ON this subject,
the nicest and thorniest a foreigner can handle, I will confine
myself to personal experience, speaking of our neighbours as I have
A contemporary French philosopher, M. Fouillée, has analyzed his
country-people in a series of psychological and physiological
studies, all profoundly interesting, but not appealing to the
general reader. National traits and idiosyncrasy as evidenced in
daily life are more readily grasped than scientific generalizations,
and more profitably illustrate national character for those obliged
to content themselves with vicarious acquaintance.
I smile whenever my eyes light upon such stereotyped expressions as
"our volatile neighbours," "the light-minded Gaul," "the
pleasure-loving French," and so on. The French nation is, on the
contrary, the most serious in the world, and Candide's query, "Est
il vrai qu'on rit toujours à Paris?" ("Is Paris always laughing?")
might be answered thus, "When she does not weep," which is often.
How little the great democracy at our doors is understood existing
prejudices testify; two or three generations ago every lettered and
travelled Englishman could write of French
people in language on a par with that of Roche-fort and Drumont when
harrying the Jews or Protestants. Let the reader, for
instance, turn to the eleventh chapter of Thomas Love Peacock's
brilliant novelette, "Nightmare Abbey," published in 1818, for a
verification of this statement. Doubtless, after relieving his
feelings by this outburst of truly disgusting invective, the author
felt that he had acquitted himself of a patriotic duty, and, if he
did not implicitly believe his appraisement of French character
regarded it as a felicitous guess. It was left for our great
poets of that epoch, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley, to
champion the France of Revolution; from their days to our own,
English writers on French people and French affairs have mostly been
blind leaders of the blind, intensifying rather than eradicating
insular prejudice. It must be confessed that our neighbours
have only themselves to blame for much of this misconception.
Frenchmen are often whimsically, even libellously self-depreciative.
They love to wear a fictitious heart upon their sleeve, to dandle a
manikin in the eyes of naïve beholders. Here Anglo-Saxon and Gaul
An Englishman is apt to follow Hamlet's counsel and affect a
virtue though he has it not. A Frenchman vaunts of foibles
quite foreign to his nature.
The following story is apposite.
One day in my presence, a matron, wife of a Dijon notary, was
praising her friend's son.
"Your Jules is charming," she said—"so amiable, so diligent,
and so steady!"
"Humph!" replied the stripling's mamma; "he would not be
pleased to hear himself called steady," the countrybred youth in
question, whom I knew well, being as little likely to become a gay
Lothario as was the younger Diafoirus.
Novelists have here sinned greatly, but on that point I dwell
Another strongly marked quality is reserve, reminding one of
a Japanese toy in the shape of a box. Remove the lid and you
find a second, the second contains a third, the third a fourth, and
so on. It is a very long time before you get at the kernel.
Nor is such reserve exercised towards foreigners only. Some
time since a French friend was dining with me at a Paris hotel
chiefly frequented by rich Chicagans. After dinner the company
adjourned into the hall, and there over tea or coffee broke up into
little groups. Quite evidently most of these tourists were
chance-made acquaintances, encountered, perhaps, on their liner or
in these Parisian quarters. All were now fraternizing with the
utmost cordiality. "How pleasant is this experience!" observed
my companion, himself in former days a considerable traveller; "and
how unlike the behaviour of my own country people when thrown
together on foreign soil!"
It is only among the much travelled and cosmopolitan that
letters introductory lead to any but the most formal hospitality or
superficial acquaintance in France. The late Mr. Hamerton, who
married a French wife, and spent thirty-five years in his adopted
country, was astounded at the prevailing unsociableness in country
places. The home so agreeably described in "Round my house"
was situated within a walk of Autun, in Burgundy. Mr. Hamerton
had plenty of neighbours, that is to say, families living, as is the
case here, a few miles off, all being in easy circumstances and
possessing vehicles. Folks, he told me, saw next to nothing of
each other. Intercourse began and ended with ceremonious calls
made at lengthy intervals. In England, under such
circumstances, every one would know every one. The social ball
would be kept rolling, money would circulate at a brisk pace, from
the end of July till November.
This observation brings me to the hallmark of French descent,
the indubitable proof of Gallic ancestry. Such stay-at-home,
circumscribed ways arise partly from habits of inveterate, inrooted
economy. "The Anglo-Saxon," writes M. E. Demolins, "is the
most perfect organism that exists alike for the purpose of gaining
and spending money. In France," he adds, "there is less
inclination to gain money, and for the most part no inclination
whatever to spend it." Such parsimony, whilst it accounts for
the absence of perpetual and salutary social intercourse, give and
take familiar to ourselves, has its origin in the purest and
loftiest springs of human action. Thrift degenerates into
avarice, yet what was thrift in the beginning but forethought, the
long, long look towards years to come; not only care for one's self,
but for one's offspring—in other words, for humanity? "Every
Frenchman," writes M. Hanotaux, in the new volume of his monumental
work, "works for the future, accumulates for posterity, restricting
his wants and his enjoyment in the interests of after generations."
[p.286] As I have already shown, even the
peasants of the ancien régime, despite corvée and
gabelle, despite fiscal and seigneurial oppression, contrived to
lay the foundation of family fortunes.
Another hallmark of French character is delicacy, the horror
of wounding the susceptibilities, of being deemed obtuse, unamiable,
Here is an illustration.
Some years ago, when staying at Lons-le-Saulnier (Jura), my
host accompanied me to lunch with friends living an hour and a half
off by road and rail, their carriage meeting us at the little
country station. We were to leave at four o'clock, no other
train being available till late in the evening.
The moment for departure drew near, but my friend, deep in a
political discussion, had apparently become unmindful of the
arrangement; our hostess, I noticed, did just glance at the clock
once or twice, that was all. At the eleventh hour I ventured
to take the initiative; the carriage was brought round, the horse
put to a trot, and we caught the train by half a minute. As I
knew that the later hour would have inconvenienced both hosts and
guests, and as I had noticed madame's furtive glances at the
timepiece, I asked my companion why we had not been dispatched
without haste and flurry. He looked at me with no little
surprise. "Tell a visitor it is time for him to go? The
thing is impossible!"
Certainly the English plan of speeding the parting guest has
much to recommend it, but the story is highly suggestive. It
helps us to understand how Voltaire allowed himself, as he put it,
to become the "innkeeper of Europe." Mr. Hamerton preferred
John Bull's blunt outspokenness. His home near Autun becoming
too much intruded upon by English and American visitors, he affixed
the following notice to his front door: "Visitors at the Pré Charmoy
who have not received an invitation for the night are requested to
leave at six o'clock." Imagine the shocked surprise of French
callers able to decipher the inscription!
The horror of appearing uncourteous is evinced in many ways.
Thus, no matter how visible or grotesque may be English
blunders in French, our neighbours never permit themselves so much
as a smile in your presence; instead they will quietly and even
apologetically put the speaker right. There are natures of
finer or coarser calibre in France as elsewhere, but a dominant note
of national character is this delicacy. Many formulas of
current speech, indeed, bring out the idiosyncrasy. Harsh
terms and disagreeable expletives are avoided, ill-sounding forms of
expression toned down. When the great statesman Thiers had
breathed his last, the tidings were thus conveyed to the widow:
"Madame, votre illustre mari a vecu" ("Your illustrious husband once
lived"). To have blurted out, "Your husband is dead," would
seem in French ears an aggravation of the shock.
Again, how charming and characteristic is that oxymoron,
une jolie laide ("a plain beauty"), in other words, a woman
whose vivacity and expressiveness atone for Nature's unkindness in
Another euphemism is the expression, "il laisse à désirer"
("it leaves something to be desired").
A tutor, for instance, reporting progress of an
unsatisfactory pupil, will not distress his parents by saying, "Your
son's conduct is bad," or "Your son is not doing well." He
qualifies the unpleasant information by writing word that both
behaviour and application to studies leave something, or maybe much,
to be desired.
These things are not wholly bagatelles, but it is also in
grave matters that this national trait is conspicuous.
Leisureliness is another inrooted French attribute. The
prevailing dislike of hurry, the margin of time allowed alike for
trivial as well as weighty transactions, are refreshingly opposed to
The proverb "Time is money" has not as yet found acceptance
in the most intellectual and highly polished country of Europe.
France, like Hamlet, has still her breathing hour of the day;
compared to the Republic across the Atlantic, is still "a pleasing
land of drowsyhead." In a charming volume, Madame Bentzon
recounts how an American acquaintance once visited her in the Seine
and Marne, and his astoundment at the spectacle before him.
