HOME LIFE IN FRANCE
THE first turning
of a French door-handle is symbolic. Just as we lower the knob
to the left, our neighbours raise it to the right, so we may safely
take it for granted that everything done across the water is
performed after a fashion directly contrary to our own.
Domestic arrangements, social usages, rules of etiquette are
pleasantly criss-cross, divertingly unfamiliar, neither more nor
less than antipodal. Twenty-four hours spent under a French
roof may be described as a perpetual process of dishabituation.
The merest bagatelle is invested with novelty. Unaccustomed
ways and surroundings make it difficult to believe that French and
English are separated by an hour's sea journey only; that in clear
weather France and England contemplate each other face to face.
Nor on further acquaintance does this impression vanish. Many
of our countrymen, like the late Mr. Hamerton, have made France
their home. But in their case it is dissimilarity that
fascinates. In the very least like the home left behind, a
French fireside can never be.
Let us begin with the guest-chamber of a well-appointed
house. Our first notion is that a bed has just been put into a
boudoir or drawing-room for our accommodation. Not a single
object suggests a room in which we not only sleep, but go through
the various processes of the toilette. We soon discover that
one handsome piece of furniture, as closely shut as a piano with the
lid down, is a washstand; another, equally delusive at first sight,
is a dressing-table; or, maybe, a panel reveals a tiny
dressing-closet, the said panel never under any circumstances
whatever being allowed to remain open during the day.
Most things in France have a historic explanation, and the
fashion of receiving visitors in one's bedroom was set by royalty.
Sully describes how one morning Henri Quatre waked up his
"dormouse"—the snoring Marie de Medici—by his side, in order that
she might hear what the minister had to say. The Sun-King
allowed himself farther licence, and held solemn audiences in his
garde-robe. Versailles, vast as it was, had no space for
private salons; courtiers of both sexes could only be at home to
visitors in their bedrooms.
The habit has not wholly died out. I have at different
times spent many weeks with old-fashioned folk living near Dijon,
the household consisting of three families living under one roof.
On the first chilly day a fire would be lighted in the grandmother's
bedroom, and thither we all adjourned for a chat or a game of whist.
If neighbours dropped in, no apology was offered for receiving them
Another custom handed down from generation to generation is
that of employing men in housework. In private interiors, as
well as in hotels, men often supply the place of housemaids, at any
rate up to a certain point. They sweep the rooms, polish the
floors, and brush velvet-covered furniture. In Balzac's works,
these domestics are often mentioned. During the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries valets de chambre not only acted the
part of housemaids, but of ladies' maids; they arranged their
mistress's headdress and hair, and aided her in the adjustment of
hoops and falbalas or flounces. Perhaps the fact of
Frenchwomen in former days always being dressed, never dressing
themselves, accounts for the indifference to the looking-glass.
It has ever been a standing marvel to me that our sisters
over the water have their bonnets straight and their coiffure
irreproachable. In the matter of mirrors they are worse off
than Pompeiian ladies with their metal substitutes. A French
sleeping apartment abounds in reflectors; never by any chance can
you see yourself properly. A looking-glass invariably
surmounts the mantelpiece, but so obscured by ornamental timepiece
and branched candelabra as to be absolutely unavailable. There
will be looking-glasses here, looking-glasses there; for one that
answers the purpose for which it was intended you seek in vain.
With regard to downiness, elasticity, and cleanliness the French bed
is unsurpassed, every year or every two years the mattresses being
opened, picked over, and aired. The only drawback is height, a
bed being often as difficult to get at as the upper berth of a
In a French house no prevailing savour of fried bacon between
eight and nine o'clock a.m. announces the family breakfast.
Your tea or coffee and roll are served whilst you still luxuriate on
your pillows. Rousseau pronounced the English breakfast to be
the most charming custom he found here. The French habit has
much to recommend it. Our hosts are left to themselves, and
our own day is begun without effort or fatigue. A French home,
however, is seldom adapted for a house party. The cosy morning
room, the library, and smoking-room are only found in palatial
dwellings. What would a lady do, for example, with three or
four visitors in a Parisian flat?
The next experience of a French household is its extreme
animation—with apologies to my friends—I will say noisiness.
An English band of housemaids is mouse-like in its movements.
Passages are swept and dusted, breakfast-room, schoolroom, servants'
hall are prepared for the morning meal in almost unbroken silence.
No sooner are shutters thrown open in France than a dozen sounds
announce the resumption of work, the return to daily life. Men
and maids laugh, talk, or dispute at the top of their voices; master
and mistress shout orders; children make a playroom of corridors.
The general effervescence might lead a modern Voltaire's Ingénu, or
the counterpart of Montesquieu's Persian, to suppose that in France
taciturnity is heavily taxed.
The prevailing quietness of an English interior equally
surprises a French new-comer. The late Alphonse Daudet
resented such tranquillity. To an interviewer he
unflatteringly compared the silent, reserved London home with the
life of a Parisian flat: from an open window a piano heard there;
from an open door voices heard here; folk chattering on the stairs;
not a storey without animation and movement. On the other
hand, some of our neighbours fall in love with our own domestic
quietude and seclusion, only the family circle housed under a single
roof; no inquisitorial concierge watching one's going out and
coming in; last, but not least, no servants shut out at night,
sleeping in attics perhaps three or four storeys above that of their
Drawing-rooms differ from our own no less than bedrooms.
In France furniture, as well as laws, customs, and social
ordinances, has closely followed tradition. A Parisian salon
still recalls the stilted seventeenth century, the remorselessly
formal epoch of Madame de Sévigné. Under the next reign slight
modifications were introduced. The straight-backed,
ironically-called fauteuil or easy-chair of Louis XIV.,
upright, solemn, and uncomfortable as a throne, was replaced by an
armchair with cushions, and of more reposeful make. The
fauteuil Voltaire was a further improvement. Sofas,
settees, footstools followed suit; but French upholstery still
sacrifices ease to elegance. The comparison of Maple's
showroom in the Boulevard de la Madeleine with that of a Parisian
rival shows the difference.
Then, arrangement is different. French visitors in
England are surprised at what, for want of a better word, I will
call the "at-homeness" of our own drawing-rooms—in one corner the
mistress's writing-table, in another a case of favourite books; on
the table, library volumes, reviews, and newspapers; music on the
open piano, doggie's basket by the fireplace, a low chair or two for
the children; on all sides evidence of perpetual occupation.
A French salon must not so unbend; domesticities within such
precincts would be held out of place. A semi-circle of elegant
elbow chairs, or bergères, face the high-backed sofa, on
which sits the lady of the house when at home to friends. Rugs
sparsely break the expanse of polished floor; consoles, brackets,
and cabinets impart a museum-like aspect. The French salon—of
course, with exceptions—however much it may dazzle the eye, does not
warm the heart.
The dining-room calls for no comment, but table arrangements offer
novelty. Except in homely, old-fashioned, and modest households
dishes at the twelve o'clock déjeuner, now often called
lunch, are invariably carved by the servants and handed round. The
free-and-easy etiquette of an English family luncheon has not as
yet been followed. One peculiarity of non-official French meals is
the rule regarding wine. It is never the butler or footman, always
the host and hostess or a lady's table companion, who offer wine, a
decanter being placed by every alternate cover. The custom doubtless
arises from the habit, now fallen into complete disuse, of toasting
one's next-door neighbour. The position of glass or glasses is
another important point. These are always placed immediately in
front of your plate; never at the right hand, as with ourselves. A
friendly hostess explained to me that this position is a precaution
against accidents; but as dishes are always served on the left side,
I do not quite see the force of her argument.
A luncheon party, or formal déjeuner, is a much more
protracted and formal affair than on our side of the water. Coffee
having been served, the company return to the drawing-room, but not
to chat for five minutes and disperse, as with us. The men disappear
for the enjoyment of cigarettes; the ladies indulge in what is
called a causerie intime, or talk of business, children, and
family affairs. French ladies, be it recalled by the way, never
smoke. The habit is entirely left to the Bohemian and the unclassed. The early déjeuner hastens on the hour of calls. Visits,
alike ceremonial and friendly, are generally made between one and
two o'clock. The late M. Cherbuliez, with whose warm friendship I
was honoured, always chose that time for his long delightful chats.
Afternoon tea, as I have already mentioned, is rather made an excuse
for social reunion than regarded in the light of a habit or
necessity. Most often friends invite each other to one of the
numerous "five o'clocks," now a feature of Parisian hotels. The
children's goûter, or lunch of bread and chocolate, is eaten
here, there, and everywhere. Two meals, and two meals only, have
French cooks to trouble their heads about during the twenty-four
hours. And here I would observe that, although among
English-speaking cosmopolitan French people the second déjeuner
is often called lunch, ordinarily the term designates the light and
elegant repast taken later in the day—at two or three o'clock, for
example, in the case of weddings, at four or five in that of garden
parties. Tea is now appearing at le lunch de l'après midi. In
country houses informal refreshments are taken out-of-doors, upon
such occasions young ladies not disdaining beer with their brioche,
or light sweetened bread; there tea is very seldom made.
We now come to the all-important subject of dinner. Here etiquette
is exceedingly precise. Dr. Johnson would never have had to complain
in France that somebody's dinner was all very well, but "not a
dinner to invite a man to." Critical of the critical, and in no
matter more so than in that of gastronomy, French hosts will always
make quite sure that their dinner is worth inviting a man to.
I well remember a déjeuner to which I was invited some years
since by an ex-Minister of Public Instruction and his wife, only one
other guest and two or three members of the family making up the
party. My fellow-guest was a Russian, my hosts were Lorrainers, and,
as a delicate compliment, the three principal dishes—fresh-water
fish, venison, and galettes (a kind of pancake)—were all
local dainties, and all exquisitely cooked after local fashion. Such
little attentions lend a grace and charm altogether unpurchasable to
any banquet. The invitatory compliment is thereby doubled. By
offering you the choicest products of his especial corner of France,
your host seems to entertain in a double capacity —to represent his
province as well as his household.
I will now say something about etiquette. In a civilization so
ancient and so elaborate as that of France the cult of manners would
naturally hold a prominent place. So far back as 1675 social usages
were inculcated in a manual by Antoine de Courtin, "Traité de la
Civilité qui se pratique en France, parmi les honnêtes gens." Three-quarters of a century later appeared another work on good
manners, "Civilité puérile et honnête, par un missionnaire," more
especially adapted to the young; and from that date numerous works
of the kind have been issued.
