France – The Single Lady

AS A FOREIGNER suddenly plunged into French society and quitting it without any chance of modifying first impressions would affirm that there were no single women in France that the spinster, the old maid, did not exist.

Certainly there is no equivalent over the water to a considerable element in English social life. We might vainly search the eighty-six departments and the Territoire de Belfort for a Bath or a Clifton, towns or suburbs largely peopled by rich maiden ladies. Nor in the provinces is to be found a counterpart of the unmarried gentlewoman, with her handsome establishment, her grooms, gardeners, and equipages, all under first-rate management, all betokening the most complete independence and a wide outlook upon life, in many cases single life being a pure matter of choice. Spinsterhood must be looked for elsewhere in France. The feminine world of fashion generally hides grey hairs and lost illusions in the convent boarding-house. Here and there devotion and philanthropy outside such walls are resorted to, rarely social distractions or active life. In the upper ranks celibate womanhood effaces itself.

Before turning to the army of lady doctors, dentists, professors, artists, and authors, let us consider their ill-advised sisters, the tens of thousands who virtually retire from the world simply because they happen to be unmarried. Much is to be said for their own view of the case. I can, indeed, conceive no more mortifying position than that of a French girl growing elderly under her mother’s wing. Take the matter of money, for instance. So long as her mother lives, an unmarried daughter, no matter her age, is treated like a child. Immediately an English girl leaves school she has her allowance for dress and personal expenses. In France it is the parent who pays for everything, New Year’s gifts or étrennes taking the place of pocket-money. I well remember the astonishment of a French lady at seeing an English girl of twenty-five write out a cheque in her own name. Such a thing, she informed me, she had never heard of.

Such pecuniary dependence is not only galling ; it stultifies and renders the individual unfit for future conduct of practical affairs. How much, moreover, may daily happiness often depend upon what look like trifles, among these the possession of a little money, and upon the unfettered use of that little ! But French “old maids of thirty ” or even more must have no innocent little secrets, no private generosities, no harmless mysteries. The demoiselle in the eyes of her family remains a perpetual minor. In a society hemmed round with ordinance and traditional etiquette, a young or even middle-aged woman of rank and position could not possibly set up house-keeping on her own account. She would be at once set down as eccentric, a kind of Bohemian, and be tabooed by society. And bringing up has totally unfitted her for an independent life. Never accustomed to walk out or travel alone, always chaperoned when paying visits, her reading, amusements, friends chosen for her, her notions of etiquette in harmony with such restrictions, no wonder that she regards her life as a failure, that the convent or convent pension are regarded as harbours of refuge. Caprice, disappointments, a spirit of self-sacrifice, the belief in a vocation, will induce many a girl to take the veil before crossing the rubicon, the twenty-fifth birthday dubbing her as a spinster. And to the old maid of thirty or thirty-five whose dowry or personal attractions have not secured a partner, the convent offers the cheapest possible provision for life. Ten thousand francs, four hundred pounds paid down, and the recluse is housed, fed, clothed, and cared for till the end of her days. Seclusion, moreover, is a salvo to her own dignity. A nun is no longer regarded in the light of une vieille fille; her calling has not only sanctity about it, but good repute. The step is invariably approved of.

More especially is a recluse praised who buries herself alive from family considerations, giving up home, friends, individuality, for the sake perhaps of a younger sister, perhaps of a younger brother. We must bear in mind the fact that in the upper ranks, in what is called la société no girl has any chances whatever of marrying without a sufficient dowry. And let us not on this account set down all Frenchmen of this class as money-hunters. Official and professional incomes are a third lower than with us, the cost of living as certainly a third higher. Thus it comes about that officers of rank and men holding official positions cannot possibly set up housekeeping without additional means. From the money point of view wedlock must be essentially a partnership.

Realizing the absolute necessity of a dowry, then, an elder sister will sometimes betake herself to a convent in order that a younger may make a brilliant or suitable marriage. Quite possibly, also, she may act thus on a brother’s behalf, enabling him by the same means to add to family wealth and prestige. No sacrifice is considered too great for la famille in France.

Four hundred pounds is the minimum sum accepted by religious houses as a dowry, which may, of course, reach any figure. The convent pension or boarding-house is also regarded as an unexceptionable retreat for single ladies of means and gentility. Expenses in such establishments are moderate, but vary according to style and accommodation.

Here and there devotional exercises and works of charity are made a career of by rich single women preferring to remain in the world. Except at charity bazaars and similar functions, these ladies—a small minority—are seldom met with. You may, indeed, go into French society for years and never encounter a single lady—that is to say, one who has grown, or is growing, old—without the wedding ring. To find out what becomes of the French demoiselle we must refer to statistics. In 1900 no less than sixty-four thousand women were immured for life within convent walls !

