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and for their fogs, whose effect is to bleach the skin and to give a
colour that has no necessary connexion with the springs of life,
although the female portion of the population of Paris has probably as
much colour as that of London. It might possibly be safer to say that
the female population of Paris is finer than that of London, though I
think on the whole the males may be included also. I do not mean by
this, that there is relatively as much female beauty in Paris as in
London, for in this respect the latter has immeasurably the advantage;
but, looks apart, that the _physique_ of the French of Paris is superior
to that of the English of London. The population of Paris is a
favourable specimen of that of the kingdom; while that of London,
Westminster excepted, is not at all above the level of the entire
country, if indeed it be as good.[18]

[Footnote 18: This opinion remains the same in the writer, who between
the years 1806 and 1833 has been six times in London, and between the
years 1826 and 1833, five times in Paris. In 1833 he left Paris for
London, sailing for home from the latter place. A few days after his
arrival he went to Washington, where _during the session of Congress_,
dress and air not considered, he thought he had never met so large a
proportion of fine men in any part of the world. He was particularly
struck with their size, as was an American friend who was with him, and
who had also passed many years abroad, having left Liverpool the same
day the writer sailed from Portsmouth.]

The very general notion which exists in America, that the French are a
slightly-built, airy people, and that their women in particular are thin
and without _embonpoint_, is a most extraordinary one, for there is not
a particle of foundation for it. The women of Paris are about as tall as
the women of America, and, could a fair sample of the two nations be
placed in the scales, I have no doubt it would be found that the French
women would outweigh the Americans in the proportion of six to five.
Instead of being meagre, they are compactly built, with good busts,
inclining to be full, and well-limbed, as any one may see who will take
the trouble to walk the streets after a hard shower; for, as Falstaff
told Prince Henry, "You are straight enough in the shoulders; you care
not who sees your back." Indeed, I know no females to whom the opinion
which we entertain of the French women may better apply than to our own,
and yet I know none who are so generally well-looking.

The French are not a handsome nation. Personal beauty in either sex is
rare: there is a want of simplicity, of repose, of dignity, and even of
harmonious expression, what they themselves call _finesse_, in their
countenances, and yet the liveliness of the eyes and the joyous
character of their looks render them agreeable. You are not to
understand from this that great personal beauty does not exist in
France, however, for there are so many exceptions to the rule, that they
have occasionally made me hesitate about believing it a rule at all. The
French often possess a feature in great perfection that is very rare in
England, where personal beauty is so common in both sexes. It is in the
mouth, and particularly in the smile. Want of _finesse_ about the mouth
is a general European deficiency (the Italians have more of it than any
other people I know), and it is as prevalent an advantage in America.
But the races of Saxon root fail in the chin, which wants nobleness and
volume. Here it is quite common to see profiles that would seem in their
proper places on a Roman coin.

Although female beauty is not common in France, when it is found, it is
usually of a very high order. The sweet, cherub-like, guileless
expression that belongs to the English female face, and through it to
the American, is hardly ever, perhaps never, met with here. The French
countenance seldom conveys the idea of extreme infantile innocence. Even
in the children there is a _manner_ which, while it does not absolutely
convey an impression of an absence of the virtues, I think leaves less
conviction of its belonging to the soul of the being, than the peculiar
look I mean. One always sees _woman_ - modest, amiable, _spirituelle_,
feminine and attractive, if you will, in a French girl; while one
sometimes sees an _angel_ in a young English or American face. I have no
allusion now to religious education, or to religious feelings, which are
quite as general in the sex, particularly the young of good families,
under their characteristic distinctions, here as anywhere else. In this
particular the great difference is, that in America it is religion, and
in France it is infidelity, that is metaphysical.