One curious feature of French etiquette is the direct opposition of
many rules to our own, in every case the divergence being
explicable. With ourselves an introduction entitles a lady to
acknowledge or not as she pleases a presentee of the other sex. Precisely an opposite rule holds good in France; here, as in so many
other instances, custom following tradition. Louis XIV. never
encountered a washerwoman or chambermaid without raising his hat. An
Englishman respectfully salutes a lady of his acquaintance. A
Frenchman, following the example of the Roi Soleil, pays
indiscriminate homage to the sex; he would never dream of addressing
a shop assistant or a concierge without such a salute. Under
no circumstance whatever must a lady in France take the initiative;
it is for a man to proclaim himself her real servitor, for her to
accept his obeisance. An introduction in a friendly drawing-room
authorizes—indeed, obliges—a gentleman to acquaint himself with the
lady's day and hour of reception, and then to present himself.
Tradition may also be traced in the etiquette of calls. In England,
whenever new-comers settle in a country town or village, it is for
residents to leave cards or not as they please. In France the case
is different; with new-comers rests the option of proffering
intercourse. The purchaser of a château or villa is not called upon
by his neighbours; he calls upon those whose acquaintance he wishes
to cultivate. I think the reversal of our own rule may be explained
in this way. What is called villadom in England is a world that has
sprung up outside the close ring of ancestral manors. With the French
campagne or country house it is otherwise. As M. Rambaud has
pointed out ("Histoire de la Civilization Française"), it was in the
seventeenth century that Parisians, following royal fashion, began
to build elegant retreats for the villégiature. These new
residents in country places belonging to the same class as the old,
there would naturally be no scruple about making acquaintances. A
minor matter shows the hold of tradition upon French etiquette. It
strikes us oddly to receive letters signed "Bien affectueusement à
vous, Comtesse de R――" ("Very affectionately yours, Countess of
R――"); or, "Votre bien dévoué, Marquis de X――" ("Yours very
sincerely, Marquis of X――"). But the usage is historic. Thus great
ladies and gentlemen of the seventeenth century inscribed themselves
when writing to friends.
Many other instances might be cited. Customs which to English
notions appear artificial, even ridiculous, look quite differently
when studied from the standpoint of laws, institutions, and
The long and elaborate formula with which letters are wound up
afford an example. Instead of "Yours faithfully" or "Yours truly,"
we find a circumlocution as follows: "Be so good as to permit me to
express the assurance of my most sincere devotion and respect." But
the habit is merely a survival of exaggerated court etiquette, and
the long string of compliments in which English critics discern
French insincerity has no kind of meaning whatever. The same may be
averred of many set phrases, well-worn locutions that suited the
artificial times in which they were framed, but are incongruous on
modern lips. In what is called society, that is to say the
circumscribed area still wedded to tradition, the thee and
thou of familiar intercouse is discarded in public. The middle
and upper middle ranks, on the contrary, still adhere to the pretty quakerish fashion. Among lifelong friends of both sexes, too, the
vous is discarded for the more intimately affectionate tu and
toi. There is no hard and fast rule. In some country places
you will even hear peasant children address their parents by the
more formal second person plural, a usage which has survived the
"sir " and "madam" of our Georgian epoch, and probably originating
in the autocratic nature of parental rule. The use of the third
person singular by domestics and subordinates is another survival of
the ancien régime and caste.
A French maid does not say, "When would you like your bath, ma'am?
"but "Madame, when would she like her bath?" "Madame, does she
intend to wear this?" "Monsieur, will he take this?" and so on and
so on, the vous being studiously omitted.
On this subject I append a good story. When wintering in Brittany
many years ago, a French friend, whilst engaging a young nursemaid,
informed her that she must always address her in the third person
singular. The damsel heard in silence, but on going to the kitchen
blurted out to the cook, her future fellow-servant, "What in the
world does madame mean? The third person singular! I know no more
what she is driving at than a new-born baby. M. le Curé has often
spoken to me of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but of the third person
singular, never." In those days Brittany was the least-instructed
province of France. Such ignorance could not anywhere be matched at
the present time.
One curious Parisian institution is the ambulatory bath. I was
staying with French acquaintances in the Avenue Villiers, when one
afternoon I heard a tremendous lumbering on the front staircase,
such a clatter and commotion, indeed, that I opened my door in
alarm. "It is only madame's bath," said the maid-of-all-work,
smiling as she threw wide the outer door. Straightway was wheeled
inside an enormous bath, attendants following with cans of water and
heating apparatus. A quarter of an hour later my hostess was
enjoying the long drawn out luxury of plenteous immersion. The
indulgence enjoyed during the greater portion of the afternoon cost,
I believe, only three or four francs.
The ambulatory bath may often be seen in transit through Paris
streets, and must be a great boon to invalids and involuntary
stay-at-homes. Excellent public baths exist in every quarter, but
except in the most luxurious modern flats and hotels, bath-rooms are
non-existent. Veteran Parisians can still remember the time when the
water-supply of Paris was performed by hand, Auvergnats carrying
pailfuls to regular customers at a penny per pail. The more
prosperous of these made their rounds with a donkey and cart bearing
A historian I have frequently cited, M. Rambaud, gracefully
acknowledges the impetus given to baths and bathing in France by
English example. We borrowed many things from England (1814-1848),
he writes, "not the least valuable being bodily cleanliness, a habit
of copious ablutions, personal hygiene, that had made scant progress
during twenty-five years of military campaign." At the present time
our neighbours are ardent devotees of le tub; tuber is now
conjugated as a verb.
housekeeping may be described as the glorification of simplicity, a
supreme economy of time, outlay, and worry. Nothing more
conspicuously exemplifies the ply of the French mind. In no
other field is so well evidenced French love of method, economy, and
I will first describe a day's housekeeping in Paris, the
household consisting of nine or ten persons, four of whom are
domestics, less than half the number that would be found necessary
in England. Having sent cups of tea or coffee and rolls
upstairs, and prepared coffee for the kitchen, the cook is free to
go to market. Her fellow-servants help themselves to coffee
from the hob and bread from the cupboard, each washing up his or her
bowl when emptied. The milkwoman has deposited her can of
milk, the baker has brought the day's huge supply of bread. No
one will have business with the kitchen bell till next morning.
French meals, it must be remembered, are practically reduced
to two; no elaborate breakfasts after English fashion, no nursery or
schoolroom dinners, no afternoon teas. The wet-nurse
dismissed, Bébé takes its place at the family board. The
fashionable world certainly indulges in what is called a "five
o'clock," but rarely, if ever, at home. The tea restaurant is
a favourite rendezvous, and tea-drinking is strictly confined to its
patronesses. In modest, middle-class homes, the pleasantest
meal of the day with us is quite unknown.
We will now follow our cook on her errands. Having
taken orders from the mistress, she sets forth provided with two
capacious baskets or string bags. As there are no tradesmen to
call for orders, neither fishmonger, greengrocer, butcher, nor
grocer, she can take matters easily, which in all likelihood she
does. The French temperament is not given to flurry and
bustle, and a daily marketer will naturally have a vast
But our cook will ofttimes fill her panniers nearer home than
even at the nearest market.
A pictorial and heart-rejoicing sight is the Paris street
barrow, ambulatory cornucopia piled high with fruit, flowers, and
vegetables, the fertility of the most fertile country of Europe here
focussed on the city pavement. Small wonder if the caterer
halts before one of these, tempted by freshest of green things in
season—salads, herbs for flavouring, sorrel for soup, asparagus,
artichokes or peas for her entremets. A halt, too, she
will very likely make at a fruit barrow, providing herself with the
dining-room dessert—luscious little wild strawberries (fraises de
quatre saisons), melons, figs, whatever happens to be at its
But the day's provision of meat, poultry, fish, butter, and
eggs, has to be found room for, and in all probability she will
conclude her purchases at the market, her joint or joints of meat
wrapped in paper being consigned to the bottom of a pannier, lighter
commodities lying on the top. Both receptacles being filled to
the brim, she returns home, doubtless with aching arms, but well
pleased to have enjoyed the fresh air and opportunities of chat.
Thus it will be seen that in a French household the process is not,
as with ourselves, one of elaboration, but the very reverse.
The day's budget becomes as much a thing of the past as the day
itself. There is no fagot of little red books for the mistress
to look over and settle once a week, no possibility of erroneous
entries, no percentage paid for the booking and sending of goods.
And our cook, having only four meals to prepare, instead of
her English colleague's half-score, can concentrate all her energies
The dinner, in French domestic economy, is as the sun to the
planets. Every other operation is made subservient to it,
every other incident revolves round it. For with our French
neighbours the principal repast of the day is not merely a meal, it
is a dinner. This nice distinction is happily indicated by the
following story. A French friend was describing to me the fare
of an English country inn and praising the day's fish, roast duck,
and pudding; "But," she added as a rider, "it was a meal, not a
The midday déjeuner, now called lunch in fashionable
society, is comparatively an insignificant affair, not deemed worthy
of a tablecloth! Lunch, even in wealthy houses, is served on
the bare table, and I must say that highly polished oak, mahogany,
or walnut admirably set off plate, crystal, and flowers. We
are all more or less slaves to conventionality and habit, and the
things we deem becoming and appropriate are most often the things
with which we are familiar.
That nice distinction just quoted indicates the relative
importance of dinner in France and England. The minute care,
indeed, bestowed upon the preparation of food by our neighbours is
almost incomprehensible among ourselves. French folks, alike
the moderately well off and the rich, are never satisfied with a
meal. They must end the day with a dinner.
Irrespective of economy both in catering and cookery, it may
safely be averred that the one French extravagance to set against a
thousand English extravagances is the dinner. It is the only
case of addition instead of subtraction when balancing French and
English items of daily expenditure. And the charm of French
dinners, like the beauty of Frenchwomen, to quote Michelet, is made
up of little nothings. The very notion of preparing so many
elaborate trifles for the family board would drive an English cook
mad. But "Lucullus dines with Lucullus" is a French motto of
universal acceptance. Plutarch tells us that the great Roman
art collector and epicure thus admonished his house-steward, who,
knowing one day that his master was to dine alone, served up what my
French friend would call a meal, not a dinner.
Michelet says somewhere that the French workman, who comes
home tired and perhaps depressed from his day's work, is straightway
put in good humour by his plateful of hot soup. For "Lucullus
dines with Lucullus" is a maxim of the good housewife in the
humblest as well as the upper ranks.
Those well-filled panniers represent one kind of economy, the
national genius for cookery implies another. In buying direct
from the market a certain percentage is saved. Again, a French
cook turns any and every thing to advantage, and many a culinary
chef-d'œuvre is the result of care and skill rather than rare or
costly ingredients. With just a pinch of savoury herbs and a
clear fire, a cook will turn shreds of cold meat into deliciously
appetizing morsels, gastronomic discrimination on the part of her
patrons keeping up the standard of excellence. If I were asked
to point out the leading characteristic of the French mind, I should
unhesitatingly say that it is the critical faculty, and to this
faculty we owe not only the unrivalled French cuisine, but pleasures
of the table generally. Here is one instance in point.
