Edith Wharton.

French ways and their meaning online

. (page 1 of 7)
Online LibraryEdith WhartonFrench ways and their meaning → online text (page 1 of 7)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook















Copyright, 1918, IQIQ, by




3V ,


This book is essentially a desultory book,
the result of intermittent observation, and
often, no doubt, of rash assumption. Having
been written in Paris, at odd moments, during
the last two years of the war, it could hardly
be more than a series of disjointed notes; and
the excuse for its publication lies in the fact
that the very conditions which made more con-
secutive work impossible also gave unprece-
dented opportunities for quick notation.

The world since 1914 has been like a house
on fire. All the lodgers are on the stairs, in
dishabille. Their doors are swinging wide,
and one gets glimpses of their furniture, reve-
lations of their habits, and whiffs of their
cooking, that a life-time of ordinary inter-
course would not offer. Superficial differ-
ences vanish, and so (how much oftener) do
superficial resemblances; while deep unsus-


pected similarities and disagreements, deep
common attractions and repulsions, declare
themselves. It is of these fundamental sub-
stances that the new link between France and
America is made, and some reasons for the
strength of the link ought to be discoverable
in the suddenly bared depths of the French

There are two ways of judging a foreign
people : at first sight, impressionistically, in the
manner of the passing traveller; or after resi-
dence among them, "soberly, advisedly," and
with all the vain precautions enjoined in an-
other grave contingency.

Of the two ways, the first is, even in ordi-
nary times, often the most fruitful. The ob-
server, if he has eyes and an imagination, will
be struck first by the superficial dissemblances,
and they will give his picture the sharp sug-
gestiveness of a good caricature. If he settles
down among the objects of his study he will
gradually become blunted to these dissem-
blances, or, if he probes below the surface, he


will find them sprung from the same stem as
many different-seeming characteristics of his
own people. A period of confusion must fol-
low, in which he will waver between contra-
dictions, and his sharp outlines will become
blurred with what the painters call "repen-

From this twilight it is hardly possible for
any foreigner's judgment to emerge again into
full illumination. Race-differences strike so
deep that when one has triumphantly pulled
up a specimen for examination one finds only
the crown in one's hand, and the tough root
still clenched in some crevice of prehistory.
And as to race-resemblances, they are so often
most misleading when they seem most instruc-
tive that any attempt to catch the likeness of
another people by painting ourselves is never
quite successful. Indeed, once the observer
has gone beyond the happy stage when sur-
face-differences have all their edge, his only
chance of getting anywhere near the truth is


to try to keep to the traveller's way, and still
see his subject in the light of contrasts.

It is absurd for an Anglo-Saxon to say:
"The Latin is this or that" unless he makes the
mental reservation, "or at least seems so to
me"; but if this mental reservation is always
implied, if it serves always as the background
of the picture, the features portrayed may es-
cape caricature and yet bear some resem-
blance to the original.

Lastly, the use of the labels "Anglo-Saxon"
and "Latin," for purposes of easy antithesis,
must be defended and apologised for.

Such use of the two terms is open to the easy
derision of the scholar. Yet they are too con-
venient as symbols to be abandoned, and are
safe enough if, for instance, they are used
simply as a loose way of drawing a line be-
tween the peoples who drink spirits and those
who drink wine, between those whose social
polity dates from the Forum, and those who
still feel and legislate in terms of the primaeval


This use of the terms is the more justifiable
because one may safely say that most things in
a man's view of life depend on how many
thousand years ago his land was deforested.
And when, as befell our forbears, men whose
blood is still full of murmurs of the Saxon
Urwald and the forests of Britain are plunged
afresh into the wilderness of a new continent,
it is natural that in many respects they should
be still farther removed from those whose hab-
its and opinions are threaded through and
through with Mediterranean culture and the
civic discipline of Rome.

One can imagine the first Frenchman born
into the world looking about him confidently,
and saying: "Here I am; and now, how am I
to make the most of it?"

The double sense of the fugacity of life,
and of the many and durable things that may
be put into it, is manifest in every motion of
the French intelligence. Sooner than any
other race the French have got rid of bogies,
have "cleared the mind of shams," and gone


up to the Medusa and the Sphinx with a cool
eye and a penetrating question.

It is an immense advantage to have the
primeval forest as far behind one as these
clear-headed children of the Roman forum
and the Greek amphitheatre ; and even if they
have lost something of the sensation "felt in
the blood and felt along the heart" with which
our obscurer past enriches us, it is assuredly
more useful for them to note the deficiency
than for us to criticise it.

