France – The Girl

THE French girl is a very delicate piece of Nature’s handiwork, art adding the final touch. On the threshold of life she may be said to form a feminine type apart. In her person is combined alike the woman of the world and, I was about to say, the blushing ingénue; since French girls never do blush, I omit the adjective.

Let not the correction be misinterpreted. The in-capacity of these eighteen-year-old maidens is by no means due to forwardness. Quite the reverse. It is due to fastidious training, to the perpetual inculcation of restraint. A group of English sisters resembles hardy garden flowers left to sun, air, and themselves. The one daughter of a French house is like a hot-house rarity, day by day jealously nursed, ever on its growth a watchful eye, exterior influences withheld.

The methods of bringing up in the two countries differ so essentially as to render comparison impossible. Each system is antipodal to the other, and each is nicely adapted to circumstances and national ideals. In England a good deal is left to chance and natural inclination : in France, a girl’s character and career are carefully elaborated. It may safely be taken for granted that a French girl, from her cradle to her marriage, is the subject of more parental anxiety, calculation, and forethought than the inmates of what Jean Paul calls a daughter-full house (ein tochtervolles Haus).

Education is a problem of immense difficulty and painful deliberation. The convent school no longer enjoys the prestige of former days. Madame de Maintenon’s ideal of the well-bred young person has become old-fashioned. Even strictly orthodox parents now require more solidity in the matter of instruction, and more modernity in house-hold arrangements. The young lady whose mother and grandmother were educated, or rather fitted for society, by the sisters of Sacré Coeur, no longer goes to a convent school. So after much diligent inquiry, comparing of maternal notes, and verifying of references, some private school, or, better still, some lady receiving a few daily pupils, is fixed upon ; but the difficulties are far from over.

As we all know, every French girl of means and position is in precisely the condition of a royal princess. Under no circumstances whatever must she so much as cross the street to post a letter alone. One might suppose, from the Argus eye kept upon girlhood in France, that we were still living in the days of Una and her milk-white lamb ! There is, however, a comfortable equilibrium between demand and supply. The necessary bodyguard of French schoolgirls is furnished by an army of promeneuses, literally, promenaders ; in other words, gentlewomen hired by the hour, day, or week, whose business it is to conduct pupils to and from their schools, and take them for walks when required. If the minutest investigation is necessary in the case of an educational establishment, how doubly is it needed in the case of a young daughter’s companion ! The promeneuse must neither be too old nor too young, neither too well-dressed nor too shabby ; her appearance, indeed, must be irreproachable, and her conversation and manners to match. And not only herself, but her acquaintances and connections generally ! If there is a blot on her family escutcheon, no needy spinster or widow would be accepted in this capacity. In a relentless spirit are domestic records studied throughout France. With equal painstaking are chosen companions, books, and amusements. All these an English girl selects for herself ; quite otherwise is it with her young neighbour over the water. So long as she remains under the parental roof, she accepts such guidance as a matter of course. To invite a school-fellow to the house without first asking permission, to take up a book before consulting her mother as to its suitability, would never enter her head. If we want to learn how young French girls are entertained on birthdays and holidays, we must attend afternoon performances at the Théâtre Français or the Odéon. There witnessing L’ami Fritz, Athalie, or some other equally unobjectionable piece, may be seen dozens of proud papas with their youthful daughters, and delightful it is to witness what pains are taken for their amusement and instruction. In the mean time an educational course is being carried on, somewhat restricted in scope, but thorough as far as it goes. French parents wisely, it seems to me—limit studies to taste, capacity, and circumstances. The entire girlhood of France is not taught violin-playing, to the terror of the community at large, simply because violin-playing has become the fashion. Even in the lycée, answering in some degree to our high schools, thoroughness rather than comprehensiveness is the object held in view. A girl learns few things, but those things well.

We are here, however, not dealing with a young lady who will have to go out into the world and earn her own living, but one who is destined for society and the ordering of a well-appointed house. In her case the programme will be naturally curtailed. She need not learn book-keeping or needlework in its more practical branches. English has long been obligatory as a part of genteel education ; music a French girl generally learns if she cares about it ; and there is one very pretty accomplishment peculiarly French, in which she often excels. This is the graceful art of declamation. Family gatherings are enlivened by the young daughter of the house reciting a ” Les Etoiles ” of Lamartine, ” La dernière leçon de Français ” of Daudet, or some other little classic in prose or verse. And a talent of this kind is carefully fostered for use in after life, not laid aside, as is so often the case with the pencil and the keyboard. The essential education of the French girl, however, does not rest with masters and mistresses, but with her mother, and is sedulously, unremittingly carried on in the home. It is an education wholly apart from books, or a training of eye and ear. Its object is neither pedagogic nor didactic, but social. The pupil is to be trained for society, the world, and, above all, for her future position as wife, mother, mistress. Thus it comes about that the French girl can never be found fault with as regards carriage, manners, or modes of expressing her thoughts. Everything she does is done in the most approved fashion. Let it not be hence inferred that she necessarily grows up artificial or mannered. Habit soon usurps the place of nature, and if less spontaneous than her English sister, it is because she has been taught from childhood upwards to control her impulses and weigh her words—in short, to remember that she belongs to a highly polished society, and its consequent responsibilities, ” There is a very good word,” wrote Swift, ” and that is, moderation.” This very good word has a more subtle meaning in its French equivalent, la mesure. La mesure, moderation, proportion, a sense of the fitness of things, is ever in the French mind. just as in French cookery the rule is that no single flavour should predominate, so a happy medium is aimed at in the education of girls, And the importance attached to little things by their monitresses induces the same attitude in themselves. An untidy scrawl in the shape of a letter, a blundering speech, an awkward posture, a too loud laugh are all eliminated by teaching and example. As an instance of the perfection attained by Frenchwomen in small matters, take the following story.