One quite ripe melon, to the uninitiated, tastes very much like
another. But a French country gentleman knows better.
Whenever a melon of superlative flavour is served, he orders the
seeds to be set aside for planting. Thus the superlative kind
is propagated. The critical faculty warring with mediocrity
and incompleteness is ever alert in France.
I now turn to the subject of household management generally.
Here, also, we shall find startling divergences.
A distinctive feature in French households is, as I have
said, the amount of indoor work done by men. When the great
novelist Zola met his death so tragically, it will be remembered
that two men-servants—one of these a valet de chambre, or
house-servant—had prepared the house for the return of master and
mistress. Apparently no woman was kept except, perhaps,
madame's maid. This is often the case.
In England the proportion of men to women indoor servants is
as one to three or four; in France the reverse is the case,
parlour-maids being unknown, and the one femme de chambre
being ladies' as well as housemaid. The work mainly falls upon
the men. They sweep, dust, and, in short, supply the place of
our neat maidens in spotless cotton gowns. The fact is, had
French valets no sweeping or dusting, they would often have to sit
for hours with their hands before them. One element entailing
a large staff of servants here is absent in a French house.
This is the staying guest, the uninterrupted succession of visitors.
Outside private hotels and the handsome flats of the fashionable
quarters, there is indeed no room in Parisian households for
friends. The words "dine and sleep" or "week-end" visits have
not found their way into French dictionaries, nor have
dine-and-sleep or week-end guests yet become a French institution.
Of family parties in châteaux and country houses I shall have
something to say further on. It is easy thus to understand why
three or four servants suffice, whilst in England a dozen would be
needed for people of similar means and position. Descending
the social or rather financial scale, coming to incomes of hundreds
rather than thousands a year, we must still subtract and subtract.
Where three or four maids are kept in England, a general servant is
kept in France, and where a maid-of-all-work is put up with here,
French housewives do without a Tilly Slowboy or even a Marchioness.
Whilst officials, alike civilian and military, receive much
lower pay in France than in England, whilst professional earnings
are much less, we must remember that taxation is higher and
commodities of all kinds are dearer across the water than among
ourselves. But economy is not always a matter of strict
obligation. What we call putting the best foot foremost does
not often trouble our neighbours. They prefer to look ahead
and provide against untoward eventualities.
A habit of parsimony is sometimes whimsically displayed.
The home is an Englishwoman's fetish, her idol. Both
the wife of an artisan and the mistress of a mansion will be
perpetually renovating and beautifying her interior. Like
themselves, decoration and upholstery must be in the fashion.
In France the furnishing and fitting up of a house is done
for once and for all. It is a matter of finality.
English middle-class folks, who eat Sunday's sirloin cold for dinner
on Monday and perhaps Tuesday, spend more upon their homes in a
twelvemonth than French folks of the same standing throughout the
entire course of their wedded lives.
May not the fact of so little being spent upon the house
occasionally arise in this way? The husband has the absolute
control, not only of his own income, but of his wife's, and many men
would prefer shabby carpets and curtains to what might appear to
them as unnecessary outlay.
The French character, to quote that original writer and
sturdy Anglophile, M. Demolins, [p.27]
is not apt at spending. Here, he says, his country-people must
go to school to the Anglo-Saxon.
Even where elementary comfort, even bodily health, is
concerned, thrift is the first consideration. When Rabelais
jovially apostrophizes un beau et clair feu, "a good bright
fire," he expresses the national appreciation of a luxury, for
outside rich homes a fire is regarded rather as an indulgence than
as a necessity. Fuel in France is economized after a fashion
wholly inconceivable to an English mind. When a French lady
pays visits or goes abroad shopping, her fire is let out and
relighted on her return. Many women fairly well-off make a
woollen shawl and a foot-warmer do duty for a fire, except perhaps
when it is freezing indoors.
I once spent a winter at Nantes, and during my stay kept my
bed with bronchitis for a week.
"You have burnt as much fuel during your week in bed as would
suffice many a family for the whole winter," said the lady with whom
I was lodging, to me. Yet Nantes enjoys an exceptionally mild
climate. What my consumption of wood would have been at Dijon
I cannot conceive.
Housekeeping implies mention of the housekeeper. A
Frenchwoman is the direct antithesis of a German Hausfrau.
She is not, like Martha, troubled from morning till night about many
things. Dust and cobwebs do not bring a Frenchwoman's grey
hairs with sorrow to the grave. The scrupulosity attained in
English houses by the usual army of house and parlour maids is never
aspired to by French matrons.
Some years since I lunched with acquaintances in a fine
country house, rather a modern chateau, within an hour and a half by
road and rail of Dijon. The house-party, all members or
connections of master and mistress, numbered twelve. It was
the long vacation, and a further indication of the sumptuary scale
is afforded by the existence of a private chapel. Whether or
no a priest was attached to the house as a private chaplain I know
not. There was the chapel, a new, handsome little building,
standing in the park.
As I chatted with my hostess on the terrace after lunch, the
topic of housekeeping came up.
"A rather onerous position," I said, "that of mistress here?"
She smiled. "So I imagined it must be when, on the
death of my husband's parents, we came to this place. But I
made up my mind not to let things trouble me—in fact to let the
house keep itself, which it does, and does well enough."
"Admirably," I ventured to add; and, indeed, my experience
convinces me that most French houses keep themselves. The
German speisekammer, or store-room, in which a Hausfrau
spends half her day, does not exist in French dwellings. A
Frenchwoman, moreover, is far too much the companion of her husband
to have leisure for such absorption in spices, jams, and the rest.
The following figures and calculations have been supplied by
experienced French house- holders. Although a quarter of a
century ago I spent an unbroken twelvemonth in Brittany, and since
that period have passed a sum-total of many years on French soil, I
have always lodged under native roofs and sat down to native boards.
Whilst pretty well acquainted with the cost of living among our
neighbours, I could not authoritatively parcel out incomes,
assigning the approximate sum to each item of domestic expenditure.
Friendly co-operation alike from Paris and the provinces has enabled
me to prepare these pages. For the convenience of readers I
give each set of figures its equivalent in our money. I add
that the accompanying data have all reached me within the last few
We may assume that where English officials, professional,
naval and military men, and others are in receipt of £500 or £600 a
year, their French compeers receive or earn deputy's pay, i.e. 9,000
francs, just £360; adding 1,000 francs more, we obtain a sum-total
of £400 a year. Such incomes may be regarded as the mean of
middle-class salaries and earnings, and whilst these are much lower
than in England, living is proportionately dearer. Hence the
necessity of strict economy. Very little, if any, margin is
left for many extras looked upon by ourselves as necessities of
existence. Take, for instance, an extra dear to the British
heart, the cult of appearances, Dame Ashfield's ever-recurring
solicitude as to Mrs. Grundy's opinion in the play.
So long as reputation, and the toilette, are beyond reproach
a French housewife troubles her head very little about standing well
with the world. Feminine jealousy is not aroused by a
neighbour's superiority in the matter of furniture, or what is here
called style of establishment. The second extra, this an
enviable one, is the indulgence of hospitality. An English
family living on £500 a year spend more on entertaining friends
during twelve months than a French family of similar means and size
would do in as many years, and for the excellent reason that means
are inadequate. Our neighbours are not infrequently misjudged
by us here. We are too apt to impute inhospitality to moral
rather than material reasons.
We begin, therefore, with the mean—that is to say, incomes of
10,000 francs, i.e. £400 a year, and of persons resident in Paris.
Here is such a budget: parents, two children old enough to attend
day-schools or lycées, and a servant making up the household.
Food and vin ordinaire of three
adults and two children
16 16 0
Two lycées or day-schools
Dress of four persons
Lights and firing
24 0 0
for doctors' bills, travel,
pocket-money, amusement, etc.
The amount of taxation seems small, but it must be borne in
mind that food, clothing, medicines, indeed almost every article we
can mention, are taxed in France.
The sum-total of £7 4s. covers contributions directes,
i.e. taxes levied by the state and municipality directly and quite
apart from octroi duties. Rents under £20 in Paris and
£8 in the provinces are exempt. Municipal charges are always
on the increase. A friend living at Passy has just informed me
that her tiny flat, consisting of two small bedrooms, sitting-room,
and kitchen, hitherto costing £28 a year, has just been raised to
£32, and it is the same with expensive tenements.
The following figures will explain the apparently
disproportionate sum-total expended on the table alike in Paris and,
as we shall see further on, throughout the provinces. Butter,
in what is pre-eminently a butter-making country, costs from 1s. 3d.
to 2s. 6d. a pound (the French livre of 500 grammes is 1 lb. 3 ozs.
in excess of our own). Gruyère cheese, another home-product,
from 1s. to 1s. 4d., chickens from 1s. 3d. to 2s. per pound weight,
milk 5d. a quart, bread 2d. a pound, meat (according to joint) 1s.
2d. to 1s. 6d. and 2s. Fruit grown on French soil is double
the price at which it is sold in England. Thus bananas and
oranges, grown by the million in Algeria, cost 2d. each.
Coffee is from 2s. to 2s. 6d., tea from 2s. 6d. to 6s., sugar 5d. to
6d. a pound. The penny bun—that delight of childhood—is
unknown in Paris. The brioche or madeleine, little
cakes half the size of the penny bun, cost 1½d. each. A
currant cake, under the weight of a 6d. one here, costs 1s. 3d.
These are current prices. The result of such high prices is
that French householders find it easier to reduce any item of
expenditure rather than that of the table. In the case of
persons living alone the cost is naturally higher. Thus my
correspondents assure me that such caterers for themselves only
cannot live in Paris under 2s. 6d. a day, this sum covering plain
diet only, with a very moderate allowance of vin ordinaire. [p.32]
The extra ½d. on bread is a serious matter to an essentially
bread-eating people, three pounds (i.e. 3 lbs. 4½ ozs.) being the
daily consumption of the average Frenchman.
The low-priced restaurants of business quarters doubtless
mislead many travellers. I should say that the plateful of
roast beef or mutton supplied with potatoes for 1s. in the Strand
contains at least a third more nutriment than the tempting little
dish offered with a hors d'œuvre for 1s. 5d. on the
boulevards. The hors d'oeuvre I expatiate upon lower
The average cost of a Frenchman's plain lunch and dinner at a
quiet, well-ordered house of the better sort, with tips, cannot be
under 5s. or 6s. a day. I allude to officials of standing
compelled by their avocations to breakfast and dine at an
The wages set down in the foregoing table seem excessively
moderate for Paris, but, as my correspondent informs me, the fact of
keeping a servant at all under such circumstances implies very great
economy in other matters. A parallel budget—that is to say,
the yearly expenditure of a similar family with a similar
income—allows a more liberal margin for food, no domestic being
Wages of good servants are high in Paris; the cost of a
capable maid-of-all-work, including board, washing, wages, and New
Year's gifts, cannot be calculated, my friend assures me, at less
than £60 a year. Thus many families of the middle ranks do
with the occasional services of a charwoman, thereby economizing at
least £40 annually for other purposes.