The antiquated farming methods still in vogue, oxen drawing
old-fashioned wooden ploughs, husbandmen cutting their tiny patches
of corn, housewives minding their cows afield, transported him to
Biblical scenes. He could hardly realize that he was in
Europe, and in such a quarter of Europe.
It is not only country folks who must ever have a liberal
allowance of time. Equally somnolent must appear the
commercial world in Chicagan eyes.
"At Bradford men never walk, they are always running," said a
French youth to me after some months' sojourn in a business house of
A Luton straw-hat manufacturer of my acquaintance thus
commented on the same characteristic—
"The French are excellent customers, but are very slow in
making up their minds. The French buyer will turn over a hat
or a bonnet a dozen times, go away without giving an order, will
look in next day, very likely the day after that, before coming to a
decision. But French commercial honour stands at high-water
mark; thus, dilatory as are French buyers, none receive a warmer
English travellers are sometimes exasperated by this
leisureliness in other quarters. In September of last year I
left Paris for Dover by the excellent 9.45 forenoon express.
The weather had just broken up in Switzerland, and late arrivers at
the Gare du Nord found the greatest difficulty in procuring a seat.
A young Englishman in this plight who addressed himself to an
official received the following reply: "You should be here an hour
before the train starts"! Regarded from a wholly opposite
point of view, indeed deliberate, unhasting temperament is indeed
enviable. How much may not the excellence of French
manufactures, handicrafts, and produce be thereby accounted for?
Nor is Goethe's maxim, "Ohne Hast, ohne Rast" ("without
haste, without rest"), nonexistent in other fields. Art,
literature, legislation, have been similarly influenced, whilst
leisureliness, an instinctive repugnance to hurry and bustle, a
philosophic love of repose, constitute a paramount charm of French
home life. Under our neighbours' roof we are not too rudely
reminded that "Time and tide wait for no man," much less that "Time
is money." No wonder that the prematurely old men of whom Mr.
Foster Fraser speaks in his American sketches, white-haired,
care-lined veterans of thirty, are unknown in France. There at
least folks allow time to overtake them; they do not advance post
haste to meet it.
The least sentimental people on the face of the earth, our
neighbours have a matchless genius for friendship. "There is a
friend that sticketh closer than a brother," might have been written
by Montaigne rather than by Jesus, the son of Sirach. We often
hear on elderly lips the endearing "thee" and "thou" of the Quaker,
old lycéens, grandmothers whose acquaintance dated from the first
communion, maintaining brotherly, sisterly relations throughout
life. The bachelor, the functionary, the military man
compelled to dine at a restaurant, must ever have a commensal,
or table companion; in this respect they resemble Kant. The
great philosopher's means in later life permitting such hospitality,
he ever had three or four covers laid for daily "Tischgenossen."
Little wonder that the sociable Gaul abhors a solitary meal.
It was Montesquieu's opinion that when an Englishman wanted
thoroughly to enjoy his newspaper, he climbed on to a housetop for
the sake of privacy! True it is that whilst we have the verb
"to enjoy one's self," the French have another and more amiable
reflective, jouir de quelqu'n [p.291]
("to enjoy another's society"). "Je vais jouir de vows" ("I
come to enjoy you"), said a charming lady to me one evening in a
country house near Nancy.
The most reserved, yet the most sociable being in the world,
the most accomplished in the art of friendship, neither in
friendship nor in love is a Frenchman in the least given to
sentimentality. The only subjects on which he ever
sentimentalizes are patrie, drapeau, République—motherland,
tricolour, Republic. Personalities evoke the most profound,
unalterable attachments, the most fervid admiration, never gushing
outbursts. No wonder that modern German novels are so little
appreciated in France. Dickens, for whom our neighbours have a
positive veneration, is often a sentimentalist, but in his case the
single defect is counterbalanced by a thousand virtues. I will
now turn to a French trait that equally puzzles insular observers.
Why, in a pre-eminently intellectual and fastidious people,
do we find an undisguised, immoderate addiction to le gros rire,
an insatiable appetite for the grotesquely laughable? How
little sort Parisian comic papers, popular Parisian plays, and M.
Rochefort's scurrilous pasquinades with the loftier side of French
In the first place, we must remember that no wave of
Puritanism has at any time swept over the land of Rabelais.
The joyousness which Rabelais inculcated as a duty, the rollicking
spirits in his own case masking stern philosophic truths, have never
received similar check. Le gros rire, the hearty laugh,
still remains the national refuge from care and ennui; as in former
days, it ofttimes diverted the mind from impending tortures and
violent death. Alike martyrs and criminals have made merry in
awful moments. The Marquise de Brinvilliers jested over the
preparations for her long-drawn-out torments, the gallant young de
la Barre uttered a sally on the eve of a doom no less horrible,
Danton improvised puns as he was jolted towards the guillotine.
Every Frenchman has a touch of Rabelais, of Voltaire, in his
I once asked an old friend of eclectic tastes and high
culture how it was that the buffooneries and scurrilities of the
Intransigeant could possibly interest him. "Ma foi, je ne
sail pas, mais ça me fait rire" ("On my word I don't know, but the
paper makes me laugh"), was his reply.
Laughter—the copious exercise of the risible faculties—is a
constitutional, a physical need of the Gallic temperament.
Hence the enormous popularity enjoyed two generations ago by Paul de
Kock. Search the little library of this writer's fiction
through and you will find no scintilla of wit, hardly a bon-mot.
But in one respect he was a true literary descendant of Rabelais.
His Gauloiseries, broad drolleries, could ever raise a laugh.
Few people read poor Paul de Kock nowadays. Le rire in
Anatole France has found a subtler, more piquant, more philosophic
exponent, but anything and everything is forgiven that author,
actor, musician, or artist who can evoke spontaneous mirth.
How came it about that "L'Allegro" was written by an
Anglo-Saxon and a Puritan, and not by a Frenchman? The matter
must remain an eternal mystery.
On this subject there remains one point to be dealt with.
An English friend, who had been shocked by some coarse illustrated
papers purchased at a Paris kiosque, lately put the following
question to me: How were such publications compatible with the
purity of French home life? My answer was simple—boys and
girls in France do not enjoy the liberty, or rather the licence,
permitted among ourselves. When journeying from Hastings to
Folkestone by train some years since with a French friend, two boys
of ten to twelve sitting opposite had their heads deep in
newspapers. The French mother was greatly shocked.
Children of that age, she said, were never permitted in France to
purchase or read newspapers. And I can speak from experience,
that where young people are present, the Rabelaisian joke, or
double entendre, is banished from the family board.
If the critical faculty is sometimes at fault where the
risible is concerned, it is nevertheless an equally striking
characteristic. French literary criticism has ever stood at
high-water mark, and to criticize, with our neighbours, takes the
place of to enjoy.
Listen to the work-a-day world at the Louvre or the
Luxembourg on a Sunday afternoon. Instead of the
interjectional "How pretty!" "How beautiful!" "How life-like!" of a
similar audience at the Royal Academy or National Gallery on Bank
Holiday, you will overhear cautious, painstaking, deliberately
uttered criticism—the views of men and women who are there not
merely for irreflective enjoyment, the whiling away of an idle hour,
but for the exercise of the critical faculty, the ripening of
artistic taste, the comparing achievements with a preconceived
Still more marked is, of course, this habit of mind among the
highly cultivated. A French friend, for instance, accompanies
you to a museum, picture-gallery, or play. You soon discover
that you have at hand, not a cicerone, but a lynx-eyed critic,
disputable or unobvious points being raised every moment, the
reasoning, questioning instinct perpetually alert. To less
subtle minds such a mood will appear hypercritical, but herein
without doubt lies the secret of French supremacy in art and
letters, and that better word I will call the finish of manufactures
and handicrafts. And what is the perfect dress of a
Frenchwoman but an evolution of the critical spirit, and to place
herself above criticism in this respect is often immensely
difficult. Thus the wife of an officer in garrison or of a
lycéen professor, no matter the narrowness of resources, must on no
account make calls except in an irreproachable toilette and in style
up to date. The young wife of an artillery captain with whom I
once spent some time at Clermont-Ferrand, used to keep one complete
costume for visits of ceremony, immediately on her return doffing
not only bonnet and gown, but slip, shoes, and even fancy stockings!
