The study of modern France is not only an interesting, but a useful study for us in these British islands. There is hardly a mistake we might have made that France has not made for us; hardly an error in social, political, or moral science that she has not plunged into neck deep, so that by watching her we may know what to avoid.
The faults and shortcomings of France are more directly applicable to us than we think, but are, unluckily for Frenchmen, less evident to themselves than is easily conceivable. Setting aside the question of religion (which is too grave not to be treated by itself alone), there are in almost all the other questions that bear upon a man’s moral and social condition, differences between an Englishman and a Frenchman that it cannot be uninteresting for us to study.
But before undertaking to examine the French of modern France, it should be premised that France is the only European country where two diametrically opposite types are to be found of the same race. The animal classed by science as dating from “before” or “after” the Flood, is scarcely of more radically different structure than is the Frenchman who dates from before or after the Revolution of ’89—’93, which is his Deluge.
He is, up to 1780, a totally antagonistic creature to what he becomes after 1790; and what will sound strange to English “liberal” ears, he is far less unlike a “true Briton” in his former than in his latter stage.
Agriculture, education, health, marriage, respect for or disdain of individual freedom — all these are points curious to examine in a comparison instituted between the two races and between the natives of the same country at different periods. Now, with education, for instance, let us take an English boy and a French one, and a French boy before and after the Revolution.
It has been propounded that donkeys and postboys never die, but only pass into some “other and better” state by a mysterious process of transition no mortal was ever witness to. An ingenious American author has paralleled this assertion by the declaration that no French ”boy” ever existed. Any one who has long inhabited France will instantaneously agree with him. When the small biped which in other lands is called a baby (and really is one) is put into short-clothes, in France, a little old man the more is added to the community, but of a “boy” there is absolutely no trace. We will take him in the higher ranks:
A nursery-maid neither leaves him nor plays with him, but only watches lest he play too much! and mounts a lynx-like guard upon the purity of the poor little fellow’s vestments. A rent or stain upon his ridiculously costly frock is a fault over which French mothers lament, so that the boys who ought, in the course of time and nature, to be one day men, pass from babyhood to boyhood, with undeveloped muscles, strong nervous sensibilities, and fine unspoiled clothes!
They have not ”played” too much! Heaven help them! Nor do they ever do so; for this is one of the French mother’s greatest pre-occupations, and when, the nursery-maid being set aside, the “mamma” comes into play, the leading-strings that were of softer texture for the toddling infant, are only of ruder material for the boy — there is the only difference — but from the leading-strings he is not to escape; never will escape, if the ideal of French education could be attained.
“Submission, Dauphin? ’tis a mere French word!” cries Sir William Lucy, in Shakespeare’s “Henry VI.” And truly so it is, and there lies perhaps the one great distinction between the English boy and the French one. The French boy is the higher prized the more subservient he is; whereas, put Eton and “subserviency” together if you can! Think how “submission” and no “play “would suit those rollicking youths who are everywhere destined to be foremost when England is to be served, and who get their real value perhaps more even from the “play” than from the “work;” fancy an Etonian kept from boating or cricket by his mother’s sermons!
This may require a few words of explanation: it is supposed — too lightly perhaps — that because France has such a large standing army, and that French soldiers do incontestably fight so well, it is an easy thing to recruit men for the trade of war, and that it suffices to stamp on the ground to make soldiers rise out of it. This is erroneous. The conscription is submitted to, but hated; and with a system of voluntary recruiting, it is much to be doubted whether France could maintain any army at all.
But this is not our immediate point: what we say is, that in France no man fights who is not a soldier, and with whom fighting is not a trade. The conscription, which forces men of the lower ranks into the army; their inconceivable laziness which accommodates them to garrison life in time of peace; and their natural subserviency, which bends them to the will of their chiefs at all times — these are some of the causes which help to make good soldiers of the French, but none of these characteristics make good citizens —stout-hearted men.
