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jealously have upheld the standards of its lit-
erature instead of lowering them to meet an
increased "circulation."

In all this, France has a lesson to teach and
a warning to give. It was our English for-
bears who taught us to flout tradition and
break away from their own great inheritance;
France may teach us that, side by side with
the qualities of enterprise and innovation that
English blood has put in us, we should cul-
tivate the sense of continuity, that "sense of
the past" which enriches the present and binds
us up with the world's great stabilising tra-
ditions of art and poetry and knowledge.



THERE is no new Frenchwoman; but
the real Frenchwoman is new to
America, and it may be of interest to
American women to learn something of what
she is really like.

In saying that the real Frenchwoman is new
to America I do not intend to draw the old fa-
miliar contrast between the so-called "real
Frenchwoman" and the Frenchwoman of fic-
tion and the stage. Americans have been told
a good many thousand times in the last four
years that the real Frenchwoman is totally dif-
ferent from the person depicted under that
name by French novelists and dramatists; but
in truth every literature, in its main lines, re-
flects the chief characteristics of the people

for whom, and about whom, it is written



and none more so than French literature, the
freest and frankest of all.

The statement that the real Frenchwoman
is new to America simply means that America
has never before taken the trouble to look at
her and try to understand her. She has always
been there, waiting to be understood, and a
little tired, perhaps, of being either carica-
tured or idealised. It would be easy enough
to palm her off as a "new" Frenchwoman be-
cause the war has caused her to live a new
life and do unfamiliar jobs ; but one need only
look at the illustrated papers to see what she
looks like as a tram-conductor, a taxi-driver or
a munition-maker. It is certain, even now,
that all these new experiences are going to
modify her character, and to enlarge her view
of life; but that is not the point with which
these papers are concerned. The first thing
for the American woman to do is to learn to
know the Frenchwoman as she has always
been; to try to find out what she is, and why
she is what she is. After that it will be easy to


see why the war has developed in her certain
qualities rather than others, and what its after-
effects on her are likely to be.

First of all, she is, in nearly all respects, as
different as possible from the average Ameri-
can woman. That proposition is fairly evi-
dent, though not always easy to explain. Is it
because she dresses better, or knows more
about cooking, or is more "coquettish," or
more "feminine," or more excitable, or more
emotional, or more immoral? All these rea-
sons have been often suggested, but none of
them seems to furnish a complete answer.
Millions of American women are, to the best
of their ability (which is not small), coquet-
tish, feminine, emotional, and all the rest of
it; a good many dress as well as Frenchwo-
men ; some even know a little about cooking
and the real reason is quite different, and not
nearly as flattering to our national vanity. It
is simply that, like the men of her race, the
Frenchwoman is grown up.

Compared with the women of France the


average American woman is still in the kin-
dergarten. The world she lives in is exactly
like the most improved and advanced and
scientifically equipped Montessori-method
baby-school. At first sight it may seem pre-
posterous to compare the American woman's
independent and resonant activities her
"boards" and clubs and sororities, her public
investigation of everything under the heavens
from "the social evil" to baking-powder, and
from "physical culture" to the newest esoteric
religion to compare such free and busy and
seemingly influential lives with the artless ex-
ercises of an infant class. But what is the fun-
damental principle of the Montessori system?
It is the development of the child's individu-
ality, unrestricted by the traditional nursery
discipline: a Montessori school is a baby
world where, shut up together in the most im-
proved hygienic surroundings, a number of
infants noisily develop their individuality.

The reason why American women are not
really "grown up" in comparison with the


women of the most highly civilised countries
such as France is that all their semblance
of freedom, activity and authority bears not
much more likeness to real living than the ex-
ercises of the Montessori infant. Real living,
in any but the most elementary sense of the
word, is a deep and complex and slowly-de-
veloped thing, the outcome of an old and rich
social experience. It cannot be "got up" like
gymnastics, or a proficiency in foreign lan-
guages; it has its roots in the fundamental
things, and above all in close and constant and
interesting and important relations between
men and women.

It is because American women are each oth-
er's only audience, and to a great extent each
other's only companions, that they seem, com-
pared to women who play an intellectual and
social part in the lives of men, like children
in a baby-school. They are "developing their
individuality," but developing it in the void,
without the checks, the stimulus, and the dis-
cipline that comes of contact with the stronger


masculine individuality. And it is not only
because the man is the stronger and the closer
to reality that his influence is necessary to de-
velop woman to real womanhood; it is be-
cause the two sexes complete each other men-
tally as well as physiologically that no modern
civilisation has been really rich or deep, or
stimulating to other civilisations, which has
not been based on the recognised interaction
of influences between men and women.