Every article must retain its comparative freshness and
fashionableness till replaced. Critical herself, a Frenchwoman
naturally guards against criticism in others.
The French mind is pre-eminently logical. "We reason
more than we imagine," writes M. Fouillée, "and what we imagine the
best is not the exterior world, but the inner world of sentiments
and thoughts." Further on this psychologist adds, "The passion
for reasoning often leads to forgetfulness of observation" ("Psychologie
du people Français"). This love of system, this tendency to
generalize at the expense of experience, is strikingly evidenced in
M. Boutmy's recent work on the English people. Nothing is more
characteristic of the two nations than the methods respectively
pursued by the above-named writer and the late Mr. Hamerton.
In his admirably judicial work, "French and English," our countryman
jots down the experiences of thirty-five years' residence in France,
illustrating each proposition by telling anecdotes and traits of
character that have come immediately under his own observation.
M. Boutmy enters upon his task as a mathematician working out a
problem. From a few principles, with great lucidity, he traces
the evolution of the English mind as shown in matters intellectual,
social, and material. Mr. Hamerton spoke of Frenchmen and
Frenchwomen as he found them, and is consequently never at fault.
M. Boutmy cannot for a moment relinquish his theories; but theories,
however sound, will not always accommodate themselves to
Here is an instance. M. Boutmy describes the English people
as inaccessible to pity. But what are the facts? To the
honour of England, be it said, here was promulgated the first law
rendering punishable inhumanity to animals. [p.295]
Tardily enough, the French Government so far followed our initiative
as to pass the Loi Gramont, an Act, unfortunately, too often
a dead letter.
The entire work shows the same subordination of experience to
system, observation to theory.
M. Boutmy and M. G. Amédée Thierry, who also speaks of the
English as a people inaccessible to pity (Le complot des Libelles),
should note the impressions of the French medical men recently
visiting our shores. To the immense astonishment of these
gentlemen, they discovered that all our magnificent hospitals are
entirely supported by private contributions, and that outdoor
patients are not only examined gratuitously, but supplied with
medicaments free of charge.
And as I write these lines I see in a morning paper the
following testimony to "a people inaccessible to pity." The
correspondent describes a meeting held in Paris on behalf of the
Sunday rest movement, and he adds, "It is pleasant to note how
strongly and sympathetically this social reform is advocated by the
French press, and how the example of England is admired and
Such appreciation is not common. If our neighbours have
hitherto habitually been misrepresented here, still more have
English folks been misjudged on the other side of La Manche.
The French intellect is above all things scientific. It
must never be forgotten that the very first great scientific
expeditions set on foot in the world were due to French initiative.
"When the question of the figure of the earth came to be debated,"
wrote our late Astronomer-Royal, Sir George Bidden Airy, "two
celebrated expeditions were made under the auspices of the French
Government. I believe that in matters of science, as stated by
Guizot, France has been the great pioneer." And this eminent
authority adds further on, "There is also one measure of the
dimensions of the earth which is worth mentioning, on account of the
extraordinary times in which it was affected. It was the great
measure extending from Dunkirk in France to Barcelona in Spain, and
afterwards continued to Formentara, a small island near Minorca.
It is worth mentioning, because it was done in the hottest times of
the French Revolution. We are accustomed to consider that time
as one purely of anarchy and bloodshed; but the energetic Government
of France (the Convention), though labouring under the greatest
difficulties, could find opportunities for sending out an expedition
for these scientific purposes, and thus did actually, during the
hottest times of the Revolution complete a work to which nothing
equal had been attempted in England."
Equally characteristic is the practical spirit, the
utilitarian side, the persistent looking to results.
Vagueness, shilly-shally, indefinite, happy-go-lucky methods are not
common over the water. Here, as in most respects, Gaul and
Anglo-Saxon are the antipodes of each other.
What romance runs through English life is strictly confined
to courtship and marriage, to the domestic circle, the individual
sphere; not a vestige of the poetic or ideal informing the
atmosphere of politics.
The French fireside, on the contrary, is strictly prosaic,
wedlock being a partnership primarily arranged with deference to
worldly circumstances. But remote from daily surroundings, in
the arena of public life, when called upon to deal with ideas rather
than with facts, a Frenchman can be the most generously romantic,
the most magnanimously chivalrous utopian imaginable.
A Frenchman will think fifty, nay, five hundred times, before
marrying for love, when marrying for love would involve impoverished
circumstances, loss of position, the future of his children
hazarded; without so much as a second thought, like the misguided
hero of the Commune, he will rush to the barricade and confront
ignominy and death on behalf of the disinherited, of some new
Atlantis in which he entirely believes. [p.298]
If I were asked to crystallize the foregoing conclusions to
focus in a sentence my experience of French character, I should say
that, intellectually and socially, here civilization has reached its
highest expression. I will end these pages with a simile.
As I have already insisted upon, "the fickle Gaul," "the
light-minded Frenchman," "our volatile neighbours," possess a genius
for friendship. Serviceable, sincere, perennial, French
friendship reminds me of that beautiful element recently discovered
by two native scientists. Proof against time, vicissitude, and
extraneous influences, what French friendship has once been it
remains throughout life, like radium, immutable among mutable
things, shining with undiminished ray till the end.
FICTION AND FIRESIDES
ever work?" once a clever English friend asked me. "According
to novels, the only occupation of men over the water is to run after
other men's wives!"
French writers of fiction stand as culprits at the bar.
So gravely have they sinned against truth and the fitness of things
that the average novel must be accepted as a travesty, no more
resembling French domestic life than the traditional caricature of
John Bull by our neighbours resembles the typical Englishman.
Were middle-class homes, indeed, of a piece with certain
portraitures, the words "family" and "fireside" were mere figures of
speech and simulacra over the water.
The misconceptions created by so-called realistic novels are
almost ineradicable. In an enthusiastic work on French
expansion by a naturalized Frenchman, the writer implores his
literary brethren to weigh their responsibilities.
"Frenchmen," he writes, "ought to set their faces uncompromisingly
against turpitudes so antagonistic to national influence" ("L'Expansion
Française," par M. Novikoff: Paris).
On this subject, a writer I have before quoted observed
thirty years ago, "Without doubt the world described by M. Flaubert
(in 'Madame Bovary') exists, but is it the whole world? And if
a novelist confines himself to holes and corners of society, as a
delineator of society, can he be called truthful?" Elsewhere
he wrote of Paul Féval's once famous "Fanny," "This aversion to the
truth among my friends and associates alarms and afflicts me."
What would Philarète Chasles have thought of "L'Héritier" by
Guy de Maupassant, Flaubert's most celebrated disciple? In so
far as style, composition, and, up to a certain point,
characterization go, the story is a masterpiece. It would be
difficult to find more exquisite pictures of suburban Paris, or more
finely turned impressions of atmosphere. The writer's skill is
to be deplored, since the incident on which the plot turns is not
only nauseous in the extreme, but grotesque in its exaggeration of
And what would the same critic have said to Daudet's "L'Immortel"?
Here we find ourselves in a very different social sphere to those
described in "Madame Bovary" and "L'Héritier." The immorality
is here of still deeper dye.
Madame Astier is the wife of an Immortel, i.e. a
member of the French Academy, the highest honour to which a literary
man can aspire. We are asked to believe that this woman could
stint the family board of necessaries, lie, plot, and deceive her
husband, even stoop to vice, for the sake of a dissolute son.
In novels of later date we find a disregard, not only of
morality, but of seemliness that is positively appalling.
Take, by way of example, two stories that appeared two or
three years ago—"Ame obscure" and "Le journal d'une femme de chambre."
Well may stay-at-home readers ask themselves the question, Does the
word "home," as we understand it, really exist in France? Yet
both these loathsome works have found admiring critics. It was
on the strength of a review in a Paris newspaper that I ordered the
first, and the second was lauded to the skies in an English review.
There is also another point to be considered. No wave
of Puritanism has ever swept over French life and literature.
As a contemporary philosopher writes, "France missed her
Reformation, and the consequences are felt to this day " (M. Coste,
"Sociologic Objective "). Clarifying, refining influences must
come from other sources.
It is hardly necessary to say that such works are not found
upon drawing-room tables on the other side of the channel. In
the case of young daughters, maternal censorship is rigid, the
Russian blacking-out system not more so. Objectionable fiction
finds its public among "young men about town," rich ne'er-do-wells,
idlers generally, and among old and pious ladies, who, having led
immaculate and somewhat prosy existences, are anxious to know
disreputable folks and their ways from hearsay. The native
patronage of such novels would not, however, suffice to keep their
authors going. As M. Novikoff explains in the volume before
mentioned, French fiction of this kind sells much more largely
beyond the frontier than on French soil. Russia is by far the
best customer of the so-called realistic novelist, Germany and
England following suit. Any one who has lived among our
neighbours must have come to this conclusion unaided by statistics.
