France – Wives And Mothers

IN most French households women reign with unchallenged sway ; they wield “all the rule, one empire.” Let not such feminine headship be summarily attributed to uxoriousness on the one side or to a masterful spirit on the other. The condition has been brought about by a combination of circumstances, moral and material, social and economic. To begin with, the Frenchwoman possesses in a wholly unsurpassed degree the various aptitudes that shine in domestic and business management. She is never at a loss, never muddle-headed, always more than able to hold her own. The secret of this unrivalled capacity is concentration. A Frenchwoman’s mental and physical powers are not frittered away upon multifarious objects. She is not at one and the same time a devotee of society, a member of a political association, an active crusader in some philanthropic cause, a champion golfer, tennis, or hockey player, or what is called a ” Church worker.” Thus it comes about that the French feminine mind is freer than that of her Anglo-Saxon sister, her bodily powers are subject to much less wear and tear. And, perhaps, owing to the fact of idolized, over-indulged childhood, the Frenchwoman’s will is stronger. She is less yielding, less given to compromise, and more authoritative. Nor do weaknesses, sentimentalities, or vapours impair such strengthful character.

Certainly here and there you may find a French-woman who screams at a mouse or a spider, such whimsical timidity not in the least incapacitating her from the command of an army. Authority is her native element ; the faculty of organization is here an intuitive gift. Hardly necessary is it to dilate upon personal magnetism, the beauty, as Michelet wrote, ” made up of little nothings,” the conversation ofttimes describable in similar terms—the acquired graces that strike us as natural endowments, Nature’s partial liberality. No wonder, therefore, that for good or for evil the Salic law has ever been set at naught in French society, that alike chateau and cottage bow to one-sided law to feminine ukase. And who can say—the great democracy of the Western world owes its name, perhaps its very existence, to a woman ? A quiet little bourgeoise, wife of an obscure journalist named Robert, we now learn, was the first to breathe the word ” Republic ” in conjunction with the name of France. In her modest salon about the year 1790 first took form and cohesion the project of a democratic government on the American model. Before her time one woman had saved France, and more than one had well-nigh wrought her downfall. Jeanne d’Arc, Madame de Maintenon, the Pompadour, not to mention another nearer our own time, are instances of ” all the rule, one empire ” exercised—alas ! not always for the public weal—by Frenchwomen.

Financial conditions add immense weight to natural advantages. Except among the Micawber class, represented in greater or less degree all the world over, a French wife is propertied ; she brings an equal share to the setting up of a household and the founding of a family. “With all my worldly goods I thee endow ” is a formula applicable to bride as well as bridegroom, although in neither case is the endowment a free, unconditional gift. Respective interests are strictly safeguarded by the notary, a personage no less necessary to the middle and working classes than to the rich. No matter how inconsiderable a young woman’s dowry, it is tied down to herself and her children with every legal formality. Some years since I attended the wedding of a village schoolmaster and a gamekeeper’s daughter in Champagne. Each possessed money or land equivalent to about two hundred pounds, the two small fortunes, down to the minutest particular, being mentioned in the marriage contract. A wedding without settlements, as I have said, is an anomaly in France.

In one respect at least there is no sexual inequality among our neighbours. My face is my fortune, was not the burden of peasant maidens even under the ancien régime. Whilst this feminine supremacy, I should perhaps say suzerainty, has been an evolutionary process in accordance with the fitness of things, it will occasionally wear an inconsistent or autocratic look. I well remember one instance in point, scenes that reminded me of Balzac. Many and many a time have I sat down to the Friday table of my kind old friend Madame G____, near Dijon (long since, alas ! gone to her rest), the family party consisting of her son, a man of fifty, a widower, his boy, a stripling of eighteen, and her son-in-law, a widower also, and well past sixty. The season being September, as soon as the early second déjeuner was over these men, with uncles and cousins living close by, would set off for a seven or eight hours’ tramp in search of wild boars in the forest or quails on the plain.

