A Backward Glance, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 11

11.1.

A year or two after the publication of “The House of Mirth” my husband and I decided to exchange our little house in New York for a flat in Paris. My husband suffered increasingly from the harsh winds and sudden changes of temperature of the New York winter, and latterly we had spent the cold months in rather aimless drifting on the French and the Italian Rivieras. Alassio, San Remo, Bordighera, Menton, Monte Carlo, Cannes; we knew them all to satiety, and in none could I hope to find the kind of human communion I cared for. In none, that is, but Hyeres, where we had begun to go nearly every year since the Paul Bourgets had acquired there a little peach-coloured villa above the peach-orchards of Costebelle. But even the companionship of these friends could not fill the emptiness of life in a Riviera hotel. A house and garden of my own, anywhere on the coast between Marseilles and Frejus, would have made me happy; since that could not be, my preference was for a flat in Paris, where I could see people who shared my tastes, and whence it was easy to go south for sunshine when the weather grew too damp for my husband. On this, therefore, we decided in 1907, thereafter spending our winters in Paris, and going back to the Mount every summer. For two years we occupied an apartment sublet to us by American friends, in a stately Louis XIV hotel of the rue de Varenne; then we hired a flat in a modern house in the same street, and there I remained till 1920, so that my thirteen years of Paris life were spent entirely in the rue de Varenne; and all those years rise up to meet me whenever I turn the corner of the street. Rich years, crowded and happy years; for though I should have preferred London, I should have been hard to please had I not discovered many compensations in my life in Paris.

I found myself at once among friends, both old and new. The Bourgets always spent a part of the winter in the quiet and leafy rue Barbet de Jouy, a short walk from our door; and in other houses of the old Faubourg I found three or four of the French girl friends I had known in my youth at Cannes, and who had long since married, and settled in Paris. Their welcome, and that of the Bourgets, at once made me feel at home, and thanks to their kindness I soon enlarged my circle of acquaintances. My new friends came from worlds as widely different as the University, the literary and Academic milieux, and the old and aloof society of the Faubourg Saint–Germain, to which my early companions at Cannes all belonged. As a stranger and newcomer, not only outside of all groups and coteries, but hardly aware of their existence, I enjoyed a freedom not possible in those days to the native-born, who were still enclosed in the old social pigeon-holes, which they had begun to laugh at, but to which they still flew back.

If in those days any authentic member of the Faubourg Saint–Germain had been asked what really constituted Paris society, the answer would undoubtedly have been; “There is no Paris society any longer — there is just a welter of people from heaven knows where.” In a once famous play by Alexandre Dumas fils, “L’Etrangere,” written, I suppose, in the ‘sixties, the Duke (a Duke of the proudest and most ancient nobility) forces his equally proud and perfectly irreproachable wife to invite his foreign mistress (Mrs. Clarkson) to an evening party. The duchess is seen receiving her guests in the high-ceilinged salon of their old hotel, with tall French windows opening to the floor. Mrs. Clarkson arrives, elegant, arrogant and nervous; the duchess receives her simply and courteously; then she rings for the major-domo, and gives the order: “Ouvrez les fenetres! que tout le monde entre maintenant!”

In the Paris I knew, the Paris of twenty-five years ago, everybody would have told me that those windows had remained wide open ever since, that tout le monde had long since come in, that all the old social conventions were tottering or already demolished, and that the Faubourg had become as promiscuous as the Fair of Neuilly. The same thing was no doubt said a hundred years earlier, and two hundred years even, and probably something not unlike it was heard in the more exclusive salons of Babylon and Ur.

At any rate, as I look back at it across the chasm of the war, and all the ruins since heaped up, every convention of that compact and amiable little world seems still to have been standing, though few were rigid enough to hinder social enjoyment. I remember, however, one amusing instance of this rigidity. Soon after coming to Paris my husband and I, wishing to make some return for the welcome my old friends had given us, invited a dozen of them to dine. They were all intimate with each other, and members of the same group; but, being new to the job, and aware of the delicate problems which beset the question of precedence in French society, I begged one of the young women I had invited to advise me as to the seating of my guests. The next day she came to me in perplexity.

