A Frenchman in London by Jules
ONE of the principal causes of surprise to me in walking along the
streets of London, has been to see myself all at once become a curious
animal. I did not think that I had any of the qualities necessary for
such a thing, being neither humpbacked nor clubfooted, neither a giant
nor a dwarf. Thus, when on the day of my arrival I went along
Regent-street, and heard the exclamations and laughter of the crowd on
seeing me, I examined myself from head to foot, to ascertain the cause
of the unhoped-for success which I obtained in England. I even felt all
up my back, thinking that perhaps some facetious boy might have
transformed me into a walking placard. There was nothing, however; but I
had mustaches and a foreign air! A foreign air! That is one of the
little miseries on which you do not count, oh, simple and inexperienced
At home you may have the dignity and nobleness of the Cid—you may be
another Talma: but pass the Channel—show yourself to the English, and
in spite of yourself you will become as comic as Arnal. Arnal! do I say?
why, he would not make them laugh so much as you do; and they would
consider our inimitable comedians, Levassor and Hoffmann, as serious
personages. Do not be angry. They would only laugh the more. In this
respect the English are wanting in good taste and indulgence. Their
astonishment is silly and their mockery puerile. The sight of a pair of
mustaches makes them roar with laughter, and they are in an ecstasy of
fun at the sight of a rather broad-brimmed hat. A people must be very
much bored to seize such occasions of amusing themselves. However, all
the travers, like all the qualities of the English, arise from the
national spirit carried to exaggeration. They consider themselves the
beau ideal of human kind. Their stiffness of bearing, their pale
faces, their hair, their whiskers cut into the shape of mutton chops,
the excessive height of their shirt collars, and the inelegant cut of
their coats—all that makes them as proud as Trafalgar and Waterloo.
In our theatres we laugh at them as they laugh at us; and on that score
we are quits. But in our great towns they are much better and more
seriously received than we Frenchmen are in England.
At Paris nowadays nobody laughs at an Englishman; but at London every
body laughs at a Frenchman. We do not make this remark from any feeling
of ill-will; in fact, we think that to cause a smile on the thin and
pinched-up lips of old England is not a small triumph for our beards and
mustaches. After all, too, the astonishment which the Englishman
manifests at the sight of a newly disembarked Frenchman (an astonishment
which appears singular when we call to mind the frequent communications
between the two nations), is less inexplicable than may be thought.
Geographically speaking, France and England touch each other; morally,
they are at an immeasurable distance. Nothing is done at Calais as at
Dover, nothing at London as at Paris. There is as much difference
between the two races as between white and black. In France, the
Englishman conforms willingly to our customs, and quickly adopts our
manner of acting; but in England we are like a stain on a harmonious
Our fashion of sauntering along the streets, smiling at the pretty girls
we meet, looking at the shops, or stopping to chat with a friend, fills
the English with stupefaction. They always walk straight before them
like mad dogs. In conversation there is the same difference. In England,
it is always solemn. Left alone after dinner, the men adopt a subject of
conversation, which never varies during all the rest of the evening.
Each one is allowed to develop his argument without interruption.
Perhaps he is not understood, but he is listened to. When he has ended,
it becomes the turn of another, who is heard with the same respect. The
thing resembles a quiet sitting of the parliament. But in France,
conversation is a veritable mêlée; it is the contrary excess. A
subject is left and taken up twenty times, amidst joyous and unforeseen
interruptions. We throw words at each other's heads without doing
ourselves any harm; smart sallies break forth, and bons mots roll
under the table. In short, the Englishman reflects before speaking; the
Frenchman speaks first and reflects afterward—if he has time. The
Frenchman converses, the Englishman talks: and it is the same with
respect to pleasure. Place a Frenchman, who feels ennui, by the side
of an Englishman who amuses himself, and it will be the former who will
have the gayest air. From love the Englishman only demands its brutal
joys; whereas the Frenchman pays court to a woman. The Englishman, at
table, drinks to repletion; the Frenchman never exceeds intoxication.
A difference equally striking exists between the females of the two
countries. I do not now speak of the beauty of the type of the one, or
the elegance and good taste of the others; but I will notice one or two
great contrasts. In France a young girl is reserved, is timid, and, as
it were, hidden under the shade of the family: but the married woman has
every liberty, and many husbands can tell you that she does not always
use it with extreme moderation! In England you are surprised at the
confident bearing of young girls, and the chaste reserve of married
women. The former not only willingly listen to gallant compliments, but
even excite them; while the latter, by the simple propriety of their
bearing, impose on the boldest.
The boldness of young girls in England was explained to me, by the great
emigration of young men—in other words, by the scarcity of husbands.
The French girl who wants a husband is ordinarily rather disdainful; the
English girl is by no means difficult.
A Frenchwoman walks negligently leaning on our arm, and we regulate our
steps by the timidity and uncertainty of hers; the Englishwoman walks
with the head erect, and takes large strides like a soldier charging. An
accident made me acquainted with the secret of the strange way of
walking which Englishwomen have. I was lately on a visit to the family
of a merchant, whose three daughters are receiving a costly education.
The French master, the drawing master, and the music master, had each
given his lesson, when I saw a sergeant of the Grenadiers of the Guard
arrive. He went into the garden, and was followed by the young ladies.
"Ah! mon Dieu!" I cried to the father; "these young ladies are surely
not going to learn the military exercise!"
