French and English: Fourth Paper



IT is a commonplace that the French and English of to-day are extremely unlike each other ; wonderfully unlike each other, considering that they are such near neighbors, and the two principal representatives of Western civilization in Europe.

Has the unlikeness always been as marked as it is now, or has there been a time in the past history of the two nations when they resembled each other on some points now marked by trenchant differences ?

The answer appears to be that the French and English have at certain periods of the past been much less unlike each other than they are to-day, but yet that the extreme of dissimilarity has been reached at a later period, and that, in the present day, the slow but sure action of causes that may be indicated is bringing about a diminution of that extreme dissimilarity without, however, giving grounds for any belief or hope that the two nations can ever be very like each other in the future.

Recent historians, especially Mr. Freeman, have taught us to realize much more clearly than we did thirty years ago the truth that the kings of the house of Anjou were French kings, and that the governing classes in the England which they ruled were essentially a French noblesse. The Frenchifying influence of kings and nobles might have gone on doing its work in later ages, gradually approximating the entire English nations to French customs, had not a great mental revolution occurred in England which made the English thenceforward a peculiar people, strongly differing not only from the French, but from all the other Continental nations whatever. The result of that revolution, as it affects our time, is that England resembles no nation in the world except her own colonies, including, of course, the great kindred nation in America.

That revolution was Puritanism, a far more important thing than the change from a monarchical to a republican form of government, because it really changed the mental habits of the nation, making English people a peculiar people thenceforth, quite incomprehensible by the French ; making English customs differ from Continental customs more widely than they had ever differed before ; changing even the fundamental character of the English mind by chastening and repressing the light-hearted gayety of merry England, and substituting for it a gravity often deepening into gloom; replacing the old morals by severer morals, and the old religion by a faith less picturesque and less indulgent, consequently less in harmony with French feeling.

There is a temptation to exaggerate the importance of historical influences when once they have been perceived, but one can hardly exaggerate the importance of Puritanism in the history of the English people, especially in the history of the middle classes, where it is still predominant at the present day. Both the qualities and the defects that distinguish the British middle classes are for the most part directly traceable to the influence of Puritanism, and so are those feelings and opinions of which they themselves have forgotten the origin.

A middle-class English family goes to Paris.1 In due course of time a Sunday comes; or rather, not a Sunday, but a Dimanche. The English family has heard of a French Sunday before, but is unable to realize it by mere force of imagination. On actually seeing it, the repression received is that the French are all intentional Sabbath-breakers, — that the amusements which go forward on that day are a clear evidence of French wickedness. Some good English or Scotch people are so shocked by what they see that they recognize in the defeat of 1870 a just punishment for this national sin of Sabbath-breaking. They do not realize that what they see is not the French Sunday in particular, but the Continental Sunday in general; still less do they remember that it is also the English Sunday of pre-Puritanic times, — those times now so remote in memory, and yet historically still so near, when the English had not yet become a peculiar people, but lived like the other nations of western Europe. The English of Shakespeare’s time went to the theatre on Sunday,2 and after morning service in the churches they enjoyed many active games and recreations, including dancing, archery, and leaping.3 Now as there is nothingmore visible than external differences of custom, and as people are separated even more by visible differences than by those which are invisible, and as on one day out of seven those differences are now strikingly apparent between the English and French peoples, it is evident that on the one day when they differ most they must feel infinitely more estranged from each other than their ancestors could have felt on the same day.

The modern disapproval felt by British visitors for the conduct of French people on Sunday is due in great part to the cautious conduct of the Roman Catholic minority in England, who do not venture to show openly what kind of Sunday it is which their church would hold to be innocently employed. To avoid scandal in a country where the influence of Puritanism is still powerful, they keep a Sunday that is outwardly almost a Sabbath, and are careful to avoid many recreations that the Church of Rome has always freely permitted. In fact, that church permits all recreations on the first day of the week that she sanctions on any other, including the most active exercises. What she really forbids is lucrative professional labor. A lawyer should not study a case on Sunday, unless there is urgent necessity, but he is perfectly free to amuse himself, however noisily, in sawing and hammering. A professional artist may do better not to paint, but an amateur, working for recreation, may take his apparatus into the fields. Disinterested studies of all kinds are permitted by the church on Sunday. It is not in a Roman Catholic country that geologists would be in danger of being stoned, as they have been in Scotland, for hammering at rocks on that day.

