French and English

MR. HAMERTON’S comparative study1 of the French and English nations has been so recently before our readers that, although the collected papers are fuller in matter and more orderly in arrangement, there is little occasion for such criticism as the volume would otherwise deserve. Native opinion respecting foreign countries usually abounds in ignorance and prejudice, and this characteristic is not confined to the uneducated classes ; even as between England and America the mistakes made by leading journals and public men often seem surprising ; in the case of the French and the English, in which kindred institutions and the same blood do not help to a mutual understanding, greater misapprehension is to be expected. It is owing to this unflattering cause, doubtless, that Mr. Hamerton, though plainly addressing the educated class, seems to be writing for very uninformed or very dull persons ; but when he is able to quote both French and English writers in striking illustration of their ignorance or rashness in judgment, among whom Mr. Arnold figures conspicuously, he is certainly to be pardoned for thinking that the reader needs to be set right upon all points. It is characteristic, too, of one who resides much in a foreign country to assume that his acquaintance with it is exceptional. Mr. Marion Crawford has lately informed us that travelers of all nations in Italy have failed to understand the Italian character, and he does not make any exception to this sweeping judgment from Montaigne down ; he proceeds to give a true account from his own observation. Mr. Hamerton is neither so naive as to say nor so fatuous as to believe this of himself ; but without discrediting other trained observers, he relies implicitly on his own eyes and ears. But if he writes as if he knew all and the reader nothing, it is not long before the latter finds that the author is justified by his works : the reader’s mind is being richly informed, his vague impressions are made clear and distinct,his views enlightened, by each new chapter ; he is soon content to be a pupil in such a school.

Mr. Hamerton, in several passages, seems to regret the temperate, open, and colorless style which he feels it necessary to employ. He complains that in literature “justice is not a very convenient or acceptable quality,” and he even asserts generally that “ great writers are not just. " We are not concerned with the truth of the remark, but it is certainly this quality which constitutes the excellence of an observer of a foreign people ; if he have it not, his other virtues encounter a more fatal defect than that of commonplaceness, which Mr. Hamerton assigns to the just writer. Justice, at all events, is the distinction of this volume which makes it both attractive to the mind and instructive of the truth. Neither do we find that the style suffers from the exactness of thought and expression at which the author aims. It pleases, as refined talk pleases, by the limit of its modulations ; it is agreeable for a long time, where greater brilliancy, force, or fervor would tire attention ; to a man of intelligent curiosity the matter itself is sufficient entertainment, and, as is the case with Mr. Hamerton’s writing in general, which is much esteemed among us, dullness is the last thing one expects in the pages. So far, therefore, from sympathizing with the author in his complaint that justice is an injury to style, it is more to our taste to assure him that he need be in no fear upon that score ; indeed, in making the remark, which is a sign of impatience by which his work is not often disturbed, he seems to us to descend to a lower standard of taste as well as of intelligence than that to which he strives at other times to accustom us. In this disquisition on comparative traits, justice holds perhaps a more constant influence than in his other works ; but there is the same charm of the alert and suggestive mind, of orderly and simple thinking, of good taste, that characterize his books, and by them, as always, he interests the intelligence to which he constantly directs his main appeal.