“My dear, I really don’t know! It’s so difficult that I think I’d better consult my uncle, the Duc de D.” That venerable nobleman, who had represented his country as Ambassador to one or two of the great powers, was, I knew, the final authority in the Faubourg on ceremonial questions, and though surprised that he should be invoked in so unimportant a matter, I gratefully awaited his decision. The next day my friend brought it. “My uncle was very much perplexed. He THINKS on the whole you had better place your guests in this way.” (she handed me a plan of the table.) “But he said: ‘My dear child, Mrs. Wharton ought NEVER to have invited them together’" — not that they were not all good and even intimate friends, and in the habit of meeting daily, but because the shades of difference in their rank were so slight, and so difficult to adjust, that even the diplomatist Duke recoiled from the attempt.

It took me, naturally, some time to acquire even the rudiments of this “unwritten law”; to remember, for instance, that an Academician takes precedence of every one but a Duke or an Ambassador (though what happens if he is both a Duke and an Academician I can’t remember, if I ever knew); that the next-but-two most honoured guest sits on the right of the lady who is on the host’s right; that a foreigner of no rank whatever takes precedence of every rank but that of an Academician, a Cardinal or an Ambassador (or does he? Again I can’t remember!); and that, under the most exquisite surface urbanity, resentment may rankle for years in the bosom of a guest whose claims have been disregarded. As almost all the rules are exactly the opposite of those prevailing in England, my path was no doubt strewn with blunders; but such indulgence as may have been needed was accorded because of my girlish intimacy with a small group belonging to the inner circle of the Faubourg, and because I had written a successful novel, a translation of which had recently appeared, with a flattering introduction by Bourget. Herein lay one of the many distinctions between the social worlds of New York and Paris. In Paris no one could live without literature, and the fact that I was a professional writer, instead of frightening my fashionable friends, interested them. If the French Academy had served no other purpose than the highly civilizing one of linking together society and letters, that service would justify its existence. But it is a delusion to think that a similar institution could render the same service in other societies. Culture in France is an eminently social quality, while in Anglo–Saxon countries it might also be called anti-social. In France, where politics so sharply divide the different classes and coteries, artistic and literary interests unite them; and wherever two or three educated French people are gathered together, a salon immediately comes into being.

11.2.

In the numberless books I had read about social life in France — memoirs, history, essays, from Saint–Beuve to Jules Lemaitre and after — I had been told that the salon had vanished forever, first with the famous douceur de vivre of the Old Regime, then with the downfall of the Bourbons, then with the end of the House of Orleans, and finally on the disastrous day of Sedan. Each of these catastrophes doubtless took with it something of the exclusiveness, the intimacy and continuity of the traditional salon; but before I had lived a year in Paris I had discovered that most of the old catch-words were still in circulation, most of the old rules still observed, and that the ineradicable passion for good talk, and for seeing the same people every day, was as strong at the opening of the twentieth century as when the Precieuses met at the Hotel de Rambouillet. When I first went to live in Paris, old ladies with dowdy cashmere “mantles,” and bonnets tied under their chins, were pointed out to me as still receiving every afternoon or evening, at the same hour, the same five or six men who had been the “foundation” of their group nearly half a century earlier. Though circles as small as these scarcely formed a salon, they were composed of the same elements, and capable of the same expansion. Occasionally even the most exclusive felt the need of a blood-transfusion, and more than once it happened to me to be invited, and as it were tested, by the prudent guardian of the hearth.

The typical salon, the salon in action, was of course a larger and more elastic organization. It presupposed a moderate admixture of new elements, judiciously combined with the permanent ones, those which were called de fondation. But these recognized salons were based on the same belief that intimacy and continuity were the first requisites of social enjoyment. To attain the perfection of this enjoyment the Parisian hostess would exercise incessant watchfulness over all the members of her own group, as well as over other groups which might supply her with the necessary new blood, and would put up with many whims and humours on the part of her chief performers; and I remember, when I once said to a French friend: “How can Madame A. endure the crotchets of Monsieur X.? Why doesn’t she stop inviting him?” his astonished reply: “Mais elle ne veut pas degarnir son salon!”

This continuity of social relations was what particularly appealed to me. In London, where another ideal prevailed, and perpetual novelty was sought for, the stream of new faces rushing past me often made me feel as if I were in a railway station rather than a drawing-room; whereas after I had got my bearings in Paris I found myself, as usual, settling down into a small circle of friends with whom, through all my years in the rue de Varenne, I kept up a delightful intimacy.

