French Domestic Life and Its Lessons
OTHER countries may excel France in many ways, such as England in its political attainments, Germany in its erudition and military prowess, America in, its enterprise, and, going back to the past, Italy in its art refinement, Spain
in its religious fervor, and so on ; but in no country do we find in full play that equally harmonious compound of human energies, the fruit of which is summed up in the word “ civilization.” Perhaps the specialty of the French, if the above characteristics of other nations are specialties, is to be social; in other words, to show the world what good can be got out of life without being extraordinarily great in any one direction. In any event, all people of European lineage like to go to France, and they enjoy themselves when they get there. Few care to analyze their enjoyment, either through indifference or because of the complexity of the subject. Those who are capable of doing it, like Matthew Arnold, Humerton, and Hillebrand, recognize the importance of French social development in relation to that of their own country. The following article is an attempt to add something to this branch of literature, but from an American point of view. I begin by introducing the reader to an ordinary French house in the country, where the national mode of living can be much better studied than in Paris.
In the village, behind my friend’s house, stood an old church with a rich, low-toned bell, which every morning at six o’clock sounded the matins of the ages of faith the same as in mediaeval times. This bell commonly awoke me at that hour, whether I would or not ; but I bore it no ill-will on that account. Time with me did not “ lag withal.” On arising a pleasant scene drew me to the window, where I could look through the delicate atmosphere upon a fine panorama of mountains, which, with their long, transparent shadows gradually shortening over the sloping ground, was always fascinating. Or if I remained in bed I could read, for there were books alongside of it; had I a wish to do so I could write, for my room contained every convenience for this, it not being a mere sleeping compartment.
One Sunday the above-mentioned holy bell “ knolled me to church.” It was a fête day. There was to be a blessing of bread for general distribution, a kind of bread colored with saffron, and of which there was a stack of large round loaves standing in the church in front of the chancel. I have forgotten the name of the saint under whose sanction this ceremony took place. What especially interested me in the matter was the subject of the curé’s discourse, transubstantiation, and more especially the way in which he enforced his argument. His text was taken from the chapter in St. Matthew describing the Last Supper : “ Jesus took bread and blessed it, . . . and said, ‘ Take, eat; this is my body.’ ” “ Transubstantiation must be true, my Christian brethren,” exclaimed the curé, warming up, “ or our Lord was a liar ; and no one can believe that our Lord would lie ! ”
My friend’s house, which was plain architecturally, stood on a plot of about eight acres, one half of which was under cultivation and uninelosed, as is usual with farm lands in France ; the rest was devoted to a vegetable garden behind the house, and in front to flowers, shrubbery, walks, and grass, all surrounded by a high stone wall pierced by an iron gate which opened on to the main street leading to the village. This stone wall being a peculiar feature of French landscape, as well as indicative of social peculiarities, I dwell on it for a moment.
If you happen to be on the outside of this stone wall, you do not find it an agreeable object, especially when it hampers the view. A promenade, for instance, through the suburbs of a French town, or among the straggling houses of a French village, where nothing can be seen but sky and clouds between two parallel rows of gray stucco or stone wall, is, to say the least, monotonous. Get behind these walls, however, and the scene changes. You find gardens, flowers, fruit and shade trees, ranging in luxuriance and beauty all the way from the Due de Luynes’s magnificent parterres at Dampierre down to the smallest patch of ground owned by the humblest peasant. Other contrasts suggest themselves. When an American, for instance, gets within one of these inclosures he is impressed with the air of privacy which prevails there. Privacy is one of those things for which we Americans seem to have an “ imperfect sympathy.” We regard publicity as a sort of duty. We take delight in the reflection of ourselves in the public mirror. Self-exposure seems to us to be a matter of pride. We build our houses so that our neighbors can easily look in at the windows. We lay out our grounds and arrange our flower-beds and shrubbery expressly to be seen from the street. Our sentiment of privacy is symbolized by the open wire fence. Again, as we do so much for the public, we naturally draw on the public for our benefit. We tolerate usurpations of private property for public uses, — when not our own. We content ourselves with a public standard of education because it is public. We find intellectual excitement in the judicial exposure ot' private incompatibilities and vices. We pay for hand labor, but the labor of the brain by which the public benefits we want for nothing. We not only claim the right to know the details of the lives of the men we honor, but we send reporters to ascertain how they die. “When a private citizen consents to serve his country, and becomes “ public property,” we tear him to pieces morally, — all of which traits, either positively or negatively, are rooted in that indifference to privacy, a respect for which is one real test of civilization. It is different with the Frenchman, His domain, his name, his features, his ideas, his works, everything that belongs to and emanates from him, are sacred. No one can sell his photograph or caricature him without his consent. The product of his mind is under his own control. He not only cares to keep his premises from being intruded upon, but no one must look into them to gratify mere curiosity. He resists encroachments, moral as well as material. Whatever sympathy he craves and gives is based on the absolute right to his own personality. In this respect for his neighbor’s individuality may be found the source of the Frenchman’s urbanity. It is likewise the key to certain French legal safeguards, such as the litigation within closed doors of family disputes when these happen to be scandalous, and the prevention of such details appearing in the newspapers. All this is symbolized in France by the stone wall which surrounds domestic life, the germ cell of all that is good in society. Some people may regard this sensibility to privacy as mere selfishness. If that is their opinion, it seems to me that one might say the same thing of the modesty of a woman.
