Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (18631944). The Sleeping Beauty and other Fairy Tales. 1910.
ONCE upon a time I found myself halting between two projects, both magnificent. For the first, indeedwhich was to discover, digest and edit all the fairy tales in the worldI was equipped neither with learning, nor with command of languages, nor with leisure, nor with length of years. It is a task for many men, clubbing their lifetimes together. But the second would have cost me quite a respectable amount of toil; for it was to translate and annotate the whole collection of stories in the Cabinet des Fées.
Now the Cabinet des Fées, in the copy on my shelves, extends to forty-one volumes, printed, as their title-pages tell, at Geneva between the years 1785 and 1789, and published in Paris by M. Cuchet, Rue et Hôtel Serpente. The dates may set us moralising. While the Rue Serpente unfold, as though
Tranquilla per alta,
its playful voluminous coils, the throne of France with the Ancien Régime rocked closer and closer to catastrophe. In 1789 (July), just as M. Cuchet (good man and leisurable to the end) wound up his series with a last volume of the Suite des Mille et Un Nuits, they toppled over with the fall of the Bastille.
Even so in Englandwe may remind ourselvesin 1653, when the gods made Oliver Cromwell Protector, Izaak Walton chose to publish a book about little fishes. But the reminder is not quite apposite: for angling, the contemplative mans recreation, was no favourite or characteristic or symbolical pursuit of the Order which Cromwell overthrew (and, besides, he did not overthrow it); whereas, M. Cuchets forty-one volumes most pertinently as well as amply illustrated some real qualities, and those the most amiable of the Ancien Régime. When we think of the French upper classes from the days of Louis XIV. to the Revolution, we associate them with a certain elegance, a taste fastidious and polite, if artificial, in the arts of living and the furniture of life; and in this we do them justice. But, if I mistake not, we seldom credit them with the quality which more than any other struck the contemporary foreign observer who visited France with a candid mindI mean their good temper. We allow the Bastille or the guillotine to cast their shadows backward over this period, or we see it distorted in the glare of Burkes rhetoric or Carlyles lurid and fuliginous history. But if we go to an eye-witness, Arthur Young, who simply reported what he saw, having no oratorical axe to grind or guillotine to sharpen, we get a totally different impression. The last of Youngs Travels in France (17871789) actually coincided with the close of M. Cuchets pleasant enterprise in publishing; and I do not think it fanciful to suppose that, had this very practical Englishman found time to read at large in the Cabinet des Fées, he would have discovered therein much to corroborate the evidence steadily and unconsciously borne by his own journalsthat the urbanity of life among the French upper classes was genuine, reflecting a real and (for a whole society) a remarkable sunniness of disposition. Unconscious of their doom, the little victims played. But they did play; and they fell victims, not to their own passions, but to a form of government economically rotten.
Of all the volumes in the Cabinet, possibly the most famous are the first and second, containing the fairy tales of Charles Perrault and Madame dAulnoy, and vols. 7II, containing M. Gallands version (so much better than any translation) of The Arabian Nights. I hope that one of these days Mr. Dulac will lay the public under debt by illustrating all these, and the stories of Antony Hamilton to boot. Meanwhile, here are three of the most famous tales from Perraults wallet, and one, the evergreen Beauty and the Beast, by an almost forgotten authoress, Madame de Villeneuve.
The ghost of Charles Perrault, could it walk to-dayperruque and allmight well sigh over the vanity of human pretensions. For Monsieur Perrault was a person of importance in his life-time (16281703), and a big-wig in every sense of the term. Colbert made him Secretary of the Academy of Inscriptions, and anon Controller of Public Worksin which capacity he suggested to his architect-brother, Claude Perrault, the facade of the Louvre with its renowned colonnade. He flattered his monarch with a poem Le Siècle de Louis le Grand. Je ne sais, observes a circle, si ce roi, malgré son amour excessif pour la flatterie, fut content: les bornes étaient outre-passées. The poem, as a poem, had little success; but by positing that the Age of Louis was the greatest in history, and suggesting that the moderns were as good as the ancients or better, it started a famous controversy. Boileau, Racine, La Bruyère, honoured him by taking the other side, and forced him to develop his paradox in a book of dialogues, Parallèles des Anciens et des Modernes. But his best answer was his urbane remark (for he kept his temper admirably) that these gentlemen did ill to dispute the superiority of the moderns while their own works gave proof of it. He wrote other poems, other tractates (including one on the Illustrious Men of his Age), besides occasional tracts on matters of high politics: and his memory is kept alive by one small packet of fairy-talesstories which he heard the nurse tell his little boy, and set down upon paper for a recreation! That is the way with literary fame. To take an English example: it is odds that Southey, poet-laureate and politician of great self-importance in his day, will come finally to be remembered by his baby-story of The Three Bears. It will certainly outlive Thalaba the Destroyer, and possibly even the Life of Nelson.
As for Gabrielle Susanne, wife of M. de Gallon, Siegneur de Villeneuve and lieutenant-colonel of infantry (whom she outlived), she wrote a number of romantic storiesLe Phénix Conjugal, Le Juge Parvenu, Le Beau-Frère Supposé, La Jardinière de Vincennes, Le PrinceAzerolles, etc. I am notperhaps few areacquainted with these works. Madame de Villeneuve died in 1755 and lives only by grace of her La Belle et la Bête; and that again lives in spite of its literary defects. It has style; but the style inheres neither in its language, which is loose, nor in its construction. The story, as she wrote it, tails off woefully and drags to an end in mere foolishness.
Since Perrault, who is usually accepted as the fountainhead of these charming French fairy-stories, belongs almost entirely to the seventeenth century, it may be asked why Mr. Dulac has chosen to depict his Princes and Princess in costumes of the eighteenth? Well, for my part, I hold that he has obeyed a just instinct in choosing the period when the literature he illustrates was at the acme of its vogue. But his designs, in every stroke of which the style of that period is so unerringly felt, provide his best apology.
My own share in this volume is, perhaps, less easily defended. I began by translating Perraults tales, very nearly word for word; because to me his style has always seemed nearly perfect for its purpose; and the essence of style in writing is propriety to its purpose. On the other hand the late M. Ferdinand Brunetière has said that Perraults is devoid of charm, and on this subject M. Brunetières opinion must needs out-value mine ten times over. Certainly the translations, when finished, did not satisfy me, and so I turned back to the beginning and have rewritten the stories in my own way, which (as you may say with the Irish butler) may not be the best claret, but tis the best yeve got.
I have made bold, too, to omit Perraults conclusion of La Belle au Bois Dormant. To my amazement the editor of the Cabinet des Fées selects this lame sequelit is no better than a sequelof a lovely tale, and assigns to it the credit of having established la vêritable fortune de ce genre. Frankly, I cannot believe him. Further, I have condensed Madame de Villeneuves narrative and obliterated its feeble ending. In taking each of these liberties I have the warrant of tradition, which in the treatment of fairy-tales speaks with a voice more authoritative than the original authors, for it speaks with the united voices of many thousands of children, his audience and best critics. As the children have decreed that in Southeys tale of The Three Bears the heroine shall be a little girl, and not, as Southey invented her, a good-for-nothing old woman, so they have decreed the story of The Sleeping Beauty to end with the Princes kiss, and that of Beauty and the Beast with the Beasts transformation. And as Beauty and the Beast is really but a variant of the immortal tale of Cupid and Psyche, I mighthad I room to spareattempt to prove to you that the childrens taste is here, as usually, right and classical.