There is a coquettish prettiness that is quite common in France, in
which air and manner are mingled with a certain sauciness of expression
that is not easily described, but which, while it blends well enough
with the style of the face, is rather pleasing than captivating. It
marks the peculiar beauty of the _grisette_, who, with her little cap,
hands stuck in the pockets of her apron, mincing walk, coquettish eye,
and well-balanced head, is a creature perfectly _sui generis_. Such a
girl is more like an actress imitating the character, than one is apt to
imagine the character itself. I have met with imitators of these roguish
beauties in a higher station, such as the wives and daughters of the
industrious classes, as it is the fashion to call them here, and even
among the banking community, but never among women of condition, whose
deportment in France, whatever may be their morals, is usually marked by
gentility of air, and a perfectly good tone of manner, always excepting
that small taint of _rouéism_ to which I have already alluded, and which
certainly must have come from the camp and emigration.

The highest style of the French beauty is the classical. I cannot recall
a more lovely picture, a finer union of the grand and the feminine, than
the Duchesse de - - , in full dress, at a carnival ball, where she shone
peerless among hundreds of the _élite_ of Europe. I see her now, with
her small, well-seated head; her large, dark, brilliant eye, rivetted on
the mazes of a _Polonaise_, danced in character; her hair, black as the
raven's wing, clustering over a brow of ivory; her graceful form
slightly inclining forward in delighted and graceful attention; her
features just Grecian enough to be a model of delicate beauty, just
Roman enough to be noble; her colour heightened to that of youth by the
heat of the room, and her costume, in which all the art of Paris was
blended with a critical knowledge of the just and the becoming. And yet
this woman was a grandmother!

The men of France have the same physical and the same conventional
peculiarities as the women. They are short, but sturdy. Including all
France, for there is a material difference in this respect between the
north and the south, I should think the average stature of the French
men (not women) to be quite an inch and a half below the average stature
of America, and possibly two inches. At home, I did not find myself
greatly above the medium height, and in a crowd I was always compelled
to stand on tiptoe to look over the heads of those around me; whereas,
here, I am evidently _un grand_, and can see across the Champs Elysées
without any difficulty. You may remember that I stand as near as may be
to five feet ten; it follows that five feet ten is rather a tall man in
France. You are not to suppose, however, that there are not occasionally
men of great stature in this country. One of the largest men I have ever
seen appears daily in the garden of the Tuileries, and I am told he is a
Frenchman of one of the north-eastern provinces. That part of the
kingdom is German rather than French, however, and the population still
retain most of the peculiarities of their origin.

The army has a look of service and activity rather than of force. I
should think it more formidable by its manoeuvres than its charges.
Indeed, the tactics of Napoleon, who used the legs of his troops more
than their muskets, aiming at concentrating masses on important points,
goes to show that he depended on alertness instead of _bottom_. This is
just the quality that would be most likely to prevail against your
methodical, slow-thinking, and slow-moving German; and I make no
question the short, sturdy, nimble legs of the little warriors of this
country have gained many a field.

A general officer, himself a six-footer, told me, lately, that they had
found the tall men of very little use in the field, from their inability
to endure the fatigues of a campaign. When armies shall march on
railroads, and manoeuvre by steam, the grenadiers will come in play
again; but as it is, the French are admirably adapted by their
_physique_ to return the career that history has given them. The Romans
resembled them in this respect, Cicero admitting that many people
excelled them in size, strength, beauty, and even learning, though he
claimed a superiority for his countrymen, on the score of love of
country and reverence for the gods. The French are certainly patriotic
enough, though their reverence for the gods may possibly be questioned.

The regiments of the guards, the heavy cavalry, and the artillery are
all filled with men chosen with some care. These troops would, I think,
form about an average American army, on the score of size. The
battalions of the line receive the rest. As much attention is bestowed
in adapting the duty to the _physique_, and entire corps are composed of
men of as nearly as possible the same physical force, some of the
regiments certainly make but an indifferent figure, as to dimensions,
while others appear particularly well. Still, if not overworked, I
should think these short men would do good service. I think I have seen
one or two regiments, in which the average height has not exceeded five
feet three inches. The chances of not being hit in such a corps are
worth something, for the proportion, compared to the chances in a corps
of six-footers, is as sixty-three to seventy-two, or is one-eighth in
favour of the Lilliputians. I believe the rule for retreating is when
one-third of the men are _hors de combat_.