Here is the secret of their submissiveness to tyranny. Have the army for you, and you may govern France. Emerson has said: “Englishmen are manly rather than warlike.” The saying may be reversed, and it would be true to say of the French that they are “warlike” rather than “manly.”
And the system works through life. To be the ”first boy” in a school in contemporary France, is to be the most obedient and respectful; and to be a “model young man,” when school is lived through and laid aside, is to be in all things submissive to the elders of the family, and not a little guided by the influence of the family confessor.
But this is a state of perfection to which, it must be admitted, few young Frenchmen, however well educated, attain. What remains to them is the capacity for subserviency, but it is not always to what is so worthy of respect as the “heads of a family” that their obedience is tendered.
Now, in the lower ranks what happens? The wretched baby, swathed and sewn up physically during the first two years, emerges from this oppression to find itself as morally mummied up as is its more aristocratical companion of whom we have just spoken.
There is no “play,” either, for this poor little atom, whose earliest infliction is not to be clean, but to be useful. So soon as the French peasant-boy can walk and talk he becomes the employee of his parents, neither more nor less than does the clerk in some government office, furnishing so many hours a day of work. His first lesson is to do something and gain something, and for any display of superfluous energy, implying perchance that he might some day be something, he is sorely taken to task.
The writer of these pages remembers, one fine summer morning, having talked to a farmer’s wife, in the central provinces of France, and questioned her about her children, the youngest of whom held by his mother’s apron, and listened with a fearfully acute ear for a brat of four years old to what was being said.
The children of a neighbouring chateau were being led out to walk in a field close by, and were permitted by their guardian bonnes to indulge in the recreation of skipping. Upon the question being (mischievously!) put to the infant peasant of “whether he, too, should not like to be skipping with the rest?” he threw an extraordinary expression of sharpness into his eyes, and replied, “What would you give me for it?” (literally,— “Qu’est-ce que vous me donnerez pour cela?”)
The notion of enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake — the notion of any act committed otherwise than for the consideration of what was to be gained by it — had not yet taken a definite place in the brains of this baby of four years old.
Well, now, this was not always the condition of French children. On the contrary, French history will furnish you in the century and a-half that precedes the so-called Great Revolution, with countless cases of boys who were as reckless, as irreverent, as gay, as imprudent, as “up to a row,” or to any wickedness in the world, as any Etonian since the time of the foundation of Eton by Henry VI.; real “boys,” who snap their fingers at the experience of others, rush headlong into adventure, and, if they do not bravely die for some noble cause, may battle with circumstances till they become great men.
The aristocracy of France betrayed itself and the country: but into the details of all its backslidings it is not our purpose to enter; suffice it to say, there was a time when, like England, France had “younger sons” — when men with ancient names were forced to do something for themselves and for the country; when unmarried girls were comparatively free; when colonies were there, asking for colonisers; and when marriage was not, as now, based upon the inevitable sale of the man, in order that the equality of the fortune may be restored.
The armies of Conde and Turenne were full of boys, lads of fourteen and fifteen, who were neither canting little Jesuits, nor puny would-be exquisites, nor infidels either, like the products of the Revolution — but who fleshed their maiden swords gallantly, died like Christian gentlemen, and would not have told a lie for all the world, but whose chief virtue was far from being their capacity of obedience. Many of them had run away from home to join the standards of the King or of “Monsieur le Prince,” as it might be. The great and undeniable fact is, that there were boys in France before the Revolution of ’89, and that it would puzzle any one to discover a genuine boy there now.
We will prove by-and-by that there were girls, too, in France, some hundred and fifty years ago; and that might seem a much more hazardous assertion to persons familiar with the present immured condition of French young ladies of “good society.” And at the bottom of all this lies the one master circumstance of the mode of transmission of property.
The existence of the eldest son, and future representative and head of the family — let not our countrywomen forget it! — makes the love-match necessarily the basis on which the social edifice is raised. Subvert this, and you must come to the money-marriage — the so-called mariage de convenance; and when you have come to that, you have come to all that is otherwise than as it should be in modern French society. We will show this by example.