Fuel is another onerous item of domestic expenditure.
Writing from Paris on February 24, 1904, a householder informed me
that good coals cost £2 16s. the ton. No wonder that in
moderate households firing is economized as in the home of Eugénie
And many French temperaments seem positively invulnerable,
appear to be cold proof by virtue of habit, or, maybe, heredity.
I know a Frenchwoman whose happy immunity it is never to feel cold.
No matter the weather, she needs neither fire, foot-warmer, nor warm
clothing. A certain French physique exists, matchless for
hardiness and powers of resistance.
The dearness of combustibles is equalled in other matters.
From a postage stamp upward—there are neither penny stamps
nor halfpenny postcards in France—we may safely assume that every
commodity costs a third more on the other side of the Channel.
Spills and spill-cases are as obsolete in England as the
tinder-boxes and snuffer trays of our great grandparents. But
Lucifer matches since 1871 have been a state monopoly in France.
Whereas we get a dozen boxes for 2½d., our neighbours still pay 1d.
for one, and that one containing lights of an inferior kind. A
match is never struck by French people when a gas jet and a spill
Drugs and patent medicines are incredibly dear. No
wonder that every country house and cottage has its store of
home-made simples and remedies. Some eighteen months since, I
fell ill in Paris, and a friendly physician prescribed for me.
One week's remedies ran up to £1. Four shillings were charged
for a dozen cachets, composed of a similar substance which would, a
chemist informed me, have cost just two here.
Little wonder also that families with an income limited to
£300 or £400 a year cannot afford even a Tilly Slowboy, whilst an
outing to the sea or the country during a long vacation is equally
out of the question. My first correspondent informs me that,
unless paternal hospitality is available, Parisians so situated
would very seldom get a holiday away from home. Fortunately,
many folks have some farmhouse of parents or grandparents to retreat
to in the dog days.
A considerable item in remaining sum-totals is that of
étrennes, or New Year's gifts. We grumble at being mulcted
when Yuletide comes round. What should we think of 100 francs,
£4, a year for Christmas boxes out of an annual £300 or £400?
Yet the unfortunate French, rather we should say Parisian,
householder, whose income is much lower, must set aside at least 100
francs for the inevitable étrennes. There is the
concierge, to begin with, that all-important and not always
facile or conciliatory janitress of Parisian blocks. Fail to
satisfy your concierge when New Year's day comes round, and
you must be prepared for small vexations throughout the year.
Next to concierge, maid-of-all-work, or charwoman,
come postman, telegraph boy, gas or electric-light employees, baker,
milk-woman, and the rest, New Year's gifts reaching a much higher
figure in proportion to means than among ourselves. The
étrennes make an appreciable hole in small balances.
Tips are also high, and as Parisians who are narrowly housed
and unprovided with servants do their scanty entertaining in
restaurants, such items help to limit this kind of hospitality.
In fact, of all luxuries in Paris, that of feasting one's friends is
the most costly.
I will here say something about dress. The sum of £60
in the foregoing tabulation allows £20 each for husband and wife,
half that sum for each child, say a boy and a girl attending
As Frenchwomen in such a position are always well dressed,
the question arises, how is the matter managed?
In the first place, if from her earliest years a French girl
is taught the arch importance of la toilette, with equal
insistence is inculcated economy in the wearing.
Thus the schoolgirl, whether at school or preparing her
lessons at home, will always wear a black stuff bib apron for the
proper protection of her frock, with sleeves of the same material
tied above the elbow. The first-mentioned article is
particularized in the prospectus of the lycée. Boarders
at these colleges created by virtue of the Ferry laws of December,
1880, as at convent schools, are compelled to wear a neat and
serviceable uniform. The prospectus of the lycée of
Toulouse shows that among the articles of apparel must be two aprons
of black woollen material, cut according to a given pattern, the
object being to protect the two costumes made by a dressmaker under
the lady principal's orders. It is not only the cost of
materials, but of dressmaking, that necessitates such care. As
an inevitable consequence of dear food and lodging, dressmakers and
seamstresses are obliged to charge proportionately for their labour.
The chamber-maid of a hotel in Paris I sometimes stay at, lately
told me that she could not get a Sunday gown made under £1.
"And," she addend, "seeing what a young woman has to pay for her
room, let alone provisions, I could not ask her to take a halfpenny
A French lady must not only never be shabby, she must never
be out of fashion. Oddly enough, one of the wittiest sayings
on this subject was uttered by an Englishman. "No well-dressed
woman ever looks ugly," wrote Bulwer Lytton—a saying, or rather a
conviction, taken to heart in France.
I well remember an illustrative instance. Calling some
years since on a very moderately paid official at Grenoble, I was
received by his wife, a decidedly ordinary-looking and slovenly
young woman, wearing a dingy morning wrap. Her husband soon
entered. Madame left us to discuss farming matters, ten
minutes later looking in to say adieu. Like Bottom, she was
wonderfully translated. In her pretty bonnet and elegant, if
inexpensive walking costume, her hair becomingly arranged, bier
chaussée et gantée, well shod and gloved, she looked almost
lovely. But at what cost of time and ingenuity such toilettes
are obtained only such a Frenchwoman could tell you.
The economical have recourse to the maison de patrons,
or pattern shop. Ladies living in the country send measures to
these Parisian houses and obtain patterns of the latest fashions,
either in paper or canvas. With the help of a clever
needlewoman, hired by the day, dresses can thus be made to look as
if they had just come from the boulevards or the Rue Royale.
As we should naturally expect, the cost of living is
considerably less in the provinces. Here, for
instance—supplied me by another correspondent—is the budget of a
similar family, i.e. husband and wife, two children, and a
woman servant, having an income of 8,000 francs, or £320 a year
Rent and taxes
Food, five persons
Dress for four persons, two
adults and children
Two lycées or day-schools
Firing, lights, laundress
32 0 0
These items represent expenses of living in a cathedral town
200 miles from Paris. Here certain articles of daily
consumption are considerably cheaper. Meat at Dijon costs 8d.
to 1s. the pound, butter 8d., fruit and vegetables are lower in
price; rent also and education. Thus we find a difference of
£12 in the cost of two lycées, or day-schools.
The same correspondent has calculated the balance of similar
income and tantamount charges in Paris. The discrepancy is
suggestive. Allowing £48 for rent and taxes, £120 for food,
£48 for dress, and so on in proportion, she found that just £21
would remain for amusements, medical attendance, and extras
The next budget is the weekly one of a married employé
or clerk in Paris, having one child aged six, his entire income
being £160 a year. Every item has been set down for me as from
a housewife's day-book, and, in addition to figures, I have a
general description of daily existence economically considered.
£ s. d.
Food and wine
1 1 2
Lights and laundress
Amusements, stationery, and
personal expenses generally
The year of fifty-two weeks
149 1 4
I will now state precisely what is obtained for this
outlay—describe, in fact, how the little family lives.
In the morning they take coffee, with bread and butter,
followed at midday by déjeuner, consisting of meat,
vegetables, and what is called dessert, namely, fruit, with perhaps
biscuits or cheese. At four o'clock madame and the child have
a roll and bit of chocolate, and at half-past six or seven the
family sit down to dinner, or rather supper, soup, vegetables, and
dessert, often without any meat, constituting the last meal of the
On Sundays is enjoyed the usual extra de dimanche of
the small Parisian householder. Our friends lunch at home;
then, alike in summer and winter, they sally forth to spend the rest
of the day abroad. Winter afternoons are whiled away in
music-halls, bright warm hours a few miles out of Paris, dinner at a
restaurant, coffee or liqueur on the boulevards finishing the day.
The expense of these Sunday outings sometimes amounts to 8s.
or 10s., an indulgence often involving deprivations during the week.
Except among the rich, hospitality in Paris, as I have
already remarked, is reduced to the minimum. Nevertheless
folks living on 3,000 or 4,000 francs a year will occasionally
entertain their relations or friends, and, owing to two agencies,
that of the hors d'œuvre and the rôtisseur, at very
small cost and trouble.
Thrift, indeed, in France often wears an engaging aspect; the
sightly becomes ancillary to the frugal, and of all elegant
economies the hors d'œuvre, or side dish, served before
luncheon, is the most attractive. Whether displayed on
polished mahogany or snowy linen, how appetizing, and at the same
time how ornamental, are these little dishes, first-fruits of the
most productive and most assiduously cultivated country in the
world—tiny radishes from suburban gardens, olives from Petrarch's
valley, sardines from the Breton coast, the far-famed rillettes
or brawn of Tours, the still more famous pates of Perigueux, every
region supplying its special yield, every town its special dainty,
pats of fresh butter and glossy brown loaves completing the
Until lately I had regarded the hors d'œuvre on
luncheon tables of modest households as a luxury, an extravagance of
the first water. A French lady has just enlightened me on the
"The hors d'œuvre an extravagance!" she exclaimed.
"It is the exact reverse. Take the case of myself and family,
three or four persons in all. We have, say, a small roast
joint or fowl on Sunday at midday, but always begin with a hors
d'oeuvre, a slice of ham, stuffed eggs, a few prawns, or something
of the kind. As French folks are large bread-eaters, we eat so
much bread with our eggs or prawns that by the time the roast joint
is served, the edge of appetite is taken off, and enough meat is
left for dinner. So you see the hors d'oeuvre is a real
The rôtisseur, or purveyor of hot meat, soups, and
vegetables, plays as important a part in Parisian domestic economy
as in the play of Cyrano de Bergerac. You are invited, for
instance, to dine with friends who keep no servants. On
arriving, your first impression is that you are mistaken in the day.
No savoury whiffs accord gastronomic welcome. Through the
half-open kitchen door you perceive the tiny flame of a spirit-lamp
only. Nothing announces dinner. But a quarter of an hour
later, excellent and steaming hot soup is served by a femme de
ménage or charwoman, the obligatory side dish a vegetable and
rôti follow; the rôtisseur in the adjoining street has
enabled your hosts to entertain you at the smallest possible cost
and to the exclusion of anything in the shape of worry. Quiet
folks, also, who like to spend Sunday afternoons with friends or in
the country, and who prefer to dine at home, find the rôtisseur
a great resource. They have only to order what they want, and
precisely to the moment appears a gâte-sauce, or cook-boy,
with the hot dishes piled pyramidally on his head.