The French are the most human of the hu-
man race, the most completely detached from
the lingering spell of the ancient shadowy
world in which trees and animals talked to
each other, and began the education of the
fumbling beast that was to deviate into Man.
They have used their longer experience and
their keener senses for the joy and enlighten-
ment of the races still agrope for self-expres-
sion. The faults of France are the faults in-
herent in an old and excessively self-contained
civilisation; her qualities are its qualities; and


the most profitable way of trying to interpret
French ways and their meaning is to see how
this long inheritance may benefit a people
which is still, intellectually and artistically, in
search of itself.












NOTE. In the last two chapters of this book I have incorporated,
in a modified form, the principal passages of two articles published
by me respectively in Scribner's Magazine and in the Ladies' Home
Journal, the former entitled "The French as seen by an American''
(now called " In Conclusion "), the other " The New Frenchwoman."




HASTY generalisations are always
tempting to travellers, and now and
then they strike out vivid truths that
the observer loses sight of after closer scrutiny.
But nine times out of ten they hit wild.

Some years before the war, a French jour-
nalist produced a "thoughtful book" on the
United States. Of course he laid great stress
on our universal hustle for the dollar. To do
that is to follow the line of least resistance in
writing about America : you have only to copy
what all the other travellers have said.

This particular author had the French gift
of consecutive reasoning, and had been trained
in the school of Taine, which requires the his-
torian to illustrate each of his general conclu-
sions by an impressive array of specific in-



stances. Therefore, when he had laid down
the principle that every American's ruling
passion is money-making, he cast about for an
instance, and found a striking one.

"So dominant," he suggested, "is this pas-
sion, that in cultivated and intellectual Boston
the Athens of America which possesses a
beautiful cemetery in its peaceful parklike
suburbs, the millionaire money-makers, un-
willing to abandon the quarter in which their
most active hours have been spent, have
created for themselves a burying-ground in the
centre of the business district, on which they
can look down from their lofty office windows
till they are laid there to rest in the familiar
noise and bustle that they love."

This literal example of the ruling passion
strong in death seems to establish once for all
the good old truth that the American cares
only for money-making; and it was clever of
the critic to find his instance in Boston instead
of Pittsburg or Chicago. But unfortunately
the cemetery for which the Boston millionaire


is supposed to have abandoned the green
glades of Mount Auburn is the old pre-revo-
lutionary grave-yard of King's Chapel, in
which no one has been buried since modern
Boston began to exist, and about which a new
business district has grown up as it has about
similar carefully-guarded relics in all our ex-
panding cities, and in many European ones as

It is probable that not a day passes in which
the observant American new to France does
not reach conclusions as tempting, but as wide
of the mark. Even in peace times it was in-
evitable that such easy inferences should be
drawn; and now that every branch of civilian
life in France is more or less topsy-turvy,
the temptation to generalise wrongly is one
that no intelligent observer can resist.

It is indeed unfortunate that, at the very mo-
ment when it is most needful for France and
America to understand each other (on small
points, that is we know they agree as to the
big ones) it is unfortunate that at this mo-


ment France should be, in so many superficial
ways, unlike the normal peace-time France,
and that those who are seeing her for the first
time in the hour of her trial and her great
glory are seeing her also in an hour of inevita-
ble material weakness and disorganisation.

Even four years of victorious warfare
would dislocate the machinery of any great
nation's life; and four years of desperate re-
sistance to a foe in possession of almost a tenth
of the national territory, and that tenth in-
dustrially the richest in the country, four such
years represent a strain so severe that one won-
ders to see the fields of France tilled, the mar-
kets provided, and life in general going on as

The fact that France is able to resist such
a strain, and keep up such a measure of normal
activity, is one of the many reasons for admir-
ing her; but it must not make newcomers for-
get that even this brave appearance of "busi-
ness as usual" does not represent anything re-
sembling the peace-time France, with her


magnificent faculties applied to the whole
varied business of living, instead of being cen-
tred on the job of holding the long line from
the Yser to Switzerland.

In 1913 it would have be^n almost impossi-
ble to ask Americans to picture our situation
if Germany had invaded the United States,
and had held a tenth part of our most impor-
tant territory for four years. In 1918 such a
suggestion seems thinkable enough, and one
may even venture to point out that an unmili-
tary nation like America, after four years un-
der the invader, might perhaps present a less
prosperous appearance than France. It is
always a good thing to look at foreign affairs
from the home angle; and in such a case we
certainly should not want the allied peoples
who might come to our aid to judge us by
what they saw if Germany held our Atlantic
sea-board, with all its great cities, together
with, say, Pittsburg and Buffalo, and all our
best manhood were in a fighting line centred
along the Ohio River.


One of the cruellest things about a "people's
war" is that it needs, and takes, the best men
from every trade, even those remotest from
fighting, because to do anything well brains
are necessary, and a good poet and a good
plumber may conceivably make better fighters
than inferior representatives of arts less re-
mote from war. Therefore, to judge France
fairly to-day, the newcomer must perpetually
remind himself that almost all that is best in
France is in the trenches, and not in the hotels,
cafes and "movie-shows" he is likely to fre-
quent. I have no fear of what the American
will think of the Frenchman after the two
have fraternized at the front.


