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TRAVELS IN FRANCE FOR THE PORT FOLIO.
A GREAT deal might be said of those who are conspicuous at the court of the emperor, or in the higher departments of state ; but the world has had their history over and over again, and you have, therefore the some means of information as myself; as to their persons, I saw scarcely any of them except at too great a distance, and in too great a crowd to distinguish them properly.
Of those who are members either of the senate or legislative body, there are but a few, whose appearance, though they are all most sumptuouly dressed upon every public occasion, seemed suited to the rank they held; they were in general the least well-looking part of the nation, and many of them had a low, and vulgar air. With the exception of persons who go to court, the men in France dress very little. Black, or dark blue are the most fashionable colours for the coat, and English kersimere and velverets are universally worn. There was a period during the revolution when every man, who was upon his guard against suspicion, took care to look as much as possible like one of the mob; to have shaved and washed very often, or appeared frequently in clean linen might have attracted the attention of the police, and it was as dangerous to be a muscadin, as a royalist, and prudent men took care that no word, no sigh, no look, no article of dress, no remnant of ancient civility and decorum should expose them to the fatal accusation of being either. Propriety of dress is however recovering, though but slowly, its proper ascendency in society. The red cap, the short coarse jacket, and the affectation of being ragged and dirty, have long disappeared ; but the boots and pantaloons, the cropped hair, the round hat, and the shoe strings are still to be seen, and even sometimes, though rarely, of an evening, and in what is now called good company ; but the emperor is too sagacious not to know of how much importance these seeming trifles are, that they are connected with good manners, and that good manners are the outworks of that sort of morality, which is essential to order and obedience. Even in America, where every man will always, I hope, be free to do all that the law has not forbidden, I could almost wish we had a censor to regulate dress ; I would not permit the desire of being at one's ease to prevail so powerfully, or suffer that wholesome restraint, upon which the morals of our country depend far more than upon the law, to be in any degree relaxed. If we suffer people to go on consulting their ease, the decencies of society will be lost one by one ; it will be thought a mark of slavery, as among the Turks, to go with the head uncovered ; we shall be for shaking off the restraint of this, or of the other garment in hot weather, and we shall revert by degrees to the dress or rather undress of our aboriginal ancestors. Kersimeres and velverets from Manchester are, as I observed to you, universally worn by the men ; the ladies also make use of several articles of English manufactory, and these, with a great variety of other prohibited articles, are openly sold in large warehouses. The smuggler, or rather the vender of these has no doubt an understanding with the revenue officer; and the government, which neglects no means of raising money, contrives to be paid perhaps for what it cannot possibly prevent. The wonder is, that burdened as the prohibited articles must be with a considerable expense in addition to the first cost, it should still be sold at a less price than it can be made for in France, where labour is so cheap, and where the government has in many instances encouraged the manufacture with the gift of some old convent, as at Annecy in Savoy, and patronized his industry by rendering his productions fashionable. Perhaps the law which leaves the rate of interest open to the agreement of the parties contracting, and the obscure but profitable manner to the lender, in which the treasury continues to borrow, and the conscription which renders it impossible that any young man should remain long enough at his trade to be expert at it, and the irregular, inconsistent conduct of the government, which frequently rewards some service or gratifies the importunity of a courtier, by a permission to import to a certain amount of foreign merchandize, joined to the precipitation with which certain articles are either prohibited or admitted, without any interval being allowed between the date and the operation of an edict, are so many reasons which combine to defeat the advantages that nature has given France over almost every other country in the world.
I found the article which we call queens-ware, dearer within a few miles of where it is manufactured near Geneva, than the English merchant sells it in Charleston.
The ladies were obliged also to do homage during the horrors of the revolution to the monsters of the day, but they have since returned to' all that taste and elegance for which they were formerly so conspicuous, they even dress in a more becoming manner than ever, for the fashion is more strictly Grecian than it used to be, and rouge is worn to imitate nature, and not as formerly in large patches upon the cheek as a badge of rank and fashion.
There may be some exaggeration in what we are told of the depravity of manners in Paris during a considerable period of the revolution ; but it must still have been very great, for the mob were of too much importance not to be courted by the different parties, and we may easily conceive of what nature the means of seduction were; every licentious passion was gratified by the facility of procuring a divorce, the restraint of religion was withdrawn, and the multiplicity of theatres, which were all of them accessible on very easy terms, joined to the depreciation of money, and the fluctuation of property must have encouraged idleness and debauchery in the extreme; what the reality may be at present, I cannot pretend to say, but there was not the least appearance of immorality in what I saw of society in Paris ; the greatest appearance of decorum, on the contrary, was everywhere apparent, and particularly in the air and behaviour of the young and unmarried among the ladies. They have even at balls a gravity, I might almost say a severity of manner, which had it occurred in Philadelphia in the case Chattellux mentions, might have rendered the observation of an old acquaintance of ours much less ludicrous. A Parisian young lady does, certainly, not strike one at a ball as having come there for her amusement; she makes a decent but studied exhibition of herself, and appears like a person engaged in a very arduous design.