A father of a family has four sons, or two sons and two daughters, and is possessed of 2000 l. sterling a year. He brings up his children in what abroad is termed great luxury. He has a handsome apartment in Paris, and what he styles a chateau down in some province, and his wife and his children have any number of fine dresses, and ride in comfortable carriages, go to operas and plays, and pass for very fine people altogether.
One fine day the old gentleman dies, and then comes what is called the “division” of everything he possessed. The house in the country is sold (mostly in very small parcels to forty or fifty proprietors); the horses and carriages are sold; the pictures, plate, furniture, wine — all is sold; and the very clothes the dead man last wore are disposed of for whatever they will fetch; * the produce being shared to the minutest fraction among the survivors, who for the time cease to be sons and daughters, in order to become literally only “heirs.”
All law expenses (which are very heavy) being discharged, each member of the family will begin by having about 450 l. a year to spend. At the outset, the sons will think this a goodly sum, and they will begin by going on as they used to do when they had to partake of four times that amount. Nine times out of ten they commit some absurdity in the way of speculation, which reduces their income considerably, and then a “money-match” has to be resorted to to set all square again; or else they prudently begin by looking out for the money-match, and proceed according to the rule recognised in France, that “a husband is worth at least three times the fortune he brings.” In either case, whether preventively or curatively, the “money-match” is made, and two separate fortunes are united with comparatively little attention to the tastes, habits, or affections of the two individuals possessing them.
With the daughters, supposing them to be still unmarried when they succeed to their fortunes, the “matching” process is also instantly brought into play, and the ingenuity of every female relative is forthwith exercised to obtain the best price for the orphans, and drive the hardest bargain with the future bridegrooms. Whatever obstacle may intervene (and never was a marriage in France which it was not sought by every imaginable means to prevent), these money-matches always are somehow or other concluded — how to end, a glance at French literature or the French stage will quickly show.
But it cannot be otherwise. Marriages must be so concluded in France, because the unlimited subdivision of property makes it impossible that there should be a man who perpetuates “the family,” who is rich enough to buy his wife and not sell himself, and whose exceptional condition forces his younger brothers to exert themselves, and be in turn thriving men, who, having made money, can afford to marry the women they love, and have chosen for their wives.
It is a recognised fact, to which we have alluded, that there are no girls in France. Why should there be? Where wives are chosen for their more or less of wealth, why should they trouble themselves to be attractive before marriage? They are so only after marriage, which they call freedom. To be married is, in France, to be free. Where money-matches are the basis on which the social edifice is raised, there can be no equivalent to what we are accustomed to in the shape of an English girl —a self-acting, sentient, responsible member of society, who chooses and is chosen, and who gives her hand only when her heart has preceded the gift.
It has become so proverbial that French girls are absolute nobodies, and only grow into somebodies after they are married women, that it will, at first, be scarcely believed that a century and a half ago French girls were more independent, more self-reliant, than any English girl could be now. The “fastest ” young lady ever heard of in our isles would be distanced by the young ladies of the seventeenth century in France, and all the Di Vernons and Kate Coventrys in Great Britain are boarding-school misses compared to the Marie de Hauteforts and the Jacqueline de Meurdracs of the days of the Fronde. Look at the Grande Mademoiselle who took the Bastille and besieged Orleans, and (leaving her aside, for she was, as a princess, exceptional) look at her fair aides-de-camp. We will, in order to convey a correct notion to our reader’s mind of what a French girl could be under the Regency of Anne of Austria, sketch out the life of Mademoiselle de Meurdrac, and show how what was in those days called a femme vaillante astonished no one, and was, as we have said, far beyond anything that we imagine to ourselves as “fast.”
In 1612, a gentleman and his wife, in the province of Brie, close to Paris, lived in their chateau with their only child, Jacqueline. Monsieur and Madame de Meurdrac were by no means surprised that as the young lady grew up all she took to were masculine amusements. She tamed all the horses she could lay hands on, went out shooting with all the guns she could find, turned her neighbours’ daughters into bitter ridicule because they were “effeminate,” and was so adroit with her rapier that no cavalier within thirty miles cared to cross foils with her. Mademoiselle Jacqueline was a most “accomplished ” young person, handsome withal, and on all hands admitted to be the most desirable daughter-in-law that any proper gentlewoman with a son could possibly find.