Now, supposing a regiment of three thousand grenadiers were obliged to
retire with a loss of one thousand men, the little fellows, under the
same fire, should have, at the same time, two thousand one hundred and
thirty-seven sound men left, and of course, unless bullied out of it,
they ought to gain the day.




LETTER XV.

Perversion of Institutions. - The French Academy. - Laplace. - Astronomy.
- Theatres of Paris. - Immoral Plot. - Artificial Feelings. - French
Tragedy. - Literary Mania. - The American Press. - American
Newspapers. - French Journals - Publishing Manoeuvres. - Madame Malibran.


To JAMES E. DE KAY, ESQUIRE.

It appears to be the melancholy lot of humanity, that every institution
which ingenuity can devise shall be perverted to an end different from
the legitimate. If we plan a democracy, the craven wretch who, in a
despotism, would be the parasite of a monarch, heads us off, and gets
the best of it under the pretence of extreme love for the people; if we
flatter ourselves that by throwing power into the hands of the rich and
noble, it is put beyond the temptation to abuse it, we soon discover
that rich is a term of convention, no one thinking he has enough until
he has all, and that nobility of station has no absolute connexion with
nobleness of spirit or of conduct; if we confide all to one, indolence,
favouritism, and indeed the impossibility of supervision, throws us
again into the hands of the demagogue, in his new, or rather true
character of a courtier. So it is with life; in politics, religion,
arms, arts and letters, yea, even the republic of letters, as it is
called, is the prey of schemes and parasites, and things _in fact_, are
very different from things _as they seem to be_.

"In the seventeen years that I have been a married man," said Captain
- - of the British navy, "I have passed but seventeen months with my
wife and family," "But, now there is peace, you will pass a few years
quietly in America, to look after your affairs," said I, by way of
awkward condolence. "No, indeed; I shall return to England as soon as
possible, to make up for lost time. I have been kept so much at sea,
that they have forgotten me at home, and duty to my children requires
that I should be on the spot." In the simplicity of my heart, I thought
this strange, and yet nothing could be more true. Captain - - was a
scion of the English aristocracy, and looked to his sword for his
fortune. Storms, fagging, cruising, all were of small avail compared to
interest at the Admiralty, and so it is with all things else, whether in
Europe or America. The man who really gains the victory, is lucky,
indeed, if he obtain the meed of his skill and valour. You may be
curious to know of what all this is _à propos?_ To be frank with, you, I
have visited the French Academy - "ces quarante qui ont l'esprit comme
quatre," and have come away fully impressed with the vanity of human
things!

The occasion was the reception of two or three new members, when,
according to a settled usage, the successful candidates pronounced
eulogies on their predecessors. You may be curious to know what
impression the assembled genius of France produced on a stranger from
the western world. I can only answer, none. The Academy of the Sciences
can scarcely ever be less than distinguished in such a nation; but when
I came to look about me, and to inquire after the purely literary men, I
was forcibly struck with the feebleness of the catalogue of names. Not
one in five was at all known to me, and very few, even of those who
were, could properly be classed among the celebrated writers of the day.
As France has many very clever men who were not on the list, I was
desirous of knowing the reason, and then learned that intrigue,
court-favour, and "_log-rolling_" to use a quaint American term, made
members of the academy as well as members of the cabinet. A moment's
reflection might have told me it could not well be otherwise. It would
be so in America, if we were burthened with an academy; it is so as
respects collegiate honours; and what reason is there for supposing it
should not be so in a country so notoriously addicted to intrigue as
France?

