France – Social Usages

THE first turning of a French door-handle is symbolic. Just as we lower the knob to the left, our neighbors raise it to the right, so we may safely take it for granted that everything done across the water is performed after a fashion directly contrary to our own. Domestic arrangements, social usages, rules of etiquette are pleasantly crisscross, disconcertingly unfamiliar, neither more nor less than antipodal. Twenty-four hours spent under a French roof may be described as a perpetual process of dis habituation. The merest bagatelle is invested with novelty. Unaccustomed ways and surroundings make it difficult to believe that French and English are separated by an hour’s sea journey only ; that in clear weather France and England contemplate each other face to face. Nor on further acquaintance does this impression vanish. Many of our countrymen, like the late Mr. Hamerton, have made France their home. But in their case it is dissimilarity that fascinates. In the very least like the home left behind, a French fireside can never be.

Let us begin with the guest-chamber of a Well-appointed house. Our first notion is that a bed has just been put into a boudoir or drawing-room for our accommodation. slot a single object suggests a room in which we not only sleep, but go through the various processes of the toilette. We soon discover that one handsome piece of furniture, as closely shut as a piano with the lid down, is a washstand ; another, equally delusive at first sight, is a dressing-table ; or, maybe, a panel reveals a tiny dressing-closet, the said panel never under any circumstances whatever being allowed to remain open during the day.

Most things in France have a historic explanation, and the fashion of receiving visitors in one’s bedroom was set by royalty. Sully describes how one morning Henri Quatre waked up his ” dormouse “—the snoring Marie de Medici—by his side, in order that she might hear what the minister had to say. The Sun-King allowed himself farther licence, and held solemn audiences in his garde-robe. Versailles, vast as it was, had no space for private salons ; courtiers of both sexes could only be at home to visitors in their bedrooms.

The habit has not wholly died out. 1 have at different times spent many weeks with old-fashioned folk living near Dijon, the household consisting of three families living under one roof. On the first chilly day a fire would be lighted in the grandmother’s bedroom, and thither we all adjourned for a chat or a game of whist. If neighbours dropped in, no apology was offered for receiving them thus unceremoniously.

Another custom handed down from generation to generation is that of employing men in housework. In private interiors, as well as in hotels, men often supply the place of housemaids, at any rate up to a certain point. They sweep the -rooms, polish the floors, and brush velvet-covered furniture. In Balzac’s works, these domestics are often mentioned. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ‘valets de chambre not only acted the part of housemaids, but of ladies’ maids ; they arranged their mistress’s head-, dress and hair, and aided her in the adjustment. of hoops and fallalas or flounces. Perhaps the fact of Frenchwomen in former days always being dressed, never dressing them-selves, accounts for the indifference to the looking-glass.

It has ever been a standing marvel to me that our sisters over the water have their bonnets straight and their coiffure irreproachable. In the matter of mirrors they are worse off than Pompeiian ladies with their metal substitutes. A French sleeping apartment abounds in reflectors ; never by any chance can you see yourself properly. A looking-glass invariably surmounts the mantelpiece, but so obscured by ornamental timepiece and branched candelabra as to be absolutely unavailable. There will be looking-glasses here, looking-glasses there ; for one that answers the purpose for which it was intended you seek in vain. With regard to downiness, elasticity, and cleanliness the French bed is unsurpassed, every year or every two years the mattresses being opened, picked over, and aired. The only drawback is height, a bed being often as difficult to get at as the upper berth of a ship’s cabin.

In a French house no prevailing savour of fried bacon between eight and nine o’clock a.m. announces the family breakfast. Your tea or coffee and roll are served whilst you still luxuriate on your pillows. Rousseau pronounced the English breakfast to be the most charming custom he found here. The French habit has much to recommend it. Our hosts are left to themselves, and our own day is begun without effort or fatigue. A French home, moreover, is seldom adapted for a house party. The cosy morning room, the library, and smoking-room are only found in palatial dwellings. What would a lady do, for example, with three or four visitors in a Parisian flat ?

