France – Characteristics

ON this subject, the nicest and thorniest a foreigner can handle, I will confine myself to persona’ experience, speaking of our neighbours as I have found them.

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 ce 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 out-burst 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 mannikin in the eyes of naive beholders. Here Anglo-Saxon and Gaul conspicuously differ.

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 I” replied the stripling’s mamma ; “he would not be pleased to hear himself called steady,” the country-bred youth in question, whom I knew well, being as little likely to become a gay Lothario as was the younger Diafoirus.

Novelists bave here sinned greatly, but on that point I .dwell further on.

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 hail, 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. Hamer-ton 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 interest of after generations.” 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, or impolite.

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 l 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, as woman whose vivacity and expressiveness atone for Nature’s unkindness in other respects.

Another euphemism is the expression, ” il laisse a désirer” (” it leaves something to be desired “).

A tutor, for instance, reporting progress of an un-satisfactory 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 American standards.

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 drowsy-head.” 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 that city.

A Luton straw-hat manufacturer of my acquaintance thus commented on the same characterstic–

” 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 welcome.”

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, this deliberate, unhasting temperament is indeed enviable. How much may not the excellence of French manufactures, handicrafts, and produce be thereby ac-counted for ?

Nor is Goethe’s maxim, ” Ohne Hast, ohne Rast ” (” without haste, without rest “), non-existent 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 sketohes, 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 quelquu’n (” to enjoy another’s society “). “Je vais jouir de vous ” (” 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 character !

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 composition.

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 sais 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 Gauloïseries, 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 irrefiective 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 ideal.

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 her-self, 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 peuple Française “). 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 French-women 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 actualities.

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.* 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 recommended.”

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 Biddell 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 effected. 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 foi 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 con-fined 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.*

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.