But in my disquisition on the stone wall I am keeping the reader from my friend’s unostentatious dining-room, into which I introduce him without further parley. This room contained a small round table, a set of chairs, two ranges of book-shelves, some drawings hung on the walls, and opened by a central door on a gravel walk. My friend’s family included himself and wife, a group of children,—a daughter twelve years old and a son six years old, with a niece and nephew of about the same ages as their cousins, —a paternal grandmother, and a maternal grandfather, all living together in the most harmonious relations. I may as well add to this family combination the strangers that were within my host’s gates, for these, in the country, are not infrequent in French houses ; generally invited on account of intimate associations, they are so much at home as to impress one with the idea that they were born there. The family, with their guests, usually assembled in this room about eight o’clock in the morning. Whoever chose to remain in his cosy, well-furnished bedroom, to read, write, or take an extra nap, could do so without impoliteness, and be served at will with tea, coffee, milk, or chocolate without interfering with housekeeping arrangements. French hospitality, it must be mentioned, takes into account personal habits, tastes, and even caprices. The entertainment of a guest does not hinge on regular or irregular habits or opinions. One of our company would remain in the salon till after midnight, talking, and the following day sleep until noon, which simply made my host regret that sleep deprived him of so much of his guest’s society. In this house the children were generally up first. On coming down-stairs, I would find them in the dining-room, and be greeted by them as if I were a relation. When the elders came in we would shake hands as each made his or her appearance. The moment the children caught sight of " grandpère ” there was a rush for a kiss, while “ mamma ” rose from her chair and received one from him on her brow. The same ceremony was observed on the entrance of “ grandmère.” On the table stood a tureen of soupe maigre, coffee, tea, fresh milk, and chocolate, with brioches, which two dishes put in italics I wish were common on the American table. Nothing remains to be added to the details of this early breakfast except that it was enlivened by a desultory chat.
When this sort of morning lunch was over we withdrew to our respective occupations. On my arrival my host told me frankly that he was very busy, and that he should be obliged to leave me largely to myself. He had public duties to perform, and was absent most of the day. I too had work to do, and was only too glad of the opportunity of doing it without prejudice to my position as guest. The truth is, apart from any other motive, one gets along better on a visit of any length by having some special occupation. Should one’s work not be transportable, like that of an artist, one would do well to get up such work as extra reading or correspondence, — both parties, host and guest, being gainers by it. All of this family attended to their business without apparently concerning themselves with their guests. “ Madame ” every morning made a tour of inspection of the garden and grounds, to trim flowers, look at the chickens, and so on, on which tours I would often accompany her. But this did not consume much time. Her chief occupation in the morning was teaching her children, for which she was well qualified. French mothers in France often — I will not say always — instruct their children themselves. Public primary schools are not found everywhere; and even if they were, the best class of parents in France would not avail themselves of them.
I now come to breakfast, the regular breakfast, announced by a bell suspended out-doors at one angle of the house, and which took place at eleven o’clock. All were ready for it and punctual. The menu of this meal is not important. It is only the manner of serving it, and every other meal in France, which merits special remark. In France to “ set the table ” means, generally speaking, to put nothing on it but the implements necessary for use, such as plates, knives, forks, glass, and napkins, with carafes of water, wine, and condiments ; add to these the dessert, consisting of fruits and various bonbons, and always an accompaniment of flowers. All meats that require to be carved are cut up on dishes, at a side table, and passed around by the waiter, who likewise changes plates and watches the wants of those who are eating. Vegetables and the solids of the dessert are served in like manner. The result is such an economy of time and labor, such a relief to the heads of the house, such an absence of confusion, such aesthetic enjoyment, owing in the first place to order, and secondly to agreeable harmonies of color in the fruit and flowers before you, and especially to untrammeled conversation, that one wonders at the maintenance of the “ good old English fashion ” of a literally “ groaning board,” rattling plates, incessant interruptions, and general discomfort. The English system of serving meals may be based on a willingness to present the best the house can afford, together with a personal interest in the fullness of the supply, but I am certain that the French system has the advantage of it in quiet, comfort, and refinement. The other peculiarity of the French table, a steady stream of conversation, which renders it unique, I reserve for comment when I reach what I have to say about the French dinner.
After breakfast, which was sometimes followed by a half hour’s stroll through the grounds, we resumed our work. For three hours “ all was still through the house.” At four o’clock in the afternoon the mail came. Newspapers and correspondence kept us occupied for a time, according to the interests of public or private matters. When these were disposed of it was the hour for recreation. So regularly was recreation followed up, that I looked upon it as a family tradition. Whether walking, bathing, playing some out-door game, or making an excursion in the woods or on the water, something of this kind always occupied what remained of the afternoon. It is needless to state that everybody was the more ready for dinner on account of it.
