Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter VII

To Mrs. M—. Paris, October, 12, 1763.

MADAM — I shall be much pleased if the remarks I have made on the characters of the French people, can afford you the satisfaction you require. With respect to the ladies I can only judge from their exteriors: but, indeed, these are so characteristic, that one can hardly judge amiss; unless we suppose that a woman of taste and sentiment may be so overruled by the absurdity of what is called fashion, as to reject reason, and disguise nature, in order to become ridiculous or frightful. That this may be the case with some individuals, is very possible. I have known it happen in our own country, where the follies of the French are adopted and exhibited in the most aukward imitation: but the general prevalence of those preposterous modes, is a plain proof that there is a general want of taste, and a general depravity of nature. I shall not pretend to describe the particulars of a French lady’s dress. These you are much better acquainted with than I can pretend to be: but this I will be bold to affirm, that France is the general reservoir from which all the absurdities of false taste, luxury, and extravagance have overflowed the different kingdoms and states of Europe. The springs that fill this reservoir, are no other than vanity and ignorance. It would be superfluous to attempt proving from the nature of things, from the first principles and use of dress, as well as from the consideration of natural beauty, and the practice of the ancients, who certainly understood it as well as the connoisseurs of these days, that nothing can be more monstrous, inconvenient, and contemptible, than the fashion of modern drapery. You yourself are well aware of all its defects, and have often ridiculed them in my hearing. I shall only mention one particular of dress essential to the fashion in this country, which seems to me to carry human affectation to the very farthest verge of folly and extravagance; that is, the manner in which the faces of the ladies are primed and painted. When the Indian chiefs were in England every body ridiculed their preposterous method of painting their cheeks and eye-lids; but this ridicule was wrong placed. Those critics ought to have considered, that the Indians do not use paint to make themselves agreeable; but in order to be the more terrible to their enemies. It is generally supposed, I think, that your sex make use of fard and vermillion for very different purposes; namely, to help a bad or faded complexion, to heighten the graces, or conceal the defects of nature, as well as the ravages of time. I shall not enquire at present, whether it is just and honest to impose in this manner on mankind: if it is not honest, it may be allowed to be artful and politic, and shews, at least, a desire of being agreeable. But to lay it on as the fashion in France prescribes to all the ladies of condition, who indeed cannot appear without this badge of distinction, is to disguise themselves in such a manner, as to render them odious and detestable to every spectator, who has the least relish left for nature and propriety. As for the fard or white, with which their necks and shoulders are plaistered, it may be in some measure excusable, as their skins are naturally brown, or sallow; but the rouge, which is daubed on their faces, from the chin up to the eyes, without the least art or dexterity, not only destroys all distinction of features, but renders the aspect really frightful, or at best conveys nothing but ideas of disgust and aversion. You know, that without this horrible masque no married lady is admitted at court, or in any polite assembly; and that it is a mark of distinction which no bourgeoise dare assume. Ladies of fashion only have the privilege of exposing themselves in these ungracious colours. As their faces are concealed under a false complexion, so their heads are covered with a vast load of false hair, which is frizzled on the forehead, so as exactly to resemble the wooly heads of the Guinea negroes. As to the natural hue of it, this is a matter of no consequence, for powder makes every head of hair of the same colour; and no woman appears in this country, from the moment she rises till night, without being compleatly whitened. Powder or meal was first used in Europe by the Poles, to conceal their scald heads; but the present fashion of using it, as well as the modish method of dressing the hair, must have been borrowed from the Hottentots, who grease their wooly heads with mutton suet and then paste it over with the powder called buchu. In like manner, the hair of our fine ladies is frizzled into the appearance of negroes wool, and stiffened with an abominable paste of hog’s grease, tallow, and white powder. The present fashion, therefore, of painting the face, and adorning the head, adopted by the beau monde in France, is taken from those two polite nations the Chickesaws of America and the Hottentots of Africa. On the whole, when I see one of those fine creatures sailing along, in her taudry robes of silk and gauze, frilled, and flounced, and furbelowed, with her false locks, her false jewels, her paint, her patches, and perfumes; I cannot help looking upon her as the vilest piece of sophistication that art ever produced.

