Notes On American WomenNew York, January 18.
A man was one day complaining to a friend that he had been married twenty years without being able to understand his wife. "You should not complain of that," remarked the friend. "I have been married to my wife two years only, and I understand her perfectly."
The leaders of thought in France have long ago proclaimed that woman was the only problem it was not given to man to solve. They have all tried, and they have all failed. They all acknowledge it--but they are trying still.
Indeed, the interest that woman inspires in every Frenchman is never exhausted. Parodying Terence, he says to himself, "I am a man, and all that concerns woman interests me." All the French modern novels are studies, analytical, dissecting studies, of woman's heart.
To the Anglo-Saxon mind, this may sometimes appear a trifle puerile, if not also ridiculous. But to understand this feeling, one must remember how a Frenchman is brought up.
In England, boys and girls meet and play together; in America and Canada, they sit side by side on the same benches at school, not only as children of tender age, but at College and in the Universities. They get accustomed to each other's company; they see nothing strange in being in contact with one another, and this naturally tends to reduce the interest or curiosity one sex takes in the other. But in France they are apart, and the ball-room is the only place where they can meet when they have attained the age of twenty!
Strange to reflect that young people of both sexes can meet in ball-rooms without exciting their parents' suspicions, and that they cannot do so in class-rooms!
When I was a boy at school in France, I can well remember how we boys felt on the subject. If we heard that a young girl, say the sister of some school-fellow, was with her mother in the common parlor to see her brother, why, it created a commotion, a perfect revolution in the whole establishment. It was no use trying to keep us in order. We would climb on the top of the seats or of the tables to endeavor to see something of her, even if it were but the top of her hat, or a bit of her gown across the recreation yard at the very end of the building. It was an event. Many of us would even immediately get inspired and compose verses addressed to the unknown fair visitor. In these poetical effusions we would imagine the young girl carried off by some miscreant, and we would fly to her rescue, save her, and throw ourselves at her feet to receive her hand as our reward. Yes, we would get quite romantic or, in plain English, quite silly. We could not imagine that a woman was a reasoning being with whom you can talk on the topics of the day, or have an ordinary conversation on any ordinary subject. To us a woman was a being with whom you can only talk of love, or fall in love, or, maybe, for whom you may die of love.
This manner of training young men goes a long way toward explaining the position of woman in France as well as her ways. It explains why a Frenchman and a Frenchwoman, when they converse together, seldom can forget that one is a man and the other a woman. It does not prove that a Frenchwoman must necessarily be, and is, affected in her relations with men; but it explains why she does not feel, as the American woman does, that a man and woman can enjoy a tête-à-tête
free from all those commonplace flatteries, compliments, and platitudes that badly-understood gallantry suggests. Many American ladies have made me forget, by the easiness of their manner and the charm and naturalness of their conversation, that I was speaking with women, and with lovely ones, too. This I could never have forgotten in the company of French ladies.
On account of this feeling, and perhaps also of the difference which exists between the education received by a man and that received by a woman in France, the conversation will always be on some light topics, literary, artistic, dramatic, social, or other. Indeed, it would be most unbecoming for a man to start a very serious subject of conversation with a French lady to whom he had just been introduced. He would be taken for a pedant or a man of bad breeding.
In America, men and women receive practically the same education, and this of course enlarges the circle of conversation between the sexes. I shall always remember a beautiful American girl, not more than twenty years of age, to whom I was once introduced in New York, as she was giving to a lady sitting next to her a most detailed description of the latest bonnet invented in Paris, and who, turning toward me, asked me point-blank if I had read M. Ernest Renan's "History of the People of Israel." I had to confess that I had not yet had time to read it. But she had, and she gave me, without the remotest touch of affectation or pedantry, a most interesting and learned analysis of that remarkable work. I related this incident in "Jonathan and his Continent." On reading it, some of my countrymen, critics and others, exclaimed: "We imagine the fair American girl had a pair of gold spectacles on."
"No, my dear compatriots, nothing of the sort. No gold spectacles, no guy. It was a beautiful girl, dressed with most exquisite taste and care, and most charming and womanly."
An American woman, however learned she may be, is a sound politician, and she knows that the best thing she can make of herself is a woman, and she remains a woman. She will always make herself as attractive as she possibly can. Not to please men--I believe she has a great contempt for them--but to please herself. If, in a French drawing-room, I were to remark to a lady how clever some woman in the room looked, she would probably closely examine that woman's dress to find out what I thought was wrong about it. It would probably be the same in England, but not in America.