There are several ways in which the
Frenchwoman's relations with men may be
called more important than those of her Amer-
ican sister. In the first place, in the commer-
cial class, the Frenchwoman is always her
husband's business partner. The lives of the
French bourgeois couple are based on the pri-
mary necessity of getting enough money to live
on, and of giving their children educational
and material advantages. In small businesses
the woman is always her husband's book-
keeper or clerk, or both; above all, she is his
business adviser. France, as you know, is held


up to all other countries as a model of thrift,
of wise and prudent saving and spending. No
other country in the world has such immense
financial vitality, such powers of recuperation
from national calamity. After the Franco-
Prussian war of 1870, when France, beaten to
earth, her armies lost, half her territory occu-
pied, and with all Europe holding aloof, and
not a single ally to defend her interests when
France was called on by her conquerors to pay
an indemnity of five thousand million francs
in order to free her territory of the enemy, she
raised the sum, and paid it off, eighteen
months sooner than the date agreed upon: to
the rage and disappointment of Germany, and
the amazement and admiration of the rest of
the world.

Every economist knows that if France was
able to make that incredible effort it was be-
cause, all over the country, millions of French-
women, labourers' wives, farmers' wives, small
shopkeepers' wives, wives of big manufactur-
ers and commission-merchants and bankers,


were to all intents and purposes their hus-
bands' business-partners, and had had a direct
interest in saving and investing the millions
and millions piled up to pay France's ransom
in her day of need. At every stage in French
history, in war, in politics, in literature, in art
and in religion, women have played a splen-
did and a decisive part; but none more splen-
did or more decisive than the obscure part
played by the millions of wives and mothers
whose thrift and prudence silently built up
her salvation in 1872.

When it is said that the Frenchwoman of
the middle class is her husband's business
partner the statement must not be taken in too
literal a sense. The French wife has less le-
gal independence than the American or Eng-
lish wife, and is subject to a good many legal
disqualifications from which women have
freed themselves in other countries. That is
the technical situation; but what is the prac-
tical fact? That the Frenchwoman has gone
straight through these theoretical restrictions


to the heart of reality, and become her hus-
band's associate, because, for her children's
sake if not for her own, her heart is in his job,
and because he has long since learned that
the best business partner a man can have is one
who has the same interests at stake as himself.
It is not only because she saves him a sales-
man's salary, or a book-keeper' salary, or both,
that the French tradesman associates his wife
with his business ; it is because he has the sense
to see that no hired assistant will have so keen
a perception of his interests, that none will re-
ceive his customers so pleasantly, and that
none will so patiently and willingly work over
hours w r hen it is necessary to do so. There is
no drudgery in this kind of partnership, be-
cause it is voluntary, and because each part-
ner is stimulated by exactly the same aspira-
tions. And it is this practical, personal and
daily participation in her husband's job that
makes the Frenchwoman more grown up than
others. She has a more interesting and more


living life, and therefore she develops more

It may be objected that money-making is
not the most interesting thing in life, and that
the "higher ideals" seem to have little place
in this conception of feminine efficiency. The
answer to such a criticism is to be found by
considering once more the difference be-
tween the French and the American views as
to the main object of money-making a point
to which any study of the two races inevitably
leads one back.

Americans are too prone to consider money-
making as interesting in itself: they regard
the fact that a man has made money as some-
thing intrinsically meritorious. But money-
making is interesting only in proportion as its
object is interesting. If a man piles up mil-
lions in order to pile them up, having already
all he needs to live humanly and decently, his
occupation is neither interesting in itself, nor
conducive to any sort of real social develop-
ment in the money-maker or in those about


him. No life is more sterile than one into
which nothing enters to balance such an out-
put of energy. To see how different is the
French view of the object of money-making
one must put one's self in the place of the
average French household. For the immense
majority of the French it is a far more modest
ambition, and consists simply in the effort to
earn one's living and put by enough for sick-
ness, old age, and a good start in life for the

This conception of "business" may seem a
tame one to Americans ; but its advantages are
worth considering. In the first place, it has
the immense superiority of leaving time for
living, time for men and women both. The
average French business man at the end of his
life may not have made as much money as the
American; but meanwhile he has had, every
day, something the American has not had:
Time. Time, in the middle of the day, to sit
down to an excellent luncheon, to eat it quietly
with his family, and to read his paper after-


ward ; time to go off on Sundays and holidays
on long pleasant country rambles; time, al-
most any day, to feel fresh and free enough
for an evening at the theatre, after a dinner as
good and leisurely as his luncheon. And there
is one thing certain : the great mass of men and
women grow up and Teach real maturity only
through their contact with the material reali-
ties of living, with business, with industry,
with all the great bread-winning activities;
but the growth and the maturing take place
in the intervals between these activities: and
in lives where there are no such intervals there
will be no real growth.