Thrifty folks will think twice before spending three francs and a
half on a book to be thrown away when read. If occasionally
middle-class Darbies and Joans do purchase a volume only mentionable
among their contemporaries, they will thus indulge themselves out of
sheer curiosity, and enjoy a new sensation.
Vice and crime have, of course, their thickly populated walks
in France as elsewhere. The sanctity of home is guarded
jealously as the gates of Paradise by flaming brand. Not wider
apart the fragrant valley of Roenabed and the ebon halls of Eblis in
Beckford's wonderful tale, than French family life and Bohemia,
whether gilded or tatterdemalion.
It is characteristic of the French mind to seek vicarious
emotion, and enjoy what is called les sublimes horreurs
("sublime horrors"). Here we have an explanation of other
proclivities, among these the enthusiasm for Sarah Bernhardt's most
I well remember, when in Algeria many years ago, visiting
with a friend an old lady just upon ninety. As she sunned
herself in the garden, she had on her lap perhaps the "creepiest"
book—as boys would say—ever written, "Les derniers jours d'un
"Not very lively reading that," observed my companion; the
"Mais quel récit saissisant!" ("But what an enthralling
But the existence of such novels as "Une Arne obscure," and
"Le journal d'une femme de chambre " requires further elucidation.
Why should capable, above all reputed, writers fix upon themes alike
in subject and treatment so grotesquely untrue to life and so
The plain truth of the matter is, that average existence,
especially middle-class existence, in France is too uneventful, too
eminently respectable, for sensational or dramatic handling.
In support of this theory let me instance two contemporary writers,
both to the fore in literary ranks.
M. Hanotaux lately published a delightful volume of sketches
not quite felicitously titled "L'énergie Française." In one
exquisitely worded chapter he sketches daily routine in an ancient
cathedral city. Monotonous as was the domestic round of
"Cranford" and "Our village," it must be set down as "a giddy round
of vain delights" compared with that of Laon.
All who have lived in French country towns and villages
realize the veracity of the picture. So slowly the clock often
moves, so unbroken is the sameness of week after week, that a
catastrophe, the unforeseen, seems positively banished from French
soil. Take another picture of everyday life from the pen of
that usually incisive writer, Édouard Rod.
Minded to produce a story after the English model, that is to
say, one that should be irreproachable, M. Rod gives us
"Mademoiselle Annette," which can no more be compared in interest
and vivacity to the "Small House at Allington," or "The Chronicles
of Carlingford," than Daudet's "Jack" can be compared to the "David
Copperfield" of his great forerunner and model.
Prosiest of prosy stories, in truth, is "Mademoiselle
Annette," not a touch of romance, humour, or moving pathos
enlivening its pages. Only the genius of a Balzac could have
made such dry bones to live. The theme of "Eugenie Grandet" is
hardly more exciting, yet that story is one of undying interest.
Balzac stands absolutely alone as an exponent of bourgeois
life, and vile although are many types, others are of singular
beauty and elevation—the village priest in the "Curé du Village,"
the charming wife of César Birotteau, Docteur Benassis, and many
Society is so constituted in France that the novelist is thus
forced back upon the exceptional and far-fetched, the annals of vice
and crime. Nowadays readers require a different sensationalism
in literature to that furnished by their predecessors Eugene, Sue,
and Dumas. And as French firesides are the reverse of
sensational, popular writers look for inspiration elsewhere.
Whilst being in no sense an apology for the bad novel, such a
fact may be accepted as, at least, partly explanative. We must
remember that there are no romantic marriages in France, very little
that falls under the head of love-making, and nothing whatever that
answers to German schwärmerei, an intensive expression of our
own sentimentality. To be fantasque, that is to say, to
have romantic, unconventional notions, is a term of severe reproach;
woe be to that Frenchwoman who incurs it. Tradition, bringing
up, material interests, are all opposed to the freedom which renders
English girlhood a prolific theme for the novelist. No
well-bred French girl ever enjoys an innocent flirtation, much more
a harmless escapade. Nor must she relish them on paper till
she has entered into the partnership of marriage.
Again, the domestic circle in France is essentially that, and
very rarely anything more. The vast majority of middle-class
folks spend their entire lives within such circumscribed limits, in
no wise affected by extraneous influences. The same may be
said of vast numbers with us; but English people, no matter their
rank or condition, move about more freely than our neighbours, and
even those of moderate means at some time or other travel abroad.
Very few English families are without Indian or colonial branches,
an element considerably adding to the movement and interest of daily
The material of fiction in the two countries is, however,
chiefly affected by social usages and ideals. The French
domestic story must perforce become a roman pour jeunes filles,
a story for girls. Goody-goody such tales never are; they are
often well written, and deserve the name of literature. The
tragedy of life, the profound springs of action, are never therein
When I look back upon twenty-five years' experience of French
domestic life, I can only recall two incidents which a novelist
could have turned to good account. The first was an affair
involving family honour and good repute, several households being
brought low by the malversations of one member. The second was
a case of mistaken identity that very nearly proved as tragic.
A young man, the son of friends, was charged with robbery and
murder, and although the accusation was disproved a few hours later,
the shock almost killed his father.
Both circumstances lent themselves admirably to dramatic
treatment; and more than once have I said to myself, if only a
novelist had the slightest chance of being true to foreign life,
here were abundant materials for my pen. Quieter themes have
also tempted me from time to time. But no matter how well we
may know our neighbours, English stories of French life are doomed
One novelette coming under this category affords a striking
instance in point. An English writer had set himself the
somewhat difficult task of describing a clerical interior, the home
of a village priest. Two egregious incongruities marked the
Here was a country curé listening in the evening to
Beethoven's Sonatas played by a young niece!
Now, in the first place, you might search France through
without finding a piano in a rustic presbytère; in the
second, you would as vainly seek a village priest appreciative of
German classic music; and, thirdly, the notion of a young girl
keeping house for a bachelor uncle, above all, an ecclesiastic, is
in the highest degree preposterous.
French writers, when dealing with English contemporary life,
are at a still greater disadvantage, so little hitherto have our
neighbours cared to live amongst us. Picturesque effects,
happy approximations, may be achieved on both sides. But the
inmost heart of a people, inherited characteristics, national
temperament, how unreachable must these ever be by an outsider!
In one class of the modern French novel a certain licence is
admissible, even obligatory. I allude to the latest
development of fiction in France, the novel with a purpose.
In his famous Rougon-Macquart series, Zola, from the reader's
point of view, set a somewhat disconcerting example. Didactic
novels are no longer entities, but part of a cycle. Thus a
story called "Bonnes Mères" (ironical for "over-fond mothers") was
announced as the second of nine volumes, all having a distinct moral
and intellectual affinity! The story brings out in scenes
alternately diverting and sordid, the exaggerated views of certain
French parents concerning the marriage of their children, and the
theories still upheld by clauses of the Code Civil. In "Bonnes
Mères," all our sympathy is with the hero and heroine, commonplace,
amiable young people, as anxious as possible to fall in love with
each other after being duly married by their respective mothers,
aided by two marieuses, or matchmakers. The two latter,
mercenary old ladies, are represented as having the run of
fashionable society, and receiving handsome sums for their
matchmaking services. The unfortunate young couple soon
discover that, far from escaping maternal control, wedlock has
placed them under tutelage more galling. The author pleads for
a revision of the Code Civil, and more individuality in the home.
"La Source Fatale" ("The fatal source"), by A. Couvreur, is
the third of a series devoted to social questions. The
author's purpose is set forth in his preface, namely, to expose "the
alcoholic scourge that crowds our prisons, hospitals, and lunatic
asylums, that demoralizes the race, physically, morally, and
We have here the powerful picture of a promising and happy
life wrecked by absinthe-drinking. M. Couvreur sets to work
scientifically and philosophically. His hero's downhill career
is followed stage by stage with unsparing detail and accurate
diagnosis. The once healthful, wholesome-minded,
self-controlled gentleman gradually sinks into sensual excess,
sottishness and mania, his last frenzied act being to fire the
distillery of which he was formerly secretary.