A Frenchwoman will seldom be jealous of another woman's cleverness. She will far more readily forgive her this qualification than beauty. And in this particular point, it is probable that the Frenchwoman resembles all the women in the Old World.
Of all the ladies I have met, I have no hesitation in declaring that the American ones are the least affected. With them, I repeat it, I feel at ease as I do with no other women in the world.
With whom but an Américaine
would the following little scene have been possible?
I was in Boston. It was Friday, and knowing it to be the reception day of Mrs. X., an old friend of mine and my wife's, I thought I would call upon her early, before the crowd of visitors had begun to arrive. So I went to the house about half-past three in the afternoon. Mrs. X. received me in the drawing-room, and we were soon talking on the hundred and one topics that old friends have on their tongue tips. Presently the conversation fell on love and lovers. Mrs. X. drew her chair up a little nearer to the fire, put the toes of her little slippers on the fender stool, and with a charmingly confidential, but perfectly natural, manner, said:
"You are married and love your wife; I am married and love my husband; we are both artists, let's have our say out."
And we proceeded to have our say out.
But all at once I noticed that about half an inch of the seam of her black silk bodice was unsewn. We men, when we see a lady with something awry in her toilette, how often do we long to say to her: "Excuse me, madam, but perhaps you don't know that you have a hairpin sticking out two inches just behind your ear," or "Pardon me, Miss, I'm a married man, there is something wrong there behind, just under your waist belt."
Now I felt for Mrs. X., who was just going to receive a crowd of callers with a little rent in one of her bodice seams, and tried to persuade myself to be brave and tell her of it. Yet I hesitated. People take things so differently. The conversation went on unflagging. At last I could not stand it any longer.
"Mrs. X.," said I, all in a breath, "you are married and love your husband; I am married and love my wife; we are both artists; there is a little bit of seam come unsewn, just there by your arm, run and get it sewn up!"
The peals of laughter that I heard going on upstairs, while the damage was being repaired, proved to me that there was no resentment to be feared, but, on the contrary, that I had earned the gratitude of Mrs. X.
In many respects I have often been struck with the resemblance which exists between French and American women. When I took my first walk on Broadway, New York, on a fine afternoon some two years and a half ago, I can well remember how I exclaimed: "Why, this is Paris, and all these ladies are Parisiennes
;" It struck me as being the same type of face, the same animation of features, the same brightness of the eyes, the same self-assurance, the same attractive plumpness in women over thirty. To my mind, I was having a walk on my own Boulevards (every Parisian owns
that place). The more I became acquainted with American ladies, the more forcibly this resemblance struck me. This was not a mere first impression. It has been, and is still, a deep conviction; so much so that whenever I returned to New York from a journey of some weeks in the heart of the country, I felt as if I was returning home.
After a short time, a still closer resemblance between the women of the two countries will strike a Frenchman most forcibly. It is the same finesse
, the same suppleness of mind, the same wonderful adaptability. Place a little French milliner in a good drawing-room for an hour, and at the end of that time she will behave, talk, and walk like any lady in the room. Suppose an American, married below his status
in society, is elected President of the United States, I believe, at the end of a week, this wife of his would do the honors of the White House with the ease and grace of a highborn lady.
In England it is just the contrary.
Of course good society is good society everywhere. The ladies of the English aristocracy are perfect queens; but the Englishwoman, who was not born a lady, will seldom become a lady, and I believe this is why mésalliances
are more scarce in England than in America, and especially in France. I could name many Englishmen at the head of their professions, who cannot produce their wives in society because these women have not been able to raise themselves to the level of their husbands' station in life. The Englishwoman, as a rule, has no faculty for fitting herself for a higher position than the one she was born in; like a rabbit, she will often taste of the cabbage she fed on. And I am bound to add that this is perhaps a quality, and proves the truthfulness of her character. She is no actress.
In France, the mésalliance
, though not relished by parents, is not feared so much, because they know the young woman will observe and study, and very soon fit herself for her new position.
And while on this subject of mésalliance
, why not try to destroy an absurd prejudice that exists in almost every country on the subject of France?
It is, I believe, the firm conviction of foreigners that Frenchmen marry for money, that is to say, that all Frenchmen marry for money. As a rule, when people discuss foreign social topics, they have a wonderful faculty for generalization.