Paul Bourget was then at the height of his social popularity. He was one of the most interesting and versatile of talkers, and much in demand by ambitious hostesses; but he too preferred a small group to general society, and was always at his best among his intimates. Far more than I was aware of at the time, he smoothed my social path in Paris, bringing me into contact with the people he thought most likely to interest me, and putting me at once on a footing of intimacy in the houses where he was most at home. Through all the changes which have since befallen us both, his friendship has never failed me; and in looking back at those mirage-like years I like to think how much of their happiness I owed to him and to his wife.

Early in our first winter he did me an exceptionally good turn. A new Academician — I forget who — was to be received under the famous “Cupola,” and Bourget invited me to the ceremony. I had never seen an Academic reception — still one of the most unchanged and distinctive events of Parisian life — and was naturally delighted, as invitations are few, and much sought after if the candidate happens to be (as he was in this case) a familiar and popular Parisian figure. For some reason Minnie Bourget could not go with me, and as I had never been to the Institut, and did not know how to find my way in, or to manoeuvre for a seat, Bourget asked an old friend of his, the Comtesse Robert de Fitz–James, to take me under her wing. She invited me to luncheon, I think — or came to lunch with us; at any rate, before we had struggled to our places through the fashionable throng battling in the circuitous corridors of the Institut, she and I had become friends.

The widowed Comtesse de Fitz–James, known as “Rosa” among her intimates, was a small thin woman, then perhaps forty-five years old, with a slight limp which obliged her to lean on a stick, hair prematurely white, sharp features, eager dark eyes and a disarmingly guileless smile. Belonging by birth to the wealthy Viennese banking family of the Gutmanns, she had the easy cosmopolitanism of a rich Austrian Jewess, and though she had married early, and since her marriage had always lived in Paris, she spoke English almost perfectly, and was always eager to welcome any foreigners likely to fit into the carefully-adjusted design of her salon, which, at that time, was the meeting-place of some of the most distinguished people in Paris. There were still, among the irreducibles of the Faubourg, a few who held out, declined to risk themselves among such international promiscuities, and received the mention of the hostess’s name with raised eyebrows, and an affectation of hearing it for the first time. But they were few even then, and now that the world we then knew has come to an end, even they would probably agree that in the last ten or fifteen years before the war Madame de Fitz–James’s salon had a prestige which no Parisian hostess, since 1918, has succeeded in recovering.

When I first knew it, the salon in question looked out on the mossy turf and trees of an eighteenth century hotel standing between court and garden in the rue de Grenelle. A few years later it was transferred to a modern building in the Place des Invalides, to which Madame de Fitz–James had moved her fine collection of eighteenth century furniture and pictures at the suggestion of her old friends, the Comte and Comtesse d’Haussonville, who lived on the floor above. The rue de Grenelle apartment, which had much more character, faced north, and her Anglo–Saxon friends thought she had left in search of sunlight, and congratulated her on the change. But she looked surprised, and said: “Oh, no; I hate the sun; it’s such a bore always having to keep the blinds down.” To regard the sun as the housewife’s enemy, fader of hangings and devourer of old stuffs, is common on the continent, and Madame de Fitz–James’ cream-coloured silk blinds were lowered, even in winter, whenever the sun became intrusive. The three drawing-rooms, which opened into one another, were as commonplace as rooms can be in which every piece of furniture, every picture and every ornament is in itself a beautiful thing, yet the whole reveals no trace of the owner’s personality. In the first drawing-room, a small room hung with red damask, Madame de Fitz–James, seated by the fire, her lame leg supported on a foot-rest, received her intimates. Beyond was the big drawing-room, with pictures by Ingres and David on the pale walls, and tapestry sofas and arm-chairs; it was there that the dinner guests assembled. Opening out of it was another small room, lined with ornate Louis XV bookcases in which rows of rare books in precious bindings stood in undisturbed order — for Madame de Fitz–James was a book-collector, not a reader. She made no secret of this — or indeed of any of her idiosyncrasies — for she was one of the most honest women I have ever known, and genuinely and unaffectedly modest. Her books were an ornament and an investment; she never pretended that they were anything else. If one of her guests was raised to Academic honours she bought his last work and tried to read it — usually with negative results; and her intimates were all familiar with the confidential question: “I’ve just read So-and-So’s new book. TELL ME, MY DEAR: IS IT GOOD?”

