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A Woman's Opinion of Paris and the Parisians by L. H. H.

1876

I have now lived in Paris two consecutive years, and during this time the question has often been put to me, "How do you like Paris and the Parisians?" That question I will now try to answer.

Like Paris? Of course I do—heartily and truly. Cold indeed must the heart be that does not find space in its depths for a true affection for the fair queen-city which welcomes all strangers so kindly and hospitably, which has a smile for all, and which at the wide banquet of her bounty sets forth food for every phase of mental hunger. Do you wish to study? Her libraries lie open to your research—her monuments, her galleries, her public institutions are given to your inspection, freely and without price. Do you seek amusement? Paris, in that respect, is like the rollicking heroine of Barbe-Bleu: there is none like Boulotte, "quand il s'agit de batifoler." Do you wish to hide yourself in depths of unbroken quiet? There are in her very heart lonely streets where scarce a cart ever penetrates, and in her suburbs green shaded nooks where the spirit of Solitude reigns supreme.

Life runs on such smooth and well-oiled wheels for all humanity in Paris that half the cares that torture us are cast aside as soon as we enter her precincts. Take, for instance, the grand question of housekeeping. Fancy living in a land where all the servants are skilled and civil, if not all trustworthy and honest; where washing-days and ironing-days and baking-days are unknown; where there are no staircases to sweep down and no front-door steps to scour; where rents and eating and all other household expenses may be gauged in accordance with one's purse. If you wish to entertain, you may give a soirée that will cost ten dollars if you cannot afford to give a ball that costs five thousand. Nothing is de rigueur in Paris. It is neither incumbent upon you to be housed splendidly nor to feast sumptuously—to drive your own carriage nor to entertain an army of servants. "Do the best you can" is the motto of Parisian life. And so it often happens that in a small room, up half a dozen flights of stairs, with a cup of tea for sole refreshment and music or conversation for sole amusement, one will find some of the pleasantest society in Paris. You do not get champagne and boned turkey and the German, but you hear sometimes a little music, such as one pays untold gold to hear at the opera, or a fragment of declamation by some noted elocutionist, or a new poem fresh from the pen of some celebrated writer. And you have always conversation; that is to say, the wit and sparkle of the wittiest and brightest nation on the face of the earth. In a world that is becoming more and more a Paradise of Fools the charm of sheer brain and brightness is irresistible. To live in such an intellectual centre is in itself delightful. Paris is a veritable Foire aux Idées. Its criticism, keen as the sword of Saladin, overwhelming as the battle-axe of Coeur de Lion, is in itself a study. It is not so much the intellectual productions of Paris as the comments they call forth that are at once instructive and fascinating.

When we turn from the world of intellect to that of ordinary life the same charm haunts our footsteps. Everything is so well done, so gracefully and so winningly presented! The exquisite perfume of refinement hangs about every trivial detail. Your washerwoman is a lady, and your coalman a Chesterfield. If a Frenchman is ever rude, he is rude with malice prepense and aforethought. He knows better, we may be sure. Patrick may err on the score of politeness from ignorance, but Alphonse is a beast only because he chooses to be bestial. All the traditions of his race run counter to his conduct when he forgets the supreme suavity that should characterize a Gaul.

And yet it is possible for an American—or rather an Anglo-Saxon—to live for years in the midst of this brilliant, polished, fascinating people, and never to feel specially interested in them, either individually or nationally. What is the reason? Why is it that, loving Paris like a second home, we do not take the Parisians to our hearts as brothers and sisters, or at least as dear first cousins? The causes are many and various. In the first place, the Parisians do not like us. The popularity which Americans were said to possess in Paris has vanished with the Empire—that is, if it really existed. It probably was nothing more at any time than the courtesy shown by an astute sovereign of a nation of shopkeepers to a nation of purchasers. To-day Americans are not popular in Parisian society. It is almost impossible that they should be. Our ideas, our social customs, our notions of right and wrong, are diametrically opposed to all the social theories of France. Our girls, with their free frank ways and their liberty of speech and action, are so many disreputable horrors in Parisian eyes. Madame la Comtesse de St. Germain would as soon think of taking her daughters to see Schneider as of permitting them to associate with young ladies who are allowed to receive morning calls from gentlemen without the presence of their parents—who call the male friends of their childhood by their first names—and who are suffered to witness Faust at the opera and La Haine at La Gaîté. Americans, especially wealthy ones, usually draw around them a vast circle of French acquaintances, it is true, but these are mostly sponges and adventurers, well born and well bred, it may be, but decidedly, to use a vulgar but expressive American idiom, "on the make." Of the pure and inner sanctuary of French society scarce a glimpse is afforded to these alien eyes. It would not amuse them very much if it were, for, by all accounts, this hallowed inner circle is as dull as it is exclusive. The charm of French society is to be found in those salons which are frequented by the kings of Parisian Bohemia—journalists, poets, dramatists, artists—wherein the Republic is queen and Victor Hugo a god.

Two great and ineradicable defects underlie the brightness and fascination of the external part of French character—namely, selfishness and insincerity. Perfect in manner, in dress, in grace, in suavity, in sweetness it may be, the French are utterly and wholly unreliable. They resemble the phantom woman in the story told by Leigh Hunt, that was only a suit of clothes, with no face beneath the hood and no body inside of the robes; or rather those malignant spirits that look like fair women when seen in front, but when seen from behind show only as hollow shells.

And the tradespeople, the bourgeoisie—your dressmaker, your milliner, your tailor, your butcher and baker and candlestick-maker—skilled and suave and generally charming—O heaven and earth! how they do lie! Not occasionally, not when hard-pressed, not when truth will not do as well, but persistently, calmly, eternally. "I swear to you, monsieur," will your Parisian say, "that your work shall be done in two hours," Esteem yourself fortunate if it is finished in two days: very probably two weeks will see it still uncompleted. Send for a workman to execute some little job about your house. "He will come at once—yes, at once." Days roll round, and he never comes at all. Your dressmaker agrees to make you a dress for a certain price: your bill comes home for half as much again. An American in Paris ordered an extra door-key, giving the original key as a pattern. The key was to cost four francs. Here is a copy of the bill as presented:

Francs.
For taking off lock (a process wholly unnecessary, by the by),     1-1/2
For putting it on again, 1-1/2
Workman's time, 1
Journey from shop (about half a square), 1
Key, 4
  ——
    Total 9

Another American sent for a bell-hanger to inspect an electric bell which was thought to be out of order, but which proved on inspection to be all right. He got a bill of five francs, whereof one item ran thus: "For looking at the bell, 2 francs." He had not touched the thing, be it borne in mind.

I cannot refrain from here making answer to a remark too often heard from American lips, that America is as immoral as France—that American society is every whit as depraved as the French. It is not. The immorality of America is as a festering wound on an otherwise healthy body: the immorality of France is like a scrofulous taint that poisons the whole life-current. One gets weary and heartsick with the old eternal song, the everlasting theme, which is sung and told and dramatized and written about and painted—that flies in your face at every corner and stares up at you from every inch of printed paper, every square of colored canvas, in the whole nationality. And to sum up at last this, "a woman's opinion," I will freely state that the longer I live in France the more I admire the Parisians and the less I like them.