Dinner in France is supposed to be the one great event of the day. So it is, but not because it is a feeding operation. On the contrary, this French meal is a domestic symposium, in which head and heart take precedence of the stomach. The interest and value of a meal in France depend more on the social than on the culinary element. Old Izaak Walton’s dictum that the company makes the feast, and not the food, is of special significance in France. One rarely sees a Frenchman dining alone, not for the reason that he wants some one to look at, or to drink with, but because he wishes some one to talk to. Conversation, accordingly, renders the French table unique. I am inclined to think that the modern French dinner-table is the substitute for the old salon to which the " feast of reason and the flow of soul ” used to be wholly confined. In any event, the chief attraction of the French table nowadays is conversation. How it originates, and what its leading points are, is worth stating.
It begins with the prattle of children. French children have a seat at table with their seniors almost as soon as weaned. What attention they receive at table depends, of course, on discipline ; the significant fact is that they mingle with their elders, at the outset of their careers, on what may be called common ground. An expression of sentiments and ideas belonging to successive stages of intellectual growth is encouraged. The effect of this custom is to secure a natural play of emotions and ideas : the child’s mind is stimulated from without; its eyes are fixed on objects, and its heart on persons.1 Children thus treated are not made morbidly sensitive through the machinery of conscience, or distrustful of themselves through doubt of behaving in conformity with some absolute rule of conduct which a child’s mind is not capable of comprehending. It is questionable whether a French child knows what it is to behave as it “ ought ” to do. If it behaves badly through the innate “old Adam,” right conduct is not due to maxims, but rather to some injunction of obedience which makes the child perceive that it is agreeable or disagreeable to others. Children growing up under such treatment, expressing their feelings and ideas openly and disingenuously, with no restraint on them but that of finding themselves in unsympathetic relations, talk well and act politely because they talk and act spontaneously and naturally. The abuse of this system through parental indulgence may stimulate the child’s vanity, but it does not make it a pretender or hypocrite.
People thus educated are capable of talking, and of talking well, because there is no inward or outward brake on the natural flow of emotions and ideas. The charm of what they say does not depend on quality of idea or on mode of expression, but rather on latitude of expression. Ideas do not proceed from, nor are they hampered by, preconceived notions of what one ought to say, or believe, to show one’s knowledge, breeding, character, or aspiration. The terms “trifling,” “proper,” “highly instructive,” “light,” “serious,” and so on, either of praise or censure, and denoting what conversation should be to be edifying, have no more application to it than to the music of an opera. In few words, French conversation is not an acquired art, but a special grace, evolved out of peculiar experiences and habits; it is not didactic or dogmatic, but a spontaneous utterance, by young and old, of any idea, fancy, or sentiment that comes uppermost. The only restraint upon the conversational facility is politeness. Irritating subjects are kept within bounds by good taste and feeling, if not by principle. Whatever indicates sectarianism is repelled ; susceptibility on account of contrary opinions is considered weakness, and the person who manifests it a bore. Earnestness, eccentricity even, is admired, but not exclusiveness. The mind possessed by one idea, the pedant, the reformer, is never twice welcome. But two sins are regarded as mortal among the French, — dullness and pretension. He or she who “ poses,”either in deportment or intellectually, is ridiculed or avoided. If, in sum, the French are “good talkers from infancy to old age,” it is owing to their being cheerful, intelligent, and deferential. To return to the house of my friend, with whom all these traits were conspicuous. We dined always in fair weather in the open air, a luxury which climate and freedom from annoying insects permitted. Our table was placed on the gravel walk in the shadow of two large altheas which served to screen us from the setting sun. Those who pleased sat with their hats on. Grandmere was ensconced in a canopy basket-chair, such as bathers use, to shield her from the breeze. Our meal lasted a couple of hours, far into the twilight, and longer still when there was a moon. On one occasion, at the dessert, my hostess favored us with a song of which the chorus involved three smart raps on the table, in time with the music, — such a thumping and rattling of glasses ! On another occasion our talk turned on the subject of ballads, whereupon my host called upon his daughter to sing one of mediaeval times, lately brought to light by an eminent savant, the subject of which was Christ, in a mendicant garb, wandering about the world to test the charity of mankind. The words and music of this quaint ballad, its pathos heightened by the young girl’s plaintive voice, as she sang it in the “ soft stillness which becomes the touches of sweet harmony,” form, if not a typical incident, at least a charming reminiscence.
After dinner came in-door amusements until bed-time. To amuse the children was the first thing. We men folks joined them in a sort of miniature ten-pins on the billiard-table. Afterwards, when mamma came in, she exercised them in a game of questions designed to perfect them in their knowledge of history and geography. At length the bonne appeared, which was the signal for their withdrawal, and they kissed us good-night. After their departure the rest sat down to a game of “ Boston,” 2 at which grandmere was specially diverted. At eleven o’clock some simple beverage was brought in, and then we parted for the night.