Here is the way in which some very religious French people spent a Sunday this year, I being one of the party. They went to mass early in the morning, in the chapel of the nearest château ; then they made preparations for receiving their friends. The friends came after déjeuner, two families, in addition to seven guests staying in the house. Some of them remained in the garden, sat about in camp chairs and talked : others went to the village fête, where, of course, there was a great deal of dancing and other amusements, which they looked upon quite benevolently. Now, it so happened that those who went to the fête were the most religious people of the whole party. On their return we had dinner, and the most religious people were by no means the least merry. After dinner the young ladies gave us some music, and one of them played a waltz. This set the young people dancing, and so a dance was improvised, which lasted till eleven o’clock, when the guests drove away in the moonlight.4

Perhaps the English and Scotch may have given up dancing on Sunday more readily than if they had been by nature as saltatory as the French are, but the British have given up many things that they cared for passionately. They gave up salmon-fishing, for example, which was not readily put down in Scotland, and the new legislation attained in the end that supreme success of the legislator when he establishes a very durable custom that would survive the repeal of his law. The power of the dead Puritans is shown in nothing more wonderfully than in the abstinence of British sportsmen when the 12th of August5 occurs on a Sunday, and every fowlingpiece in the British islands remains unloaded till Monday morning.

The history of this divergence from Continental custom may be written in two sentences. Puritanism obtained power to legislate, and made recreation illegal on Sunday. By laws of great severity it established new customs, which have now, by lapse of time, become rather old customs; and these have completely obliterated from the ordinary British mind all traces of any recollection that the still older British customs were like those of the Continental nations.

Opinion has gone even beyond legislation itself, by a process of growth and development. Here is an example. An amateur violinist was staying in an English house for a few days, including the first day of the week. He took his violin out of its case, and began to play a little in private. The lady of the house immediately entered the room, and begged him to desist. “ I am playing sacred music,” he answered. “ This is part of Handel’s Messiah.” “ That does not signify,” was the rejoinder. “ The music may be sacred, but the instrument is not.” Here is a new development in the distinction between sacred and profane instruments, and a very subtle distinction it is. The organ, the harmonium, — in default of these, even the commonplace piano, — these are sacred instruments, but not the voice-like violin. Yet the violin is but the lyre — “ Jubal’s lyre ” — made capable of far more perfect expression.

When I lived in Scotland I had occasion to observe another very subtle distinction. It is forbidden to labor on the Sabbath Day, yet I found that the toilsome work of rowing was looked upon as innocent in comparison with sailing. This was because a white sail had rather a festive appearance. I was especially blamed for not removing the flag from my sailing boat, for the same reason, though it might be argued that there can be nothing unholy in the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George.

Another matter in which the modern English distinguish themselves from the French is the extreme purity of their literature. English books, with few exceptions, can be read aloud. In French literature, on the contrary, there is often either an extreme plainness of speech, which is not really immorality, or a seeking of interest in immoral situations, which is itself unquestionably immoral. In both cases alike, although there is an immense moral difference, the result is a misfortune for literature, as it is no longer suitable for all readers.

There can be no doubt that the purity of the Victorian literature constitutes an enviable superiority for England, and English authors may be proud of it, though perhaps the quality may be less decidedly due to them than to the restrictions imposed by their readers. Thackeray certainly chafed under these restrictions ;6 Swinburne, Rossetti, and others have openly rebelled against them. What concerns us at present is that purity in English literature is of recent attainment. Byron had none of it. Shelley’s most sustained and most mature composition deals with a situation transcending ordinary immorality. As we go back into the past we find increasing licentiousness. What can be said of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries ? Without lingering amongst lesser authors, we may come at once to Shakespeare, and find the king of English literature making indecent jests upon his throne.

Now, let us suppose a possible case. Every age has its tendency either towards purity or towards impurity in literature. The tendency in France has been towards Alfred Musset rather than Lamartine ; the tendency in England has been towards Wordsworth rather than Byron. There was, however, a clear possibility that English literature, simply by following old tendencies instead of new, might have been much less divergent from French literature than it happily is at present, and it is evident to those who observe the signs in contemporary work that the restraint of English opinion is now becoming irksome to certain powerful writers of both sexes. It is, therefore, a possibility that the remarkable purity of the Victorian literature may, in its perfection, be only temporary. There can be but one objection to it, — Thackeray’s objection that it diminishes the truth and power of fiction; but the cause of truth may be equally betrayed in the most opposite ways. The notions of French life in general that are conveyed by the French novelists are not less false in one direction than English fiction is in another; whilst as to the effect on the mind of the reader, the bread-and-butter of the English story-teller is undeniably healthier than the French condiments.

