11 JULY 1931, Page 20

0 Dangerous Love ! ,

Marron Lescaut. Now first translated from the original text of 1731. By Helen Waddell. With an Introduction by George Saintsbury. (Constable. 15s.) MISEI HELEN WADDELL has already made a substantial reputation by her ability as a historian in The Wandering $cholars, and as a translator in her English versions of "Medieval Latin Lyrics." She has now tried her hand at conjuring down the magic of Manors Lescaut, one of the great love stories of the world. The attempt has been made many times before ; only a few years ago, I think, by Mr. Gribble, who gave a good Defoe-ish version. Miss Waddell, without losing the directness, has brought over another quality from the original ; the charming ceremonial quality of the style. It is an element in the structure of all good French prose, and perhaps is the most elusive of all its racial traits. Modern English, and by that I mean post-Commonwealth English, does not lend itself to that sense of unconscious gesture. We had that lovely grace once, as one can see from the prose of Sir Thomas More, whose description of Jane Shore in his History of King Richard the Third is perhaps as near an approach as anything in English literature, to the subtle " some- thing " which characterizes Marton Lescaut.

That " something " is a quality of which the verbal style is only the outward manifestation. Underlying that grace of form is the element of innocence, a character which amid all the experiences of sensual indulgence and social depravity remains undefiled. This character is not so uncommon as Mrs. Grundy—if she still exists—would have us believe. Shelley had it. Villon had it. We find it in Trilby, in Nicolette, in Juliet, in Dostoievsky's Grushenka ; indeed, in all lovers whose passion has exhalted them to a spiritual height whence they survey the world from a new moral angle.

Dabs of opprobrious mud may be thrown at the fire burning in the souls of such people, but it cannot quench their flame. For the sake of law and order, Manon Lescaut has been condemned ever since she dawned like the Cytherean on the incredulous eyes of mankind. Two months after her story was published in 1731, the President of the French Order of- Advocates in Paris wrote to a provincial friend, "This ex-Benedictine is a madman who has just written an abominable book called The History of Marten Lescaut and this heroine is a street-walker out of the H6pital (the Parisian Bridewell) and sent to the Mississippi in chains. The people rushed for it as if to a fire, in which one ought to have burned both the book and the author." So much for the fear inspired by the religion of Aphrodite, which pervades all other faiths, out-dropping in their rituals and creeds, ultimately to emerge unchanged. A week later, the same official wrote," Have you read Marton Lescatd ? There is only one good phrase in it, that she was so beautiful she might have brought back idolatry to the universe." We see that the Chevalier de Grieux, Manon's mad lover, was not the only moth. The most solemn and rotund come fluttering round sooner or later, in all the pomp of their ermine and official robes. They have done so since the beginning of time, men and women too, the majority

of them performing the agile feat of flying backwards in order to create the impression that they are shunning the temptation. Only a few headstrong fools throw off the

pretence, and rush headlong on their fate ; your Leanders, your Romeos, throwing all prudence and worldly wisdom to the winds. They are, of course, a great nuisance, both to themselves and others, dangerous examples of the loss of self- control and social decorum. But they hold the heart of humanity, their fervours and extravagant sacrifices creating a kind of morning music that is very lovely to the jaded ears of the dutiful, recalling a youth vanished in routine and in ecstasy grown tired under the burdens of responsibility. Manon and her lover, the Chevalier de Grieux, are the per- petual examples of this dangerous innocence which is half- aware of its fatal influence. Prevost makes his hero cry :

"If it is true that succour from on high is at any moment as powerful as human passion, let some one explain to me by what fatal ascendancy one finds oneself swept in a moment far from one's duty, without being capable of the slightest resistance, without being sensible of the faintest remorse.'

He receives no answer, and goes stumbling on from one abasement to another, through fraud,, compliance and treachery, yet true and generous to the object of his love. For, as he says when in prison :

"I love Marion : I aim, through a thousand griefs, at living in peace and happiness by her side. The way by which I go is dolorous, but the hope of arriving at my destination sheds sweetness on it, and I should think myself overpaid, by one moment spent with her, for all the miseries that I endure to win it."

These may be the words of a fool who has brought despair upon the sweetness of his father's house, but who is to distinguish them from the accents of a saint ?

It is this divine fervour which makes the story immortal.

It rushes through the tale like a wind through an April orchard, carrying a million flower petals—the kisses of Manon- that settle upon the most sordid events and sanctify them with the perfume of inevitable nature. It inspires de Grieux with an heroic energy that carries him through a series of shames and disasters, and enables him at the end to sit by his dead Manon in the wilderness, staying for two days and two nights with his lips pressed to her face and hands, before he can bring himself to dig her grave. Having done that last service, he says :

"There I laid the idol of my heart, after taking care to wrap all my clothes about her to keep the sand from touching her. I only laid her so after having kissed her a thousand times with all the passion of a perfect love. I sat there still beside her. I watched her for a very long time. I could not bring myself to close her grave. My strength beginning to flag, and fearing that I might fail altogether before I had carried out my task, I buried for ever in the bosom of the earth the loveliest, dearest thing she ever bore."

And so he relinquished the being whose insouciance and generous love had ruined his fame and career. With her departure his fervour also went, and he returned to a life of penitence—and a secret exultation that he had been blessed by so superb a love.