This model hostess was almost always at home; in fact she very nearly realized the definition of the perfect hostess once given me by an old frequenter of Parisian salons. “A woman should never go out — NEVER— if she expects people to come to her,” he declared; and on my protesting that this cloistered ideal must, on merely practical grounds, be hard for a Parisian hostess to live up to, he replied with surprise: “But why? If a woman once positively resolves never to go to a funeral or a wedding, why should she ever leave her house?”

Why indeed? And Madame de Fitz–James, though she fell short of this counsel of perfection, and missed few funerals and weddings, and occasionally went to an afternoon tea, seldom lunched or dined out. When she did, she preferred big banquets, where the food and the plate were more interesting than the conversation. This, I am sure, was not because she was unduly impressed by the display of wealth, but because it was less of an effort to talk to the fashionable and the over-fed, and the crowd gave her the shelter of anonymity which she seemed to crave outside of her own doors. Occasionally — but very seldom — she came to dine with us; and these small informal parties, though always composed of her own friends, seemed to embarrass and fatigue her. She appeared to feel that she ought to be directing the conversation, signing to the butler to refill the wine-glasses, trying to reshape the groups into which the guests had drifted after dinner; and the effort to repress this impulse was so tiring that she always fled early, with an apologetic murmur. As with most of the famous hostesses I have known, her hospitality seemed to be a blind overpowering instinct, hardly ever to be curbed, and then only with evident distress. When I saw her in other people’s houses she always made me think of the story of the English naturalist who kept two tame beavers, and one day, having absented himself for an hour or two, found on his return that the dear creatures had built a dam across the drawing-room floor. That is exactly what Madame de Fitz–James blindly yearned to do in other people’s drawing-rooms.

11.3.

She and Bourget had a real regard for each other, and it was thanks to him that I soon became an habitual guest at her weekly lunches and dinners. These always took place on fixed days; a dinner of fourteen or sixteen, with a small reception afterward, on a certain evening of the week, a smaller dinner on another, and on Fridays an informal and extremely agreeable luncheon, at which her accomplished cook served two menus of equal exquisiteness, one for those who abstained from meat on Fridays, the other for heretics and non-conformers. More than once, in the excitement and delight of the good talk, I have eaten my way unknowlingly through the fat and the lean menus, with no subsequent ill-effects beyond a slight reluctance to begin again at dinner; and I was not the only guest whom intellectual enjoyment led into this gastronomic oversight.

Certainly, in my limited experience, I have never known easier and more agreeable social relations than at Rosa de Fitz–James’. Lists of names are not of much help in evoking an atmosphere; but the pre-war society of the Faubourg Saint–Germain has been so utterly dispersed and wiped out that as a group the frequenters of Madame de Fitz–James’ drawing-room have an almost historic interest. Among the Academicians — in such cases, I suppose, entitled to be named first — were, of course, Bourget himself, the Comte d’Haussonville (Madame de Stael’s grandson and biographer), the two popular playwrights, Paul Hervieu and the Marquis de Flers, the former gaunt, caustic and somewhat melancholy, the latter rotund, witty and cordial to the brink of exuberance; the poet and novelist Henri de Regnier, and my dear friend the Marquis de Segur, a charming talker in his discreet and finely-shaded way, and the author, among other historical studies, of a remarkable book on Julie de Lespinasse. The Institut was represented by two eminent members, the Comte Alexandre de Laborde, the learned bibliophile and authority on illuminated manuscripts, whom his old friend, Gustave Schlumberger, has characterized as “the most worldly of scholars, and the most scholarly of men of the world”; the other, also a friend of mine, the Baron Ernest Seilliere, a tall quiet man with keen eyes under a vertical shock of white hair, who had studied in a German University, and whose interest in the “Sturm-und-Drang” of the German Romantics, and its effect on European culture, has resulted in a number of erudite and interesting volumes.