We should only like to see what a “proper gentlewoman” in the “good society” of France in the present day would say to Mademoiselle Jacqueline de Meurdrac!
Well, this youthful heroine resolved to live and die unmarried, and a brave cavalier of the name of La Guette, whose estate was not far from her father’s, swore to himself a solemn oath that he would confer his name upon no woman born. Somehow or other, the two met and — changed their minds. Jacqueline was eighteen, M. de la Guette eight-and-twenty, and he decided he would have no wife save Mademoiselle de Meurdrac, and she that she would have no husband save M. de la Guette. This being settled (which in those days surprised no one any more than the rest), Madame de Meurdrac was applied to, and gave her consent, and then came M. de Meurdrac to be spoken with. But it so happened that Etna and Vesuvius are not more volcanic than were M. de Meurdrac and M. de la Guette. The meeting took place one morning at breakfast.
“Monsieur,” said insinuatingly the young cavalier, “I have so much land, so many farms, and such and such sums in good shining crowns — I want to marry.”
“Then,” replied the future father-in-law, with a smile, “you must address yourself to the young lady you admire, or to her father.”
“You are he,” cried the suitor impatiently.
But the old gentleman took it all the wrong way.
“You no doubt fancy,” he exclaimed, “that because you are rich you can marry my daughter, but that is what I will not hear of—my daughter is not to be bought.”
La Guette lost his breath and his pains in declaring Jacqueline was resolved to be his wife. Old Meurdrac’s wrong-headedness would not be influenced; high words ensued; after high words came noisy deeds; crack went the plates at the walls, bang went the bottles on the floor; and when Jacqueline rushed in to quiet the irate couple, she found both in the act of drawing their swords. The girl instinctively seized a pistol, and the three glared angrily at each other, hesitating who should begin the fray. Madame de Meurdrac, at the head of all her servants, broke into the room, and by force of numbers the combatants were disarmed, and the fiery demande en mariage of Mademoiselle Jacqueline was brought to a rather violent close.
Nevertheless, Jacqueline de Meurdrac had resolved she would marry M. de la Guette, and none other; and so in the end marry him she did; and with him she went campaigning, having on one occasion served the Prince de Conde as aide-decamp; and having accompanied him into the thick of the fire in an action on the banks of the Dordogne, during which his Royal Highness amused himself with more than once shouting:
“Come, gentlemen, make way for Madame de la Guette!”
Our purpose, however, is not to write Jacqueline de Meurdrac’s biography, or that of any other French lady of note, but merely to show how different French manners and customs were amongst our neighbours to what they have now become. It is praise to say of an English girl that she is” spirited;” it is so difficult to apply the term to modern French girls, that not very long since the eldest son of a very illustrious house in France, dutifully asking his mother whether it was “a proper thing for ladies to ride on horseback?” (!) received the following answer:
“It is a thing to be tolerated in certain cases — for instance, where health requires —but never to be encouraged!”
Compare a state of society where these words contain a truth, with that which is pre-supposed by the good repute of a woman like Madame de la Guette; who, when she was presented to Queen Anne of Austria, after one of her warlike actions, received the compliments of the whole court on “her courage and brave bearing.”
The great question of education — what it makes of girls and boys, and men and women —is one that touches every country, and it has proved itself latterly to be one most nearly touching us. Let us reflect on what the daughters, sisters, wives of Englishmen have shown themselves to be in India. Let us count upon what the sons of such women will one day be, and glory in the thought that it is still a praise to say of an English girl that she is “high-spirited.”