But novels with a purpose in France, as with ourselves, deal
with the abnormal, and are no reflex of average character and
As I have already averred, French home life is unsuitable for
romance. Domestic existence flows evenly as the streams
beautifying native landscape, all kinds of sweet and pleasant
objects reflected in their waves, but one mile very much resembling
another, from source to outflow little in the way of diversity or
THE CODE CIVIL AND FAMILY LIFE
familiarity with the Code Civil is conspicuous in many of his works. Since the great psychologist wrote, however, domestic legislation in
France has been considerably modified.
"Eugénie Grandet" affords an excellent example of the first
statement. In that "great little novel," an epithet applied by
Balzac to another of his chefs d'œuvre, we find the miser of Saumur
in despair, not because he has lost his wife, but because he thereby
had forfeited control of her property. By dint of cajoleries and
mean artifices, he induces the love-lorn Eugénie to renounce her heirship in his favour.
When Balzac made cette grande petite histoire out of the merest
nothings, and until a few years ago, husbands and wives were in no
sense inheritors of each other's fortune. A man dying intestate, his
widow, whether dowered or portionless, whether the mother of
children or childless, was not by law entitled to a penny or so much
as a stick of furniture. The very body of the defunct could not be
buried in accordance with her wishes. [p.308] In fact, from the
moment that the breath was out of his nostrils, she became a
stranger in her husband's house. Only in the case of non-existent
blood relation, no matter how remote the kinship, could a widow
claim her late husband's substance, second and even third cousins
being enriched to her entire exclusion. The same rule applied to a
widower. Hence the père Grandet's dilemma. With dismay approaching
to frenzy, he saw the usufruct of his wife's portion passing into
other hands, those of their own daughter! It was not until 1891
that a new law entitled the survivor of an intestate partner to the
fourth or half, according to circumstances, of his or her income,
such life-interest being annulled by re-marriage, and not holding
good in the case of divorced persons or of those judicially
separated. In some measure the legal one-sidedness of former days
could be remedied by the marriage contract. Thus, a man about to
marry a portionless bride, a most unusual occurrence in France,
might, in accordance with the régime called la communaute de bien,
or participation of means, endow his wife with a part of his
property, that part accruing to her at his death. But it was not by
virtue of heirship that she obtained such a share. She merely became
full possessor of property which had always been her own, and of
which her husband had been the usufructuary.
I once stayed in Brittany with a lady who had not long before lost
her husband, a doctor of some note; from time outstanding bills were
paid, the half going to his children by a former marriage, the other
half, down to a centime, accruing to my hostess. Both systems of
contract were in full force before the Revolution, and rural
archives contain many such marriage deeds, particulars of property
on either side being minuted with what appears to us whimsical
"Eugénie Grandet" illustrates other articles of the Code, these,
strange to say, still in force.
Although a propertied woman, Madame Grandet is described as never
having a penny to call her own. Miserly instinct and habits of petty
tyranny were here backed up by the law. The usurer was strictly
within his right, and to-day, as when Balzac wrote three-quarters of
a century ago, French husbands enjoy the control of their wives'
income. If Frenchwomen in the spirit exercise "all the rule, one
empire," in the letter they remain under marital tutelage, the Roman
"A married Frenchwoman never enjoys her fortune till she dies," once
observed an old French lady to me—"that is to say, she cannot touch
a fraction without her husband's consent; but if childless,
unfortunately my own case, she can will it as she pleases."
"We cannot buy a silk dress with our own money till we first get our
husband's leave," another friend said to me only the other day. Of
course, in most cases the defects of such legislation are remedied
by character and the fitness of things.
Frenchwomen are naturally very authoritative, Frenchmen are
naturally very amiable, and in the highest degree amenable to
feminine influence. When the household purse is too tightly gripped,
it is most often in the interests of children, and not from motives
of sheer avarice. And we must ever bear in mind one fact. The
ancient Gaul feared only the fall of the heavens: the modern
Frenchman trembles only before an empty purse! On the legal aspect
of this subject a friend writes to me:—
"You will ask how comes it about that our code has proclaimed (édicté)
what is called the incapacity of married women? Here are the
reasons furnished by commentators of the Code.
"Legislators consider that in wedlock, as in every other
well-organized association, an undivided seat of authority can alone
prevent confusion and discord. Such undivided authority the law has
naturally placed in the hands of the husband. At the same time,
abuse of authority in financial matters has been carefully guarded
against. Thus, a propertied wife with cause to complain of her
husband's stewardship can obtain judicial separation."
A few years ago a bill was laid before the Chamber in purport
answering to the Married Woman's Property Act of Victorian
legislation—that is to say, an Act securing to married women the
absolute control of their own earnings. The project has not yet
become law, and is thus commented upon by the correspondent just
cited—In my own opinion, the bill you mention, referred to by M. Rambaud in his 'History of French Civilization,' has slender chance
of being voted. Should it take effect, an unscrupulous wife would be
at liberty to appropriate her entire earnings, spending upon
herself what ought to be contributed to the family budget," (la communauté).
There is a good deal to be said for this view of the case. I suppose
few instances occur in England of a married couple entering domestic
service, their child or children being put out to nurse. In France
the custom is universal. Not only is the household work of Parisian
and provincial hotels very generally shared by man and wife, but in
private families a husband will often be employed as butler,
coachman, or valet de chambre, his wife acting as cook or madame's
maid. Both naturally look forward to setting up a home sooner or
later; both should naturally economize for the purpose. But up to a
certain point the Code Civil compels economy, and forces parents to
make sacrifices on behalf of their children.
Here let me explain that interesting law called la dette alimentaire,
or material obligation, to which we have no equivalent in England.
Specified by Articles 205, 206, and 207 of the Code Civil, the dette
alimentaire not only renders parents responsible for the shelter,
food, and clothing of their children, but proclaims the charge
reciprocal. And as sons and daughters entering another family on
marriage are considered members of that family, they are similarly
answerable. Sons and daughters-in-law must pay the dette alimentaire
either in money or kind to a widowed mother-in-law, her second
marriage relieving them of the burden. A burden without doubt it is
sometimes felt, and in one of Guy de Maupassant's most revolting
stories he brings out this aspect. On the other hand, there is
no doubt that the mutual obligation immensely strengthens family
ties, and at the same time adds to the dignity of humble life.
What Frenchman capable of earning wages would willingly see his
parents dependent upon charity?
Again, the dette alimentaire is equally binding on parents of
illegitimate children. Alike father and mother are compelled by law
to feed, clothe, and shelter their offspring.
The dette d'éducation concerns itself with parental duties only. The
State provides the best possible education for every child born upon
French soil, but on parents is laid the charge of profiting by such
opportunities, and of adding moral and physical training.
Recent emendations of the Code have considerably modified those
sections dealing with women. Thus, a law passed in 1895 enables a
married woman to open a separate savings-bank account, and to
withdraw any sums so put by, provided the husband offers no
opposition, such opposition being rendered all but ineffective by
clauses that follow.
By virtue of an anterior law (1886), a wife can ensure a small
annuity for old age, the instalments placed from time to time
requiring no marital authorization. It will be seen that a marked
tendency of recent legislation has been its favourableness towards
the sex. I have elsewhere mentioned the important right recently
conferred upon tradesmen, that of electing delegates to the Chambers
Classified by the Code with minors and idiots, it was not till 1897
that a French woman could witness a deed. To-day she enjoys
privileges for which her English sisters sigh in vain.
By an Act of 1900, women in France were admitted to the bar.
Another and equally recent law may perhaps have been suggested by
English precedent. By an Act of December, 1900, heads of business
houses employing female assistants were compelled to supply
precisely as many seats as the number of the employed. Formerly, as
here, young women were on their feet all day long, to the
deterioration of health and physique.
I will now say a few words upon the enforced division of property. I
do not suppose that many readers will agree with an old friend of
mine, a Burgundian of the old school. Some years ago we had been
warmly discussing the contrasted systems, English freedom of testacy
and the restrictive measures of France.
"No," he said, shaking his head; "nothing you say will ever convince
me that it is right to will away property from one's flesh and
blood. And," he added, with an air of entire conviction, "one thing
I am sure of—the knowledge that young people must inherit their
parents' fortune, and probably that of uncles and aunts also, makes
them more affectionate."
Certainly a great opposite impression is gained from Balzac's great
series; nor do Maupassant and later writers force such an opinion
upon the mind. Most French folks, I fancy, would agree with my nepotious
gentilhomme. Anyhow, they would probably endorse the
obligation of enriching not only sons and daughters to the
exclusion of every other claim, but also nephews and nieces.
