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is one of the rarest, as, tempered by the tone imparted by refinement,
it is the loveliest of all our traits, though it is quite common to meet
with those who affect it, with an address that is very apt to deceive
the ordinary, and most especially the flattered, observer.

Opportunity, rather than talents, is the great requisite for circulating
gossip; a very moderate degree of ability sufficing for the observation
which shall render private anecdotes, more especially when they relate
to persons of celebrity, of interest to the general reader. But there is
another objection to being merely the medium of information of this low
quality, that I should think would have great influence with every one
who has the common self-respect of a gentleman. _There is a tacit
admission of inferiority_ in the occupation, that ought to prove too
humiliating to a man accustomed to those associations, which imply
equality. It is permitted to touch upon the habits and appearance of a
truly great man; but to dwell upon the peculiarities of a duke, merely
because he is a duke, is as much as to say he is your superior; a
concession, I do not feel disposed to make in favour of any _mere duke_
in Christendom.

I shall not, however, be wholly silent on the general impressions left
by the little I have seen of the society of Paris; and, occasionally,
when it is characteristic, an anecdote may be introduced, for such
things sometimes give distinctness, as well as piquancy, to a
description.

During our first winter in Paris, our circle, never very large, was
principally confined to foreign families intermingled with a few French;
but since our return to town, from St. Ouen, we have seen more of the
people of the country. I should greatly mislead you, however, were I to
leave the impression that our currency in the French capital has been at
all general, for it certainly has not. Neither my health, leisure,
fortune, nor opportunities, have permitted this. I believe few, perhaps
no Americans, have very general access to the best society of any large
European town; at all events, I have met with no one who I have had any
reason to think was much better off than myself in this respect; and, I
repeat, my own familiarity with the circles of the capital is nothing to
boast of. It is in Paris, as it is everywhere else, as respects those
who are easy of access. In all large towns there is to be found a
troublesome and pushing set, who, requiring notoriety, obtrude
themselves on strangers, sometimes with sounding names, and always with
offensive pretensions of some sort or other; but the truly respectable
and estimable class, in every country, except in cases that cannot
properly be included in the rule, are to be sought. Now, one must feel
that he has peculiar claims, or be better furnished with letters than
happened to be my case, to get a ready admission into this set, or,
having obtained it, to feel that his position enabled him to maintain
the intercourse, with the ease and freedom that could alone render it
agreeable. To be shown about as a lion, when circumstances offer the
means; to be stuck up at a dinner-table, as a piece of luxury, like
strawberries in February, or peaches in April, - can hardly be called
association: the terms being much on a par with that which forms the
_liaisons_, between him who gives the entertainment, and the hired plate
with which his table is garnished. With this explanation, then, you are
welcome to an outline of the little I know on the subject.

One of the errors respecting the French, which has been imported into
America, through England, is the impression that they are not
hospitable. Since my residence here, I have often been at a loss to
imagine how such a notion could have arisen, for I am acquainted with no
town, in which it has struck me there is more true hospitality than in
Paris. Not only are dinners, balls, and all the minor entertainments
frequent, but there is scarcely a man, or a woman, of any note in
society, who does not cause his or her doors to be opened, once a
fortnight at least, and, in half the cases, once a week. At these
_soirées_ invitations are sometimes given, it is true, but then they are
general, and for the whole season; and it is not unusual, even, to
consider them free to all who are on visiting terms with the family. The
utmost simplicity and good taste prevail at these places, the
refreshments being light and appropriate, and the forms exacting no more
than what belongs to good breeding. You will, at once, conceive the
great advantages that a stranger possesses in having access to such
social resources. One, with a tolerable visiting list, may choose his
circle for any particular evening, and if, by chance, the company should
not happen to be to his mind, he has still before him the alternative of
several other houses, which are certain to be open. It is not easy to
say what can be more truly hospitable than this.