The next experience of a French household is its extreme animation with apologies to my friends —I will say noisiness. An English band of housemaids is mouse-like in its movements. Passages are swept and dusted, breakfast room, schoolroom, servants’ hall are prepared for the morning meal in almost unbroken silence. No sooner are shutters thrown open in France than a dozen sounds announce the resumption of work, the return to daily life. Men and maids laugh, talk, or dispute at the top of their voices ; master and mistress shout orders ; children make a playroom of corridors. The general effervescence might lead a modern Voltaire’s Ingénu, or the counterpart of Montesquieu’s Persian, to suppose that in France taciturnity is heavily taxed.

The prevailing quietness of an English interior equally surprises a French new-corner. The late Alphonse Daudet resented such tranquillity. To an interviewer he unflatteringly compared the silent, reserved London home with the life of a Parisian flat : from an open window a piano heard there ; from an open door voices heard here ; folk chattering on the stairs ; not a storey without animation and movement. On the other hand, some of our neighbours fall in love with our own domestic quietude and seclusion only the family circle housed under a single roof ; no inquisitorial concierge watching one’s going out and coming in ; last, but not least, no servants shut out at night, sleeping in attics perhaps three or four storeys above that of their-employers.

Drawing-rooms differ from our own no less than bedrooms. In France furniture, as well as laws, customs, and social ordinances, has closely followed tradition. A Parisian salon still recalls the stilted seventeenth century, the remorselessly formal epoch of Madame de Sévigné. Under the next reign slight modifications were introduced. The straight-backed, ironically-called fauteuil or easy-chair of Louis XIV., upright, solemn, and uncomfortable as a throne, was replaced by an armchair with cushions, and of more reposeful make. The fauteuil Voltaire was a further improvement. Sofas, settees, footstools followed suit ; but French upholstery still sacrifices ease to elegance. The comparison of Maple’s showroom in the Boulevard de la Madeleine with that of a Parisian rival shows the difference.

Then, arrangement is different. French visitors in England are surprised at what, for want of a better word, I will call the ” at-homeness ” of our own drawing-rooms in one corner the mistress’s writing-table, in another a case of favourite books ; on the table, library volumes, reviews, and newspapers ; music on the open piano, doggie’s basket by the fireplace, a low chair or two for the children ; on all sides evidence of perpetual occupation.

A French salon must not so unbend ; domesticities within such precincts would be held out of place. A semi-circle of elegant elbow chairs, or bergères, face the high-backed sofa, on which sits the lady of the house when at home to friends. Rugs sparsely break the expanse of polished floor ; consoles, brackets, and cabinets impart a museum-like aspect. The French salon—of course, with exceptions—however much it may dazzle the eye, does not warm the heart.

The dining-room calls for no comment, but table arrangements offer novelty. Except in homely, old.. fashioned, and modest households dishes at the twelve-o’clock déjeuner, now often called lunch, are invariably carved by the servants and handed round. The free-and-easy etiquette of an English family luncheon has not as yet been followed. One peculiarity of non-official French meals is the rule regarding wine. It is never the butler or footman, always the host and hostess or a lady’s table companion, who offer wine, a decanter being placed by every alternate cover. The custom doubtless arises from the habit, now fallen into complete disuse, of toasting one’s next-door neighbour. The position of glass or glasses is another important point. These are always placed immediately in front of your plate ; never at the right hand, as with ourselves. A friendly hostess explained to me that this position is a precaution against accidents ; but as dishes are always served on the left side, I do not quite see the force of her argument.

A luncheon party, or formal dejeuner, is a much more protracted and formal affair than on our side of the water. Coffee having been served, the company return to the drawing-room, but not to chat for five minutes and disperse, as with us. The men disappear for the enjoyment of cigarettes; the ladies indulge in what is called a causerie intime, or talk of business, children, and family affairs. French ladies, be it recalled by the way, never smoke. The habit is entirely left to the Bohemian and the unclassed. The early dejeuner hastens on the hour of calls. Visits, alike ceremonial and friendly, are generally made between one and two o’clock. The late M. Cherbuliez, with whose warm friendship I was honoured, always chose that time for his long delightful chats.

