A Bundle of Letters, by Henry James

Chapter II

From the Same to the Same.

September 16th.

Since I last wrote to you I have left that hotel, and come to live in a French family. It’s a kind of boarding-house combined with a kind of school; only it’s not like an American hoarding-house, nor like an American school either. There are four or five people here that have come to learn the language — not to take lessons, but to have an opportunity for conversation. I was very glad to come to such a place, for I had begun to realise that I was not making much progress with the French. It seemed to me that I should feel ashamed to have spent two months in Paris, and not to have acquired more insight into the language. I had always heard so much of French conversation, and I found I was having no more opportunity to practise it than if I had remained at Bangor. In fact, I used to hear a great deal more at Bangor, from those French Canadians that came down to cut the ice, than I saw I should ever hear at that hotel. The lady that kept the books seemed to want so much to talk to me in English (for the sake of practice, too, I suppose), that I couldn’t bear to let her know I didn’t like it. The chambermaid was Irish, and all the waiters were German, so that I never heard a word of French spoken. I suppose you might hear a great deal in the shops; only, as I don’t buy anything — I prefer to spend my money for purposes of culture — I don’t have that advantage.

I have been thinking some of taking a teacher, but I am well acquainted with the grammar already, and teachers always keep you bothering over the verbs. I was a good deal troubled, for I felt as if I didn’t want to go away without having, at least, got a general idea of French conversation. The theatre gives you a good deal of insight, and as I told you in my last, I go a good deal to places of amusement. I find no difficulty whatever in going to such places alone, and am always treated with the politeness which, as I told you before, I encounter everywhere. I see plenty of other ladies alone (mostly French), and they generally seem to be enjoying themselves as much as I. But at the theatre every one talks so fast that I can scarcely make out what they say; and, besides, there are a great many vulgar expressions which it is unnecessary to learn. But it was the theatre, nevertheless, that put me on the track. The very next day after I wrote to you last I went to the Palais Royal, which is one of the principal theatres in Paris. It is very small, but it is very celebrated, and in my guide-book it is marked with two stars, which is a sign of importance attached only to first-class objects of interest. But after I had been there half an hour I found I couldn’t understand a single word of the play, they gabbled it off so fast, and they made use of such peculiar expressions. I felt a good deal disappointed and troubled — I was afraid I shouldn’t gain all I had come for. But while I was thinking it over — thinking what I should do — I heard two gentlemen talking behind me. It was between the acts, and I couldn’t help listening to what they said. They were talking English, but I guess they were Americans.

“Well,” said one of them, “it all depends on what you are after. I’m French; that’s what I’m after.”

“Well,” said the other, “I’m after Art.”

“Well,” said the first, “I’m after Art too; but I’m after French most.”

Then, dear mother, I am sorry to say the second one swore a little. He said, “Oh, damn French!”

“No, I won’t damn French,” said his friend. “I’ll acquire it — that’s what I’ll do with it. I’ll go right into a family.”

“What family’ll you go into?”

“Into some French family. That’s the only way to do — to go to some place where you can talk. If you’re after Art, you want to stick to the galleries; you want to go right through the Louvre, room by room; you want to take a room a day, or something of that sort. But, if you want to acquire French, the thing is to look out for a family. There are lots of French families here that take you to board and teach you. My second cousin — that young lady I told you about — she got in with a crowd like that, and they booked her right up in three months. They just took her right in and they talked to her. That’s what they do to you; they set you right down and they talk at you. You’ve got to understand them; you can’t help yourself. That family my cousin was with has moved away somewhere, or I should try and get in with them. They were very smart people, that family; after she left, my cousin corresponded with them in French. But I mean to find some other crowd, if it takes a lot of trouble!”

I listened to all this with great interest, and when he spoke about his cousin I was on the point of turning around to ask him the address of the family that she was with; but the next moment he said they had moved away; so I sat still. The other gentleman, however, didn’t seem to be affected in the same way as I was.

“Well,” he said, “you may follow up that if you like; I mean to follow up the pictures. I don’t believe there is ever going to be any considerable demand in the United States for French; but I can promise you that in about ten years there’ll be a big demand for Art! And it won’t be temporary either.”

That remark may be very true, but I don’t care anything about the demand; I want to know French for its own sake. I don’t want to think I have been all this while without having gained an insight . . . The very next day, I asked the lady who kept the books at the hotel whether she knew of any family that could take me to board and give me the benefit of their conversation. She instantly threw up her hands, with several little shrill cries (in their French way, you know), and told me that her dearest friend kept a regular place of that kind. If she had known I was looking out for such a place she would have told me before; she had not spoken of it herself, because she didn’t wish to injure the hotel by being the cause of my going away. She told me this was a charming family, who had often received American ladies (and others as well) who wished to follow up the language, and she was sure I should be delighted with them. So she gave me their address, and offered to go with me to introduce me. But I was in such a hurry that I went off by myself; and I had no trouble in finding these good people. They were delighted to receive me, and I was very much pleased with what I saw of them. They seemed to have plenty of conversation, and there will be no trouble about that.

I came here to stay about three days ago, and by this time I have seen a great deal of them. The price of board struck me as rather high; but I must remember that a quantity of conversation is thrown in. I have a very pretty little room — without any carpet, but with seven mirrors, two clocks, and five curtains. I was rather disappointed after I arrived to find that there are several other Americans here for the same purpose as myself. At least there are three Americans and two English people; and also a German gentleman. I am afraid, therefore, our conversation will be rather mixed, but I have not yet time to judge. I try to talk with Madame de Maisonrouge all I can (she is the lady of the house, and the real family consists only of herself and her two daughters). They are all most elegant, interesting women, and I am sure we shall become intimate friends. I will write you more about them in my next. Tell William Platt I don’t care what he does.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38