This simple melody of existence had its variations. A magnificent walnuttree on the place shaded a fine, turfy croquet ground. An old gentleman and his daughter, with two other young ladies who lived near by, frequently came to play this game. This gentleman was about sixty, and he played well; but, being one of those ardent, impulsive, domineering Frenchmen who do not believe in anybody’s capacity but their own, he made the game a serious affair. On failing to score a point, which was rare, he winced, but said nothing; let any one on his side do the same thing, and he visited them with a torrent of critical instruction which made one tremble. What struck me most on these occasions was to see a man of his years as lively and youthful, and as much absorbed with the game, as any of the young folks. Another thing struck me even to astonishment, namely, three young women of about twenty, in plain but becoming attire, outspoken, natural, easy, and so much occupied with their game as not to be aware that anybody was looking at them.
One day a widowed lady in the neighborhood invited us to breakfast. The invitation involved a ride back in the mountains to a certain town whose prosperity was largely due to the intercourse of its inhabitants with the United States. Some of its citizens had emigrated to this country, and returned home with ample fortunes. A statue, indeed, was to be inaugurated the following week, on its little public square, in honor of one of these, who had died and bequeathed to the commune a fine hospital. Our party was a merry one. Two of the young ladies, sisters, above referred to, accompanied us. The archness and gayety of these young people; their joyous exclamations at the striking features of the scenery ; their glee, fun, and frolic ; in short, the charm of fresh, innocent, unaffected, impressionable natures, prevailed with me over the beauties of the landscape. In the midst of our jollity grandmere became somewhat fatigued, and as we were passing a cascade with a chalet alongside of it under the cliff from which the water fell in one plunge, my host concluded to stop and have her rest there until our return. Keeping on our course, we soon reached the town, nestling at the foot of precipitous mountains bounding one side of the valley, and which, with its quaint architecture and winding streets, had a special interest ; but it was too clean to be picturesque. Repairs were visible, and there was a good deal of fresh paint and whitewash. Mediaeval dirt seemed to have been washed off, and there was no dilapidation about it, nor disagreeable odors, all of which probably shows the reaction of the New World on the Old through the more cleanly habits of its Americanized and prosperous inhabitants. A fête day, however, enhanced its attractions. The people, dressed in their Sunday’s best, — which by the bye was not homespun, but consisted mostly of the brilliant products of the modern loom, — thronged the streets, or were leaning from the windows of their apartments gossiping and commenting on what was going on in the streets. The young ladies of our party had relatives in the town, one of whom, an uncle, had died the year before. As they had not been there since his death, they proposed to visit the cemetery. Obtaining the key, we followed them outside the town, where we found the city of the dead, like the mansions of the living, surrounded by silent, towering old mountains. The cemetery was overrun with weeds, and its walls were dilapidated. In one corner, however, stood a plain mural tablet with a neat iron railing before it, hung with wreaths of immortelles and inclosing a small area of ground decked with flowers. “ There,” said one of the sisters in a low voice, “ is my uncle’s grave ; ” both then went to the grave, knelt down side by side, bowed their heads, and remained there some time in silent prayer. When we left the cemetery the sun had disappeared behind the mountains. Our homeward ride in the evening light was more grave than gay. My host and his mother stood awaiting our coming at the cascade. On taking their seats in the vehicle, they told us all about a poor girl whom they had seen in the chalet, bent almost double with an affection of the spine, but who was nevertheless as cheerful as if she had been in the most perfect health. On asking her parents how this affliction had come upon her, they simply replied that they did not know; “it was the will of le bon Dieu” The incident excited comment on the great comfort of religious faith in such cases. My host said that it reminded him of Turgénieffs vivid description of a similar case in Les Reliques Vivantes. The next day he dispatched a package of dainties, together with a few books, to add something to the enjoyment of the poor girl’s life.
Another variation of our every-day life was this. A lovely summer day chanced to be the anniversary of my host’s birth. In other words, it was “ papa’s ” fête day. We had been occupied as usual until just before dinner, when, as my host and myself were talking together, madame beckoned me to join her behind the house. “ Ah ! ” exclaimed my host, turning away, “I know what that means.” Obeying the summons, I found madame distributing bouquets to the little group which had assembled there out of sight; two each to her father, to the four children and the bonne, with two for myself. Forming in procession, with madame at the head of it, we marched along in single file to the front of the house, where papa and grandmere appeared, seated side by side, the latter in her basketchair. Shouting, laughing, and singing, the old and the young together, we advanced in the highest glee. Mamma first presented her bouquets, and was affectionately embraced by grandmere and papa; and then each of the children in turn presented theirs, down to the bonne, all being greeted alike. After this the little boy stood before his papa and recited a fable in French, which was followed by one in English recited by his sister, and the ceremony was over. We then seated ourselves at the table. Is it necessary to add that our dinner was hilarious, and that the day is an ever bright one in memory’s calendar?