We will now consider the budget of an artisan, skilled
workman, or petty clerk (employé subalterns), whose weekly
wages amount to 40 francs. i.e. 32s.; the average, I am assured, at
the present time. A friend at Reims has made out the following
Food of four persons, two adults and two
children from 5 to 10 years
Clothes and house linen
Lights and firing
Pocket-money of husband, newspapers
This little balance, my correspondent informs me, will be
spent upon the various Sociétés de Prévoyance and Secours
Mutuels, associations, answering to our own working-men's clubs,
and to the system of the post office deferred annuities. The
bread-winner's pocket money supplies his tobacco, occasional glass
of beer or something of the kind, his daily newspapers, the monthly
subscription of fivepence to a Bibliotèque populaire, or
reading-club, and the family extra de dimanche, an outing on
Sundays by rail or tramway, or tickets for the theatre.
Presumably, also, although this item is not mentioned, the father of
a family, as in England, provides himself out of this argent de
poche with boots and best clothes.
At Reims, as elsewhere in the provinces, we must take into
account that living is much cheaper than in Paris. Thus in the
former city coals, all the year round, cost 1s. 8d. the sack of 110
lbs. (50 kilos), vin ordinaire 5d. the litre or 1¾ pint, beer 2½d.
the litre. Garden and dairy produce is also cheaper.
Lodgings which would cost £18 or £20 a year in Paris can be had for
£10 or £12 in provincial cities. Education is non-sectarian,
gratuitous, and obligatory throughout France. Even the bulk of
what is called fourniture scolaire, i.e. copybooks,
pencils, etc., is supplied by the richer municipalities. But
in the eyes of anxious and needy mothers the primary school is ever
an onerous affair. Watch a troop of youngsters emerging from
an école communale, many belonging to well-to-do artisans and
others, many to the very poor. From head to foot—one and all
will be equally tidy, black linen pinafores or blouses protecting
tunics and trousers. With girls we see the same thing. A
Frenchwoman, however poor, regards rags as a disgrace.
One highly characteristic fact pointed out by my Reims friend
I must on no account omit. It seems that the working classes
throughout Prance, from the well-paid mechanic to the poorest-paid
journeyman, invariably possess a decent mourning, or rather a
ceremonial, suit. Thus every man owns black trousers,
frock-coat, waistcoat, necktie and gloves, and silk hat. He is
ready at the shortest notice to attend a funeral, assist at a
wedding, or take part in any public celebration. Every working
woman keeps by her a black robe, bonnet, and mantle or shawl.
When overtaken by family losses, therefore, even the very poor are
not at a loss for decent black in which to attend the interment.
The scrupulously cared-for garments are ready in the family
My correspondent adds the following table of actual salaries
and wages in this great industrial city:—
Head clerks (employés principaux) in the champagne and
wine trade, from £160 a year upwards, with a percentage on sales; in
the woollen trade the same figures hold good—small clerks (petits
employés) from £4 to £8 per month; clerks and assistants in
shops from £3. 4s. to £6 per month; workmen in manufactories 3s. 2d.
to 4s. per day; masons and plasterers 4s. 9d. per day, or from 4d.
to 8d. per hour; foremen in factories from 6s. 6d. to 7s. per day;
women in factories 2s. to 2s. 6d., and boys 1s. 8d. to 2s. 6d.
The writer further informs me that, although the Benefit
Society, Prevoyant de l'Avenir, is very prosperous, the
situation of the working man, on the whole, is unsatisfactory.
Too many are in debt for rent and other matters. The
explanation doubtless lies in the tariff of cheap stimulants and
intoxicants appended to these figures: absinthe, eau de vie de
marc, and apéritifs divers. The drink evil is now
in France, as with us, the question of the hour.
The tabulated budgets of workmen, living respectively in
Paris and Dijon, supplied by a friend, will show that even with much
lower wages the Dijonnais is considerably better off.
Thus the yearly wages of the first at £1 13s. 7d.
per week amount to
83 4 0
Leaving a balance of
wage of the second at £1 4s.
56 0 0
Leaving a balance of
The Parisian's rent for one or two rooms will cost him £18
yearly; the food of himself, wife, and two children £47, clothes
£12, and so on in proportion; whilst the provincial, similarly
situated, will economize £6 on rent, £17 on food, £4 on clothes.
If three persons in Paris, having an income of as many pounds
a week, can only afford meat once a day, how small must be the
butcher's bill of the working classes! In most cases, alike in
Paris and in the provinces, a man's wages are supplemented by
earnings of his wife. An experienced lady writes to me on this
"The condition of the working man's home depends absolutely
on the wife. Generally speaking, a wife adds at least £12 a
year to the family income, and she not only manages to maintain the
household in comfort, but to lay by. Economy is the supreme
talent of the French ménagère."
The adroit Parisienne can turn her hand to anything.
Ironing, charing, cooking, call a mother away from home.
Indoor work is found for agile fingers.
The lounger in Paris, especially in old Paris, will
unexpectedly light upon these home industries, the means by which
working women supplement their husband's earnings. I was
lately visiting a doll's dressing warehouse near the Rue de Temple,
when my companion, a French lady, called my attention to a certain
window. The tenement was that of a humble concierge,
doorkeeper of an ancient house let out as business premises.
On a small deal table immediately under the uncurtained and
wide-open casement—for the weather was hot—lay a heap of small
circular objects in delicate mauve satin and swansdown. What
they might be I could not conceive. "See," said my companion,
taking up one of the articles, "here is one of the home industries
you were inquiring about just now. This good woman earns money
in spare moments by making these envelopes for powder-puffs; in all
probability they will be wadded and finished off with a button by
another hand, or maybe at the warehouse. Many women work in
this way for toyshops and bazaars."
The marvel was that the little bags of pale mauve satin and
swansdown should, under the circumstances, remain spotless.
Put together at odd times, heaped on a bare deal table which looked
like the family dinner-table, not so much as a newspaper thrown over
them, all yet remained immaculate, ready for great ladies'
toilettes. The secret doubtless lay in the swiftness and
dexterity of French fingers and the comparatively pure atmosphere.
What would become of similar materials exposed to the smuttiness of
a back street in London?
In no field does a French housewife's thrift more
conspicuously manifest itself than in cookery. The fare of a
Parisian workman, if not so nutritious as that of his London
compeer, is at least as appetizing. Thus, a basin of soup is
often a man's meal before setting out to work. Water, in which
a vegetable has been boiled, will be set aside for this purpose, a
bit of butter or bacon added, and there will be a savoury mess in
which to steep his pound of bread. The excessive dearness of
provisions puts a more solid nutriment out of the question.
Thus bacon costs 1s. 6d. the pound, and the high price of butter
drives poor folk to the use of margarine.
Whether the pleasant and apparently fresh butter supplied in
Parisian restaurants is adulterated or no I cannot say. This I
know, that a friend living in Paris has for years abjured butter
from a horror of margarine. And here I add a hint to
fastidious eaters. In order to make up for the missing butter
with cheese, this gentleman mixes several kinds of cheese together
at dessert—Roquefort, Brie, Camembert, a delicious compound, I am
In humble restaurants may be seen long bills of fare, each
dish priced at sums varying from 2½d. to 5d. Workmen in white
blouses sit down out-of-doors to these dishes, which look appetizing
enough. I have never ventured to try them. I am assured,
however, that it is only the very poor of Paris who patronize
horseflesh, and you have to make a long voyage of discovery before
lighting upon the shop sign, a horse's head and the inscription,
Boucherie de cheval, or Boucherie chevaline. One
such shop sign I remember to have seen in the neighbourhood of the
Money is so hardly earned by the Parisian workman and
workwoman, and existence is such a struggle, that we need not wonder
at the deadly tenacity with which earnings are clutched at.
When some years ago the Opéra Comique blazed, amid a scene awful as
that of a battlefield, the women attendants thought of their tips,
the half franc due here and there for a footstool. Unmindful
of their own peril and that of others, they rushed to and fro,
besieging half-suffocated, half-demented creatures for their money!
A similar scene happened during the terrible catastrophe on the
Paris underground railway last year. Although the delay of a
few seconds might mean life or death, many workmen refused to move
from the crowded station, clamouring for the return of the forfeited
When M. Edmond Demolins sets down the French character as the
least possible adapted to spending, in other words, to the
circulation of capital, he hits upon what is at once the crowning
virtue and the paramount weakness of his country-people. Money
in French eyes means something on no account whatever to be lightly
parted with, absolute necessity, and absolute necessity alone, most
often condoning outlay. But there is a shining side to this
frugality. French folks do not affect a certain sumptuary
style for the sake of outsiders, such unpretentiousness imparting a
dignity mere wealth cannot bestow. The following incident
opened my eyes to French standards long ago.
I had been spending a few days with a French friend, widow of
an officer at Pornic, and on returning to Nantes took a third-class
ticket. The astonishment of my hostess I shall not forget.
"I always travel first class," she exclaimed, after a little
chat about the matter of trains, adding, "but I do not travel often,
and I am rich. I have an income of £200 a year."
Of which I doubt not she seldom spent two-thirds. And
in this supreme sense the vast majority of French folks are rich,
ay, and often "beyond the dreams of avarice."
notion of holiday is to see as much as possible of his relations,
and to gather his own peaches. When the long vacation comes,
with its burning skies, valetudinarians betake themselves to
Contrexéville, Pougues-les-Bains, or equally favourite spas; family
parties animate the Breton and Norman coasts; cyclists by the
thousand invade the once solitary fastnesses of Fontainebleau; a
few, a very few, adventuresome spirits start for the Swiss
mountains, Scotch rivers, or Norwegian fiords. By far the
greater number merely change one home for another, the town flat for
the country house, villa, or cottage.
The result of the French Revolution has been a material
levelling up. Whilst in England the possession of a town and
country residence implies wealth and social position, in France the
case is quite otherwise. Just as all but the very poor and the
declassés sit under the shadow of their own vine and
fig-tree, so the well-to-do middle-classes, like the noblesse,
now own a rural retreat in which to pass the villégiature. The
houseless rent-paying in France, indeed, form a mere or rent
remnant, a handful. In an official work on this subject ("L'Habitation
en France," par A de Foville: Paris, 1894), we find that whilst in
many departments seventy and even eighty per cent. of the
inhabitants occupy houses belonging to them, the average of the
entire eighty-six departments is sixty-four! [p.48]
Parisians have their own country houses within easy distance
of the capital; provincial lawyers, advocates, professors and men of
business do not care to go far afield in search of refreshment and
recreation. They migrate to the family campagne.
For many years I was often a guest in a Burgundian village half an
hour by rail from Dijon, my kind hosts forming part of a patriarchal
group. No less than six families, more or less closely
related, had here their handsome houses and large gardens. One
head of a house—rather, I should say, one paterfamilias, the wife
and mother in France being ever the head of the house—was an
advocate, another a lawyer, a third a notary, and so on.