The _petits soupers_, once so celebrated, are entirely superseded by the
new distribution of time, which is probably the most rational that can
be devised for a town life. The dinner is at six, an hour that is too
early to interfere with the engagements of the evening, it being usually
over at eight, and too late to render food again necessary that night;
an arrangement that greatly facilitates the evening intercourse,
releasing it at once from all trouble and parade.

It has often been said in favour of French society, that once within the
doors of a _salon_, all are equal. This is not literally so, it being
impossible that such a state of things can exist; nor is it desirable
that it should, since it is confounding all sentiment and feeling,
overlooking the claims of age, services, merit of every sort, and
setting at nought the whole construction of society. It is not
absolutely true that even rank is entirely forgotten in French society,
though I think it sufficiently so to prevent any deference to it from
being offensive. The social pretensions of a French peer are exceedingly
well regulated, nor do I remember to have seen an instance in which a
very young man has been particularly noticed on account of his having
claims of this sort. Distinguished men are so very numerous in Paris,
that they excite no great feeling, and the even course of society is
little disturbed on their account.

Although all within the doors of a French _salon_ are not perfectly
equal, none are made unpleasantly to feel the indifference. I dare say
there are circles in Paris, in which the mere possession of money may be
a source of evident distinction, but it must be in a very inferior set.
The French, while they are singularly alive to the advantages of money,
and extremely liable to yield to its influence in all important matters,
rarely permit any manifestations of its power to escape them in their
ordinary intercourse. As a people, they appear to me to be ready to
yield everything to money but its external homage. On these points they
are the very converse of the Americans, who are hard to be bought, while
they consider money the very base of all distinction. The origin of
these peculiarities may be found in the respective conditions of the two
countries.

In America, fortunes are easily and rapidly acquired; pressure reduces
few to want; he who serves is, if anything, more in demand than he who
is to be served; and the want of temptation produces exemption from the
liability to corruption. Men will, and do, daily _corrupt themselves_ in
the rapacious pursuit of gain, but comparatively few are in the market
to be bought and sold by others. Notwithstanding this, money being every
man's goal, there is a secret, profound, and general deference for it,
while money will do less than in almost any other country in
Christendom. Here, few young men look forward to gaining distinction by
making money; they search for it as a means, whereas with us it is the
end. We have little need of arms in America, and the profession is in
less request than that of law or merchandize. Of the arts and letters
the country possesses none, or next to none; and there is no true
sympathy with either. The only career that is felt as likely to lead,
and which can lead, to distinction independently of money, is that of
politics, and, as a whole, this is so much occupied by sheer
adventurers, with little or no pretentions to the name of statesmen,
that it is scarcely reputable to belong to it. Although money has no
influence in politics, or as little as well may be, even the successful
politician is but a secondary man in ordinary society in comparison with
the _millionnaire_. Now all this is very much reversed in Paris: money
does much, while it seems to do but little. The writer of a successful
comedy would be a much more important personage in the _côteries_ of
Paris than M. Rothschild; and the inventor of a new bonnet would enjoy
much more _éclat_ than the inventor of a clever speculation. I question
if there be a community on earth in which gambling risks in the funds,
for instance, are more general than in this, and yet the subject appears
to be entirely lost sight of out of the Bourse.

The little social notoriety that is attached to military distinction
here has greatly surprised me. It really seems as if France has had so
much military renown as to be satiated with it. One is elbowed
constantly by generals, who have gained this or that victory, and yet no
one seems to care anything about them. I do not mean that the nation is
indifferent to military glory, but society appears to care little or
nothing about it. I have seen a good deal of fuss made with the writer
of a few clever verses, but I have never seen any made with a hero.
Perhaps it was because the verses were new, and the victories old.