Eggs and potatoes at half-past ten or eleven o’clock, eggs and potatoes at the half-past six o’clock dinner reminded me of Mrs. Micawber’s “heel of Dutch cheese, an unsuitable nutriment for a young family.” Madame G ‘s bill of fare did not certainly seem adequate in the case of famished sportsmen footing it for seven or eight hours on a brisk September day. The three men might covertly eye my own tiny slice of cold meat, the priestly ordinance not applying to Protestants, but they said nothing. My hostess, indeed, could very well have passed for the mistress of a pension bourgeoise, son, son-in-law, and grandson being poorly paying or indebted boarders. Once, indeed, rebellion broke out, taking a humorous turn. A tempting dish of cold pasty, nicely sliced, on its way to myself, came within reach of my neighbour’s fork. The opportunity was not to be resisted. “Ma foi ! for once I’ll be a Protestant too !” ejaculated madame’s elderly son-in-law, as he spoke prodding a goodly morsel. His companions chuckled, the maid tittered, and, seeing that her mistress did not take the joke amiss, after having served me she plumped down the dish before the three wistful men.

Benignant, even-tempered, in other respects far from egotistical, my dear old friend regarded motherhood as a patent conferring undivided and ever enduring authority. When her son or son-in-law attempted to discuss any subject that menaced such authority, she would cut them short with the remark, ” I am your mother, and must know best.” . And so kindly and affectionate was the dear soul that the yoke was complacently borne.

Here I anticipate an objection. How, it may be asked, is the foregoing statement reconciled with the stability of the Third Republic ? Has it not been said, and indeed proved again and again, that the vast majority of French-men have shaken off sacerdotalism, whilst their wives and mothers for the most part remain wedded to priestly ordinance ? Where, then, some will ask, is the feminine influence you speak of, since it is evidently neutral in political affairs ?

My answer to these observations is short. There is one point, and one only, on which a Frenchman, no matter how easy going, is unyielding, and that is his vote. And the natural good sense of Frenchwomen stands them here in good stead. No matter the force of their own convictions, they accept a compromise based on expediency.

Setting aside fireside relations and the principle of give and take, there is the question of family interest, the stability of the Republic from a domestic aspect. How largely middle-class fortunes are bound up with the Government, the prevailing system of bureaucracy tells us. Here is an instance in point. The other day I received what is called a faire part, or printed notice of a friend’s death, giving, according to fashion, the name and occupation of her male relations. Of the ten specified two only belonged to professions, one was in the army, two were priests, the remaining five held Government appointments. Roughly speaking, I should say this is typical, that in most bourgeois families the proportion of Government officials would be as five to five. No, wonder, then, that wives and mothers discreetly keep silent when elections come round. The great minister Sully used to say that tillage and pasturage were the fountains of French wealth. To a large section of society, it is the Government that now usurps these functions, playing the part of a Providence. And, as I have shown elsewhere, bureaucracy, that is to say, an income moderate maybe but sure, suits French character, which is the very antipodes of American go-ahead wear and tear. It is rare indeed in France that you find Gambetta’s counterpart, ” an old man of forty.” But when are Americans young ?

I should not call the average Frenchwoman cosmopolitan. Parental adulation, exclusive surroundings, often conventual bringing-up, unfit the average Frenchwoman for international or social give and take. Small indeed is the number who could say with Montaigne, ” I am not guilty of the common error of judging another by myself ; I easily believe what in another’s humour is contrary to my own.” The lady president of a philanthropic association confided to me the other day that this uncompromisingness greatly handicapped such movements. ” Every woman here interested in works of benevolence or social progress,” she said, “has her own scheme and will not fall in with the plans of others.” Anything like the Primrose League or Women’s Liberal Associations is out of the question in France. Hence it comes about that when an Englishman succumbs to French charms, for him the die is doubly cast. He must thenceforward forswear English speech, native land, and a career among his own people for his wife’s sake. It is a case of love being lord of all with a vengeance. Many English wives of Frenchmen, especially among the Protestant community, spend their lives happily enough in France. French mistresses of English homes are rare indeed. When Madame de Staël pronounced exile to be worse than death, she voiced the convictions of her countrywomen.

I was lately lunching with an old friend in Paris, a country gentleman from the Indre much interested in the question of French colonization.

One great obstacle,” he observed, ” is the loathing of my countrywomen for any place out of France. The other day a young friend, a settler in one of your Australian countries, was here on a visit, and wrote back to his partner that he was looking about for a wife. ` For heaven’s sake wait till you return, and marry an English girl,’ wrote the other ; ` Frenchwomen in a foreign colony are in-supportable.”