Great-grandmother, grandparents, grandchildren, and
great-grandchildren, uncles, aunts, and cousins made up a little
society, the members apparently needing no other. As all were
in opulent circumstances that kind of holiday-making must have been
quite voluntary. One lady, indeed, once went with her young
daughter to Vichy; and my hostess, a venerable dame, accompanied by
her son, grandson, and myself, once got so far as St.
Honoré-les-Bains, a hydropathic resort charmingly situated a few
hours off by rail. These flittings were undertaken for
health's sake, and were quite exceptional. The long vacation
merely meant a renewal of family intercourse under other
circumstances. Grandmothers chatted in the garden instead of
in the salon; the young people played croquet, which they certainly
could not do in town; avoué, avocat and notaire,
instead of hob-nobbing at cafe or club, shouldered their guns and
went abroad in search of partridges, or in wet weather played whist
and dominoes. No one seemed to find the annual villégiature a
trifle monotonous. The day was snailed through pleasantly
enough, and with the least possible expenditure of energy. To
economize vital force, I should say, is the end and aim, not only of
these country lawyers and barristers, but of many, perhaps most,
people in France. English folks in similar circumstances would
have had neighbours calling, garden-parties, picnics, every day.
To the best of my knowledge, from the first of August till the
middle of October, M. le Curé, M. le Percepteur (a functionary
having quite a different position to our own tax collector), and
myself were the only outsiders seen within the six different houses.
Upon one occasion a picnic was given, rather an al fresco
luncheon in a clos or walled-in vineyard. The spot
selected lay within a few hundred yards of everybody's dwelling, the
six families all living within earshot of each other. Thus the
guests had only to step out of their gardens, and the servants'
goings to and fro were reduced to the minimum.
Professional men in Paris and large cities who belong to the
houseless minority generally keep holiday with relations.
Husband, wife, and their "little family," the said little family
generally consisting of a single and very spoilt bantling, are
received by parents on either side, if they happen to live in the
country. This arrangement is regarded as a matter of course.
We must ever bear in mind that the French marriage is not an
institution that detaches, but rather one that cements.
Husband and wife are not thereby respectively separated from their
parents. Instead of one father and one mother, each henceforth
possesses two. And not infrequently there will be painful
conflicts, a rebellion against divided influence and affection.
Others, again, who have neither country house of their own
nor a parental refuge for the dog days, will indulge in the
favourite promenade en mer, or sea-walk, at some inexpensive
place. Since my near acquaintance with France began, by a
twelvemonth's residence in Brittany twenty-five years ago, hundreds
of little watering-places have sprung up on the west coast.
Seaside lodgings after English fashion have not found
acceptance in France. These brand-new townlings by the sea do
not consist of formal terraces, but of villas dotted here and there
like the cottages of a child's toy village. Economic folks
hire a tiny chalet and cater for themselves, all kinds of privations
and discomforts being good-naturedly endured; for the coveted
promenades en mer evoke a livelier spirit than the installation
in country house or under some familiar roof. And sea-bathing,
with every other desirable thing, must here be taken in company.
The notion of a bathing-machine, a hurried plunge, or solitary swim,
is wholly unacceptable to the French mind. So when the burning
glare of the day is over, family meets family on the sands, most
sociably and unconventionally disporting themselves.
My first experience of sea-bathing after French fashion was
gained at Les Sables D'Olonne, in Vendée, or Les Sables, as the
place is aptly called. Never, I think, I saw sands so velvety
smooth, so firm; and never do I remember a hotter place! Even
in June folks could not stir abroad till towards evening, when the
great business of the day began, the five o'clock promenade en
mer being in reality a constitutional turn before dinner.
Emerging from their cabines, or dressing-closets, fronting
the sea, poured forth the strangest company—men, women, and children
walking into the sea, a distance of course varying with the tide, on
the occasion I speak of about two furlongs.
Masqueraders at carnival could not present an odder, more
whimsical appearance than these fashionable frequenters of Les
Sables, equipped for the daily paddle. The children, in their
gay, much be-frilled costumes, looked like so many juvenile
harlequins; the ladies wore serge bathing-dresses trimmed with
bright-coloured braid; the men, in their close-fitting cuirass-like
garments of striped black and red or blue, might have passed for so
many champion swimmers. Thus fancifully semi-clothed, merrily
chatting, or toying with the waves, young and old took their
amphibious stroll, doubtless returning with a first-rate appetite
At Préfailles, near Pornie, in Brittany, which I visited a
little later on, I found sea-bathing proper—the quiet sea at high
tide populated with the oddest mermen and mermaids, all in the
quaintest habiliments, and all wearing huge straw hats or gipsy
bonnets, on account of the heat. A stout, elderly papa was
teaching his children to swim, mamma, portly and middle-aged, in the
water with the rest, and enjoying the excitement as much as any.
The seaside holiday is often, indeed, an excuse for family
gatherings, friendly intercourse, and matchmaking! The
promenade en mer, delightful as it is, will often be quite a
Some watering-places especially lend themselves to social
amenities. Thus at St. Georges-de Didonne, near Royan, in the
Charente Inférieure, the smooth sands admit of croquet parties and
dances. During my stay of many weeks in that sweet spot some
years ago I constantly heard of such entertainments. When
French people do make up their minds to leave home, which is not
often, they endeavour to get the utmost possible enjoyment out of
their money. Here I would observe that the best way of knowing
and appreciating our neighbours is to travel in their company, or
rather, to have them for travelling companions.
I have been so privileged on many of my long French journeys,
and the experience has opened my eyes upon many subjects. In
the first place, French people never by any chance grumble when on
their travels. They seem to regard the mere fact of being away
from home such a wrench that minor discomforts are hardly worth
consideration. Hence it comes about that in regions
unfrequented by the fault-finding English, French hotels are still
very much as they were under the ancien régime, sanitary
arrangements not a whit more advanced than when Arthur Young bluntly
wrote of them more than a hundred years ago.
The reason is simple. French travellers resent such
antequations no less than ourselves, but shrug their shoulders with
the remark, "We shall not come here again, why put ourselves out?''
Which attitude, from one point of view, is an amiable
après moi le déluge, seeing that if no one ever complained
hotel-keepers would imagine, like Candide, that everything was for
the best in the best possible world.
My first fellow-traveller was an elderly lady, widow of an
officer, with whom I took a delightful two weeks' driving tour in
the highlands of Franche-Comté.
In early life Madame F―― had spent many years in St.
Petersburg as governess in a highly placed Russian family, returning
to France with a self-earned dowry, just upon a thousand pounds, at
that time the regulation dowry of an officer's wife. An
officer's wife she duly became, and excellently the marriage turned
out she told me, for I had the whole story from her own lips.
"The best of men was my husband," she invariably added when
recurring to the past.
During our journey through a succession of picturesque but
very primitive regions, both tempers and powers of endurance were
severely taxed. The wayside inns could hardly have been worse
in Arthur Young's time. Dirty, noisy, uncomfortable, our
night's lodging was often so wretched that we obtained little sleep.
Never before had I fared so badly in out-of-the-way France, which is
saying a good deal. Charges were naturally low, and the people
civil and obliging, but without the slightest notion of punctuality
or exactitude. Nothing ruffled my companion's even mood, and
her placability became almost as disconcerting as the beds we could
not lie down in, the meals waited hours for, and other easily
remedied drawbacks to enjoyment. A holiday tour and congenial
society compensated for all minor inconveniences. Incidental
discomforts seemed to be taken as part of the day's programme.
Upon another occasion, an old friend, a French officer,
invited me to an al fresco breakfast on the banks of the
Saone, near Lyons. A delightful two hours' drive brought us to
the Île Barbe, a narrow, wooded islet forming the favourite holiday
ground of the Lyonnais. In a restaurant overlooking river and
wooded banks we had long to wait for a very poor déjeuner and
a bottle of very bad wine.
As the charges are always high at such places, I suggested to
my friend that he should make a complaint and demand another bottle.
"It would be the same thing," was his smiling reply.
Sunshine, the lovely riverside prospect, congenial society, the
sight of happy picnic parties outside, in his eyes more than made up
for undrinkable wine highly priced.
As yet the horseless family coach must be considered the
privilege of the rich. Motoring is too novel an element in
holiday-making to be dealt with here.
I will now say something about house-parties during the long
vacation, as upon other topics, strictly confining myself to
In a pre-eminently intellectual nation like France we should
naturally look for a very high tone in the matter of fireside
recreation, nor are we at all likely to be disappointed. One
exquisite art, allied to another even more fascinating, is
especially cultivated by our neighbours.
On French soil the training of the speaking voice and the
love of poetry go hand-in-hand. What accomplishment is better
adapted to the family circle than that of rhetoric, the gift of
reciting? Montaigne somewhere says that sentiments clothed in
verse strike the mind with two-fold impact. This is especially
the case with poetry it "made vocal for the amusement of the rest."
Declamation is generally taught in girls' schools, and when natural
aptitude is carefully fostered the reciter wields a fairy wand.
As I write comes back to my mind enchanted evenings in a
chateau of Lorraine. The September day over, with its walks
and drives, the house-party, excepting myself all members of the
family, luxuriously ensconced before a wood fire, one voice would
hold us spell-bound. The magician, a young daughter-in-law of
the hosts, was richly endowed as to voice, memory, and histrionic
power. Now she thrilled us with dramatic episode, now moved us
to tears with pathetic idyll, Lamartine, Victor Hugo, and
contemporary poets, making up a large and varied repertory.
It has been my good fortune to hear a good deal of recitation
in France; none ever charmed me as did that of this gifted young
wife and mother. Rememberable too, were hours spent in the
music-room. My host and hostess, already grandparents, were
excellent musicians, and on wet afternoons would invite me to the
most charming pianoforte and violin recitals imaginable.
Croquet, tennis, billiards, and other lighter entertainments varied
the day's programme, and here I found none of that exclusiveness
characterizing less cosmopolitan, homelier country houses, no
Chinese wall hemming round the roof-tree. Monsieur had
formerly occupied a diplomatic post, with himself madame belonged to
the titled ranks, both had travelled much. A dinner-party at
the château, therefore, did not consist of uncles, aunts, and
cousins, but of neighbours, living perhaps a dozen miles off.
I add that among the travelled, leisurely classes we always
hear English speech and find the latest Tauchnitz editions on the
drawing-room table. And, oddly enough, proud as they are of
their own incomparable language, our neighbours never by any chance
whatever use it if they can express themselves tant bien que mal
in the tongue of perfidious Albion, a compliment sometimes resented
by over-sea visitors.