That is why the "slow" French business
methods so irritating to the American busi-
ness man produce, in the long run, results
which he is often the first to marvel at and
admire. Every intelligent American who has
seen something of France and French life has
had a first moment of bewilderment on trying
to explain the seeming contradiction between
the slow, fumbling, timid French business


methods and the rounded completeness of
French civilisation. How is it that a country
which seems to have almost everything to
learn in the way of "up-to-date" business has
almost everything to teach, not only in the
way of art and literature, and all the graces of
life, but also in the way of municipal order,
state administration, agriculture, forestry, en-
gineering, and the whole harmonious running
of the vast national machine? The answer is
the last the American business man is likely to
think of until he has had time to study France
somewhat closely: it is that France is what she
is because every Frenchman and every French-
woman takes time to live, and has an extraor-
dinarily clear and sound sense of what consti-
tutes real living.

We are too ready to estimate business suc-
cesses by their individual results: a point of
view revealed in our national awe of large
fortunes. That is an immature and even
childish way of estimating success. In terms
of civilisation it is the total and ultimate re-


suit of a nation's business effort that matters,
not the fact of Mr. Smith's being able to build
a marble villa in place of his wooden cottage.
If the collective life which results from our
individual money-making is not richer, more
interesting and more stimulating than that of
countries where the .individual effort is less
intense, then it looks as if there were some-
thing wrong about our method.

This parenthesis may seem to have wan-
dered rather far from the Frenchwoman who
heads the chapter; but in reality she is at its
very heart. For if Frenchmen care too much
about other things to care as much as we do
about making money, the chief reason is
largely because their relations with women are
more interesting. The Frenchwoman rules
French life, and she rules it under a triple
crown, as a business woman, as a mother, and
above all as an artist. To explain the sense in
which the last word is used it is necessary to
go back to the contention that the greatness
of France lies in her sense of the beauty and


importance of living. As life is an art in
France, so woman is an artist She does not
teach man, but she inspires him. As the
Frenchwoman of the bread-winning class in-
fluences her husband, and inspires in him a
respect for her judgment and her wishes, so
the Frenchwoman of the rich and educated
class is admired and held in regard for other
qualities. But in this class of society her influ-
ence naturally extends much farther. The more
civilised a society is, the wider is the range of
each woman's influence over men, and of each
man's influence over women. Intelligent and
cultivated people of either sex will never lim-
it themselves to communing with their own
households. Men and women equally, when
they have the range of interests that real cul-
tivation gives, need the stimulus of different
points of view, the refreshment of new ideas
as well as of new faces. The long hypocrisy
which Puritan England handed on to Amer-
ica concerning the danger of frank and free
social relations between men and women has


done more than anything else to retard real
civilisation in America.

Real civilisation means an education that
extends to the whole of life, in contradistinc-
tion to that of school or college: it means an
education that forms speech, forms manners,
forms taste, forms ideals, and above all forms
judgment. This is the kind of civilisation of
which France has always been the foremost
model: it is because she possesses its secret
that she has led the world so long not only in
art and taste and elegance, but in ideas and in
ideals. For it must never be forgotten that if
the fashion of our note-paper and the cut of
our dresses come from France, so do the con-
ceptions of liberty and justice on which our
republican institutions are based. No nation
can have grown-up ideas till it has a ruling
caste of grown-up men and women ; and it
is possible to have a ruling caste of grown-up
men and women only in a civilisation where
the power of each sex is balanced by that of
the other.


It may seem strange to draw precisely this
comparison between France, the country of all
the old sex-conventions, and America, which is
supposedly the country of the greatest sex-
freedom; and the American reader may ask:
"But where is there so much freedom of in-
tercourse between men and women as in
America?" The misconception arises from
the confusion between two words, and two
states of being that are fundamentally differ-
ent. In America there is complete freedom
of intercourse between boys and girls, but not
between men and women; and there is a gen-
eral notion that, in essentials, a girl and a
woman are the same thing. It is true, in es-
sentials, that a boy and a man are very much
the same thing; but a girl and a woman a
married woman are totally different beings.
Marriage, union with a man, completes and
transforms a woman's character, her point of
view, her sense of the relative importance of
things, far more thoroughly than a boy's na-
ture is changed by the same experience. A


girl is only a sketch; a married woman is the
finished picture. And it is only the married
woman who counts as a social factor.

