So this term I’m teaching a somewhat unusual class this term called “Political Thought in the Age of Les Misérables”, for which I was flipping through Edward Copping’s 1858 guidebook, Aspects of Paris. It’s not a great book, but I liked this bit, on pp. 184-7, where he addresses the issues that matter.
‘There is another blemish in modern French drama’, Copping writes, ‘not so serious as those already alluded to, but claiming nevertheless a word of remark’.
Almost every sentimental hero of the Paris stage, has a habit of talking in super-filial tones of his Mother. No matter how much misery he may have caused her; no matter how long he may have neglected her; no matter how undutifully he may have acted towards her; ma mère is for ever on his lips, accompanied by the blubberings of hysterical pathos. Though during four acts he may have abandoned her to wretchedness and sorrow: in the fifth, when it is too late to repair the ill he has done, he is sure to begin to whimper for her, like a schoolboy who has lost an apple. Far be it from me to cast any ridicule upon the holiest affection our hearts are capable of conceiving. The name of Mother is hallowed in the history of our nature. It should be uttered reverentially by every tongue. A man may acquit many debts as he passes through life, but he will never acquit that which he owes to the being who has given him birth.
I do not quarrel therefore with French dramatists for imbuing their heroes with elevated sentiments of filial devotion. I quarrel with them for stripping those sentiments of all naturalness, of all simplicity, and arraying them in showy flaunting robes which hide the native beauty they possess. It is not a new idea that nature needs no adornment. We cannot “paint the lily or gild refined gold.” In like manner we cannot make natural sentiments more beautiful than nature has made them. Yet this is what the French dramatists continually strive to accomplish. The love inspired in us by a mother, is with them a bedizened city dame rather than a simple and homely village maiden. It is an alabaster statue which the sculptor has left pure and white, but which clumsy hands have daubed with gaudy colouring.
There is a tendency among French dramatic authors to exaggerate most passions, but none do they exaggerate more than this. Their stage hero talks of his mother in language which, when contrasted with his conduct towards her, becomes thoroughly ludicrous. He would lead you to believe that she has unlimited influence over him, but on the very first occasion when that influence ought to operate, it becomes without power. He forgets the tender being who has so much affection for him, and runs away after some wicked hussey who has no more heart than a millstone.
When sentiments such as I am speaking of are presented to us, let us have those which stimulate to actions rather than to words. Let us see them cheering the waning days of old age; encouraging youth in the hour of trial; strengthening it in the hour of adversity. We shall be sure then that they are real and not imaginary; that they spring from a healthy heart instead of a diseased mind. I must confess, I have a profound contempt for these heroes of the French stage, who snivel like so many Job Trotters about sentiments they do not act up to, and talk of feelings as penetrating to the bone which it is pretty obvious are only skin deep.
Paris audiences do not, however, share my views. With them these gentlemen are special favourites. If just before dying they do but allow ma mère to escape their lips, tears of condolence and sympathy are at once accorded to them, no matter what amount of rascality they may have previously committed. And here, I think, is the harm.