THE French baby
usually comes into the world an heir. Outside the venue of penury
and lawlessness, it may be said that every Gallic bantling is born
with a silver spoon in its mouth. The Code Civil has made fathers in
France mere usufructuaries of their children's fortune. "Thou shalt
enrich thy offspring" is an eleventh commandment rigidly obeyed.
When a little Anglo-Saxon announces himself with kicks, screams, and
doubling of his tiny fists, the attitude is symbolic. Unless he is
born to a peerage or a million, his career, even in pacific fields,
will be combative, earliest experiences evoking a spirit of
enterprise, self-reliance, and, above all, compromise.
If a tiny Gaul behaves in similar fashion at the onset of his life,
his attitude soon changes. Mite as he is, he immediately discovers
that there is not the slightest necessity to kick, scream, and
double his fists. Everything he wants he gets without such
expenditure of lungs and muscles. His nod is that of an infant
Jupiter Olympus. For the French baby born of reputable wedlock is a
unit, occasionally one of two—never a superfluity. When a fond
French parent tells you that "sa petite famille va bien" (his little
family is well), he means that the one boy or one girl of his house
is in good health. When a Frenchman proudly informs you that he is "père
de famille" (the father of a family), he means that he owns a son or
a daughter. With undivided sway the new-comer rules, not the nursery
(nurseries being unknown in France), but the entire household. He is
regarded as a quite trans-human entity, a phenomenon, a small
divinity whose humour under no circumstances whatever is to be
crossed. From the moment of his birth he is entrusted to a deputy
mother—in other words, a wet nurse—who must never let her charge
"Take my advice," I once heard a young matron say to another, "and
immediately dismiss your nurse if baby cries. I changed mine for
Cecile half a dozen times before I succeeded in obtaining one who
understood her business. Depend on it, if an infant cries the fault
lies with the nurse." The task of rearing infants under such
conditions may seem onerous. The rewards are proportionate.
Next to the little heir or heiress under her care, the nurse is by
far the most important person in the house. She lives on the fat of
the land, and is never allowed to cry herself—that is to say, she
must never sigh for the bantling she has left behind. Her wages
range from a pound a week, and if she gets her foster child well
over its teething, she receives a gold watch in addition to other
perquisites. When madame's visits do not lie in the direction of any
public garden, she takes a fiacre, and nurse and baby have
the carriage and pair to themselves. In the Tuileries Gardens, the Parc Monceau, and on the Champs Elysees, instead of nurse-maids in
white dresses and perambulators, we see veritable walls of these
foster-mothers in spick-and-span grey alpaca circular cloaks, and
close-fitting mob-caps with streamers of broad ribbon reaching to
their heels. This ribbon is a special manufacture of St. Etienne,
and costs ten francs a yard. It is a plaid, red denoting the nurse
of a boy, blue of a girl, at least four yards being used. A right
jovial time of it have these wearers of circular cloaks and ribbon
costing ten francs a yard. On a par with Juliet's immortal nurse are
evidently most of them, well-meaning, but coarse, ignorant
countrywomen attracted from the poorest and least progressive parts
of France by high wages and riotous living. And concerning them has
lately been waged a war as determined in spirit as that waged about
Captain Dreyfus. Laws have been promulgated against the practice of
vicarious motherhood. One of the most popular French novelists has
scathingly indicted the system in fiction; and at the eclectic
Théâtre Antoine, night after night, vast audiences have been moved
to tears by Les Remplaçantes, a play owing its inspiration to
the same subject. Whether the excellent Loi Roussel forbidding
mothers to go out as nurses till their own infants are seven months
old, René Bazin's moving history of "Donation," or M. Brieux' still
more moving play, Les Remplaçantes, will reduce that living
wall in the Paris gardens is a moot question. And why fond French
mothers as persistently relegate their maternal duties to others as
when Rousseau issued his fulminations a hundred and fifty years ago,
I have never learned.
Alike in humble ranks the baby is an idol, but ofttimes a hindrance,
an encumbrance, a tiny white elephant. The Loi Roussel may prohibit
working women from acting the part of foster-mothers; it cannot
compel them to be mothers indeed. In all the first-class Paris
hotels housework is done by married couples, these being necessarily
in the prime of life and the pick of their class. Whenever a baby is
born to one of these chambermaids, it is immediately boarded out in
the country, faring, doubtless, every whit as well as Chérubim in
Paul de Kock's amusing story, and reared no more intelligently. You
may still see babies emmailloté in the country, so swaddled
that they cannot move a limb, their little unwashed heads in
close-fitting caps. But out of sight is by no means a case of out of
mind. From the moment of its birth the baby in France is the pivot
on which everything turns, the centre of parental hopes and
ambitions. A day out means a run into the country to see Bébé. Every
English half-crown bestowed by passing travellers goes towards the
little daughter's dowry or the little son's equipment for life. In
the Pyrenees, no sooner is a girl born than the mother begins to
spin and weave her trousseau—the enormous stock of house and family
linen that will long outlast the life just begun. And no sooner is a
daughter born to the professional man or small functionary than her
modest dowry is insured by yearly payments—a few thousand francs to
become her own on her marriage day. We all know the story of
Diderot, who sold his library to dower his daughter. That charming
storyteller, Charles Nodier, author of "Trilby" (did du Maurier here
borrow the title of his once famous book?), bookworm and
bibliographer though he was, made a similar sacrifice. Tremendous,
indeed, is the sense of parental responsibility in France. The care,
bringing up, and providing for one child seem enough for ordinary
mortals. "Ah! how happy you will be when Denise has a brother to
keep her company!" I said to a gentleman of means and position who
was talking rapturously of his baby granddaughter. "Another?" was
the reply. "What should I do with two grandchildren? I have only one
pair of arms!"
It is not for a moment to be inferred that more affection or care is
lavished upon babies over the water than here. But, as Thiers
remarked when France was torn to pieces by Bonapartist, Orleanist,
and Legitimist factions, "A single crown cannot be worn by three
heads," so the numerous occupants of an English nursery cannot all
be little divinities.
A brilliant Anglo-French friend of mine was of opinion that French
amiability is due to the fact of early indulgence, children's
tempers never being spoiled by contradiction. Be that as it may,
other characteristics must certainly be attributed to bringing up—sociableness,
for instance, also gastronomic discrimination. Whilst to the little
Anglo-Saxon the populous nursery becomes a school of life, to his
neighbour the salon and salle à manger become schools of
manners. Nurseries and nursery meals being unknown in France, no
sooner is baby weaned than he takes his place at the dinner-table,
rapidly acquiring ease of manner and appreciative habits.
"Ma fille adore le poisson" ("My daughter adores fish"), one day
said the proud mamma of a year-old baby to her table d'hôte
neighbour. This happened to be an English lady, who with no little
amusement was watching the infantine gourmet. Everything that French
babies like is supposed to be good for them, and, as the national
physique is noted for its elasticity and powers of resistance, there
may be practical wisdom in thus eschewing nursery diet.
French parents, alike the rich and the poor, hold with Henri
d'Albret, King of Navarre, and grandfather of the gay Gascon. No
sooner was the future King of France born than the old man took him
in his arms, and from a gold cup made him swallow a few drops of
choice wine, in order, as chroniclers relate, to make him grow up
strong and manly. French children are wine-drinkers from their
Some years since I was staying with a Frenchwoman who received
boarders. One afternoon the excellent maid-of-all-work brought in my
tea, looking ready to cry of vexation.
"It is unbearable!" she burst out. "Think of it, madame; nine to
cook for, and in the midst of my vegetable cleaning I have to leave
off and get a dinner ready for Suzanne because she is going out with
The grandmother, who lived near, was to fetch Mademoiselle Suzanne
at half-past five. Here is the bill of fare, the young lady being
just two and half—soup, fish, beef steak, fried potatoes, cheese,
dessert, and, of course, wine.
Upon another occasion I was dining with rich people living in their
own hotel, and, wonderful to relate, the parents of seven children,
from three to fifteen. All sat down to dinner, the younger ones
being carried off to bed as soon as they nodded over their plates.
The introduction of the nursery would necessitate the entire
reconstruction of Paris. In luxurious private hotels only is
anything like an English installation for babies possible, whilst
even in handsome flats costing several hundreds a year there are
never two rooms available for the purpose. As to smaller
appartements, the bedrooms are mere slips; a nursery in these is
every whit as out of the question as a servants' hall. One reason,
perhaps, why children should be so much scarcer in Paris than in
London is that in the French capital there is positively no room for
more. And as the scarcity of any commodity immensely enhances its
preciousness, French babies are never in the way, or supposed to be
in the way.
I have heard an animated political discussion going on whilst a boy
of two and a half was hammering the lid of a wooden box. No notice
was taken either by his parents or their second visitor. Nor are
French children ever supposed to be naughty.
I was one day walking in the country with friends when their little
girl, aged three, began to fret, as children will without knowing
why. "Ce n'est pas la petite Georgette qui pleure, c'est la petite
Louise" ("It is not little Georgette who is crying, but little Louise"), said Georgette's father, her waywardness being thus attributed
to an imaginary culprit. Another friend, a hardworking professional
man, lately observed to me, "My wife and I have given up going to
the theatre. Our little boy cries at the notion of being left
behind, so we stay at home."
When, some years ago, the famous novelist Alphonse Daudet was in
London with his wife and little girl, nothing astonished Madame
Daudet so much as the fact of the child not being invited to
luncheons, dinners, and receptions.
"J'ai toujours gardé mes enfants dans ma poche" ("I have always kept my
children in my pocket"), she said indignantly to an interviewer. That
English parents should not do the same seemed in this lady's eyes
the height of insular moroseness. As I have said, the French baby is
never supposed to be in the way. The other day I was dispatching a
telegram from a French terminus. The clerk was enjoying his
domesticities as he worked. By his side played a boy of three,
keeping him company a sage-looking dog, her puppy nursed on the
master's knee. And the last time I called upon my dressmaker, near
Fontainebleau, her baby, of course, was in the workroom, one
apprentice after another delightedly acting the part of nurse.
Beautiful is this French adulation of infantine life. Whether
excessive spoiling later on is the best preparation for after years
is another matter.
THE French girl
is a very delicate piece of Nature's handiwork, art adding the final
touch. On the threshold of life she may be said to form a
feminine type apart. In her person is combined alike the woman
of the world and, I was about to say, the blushing ingénue;
since French girls never do blush, I omit the adjective.
Let not the correction be misinterpreted. The
incapacity of these eighteen-year-old maidens is by no means due to
forwardness. Quite the reverse. It is due to fastidious
training, to the perpetual inculcation of restraint. A group
of English sisters resembles hardy garden flowers left to sun, air,
and themselves. The one daughter of a French house is like a
hot-house rarity, day by day jealously nursed, ever on its growth a
watchful eye, exterior influences withheld.