Now it is precisely at the moment when her
experience is rounded by marriage, mother-
hood, and the responsibilities, cares and inter-
ests of her own household, that the average
American woman is, so to speak, "withdrawn
from circulation." It is true that this does
not apply to the small minority of wealthy
and fashionable women who lead an artificial
cosmopolitan life, and therefore represent no
particular national tendency. It is not to them
that the country looks for the development
of its social civilisation, but to the average
woman who is sufficiently free from bread-
winning cares to act as an incentive to other
women and as an influence upon men. In
America this woman, in the immense major-
ity of cases, has roamed through life in abso-
lute freedom of communion with young men
until the day when the rounding-out of her
own experience by marriage puts her in a po-


sition to become a social influence; and from
that day she is cut off from men's society in all
but the most formal and intermittent ways.
On her wedding-day she ceases, in any open,
frank and recognised manner, to be an in-
fluence in the lives of the men of the com-
munity to which she belongs.

In France, the case is just the contrary.
France, hitherto, has kept young girls under
restrictions at which Americans have often
smiled, and which have certainly, in some re-
spects, been a bar to their growth. The do-
ing away of these restrictions will be one of
the few benefits of the war: the French young
girl, even in the most exclusive and most tra-
dition-loving society, will never again be the
prisoner she has been in the past. But this is
relatively unimportant, for the French have
always recognised that, as a social factor, a
woman does not count till she is married; and
in the well-to-do classes girls marry extremely
young, and the married woman has always had
extraordinary social freedom. The famous


French "Salon," the best school of talk and of
ideas that the modern world has known, was
based on the belief that the most stimulating
conversation in the world is that between intel-
ligent men and women who see each other of-
ten enough to be on terms of frank and easy
friendship. The great wave of intellectual
and social liberation that preceded the French
revolution and prepared the way, not for. its
horrors but for its benefits, originated in the
drawing-rooms of French wives and mothers,
who received every day the most thoughtful
and the most brilliant men of the time, who
shared their talk, and often directed it. Think
what an asset to the mental life of any country
such a group of women forms! And in
France they were not then, and they are not
now, limited to the small class of the wealthy,
and fashionable. In France, as soon as a wo-
man has a personality, social circumstances
permit her to make it felt. What does it mat-
ter if she had spent her girlhood in seclusion,
provided she is free to emerge from it at the


moment when she is fitted to become a real
factor in social life?

It may, of course, be asked at this point,
how the French freedom of intercourse be-
tween married men and women affects domes-
tic life, and the happiness of a woman's hus-
band and children. It is hard to say what
kind of census could be devised to ascertain
the relative percentage of happy marriages in
the countries where different social systems
prevail. Until such a census can be taken, it
is, at any rate, rash to assert that the French
system is less favourable to domestic happi-
ness than the Anglo-Saxon. At any rate, it
acts as a greater incentive to the husband, since
it rests with him to keep his wife's admiration
and affection by making himself so agreeable
to her, and by taking so much trouble to ap-
pear at an advantage in the presence of her
men friends, that no rival shall supplant him.
It would not occur to any Frenchman of the
cultivated class to object to his wife's friend-
ship with other men, and the mere fact that


he has the influence of other men to compete
with is likely to conduce to considerate treat-
ment of his wife, and courteous relations in
the household.

It must also be remembered that a mc.n who
comes home to a wife who has been talking
with intelligent men will probably find her
companionship more stimulating than if she
has spent all her time with other women. No
matter how intelligent women are individ-
ually, they tend, collectively, to narrow down
their interests, and take a feminine, or even a
female, rather than a broadly human view of
things. The woman whose mind is attuned
to men's minds has a much larger view of the
world, and attaches much less importance to
trifles, because men, being usually brought by
circumstances into closer contact with reality,
insensibly communicate their breadth of view
to women. A "man's woman" is never fussy
and seldom spiteful, because she breathes too
free an air, and is having too good a time.

If, then, being "grown up" consrsts in hav-


ing a larger and more liberal experience of
life, in being less concerned with trifles, and
less afraid of strong feelings, passions and
risks, then the French woman is distinctly
more grown up than her American sister; and
she is so because she plays a much larger and
more interesting part in men's lives.

It may, of course, also be asked whether the
fact of playing this part which implies all
the dangers implied by taking the open seas
instead of staying in port whether such a
fact is conducive to the eventual welfare of
woman and of society. Well the answer to-
day is: France! Look at her as she has stood
before the world for the last four years and a
half, uncomplaining, undiscouraged, un-
daunted, holding up the banner of liberty:
liberty of speech, liberty of thought, liberty
of conscience, all the liberties that we of the
western world have been taught to revere as
the only things worth living for look at her,
as the world has beheld her since August,
1914, fearless, tearless, indestructible, in face


of the most ruthless and formidable enemy the
world has ever known, determined to fight on

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonFrench ways and their meaning → online text (page 5 of 7)