Afternoon tea, as I have already mentioned, is rather made an excuse for social reunion than regarded in the light of a habit or necessity. Most often friends invite each other to one of the numerous ” five o’clocks,” now a feature of Parisian hotels. The children’s goûter, or lunch of bread and chocolate, is eaten here, there, and everywhere. Two meals, and two meals only, have French cooks to trouble their heads about during the twenty-four hours. And here I would observe that, although among English-speaking cosmopolitan French people the second déjeuner is often called lunch, ordinarily the term designates the light and elegant repast taken later in the day—at two or three o’clock, for example, in the case of weddings, at four or five in that of garden parties. Tea is now appearing at le lunch de l’apres midi. In country houses informal refreshments are taken out-of-doors, upon such occasions young ladies not disdaining beer with their brioche, or light sweetened bread ; there tea is very seldom made.

We now come to the all-important subject of dinner. Here etiquette is exceedingly precise. Dr. Johnson would never have had to complain in France that somebody’s dinner was all very well, but ” not a dinner to invite a man to.” Critical of the critical, and in no matter more so than in that of gastronomy, French hosts will always make quite sure that their dinner is worth inviting a man to.

I well remember a déjeuner to which I was invited some years since by an ex-Minister of Public Instruction and his wife, only one other guest and two or three members of the family making up the party. My fellow-guest was a Russian, my hosts were Lorrainers, and, as a delicate compliment, the three principal dishes—fresh-water fish, venison, and galettes (a kind of pancake) were all local dainties, and all exquisitely cooked after local fashion. Such little attentions lend a grace and charm altogether unpurchasable to any banquet. The invitatory compliment is thereby doubled. By offering you the choicest products of his especial corner of France, your host seems to entertain in a double capacity—to represent his province as well as his household.

I will now say something about etiquette. In a civilization so ancient and so elaborate as that of France the cult of manners would naturally hold a prominent place. So far back as 1675 social usages were inculcated in a manual by Antoine de Courtin, “Traité de la Civilite qui se pratique en France, parmi les honnêtes gens.” Three-quarters of a century later appeared another work on good manners, ” Civilité puérile et honnête, par un missionnaire,” more especially adapted to the young ; and from that date numerous works of the kind have been issued.

One curious feature of French etiquette is the direct opposition of many rules to our own, in every case the divergence being explicable. With ourselves an introduction entitles a lady to acknowledge or not as she pleases a presentee of the other sex. Precisely an opposite rule holds good in France ; here, as in so many other instances, custom following tradition. Louis X I V. never encountered a washerwoman or chambermaid without raising his hat.

An Englishman respectfully salutes a lady of his acquaintance. A Frenchman, following the example of the Roi Soleil, pays indiscriminate homage to the sex ; he would never dream of addressing a shop assistant or a concierge without such a salute. Under no circumstance whatever must a lady in France take the initiative ; it is for a man to proclaim himself her leal servitor, for her to accept his obeisance. An introduction in a friendly drawing-room authorizes indeed, obliges—a gentleman to acquaint him-self with the lady’s day and hour of reception, and then to present himself.

Tradition may also be traced in the etiquette of calls. In England, whenever new-corners settle in a country town or village, it is for residents to leave cards or not as they please. In France the case is different ; with new-corners rests the option of proffering intercourse. The purchaser of a chateau or villa is not called upon by his neighbours ; he calls upon those whose acquaintance he wishes to cultivate. I think the reversal of our own rule may be explained in this way. What is called villadom in England is a world that has sprung up outside the close ring of ancestral manors. With the French campagne or country house it is otherwise. As M. Rambaud has pointed out (” Histoire de la Civilization Francaise “), it was in the seventeenth century that Parisians, following royal fashion, began to build elegant retreats for the villégiature. These new residents in country places belonging to the same class as the old, there would naturally be no scruple about making acquaintances. A minor matter shows the hold of tradition upon French etiquette. It strikes us oddly to receive letters signed ” Bien affectueusement à vous, Comtesse de R— ” (” Very affectionately yours, Countess of R “) ; or, “Votre bien dévoué, Marquis de X- ” (” Yours very sincerely, Marquis of X- “). But the usage is historic. Thus great ladies and gentlemen of the seventeenth century inscribed themselves when writing to friends.