But la Française est avant tout mère, “the French-woman is first and foremost a mother,” our sisters over the water tell us. Filial, wifely, civic duty, each must give way to the maternal, Thus words are hardly strong enough in which to express a Frenchwoman’s disapproval of Anglo–Indian wives who remain at their husbands’ sides, sending home their young children to be educated, The secret of English colonization lies not so much in national energy as in the tremendous strength of the marriage tie. A celibate bureaucracy, however numerous or efficient, cannot compete with the family life characterizing Greater Britain societies, no matter under what sky, offering the conditions of home. This matter is now occupying politicians and philanthropists. A society has been lately formed for the purpose of forwarding the emigration of women, and the lady president, with whom I lately had a long conversation, spoke hopefully of its future. The Protestant pastor and missionary, she told me, are of the very greatest value in the movement, as, being fathers of families, they can offer temporary homes to young women awaiting situations ; most of these, of course, eventually marry.

The Frenchwoman does not exaggerate. She is par excellence the mother. Why the first maternal duty should always be relegated to a wet nurse I have never been able to discover. In every other respect her devotion knows no bounds. Indeed, were I asked to state the ambition of Frenchwomen generally, I should say that it is neither to shine in art, literature, science, nor philanthropy, but to become a grandmother ; the adored, over-fondled son or daughter revived in a second generation evokes devotion amounting to idolatry an idolatry shared by the other sex. As we all know, one of the best Presidents of the Third Republic that staunch Republican, splendid advocate, and true patriot, Jules Grévy here found his pitfall. Poor President Grévy I Not that he loved France less, but that he loved his little granddaughters more. With Victor Hugo, l’art d’Etre grandpère had become infatuation.

Nothing is ever done by halves in France. Of late years the disastrous effects of over-indulged childhood has become a public question. Could parents be prevented from spoiling their one boy or girl by law, there is little doubt that a Bill to that effect would be laid before the Chamber to-morrow. Other means of arousing general attention have been tried. In Paris just now the stage has usurped the functions of the pulpit By turns, wet-nursing, alcoholism, and other social evils are treated dramatically, the success of 1902 being “La Course au Flambeau.” This piece turns entirely upon the exaggerated and mischievous self-sacrifice of parents on behalf of their children. The heroine, a role superbly played by Madame Réjane, is a middle-aged lady belonging to the upper middle class who has an only daughter, and who for this incarnation of selfishness, inanition, and lackadaisicalness, sacrifices not only her husband’s and her own well-being, but her conscience. In fact, she becomes virtually the murderess of her aged mother. It was interesting to note the behaviour of the vast audience. No love-story, no intrigue, no humorous episode relieved the fireside tragedy. A piece of domestic realism, an everyday story, held every one spellbound. When you ask French folks if this or any other crying evil is likely to be lessened by sermonizing on the stage, however, they shake their heads. It happened that my companion at the theatre was a young French lady, earning her livelihood as secretary in a business house. The piece naturally interested her greatly, and here are her comments—

” It is the greatest possible unkindness of parents to wrap their children up in cotton-wool. Look at my own case. I was brought up in the belief that life was to be one prolonged fairy tale ; that I need only hold out my hand, and everything I wanted would drop into it. I well remember one birthday. Throughout the day my parents told me I should do as I liked ; I might ask for anything and everything in their power to bestow. After déjuner we went to the Jardin d’Acclimatation, where I rode in a goat-chaise, on the elephant’s back, had ices, cakes, sweet-meats, and heaven knows what. Do you suppose I was satisfied ? Not in the least. The day ended in tears and sulkiness. And at eighteen, in consequence of family losses, instead of being dowered and married, having fine toilettes, servants, and every luxury, I found myself compelled to turn out into the world to earn my bread.” Which she had done, however, with the best grace imaginable.

One word in conclusion. If maternal devotion at times proves a snare, how often in France does it cast a halo around homely brows ! The honoured President of the Third Republic does not here stand alone. Were the history of illustrious Frenchmen scanned from this point of view, we should find many a one, like M. Loubet, owing the opportunities of success to a peasant-born mother. And the well-known acknowledgment of the newly elected President, the halting on his triumphal entry into Mont& limar in order to embrace that venerable mother, was an incident moistening every French eye, warming every French heart. M. Loubet’s popularity was straightway assured.