The fact that many Frenchmen do marry for money is not to be denied, and the explanation of it is this: We have in France a number of men belonging to a class almost unknown in other countries, small bourgeois
of good breeding and genteel habits, but relatively poor, who occupy posts in the different Government offices. Their name is legion and their salary something like two thousand francs ($400). These men have an appearance to keep up, and, unless a wife brings them enough to at least double their income, they cannot marry. These young men are often sought after by well-to-do parents for their daughters, because they are steady, cultured, gentlemanly, and occupy an honorable position, which brings them a pension for their old age. With the wife's dowry, the couple can easily get along, and lead a peaceful, uneventful, and happy jog-trot life, which is the great aim of the majority of the French people.
But, on the other hand, there is no country where you will see so many cases of mésalliance
as France, and this alone should dispose of the belief that Frenchmen marry for money. Indeed, it is a most common thing for a young Frenchman of good family to fall in love with a girl of a much lower station of life than his own, to court her, at first with perhaps only the idea of killing time or of starting a liaison
, to soon discover that the girl is highly respectable, and to finally marry her. This is a most common occurrence. French parents frown on this sort of thing, and do their best to discourage it, of course; but rather than cross their son's love, they give their consent, and trust to that adaptability of Frenchwomen, of which I was speaking just now, to raise herself to her husband's level and make a wife he will never be ashamed of.
The Frenchman is the slave of his womankind, but not in the same way as the American is. The Frenchman is brought up by his mother, and remains under her sway till she dies. When he marries, his wife leads him by the nose (an operation which he seems to enjoy), and when, besides, he has a daughter, on whom he generally dotes, this lady soon joins the other two in ruling this easy-going, good-humored man. As a rule, when you see a Frenchman, you behold a man who is kept in order by three generations of women: mother, wife, and daughter.
The American will lavish attention and luxury on his wife and daughters, but he will save them the trouble of being mixed in his affairs. His business is his, his office is private. His womankind is the sun and glory of his life, whose company he will hasten to enjoy as soon as he can throw away the cares of his business. In France, a wife is a partner, a cashier who takes care of the money, even an adviser on stock and speculations. In the mercantile class, she is both cashier and bookkeeper. Enter a shop in France, Paris included, and behind "Pay Here," you will see Madame, smiling all over as she pockets the money for the purchase you have made. When I said she is a partner, I might safely have said that she is the active partner, and, as a rule, by far the shrewder of the two. She brings to bear her native suppleness, her fascinating little ways, her persuasive manners, and many a customer whom her husband was allowing to go away without a purchase, has been brought back by the wife, and induced to part with his cash in the shop. Last year I went to Paris, on my way home from Germany, to spend a few days visiting the Exposition. One day I entered a shop on the Boulevards to buy a white hat. The new-fashioned hats, the only hats which the man showed me, were narrow-brimmed, and I declined to buy one. I was just going to leave, when the wife, who, from the back parlor, had listened to my conversation with her husband, stepped in and said: "But, Adolphe, why do you let Monsieur go? Perhaps he does not care to follow the fashion. We have a few white broad-brimmed hats left from last year that we can let Monsieur have à bon compte
. They are upstairs, go and fetch them." And, sure enough, there was one which fitted and pleased me, and I left in that shop a little sum of twenty-five francs, which the husband was going to let me take elsewhere, but which the wife managed to secure for the firm.
[MADAM IS THE CASHIER.]
No one who has lived in France has failed to be struck with the intelligence of the women, and there exist few Frenchmen who do not readily admit how intellectually inferior they are to their countrywomen, chiefly among the middle and lower classes. And this is not due to any special training, for the education received by the women of that class is of the most limited kind; they are taught to read, write, and reckon, and their education is finished. Shrewdness is inborn in them, as well as a peculiar talent for getting a hundred cents' worth for every dollar they spend. How to make a house look pretty and attractive with small outlay; how to make a dress or turn out a bonnet with a few knick-knacks; how to make a savory dish out of a small remnant of beef, mutton, and veal; all that is a science not to be despised when a husband, in receipt of a four or five hundred dollar salary, wants to make a good dinner, and see his wife look pretty. No doubt the aristocratic inhabitants of Mayfair and Belgravia in London, and the plutocracy of New York, may think all this very small, and these French people very uninteresting. They can, perhaps, hardly imagine that such people may live on such incomes and look decent. But they do live, and live very happy lives, too. And I will go so far as to say that happiness, real happiness, is chiefly found among people of limited income. The husband, who perhaps for a whole year has put quietly by a dollar every week, so as to be able to give his dear wife a nice present at Christmas, gives her a far more valuable, a far better appreciated present, than the millionaire who orders Tiffany to send a diamond rivière
to his wife. That quiet young French couple, whom you see at the upper circle of a theater, and who have saved the money to enable them to come and hear such and such a play, are happier than the occupants of the boxes on the first tier. If you doubt it, take your opera glasses, and "look on this picture, and on this."