This hideous masque of painting, though destructive of all beauty, is, however, favourable to natural homeliness and deformity. It accustoms the eyes of the other sex, and in time reconciles them to frightfull objects; it disables them from perceiving any distinction of features between woman and woman; and, by reducing all faces to a level, gives every female an equal chance for an admirer; being in this particular analogous to the practice of the antient Lacedemonians, who were obliged to chuse their helpmates in the dark. In what manner the insides of their heads are furnished, I would not presume to judge from the conversation of a very few to whom I have had access: but from the nature of their education, which I have heard described, and the natural vivacity of their tempers, I should expect neither sense, sentiment, nor discretion. From the nursery they are allowed, and even encouraged, to say every thing that comes uppermost; by which means they acquire a volubility of tongue, and a set of phrases, which constitutes what is called polite conversation. At the same time they obtain an absolute conquest over all sense of shame, or rather, they avoid acquiring this troublesome sensation; for it is certainly no innate idea. Those who have not governesses at home, are sent, for a few years, to a convent, where they lay in a fund of superstition that serves them for life: but I never heard they had the least opportunity of cultivating the mind, of exercising the powers of reason, or of imbibing a taste for letters, or any rational or useful accomplishment. After being taught to prattle, to dance and play at cards, they are deemed sufficiently qualified to appear in the grand monde, and to perform all the duties of that high rank and station in life. In mentioning cards, I ought to observe, that they learn to play not barely for amusement, but also with a view to advantage; and, indeed, you seldom meet with a native of France, whether male or female, who is not a compleat gamester, well versed in all the subtleties and finesses of the art. This is likewise the case all over Italy. A lady of a great house in Piedmont, having four sons, makes no scruple to declare, that the first shall represent the family, the second enter into the army, the third into the church, and that she will breed the fourth a gamester. These noble adventurers devote themselves in a particular manner to the entertainment of travellers from our country, because the English are supposed to be full of money, rash, incautious, and utterly ignorant of play. But such a sharper is most dangerous, when he hunts in couple with a female. I have known a French count and his wife, who found means to lay the most wary under contribution. He was smooth, supple, officious, and attentive: she was young, handsome, unprincipled, and artful. If the Englishman marked for prey was found upon his guard against the designs of the husband, then madam plied him on the side of gallantry. She displayed all the attractions of her person. She sung, danced, ogled, sighed, complimented, and complained. If he was insensible to all her charms, she flattered his vanity, and piqued his pride, by extolling the wealth and generosity of the English; and if he proved deaf to all these insinuations she, as her last stake, endeavoured to interest his humanity and compassion. She expatiated, with tears in her eyes, on the cruelty and indifference of her great relations; represented that her husband was no more than the cadet of a noble family — that his provision was by no means suitable. either to the dignity of his rank, or the generosity of his disposition: that he had a law-suit of great consequence depending, which had drained all his finances; and, finally, that they should be both ruined, if they could not find some generous friend, who would accommodate them with a sum of money to bring the cause to a determination. Those who are not actuated by such scandalous motives, become gamesters from meer habit, and, having nothing more solid to engage their thoughts, or employ their time, consume the best part of their lives, in this worst of all dissipation. I am not ignorant that there are exceptions from this general rule: I know that France has produced a Maintenon, a Sevigine, a Scuderi, a Dacier, and a Chatelet; but I would no more deduce the general character of the French ladies from these examples, than I would call a field of hemp a flower-garden. because there might be in it a few lillies or renunculas planted by the hand of accident.

Woman has been defined a weaker man; but in this country the men are, in my opinion, more ridiculous and insignificant than the women. They certainly are more disagreeable to a rational enquirer, because they are more troublesome. Of all the coxcombs on the face of the earth, a French petit maitre is the most impertinent: and they are all petit maitres from the marquis who glitters in lace and embroidery, to the garcon barbier covered with meal, who struts with his hair in a long queue, and his hat under his arm. I have already observed, that vanity is the great and universal mover among all ranks and degrees of people in this nation; and as they take no pains to conceal or controul it, they are hurried by it into the most ridiculous and indeed intolerable extravagance.

When I talk of the French nation, I must again except a great number of individuals, from the general censure. Though I have a hearty contempt for the ignorance, folly, and presumption which characterise the generality, I cannot but respect the talents of many great men, who have eminently distinguished themselves in every art and science: these I shall always revere and esteem as creatures of a superior species, produced, for the wise purposes of providence, among the refuse of mankind. It would be absurd to conclude that the Welch or Highlanders are a gigantic people, because those mountains may have produced a few individuals near seven feet high. It would be equally absurd to suppose the French are a nation of philosophers, because France has given birth to a Des Cartes, a Maupertuis, a Reaumur, and a Buffon.