One ought not to be the dupe of these things. There are a few great
names, distinguished by common consent, whose claims it is necessary to
respect. These men form the front of every honorary institution; if
there are to be knights and nobles, and academicians, they must be of
the number; not that such distinctions are necessary to them, but that
they are necessary to the distinctions; after which the _oi polloi_ are
enrolled as they can find interest. Something very like an admission of
this is contained in an inscription on the statue of Molière, which
stands in the vestibule of the hall of the Academy, which frankly says,
"Though we are not necessary to your glory, you are necessary to ours."
He was excluded from the forty, by intrigue, on account of his
profession being that of a player. Shakspeare, himself, would have fared
no better. Now, fancy a country in which there was a club of select
authors, that should refuse to enrol the name of William Shakspeare on
their list!

The sitting was well attended, and I dare say the addresses were not
amiss; though there is something exceedingly tiresome in one of these
eulogies, that is perpetrated by malice prepense. The audience applauded
very much, after the fashion of those impromptus which are made _à
loisir_, and I could not but fancy that a good portion of the assembly
began to think the Academy was what the cockneys call a _rum_ place,
before they heard the last of it. We had a poem by Comte Daru, to which
I confess I did not listen, notwithstanding my personal respect for the
distinguished writer, simply because I was most heartily wearied before
he began, and because I can never make anything of French poetry, in the
Academy or out of it.

It would be unjust to speak lightly of any part of the French Academy,
without a passing remark in honour of those sections of it to which
honour is due. In these sections may be included, I think, that of the
arts, as well as that of the sciences. The number of respectable artists
that exist in this country is perfectly astonishing. The connoisseurs, I
believe, dispute the merits of the school, and ignorant as I am, in such
matters, I can myself see that there is a prevalent disposition, both in
statuary and painting, to sacrifice simplicity to details, and that the
theatrical is sometimes mistaken for the grand; but, after admitting
both these faults, and some defects in colouring, there still remains a
sufficient accumulation of merit, to create wonder in one, like myself,
who has not had previous opportunities of ascertaining the affluence of
a great nation in this respect.

As regards the scientific attainments of the French, it is unnecessary
to say anything; though I believe you will admit that they ought at
least to have the effect of counteracting some of the prejudices about
dancing-masters, _petits maîtres_, and _perruquiers_, that have
descended to us, through English novels and plays. Such a man as
Laplace, alone, is sufficient to redeem an entire people from these
imputations. The very sight of one of his demonstrations will give
common men, like ourselves, headaches, and you will remember that having
successfully got through one of the toughest of them, he felicitated
himself that there was but one other man living who could comprehend it,
now it was made.

What a noble gift would it have been to his fellow-creatures, had some
competent follower of Laplace bestowed on them a comprehensive but
popular compend of the leading astronomical facts, to be used as one of
the most ordinary school-books! Apart from the general usefulness of
this peculiar species of knowledge, and the chances that, by thus
popularizing the study, sparks might be struck from the spirit of some
dormant Newton, I know no inquiry that has so strong a tendency to raise
the mind from the gross and vulgar pursuits of the world, to a
contemplation of the power and designs of God. It has often happened to
me, when, filled with wonder and respect for the daring and art of man,
I have been wandering through the gorgeous halls of some palace, or
other public edifice, that an orrery or a diagram of the planetary
system has met my eye, and recalled me, in a moment, from the
consideration of art, and its intrinsic feebleness, to that of the
sublimity of nature. At such times, this globe has appeared so
insignificant, in comparison with the mighty system of which it forms so
secondary a part, that I felt a truly philosophical indifference, not to
give it a better term, for all it contained. Admiration of human powers,
as connected with the objects around me, has been lost in admiration of
the mysterious spirit which could penetrate the remote and sublime
secrets of the science; and on no other occasions have I felt so
profound a conviction of my own isolated insignificance, or so lively a
perception of the stupendous majesty of the Deity.