The perfect good taste and indifference which the French manifest
concerning the private affairs, and concerning the mode of living, of
one who is admitted to the _salons_, has justly extorted admiration,
even from the English, the people of all others who most submit to a
contrary feeling. A hackney-coach is not always admitted into a
court-yard, but both men and women make their visits in them, without
any apparent hesitation. No one seems ashamed of confessing poverty. I
do not say that women of quality often use _fiacres_ to make their
visits, but men do, and I have seen women in them openly whom I have met
in some of the best houses in Paris. It is better to go in a private
carriage, or in a _remise_, if one can, but few hesitate, when their
means are limited, about using the former. In order to appreciate this
self-denial, or simplicity, or good sense, it is necessary to remember
that a Paris _fiacre_ is not to be confounded with any other vehicle on
earth. I witnessed, a short time since, a ludicrous instance of the
different degrees of feeling that exist on this point among different
people. A - - and myself went to the house of an English woman our
acquaintance who is not very choice in her French. A Mrs. - - , the wife
of a colonel in the English army, sat next A - - , as a French lady
begged that her carriage might be ordered. Our hostess told her servant
to order the _fiacre_ of Madame - - . Now Madame - - kept her chariot,
to my certain knowledge, but she disregarded the mistake. A - - soon
after desired that our carriage might come next. The good woman of the
house, who loved to be busy, again called for the _fiacre_ of Madame
- - . I saw the foot of A - - in motion, but catching my eye, she
smiled, and the thing passed off. The "voiture de Madame - - ," or our
own carriage, was announced just as Mrs. - - was trying to make a
servant understand she wished for hers. "Le fiacre de Madame - - ,"
again put in the bustling hostess. This was too much for a colonel's
lady, and, with a very pretty air of distress, she took care to explain,
in a way that all might hear her, that it was a _remise_.

I dare say, vulgar prejudices influence vulgar minds, here, as
elsewhere, and yet I must say, that I never knew any one hesitate about
giving an address on account of the humility of the lodgings. It is to
be presumed that the manner in which families that are historical, and
of long-established rank, were broken down by the revolution, has had an
influence in effecting this healthful state of feeling.

The great tact and careful training of the women, serve to add very much
to the grace of French society. They effectually prevent all
embarrassments from the question of precedency, by their own decisions.
Indeed, it appears to be admitted, that when there is any doubt on these
points, the mistress of the house shall settle it in her own way. I
found myself lately, at a small dinner, the only stranger, and the
especially invited guest, standing near Madame la Marquise at the moment
the service was announced. A bishop made one of the trio. I could not
precede a man of his years and profession, and he was too polite to
precede a stranger. It was a nice point. Had it been a question between
a duke and myself, as a stranger, and under the circumstances of the
invitation, I should have had the _pas_, but even the lady hesitated
about discrediting a father of the church. She delayed but an instant,
and, smiling, she begged us to follow her to the table, avoiding the
decision altogether. In America such a thing could not have happened,
for no woman, by a fiction of society, is supposed to know how to walk
in company without support; but, here, a woman will not spoil her
curtsey, on entering a room, by leaning on an arm, if she can well help
it. The practice of tucking up a brace of females (liver and gizzard, as
the English coarsely, but not inaptly, term it), under one's arms, in
order to enter a small room that is crowded in a way to render the
movements of even one person difficult, does not prevail here, it being
rightly judged that a proper _tenue_, a good walk, and a graceful
movement, are all impaired by it. This habit also singularly contributes
to the comfort of your sex, by rendering them more independent of ours.
No one thinks, except in very particular cases, of going to the door to
see a lady into her carriage, a custom too provincial to prevail in a
capital, anywhere. Still, there is an amusing assiduity among the men,
on certain points of etiquette, that has sometimes made me laugh;
though, in truth, every concession to politeness being a tribute to
benevolence, is respectable, unless spoiled in the manner. As we are
gossiping about trifles, I will mention a usage or two, that to you will
at least be novel.