I shall not even deny, that the French are by no means deficient in natural capacity; but they are at the same time remarkable for a natural levity, which hinders their youth from cultivating that capacity. This is reinforced by the most preposterous education, and the example of a giddy people, engaged in the most frivolous pursuits. A Frenchman is by some Jesuit, or other monk, taught to read his mother tongue, and to say his prayers in a language he does not understand. He learns to dance and to fence, by the masters of those noble sciences. He becomes a compleat connoisseur in dressing hair, and in adorning his own person, under the hands and instructions of his barber and valet de chambre. If he learns to play upon the flute or the fiddle, he is altogether irresistible. But he piques himself upon being polished above the natives of any other country by his conversation with the fair sex. In the course of this communication, with which he is indulged from his tender years, he learns like a parrot, by rote, the whole circle of French compliments, which you know are a set of phrases ridiculous even to a proverb; and these he throws out indiscriminately to all women, without distinction in the exercise of that kind of address, which is here distinguished by the name of gallantry: it is no more than his making love to every woman who will give him the hearing. It is an exercise, by the repetition of which he becomes very pert, very familiar, and very impertinent. Modesty, or diffidence, I have already said, is utterly unknown among them, and therefore I wonder there should be a term to express it in their language.

If I was obliged to define politeness, I should call it, the art of making one’s self agreeable. I think it an art that necessarily implies a sense of decorum, and a delicacy of sentiment. These are qualities, of which (as far as I have been able to observe) a Frenchman has no idea; therefore he never can be deemed polite, except by those persons among whom they are as little understood. His first aim is to adorn his own person with what he calls fine cloaths, that is the frippery of the fashion. It is no wonder that the heart of a female, unimproved by reason, and untinctured with natural good sense, should flutter at the sight of such a gaudy thing, among the number of her admirers: this impression is enforced by fustian compliments, which her own vanity interprets in a literal sense, and still more confirmed by the assiduous attention of the gallant, who, indeed, has nothing else to mind. A Frenchman in consequence of his mingling with the females from his infancy, not only becomes acquainted with all their customs and humours; but grows wonderfully alert in performing a thousand little offices, which are overlooked by other men, whose time hath been spent in making more valuable acquisitions. He enters, without ceremony, a lady’s bed-chamber, while she is in bed, reaches her whatever she wants, airs her shift, and helps to put it on. He attends at her toilette, regulates the distribution of her patches, and advises where to lay on the paint. If he visits her when she is dressed, and perceives the least impropriety in her coeffure, he insists upon adjusting it with his own hands: if he sees a curl, or even a single hair amiss, he produces his comb, his scissars, and pomatum, and sets it to rights with the dexterity of a professed friseur. He ‘squires her to every place she visits, either on business, or pleasure; and, by dedicating his whole time to her, renders himself necessary to her occasions. This I take to be the most agreeable side of his character: let us view him on the quarter of impertinence. A Frenchman pries into all your secrets with the most impudent and importunate curiosity, and then discloses them without remorse. If you are indisposed, he questions you about the symptoms of your disorder, with more freedom than your physician would presume to use; very often in the grossest terms. He then proposes his remedy (for they are all quacks), he prepares it without your knowledge, and worries you with solicitation to take it, without paying the least regard to the opinion of those whom you have chosen to take care of your health. Let you be ever so ill, or averse to company, he forces himself at all times into your bed-chamber, and if it is necessary to give him a peremptory refusal, he is affronted. I have known one of those petit maitres insist upon paying regular visits twice a day to a poor gentleman who was delirious; and he conversed with him on different subjects, till he was in his last agonies. This attendance is not the effect of attachment, or regard, but of sheer vanity, that he may afterwards boast of his charity and humane disposition: though, of all the people I have ever known, I think the French are the least capable of feeling for the distresses of their fellow creatures. Their hearts are not susceptible of deep impressions; and, such is their levity, that the imagination has not time to brood long over any disagreeable idea, or sensation. As a Frenchman piques himself on his gallantry, he no sooner makes a conquest of a female’s heart, than he exposes her character, for the gratification of his vanity. Nay, if he should miscarry in his schemes, he will forge letters and stories, to the ruin of the lady’s reputation. This is a species of perfidy which one would think should render them odious and detestable to the whole sex; but the case is otherwise. I beg your pardon, Madam; but women are never better pleased, than when they see one another exposed; and every individual has such confidence in her own superior charms and discretion, that she thinks she can fix the most volatile, and reform the most treacherous lover.

If a Frenchman is admitted into your family, and distinguished by repeated marks of your friendship and regard, the first return he makes for your civilities is to make love to your wife, if she is handsome; if not, to your sister, or daughter, or niece. If he suffers a repulse from your wife, or attempts in vain to debauch your sister, or your daughter, or your niece, he will, rather than not play the traitor with his gallantry, make his addresses to your grandmother; and ten to one, but in one shape or another, he will find means to ruin the peace of a family, in which he has been so kindly entertained. What he cannot accomplish by dint of compliment, and personal attendance, he will endeavour to effect, by reinforcing these with billets-doux, songs, and verses, of which he always makes a provision for such purposes. If he is detected in these efforts of treachery, and reproached with his ingratitude, he impudently declares, that what he had done was no more than simple gallantry, considered in France as an indispensible duty on every man who pretended to good breeding. Nay, he will even affirm, that his endeavours to corrupt your wife, or your daughter, were the most genuine proofs he could give of his particular regard for your family.