I well remember an instance in point. An acquaintance of many years'
standing, for whom I entertained great respect, the manager of a
large Paris hotel, was seized with mortal sickness, a slow but fatal
malady rendering him quite unfit for the bodily and mental wear and
tear of such a position.
"Why do you not give up and rest, dear Monsieur R—?" I ventured to
say one day. "You have no wife or children depending on you,
monsieur. Why work so hard when ill and unfit for anything?"
"I have nephews and nieces," was the reply.
There, then, was a rich man battling with pain and lassitude in
order that young men and women, well able to earn their own living,
should be enriched.
A few words about enforced testamentation will not here be
Like the daughters of Zelophehad, French girls inherit the paternal
patrimony. If the Code Civil treats the sex as irresponsible beings,
the strictest justice is dealt out to them with regard to material
exigencies. Share and share alike is the excellent rule laid down by
French legists. But parents are by no means prohibited from
befriending philanthropic or other causes. A certain testamentary
latitude is allowed to both father and mother.
Thus, whilst the father of an only child, whether son or daughter,
cannot deprive that child of the half of his fortune, the other half
he can bequeath as he will. If there are two children, each is
entitled to a third of the paternal estate, the remainder being at
the testator's disposal. The same rules apply to a propertied
To children, French law has ever shown tenderness. Thus, children
born out of wedlock are naturalized by the subsequent marriage of
parents, and recent legislation (March, 1896) has favoured them in
the matter of property. Anteriorally, provided that an illegitimate
child had been legally acknowledged by either parent, the law
awarded him a third of what would have been his portion but for the
bar sinister. By a recent law this share is now the half of what
would accrue to a legitimate son or daughter, two-thirds if no
brothers or sisters exist born in wedlock, and the entire parental
fortune falls to him in case of no direct descendants remaining.
A wonderful study is that Gallo-Roman Codex!
Like the world-encircling serpent of Scandinavian mythology, the
Code Civil, with bands of triple brass, with a drastic noli me
tangere, binds family life into a compact, indissoluble whole,
renders unassailable, impregnable, that sacred ark, that palladium
of national strength, healthfulness, and vitality, the ancestral,
the patriarchal home!
NEW YEAR'S ETIQUETTE
OUTSIDE royal and
official circles, etiquette sits lightly on English shoulders.
Christmas boxes to children, servants, and postmen are certainly
regarded in the light of an obligation. Here what may be
called domestic subjection to the calendar begins and ends. We
may notice or pass over the New Year as we will. In France, it
is otherwise. New Year's etiquette is surely the heaviest
untaxed burden ever laid upon the shoulders of a civilized people.
From the Elysée down to the mansarde, from the President of
the Republic down to the dustman, every successive First of January
is memorialized with almost religious ceremonial. The Protocol
is not more rigidly followed, the Code Civil itself is not more
precise, than French etiquette of the New Year. It is then
that the bureaucratic and military world respectfully salute their
chiefs; it is then that family bonds are re-knit in closest union;
it is then that our neighbours bring out their visiting lists and
balance the debit and credit of social intercourse. With
ourselves the dropping of an acquaintance is a ticklish and
disagreeable business. They manage these things better over
the water. Not to receive a New Year's call, or, if distance
prevents, a visiting card, is the indisputable, the recognized
indication that sender and addressee are henceforth to be strangers.
French etiquette of the New Year may be divided under three
heads, that of étrennes, or gifts; secondly, visits; thirdly,
cards. The first is obligatory in the case of friends and
acquaintances as well as relations and subordinates and requires
considerable thought. Custom has pretty well settled the
question of gifts in money to concierge, or portress, postmen,
telegraph-boy, tradesmen's assistants, and domestic servants.
Thus the modest householder occupying a tiny flat and eking out an
income of three or four thousand francs (£120 to £160) yearly, must
reckon upon a minimum outlay of a hundred francs (£4) on New Year's
Day, larger incomes being proportionately mulcted. Heads of
business houses pay away large sums in gifts of money. A young
lady, the experienced manageress of a large establishment, lately
told me that the New Year's gifts from her employer had often been
several hundred francs. As for her part, she was in the habit
of giving twenty francs to one relation, ten to another, and so on,
besides making presents to friends and liberally tipping underlings;
she could hardly have been richer for the largesse. We are in
the habit of considering our neighbours as a thrifty, even
parsimonious people. On the contrary, New Year's expenditure
proves them to be the most lavish in the world.
The settling of accounts with house porters, telegraph
messengers, and one's household is easy. Precedent and means
regulate the scale of liberality. Much more onerous is the
selection of purchases, especially those to be offered outside the
family circle. Here etiquette is rigorously explicit, the
rules for receiving being as strictly laid down as those for giving.
To persons occupying a decidedly superior rank, nothing must arrive
on the occasion of the New Year, but game, flowers, or fruit are
permissible later on. A man in the habit of dining at a
friend's house may offer his hostess flowers and her children
bonbons, the classic tribute. Only relations and intimate
friends are privileged to present folks with anything useful;
trinkets, plate, furniture, or even millinery. Thus, one lady
may say to another, "Do help me out of a dilemma. I wish to
send you a souvenir, but have not the least idea of what it should
be. Mention something that you would find really useful."
This rule is admirably practical, and might very well be carried out
When a New Year's gift is presented by the donor in person,
it is the height of bad taste to lay aside the packet unopened.
The offering must be looked at, admired, and, whether acceptable or
no, rapturously acknowledged, so at least says a leading authority
on the subject. And, adds the writer, the giver of a modest
present should receive warmer thanks than those who have sent us
something really magnificent. The former may be ashamed of his
offering, the latter is well aware that he has given liberal money's
We next come to visits, and here if possible etiquette is
more stringent, more complicated than with regard to étrennes.
In observing French manners and customs, we must ever bear in
mind that family feeling, like the mainspring of a clock, regulates
every movement of the social body. When our great brother
"The name of Friend is more than family
Or all the world beside,"
they uttered a sentiment that might be applicable in classic Rhodes,
but could have no appropriateness on the New Year's Day to France.
Here is a nice indication of this supremacy, the predominance of
family feeling over every other. New Year's visits to parents
and grandparents are paid on the last day of the old year. By
such anticipation filial respect and affection are emphasized. Le
jour de l'an indeed belongs to the home circle. Outside
the official world ceremonial visits are relegated to a later day of
the week or even month. "A visit on New Year's Day," writes
another authority, "is only admissible officially among those
persons nearly related to each other, or who are on terms of closest
intimacy—in a word, who can exchange heartfelt effusions,
conventional commonplaces being inappropriate."
The family New Year's dinner is a custom still very generally
kept up, one or two intimate friends being also invited. Even
during periods of mourning, when every other social reunion is out
of the question, these dinners will take place, under such
circumstances being melancholy enough. Unlike our own
Christmas dinners, there is no statutory bill of fare. It is
quite otherwise with the midnight supper of the Réveillon, or Watch
Night, when a turkey stuffed with truffles or chestnuts, black
pudding, fritters, and champagne are always forthcoming, and with
Twelfth Day and its cake. The children's festival may be
celebrated any day before February, whilst private persons may also
pay their New Year's visits, so-called, throughout January, the
official world is bound to strictest etiquette. From the
highest functionary of the State to the lowest, alike civilians and
soldiers must personally visit superiors on New Year's Day.
Then, with many a secret objurgation, we may be sure, hard-worked,
over-tired officers have to don full military dress, order a
carriage and drive to the Elysée and the Ministry of War. I
say with many secret objurgations, because French officers, as a
rule, do not care to wear a uniform except when absolutely obliged,
the ordinary attire of a gentleman being so much more comfortable.
Then the modestly paid village schoolmaster screws out money for a
pair of light kid gloves, and spick and span presents himself at
Préfecture or Mairie. And then lady principals of lycées for
girls have to sit in solemn state whilst parents and guardians pay
grateful homage. Those poor lady principals! I well
remember a New Year's afternoon spent with my friend, Mlle. B—,
directrice of a public girls' school at Nantes. For hours
they streamed in, grandparents, fathers and mothers, uncles and
aunts, all gracefully going through the arduous duty, a duty by no
means to be shirked on either side. But habit is everything.
