Oui to Ouida, but otherwise ennui
You would think that leading off with a heavy hitter like Robert Louis Stevenson would start the book on a high note, but “A Lodging for the Night” is not one of his better stories. The narrative takes place in Paris in 1456. A poet passes a cold winter’s evening in a seedy tavern with his gang of friends, all thieves and murderers. Stevenson devotes much of the story’s length to its medieval atmosphere and the witty verbal repartee among the brigands; so much so that the plot is almost an afterthought. That’s a shame because it does get rather interesting toward the end, but by then it’s a little too little, a little too late.
The second entry by Ouida, the pseudonym of Maria Louis Ramé, is far more successful. She has been one of the bright spots in this series, having also provided the great story “A Dog of Flanders” to the Germany and Northern Europe volume. In this France collection, her story “A Leaf in the Storm” is set in a picturesque village on the banks of the Seine, where a 92-year-old woman and her grandson enjoy their simple lives, until the peace of their sleepy hamlet is interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War. Here Ouida’s writing calls to mind the war narratives of Emile Zola in both its brutal pessimism and its compelling emotional power.
Next up, another well-known British author, Wilkie Collins, offers a story of an Englishman traveling in Paris. This one ventures into the territory of horror and mystery. It builds suspense based on a premise that is quite clever but unrealistic. The narrative has an extended prologue, almost as long as the story itself, narrated by an itinerant portrait painter who explains how this tale was related to him during a portrait sitting. The story doesn’t benefit from this protracted setup.
The last two entries, by lesser-known authors, are the worst selections in the book. “Michel Lorio’s Cross,” by Hesba Stretton, is set in the stunning seaside city of Mont St-Michel in Normandy. The hero, one of the town’s native sons, is shunned by his neighbors for having converted to Protestantism. Though ostensibly a religious fable, Stretton uses the schmaltzy tale to portray French Catholics as intolerant and illiterate. The book’s final selection, S. J. Weyman’s “A Perilous Amour,” is set around 1600 and involves a plot to assassinate King Henry IV of France. The story is such a confusing mess, however, little joy is derived from the political intrigue.
This book serves its purpose in the Stories by English Authors series, but France has such a rich literature of its own, why bother reading a bunch of Brits’ takes on the country? In fact, another Scribner’s series, Stories by Foreign Authors, published in 1898, has three volumes of French short stories that are all far superior to this collection.
Stories in this collection
A Lodging for the Night by Robert Louis Stevenson
A Leaf in the Storm by Ouida
The Traveller’s Story of a Terribly Strange Bed by Wilkie Collins
Michel Lorio’s Cross by Hesba Stretton
A Perilous Amour by S. J. Weyman
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