The best example of a difference of custom that is simply chronological is that of dueling. The English have passed out of this custom ; the French have not yet passed out of it. Like all fashions very recently discarded, it seems absurd to those who thought it a part of the order of nature a little time ago. And so completely do we forget the reasons for discarded customs that the English now look upon dueling as quite contrary to reason, having forgotten the ancient reason on which the single combat was founded. Yet it was a very good reason indeed, according to the ideas that our forefathers held about the government of the universe.

The old belief, in France and England equally, was that the appeal to arms was an appeal to divine justice, which would protect the combatant whose quarrel was rightful against the power and malice of his assailant. So long as this belief prevailed a duel was even more reasonable than an appeal to a court of justice is to-day; and in addition to being reasonable, it was distinctly a pious act, as the combatant proved his faith by staking his existence on his trust in the divine protection. “ He will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine.” The faith of David was the faith of the Middle Ages.

Dueling became unreasonable when it was dissevered from the idea of an appeal to the divine justice, — when people no longer believed that God would protect an inferior swordsman with right on his side against a better swordsman who was in the wrong. Most Frenchmen believe in natural consequences now. They believe that success in dueling is for the better fencer or the better shot, and their unreasonableness consists in continuing the practice, with such a belief as this.

There has been, however, the intervention of a sort of secondary religion between the old one and modern unbelief. There has been the religion of honor. According to this, a man of honor was bound to expose his life on certain occasions to the rapier or pistol of a private enemy, and, if he fell, he fell a martyr to this religion of honor, leaving a name unsullied by the stain of cowardice, which was the equivalent of infidelity or apostasy.

This religion survived in England even so late as the first half of the present century, and it still survives in France. The old English sentiment, — I say the old sentiment because contemporary Englishmen have got so far past it, though it is very recent in mere date, — the old English sentiment was expressed by Thackeray in the challenge sent by Clive Newcome to his cousin Barnes, and in the gratification it afforded to Sir George Tufto and to the Colonel, both of them elderly men. Nevertheless, as Thackeray knew that the religion of dueling was already dead in England when he wrote, he took care to make the action of Clive acceptable by assigning to it filial affection as a motive. The French sentiment about honor was described with disapproval in the case of De Castillonnes and Lord Kew. “ Castillonnes had no idea but that he was going to the field of honor; stood with an undaunted scowl before his enemy’s pistol ; and discharged his own, and brought down his opponent, with a grim satisfaction and a comfortable conviction afterwards that he had acted en galant homme.”

General Tufto, however, had quite the real French sentiment when he said of Sir Barnes Newcome, after he had received Clive’s challenge, “ At first I congratulated him, thinking your boy’s offer must please him, as it would have pleased any fellow in our time to have a shot.” And the Colonel himself, instead of reprimanding Clive for wishing to commit murder, “ regarded his son with a look of beautiful, inexpressible affection. And he laid his hand on his son’s shoulder and smiled, and stroked Clive’s yellow mustache.”

“ ‘ And — and did Barnes send no answer to that letter you wrote him ? ’ he said slowly.”

“ Clive broke out into a laugh that was almost a sob. He took both his father’s hands. ‘ My dear, dear old father, what an — old — trump you are! ’ My eyes were so dim I could hardly see the two men as they embraced.”

All this is much more French (even down to the embracing and the teardimmed eyes of the spectator) than the opinions professed about dueling by the English newspapers of 1886. According to them, a man who sends a challenge is ridiculous, and no more. This marks the final extinction of the old sentiment.

Another indication of this change is the ridicule of dueling on the ground that it is not dangerous. French dueling is constantly represented in English newspapers as a very safe kind of ceremony, in which a slight scratch only is to be apprehended. As to this, perhaps I may be allowed to give an instance that was brought very near home.

I had been away for several days, and on my return journey dined at a railway station. The waiter had known me for years, and, according to his custom, enlivened my solitary dinner with a little talk. He asked if I had “ heard about M. de St. Victor.” I had heard nothing. “ Because, sir,” the waiter continued, “ he was killed this morning in a duel, in the wood at Fragny.” Now, it so happened that my wife and daughter were to have lunched and spent that afternoon with Madame de St. Victor ; but as her husband’s dead body had been brought back to the château of Montjeu, where he lived, with a sword wound through it, Madame de St. Victor did not receive her friends that day.7

A single event of that kind, occurring in a family not altogether strange to you, does more to make you feel the grim reality of dueling than many newspaper paragraphs. In this particular case the incident arose from a correspondence between two proud and brave gentlemen about their game preserves. One of them had written in a manner that offended the other, and had refused to withdraw his letter. The code of honor then made a duel almost inevitable, and the correspondence, being continued, very soon led to it. An especially significant thing about this duel was that the conqueror was known as a remarkably expert swordsman, which the victim was not to the same degree. This demonstrates the real unfairness of dueling, unless the innocent were supernaturally protected.