A very different train of thought is called up by a glance at the middle class and work-a-day world. The doctor’s gown has long been worn by Frenchwomen. Not long since a second Portia achieved a notable triumph at the assizes at Marseilles. Lady solicitors practise in Paris. In country towns, as well as in the capital, you may see the inscription on the door-plate, ” Mademoiselle So-and-so, chirusgien-dentiste ” (” surgeon-dentist “). In a little town I know, Balzac’s favourite Nemours, scene of ” Ursule Mirouët,” a young lady dentist and her sister have a flourishing practice. French peasants and working folks seldom indulge in the luxury of false teeth, but an aching tooth is soon got rid of, and for the modest fee of two francs mademoiselle adroitly manipulates the forceps. Lady occulists may now also be consulted, In the arena of education, primary and advanced, Frenchwomen run almost a neck and neck race with the other sex. Forty-three thousand women in 1900 occupied positions in State schools, numbering only twenty thousand less than male professors and teachers. By far the larger number of these women teachers are, of course, unmarried, and if such careers are neither brilliant nor a fulfilment of youthful dreams, they are dignified, useful, and doubtless often con-tented and even happy.

A recent novel by a new writer that I can warmly commend to all readers, “L’Un vers l’Autre,” gives interesting glimpses of a girls’ lycée, or high school, and a group of lady professors. In Madame Th. Bentzon’s new story, “Au dessus de l’abîme,” the same subject is treated from a different point of view. Both volumes are highly instructive. Unfortunately, few French novelists depict middle-class life as it is in reality. Were such a task taken in hand by competent writers, our neighbours, their ways and modes of thought, would not be so often grotesquely misconceived.

The youngish unmarried lady doctor, occulist, dentist, advocate, or professor naturally enjoys an amount of freedom vainly sighed for by her sisters in fashionable society. She reads what books she pleases, her theatre-going is not restricted to the Comédie Française and the Odéon, acquaintances of the other sex may pay their respects to her when she is at home to friends. But the freedom from restraint enjoyed by English and American spinsterhood would look subversive, anarchical, Nihilistic in French eyes.

Some years since I was staying with friends at Nantes who often invited the lady principal of a technical school for girls to dinner. Upon one occasion another habitué of the house was present, a man upwards of sixty. On mademoiselle rising to say good night, Monsieur T.–begged that he might escort her home, the house being a few minutes off. Drawing herself up haughtily, the lady replied (she was thirty-five at least), ” I am greatly your debtor, monsieur, but my maid awaits me in the corridor.” Imagine a middle-aged lady not being able to accept the arm of a fellow-guest for a few hundred yards ! Another anecdote forcibly brings out the French mode of regarding these matters. An American lady journalist living in Paris told me that one day she received a visit from a French acquaintance, rather friend, of the other sex, a busy man, who had most kindly found time to help her in some literary transactions. The pair were both middle-aged, the lady being slightly older than her visitor. By the time the business in hand had been discussed dinner’ was ready, Miss S keeping her own bonne, and occupying a pretty little flat.

” Why not stay and partake ? ” she asked, surely a very natural invitation under the circumstances !

For a moment the other hesitated, the invitation evidently tempted ; then in a semi-paternal tone he asked her if she had ever entertained friends of the other sex before. On her reply in the negative, he shook her hand in the friendliest fashion, saying, ” Then be advised by me and do not begin.”

This gentleman had doubtless in his mind the ever-prying eye and ofttimes too ready tongue of the concierge or portress of Parisian blocks, an encroacher upon privacy fortunately unknown among ourselves. The janitrix of French doorways is not a popular personage, and youngish ladies living alone are especially subject to inquisitorial observation. As a rule the French single lady never does live alone. She boards with some other member of her family or with friends, the strictest etiquette guiding every action.

The Portias, AEsculapias, and lady graduates in letters and science naturally do not make the cloister their retreat in advancing years. For single women of very small means, the rentière or annuitant of a thousand or two francs, in certain country towns we find what is called Une Maison de Retraite, or associated home. One of these I visited some time since at Rheims. This establishment, which is under municipal patronage, offers rooms, board, attendance, laundress, and even a small plot of garden, for sums varying from sixteen to twenty-four pounds per inmate, the second sum, of course, ensuring better rooms and more liberal fare. Special arrangements are made for unmarried ladies. Whether they like it or no, they are expected to take their meals in a separate dining-room The advantages of such a system in France are very great, single women of small means being thus afforded protection and immunity from household cares. Except that the lodge gates are closed at ten o’clock p.m., personal liberty is not interfered with. Needless to say that no breath of scandal must reach these precincts. Only immaculate respectability possesses an Open Sesame. My impression was one of prevailing cheerfulness and content. But the plan would never answer in England. The insular character rebels against restrictions, however well-intentioned, and where could be found scores and scores of petites rentieres, professional women and governesses, whose earnings and economy have ensured them an income in old age ? Further, Englishwomen can live alone, French-women cannot do so. A series of delightful old maids have been rendered immortal by later English novelists. Our confrers of the other sex over the water, from Balzac downward, often seem to regard spinsterhood as a veritable crime.

It remains for some new writer to rehabilitate this section of the beau sexe, to portray those types of womanhood described by the late Lord Shaftesbury as adorable old maids.”