The reader may think the foregoing commonplace. Perhaps it is. If so, the fault is more mine than that of the subject. Or, if he is willing to accept it as truthful portraiture, he may charge me with trying to convey a general impression by an exceptional instance. This 1 cannot admit. What I have stated indicates the spirit of French domestic life everywhere. It is characteristic of life in France, from that of the peasant up to that of the aristocrat. It may be different with the purely moneyed or luxurious class, in which life everywhere is more or less conventional. Three words sum up the leading features of French domestic life, — work, play, and affection. In the foregoing example of it my host worked, his wife worked, the grandparents worked, the children worked, and their guests worked — if they had a mind to. But this work was, as Dr. Coan well observes, that which consists in “ natural power healthfully exerted.” When work was over time was devoted to recreation, while the whole was gilded by affection; it is to me living, in the best sense of the term. And so is it everywhere in France, according to facilities, aptitudes, and discipline. In French domiciles generally, the racket of the machinery of life is not heard ; nor is the machinery kept out of sight by furniture and specious formality. Worn features do not betray an undercurrent of toil, care, and anxiety ; one is not obliged to accept mute repose as recreation, nor forced attempts to say something as successful efforts at pleasing. Duty and pleasure, gavety and tranquillity, seem to be complementary colors in French domesticity. Nor are the comforts and enjoyments of life due to money. In the foregoing instance my host was a plain bourgeois, having no exceptional advantage but culture and an income sufficient for moderate wants. The only supplement to this income was the produce of his small estate, which about paid the wages of his servants. Of course in this situation, compared with an American situation on the same social plane, my host had the advantage of a superior class of domestics, lower wages, and a degree of public order externally which is unknown to us. But it is not these advantages, or money, or fine houses, or advanced theories of progress which enable French people to live and live well. The secret of it lies in contentment. French people are tolerably well satisfied with their lot in life and their position in society. Whatever they do to improve these, they do not overstep the limitations of means and education. No Frenchman is anxious to sell his dwelling for the sake of making something by the transaction ; nor is he prompted to move out of it by restlessness and ambition. In any event, when he does yield to the temptation of gain or to better himself in any way, he is too shrewd to do it at the expense of mind, body, capital, and family. French life, in the words of Matthew Arnold, exhibits a “serenity and dignified freedom from petty cares” which we rarely encounter.
It is now pertinent to assign some of the causes of these social traits. I shall cite but three or four: climate and soil, kinds of labor, system of religious discipline, and the institution of the family, the last mentioned being the most important.
Climate and soil have a good deal to do with French social characteristics. The climate of France is a happy mean between the two extremes of temperature ; it is never so cold for any length of time as to make a subsistence precarious and people over-provident, nor ever warm enough to render them indolent. The soil, again, is favorably situated geographically, and exceptionally fertile; the products of France are extensively consumed all over the world, while the rivers of the country and its range of seacoast enable them to be cheaply and readily exported. Wealth is therefore easily acquired. The people born on the soil love to stay there, emigration never being the least of two evils.
Kind of labor, and its ratio of compensation has much to do with social characteristics. While certain species of labor tend to enfeeble the body and keep man brutal, others strengthen it and add to his refinement. Manufacturing labor seems to be more prejudicial to human development than agricultural labor. The large centres of population which it creates appear to favor degeneracy. People living in manufacturing districts are not so healthy as those who live on farms, with the advantage of more air and sunshine. If the manufacturing class is as thrifty as any other, it does not enjoy the same security for its investments ; no deposit in a bank is so reliable as that which accrues from and is vested in the soil. Manufacturing people, again, are more the victims of commercial and political convulsions. In manufacturing towns, too, is begot that half-knowledge which renders the laboring class discontented as well as turbulent, as we see among the French communists, who are all denizens of large towns and cities. Next after this is the ratio of compensation for labor in relation to its quality, which is another important social agency. Artistic labor, skilled labor, that which is done with the least waste of mental and bodily vigor, and accompanied with the highest wages, is that which best develops the individual for the advantage of society. In France agricultural labor is of this description, the energy which it calls forth being better indemnified than elsewhere. French crops, on the average, bring in more money to their cultivators than those of any other country do to their cultivators. But the most valuable labor to France, morally and materially, is that which flows from French artistic sentiment, which sentiment is supposed to be a racial advantage. It is rather due to the greater emotional freedom the people enjoy (of which the source will be indicated farther on), coupled with superior material advantages, as above mentioned, and greater educational facilities. French taste and economy issue from this artistic sentiment. The so-called practical habits of the French, their capacity for organization, both of which traits show superior calculation of means to ends, are due to this sentiment. Proofs of French success in this line may be found all the way up from the administration of the kitchen to that of the kingdom.
The next cause, purely psychological, which throws some light on the social traits of the French consists of the system of religious discipline under which they have been brought up. This, as every one knows, is the system of Catholicism. I must premise to the reader that, in what follows, I am not advocating that system, but am simply endeavoring to show how certain effects are produced by a mental process which Catholicism illustrates better than Protestantism.
Two cardinal principles underlie the systems of Catholicism and Protestantism ; each takes an opposite view of conscience. In the mind of the Protestant, conscience is the sole authority ; in the mind of the Catholic, conscience is not an authority. The Protestant, thinking for himself, judges his own and others’ conduct; the Catholic, whatever he may do with others’ conduct, submits his own to his church. These are the two principles with which each, respectively, starts in life. Another detail of Protestant conviction must be stated, which is that man is naturally wicked. The Catholic thinks so, too; but as his church takes his sins on its back, this thought does not trouble his conscience. We will now trace the effects of these two different theories.
