BRIGADIER FREDERICK, THE DEAN'S WATCH
The Dean's Watch
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH
WITH A CRITICAL INTRODUCTION
BY PROF. RICHARD BURTON, OF THE
UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA
A FRONTISPIECE AND NUMEROUS
OTHER PORTRAITS WITH
DESCRIPTIVE NOTES BY
P. F. COLLIER & SON
BY D. APPLETON & COMPANY
Fashions change in literature, but certain things abide. There may be disputes from generation to generation, even from decade to decade, as to what is æsthetic, or what is beautiful; there is less as to what is human. The work of the French writers, whose duality is quite lost in the long-time association of their names for the purposes of story making, seems at the least to make this claim to outlast its authors: it is delightfully saturated with humanity.
And this humanity is of the sort that, since it can be understood of all men, is therefore very widely acceptable. It is well to emphasize the point in an attempt to explain the popularity of Erckmann-Chatrian, immediate or remote. There are other reasons, to be sure: but this one is at the door, knocking to be heard. But to speak of the essential humanity of these books is not to deny or ignore their art; that they have in abundance--quite as truly indeed as the work of your most insistent advocate of "art for art"; but it is art for life's sake. In the best sense, the verisimilitude of the Erckmann-Chatrian stories is admirable, impressive. They are, as a rule, exquisitely in key. They produce a cumulative effect by steadily, unobtrusively clinging to a single view-point, that of the speaker who is an eye-witness, and the result is a double charm--that of reality and that of illusion. One sees life, not through the eyes of the authors, but through the eyes of the characters; hence the frequent setting-forth of principles is relieved from didacticism by the careful way in which the writers refrain from expressing their own opinion. So artistic are they that they even indulge in the delicate ruse of opposing the views which are really their own, thereby producing a still stronger effect of fair-mindedness and detachment.
Yet, as the world knows, in the most justly famed of their books, the so-called National Novels, it is their purpose to preach against war; they are early advocates of the principles of the Peace Congress at The Hague, forerunners, in their own fashion, of the ideas expressed in art and literature by later men like Tolstoy and Verestchagin.
The local colour--one still uses the phrase as convenient--is remarkable for its sympathetic fidelity; the style well-nigh a model of prose whose purpose it is to depict in homely yet picturesque terms the passage of great events, seen by humble, it may be Philistine, folk, and hence not seen couleur de rose. When a heartfelt sympathy for average human-kind rises to the surface of the author's feeling, some candid, cordial phrase is ever found to express it.
The work of Erckmann-Chatrian, voluminous as it is, can be easily classified: it mainly consists of the idyl and the picture of war; L'lllustre Docteur Mathéus, their first success, happily illustrates the former genre; any one of the half dozen tales making up the National Novel series may be taken to represent the latter. Both veins turned out to be gold mines, so rich were they in the free-milling ore of popular favour. Such stories as L'Ami Fritz and The Brigadier Frederick are types of the two kinds of fiction which panned out most richly also for the world. In the idyl dealing with homely provincial life--the life of their home province--these authors are, of a truth, masters. The story is naught, the way of telling it, all that breeds atmosphere and innuendo, is everything. In L'Ami Fritz the plot may be told in a sentence: 'tis the wooing and winning of a country lass, daughter of a farmer, by a well-to-do jovial bachelor of middle age in a small town; voilà tout; yet the tale makes not only delicious reading, it leaves a permanent impression of pleasure--one is fain to re-read it. It is rich in human nature, in a comfortable sense of the good things of the earth; food and drink, soft beds, one's seat at the tavern, spring sunlight, and the sound of a fiddle playing dance tunes at the fair: and, on a higher plane, of the genial joys of comradeship and the stanch belief in one's native land. When the subtler passion of love comes in upon this simple pastoral scene, the gradual discovery of Friend Fritz that the sentiment he has always ridiculed has him at last in its clutch, is portrayed with a sly unction, a kindly humour overlying an unmistakable tenderness of heart, which give the tale great charm. Sweetness and soundness are fundamentals of such literature.
This tale is a type of them all, though deservedly the best liked. Love of nature and of human nature, a knowledge of the little, significant things that make up life, an exquisite realism along with a sort of temperamental optimism which assumes good of men and women—these blend in the provincial stories in such a way that one's sense of art is charmed while in no less degree one's sense of life is quickened and comforted. Erckmann-Chatrian introduced to French readers the genuine Alsatian, not the puppet of the vaudeville stage. Their books are, among other things, historical documents. From their sketches and tales better than in any other way one can gain an understanding of the