To the convents of former times have succeeded boarding-schools, where young ladies remain until they are married, or until the period of youth is entirely passed : the greatest attention is paid in these seminaries to their education, though chiefly perhaps to the ornamental parts, and dancing is become almost a science. One might indeed almost suppose of this elegant accomplishment that it would ultimately attain the degree of dignity and importance it was formerly accompanied with, and become once more a serious and essential part of every public ceremony. Our ancestors in Europe probably lived at one period as the Indians of our western country do now, and with them we know that no war is declared, no ambassador received, no peace concluded without a dance; no step, no figure, no motion of the hand and arms is without its meaning, they all refer to what has been performed,* or is yet to be effected, and the whole is designed to excite those passions and those feelings in the warrior and the statesman which may lead to honour and distinction. An eminent dancing master, whom I frequently had occasion to see, has assured me, that there were steps which, to be perfectly well executed would require two or three hours of daily practice for at least two years; he allowed, however, that a young lady's time might be perhaps as well employed in some other acquisition, and that dancing had lost some of its charms in losing all its gayety.
• See Williams's History of Vermont; a book too little known in America.
The persons who do the honours of Paris to a stranger, are generally the bankers; the principal of these have taken the station in society of the farmers-general of former times ; and composing a sort of monied aristocracy, they appear to enjoy the advantages to be derived from opulence, now no longer exposed as that of their predecessors was, to be envied by the landed interest, or hated by the people, to whom a display of ostentatious luxury gave offence, when it was supposed, and not without reason, to be connected with, and to aggravate the general distress. There is a certain equality which despotism is as productive of as republicanism, and which is of a nature to console a great part of mankind, and particularly the class alluded to for the privation of every political right. The rich were never before fully admitted to the rank and estimation which wealth ought in reason and good policy to give: I do not believe that the present rich have as yet the affectation of encouraging literature which was so honourable to the farmers-general, many of whom were at the same time so distinguished as men of letters, that Plutus, it was said, must have made up his quarrel with the Muses, who had so long spoken contemptuously of him. There are houses, however, at which a weekly dinner is given to literary men; but as the sciences now most in vogue are too abstruse for general conversation, as there are no great contests, as formerly, between the king and the different parliaments, which all could discuss, and as that spirit, which, notwithstanding the danger of the Bastile, and of Lettres de Cachet, could vent itself in epigrams, and is now effectually laid, a literary dinner must be a very inferior thing to what it used to be; the hour of dining is indeed so late, and the custom of going to some place of public amusement of an evening, still so prevalent, that there can be but little or no conversation. The supper of former times, the triumph of French manners and festivity, has disappeared, and in the room of it they have introduced an ambiguous meal, which, from some resemblance it bears to an evening party in England is called a “ thé.” This takes place at a very late hour, and is a sort of irregular cold supper, which some take standing, and others at different tables, so that nothing like general conversation can possibly take place, nor is there any appearance of festivity.
The distance at which we were from France during the revolution concealed from our knowledge a great many of the horrors which accompanied it, but it also kept us ignorant of some follies, and you may never have heard, perhaps, that there was a time during the power of Robespierre in Paris, when everyone was obliged for a certain number of days to place his table in the street and eat by the side of his neighbour; the object of the rich man was to conceal his opulence, to have as bad a dinner, and to drink as ordinary wine as he knew how to order, while the poor housekeeper next to him was consuming perhaps the price of a whole week's labour, that his misery might not appear.
It was impossible, notwithstanding the passive obedience of the people, that such an experiment should be often repeated, without occasioning discontent; the brotherhood which it excited between neighbours was too much, as some one observed at the time, like the brotherhood of Çain and Abel, and the government, pretending that the enemies of the republic were about converting these fraternal repasts into seditious meetings, suddenly put a stop to them. Good eating was always well understood in France. See what Arthur Young says in his comparison between an English and a French table. But the sudden opulence of obscure people during the ferment of the revolution, the destruction of every distinction in society, but what is strictly personal, the scenes of misery and distress which the nation was for so long a time enforced to, and a degree of uncertainty as to the permanence of the present order of things have been all so many additional incentives to luxury; which, if I am to rely upon the information of others rather than upon my own experience, is carried (and particularly in the articles of eating and drinking) far beyond the knowledge of all former times. A very well written book, called the Epicure's Almanac, comes out every year; it very gravely indicates where the best articles of every sort are to be had, and how they are to be dressed, how the sensuality of the guest is to be provoked, how it is to be kept alive far beyond the vulgar boundaries of natural appetite, and how he is at length to be dismissed to his digestion : with a great wit and humour the author knows how to give a dignity to trifles, and uses language in speaking of a new dish, or a vegetable lately brought into use, which Herschel might apply to the discovery of another planet. He even pretends that children might receive their best lessons of natural history and geography at table, in being called upon to give an account of the vegetables, and of the various dishes before them—a fish from Geneva, a pye from the southern provinces, and a goose from Strasburg, would carry them in imagination over a great part of France, and the history of a good desert would extend to the East and West Indies.
It would be better, perhaps, if something not quite so learned indeed, and yet a little more like conversation, took place at table; but one effect of the revolution has been to render the nation more reserved and silent, and infinitely less social; it has also had some effect upon their manners in public places, where a young man will now remain seated and with his hat on, though a lady is stand