Many other instances might be cited. Customs which to English notions appear artificial, even ridiculous, look quite differently when studied from the standpoint of laws, institutions, and religion.

The long and elaborate formula with which letters are wound up afford an example. Instead of “Yours faithfully” or ” Yours truly,” we find a circumlocution as follows

Be so good as to permit me to express the assurance of my most sincere devotion and respect.” But the habit is merely a survival of exaggerated court etiquette, and the long string of compliments in which English critics discern French insincerity has no kind of meaning whatever. The same may be averred of many set phrases, well-worn locutions that suited the artificial times in which they were framed, but are incongruous on modern lips. In what is called society, that is to say, the circumscribed area still wedded to tradition, the thee and thou of familiar inter-course is discarded in public. The middle and upper middle ranks, on the contrary, still adhere to the pretty quakerish fashion. Among lifelong friends of both sexes, too, the vous is discarded for the more intimately affectionate tu and loi. There is no hard and fast rule. In some country places you will even hear peasant children address their parents by the more formal second person plural, a usage which has survived the “sir ” and ” madam ” of our Georgian epoch, and probably originating in the autocratic nature of parental rule. The use of the third person singular by domestics and subordinates is another survival of the ancien régime and caste.

A French maid does not say, “When would you like your bath, ma’am ? ” but ” Madame, when would she like her bath ? ” “Madame, does she intend to wear this ? ” “Monsieur, will he take this ? ” and so on and so on, the vous being studiously omitted.

On this subject I append a good story. When wintering in Brittany many years ago, a French friend, whilst engaging a young nursemaid, informed her that she must always address her in the third person singular. The damsel heard in silence, but on going to the kitchen blurted out to the cook, her future fellow-servant, ” What in the world does madame mean ? The third person singular ! I know no more what she is driving at than a new-born baby. M. le Curé has often spoken to me of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but of the third person singular, never.” In those days Brittany was the least-instructed province of France. Such ignorance could not anywhere be matched at the present time.

One curious Parisian institution is the ambulatory bath. I was staying with French acquaintances in the Avenue Villiers, when one afternoon I heard a tremendous lumbering on the front staircase, such a clatter and commotion, indeed, that I opened my door in alarm. “It is only madame’s bath,” said the maid-of-all-work, smiling as she threw wide the outer door. Straightway was wheeled inside an enormous bath, attendants following with cans of water and heating apparatus. A quarter of an hour later my hostess was enjoying the long drawn out luxury of plenteous immersion. The indulgence enjoyed during the greater portion of the afternoon cost, I believe, only three or four francs.

The ambulatory bath may often be seen in transit through Paris streets, and must be a great boon to invalids and involuntary stay-at-homes. Excellent public baths exist in every quarter, but except in the most luxurious modern flats and hotels, bath-rooms are non-existent. Veteran Parisians can still remember the time when the water-supply of Paris was performed by hand, Auvergnats carrying pailsful to regular customers at a penny per pail. The more prosperous of these made their rounds with a donkey and cart bearing a barrel.

A historian I have frequently cited, M. Rambaud, gracefully acknowledges the impetus given to baths and bathing in France by English example. “We borrowed many things from England ” (1814–1848), he writes, “not the least valuable being bodily cleanliness, a habit of copious ablutions, personal hygiene, that had made scant progress during twenty-five years of military campaign.” At the present time our neighbours are ardent devotees of le tub; tuber is now conjugated as a verb.