The Protestant, in whom conscience presides over “ heart, temper, and action,” begins very early to watch his emotions. He accordingly checks them before they fully ripen. Through an early planting in the mind of the idea of perversity, his emotions are unduly bridled ; natural, healthy impulses are nipped in the bud. By this course, the emotions not maturing, they become dulled, not alone through inward restraint, but through a lack of the sympathetic reaction which proceeds from their contact with those of other people. Emotional habits, so to say, are more or less suppressed or perverted. Conduct of all kinds, consequently, in a mind thus turned in on itself, is tried by a subjective standard. It is difficult, for instance, for a mind thus disciplined to admit the excellence of a superior intelligence. Feeling, abnormally arrested, languishes through insufficient nutriment, or flows powerfully in one direction, the same as when, on pinching the sprays of a grape-vine, its leaves become unusually large. Whatever character may gain in stability by this order of self-discipline it loses in gentleness, delicacy, and geniality. Considered in relation to religious discipline, the value and beauty of this character do not appear until manhood, when the battle of ]ife has to be fought on an independent ground.
The system of Catholicism produces different results and for different purposes. Here conscience is not left to itself; checks on the emotions come from without, which checks conscience early in life is never aware of. Personal conviction is not the test of one’s own or of other people’s conduct. The self-discipline of an ignorant or impassible nature is not the court of last appeal in estimating an intelligent, sensitive, cultivated nature. Catholicism not leaving the mind free, it is not harassed by doubts, nor does it flatter itself with Self-made opinions. Instead of emotional habits being suppressed or perverted by a self-questioning process, they are fostered by outward influences, which, it is true, are brought to bear for ulterior objects, but which nevertheless leave the emotions to a certain extent free. This freedom is allowed during youth. It is in youth that the emotions take root. Catholicism in the early stages of life brings them out, waters them, feeds them, and protects them from the outside world. Whatever spiritual walls it erects around the emotions, these walls inclose a sufficiently large moral area for their exercise, while they are so concealed by the vines, leaves, and flowers of the imagination as not to be regarded as barriers to free-will. This method of mental discipline is not for adults, who think for themselves, but it eminently favors in the young the growth of cheerfulness, vivacity, joyousness, and enthusiasm, qualities that are incompatible with a system of restraint which engenders doubt.
Certain facts on a large scale seem to demonstrate the truth of the foregoing theory. Protestant nations, with whom conscience is all-powerful, are not remarkable to anything like the same extent as Catholic nations for either social or artistic attainments. France is more noted for social qualities than England, while the same is true of Southern Germany, which is Catholic, in contrast with Northern Germany, which is Protestant. Again, Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, and even Holland, all more or less inspired by Catholic ideas and culture, take precedence in art of any Protestant country. The secret of it is a freer emotional development. In literature, all the great English writers of the Renaissance epoch, — an epoch that grew out of the emancipation of human emotions from absolute theological rule, — Shakespeare and the rest, were the product of the Catholic régime. No one can read Milton without recognizing that his was an emotional nature of the finest stamp in unnatural conflict with the restraints of Protestantism.
I now come to the last of the causes which seem to account for the great charm of French domestic life, — the institution of the family. We Americans have the word family, but not the thing itself ; at all events, the word with us does not convey the same meaning as with the French. Here, again, it is necessary to present a contrast, that the difference may be easily perceptible.
The formation of the American family is simple; scarcely any condition is requisite for parentage but the age of puberty. Any energetic young man may choose Ids mate ; any young woman may accept for her husband whoever pleases her. Fair opportunity is afforded to each to ascertain the other’s qualities. Courtesy and natural affection alone control parental consent. It is not incumbent on either party to furnish capital with which to commence the business of life ; nothing is deemed necessary but mutual faith and unbounded hope. As far as any legal or social restraint goes, both parties may morally gratify that natural social instinct which makes one flesh of two complementary halves. Did subsequent knowledge and experience keep alive the sentiment with which a union of this kind is formed, and so maintain a series of material conditions in harmony with the first step which costs, the American family would be perfect.
When children come to the family thus constituted, education begins. The American boy is fairly prepared for manhood; he is early impressed with the idea that he is an independent factor, and has to make his own way in the world. The girl is prepared for womanhood on the same principle ; she is early impressed with the equivalent and natural idea that she is to choose a husband. It would be unjust to say that these ideas are positively inculcated on boy or girl; they are ideas diffused in the social atmosphere which, like exhalations from the ground, seize youth mentally as malaria seizes the body. But even if this were not the case, the degree of improvident and unrestrained instincts which obtains with us would be quite sufficient to warrant such conceptions in youthful brains.
As far as the conservative influence of property goes in the formation of the American family, none is inherent in its organization. Every American has the right to do as he pleases with his own ; consequently, he has the right to disinherit his children. This principle of personal independence and personal right, indeed, underlies all our activity, and is only to be restricted through the severest experiences. As things now are, property and fortune in the American family are accumulated more for the advantage of the boy than for the girl ; seldom is a girl sure of a cent from her parents on forming a matrimonial alliance. Money is sometimes furnished to the young man to start him in business, while the girl, on entering upon the business of her life, has to do without it. ln France, as soon as the girl is born, the parents begin to save for her dot. Some people think that the American theory, as above shown, begets the virtue of self-reliance; they must remember that excessive self-reliance is the leading characteristic of the savage.