This applies, too, in the same degree to the manly education of our boys; witness India, where no Englishman asked to be “defended” or “fought for,” as Frenchmen invariably do on all occasions of trouble or revolt. We defended ourselves; and that we were able to do so— civilians equally with soldiers, women almost equally with men — depends upon our system of education, which is itself in turn dependent upon our social and political institutions, and upon our time honoured manners and customs, far more than we are apt to think; and do not let us be unmindful of the saying of the Duke of Wellington upon the Eton play-ground: that it was “here we won the battle of Waterloo!”
If we needed a further proof of the superiority of our public-school education over that of France, we should find it in the impression produced by it upon one of the most distinguished and perhaps the most unprejudiced of Frenchmen of our day — upon M. de Montalembert. In his volume upon “The Future of England,” if the writer’s own countrymen find set down what they most may envy, we find noted what we should most be proud of. We are forced into recognising as benefits to be preciously preserved, many things we had so long enjoyed that, unconscious of their immense value, we had accepted them as matters of course.
Let us, above all, hold to that wilful, generous, headstrong, bold, healthy, joyous animal—the true English “boy”—the boy “who bullied Keats,” as “Eoethen” somewhere says, but who rescues India; let him be a “boy,” not a lesser man, as he is in France; and, above all, let him “play ” too much, which no created being ever does in that country.
The muscular development and animal health of the French people is never on a level with our own, which disables them from supporting reverses or a protracted struggle with the patience and I energy which we display.
A book which was published last winter in Paris, and which created a sensation wherever the French tongue was spoken — a book purporting to treat of marriage, and of the care and attention a husband ought to show to his wife, was a very curious proof in point of what is the present degenerate condition of the French female in all ranks. In his chapter on the “Health of Young Women” you find rules laid down by M. Hichelet which, to our English ideas, would almost alone suffice to reduce any woman to the lowest state of physical weakness.
She is to be kept as quiet as possible, to eat little meat, and drink no wine; to take hardly any exercise; very moderately to improve her mind by reading, or any other rational employment; never to hear of cold bathing; and if ever she should guess at such follies as fine racing gallops over breezy downs on the back of a generous horse, to rank them among the mad and improper freaks which only those eccentric creatures les Anglaises ever indulge in! M. Michelet’s “Model Wife” is simply infirm in body and soul. Yet, let it be remarked, she is the beau ideal of the contemporary Frenchwoman; and, whatever else may have been said of M. Michelet’s book in the way of blame, no critic in all France ever suggested that his female type was not “adorable,” or that his manner of bringing her up or caring for her was not one worthy of universal imitation.
Let the English reader ask himself what the sons of such a mother as M. Michelet’s “Model Wife” would be likely to be.
We disclaim all desire to “preach,” or unnecessarily to run down our neighbours, and all wish to “prove” any pet theory. We have merely thought a few moments might not be wasted in obtaining a nearer insight into certain details of social life in France. No one can say we shall never be brought into collision with the French nation, or that it can never be of any importance to us to know what is the relative worth of the two races, and in what particular points we should be likely in a serious struggle to show ourselves superior to them. Besides, whatever is really true is really instructive. It may, therefore, not be uninteresting to compare our country men and women with the people of France, and the French men and women of this day with those of a hundred and fifty years since.
A very few facts will suffice to demonstrate that the British race has gone on modifying and improving itself, whilst still remaining at bottom what it was under glorious Queen Bess; and, on the other hand, it is as easy to show that the French race is not the same as it was under Henri IV. or under the Fronde. It is not “modified:” it is radically changed. Is it ” improved?” This is a question we will not take upon ourselves to answer, but leave to individual appreciation, only begging our readers to meditate upon the following few words:
England has slowly adapted all her old institutions to the exigences of modern times, and has overthrown scarcely one; France has overthrown every institution she possessed. How have the two systems acted upon the two races? Which is the freer? which the more powerful? which the happier of the two?
* There can be no means of exaggerating the avidity that is set forth on these sad occasions in France; and sons who have been the most submissive during a parent’s life will, at his death, haggle like Jews with their brethren over every threadbare raiment that may be left. They will have the value of everything up to the last penny.