It is impossible to read this mass of detailed information, well articulated as it is and comprehensively arranged, without involuntarily speculating upon the future of two societies in which there are so many active principles of change. France is naturally the more interesting nation. The salient feature of its social condition is the isolation of the aristocratic class not only in position, but in feeling. To an outsider there seems to be a lack of patriotism in the conduct of French parties in opposition ; political rivalry exceeds the limits which it ought to observe in a healthy state, because the national sentiment is relatively weak in comparison with party loyalty ; and one explanation of this is that the aristocracy is irreconcilable. The description given by Mr. Hamerton of the position of a French gentleman of good blood is most depressing : he is a man without a career ; trade is impossible, and the profession of art or letters almost equally closed; public office is looked on as a post of treason to his caste ; the church does not attract him ; the court does not exist; the army and navy are crowded with plebeian ability, into competition with which he would be forced. There is nothing for it, limited as his means usually are, but idleness. The well-known phrases by which Mr. Arnold characterized the aristocracy of England apply to the country families in France with equal force ; and, in fact, Mr. Hamerton grows almost more severe in pushing to an extreme his definition of the landed aristocrat by analogy with the traits of savage life. Apart from their character, however, the withdrawal of this class from the modern life of the nation is one of the great social conditions of the time in France, which the historian must always include in his survey of her development under democracy. It is an interesting question to ask whether this class will be absorbed, or must perish by its transformation and displacement jointly by the new wealth of the plutocracy ; at present its only importance historically is its obstructiveness and recklessness in politics. Mr. Hamerton suggests the query, in connection with this subject, whether the English aristocracy will succeed in holding that pliable quality which has made it so convenient an institution for the change from monarchy to democracy in the last two centuries, or whether it will also find the measures and the persons of the popular party so repugnant to its own traditions and tastes as to alienate it from the body politic. It would appear that the changes in the political life of France, which have been the scorn of Englishmen in this century, are coming to such a degree of repose as to promise a fairly stable order, while similar conditions now threaten the stability of England. France, in his judgment, has crowded into a century what England has taken two centuries to accomplish only in part; and so it may be the lot of the former to look on in the peace of a settled arrangement while the latter passes through the dangers of the last period of popular reform. This would be a strange turning of the tables.

The general changes in the French character that apparently make for progress are easily recognizable. Foremost among them is the extinction of the spirit of boastfulness which resulted from the Napoleonic idea. France is not a peaceful nation in the same sense as America, since war always lies upon the eastern frontier; nevertheless, the fact that democracy is a policy of peace is sufficiently indicated under the republic. Mr. Hamerton ascribes this change to the fact that the army is the armed people, and that a parliamentary vote for war means, not the policy of a cabinet, but a national willingness or desire for sacrifice of life and treasure. There is less likelihood of war when the people who are to do the fighting and spending themselves decide on its necessity. The disinclination for war is illustrated negatively by the increasing enthusiasm for the triumph of peace in great engineering or industrial movements, and by the enlightened interest of the public in those scientific achievements which help to civilize the country. This also characterizes a democratic government, in which the welfare of the people is naturally the most absorbing interest. The conservatism of the democratic idea, besides, seems to be making itself apparent. The most significant sign of the times, however, is the temper of the younger men in the nation which is described as “ coolness,” — that coolness which is the sign of possession of the object striven for, and of the sense that the question of its preservation is the main question. The more constant and keen perception of the difficulties in the working of the desired government, now that it has become a reality, is proof of political growth in power as well as of advance in institutions. From these and other considerations, Mr. Hamerton believes that France has definitely accepted parliamentary democracy, and is beginning to enjoy its permanent influences.

These general matters on which Mr. Hamerton brings much of his observation to bear are probably most full of useful instruction. The questions of custom, virtue, refinement, and the like are more individual, and therefore statements with respect to them are apt to be misleading or incomplete. Paris and London may be compared, but provincial France and provincial England are harder to treat, as the author in his chapter upon Variety states most forcibly. It is necessary to take the highest developed type of the nation at large in each case, and this is what is meant by the English and French in the conversation of educated people. The French peasant and the Lancashire workman can be compared only with great crudity, and the country districts, as a whole, hardly at all. It is true that Mr. Hamerton has not given a complete account of either nation ; but what he set out to do he has accomplished excellently. He has informed the minds of educated readers on both sides of the Channel upon those traits of their neighbors about which they indulged illusion or were grossly deceived by appearances, and he has set two modes of life and thought on a grand scale side by side in such a way as to illustrate the differences between them, especially when the defects or excellences of either seemed useful for the other’s instruction. It is a most friendly service.

  1. French and English. A Comparison. By PHILIP GILBERT HAMERTON. Boston : Roberts Brothers. 1889.