An elegant and accomplished young Parisian lady was lately the guest at an Australian Government House. Among mademoiselle’s gifts commented upon in society papers was the consummate grace with which she entered a carriage ! The trifling incident is highly suggestive. One element is ruthlessly excluded from a French girl’s education. From girlhood to adolescence she grows up without sentimentality to be an eminently matter-of-fact, a strictly reasonable being. The great romances of France are sealed books to her till she dons the wedding-ring ; George Sand, Balzac, Victor Hugo are so many names. If indeed any novels have come in her way, they are the romans pour jeunes filles—i.e. romances expressly written for young girls, not namby-pamby, good-goody, after the manner of ” The Heir of Redclyffe,” or ” John Halifax,” but dealing with the mildest love-making only, a drop of essence in a bucket of water.

It is only the title of Madame that authorizes her to take up “Eugénie Grandet,” “Le Marquis de Villemer,” or ” Nôtre Dame de Paris.”

A French acquaintance recently expatiated to me on her daughter’s newly-awakened enthusiasm for fiction, the said daughter having been just married at the age of thirty-two ! “Of course, Jane” (the English Jane sounds so much prettier in French ears than their own Jeanne) ” can now read anything, and she is devouring Victor Hugo’s works, which she gets from a circulating library.”

In a French journal lately appeared the bitter cry of ” an old maid of thirty.” It seems mighty hard, wrote this victim of custom and prejudice, that whilst minxes of eighteen or twenty, just because they were married, could read what they chose, and run about unattended, she was still treated as a schoolgirl.

Fortunately, French “old maids of thirty ” are not common in the upper and well-to-do ranks, and those belonging to a different sphere are generally too much occupied for romance-reading.

Thus education has nicely adapted a French girl for that parental interference with her love affairs—if, indeed, they can be so termed—which to insular notions appears unintelligible, if not shocking. A very pretty American girl of twenty once told me that from her twelfth year she had never been without hangers-on. In France flirting is geographically limited. Under no circumstances is it permitted in good society. A French girl learns to look at marriage through the maternal eyes. She calmly contemplates the matter from various points of view—in the French tongue, elle envisage la question.

Indoctrinated with sound practical principles, with a horror of the incongruous, the disturbing element in domestic life, of retrogression in the social scale, of any approach to a misalliance, she seldom disputes the parental view. The partner decided for her is accepted. That word “partner” suggests a train of reflections. Marriage in France is so strictly a partnership in the material as well as moral sense that a bridal pair is at once called a young household (un jeune ménage). And if fathers and mothers have given anxious days and sleepless nights to the selection of promeneuses, schools, books, and companions, what thought and deliberation will not be bestowed upon the choice of a son-in-law! Unsuitable or objectionable suitors are summarily dismissed or kept out of the way, a likely admirer is encouraged to come forward. And as a French girl, unlike her Transatlantic sister, has not had a succession of sweethearts from her twelfth year, she is disposed to look favourably on the first that presents himself. Under such circumstances may there not be as much chance of happiness and comfort in these marriages as in the happy-go-lucky wedlock English maidens so often enter upon of their own accord ? The tree must be judged by its fruits. Where do we find closer unions, tenderer wives, more devoted husbands than in France ? Where the system of the mariage de convenance proves a fiasco we often find parental adulation to blame, the spoiling of character by over-indulgence in childhood, the development of egotism and wilfulness by inordinate fondling from the cradle upwards. Such cases are, fortunately, not the rule, but the exception.

Fiançailles, or betrothals, are quickly followed by the marriage ceremony in France. Long engagements, after English fashion, would never be tolerated by either family of the betrothed pair. Here, again, we touch upon the supremely practical side of French social life. Engagements are not contemplated till the future head of a house is in a position to marry–I should more properly put it, till the fortune on both sides admits of an adequate settling down.

Of varied and immense aptitudes—already a woman of the world, though, as far as the other sex is concerned reared with comparatively cloistral reserve, the French girl awaits fate in the shape of wifehood and maternity

other ambitions has she none, or, at least, other aspirations are subservient to these. Strange it is, but true ! In the oldest civilization of Western Europe, in what is still, intellectually speaking, the most splendid civilization in the world, tradition has withstood time and change, re-volution and democratic progress ; old-world standards retain their place, old-world types are held in highest honour. The Frenchwoman’s ideal is still the quiet place ” behind the heads of children ; ” the ideal Frenchwoman is still the wife and mother.

Feminine clubland as existing in America ; the gradual evolution in that country of what may be called an asexual community to the destruction of family life ; Anglo-Saxon activity (may we not add unrest ?) impelling English girls of means to become doctors, army nurses, head gardeners, any and every thing that takes them from home and affords independence—these elements do not as yet leaven French society. Woman doctors, even Portias wearing the advocate’s robe, we certainly hear of, and naturally an army of women educators and other workers exist. But the career is entered upon from the necessity of earning a livelihood, or from an especial sense of vocation, not because home-life is distasteful or because restrictions of any kind are unbearable. As a natural consequence, in France womanhood reigns with undivided domestic sway. The head of a house is not the master, but the mistress. In the least little particular a husband consults—is bound to consult his wife, here material interests cementing conjugal union. The undowered, the penniless bride is next door to non-existent in France. From the top-most rung of the social ladder to the lowest, a household is set up by contracting parties of equal, or nearly equal, fortune, Hence the dignified position of a wife, hence the closely allied interests necessitating mutual counsel and advice.