The moral restraints growing out of this hap-hazard combination of individuals into a family group are likewise feeble. Parental cares and duties, the material difficulties of living, prevent both father and mother from carefully superintending the education of their offspring. The common-school system, a vast public machine which too largely relieves them of the trouble, takes their place. They are also powerless in the regulation of their children’s associations: girls, in spite of parents, find their own friends, while boys do likewise, and seek their own amusements. One of the proofs of the ease with which this is done is the fact that young people often engage themselves, and indeed marry, without their parents’ knowledge. What is true in relation to associates and amusements in the American family is true of literature and religion : children are free to select their own reading and their own spiritual advisers. It is by no means an uncommon thing to see American families divided on theological questions.
The law affords but little protection to the American family as a distinct, organized institution. With the exception of the ordinances concerning marriage as a civil contract and certain marital restrictions for the sake of order, the laxity of which is apparent in the facility with which divorces and separations are procured ; the regulation of a wife’s dowry, simply a post-mortem guarantee of support; and the laws compelling parents to support minors, there is none of any positive importance. Children are not required to support parents, while the principle of paternal authority is of scarcely any significance either in legislation or through tradition. The emancipation of the child is complete on its attaining a legal age. The individual, with us, is the unit of society. Political freedom is made the criterion of social freedom. The family as an institution disappears under the value of a vote. The American family, consequently, is simply an aggregation of human units, with few principles of cohesion except those of natural instinct. One illustration will be sufficient to show this state of things in all its bearings : a man in America may marry a woman, have six children by her, obtain a divorce on the ground of incompatibility of temper, wed another woman, settle all his property on her, disinherit the children by the first wife, and still move about, unquestioned and unchallenged. In this case are summed up all the evils that flow from “ the right to do as one pleases.” Thanks to superior facilities for earning money in this new country, and the ease with which women can procure husbands, the family system, or rather lack of it, is thus far comparatively innocuous. The demoralization which ensues from it will be fully apparent when, through the pressure of population, there arises a worse conflict of rights and interests than is now imminent.
In France the family is not a sentimental group, but a complicated and carefully guarded social compact. It forms the unit of society. Outside of the family individuals are, in a measure, so much refuse material; the state awards them protection, but their interests and capacities are not considered in the polity of the country as of chief importance.
The formation of a family in France is a serious affair. Sentiment has a good deal to do with it, but not the fleeting sentiment of youthful inexperience ; its organization is based on the wear and tear of life for the good of the community. Instead of two young independent factors being allowed to form an irresponsible union, they are obliged to submit to the dictates of experience and good sense. The likings of two parties are heeded and respected, but they are not the ultimate criterion of fitness ; the important things required in the formation of a family are a sufficient amount of capital, giving aguarantee that it will be kept up, also a proper degree of social equality. Unions in France made up of parties of diverse education and means are rare. This is brought about through the management of the dot or dowry question. Hence the formalities of the marriage contract, the moral issues of which are ten times greater than its material issues.
In the French family, education begins with children as it does in the American family. But the system of education is radically different. I do not follow up that of boys, in which the difference is less perceptible ; but that of girls, in whom, as it should be, the integrity, beauty, and perpetuity of the family is vested. It is sufficient to state that the French girl grows up almost wholly under maternal supervision ; literally, she is never out of her mother’s sight. It might be supposed that she has a hard time of it, which is not the case. She is not stinted in pleasures or associates. Almost any French family, as far as these go, supply to girls in their teens more real enjoyment in one month than girls anywhere else obtain in a year. The French girl’s mind is not dwarfed by nursery ways, by the formal prescriptions of a governess, or by theories of riding, driving, hunting, visiting, or voting. She sits at table with her elders from infancy up, listens to their conversation, shares in their amusements, and is never overlooked in their out-door recreations. The French girl grows up an integral part of a system which, it is not too much to say, is specially devised for her benefit.
These habits, through which the integrity as well as vigor of feminine nature is preserved, are not so much matters of intellectual direction as they are the combined result of legislation and custom. One of the important principles of the French family, sanctioned both by law and tradition, is that of paternal authority. All the stipulations of the marriage contract, in which the property rights of man and wife are equitably adjusted and fully understood beforehand, are made subservient to this cardinal principle. The administration of all family interests in relation to society is vested in the husband ; it is he who controls enterprises, investments, the location of the family, and who pronounces on the settlement of children by marriage or otherwise. The great idea is this: he is the natural protector and director of the family unit. This supreme authority, the grandeur as well as the abuse of which is apparent in the Mirabeau family, is never lost sight of. If latent and imperceptible, it is always active when the occasion calls for it. It never lapses. At the father’s death it becomes vested in the mother ; and if both die, and there are no grandparents living, it reverts to a family council. The child grows up conscious of and obedient to this authority. The French husband, at the same time, is not wholly “ free to do as he likes with his own ; ” he cannot alienate his property to the disadvantage of his children, as his freedom of bequest is strictly limited. The value of his power is essentially moral. In relation to sons, a rebellious youth may incur debts, even mortgage his inheritance, and indulge in the wildest dissipation, but he cannot marry and thus victimize a new series of existences, before he is thirty, without his father’s consent. Should he do so, he imperils his patrimony and forfeits all claim to respect. Generally speaking, by the time a young man reaches the age of thirty he has sown his wild oats, and is ready to avail himself of family privileges and family protection.
