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Chapter 14

LETTER XIV.

False Notions.—Continental Manners.—People of Paris.—Parisian Women.
—French Beauty.—Men of France.—French Soldiers.

To JAMES STEVENSON, ESQUIRE, ALBANY.

I cannot tell you whence the vulgar notions that we entertain of the French, which, with many other pernicious prejudices, have made a part of our great inheritance from England, have been originally obtained. Certainly I have seen no thing, nor any person, after a long residence in the country, to serve as models to the flippant marquis, the overdressed courtiers, or the petites maîtresses of the English dramatists. Even a French perruquier is quite as homely and plain a personage as an English or an American barber. But these Athenians grossly caricature themselves as well as their neighbours. Although Paris is pretty well garnished with English of all degrees, from the Duke down, it has never yet been my luck to encounter an English dandy. Now and then one meets with a "dresser," a man who thinks more of his appearance than becomes his manhood, or than comports with good breeding; and occasionally a woman is seen who is a mere appendage to her attire; but I am persuaded, that, as a rule, neither of these vulgar classes exists among people of any condition, in either country. It is impossible for me to say what changes the revolution, and the wars and the new notions, may have produced in France, but there is no sufficient reason for believing that the present cropped and fringeless, bewhiskered, and laceless generation of France, differs more from their bewigged, belaced, and powdered predecessors, than the men and women of any other country differ from their particular ancestors. Boys wore cocked hats, and breaches, and swords, in America, previously to the revolution; and our immediate fathers flourished in scarlet coats, powder, ruffled fingers, and embroidered waistcoats.

The manners of the continent of Europe are more finished than those of England, and while quiet and simplicity are the governing rules of good breeding everywhere, even in unsophisticated America, this quiet and simplicity is more gracious and more graceful in France than in the neighbouring island. As yet, I see no other difference in mere deportment, though there is abundance when one goes into the examination of character.

I have met with a good many people of the old court at Paris, and though now and then there is a certain roué atmosphere about them, both men and women, as if too much time had been passed at Coblentz, they have generally, in other respects, been models of elegant demeanour. Usually they are simple, dignified, and yet extremely gracious—gracious without the appearance of affability, a quality that is almost always indicative of a consciousness of superiority. The predominant fault of manner here is too strong a hand in applying flattery; but this is as much the fault of the head as of breeding. The French are fond of hearing pleasant things. They say themselves that "a Frenchman goes into society to make himself agreeable, and an Englishman to make himself disagreeable;" and the dire is not altogether without foundation in truth. I never met a Frenchman in society here, who appeared to wish to enhance his importance by what are called "airs," though a coxcomb in feeling is an animal not altogether unknown to the natural history of Paris, nor is the zoological science of M. Cuvier indispensable to his discovery.

I shall probably surprise you with one of my opinions. I think the population of Paris, physically speaking, finer than that of London. Fine men and fine women are, by no means, as frequent, after allowing for the difference in whole numbers, in the French, as in the English capital; but neither are there as many miserable, pallid, and squalid objects. The French are a smaller race than the English, much smaller than the race of English gentlemen, so many of whom congregate at London; but the population of Paris has a sturdy, healthful look, that I do not think is by any means as general in London. In making this comparison, allowance must be made for the better dress of the English, 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.

James Fenimore Cooper

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