Diplomacy (combined with the Academy) shone at Madame de Fitz–James’ in the person of the French Ambassador in Berlin, the wise and witty Jules Cambon, whom I had known since his far-off days in Washington, and who was a much sought-for guest whenever his leave brought him to Paris; by Maurice Paleologue, who, after filling important posts at the Foreign Office, was to be the last French Ambassador at St Petersburg before the war, and soon after its close to enter the Academy; by the German and Austrian Ambassadors, Prince Radolin and Count Czechen; by Don Enrique Larreta, the Argentine Ambassador, a real lover of letters, and author of that enchanting chronicle-novel, “The Glory of Don Ramiro” (of which Remy de Gourmont’s French version is a triumph of literary interpretation); and, among Secretaries of Embassy, by Mr. George Grahame, attached to the British Embassy in Paris, the cultivated and indefatigably brilliant Charles de Chambrun (now French Ambassador to the Quirinal), and the gay and ironic Olivier Taigny, whose ill-health unfortunately shortened his diplomatic career, but left him his incisive wit.

I have probably left out far more names than I have recorded; but I am impatient to escape from the seats of honour to that despised yet favoured quarter of the French dining-room, the bout de table. As I have already said, in France, where everything connected with food is treated with a proper seriousness, the seating of the guests has a corresponding importance — or had, at any rate, in pre-war days. In London, even in those remote times, though the old rules of precedence still prevailed at big dinners (and may yet, for all I know), they were relaxed on intimate occasions, and one of the first to go was that compelling host and hostess always to face each other from the head and foot of the table. In France, all this is reversed. Host and hostess sit opposite one another in the middle of the table (a rule always maintained, in my time, at whatever cost to the harmonious grouping of the party), and the guests descend right and left in dwindling importance to the table-ends, where the untitled, unofficial, unclassified, but usually young, humorous and voluble, are assembled. These bouts de table are at once the shame and glory of the French dinner-table; the shame of those who think they deserve a better place, or are annoyed with themselves and the world because they have not yet earned it; the glory of hostesses ambitious to receive the quickest wits in Paris, and aware that most of the brilliant sallies, bold paradoxes and racy anecdotes emanate from that cluster of independents.

The Parisian table-end deserves a chapter to itself, so many are the famous sayings originating there, and so various is the attitude of the table-enders. At first, of course, it is good fun to be among them, and a sought-after table-ender has his own special prestige; but as the years pass, he grows more and more ready to make way for the rising generation, and work upward to the seats of the successful. Not long ago I met at dinner a new Academician, elected after many efforts and long years of waiting, and who had risen without intermediate stages from the table-end to his hostess’s right hand. As the guests seated themselves, an old and unpromoted table-ender, passing behind the new Academician, laid a hand on his shoulder, and said: “Ah, my dear B., after so many years of table-end I shall feel terribly lonely without my old neighbour!” Every one burst out laughing except the Academician, who silently unfolded his napkin with an acid smile, and the mistress of the house, who was flurried by this free-and-easy treatment of a guest now raised to the highest rank. A good story is told of the Comte A. de R., a nobleman known as a fierce stickler for the seat to which his armorial bearings entitled him, and who on one occasion was placed, as he thought, too near the table-end. He watched for a lull in the talk, and then, turning to the lady next to him, asked in a piercing voice: “Do you suppose, chere Madame, the dishes will be handed as far down the table as this?” (It was this same Comte de R. who, on leaving another dinner, said to a guest of equally aristocratic descent, who lived in his neighbourhood: “Are you walking home? Good! Let us walk together, then, AND TALK OF RANK.”) $ In those old days at Madame de Fitz–James’ there were, I imagine, few malcontents at the table-ends, for the great rushes of talk and laughter that swept up from there sent a corresponding animation through all the occupants of the high seats. The habitual holders of the ends were the young Andre Tardieu, then the masterly political leader-writer of the “Temps,” his governmental honours still far ahead of him, the young Andre Chaumeix, in those days also of the “Temps,” Abel Bonnard, almost the only talker I have known in a French salon who was allowed to go on talking as long as he wanted on the same subject (the conventional time-allowance being not more than five minutes), Etienne Grosclaude, the well-known journalist and wit, and only a seat or two farther up (when the company was small) Alexandre de Gabriac, Charles de Chambrun, Taigny and the Marquis du Tillet, each alert to catch and send back the ball flung by their irrepressible juniors.

The whole raison d’etre of the French salon is based on the national taste for general conversation. The two-and-two talks which cut up Anglo–Saxon dinners, and isolate guests at table and in the drawing-room, would be considered not only stupid but ill-bred in a society where social intercourse is a perpetual exchange, a market to which every one is expected to bring his best for barter. How often have I seen such transactions blighted by the presence of an English or American guest, perhaps full of interesting things to say, but unpractised in the accustomed sport, and blocking all circulation by imprisoning his or her restive but helpless neighbour in a relentless duologue!

