France – 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 République seemed bent on coming to fisticuffs. By great good luck tale 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 characterization.

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’argil,” 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 little else.

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 Francaise”) 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 re-written 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 Mt:. 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 (” Sociologie 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 th; 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 (r 899), “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 hive reached the highest stage of civilization.”

At a time when anti-Protestant feeling in France had almost attained the proportion of anti-Sémitism, I 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 Français,” 1899).

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 château, the historic ruins of Polignac.

“There is a law in your country strictly prohibiting the, purchase of land by the peasants, is there not ? ” I was once asked by a Frenchman.

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 pit 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 Remlacantes , 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 deJeuner 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 break-fast 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 bacon !

On both sides of the Channel, reasoning and reason-able 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 van-guard 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 tin 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 !