I was honoured with a letter from le Chevalier Alexandre de Lameth,[24]
accompanied by an offering of a book, and I took an early opportunity to
pay my respects to him. I found this gentleman, who once played so
conspicuous a part in the politics of France, and who is now a liberal
deputy, at breakfast, in a small cabinet, at the end of a suite of four
rooms. He received me politely, conversed a good deal of America, in
which country he had served as a colonel, under Rochambeau, and I took
my leave. That M. de Lameth should rise, and even see me into the next
room, was what every one would expect, and there I again took my leave
of him. But he followed me to each door, in succession, and when, with a
little gentle violence, I succeeded in shutting him in the ante-chamber,
he seemed to yield to my entreaties not to give himself any further
trouble. I was on the landing, on my way down, when, hearing the door of
M. de Lameth's apartment open, I turned and saw its master standing
before it, to give and receive the last bow. Although this extreme
attention to the feelings of others, and delicacy of demeanour, rather
marks the Frenchman of the old school, perhaps, it is by no means
uncommon here. General Lafayette, while he permits me to see him with
very little ceremony, scarcely ever suffers me to leave him without
going with me as far as two or three doors. This, in my case, he does
more from habit than anything else, for he frequently does not even rise
when I enter; and, sometimes, when I laughingly venture to say so much
ceremony is scarcely necessary between us, he will take me at my word,
and go back to his writing, with perfect simplicity.

[Footnote 24: Since dead.]

The reception between the women, I see plainly, is graduated with an
unpretending but nice regard to their respective claims. They rise, even
to men, a much more becoming and graceful habit than that of America,
except in evening circles, or in receiving intimates. I never saw a
French woman offer her hand to a male visitor, unless a relative, though
it is quite common for females to kiss each other, when the _réunion_ is
not an affair of ceremony. The practice of kissing among men still
exists, though it is not very common at Paris. It appears, to be
gradually going out with the earrings. I have never had an offer from a
Frenchman, of my own age, to kiss me, but it has frequently occurred
with my seniors. General Lafayette practises it still, with all his
intimates.

I was seated, the other evening, in quiet conversation, with Madame la
Princesse de - - . Several people had come and gone in the course of an
hour, and all had been received in the usual manner. At length the
_huissier_, walking fast through the ante-chamber, announced the wife of
an ambassador. The Princesse, at the moment, was seated on a divan, with
her feet raised so as not to touch the floor. I was startled with the
suddenness and vehemence of her movements. She sprang to her feet, and
rather ran than walked across the vast _salon_ to the door, where she
was met by her visitor, who, observing the _empressement_ of her
hostess, through the vista of rooms, had rushed forward as fast as
decorum would at all allow, in order to anticipate her at the door. It
was my impression, at first, that they were bosom friends, about to be
restored to each other, after a long absence, and that the impetuosity
of their feelings had gotten the better of their ordinary self-command.
No such thing; it was merely a strife of courtesy, for the meeting was
followed by an extreme attention to all the forms of society, profound
curtsies, and the elaborated demeanour which marks ceremony rather than
friendship.

Much has been said about the latitude of speech among the women of
France, and comparisons have been made between them and our own females,
to the disadvantage of the former. If the American usages are to be
taken as the standard of delicacy in such matters, I know of no other
people who come up to it. As to our mere feelings, habit can render
anything proper, or anything improper, and it is not an easy matter to
say where the line, in conformity with good sense and good taste, should
be actually drawn. I confess a leaning to the American school, but how
far I am influenced by education it would not be easy for me to say
myself. Foreigners affirm that we are squeamish, and that we wound
delicacy oftener by the awkward attempts to protect it, than if we had
more simplicity. There may be some truth in this, for though cherishing
the notions of my youth, I never belonged to the ultra school at home,
which, I believe you will agree with me, rather proves low breeding than
good breeding. One sees instances of this truth, not only every day, but
every hour of the day. Yesterday, in crossing the Tuileries, I was
witness of a ludicrous scene that sufficiently illustrates what I mean.
The statues of the garden have little or no drapery. A countryman, and
two women of the same class, in passing one, were struck with this
circumstance, and their bursts of laughter, running and hiding their
faces, and loud giggling, left no one in ignorance of the cause of their
extreme bashfulness. Thousands of both sexes pass daily beneath the same
statue, without a thought of its nudity, and it is looked upon as a
noble piece of sculpture.