Passing by the common and conceded facts of the dimensions of the
planets, and the extent of their orbits, what thoughts are awakened by
the suggestion that the fixed stars are the centres of other solar
systems, and the eccentric comets are links to connect them all in one
great and harmonious design! The astronomers tell us that some of these
comets have no visible nucleuses - that the fixed stars are seen through
their apparent densest parts, and that they can be nothing but luminous
gases; while, on the other hand, others do betray dark compact bodies of
more solid matter. Fixed stars unaccountably disappear, as if suddenly
struck out of their places. Now, we know that aerolites are formed in
the atmosphere by a natural process, and descend in masses of pure iron.
Why may not the matter of one globe, dispersed into its elements by the
fusion of its consummation, reassemble in the shape of comets, gaseous
at first, and slowly increasing and condensing in the form of solid
matter, varying in their course as they acquire the property of
attraction, until they finally settle into new and regular planetary
orbits by the power of their own masses, thus establishing a regular
reproduction of worlds to meet the waste of eternity? Were the earth
dissolved into gases by fusion, what would become of its satellite the
moon? Might not the principles of our planet, thus volatilized, yield to
its nearer attraction, assemble around that orb, which, losing its
governing influence, should be left to wander in infinite space, subject
to a new but eccentric law of gravity, until finally reduced again
within the limits of some new system? How know we that such is not the
origin of comets?

Many astronomers have believed that the solar system, in company with
thousands of other systems, revolves around a common centre, in orbits
so vast as to defy computation, and a religious sentiment might well
suggest that this centre of the universe is the throne of the Most High.
Here we may fancy the Deity seated in power, and controlling, by his
will, the movements of worlds, directing each to the completion of his
own mysterious and benevolent designs.

It certainly might be dangerous to push our speculations too far, but
there can be no risk in familiarizing men to consider the omnipotence of
God, and to feel their own comparative insignificance. What ideas of
vastness are obtained by a knowledge of the fact that there exist stars
in the firmament which ordinary telescopes show us only as single
bodies, but which, on examination, by using reflectors of a higher
power, are found to be clusters of orbs - clusters of worlds - or clusters
of suns! These, again, are found to be _binary_ stars, or two stars
revolving round each other, while they are thought, at the same time, to
revolve around their central sun, and accompanied by this again,
probably, to revolve round the great common centre of all!

But, in the words of the quaint old song, I must cry "Holla! my fancy,
whither dost thou go?" Before taking leave of the stars altogether,
however, I will add that the French, and I believe all Europe, with the
exception of England, follow the natural order of time, in counting the
seasons. Thus the spring commences with the vernal equinox, and the
autumn with the autumnal. This division of the year leaves nearly the
whole of March as a winter month, June as a spring month, and September
as belonging to the summer. No general division of the seasons can suit
all latitudes; but the equinoxes certainly suggest the only two great
events of the year, that equally affect the entire sphere. Had the old
method of computing time continued, the seasons would gradually have
made the circle of the months, until their order was reversed as they
are now known to be in the northern and southern hemispheres.

Quitting the Academy, which, with its schools of the classical and the
romantic, has tempted me to a higher flight than I could have believed
possible, let us descend to the theatres of Paris. Talma was still
playing last year, when we arrived, and as in the case of repentance, I
put off a visit to the Théâtre Français, with a full determination to
go, because it might be made at any time. In the meanwhile, he fell ill
and died, and it never was my good fortune to see that great actor.
Mademoiselle Mars I have seen, and, certainly, in her line of
characters, I have never beheld her equal. Indeed, it is scarcely
possible to conceive of a purer, more severe, more faultless, and yet
more poetical representation of common nature, than that which
characterizes her art. Her acting has all the finish of high breeding,
with just as much feeling as is necessary to keep alive the illusion. As
for rant, there is not as much about her whole system, as would serve a
common English, or American actress, for a single "length."

To be frank with you, so great is the superiority of the French actors,
in _vaudevilles_, the light opera, and genteel comedy, that I fear I
have lost my taste for the English stage. Of tragedy I say nothing, for
I cannot enter into the poetry of the country at all, but, in all below
it, these people, to my taste, are immeasurably our superiors; and by
_ours_, you know I include the English stage. The different lines here,



Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperRecollections of Europe → online text (page 19 of 29)