At Madame de Fitz–James’ the men always outnumbered the women, and this also helped to stimulate general talk. The few women present were mostly old friends, and de fondation; none very brilliant talkers, but all intelligent, observant and ready to listen. In a French salon the women are expected to listen, and enjoy doing so, since they love good talk, and are prepared by a long social experience to seize every allusion, and when necessary to cap it by another. This power of absorbed and intelligent attention is one of the Frenchwoman’s greatest gifts, and makes a perfect background for the talk of the men. And how good that talk is — or was, at any rate — only those can say who have frequented such a salon as that of Madame de Fitz–James. Almost all the guests knew each other well, all could drop into the conversation at any stage, without groping or blundering, and each had something worth saying, from Bourget’s serious talk, all threaded with golden streaks of irony and humour, to the incessant fire-works of Tardieu, the quiet epigrams of Henri de Regnier, the anecdotes of Taigny and Gabriac, the whimsical and half-melancholy gaiety of Abel Bonnard.

The creator of a French salon may be moved by divers ambitions; she may wish to make it predominantly political, or literary and artistic, or merely mundane — though the worldly salon hardly counts, and is, at any rate, not worth commemorating. Any hostess, however, who intends to specialize, particularly in politics, runs the risk of making her salon dull; and dullest of all is that exclusively devoted to manufacturing Academicians, an industry inexhaustibly fascinating to many Frenchwomen. Few can resist political or academic intrigues as an ingredient in their social mixture; but the great art is to combine the ingredients so that none predominates, and to flavour the composition with an occasional dash of novelty. The transients introduced as seasoning must not be too numerous, or rashly chosen; they must be interesting for one reason or another, and above all they must blend agreeably with the “foundation” mixture. In describing French society one has to borrow one’s imaginary from the French cuisine, so similar are the principles involved, and so equally minute is the care required, in preparing a souffle or a salon.

Madame de Fitz–James chose her transients with exceptional skill. The few women she added now and then to her habitual group usually possessed some striking quality. The most stimulating and vivid was the Princesse Lucien Murat, and the two most charming were the daughter and the sister of famous poets; the subtle and exquisite Madame Henri de Regnier (one of the three daughters of Heredia) and my dear friend Jeanne de Margerie, sister of Edmond Rostand, and an intimate of old days, for her husband, until recently French Ambassador in Berlin, had been for many years secretary of Embassy in Washington. Jeanne de Margerie’s gifts were of a quieter order, but she was exceptionally quick and responsive, with an unfailing sense of fun; and when she died, not long after the war, a soft but warm radiance vanished from the Parisian scene, and from the lives of her friends.

I do not remember ever seeing Madame de Noailles, the poetess, at Madame de Fitz–James’. Poets are usually shy of salons, and so are monologuists like Madame de Noailles, whose dazzling talk was always intolerant of the slightest interruption. Among the women I met there by far the most remarkable was Matilde Serao, the Neapolitan novelist and journalist. She was an old friend of Bourget’s, by whom she was first introduced to Madame de Fitz–James, who at once recognized her, in spite of certain external oddities, as an invaluable addition to her parties. Matilde Serao, for a number of years before the war, made an annual visit to Paris, and had many friends there. She was a broad squat woman, with a red face on a short red neck between round cushiony shoulders. Her black hair, as elaborately dressed as a Neapolitan peasant’s, looked like a wig, and must have been dyed or false. Her age was unguessable, though the fact that she was accompanied by a young daughter in short skirts led one to assume that she was under fifty. This strange half-Spanish figure, oddly akin to the Meninas of Velasquez, and described by Bourget as “Dr. Johnson in a ball-dress,” was always arrayed in low-necked dresses rather in the style of Mrs. Tom Thumb’s — I remember in particular a spreading scarlet silk festooned with black lace, on which her short arms and chubby hands rested like a cherub’s on a sunset cloud. With her strident dress and intonation she seemed an incongruous figure in that drawing-room, where everything was in half-shades and semi-tones — but when she began to speak we had found our master. In Latin countries the few women who shine as conversationalists often do so at the expense of the rapid give-and-take of good talk. Not so Matilde Serao. She never tried to vaticinate or to predominate; what interested her was exchanging ideas with intelligent people. Her training as a journalist, first on her husband Edoardo Scarfoglio’s newspaper, “Il Mattino,” and later as editor of a sheet of her own, “Il Giorno,” had given her a rough-and-ready knowledge of life, and an experience of public affairs, totally lacking in the drawing-room Corinnes whom she outrivalled in wit and eloquence. She had a man’s sense of fair play, listened attentively, never dwelt too long on one point, but placed her sallies at the right moment, and made way for the next competitor. But when she was encouraged to talk, and given the field — as, alone with Abel Bonnard, she often was — then her monologues rose to greater heights than the talk of any other woman I have known. The novelist’s eager imagination (two or three of her novels are masterly) was nourished on wide reading, and on the varied experience of classes and types supplied by her journalistic career; and culture and experience were fused in the glow of her powerful intelligence.