In dismissing this subject, which is every way delicate, I shall merely
say that usage tolerates a license of speech, of which you probably have
no idea, but that I think one hears very rarely from a French woman of
condition little that would not be uttered by an American female under
similar circumstances. So far as my experience goes, there is a marked
difference in this particular between the women of a middle station and
those of a higher rank; by rank, however, I mean hereditary rank, for
The revolution has made a _pêle mêle_ in the _salons_ of Paris.

Although the _petits soupers_ have disappeared, the dinners are very
sufficient substitutes: they are given at a better hour; and the service
of a French entertainment, so quiet, so entirely free from effort, or
chatter about food, is admirably adapted to rendering them agreeable. I
am clearly of opinion that no one ought to give any entertainment that
has not the means of making it pass off as a matter-of-course thing, and
without effort. I have certainly seen a few fussy dinners here, but they
are surprisingly rare. At home, we have plenty of people who know that a
party that has a laboured air is inherently vulgar, but how few are
there that know how to treat a brilliant entertainment as a mere matter
of course! Paris is full of those desirable houses in which the thing is
understood.

The forms of the table vary a little, according to the set one is in. In
truly French houses, until quite lately, I believe, it was not the
custom to change the knife, - the duty of which, by the way, is not
great, the cookery requiring little more than the fork. In families that
mingle more with strangers, both are changed, as with us. A great dinner
is served very much as at home, so far as the mere courses are
concerned, though I have seen the melons follow the soup. This I believe
to be in good taste, though it is not common; and it struck me at first
as being as much out of season as the old New England custom of eating
the pudding before the meat. But the French give small dinners (small in
name, though certainly very great in execution), in which the dishes are
served singly or nearly so, the entertainment resembling those given by
the Turks, and being liable to the same objection; for when there is but
a single dish before one, and it is not known whether there is to be any
more, it is an awkward thing to decline eating. Such dinners are
generally of the best quality, but I think they should never be given,
except where there is sufficient intimacy to embolden the guest to say
_jam satis_.

The old devotion to the sex is not so exclusively the occupation of a
French _salon_ as it was probably half a century since. I have been in
several, where the men were grouped in a corner talking politics, while
the women amused each other as best they could, in cold, formal lines,
looking like so many figures placed there to show off the latest modes
of the toilette. I do not say this is absolutely common, but it is less
rare than you might be apt to suppose.

I can tell you little of the habit of reading manuscripts in society.
Such things are certainly done, for I have been invited to be present on
one or two occasions; but having a horror of such exhibitions, I make it
a point to be indisposed, the choice lying between the megrims before or
after them. Once, and once only, I have heard a poet recite his verses
in a well-filled drawing-room; and though I have every reason to think
him clever, my ear was so little accustomed to the language, that, in
the mouthing of French recitation, I lost nearly all of it.

I have had an odd pleasure in driving from one house to another, on
particular evenings, in order to produce as strong contrasts as my
limited visiting-list will procure. Having a fair opportunity a few
nights since, in consequence of two or three invitations coming in for
the evening on which several houses where I occasionally called were
opened, I determined to make a night of it, in order to note the effect.
As A - - did not know several of the people, I went alone, and you may
possibly be amused with an account of my adventures: they shall be told.

In the first place, I had to dress, in order to go to dinner at a house
that I had never entered, and with a family of which I had never seen a
soul. These are incidents which frequently come over a stranger, and at
first were not a little awkward; but use hardens us to much greater
misfortunes. At six, then, I stepped punctually into my _coupé_, and
gave Charles the necessary number and street. I ought to tell you that
the invitation had come a few days before, and in a fit of curiosity I
had accepted it, and sent a card, without having the least idea who my



Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperRecollections of Europe → online text (page 23 of 29)