The sense of this unfairness is gradually tending (in spite of appearances) to the abolition of the duel in France. There are two signs that the custom is growing weaker. The opinion that duels are contrary to reason is more freely expressed in conversation, especially by women, than it used to be, and the duelists themselves are generally satisfied with the degree of deference to the custom which goes as far as the first wound, and do not vindictively thirst for each other’s blood. The difficulty in abolishing the duel strikes an intelligent Frenchman in this way. “The duel,” he thinks, “is evidently a most irrational institution; but when there is a quarrel between two high-spirited men, I cannot see how it is to come to an end otherwise.” Then he will say, “ I know that the duel is obsolete in England, which is a happy thing for your country, but I cannot imagine how an English gentleman behaves when he is insulted.” To this difficulty I usually reply that public opinion in his country condemns the insolent man for his bad manners, and puts itself on the side of any gentleman who conducts himself with simple dignity, so that the latter is free to treat his enemy with silent contempt.

A reason that you can scarcely give to a Frenchman is that the quieter and milder manners — the less animated and less irritable manners — of Englishmen make occasions of quarrel much rarer amongst them than amongst Frenchmen. It is also true that the English themselves have made a great advance in gentleness of manner, in the course of a single generation.

I remember a dispute that occurred between two Englishmen, who were elderly when I was a boy, which gives an idea of the old manners, and would be impossible between men of the same class in the present day. Being at dinner as guests in a rich man’s house, these two elderly gentlemen, of good family, had a quarrel over their port wine, when one of them said to the other, “ I ’ll pull your nose, sir, — I ’ll pull your nose ! ”

Only imagine two men of the same class in the present generation behaving in that manner after dinner ! In those days, when there was a little difference of opinion, gentlemen sometimes threw glasses of wine in each other’s faces. They swore freely, they could not control their tempers, and they got drunk. There are men who invariably beeome quarrelsome when they have been drinking, so here was a source of quarrels that is happily quite unknown in respectable English society at the present day. Another source of quarrels was the intensity of political hatred, in which the English of our fathers’ time more nearly resembled the French of the present day than their own much milder descendants. My recollections do not extend quite so far back, but those who were already elderly when I was young have sometimes described to me the political animosity of their time, and the violence of the private quarrels that arose from it.

Changes of custom in one of the two nations, which have had the effect of separating it still further from the other, may be traced in several minor habits that are now considered especially and characteristically English. I can remember the time when the middle classes of England hardly knew the taste of French wine. Port and sherry were the wines of the middle class. The upper classes, in those days, offered French red wines at dessert under the general name of “ claret,” without distinguishing between Bordeaux and Burgundy, and consequently without mentioning vineyards, unless the host happened to be, or pretended to be, a connoisseur. The taxes on French wines were afterwards reduced ; and just before the reduction, the kind of middle-class people who prided themselves on being especially national often declared that John Bull would never take to those light French wines, implying that he was a personage of more manly tastes, and writers in the press quoted a dignitary of the Anglican Church, who had declared that “ claret would be port, if it could.” These good middle-class people, who made it a part of John Bull’s character to despise thin French wines, seem to have been perfectly unaware that their ancestors, not less English than themselves, had for centuries been hearty appreciators of French wines, and that, in old times, casks of Bordeaux or Burgundy were to be found not only in the cellars of the rich, but in the country hostelries. This may be a trifling matter, but to have the same taste in wines is not altogether unimportant as an aid to good-fellowship. A Frenchman looks upon an incapacity to appreciate the best wines — by which, of course, he always means the best French wines — as the sign of the outer barbarian. What he most likes in the Belgians is the just value they attach to the produce of “ les meilleurs crûs,” and their excellent, well-filled cellars.

Another great difference of taste and habit in drinking is of quite modern introduction. The English have become a great tea-drinking people ; the French do not drink tea, except when they are ill, or else from mere anglomania. How long is it since the English began to drink tea ? I forget the date, the very recent date, but we all know that Queen Elizabeth, who was of English blood by father and mother, and as English in heart as any woman who ever lived, never drank a cup of tea in her life, and did her work energetically without it. However, this habit of drinking tea, once Chinese, has certainly become English by adoption, and is one of those customs that distinguish nations from each other as decidedly as language or dress.

