That the early histories of the novel in Spain, France, and England are largely independent phenomena is exemplified by the failure of Don Quixote de la Mancha to attract a wide readership in England and France for many decades. In England, Don Quixote de la Mancha was “discovered” in the eighteenth century and became an influential work. The most successful French writers of the period from 1600 to 1740, working in a very different fictional tradition in a very different social and philosophical climate, were not at all influenced by this book, though Cervantes and the other picaresque writers did have disciples among the few French satirists and realists of the age.
Aspects of the chivalric romances, particularly their aristocratic heroes and exotic settings, held the French imagination during much of this period. French writers of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries modified the tradition in two important ways, however. First, the violence of the books of knight-errantry was subdued, replaced by greater emphasis on verbal combats conducted under strict rules of manners and decorum; second, the heroic ideal became more and more modified by the pastoral, with its focus on coy debates between lovers. Writers seized on the heroic/pastoral models provided by the rediscovered Greek romances and on more recent pastorals, such as those of the Spanish Jorge de Montemayor (Los siete libros de la Diana, 1559; Diana, 1598) and the Italians Jacopo Sannazaro and Giovanni Guarini. This literary movement in France was led by a powerful coterie of women within the court of Henry IV, its influence partly explained by a general desire throughout France for a literature of escape from the religious and political upheaval of the preceding half century.
One of the most popular works of this period, indeed throughout the seventeenth century, was Honoré d’Urfé’s L’Astrée (1607-1628; Astrea, 1657-1658), its five volumes exploring countless varieties of love conflict and presenting for each a series of Platonic speeches by the impeccably mannered lovers. Set in the fifth century in a society of shepherds and nymphs, the novel is a thinly veiled portrait of an idealized seventeenth century French aristocracy. So popular was d’Urfé’s work that members of the court, and many other aristocratic and bourgeois readers as well, strove to emulate the language and sentiments of Celadon, Astrea, and the many other characters. The course of the novel in France for the next fifty years was set by Astrea, as the Marquise de Rambouillet and the other members of literary high society cultivated imitators of d’Urfé.
If the French novel can be said to have developed in this period, it did so by gradually abandoning the pastoral idyll and returning to the more martial heroism of the chivalric tradition. The best-known exemplar of this shift is Madeleine de Scudéry, herself the leader of a literary salon and the author of Artamène: Ou, Le Grand Cyrus (1649-1653; Artamenes: Or, The Grand Cyrus, 1653-1655) and Clélie (1654-1660; Clelia, 1656-1661). Critics of the time applauded Artamenes for the greater verisimilitude of its pseudohistorical setting in ancient Greece and Persia, though her work was at an idealistic extreme from the earthy realism of the Spanish picaresque. The main concern of Scudéry’s fiction is still the verbal intrigues of courtship, no longer of shepherds but of warlike heroes and elegant heroines. Within the episodic design of these novels, each encounter is an occasion for speeches and letters on the vagaries of passion. Another attraction of these novels for their readers was the similarity in description between the characters and actual members of the French court, with readers vying to unmask the “real” identities of Scudéry’s figures.
The d’Urfé-Scudéry convention in France was not without its antagonists. Parallel to this trend, but beyond the pale, was a realistic/satiric school based on the medieval fabliaux, the gross satires of Rabelais, translations of the picaresques, and translations of violent tales of love intrigue written by the Italian Matteo Bandello in the sixteenth century. Actually, d’Urfé himself had contributed to this school by including within Astrea a cynical shepherd, Hylas, purportedly based on the author’s view of himself. The first seventeenth century novelist to build a work around such a character was Prudent Gautier, whose Mort d’Amour (1616) mocked Astrea by making this same Hylas a seducer/hero; his love affair with Jeanneton, a real shepherdess, is grossly and realistically portrayed. Following Gautier in this satiric mode was Charles Sorel, an important critic as well as a boldly experimental novelist. His Histoire comique de Francion (1623, 1632; The Comical History of Francion, 1655) and Le Berger extravagant: Ou, L’Antiroman (1627; The Extravagant Shepherd, 1653) undercut the pretenses of the pastoral and no doubt hastened its downfall. The Comical History of Francion replaces the usual idealized setting with an actual countryside and also leads the reader, in picaresque fashion, through the French counterparts of the criminal districts described by Alemán. Instead of idealized aristocrats, Sorel peoples the book with accurately drawn bourgeois characters, petty nobility, and criminals. The Extravagant Shepherd attacks the pastoral by creating a Quixote-like figure, Lysis, a real shepherd, who fills his head with pastoral literature and wants his environment to conform to that of the books. The satire works by showing the impossibility of Lysis’s task: Real life is simply not a pastoral. The flaw of Sorel’s novel is that the contrivances of satire defeat the sympathetic intent, so the novel appears even more artificial than the convention Sorel is attacking. Ironically, this is the very flaw with which Sorel had charged Cervantes.
The most successful of the attacks on the mainstream French novel of this time was Le Roman comique (1651, 1657; English translation, 1651, 1657; also known as The Comical Romance, 1665), by the novelist and playwright Paul Scarron. His satire was more technical than thematic, directed against the ponderous descriptions of scenery and clothing in the pastorals and heroics, as well as their seemingly endless rhetorical displays. He practiced what he preached, for The Comical Romance is remarkably economical, but effective, in its descriptions and conversations. The book also succeeds as realistic fiction because, in the spirit of Cervantes, Scarron is not making fun of the provincial townspeople he presents but is merely trying to recount as accurately as possible their interactions, often ludicrous, with the troupe of actors who are the focus of the story. The book is so authentic, its comedy so natural, that historians have found it a trustworthy guide to the organization and ambience of actual troupes of the time of Molière. Scarron could achieve this because he was writing out of his experience, rather than out of his fantasies or to emulate a fashion. His dramatic background,...