive was supplied by the wish to make the book available for the large and increasing class of candidates in the various public examinations, in all of which the French language and literature
now forms one of the subjects, while the time that can be given to the study is necessarily limited.
From our own experience we venture to think that a Manual of French Literature containing a number of carefully selected extracts provides more suitable reading for English students than a succession of entire plays or tales. The inconveniences which attend the use of the latter are many, not the least being the constantly arising necessity for a change of books, and the impossibility of reading through an entire work in one term, with but one hour a week available for the purpose, while only a very few separate works have been edited with sufficient care in this country. In the present volume will be found an ample choice of pieces to last a class for several years: it contains extracts, connected by continuous analyses, from more than thirty plays, and from the variety of its contents affords an opportunity of changing at any time from prose to poetry, from history to fiction, from grave to gay. The lyrical poems have been specially chosen from those best adapted for committing to memory, a practice which cannot be too strongly recommended to English students.
The selection of authors we present to the reader begins with the time of Corneille and Pascal, i. e. with the period, during which the language first settles into its present form, and ends with the latest of contemporary writers. But we have thought it useful to prefix an introduction containing an historical sketch of the rise and formation of the French language, together with an analysis of the literature from the trouvères to Corneille. We have moreover endeavoured, by means of numerous philological notes added to the text of the authors of the 17th century, to direct attention to the various changes which have taken place in the language. As to the spelling we have adopted that given in the last edition of the Dictionnaire de l'Académie for all the extracts except those contained in the Introduction.
Unlike most of our predecessors, we have not separated the poets from the prose writers, but have preferred presenting all the authors and their works, whether poetry or prose, in strict chronological order. We have allotted a large share of our space to the authors of the 17th and 18th centuries, which in France are the only ones studied by candidates for the baccalauréat ès lettres, but we have added to them the best representatives of the literature of our own day, from whose works we are enabled to publish extracts by the kind permission of French publishers and contemporary writers. The book which has been most useful to us in framing our biographical and literary sketches is M. GERUZEZ' Etudes littéraires sur les ouvrages français prescrits pour l'examen du baccalauréat és lettres; but this excellent work unfortunately does not go beyond the writers of the 17th and 19th centuries; for the rest we have relied chiefly upon Vapereau's Dictionnaire des contemporains, and where this failed us, on articles in the best French reviews, particularly the Revue des Deux Mondes.
One word more as to the pieces which we reprint. We have had at our disposal materials sufficiently complete to dispense with any reference to other text-books of French literature. Probably a large number of the extracts contained in this volume, especially those belonging to contemporary writers, have never appeared in any previous selection. It may be however that we have occasionally hit upon the same pieces as some of our predecessors, but the coincidence, if it exists at all, has been fortuitous. We have simply selected from the works of French writers those pieces which seemed most suitable for the purpose of the book, without taking the trouble of ascertaining whether they had already been used for the same purpose by others.
We need scarcely add that we have in every case faithfully reproduced the text of the authors, and that from the best editions procurable. Sometimes indeed we have been obliged to suppress a passage, either from want of space, or because it appeared unsuitable for a selection mainly intended for the use of schools. At the same time we have not pushed this principle to an extreme. A manual of French literature is not, of course, intended for children and if the young are to be kept in absolute ignorance of the existence of the passions and their effects on human conduct, it would obviously be impossible to give them an adequate view of the literature of any nation.
Thus for instance, though it would be unadvisable to read with schoolboys or girls the whole of such works as the Lettres Provinciales, Tartu fje, the Lettres Persanes, and the Mariage de Figaro, a manual of French literature would be utterly undeserving of the name if it contained no mention of such masterpieces. In each of these cases we have therefore endeavoured, by means of an introduction and careful analysis combined with numerous extracts, to give the reader a general idea of the work.
There are certain works of Voltaire which are, more than any others, the characteristic offspring of his lofty and daring, but irreverent mind, and yet we have not even thought it advisable to mention their titles in this volume. On the other hand there are fortunately large number of his best writings to which no kind of objection can be made on the score of either religion or morality, and from these we have given voluminous extracts.
The works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau present another and a still more embarrassing difficulty. No one, we hope, will charge us with having represented him and his writings in too favourable a light; but although we have been compelled to relinquish the idea of giving a detailed analysis of any one of his works, we venture to think that we have succeeded in collecting a number of interesting pieces, free from any taint of harm, which will sufficiently acquaint the reader with the thought and manner of the great philosopher.
With regard to the literature of our own day, it is our belief that a conscientious search, aided by a little judicious excision, cannot fail to select from the works of contemporary writers a large number of pieces available for such a purpose as ours.
If their number and extent in the present volume is more restricted than we could have wished for the sake of completeness, the reason lies rather in want of space than want of material.
We are, of course, aware that no one given selection can meet the tastes of every one interested in French literature, nor do we