[THE UPPER CIRCLE.]
In observing nations, I have always taken more interest in the "million," who differ in every country, than in the "upper ten," who are alike all over the world. People who have plenty of money at their disposal generally discover the same way of spending it, and adopt the same mode of living. People who have only a small income show their native instincts in the intelligent use of it. All these differ, and these only are worth studying, unless you belong to the staff of a "society" paper. (As a Frenchman, I am glad to say we have no "society" papers. England and America are the only two countries in the world where these official organs of Anglo-Saxon snobbery can be found, and I should not be surprised to hear that Australia possessed some of these already.)
[THE SAD-EYED OCCUPANTS OF THE BOX.]
The source of French happiness is to be found in the thrift of the women, from the best middle class to the peasantry. This thrift is also the source of French wealth. A nation is really wealthy when the fortunes are stable, however small. We have no railway kings, no oil kings, no silver kings, but we have no tenement houses, no Unions, no Work-houses. Our lower classes do not yet ape the upper class people, either in their habits or dress. The wife of a peasant or of a mechanic wears a simple snowy cap, and a serge or cotton dress. The wife of a shopkeeper does not wear any jewelry because she cannot afford to buy real stones, and her taste is too good to allow of her wearing false ones. She is not ashamed of her husband's occupation; she does not play the fine lady while he is at work. She saves him the expense of a cashier or of an extra clerk by helping him in his business. When the shutters are up, she enjoys life with him, and is the companion of his pleasures as well as of his hardships. Club life is unknown in France, except among the upper classes. Man and wife are constantly together, and France is a nation of Darbys and Joans. There is, I believe, no country where men and women go through life on such equal terms as in France.
In England (and here again I speak of the masses only), the man thinks himself a much superior being to the woman. It is the same in Germany. In America, I should feel inclined to believe that a woman looks down upon a man with a certain amount of contempt. She receives at his hands attentions of all sorts, but I cannot say, as I have remarked before, that I have ever discovered in her the slightest trace of gratitude to man.
I have often tried to explain to myself this gentle contempt of American ladies for the male sex; for, contrasting it with the lovely devotion of Jonathan to his womankind, it is a curious enigma. Have I found the solution at last? Does it begin at school? In American schools, boys and girls, from the age of five, follow the same path to learning, and sit side by side on the same benches. Moreover, the girls prove themselves capable of keeping pace with the boys. Is it not possible that those girls, as they watched the performances of the boys in the study, learned to say, "Is that all?" While the young lords of creation, as they have looked on at what "those girls" can do, have been fain to exclaim: "Who would have thought it!" And does not this explain the two attitudes: the great respect of men for women, and the mild contempt of women for men?
Very often, in New York, when I had time to saunter about, I would go up Broadway and wait until a car, well crammed with people, came along. Then I would jump on board and stand near the door. Whenever a man wanted to get out, he would say to me "Please," or "Excuse me," or just touch me lightly to warn me that I stood in his way. But the women! Oh, the women! why, it was simply lovely. They would just push me away with the tips of their fingers, and turn up such disgusted and haughty noses! You would have imagined it was a heap of dirty rubbish in their way.
Would you have a fair illustration of the respective positions of woman in France, in England, and in America?
Go to a hotel, and watch the arrival of couples in the dining-room.
Now don't go to the Louvre, the Grand Hotel, or the Bristol, in Paris. Don't go to the Savoy, the Victoria, or the Metropole, in London. Don't go to the Brunswick, in New York, because in all these hotels you will see that all behave alike. Go elsewhere and, I say, watch.
In France, you will see the couples arrive together, walk abreast toward the table assigned to them, very often arm in arm, and smiling at each other--though married.
In England, you will see John Bull leading the way. He does not like to be seen eating in public, and thinks it very hard that he should not have the dining-room all to himself. So he enters, with his hands in his pockets, looking askance at everybody right and left. Then, meek and demure, with her eyes cast down, follows Mrs. John Bull.
In America, behold the dignified, nay, the majestic entry of Mrs. Jonathan, a perfect queen going toward her throne, bestowing a glance on her subjects right and left--and Jonathan behind!
They say in France that Paris is the paradise of women. If so, there is a more blissful place than paradise; there is another word to invent to give an idea of the social position enjoyed by American ladies.
If I had to be born again, and might choose my sex and my birthplace, I would shout at the top of my voice:
"Oh, make me an American woman!"