One hears a good deal in these days about
"What America can teach France;" though
it is worth noting that the phrase recurs less
often now than it did a year ago.

In any case, it would seem more useful to
leave the French to discover (as they are do-


ing every day, with the frankest appreciation)
what they can learn from us, while we Ameri-
cans apply ourselves to finding out what they
have to teach us. It is obvious that any two
intelligent races are bound to have a lot to
learn from each other; and there could hardly
be a better opportunity for such an exchange
of experience than now that a great cause has
drawn the hearts of our countries together
while a terrible emergency has broken down
most of the surface barriers between us.

No doubt many American soldiers now in
France felt this before they left home. When
a man who leaves his job and his family at
the first call to fight for an unknown people,
because that people is defending the prin-
ciple of liberty in which all the great demo-
cratic nations believe, he likes to think that
the country he is fighting for comes up in ev-
ery respect to the ideal he has formed of it.
And perhaps some of our men were a little dis-
appointed, and even discouraged, when they
first came in contact with the people whose


sublime spirit they had been admiring from a
distance for three years. Some of them may
even, in their first moment of reaction, have
said to themselves: "Well, after all, the Ger-
mans we knew at home were easier people to
get on with."

The answer is not far to seek. For one
thing, the critics in question knew the Ger-
mans at home, in our home, where they had to
talk our language or not get on, where they
had to be what we wanted them to be or get
out. And, as we all know in America, no peo-
ple on earth, when they settle in a new coun-
try, are more eager than the Germans to adopt
its ways, and to be taken for native-born

The Germans in Germany are very dif-
ferent; though, even there, they were at great
pains, before the war, not to let Americans
find it out. The French have never taken the
trouble to disguise their Frenchness from for-
eigners; but the Germans used to be very
clever about dressing up their statues of Bis-


marck as "Liberty Enlightening the World"
when democratic visitors were expected. An
amusing instance of this kind of camouflage,
which was a regular function of their govern-
ment, came within my own experience in 1913.
For the first time in many years I was in
Germany that summer, and on arriving in
Berlin I was much struck by the wonderful
look of municipal order and prosperity which
partly makes up for the horrors of its archi-
tecture and sculpture. But what struck me
still more was the extraordinary politeness of
all the people who are often rude in other
countries : post-office and railway officials, cus-
toms officers, policemen, telephone-girls, and
the other natural enemies of mankind. And I
was the more surprised because, in former
days, I had so often suffered from the senseless
bullying of the old-fashioned German em-
ploye, and because I had heard from Germans
that state paternalism had become greatly ag-
gravated, and that, wherever one went, petty


regulations were enforced by inexorable offi-

As it turned out, I found myself as free as
air, and as obsequiously treated as royalty, and
I might have gone home thinking that the
German government was cruelly maligned by
its subjects if I had not happened to go one
evening to the Opera.

It was in summer, but there had been a cold
rain-storm all day, and as the Opera House
was excessively chilly, and it was not a full-
dress occasion, but merely an out-of-season
performance, with everybody wearing ordi-
nary street clothes, I decided to keep on the
light silk cloak I was wearing. But as I
started for my seat I felt a tap on my shoulder,
and one of the polite officials requested me to
take of! my cloak.

"Thank you : but I prefer to keep it on."
"You can't; it's forbidden. Es ist ver-

"Forbidden? Why, what do you mean?"
"His Majesty the Emperor forbids any lady


in the audience of the Royal and Imperial
Opera House to keep on her cloak."

"But I've a cold, and the house is so
chilly "

The polite official had grown suddenly
stern and bullying. "Take off your cloak," he

"I won't," I said.

We looked at each other hard for a minute
and I went in with my cloak on.

When I got back to the hotel, highly indig-
nant, I met a German Princess, a Serene
Highness, one of the greatest ladies in Ger-
many, a cousin of his Imperial. Majesty.

I told her what had happened, and waited
for an echo of my indignation.

But none came. "Yes I nearly always
have an attack of neuralgia when I go to the
Opera," she said resignedly.

"But do they make you take your cloak

"Of course. It's the Emperor's order."

"Well I kept mine on," I said.


Her Serene Highness looked at me incredu-
lously. Then she thought it over and said:
"Ah, well you're an American, and Ameri-
can travellers bring us so much money that
the Emperor's orders are never to bully

What had puzzled me, by the way, when I
looked about the crowded Opera House, was
that the Emperor should ever order the ladies
of Berlin to take their cloaks off at the Opera;
but that is an affair between them and their
dressmaker. The interesting thing was that
the German Princess did not in the least re-
sent being bullied herself, or having neuralgia
in consequence but quite recognised that it
was .good business for her country not to bully

That little incident gave me a glimpse of
what life in Germany must be like if you are
a German; and also of the essential difference
between the Germans and ourselves.