Man is not usually a cleanly animal, yet cleanliness is sometimes attained by him as an exceptional state, and the modern English believe themselves to be a much cleaner people than the French. The claim is founded on the habits of the English upper class and the richer middle class, in which, no doubt, greater perfection of daily and hourly cleanliness is maintained than is common amongst French people. But here, again, the question of chronology recurs. How long have the English upper classes been so perfectly and continuously clean as they are to-day ? Observe that it is the continuity of the cleanliness that makes all the difference. The skin of a Frenchman is clean after he has taken his warm bath, but he does not take one every morning. The Englishman, unless his health is too delicate to bear it, sponges himself all over every morning in his own dressing-room.

This custom began to be prevalent amongst young men in England when I was a boy. The men of the preceding generation did exactly as Frenchmen do to-day: they took a warm bath occasionally for cleanliness, and they took shower-baths when they were prescribed by the physician for health, and they bathed in summer seas for pleasure, but they did not wash themselves all over every morning. I remember an old gentleman, of good family and estate, arguing against this strange, new-fangled custom, and maintaining that it was quite unnecessary to wash the skin in modern times, as the impurities were removed by linen. However, the new custom took deep root in England, because it became one of the signs of class. It was adopted as one of the habits of a gentleman, and afterwards spread rather lower, though it is not yet by any means universal. It is chiefly upon this habit that the present English claim to superior cleanliness is founded. In former times the English were proud of using more water than the French for ordinary ablutions, and they pretended to believe that the French were unacquainted with the use of soap, because they did not provide public pieces of soap in the bedchambers of their hotels.

The English have now a clean upper class, but not yet a clean people, at least according to the evidence of physicians who write on health. The same physicians are still more severe on the concealed dirtiness of many people in the middle classes, a subject that it is pleasanter not to dwell upon.

The English upper classes are, by their good example and by their habit of traveling, the great teachers of cleanliness in western Europe. Their baths, ewers, water-basins, and other complicated toilet arrangements are copied very extensively in France. If you visit a pot-shop in a small provincial town, quite remote from the Channel, you will find English wash-stand services of full size, or good French copies of them; and if you go to the iron-monger’s, you will find all kinds of baths for domestic use, including English sponge-baths. In French houses where the old small ewers and basins are retained, they are now almost invariably supplemented by a capacious tin water-jug on the floor. In fact, the French are becoming a cleaner people, an improvement in which the English have taken the lead, being about forty years in advance.

In connection with washing I may mention fashions of dressing the hair and beard. The mustache in combination with the “ barbiche,” as worn by Napoleon III., is usually considered a French fashion by the English, and very few contemporary Englishmen have adopted it, for that reason. They forget that it is an old English fashion, —much older than the pair of whiskers with the shaven chin and upper lip, which used to be looked upon as national in the highest degree.

The forgetfulness of English history, of customs and tastes in which Englishmen of former ages resembled some Continental people of the present, is, I believe, due to the habit of confounding what is essentially English with what is John-Bullish, and nothing more. There was an England, a great and illustrious England, before John Bull and his peculiarities had been heard of, and by going back to the ages before his birth we find a hundred proofs that the English of old time were less unlike other nations than they have since become. There is evidence, too, that the period of extreme unlikeness to other nations is now past, and that the present tendency is to diminish the dissimilarity between English and French people in particular. Not that the national sentiment in either country has any occasion for disquietude. The English will never be really Frenchified ; the French will never be Anglicized.

Philip Gilbert Hamerton.

  1. What follows is sketched from life.
  2. Plays were performed on Sunday at the court of Queen Elizabeth.
  3. Dancing, archery, leaping, May-games, and morris-dances were expressly permitted by James I. on Sunday in his Book of Sports. He forbade brutal sports only.
  4. I made inquiry afterwards to ascertain what the parish priest thought of these proceedings, and discovered that he made a distinction. He did not approve of dancing on the public dancing-floors in the village, especially at night, because it sometimes led to wrong, but he was not opposed in any way to Sunday dancing in private houses.
  5. The day on which grouse-shooting begins.
  6. There is clear evidence in this great writer’s own words that he would have enjoyed the liberty to paint men with still more complete veracity, if it had been permitted him by the code of his time. It is an interesting exercise to infer from Thackeray’s plots as they are known to us what they would have been had he felt himself free to paint all the sides of life with equal truth and force.
  7. M. de St. Victor managed the estates belonging to the Countess de Talleyrand, and he lived at her old château of Montjeu, one of the most romantically situated places in France, in the midst of a large, well-wooded park upon the hills.