Neither Mlle. B — nor her sisters, we may be sure, resented the
obligation. From end to end of France the same kind of
ceremonial was taking place, every member of the administrative
body, like mediaeval feudatories doing homage to his chief, in the
official as in the domestic circle, bonds being thus tightened,
fresh seals set upon mutual interdependence. As a stone thrown
into water sends out wider and wider ripples, so the Presidential
reception is the signal for similar manifestations throughout French
dominions, New Year's Day and its observance symbolizing and
strengthening patriotism and devotion to the Republic.
We now come to visiting cards, a most important subject.
The etiquette of the visiting card, indeed, demands a paper to
itself. We will, however, strictly confine ourselves to its
use on New Year's Day, or, more properly speaking, during the first
two or three weeks of the year.
The exchange of these missives is at this time imperative,
not only among official ranks, but also among friends and
acquaintances prevented by distance from making a personal call.
Equally stringent are the rules concerning dispatch. Thus, as
in the case of family visits, precedence indicates respect, whilst
the merely social obligation may be fulfilled throughout the month
of January, no such margin is allowed in the official world.
Functionaries and administrative subordinates must on no account
defer posting cards until December is out. Such marks of
attention should be posted so as to reach their destination too soon
rather than too late. And no matter how humble the position of
the sender, his compliment is scrupulously returned. Omission
of this duty would not only betoken ill-breeding, but want of
considerateness, and in certain cases would even constitute an
Remembrances in the shape of New Year's cards often take
touching form. For instance, some years since I made the
acquaintance of a weaver's family in a little Champagne town, and
before leaving added a trifle to the tire-lire or money-box
of the youngest child, a boy at school. He is now doing his
three years' military service, and regularly sends me a New Year's
card dated from the barracks; often, indeed, those who can ill
afford it indulge in printing visiting cards expressly for this use.
Heterogeneous is the collection deposited in my own letter-box
during the month of January, and from remotest corners they come,
each bearing the legalized greeting. The French post-office is
the most amiable in the world, and relaxes its rules so that folks
may greet each other at small expense. Ordinarily a visiting
card having writing on it, instead of passing with a halfpenny
stamp, would be charged as a letter. What are called mots
impersonnels ("impersonal words"), five in number are allowed on
the occasion of the New Year. Here are one or two examples
copied from last January's budget: Vœux bien respectueux, bons
souhaits, meileurs souhaits et amitiés, souvenirs confraternels et
bons vœux. ("Very respectful wishes, Good wishes, Best wishes
and remembrances, Fraternal remembrances and good wishes.")
The visiting card transmitted by halfpenny post may to some
appear an insignificant and inadequate testimony alike of respect,
consideration and affection. But it is not so. Michelet
described the beauty of Frenchwomen as made up of little nothings.
So the charm and stability of French life, considered from the
social aspect, may be described as a sum total of small, almost
infinitesimal, gracious things.
THE ENTENTE CORDIALE
I TAKE it that
the entente cordiale will resemble a prosy, middle-aged
French marriage, not a scintilla of romance existing on either side,
material interests being guaranteed, no loophole left for nagging,
much less litigation. Stolid bridegroom and beautiful partner
will jog on comfortably enough, perhaps discovering some day, after
the manner of M. Jourdain, that they have been the best possible
friends all their lives without knowing it!
It is a consummation devoutly to be wished, and which the
Anglo-French Convention has surely brought within the range of
possibility. Like naughty, ill-bred little boy and girl making
faces and nasardes at each other across the road, for years
John Bull and Madame la Republique seemed bent on coming to
fisticuffs. By great good luck the road was not easy to cross,
and now grown older and wiser, the pair at least blow kisses to each
other and pass on.
So great has occasionally been the tension between England
and France that even cool heads predicted a catastrophe. In a
letter addressed to myself in February, 1885, and written from his
home near Autun, Mr. Hamerton wrote, "I have been vexed for some
time by the tendency to jealous hostility between France and
England. I have thought sometimes of trying to found an
Anglo-French society, the members of which should simply engage
themselves to do their best on all occasions to soften the harsh
feeling between the two nations. I dare say some literary
people would join such a league, Swinburne and Tennyson, for
instance, and some influential politicians, like Bright, might be
counted upon. Peace and war hang on such trifles, that a
society such as I am imagining might possibly on some occasions have
influence enough to prevent war."
And in his work, "French and English," Mr. Hamerton touched a
prevailingly pessimistic note. Anything like cordial
friendship between the two nations he regarded as pure chimera; we
must be more than satisfied, he seemed to think, with civility and
politeness. But are not civility and politeness ancillary to
friendship? Might not much of the bitterness formerly
characterizing Anglo-French relations be imputed to absence of these
qualities? If the respective Governments have here been at
fault, the same may be said of the people. Alike historians,
novelists, journalists, and writers generally, on both sides of the
Channel, have been guilty of flagrant indiscretion. Whenever a
stage villain was wanted by one of our own story-tellers, France
must supply the type. Dickens fell into the absurd habit, and,
as one of his French admirers lately observed to me, the entire
suppression of M. Blandois from "Little Dorrit" would in no wise
injure the story, rather the reverse; whilst the picture of
Mademoiselle Hortense revenging an affront by walking barefoot
through a mile or two of wet grass is the one artistic blot on
"Bleak House," the incident being grossly farcical, and faulty as
French novelists have followed the same course. The
villain of "The Three Musketeers" must, of course, be an
Englishwoman. Balzac piled up a Pelion on Ossa of Britannic
vices when portraying "Miladi Dudley." Even an elegant writer
like Victor Cherbuliez, when in want of an odious termagant for a
story, gave her an English name. "Gyp" has made many novels
the vehicle of virulent anti-English feeling.
Other writers in both countries have taken the same tone.
In a work entitled "Le Colosse aux pieds d'argile," published five
years since, a certain M. Jean de la Poullaine described England as
a country wholly decadent, a civilization fast falling into
rottenness and decay. For years, as editress of the
Nouvelle Revue, Madame Adam preached war to the knife with
England. The superfine and disguisedly sensual writer known as
Pierre Loti shows his disapproval of perfide Albion by
ignoring her very existence in a work upon India.
Counter strokes have not been wanting on this side of the
Channel. A few years back appeared, from an eminent publishing
firm, an abominable book entitled "France and her Republic," by a
writer named Hurlbert. And most inauspiciously, it is to be
hoped, for the work itself, has just appeared a posthumous medley of
abuse and vituperation by the late Mr. Vandam. Of journalism
it is surely unnecessary to speak. On both sides of the
Channel journalistic influence has been for the most part the
reverse of conciliatory. This is all the more to be regretted,
as many folks, English as well as French, read their newspapers and
Historians have done much more than novelists and
miscellaneous writers to keep alive international prejudices.
In a passage of profound wisdom our great philosopher Locke insisted
on the power, indeed, one might almost say ineradicableness, of
early associations. "I notice the present argument (on the
association of ideas)," he said, "that those who have children, or
the charge of their education, would think it worth their while
diligently to watch and carefully prevent the undue connection of
ideas in the minds of young people." How many well-intentioned
English folks have imbibed anti-French feeling from the pages of
Mrs. Markham! Until quite recently, baneful tradition has been
sedulously nursed on French soil as well. In their valuable
histories Michelet and Henri Martin seem of set purpose to
accentuate French grievances against England alike in the past and
in modern times.
It has been left to living writers in some measure to correct
these impressions. M. Rambaud, ex-minister of public
instruction, has here rendered immense service. Among other
things, he tells his country-people ("Histoire de la Civilization
Française") of the following home-truths: "During the so-called
English wars the worst evils were wrought by Frenchmen. It was
Robert d'Artois and Geoffroi d'Harcourt who provoked the first
invasion of Edward III. It was with an army partly made up of
Gascons that the Black Prince won the battle of Poitiers; a Duke of
Burgundy threw open the gates of Paris to the English, a Norman
bishop and Norman judges brought about the burning of Jeanne d'Arc."
And in an excellent little manual for the young, this writer, aided
by the first living authority on the Revolution, M. Aulard, has
rewritten history in the same rigidly impartial spirit.
Here, too, judicial accounts of the Revolution are gradually
supplanting the highly coloured travesties of former days. In
no sense contemplated as historic retribution, the inevitable
outcome of political and social corruption, the French Revolution
was treated by English writers from one point of view only, that of
sympathy with three or four victims. The fate of Marie
Antoinette and her hapless son, regarded simply and solely as
resulting from popular hatred, has served to blind generations of
English readers to the other side of that great tragedy—the
sufferings and wrongs, not of a handful of high-born ladies and
gentlemen, but of millions, of an entire people.