If a Frenchman is capable of real friendship, it must certainly be the most disagreeable present he can possibly make to a man of a true English character, You know, Madam, we are naturally taciturn, soon tired of impertinence, and much subject to fits of disgust. Your French friend intrudes upon you at all hours: he stuns you with his loquacity: he teases you with impertinent questions about your domestic and private affairs: he attempts to meddle in all your concerns; and forces his advice upon you with the most unwearied importunity: he asks the price of every thing you wear, and, so sure as you tell him undervalues it, without hesitation: he affirms it is in a bad taste, ill-contrived, ill-made; that you have been imposed upon both with respect to the fashion and the price; that the marquise of this, or the countess of that, has one that is perfectly elegant, quite in the bon ton, and yet it cost her little more than you gave for a thing that nobody would wear.

If there were five hundred dishes at table, a Frenchman will eat of all of them, and then complain he has no appetite. This I have several times remarked. A friend of mine gained a considerable wager upon an experiment of this kind: the petit maitre ate of fourteen different plats, besides the dessert; then disparaged the cook, declaring he was no better than a marmiton, or turnspit.

The French have the most ridiculous fondness for their hair, and this I believe they inherit from their remote ancestors. The first race of French kings were distinguished by their long hair, and certainly the people of this country consider it as an indispensible ornament. A Frenchman will sooner part with his religion than with his hair, which, indeed, no consideration will induce him to forego. I know a gentleman afflicted with a continual head-ach, and a defluxion on his eyes, who was told by his physician that the best chance he had for being cured, would be to have his head close shaved, and bathed every day in cold water. “How (cried he) cut my hair? Mr. Doctor, your most humble servant!” He dismissed his physician, lost his eye-sight, and almost his senses, and is now led about with his hair in a bag, and a piece of green silk hanging like a screen before his face. Count Saxe, and other military writers have demonstrated the absurdity of a soldier’s wearing a long head of hair; nevertheless, every soldier in this country wears a long queue, which makes a delicate mark on his white cloathing; and this ridiculous foppery has descended even to the lowest class of people. The decrotteur, who cleans your shoes at the corner of the Pont Neuf, has a tail of this kind hanging down to his rump, and even the peasant who drives an ass loaded with dung, wears his hair en queue, though, perhaps, he has neither shirt nor breeches. This is the ornament upon which he bestows much time and pains, and in the exhibition of which he finds full gratification for his vanity. Considering the harsh features of the common people in this country, their diminutive stature, their grimaces, and that long appendage, they have no small resemblance to large baboons walking upright; and perhaps this similitude has helped to entail upon them the ridicule of their neighbours.

A French friend tires out your patience with long visits; and, far from taking the most palpable hints to withdraw, when he perceives you uneasy he observes you are low-spirited, and therefore he will keep you company. This perseverance shews that he must either be void of penetration, or that his disposition must be truly diabolical. Rather than be tormented with such a fiend, a man had better turn him out of doors, even though at the hazard of being run thro’ the body.

The French are generally counted insincere, and taxed with want of generosity. But I think these reproaches are not well founded. High-flown professions of friendship and attachment constitute the language of common compliment in this country, and are never supposed to be understood in the literal acceptation of the words; and, if their acts of generosity are but very rare, we ought to ascribe that rarity, not so much to a deficiency of generous sentiments, as to their vanity and ostentation, which engrossing all their funds, utterly disable them from exerting the virtues of beneficence. Vanity, indeed, predominates among all ranks, to such a degree, that they are the greatest egotists in the world; and the most insignificant individual talks in company with the same conceit and arrogance, as a person of the greatest importance. Neither conscious poverty nor disgrace will restrain him in the least either from assuming his full share of the conversation, or making big addresses to the finest lady, whom he has the smallest opportunity to approach: nor is he restrained by any other consideration whatsoever. It is all one to him whether he himself has a wife of his own, or the lady a husband; whether she is designed for the cloister, or pre-ingaged to his best friend and benefactor. He takes it for granted that his addresses cannot but be acceptable; and, if he meets with a repulse, he condemns her taste; but never doubts his own qualifications.

I have a great many things to say of their military character, and their punctilios of honour, which last are equally absurd and pernicious; but as this letter has run to an unconscionable length, I shall defer them till another opportunity. Mean-while, I have the honour to be, with very particular esteem — Madam, Your most obedient servant.

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