The difference is this: The German does
not care to be free as long as he is well fed,


well amused and making money. The
Frenchman, like the American, wants to be
free first of all, and free anyhow free even
when he might be better off, materially, if he
lived under a benevolent autocracy. The
Frenchman and the American want to have a
voice in governing their country, and the Ger-
man prefers to be governed by professionals,
as long as they make him comfortable and
give him what he wants.

From the purely practical point of view this
is not a bad plan, but it breaks down as soon
as a moral issue is involved. They say cor-
porations have no souls; neither have govern-
ments that are not answerable to a free people
for their actions.


This anecdote may have seemed to take us a
long way from France and French ways; but
it will help to show that, whereas the differ-
ences between ourselves and the French are
mostly on the surface, and our feeling about


the most important things is alw?ys the same,
the Germans, who seem less strange to many of
us because we have been used to them at home,
differ from us totally in all of the important

Unfortunately surface differences as the
word implies are the ones that strike the eye
first. If beauty is only skin deep, so too are
some of the greatest obstacles between peo-
ples who were made to understand each other.
French habits and manners have their roots
in a civilisation so profoundly unlike ours
so much older, richer, more elaborate and
firmly crystallised that French customs nec-
essarily differ from ours more than do those
of more primitive races; and we must dig
down to the deep faiths and principles from
which every race draws its enduring life to
find how like in fundamental things are the
two people whose destinies have been so
widely different.

To help the American fresh from his own
land to overcome these initial difficulties, and


to arrive at a quick comprehension of French
character, is one of the greatest services that
Americans familiar with France can render at
this moment. The French cannot explain
themselves fully to foreigners, because they
take for granted so many things that are as
unintelligible to us as, for instance, our eating
corned-beef hash for breakfast, or liking mus-
tard with mutton, is to them. It takes an out-
sider familiar with both races to explain away
what may be called the corned-beef-hash dif-
ferences, and bring out the underlying resem-
blances; and while actual contact in the
trenches will in the long run do this more
surely than any amount of writing, it may
nevertheless be an advantage to the newcomer
to arrive with a few first-aid hints in his knap-

The most interesting and profitable way of
studying the characteristics of a different race
is to pick out, among them, those in which
our own national character is most lacking.
It is sometimes agreeable, but seldom useful,


to do the reverse; that is, to single out the
weak points of the other race, and brag of our
own advantages. This game, moreover, be-
sides being unprofitable, is also sometimes
dangerous. Before calling a certain trait a
weakness, and our .own opposite trait a superi-
ority, we must be sure, as critics say, that we
"know the context" ; we must be sure that what
appears a defect in the character of another
race will not prove to be a strength when
better understood.

Anyhow, it is safer as well as more inter-
esting to choose the obviously admirable char-
acteristics first, and especially those which
happen to be more or less lacking in our own
national make-up.

This is what I propose to attempt in these
articles; and I have singled out, as typically
"French" in the best sense of that many-sided
term, the qualities of taste, reverence, con-
tinuity, and intellectual honesty. We are a
new people, a pioneer people, a people des-
tined by fate to break up new continents and


experiment in new social conditions; and
therefore it may be useful to see what part is
played in the life of fl nation by some of the
very qualities we have had the least time to


TAKE care! Don't eat blackberries!
Don't you know they'll give you the

Any American soldier who stops to fill his
cap with the plump blackberries loading the
hedgerows of France is sure to receive this
warning from a passing peasant.

Throughout the length and breadth of
France, the most fruit-loving and fruit-
cultivating of countries, the same queer con-
viction prevails, and year after year the great
natural crop of blackberries, nowhere better
and more abundant, is abandoned to birds and
insects because in some remote and perhaps
prehistoric past an ancient Gaul once decreed
that "blackberries give the fever."



An hour away, across the Channel, fresh
blackberries and blackberry-jam form one of
the staples of a great ally's diet; but the
French have not yet found out that millions
of Englishmen have eaten blackberries for
generations without having "the fever."

Even if they did find it out they would
probably say: "The English are different
Blackberries have always given us the fever."
Or the more enlightened might ascribe it to
the climate: "The air may be different in
England. Blackberries may not be unwhole-
some there, but here they are poison."

There is not the least foundation for the
statement, and the few enterprising French
people who have boldly risked catching "the
fever" consume blackberries in France with as
much enjoyment, and as little harm, as their
English neighbours. But one could no more
buy a blackberry in a French market than one

1 3 4 5 6 7

Online LibraryEdith WhartonFrench ways and their meaning → online text (page 1 of 7)