BALZAC’S 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’oeuvre, 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. 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 tile pere 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 i 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 regime called la communauté 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 exactness.
” Eugènie 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. IT was strictly within his right, and 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 patria potestas.
“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, French-men 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 lias 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 purport answering to the Married Woman’s Property Act of Victorian legislationthat 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 communaute).
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 20,, 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. &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 déducation 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 of Commerce.
Classified by the Code with minors and idiots, it was not till 1897 that a French woman could witness a deed. Today 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, !900, 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 quite 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 urge 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 a– ? ” I ventured to say one day. ” You have no wife or children depending on you, cher 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 inappropriate.
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 mother.
To children, French law has ever shown tenderness. Thus, children born out of wedlock are naturalized by tie 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-Ronan Codex !
Like the world-encircling serpent of Scandinavia 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.