The Poor Gentleman
Preface to the American Edition
The story of "THE POOR GENTLEMAN," now given in our language for the first time, is one of the series in which M. Conscience has delineated various grades of female character in positions of trial. In "The Village Innkeeper" he has shown the weaker traits of woman distracted between an inborn sense of propriety and a foolish ambition for high, life. In the "Conscript" his heroine displays the nobler virtues of uncorrupted humble life; and, with few characters, taken from the lowest walks, he shows the triumph of honest, straightforward earnestness and pertinacious courage, even when they are brought in conflict with authority. "The Poor Gentleman" closes the series; and, selecting a heroine from the educated classes of his country-people M. Conscience has demonstrated how superior a genuine woman becomes to all the mishaps of fortune, and how successfully she subdues that imaginary fate before which so many are seen to fall.
It would be difficult to describe this remarkable work without analyzing the tale and criticizing its personages. This would anticipate the author and mar the interest of his story. We must confine ourselves, therefore, to general remarks on its structure and characteristics.
Pontmartin, the distinguished French feuilletonist, says, in one of his "Literary Chats," that these simple stories are "pearls set in Flemish gold,—a gold which alchemysts seek for in alembics and furnaces, but which Conscience has found in the inexhaustible veins of nature." "The Poor Gentleman," he remarks, "is a tale of not more than a hundred and fifty pages; but I would not give its shortest chapter for all the romances I ever read. The perplexed De Vlierbeck—who ought to have had Caleb Balderstone for a servant—is one of those characters that engrave themselves indelibly on our memory." In every trait and detail the author has attained a photographic minuteness; which, while it is distinct and sharp, never interferes with that motion, breadth, and picturesque effect that impart life and reality to a story. Nor can we doubt that it will be read and re-read as long as there is a particle of that feeling among us which installed the Vicar of Wakefield, Paul and Virginia, the Crock of Gold, the Sketch-book, and the Tales of a Traveller, among the heirlooms of every tasteful household. The "Tales of Flemish Life" are additions to that rare stock of home-literature which is at once amiable and gentle, simple and affectionate, familiar and tender, and which meets a quick response from every honest heart and earnest spirit.
If it be objected that the stories are too short and sketchy for the praise that has been bestowed on them, it may be answered that in their translation we have had the best opportunity to observe the skill, power, and perception of character which constitute their real merit. Simple as they seem, they are written with masterly art. In design, elaborateness, tone, and finish, they resemble the works of the Flemish School which have made us familiar with the Low Countries and their people through the pictures of Ruysdael, Teniers, and Ostade. There is scarcely a leaf that does not display some of those recondite or evanescent secrets of human nature which either escape ordinary writers, or, when found by them, are spread out over volume instead of being condensed into a page.
Baltimore, August, 1856.