The methods of bringing up in the two countries differ so
essentially as to render comparison impossible. Each system is
antipodal to the other, and each is nicely adapted to circumstances
and national ideals. In England a good deal is left to chance
and natural inclination: in France, a girl's character and career
are carefully elaborated. It may safely be taken for granted
that a French girl, from her cradle to her marriage, is the subject
of more parental anxiety, calculation, and forethought than the
inmates of what Jean Paul calls a daughter-full house (ein
Education is a problem of immense difficulty and painful
deliberation. The convent school no longer enjoys the prestige
of former days. Madame de Maintenon's ideal of the well-bred
young person has become old-fashioned. Even strictly orthodox
parents now require more solidity in the matter of instruction, and
more modernity in household arrangements. The young lady whose
mother and grandmother were educated, or fitted for society, by the
sisters of Sacré Cœur, no longer goes to a convent school. So
after much diligent inquiry, comparing of maternal notes, and
verifying of references, some private school, or, better still, some
lady receiving a few daily pupils, is fixed upon; but the
difficulties are far from over.
As we all know, every French girl of means and position is in
precisely the condition of a royal princess. Under no
circumstances whatever must she so much as cross the street to post
a letter alone. One might suppose, from the Argus eye kept
upon girlhood in France, that we were still living in the days of
Una and her milk-white lamb! There is, however, a comfortable
equilibrium between demand and supply. The necessary bodyguard
of French schoolgirls is furnished by an army of promeneuses,
literally, promenaders; in other words, gentlewomen hired by the
hour, day, or week, whose business it is to conduct pupils to and
from their schools, and take them for walks when required. If
the minutest investigation is necessary in the case of an
educational establishment, how doubly is it needed in the case of a
young daughter's companion! The promeneuse must neither
be too old nor too young, neither too well-dressed nor too shabby;
her appearance, indeed, must be irreproachable, and her conversation
and manners to match. And not only herself, but her
acquaintances and connections generally! If there is a blot on
her family escutcheon, no needy spinster or widow would be accepted
in this capacity. In a relentless spirit are domestic records
studied throughout France. With equal painstaking are chosen
companions, books, and amusements. All these an English girl
selects for herself; quite otherwise is it with her young neighbour
over the water. So long as she remains under the parental
roof, she accepts such guidance as a matter of course. To
invite a school-fellow to the house without first asking permission,
to take up a book before consulting her mother as to its
suitability, would never enter her head. If we want to learn
how young French girls are entertained on birthdays and holidays, we
must attend afternoon performances at the Théâtre Français or the
Odéon. There witnessing L'ami Fritz, Athalie, or
some other equally unobjectionable piece, may be seen dozens of
proud papas with their youthful daughters, and delightful it is to
witness what pains are taken for their amusement and instruction.
In the mean time an educational course is being carried on, somewhat
restricted in scope, but thorough as far as it goes. French
parents—wisely, it seems to me—limit studies to taste, capacity, and
circumstances. The entire girlhood of France is not taught
violin-playing, to the terror of the community at large, simply
because violin-playing has become the fashion. Even in the
lycée, answering some degree to our high schools, thoroughness
rather than comprehensiveness is the object held in view. A
girl learns few things, but those things well.
We are here, however, not dealing with the young lady who
will have to go out into the world and earn her own living, but one
who is destined for society and the ordering of a well-appointed
house. In her case the programme will be naturally curtailed.
She need not learn book-keeping or needlework in its more practical
branches. English has long been obligatory as a part of
genteel education; music a French girl generally learns if she cares
about it; and there is one very pretty accomplishment peculiarly
French, in which she often excels. This is the graceful art of
declamation. Family gatherings are enlivened by the young
daughter of the house reciting a "Les Étoiles" of Lamartine, "La
derrière leçon de Français" of Daudet, or some other little classic
in prose or verse. And a talent of this kind is carefully
fostered for use in after life, not laid aside, as is so often the
case with the pencil and the keyboard. The essential education
of the French girl, however, does not rest with masters and
mistresses, but with her mother, and is sedulously, unremittingly,
carried on in the home. It is an education wholly apart from
books, or a training of eye and ear. Its object is neither
pedagogic nor didactic, but social. The pupil is to be trained
for society, the world, and, above all, for her future position as
wife, mother, mistress. Thus it comes about that the French
girl can never be found fault with as regards carriage, manners, or
modes of expressing her thoughts. Everything she does is done
in the most approved fashion. Let it not be hence inferred
that she necessarily grows up artificial or mannered. Habit
soon usurps the place of nature, and if less spontaneous than her
English sister, it is because she has been taught from childhood
upwards to control her impulses and weigh her words—in short, to
remember that she belongs to a highly polished society, and its
consequent responsibilities. "There is a very good word,"
wrote Swift, "and that is, moderation." This very good word
has a more subtle meaning in its French equivalent, la mesure.
La mesure, moderation, proportion, a sense of the
fitness of things, is ever in the French mind. Just as in
French cookery the rule is that no single flavour should
predominate, so a happy medium is aimed at in the education of
girls. And the importance attached to little things by their
monitresses induces the same attitude in themselves. An untidy
scrawl in the shape of a letter, a blundering speech, an awkward
posture, a too loud laugh are all eliminated by teaching and
example. As an instance of the perfection attained by
Frenchwomen in small matters, take the following story.
An elegant and accomplished young Parisian lady was lately
the guest at an Australian Government House. Among
mademoiselle's gifts commented upon in society papers was the
consummate grace with which she entered a carriage! The
trifling incident is highly suggestive. One element is
ruthlessly excluded from a French girl's education. From
girlhood to adolescence she grows up without sentimentality to be an
eminently matter-of-fact, a strictly reasonable being. The
great romances of France are sealed books to her till she dons the
wedding-ring; George Sand, Balzac, Victor Hugo are so many names.
If indeed any novels have come in her way, they are the romans
pour jeunes filles—i.e. romances expressly written for
young girls, not namby-pamby, goody-goody, after the manner of "The
Heir of Redclyffe," or "John Halifax," but dealing with the mildest
love-making only, a drop of essence in a bucket of water.
It is only the title of Madame that authorizes her to take up
"Eugénie Grandet," "Le Marquis de Villemer," or "Nôtre Dame de
A French acquaintance recently expatiated to me on her
daughter's newly-awakened enthusiasm for fiction, the said daughter
having been just married at the age of thirty-two! "Of course,
Jane" (the English Jane sounds so much prettier in French ears than
their own Jeanne) "can now read anything, and she is devouring
Victor Hugo's works, which she gets from a circulating library."
In a French journal lately appeared the bitter cry of "an old
maid of thirty." It seems mighty hard, wrote this victim of
custom and prejudice, that whilst minxes of eighteen or twenty, just
because they were married, could read what they chose, and run about
unattended, she was still treated as a schoolgirl.
Fortunately, French "old maids of thirty" are not common in
the upper and well-to-do ranks, and those belonging to a different
sphere are generally too much occupied for romance reading.
Thus education has nicely adapted a French girl for that
parental interference with her love affairs—if, indeed, they can be
so termed—which to insular notions appears unintelligible, if not
shocking. A very pretty American girl of twenty once told me
that from her twelfth year she had never been without hangers-on.
In France flirting is geographically limited. Under no
circumstances is it permitted in good society. A French girl
learns to look at marriage through the maternal eyes. She
calmly contemplates the matter from various points of view—in the
French tongue, elle envisage la question.
Indoctrinated with sound practical principles, with a horror
of the incongruous, the disturbing element in domestic life, of
retrogression in the social scale of any approach to a misalliance,
she seldom disputes the parental view. The partner decided for
her is accepted. That word "partner" suggests a train of
reflections. Marriage in France is so strictly a partnership
in the material as well as the moral sense that a bridal pair is at
once called a young household (un jeune ménage). And if
fathers and mothers have given anxious days and sleepless nights to
the selection of promeneuses, schools, books, and companions,
what thought and deliberation will not be bestowed upon the choice
of a son-in-law! Unsuitable or objectionable suitors are
summarily dismissed or kept out of the way, a likely admirer is
encouraged to come forward. And as a French girl, unlike her
Transatlantic sister, has not had a succession of sweethearts from
her twelfth year, she is disposed to look favourably on the first
that presents himself. Under such circumstances may there not
be as much chance of happiness and comfort in these marriages as in
the happy-go-lucky wedlock English maidens so often enter upon of
their own accord? The tree must be judged by its fruits.
Where do we find closer unions, tenderer wives, more devoted
husbands than in France? Where the system of the mariage de
convenance proves a fiasco we often find parental adulation to
blame, the spoiling of character by over-indulgence in childhood,
the development of egotism and wilfulness by inordinate fondling
from the cradle upwards. Such cases are, fortunately, not the
rule, but the exception.
Fiançailles, or betrothals, are quickly
followed by the marriage ceremony in France. Long engagements,
after English fashion, would never be tolerated by either family of
the betrothed pair. Here, again, we touch upon the supremely
practical side of French social life. Engagements are not
contemplated till the future head of a house is in a position to
marry—I should more properly put it, till the fortune on both sides
admits of an adequate settling down.
Of varied and immense aptitudes—already a woman of the world,
though, as far as the other sex is concerned reared with
comparatively cloistral reserve, the French girl awaits fate in the
shape of wifehood and maternity; other ambitions has she none, or,
at least, other aspirations are subservient to these. Strange
it is, but true! In the oldest civilization of Western Europe,
in what is still, intellectually speaking, the most splendid
civilization in the world, tradition has withstood time and change,
revolution and democratic progress; old-world standards retain their
place, old-world types are held in highest honour. The
Frenchwoman's ideal is still the quiet place "behind the heads of
children;" the ideal Frenchwoman is still the wife and mother.
Feminine clubland as existing in America; the gradual
evolution in that country of what may be called an asexual community
to the destruction of family life; Anglo-Saxon activity (may we not
add unrest?) impelling English girls of means to become doctors,
army nurses, head gardeners, and every thing that takes them from
home and affords independence—these elements do not as yet leaven
French society. Woman doctors, even Portias wearing the
advocate's robe, we certainly hear of, and naturally an army of
women educators and other workers exist. But the career is
entered upon from the necessity of earning a livelihood, or from an
especial sense of vocation, not because home-life is distasteful or
because restrictions of any kind are unbearable. As a natural
consequence, in France womanhood reigns with undivided domestic
sway. The head of a house is not the master, but the mistress.
In the least little particular a husband consults—is bound to
consult—his wife, here material interests cementing conjugal union.
The undowered, the penniless bride is next door to nonexistent in
France. From the topmost rung of the social ladder to the
lowest, a household is set up by contracting parties of equal, or
nearly equal, fortune. Hence the dignified position of a wife,
hence the closely allied interests necessitating mutual counsel and