The greatest benefit of this family organization enures to the daughter. She grows up in close sympathy with her mother, reverencing her father, and, if conscious of being a matrimonial object, content to let her parents decide for her in this as always before in other matters. The mother is the constant guardian of her daughter’s purity, and in the organization of the family is a guarantee of her intellectual integrity.
I say nothing of the conservative effect of religions observances. More important than these is the protection a French young girl enjoys against current theories and events that excite curiosity on the bad side of life. Again, she is carefully protected from the fascinations of amusements and literature. Three significant channels of mental corruption are accordingly under control in the French family: gossip, the press, and the theatre. As to gossip, which is a much more educational instrumentality than people imagine, the mother, like an engineer on duty, lets on just as much steam as she pleases ; whatever curiosity this may excite, the mother is the judge to what extent it shall be gratified. If newspapers are allowed for perusal, they are of that class, fortunately possessed by the French, that do the minimum of mischief in the way of worldly information. The American reader who finds the best French newspaper uninteresting may judge whether girls would be likely to take to them. There is a good deal more circumspection in relation to novels and the stage. Improper novels do not find their way into the family circle. Perhaps they do surreptitiously, but even then they prove innocuous on taking into account free access to a circulating library. As to the stage, whoever frequents French theatres and sees how few “ pretty girls ” there are in the house, can readily appreciate family discipline in this direction. The French girl, it must be understood, is not excluded from either of these sources of entertainment any more than she is excluded from a dinner ; care only is taken that the healthy intellectual nutriment which gossip, the press, and the theatre afford shall not be rendered deleterious by social and literary condiments better adapted to stronger palates. Through this system of circumspection the emotional element of a French girl’s nature is confined to the heart rather than to the head; in other words, the natural current of feeling is not diverted into that engendered by uncontrolled curiosity. The French girl grows up, accordingly, dependent to a great extent on the affections, absorbed in the lives of the persons around her, and hence more confiding in human beings generally.
Radicals in France, those who are attacking the established order of things, sneer at and ridicule this mode of education. I will not stop to argue the point with them. One of its effects is to preserve intact the feminine qualities most prized and sought after by men, the high estimate of which is the guarantee of their own civilization and refinement ; and another is to preserve and fortify that spirit of trust in and fidelity to man which is natural to woman, when honorably treated, and which characterizes all epochs of vigorous social development. The absence of solicitude in these matters anywhere is more due to egoism than to philanthropy.
The foregoing sketch of the French family, meagre as it is, may serve to explain both the repose and brightness of French domestic life. The secret of it lies in the solidarity of feeling and interests which its members enjoy. The large and small wheels of the family organization are adjusted so as to keep excellent time. Fathers and mothers, through the wise provisions of the nuptial contract, which anticipates the contingencies of a matrimonial career, are not harried by cares and duties, and have time to think, to eat, and to enjoy themselves. Their children profit immensely by parental leisure and freedom from anxieties. Children are not rendered precocious by “ glittering generalities,” nor hardened by neglect and the absence of sympathy : the boy has an opportunity to obtain knowledge without worrying about an unknown future, while a girl is not thrown too rudely back upon the chances of a situation which makes marriage, with us, a mere lottery. None of the parties forming the French family are floating about on an ocean of uncertainty, at once solicitous and reckless of the passing hour. It is a harbor of refuge at all times, to all its members. In it the aged are sure of support in their declining years, while it is a retreat for the prodigal, whose sins are readily forgotten. The French family, in short, is a fold in which human emotions work more naturally for human happiness than is commonly seen elsewhere.
A comprehension of the French family organization furnishes a key to a great many phenomena of the national life. It largely helps to explain the centralization of the government. It accounts for that patriotic sentiment which has a deeper root than in purely material interests ; that love of country which makes the children of the soil, never too many to be supported on it, unwilling to emigrate from it, and, when they do, which brings them back to it with tenfold ardor; that capacity for recuperation when reduced by adversity ; that admiration, in fine, which the people of all countries instinctively, and sometimes intelligently, yield to France as a remarkable centre of civilization.
- The bad side of this custom is probably an over-development of the perceptive faculties, which is very remarkable in some Frenchmen.↩
- A game of cards, named after Boston, Massachusetts, during the investment of this city by the English in our Revolutionary War, at which time it was invented in France. One of its terms, misère, denotes a supposed phase of the siege. The game is made up from whist and one called reversis, fashionable in the time of Louis XIV., as we see in Madame do Sévigné’s letters.↩