"No," said he, with a smile.
"What, then, has this professor in a red coat come for?"
"He is the master of grace!"
"What! that grenadier who is as long as the column in Trafalgar-square?"
"Yes, or rather he is the walking master."
I looked out of the window and saw the three young ladies drawn up and
immovable as soldiers, and presently they began to march to the step of
the grenadier. They formed a charming platoon, and trod the military
step with a precision worthy of admiration. I asked for an explanation
of such a strange thing.
"We, in England," said my host, "understand better the duty of women
than you Frenchmen do. We can not regulate our manner of walking on that
of a being subjected to us. Our dignity forbids it. It is the woman's
duty to follow us; consequently she must walk as we do—we can't walk as
"Ma foi!" said I, "I must admit that in progress you are decidedly our
masters. In France the law, it is true, commands the wife to follow her
husband; but it does not, I confess, say that she must do so at the rate
of quick march!"
The contrasts between the two countries are in truth inexhaustible.
Indeed I defy the most patient observer to find any point of resemblance
between them. In France, houses are gay in appearance; in London, with
the exception of some streets in the centre, such as Regent-street or
Oxford-street, they are as dark and dismal as prisons. Our windows open
from the left to the right; windows in England open from top to bottom.
At Paris, to ring or knock too loud is vulgar and ill-bred; at London,
if you don't execute a tattoo with the knocker or a symphony with the
bell, you are considered a poor wretch, and are left an hour at the
door. Our hack cabs take their stand on one side of the street; in
England they occupy the middle. Our coachmen get up in front of their
vehicles; in England they go behind. In Paris Englishmen are charming;
at home they are—Englishmen. One thing astonishes me greatly—that the
English don't walk on their hands, since we walk on our feet.
I do not know from experience the Scottish hospitality which M. Scribe
has lauded in one of his vaudevilles. But I know what to think of that
of the county of Middlesex capital—London. Here I can assure you it is
never given, but always sold. London is the town of closed doors. You
feel yourself more a foreigner here than in any other country. On
strolling along the spacious squares and magnificent streets in which
civilization displays all its marvels, you seek in vain for some fissure
by which to introduce yourself into English society, which is thickly
steeped in individualism. With letters of recommendation, if of high
authority, you may, it is true, gain access to a family of the middle
class; and, once received, you will be well treated. But what conditions
you must fulfill to gain that! You must lead a life like that of the
cloister, and sacrifice all your dearest habits. The Englishman, though
he invented the word eccentric, does not tolerate eccentricity in a
foreigner. And, on the whole, the bourgeoise hospitality is not worth
the sacrifices it costs.
We must not, however, be angry with the English for being so little
communicative with foreigners, since they scarcely communicate among
themselves. The extent of distances and the fatigue of serious affairs
are the principal causes of this. It is almost only in the evening you
can visit them, and in the evening they are overwhelmed with fatigue.
Besides this, all the usages of the English show that they are not
naturally sociable. The cellular system of taverns, in which every
person is confined in a sort of box without a lid; the silent clubs, in
which some write while others read the papers, and only interrupt
themselves to make a sign of "good evening" with the hand—all that sort
of thing constitutes an existence which the French have the irreverence
to call selfish.
Among the high aristocracy, hospitality is a great and noble thing; but
it is more accessible to the wealthy tallow chandler than to a writer or
an artist of genius. In England, with the exception of Dickens and
Bulwer, the literary man is less considered than the comedian was in
France a century ago. In France, it is admirable to witness the fusion
of the aristocracies of family, money, and intelligence. Artists and
poets are invited to all the fêtes of high society. As soon as a
writer has raised himself somewhat above the vulgar, he perceives that
the great ones of this world occupy themselves with him, show him
protection and sympathy. But what is a man of intelligence here in
London? He is an animal less considered than the lowest coal-dealer in
the city. And what is the consequence of this neglect of arts and
literature? That England is almost reduced to the necessity of robbing
our artists and writers. The theatres in particular pirate from us with
But to return to the want of hospitality of the English to the foreign
bards who have come over to sing the marvels of the Great Exhibition.
You may meet in London at this moment a dozen literary phantoms who drag
the shroud of their ennui and discouragement along Piccadilly. These
shadows, when they recognize each other, shake hands and relate their
disappointments. They are French journalists. Separated one from the
other, and not knowing on what chord of their lyres to celebrate the
virtues of a people who laugh in their faces, and who seem to be
ignorant of the men whose names are most known and admired at Paris,
these French journalists ask each other the same question—"Do you amuse
yourself at London?" And they all make the same reply, "I am bored at
the rate of twenty shillings a day!" To which they all exclaim in
chorus, "That's very dear!"
A year ago, when the Friends of Peace, those generous Utopian dreamers,
came to London, they were received at the station by the most celebrated
English economists, carried in triumph to the residences prepared for
them, taken to visit all that is curious in England—in a word, treated
as princes. But then they were the friends of the great Cobden! whereas
England cares not a straw for the mob of simple literary men, writers of
imagination! She would not even send their confrères to bid them
welcome. Let them manage them as they can; let them lodge in bad hotels,
and dine ill; let them content themselves with seeing London on the
outside, for neither the docks of the Thames nor the museums of the
great nobles will be opened to them!
But what matters, after all, that we are at London without any guides
but ourselves? My opinion is, that we must put a good face on it, and
see the marvels of the monster town in spite of itself.