Carlyle's long-drawn-out rhapsody struck a new note. Of
late years the revolutionary epoch and its leaders, the makers of
modern France, have been dealt with in a wholly different spirit.
I need only refer to such works as Mr. A. Beesly's life of Danton
and Mr. Morse Stephens' studies in the same field. Two French
writers of two generations ago wrote with knowledge and sympathy of
English life and character, Philarète Chasles, who describes early
years spent in England (Mémoires, 1874, etc.), and Prosper
Merimée, who, in a recently published volume of correspondence,
rebuts the notion that Merrie England is a thing of the past and
tradition. And the works of M. Max Leclerc, on English
collegiate life, of M. Demolins on our systems of education
generally, and of MM. Chevrillon and Fion, have been incalculably
useful in modifying French views.
Philosophy, as might be expected, has generally treated
England and the English people from a judicial stand-point.
The works of M. Coste and other philosophic writers should be read
by all interested in this subject. M. Coste ("Sociologic
Objective," 1897), divides social evolution into five stages, the
fifth embodying the highest as yet realized, perhaps as yet
conceivable. England, and England alone, has reached this
fifth stage, some other States, notably France and Germany,
following in the same direction.
According to this writer, English civilization is
characterized by individualism and a total absence of caste.
The last-mentioned and dominant feature of primitive societies has
vanished from England, whilst in France the reverse is the case.
"It is impossible to deny," writes our author (1899), "that caste (l'esprit
de classe) is a survival in France; at any rate, it exists in a
latent condition, ready to be called forth by any outburst of
popular passion. A hundred years after the great Revolution,
instead of individualizing, we classify; we are constantly
arraigning bodies of men instead of regarding them as entities.
The Panama and Dreyfus agitation are instances in point.
Incrimination has been collective. Whilst this survival
remains, we cannot say that we have reached the highest stage of
At a time when anti-Protestant feeling in France had almost
attained the proportion of anti-Semitism, M. Coste did not hesitate
to pen these words, before quoted by me: "France missed her
reformation three hundred years ago, and is the sufferer thereby to
this day." And M. Fouillée, his distinguished contemporary,
following the same train of thought, writes, "We must admit that to
Roman Catholicism with much good we owe great evils," adding, after
some profound remarks on the attitude of the Romish Church towards
certain moral questions, "It has been justly remarked that the
temperance cause makes much more progress in Protestant countries,
where it is essentially allied to religion ("Psychologie du peuple
The truth of the matter is, that up to the present time
English and French have as little understood each other as if they
dwelt on different planets.
It has often happened to me to be the first English person
French country folks had ever seen.
"Do you Protestants believe in God?" once asked of me a young
woman, caretaker of an Auvergnat chateau, the historic ruins of
"There is a law in your country strictly prohibiting the
purchase of land by the peasants, is there not?" I was once asked by
And when, chatting one day with a travelling acquaintance in
Burgundy, I contrasted the number of English tourists in France with
the paucity of French tourists in England, she observed sharply—
"The reason is simple enough. France is a beautiful
country, and England a hideous one."
Whereupon I put the question, had madame ever crossed the
Channel; to which she answered somewhat contemptuously, No.
England was evidently not worth seeing.
My late friend, the genial but quizzical Max O'Rell, once
told me that an old Breton lady, in all seriousness, put the
following question to him:
"Tell me, M. Blouët, you who know England so well, are there
any railways in that country?" It is strange that, whilst so
little understanding us as a nation, our French neighbours should
have paid us the perpetual compliment of imitation.
Anglomania, indeed, so far back as the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, was a force mightier than the will of the
greatest autocrat the world has ever seen—the Sun King himself.
For years Louis XIV. had thundered in vain against coiffures à la
Fontanges, the pyramidal headdress seen in the portraits of
Madame de Maintenon. In 1714, an English lady wearing her hair
dressed low was introduced at Versailles. Straightway, as if
by magic, the cumbersome and disfiguring superstructures fell, the
king being enraged that "an English hussy" had more influence in
such matters than himself.
It was more especially after the Restoration that Anglicisms,
the word as well as the thing, were naturalized in France—bifteck,
rosbif, turf, grog, jockey, and many others, the numbers increasing
from time to time. Many of these words have been admitted by
the Academy into the French vocabulary. Thus, flanelle
from flannel, macadam, cottage, drain, square, meeting inter alia
received Academic sanction in 1878. The best contemporary
writers often use English words not as yet naturalized, without
italics or inverted commas. Thus Cherbuliez wrote of the hall
instead of le vestibule in one of his novels; M. Brieux makes
a lady conjugate the verb luncher in his play Les Ramplaçantes;
flirt, croquet, garden party, five o'clock, and a variety of similar
expressions are employed as if belonging to the French tongue.
English names and pet names have an especial attraction for French
ears. The hero of "Deux Vies," a recent novel by the brothers
Margueritte, is "Charlie," instead of Charles. Jack is another
diminutive in high favour, whilst Jane is persistently substituted
for the far prettier Jeanne. Neither political pin-pricks nor
social snubs on either side have in the very least affected this
amiable weakness for all things English. For years past the
word déjeuner has gone out of fashion. No one in
society would dream of calling the midday meal by that hour; and
Society now takes its afternoon tea as regularly as ourselves.
I even learn that certain aristocratic ladies have inaugurated a
family breakfast after English fashion, the first meal of the day
being taken in company, instead of in bed or in one's bedroom, the
hostess dressed as with ourselves for lunch—in fact, for the day.
It was the English family breakfast-table that most charmed
Rousseau when a guest here. And I should not be surprised if
ere long papa, mamma, and their little family of one or two will sit
down to matutinal coffee, perhaps adopting the inevitable eggs and
On both sides of the Channel, reasoning and reasonable folks
have long desired the cordial Anglo-French relations now happily
established by the initiative of King Edward.
So far back as 1885 a retired notary and landed proprietor of
Bordeaux wrote to me, "We do not at all know your country people—a
misfortune for two nations assuredly differing in natural gifts and
qualities, but each worthy of each other's esteem. Placed as
both are in the vanguard of progress by their free institutions,
their literature, science, arts, and economic conditions, any
conflict between France and England would not only prove the
greatest misfortune to the two nations, but would retard the
progress of civilization for centuries. I am far from
apprehending such a catastrophe, but we should at all costs avoid
petty and ignoble misunderstandings; above all, we should encourage
to the utmost intercourse by means of associations, syndicates,
international festivals, and the like. The better we learn to
know each other, the greater will become mutual esteem; and from
esteem to friendship is but a step." The writer had never
visited our country, and his acquaintance with English people was
limited. His views, I am convinced, have long been shared by
vast numbers of Frenchmen in all ranks and of all conditions.
Politeness and civility! If by the exercise of such
habits peace can be secured in the domestic sphere, how incalculable
is their influence upon international affairs! Just as a book
is misjudged if read with passion or pre-conceived antipathy, so
much more imperative is the judicial mood in appraising the
many-faceted, subtle, French character.
It is my belief that the fruits of the entente cordiale
will be a desire for mutual sympathy and a gradually developed mood
of forbearance, with the result that French and English will
recognize the best in each other, their eyes not often, as hitherto,
being persistently fixed on the worst. I will precede the
colophon with a citation from M. Coste, a writer already cited.
"We come into the world citizens
of a State we have not ourselves chosen. Family ties,
education, language, tradition, customs, and early association
implant in our hearts a love of country and create a passionate
desire to defend and serve our fatherland. But as by degrees
civilization advances and international relations become more
general, an adopted country will usually be added to that of birth;
the language, literature, and arts of that land will become
familiar; ties, alike commercial and social, will be contracted.
Surplus capital not needed at home will there be spent or invested.
Such an adopted land should be no matter of chance, but based upon
mature social considerations. Only thus can a social ideal
become in a measure, reality."
To how many of us has France already become a home of
adoption—choice not perhaps based upon philosophic grounds!
But whether respectively attracted to French or English shores by
business or pleasure, in quest of health or new ideas, every
traveller, no matter how humble, let us hope may henceforth be
regarded as a dove from the ark, waver aloft of thrice-welcome olive
branch. Anticipatory of pontifical, aerial or subterrene means
of transport, in another and higher sense, may these annual hosts
indissolubly link the two great democracies of the West; bridge the
Channel for ever and a day!