Another of Madame de Fitz–James’ distinguished transients was Count Keyserling, who came often to her house when he was in Paris, as did his charming sister. There were also not a few agreeable Austrians, Count Fritz Hoyos and his sisters among them; none perhaps particularly interested in ideas, but all with that gift of ease and receptivity which made the pre-war Austrian so accomplished a social being. I remember, by the way, asking Theodore Roosevelt, at the end of his triumphal passage across Europe, what type of person he had found most sympathetic on his travels, and my momentary surprise at his unexpected reply: “The Austrian gentlemen.”

Henry James was another outlander who, when he came to stay with us, at once became de fondation, as did Walter Berry and my friend Bernard Berenson; and from Rumania came Princess Marthe Bibesco and her cousin Prince Antoine (afterward Rumanian Minister in Washington) — but the list is too long to be continued. Instead, I wish to evoke at its close the figure of the most beloved, the kindliest and one of the wittiest of Madame de Fitz–James’s “foundation” guests — the Abbe Mugnier (afterward made a Canon of Notre Dame), without whom no reunion at Rosa’s would have been complete. The Abbe’s sensitive intelligence was a solvent for the conflicting ideas and opinions of the other visitors, since no matter how much they disagreed with each other, they were one in appreciating “Monsieur l’Abbe,” and at the approach of his small figure, with eyes always smiling behind their spectacles, and a tuft of gray hair vibrating flame-wise above his forehead, every group opened to welcome him.

Even for those who knew the Abbe Mugnier well, it is not easy to define the qualities which thus single him out. Profound kindness and keen intelligence are too seldom blent in the same person for a word to have been coined describing that rare combination. I can only say that as vicar of the ultra-fashionable church of Sainte Clotilde, and then as chaplain of a convent in a remote street beyond Montparnasse, he seemed equally in his proper setting; and his quick sense of fun and irony is so lined with tender human sympathy that the good priest is always visible behind the shrewd social observer.

The Abbe Mugnier had an hour of celebrity when he converted Huysmans; he has since made other noted converts, and his concern for souls, and his wise dealings with them, cause him to be much sought after as the consoler of the dying, though those who have met him only in the world would not at first associate him with such scenes — at least not until they catch the tone of his voice in speaking of grief and suffering. His tolerance and sociability have indeed occasionally led people to risk in his presence remarks slightly inappropriate to his cloth; and it is good to see the quiet way in which, without the least air of offence, he gives the talk a more suitable turn.

His wise and kindly sayings — so quietly spoken that they sometimes escape the inattentive — are celebrated in Paris; but they have doubtless been recorded by many, and I will cite only two or three, which were said in my hearing. The Abbe, in spite of his social leanings, has a Franciscan soul, and is one of the few Frenchmen I have known with a genuine love of trees and flowers and animals. Before his sight began to fail he used to come out every year in June to my little garden near Paris, to see the long walk when the Candidum lilies were in bloom; and he really DID see them, which is more than some visitors do, who make the pilgrimage for the same purpose. His tenderness for flowers and birds is so un-French that he might have imbibed it in the Thuringian forests where he used to wander on his summer holidays in the path of Goethe (Goethe and Chateaubriand, both forest-lovers, are his two literary passions); and it seems appropriate, therefore, that two of his sayings to me should be about birds.

We were speaking one day of the difficult moral problems which priests call cas de conscience, and he said; “Ah, a very difficult one presented itself to me once, for which I knew of no precedent. I was administering the Sacrament to a dying Parishioner, and at that moment the poor woman’s pet canary escaped from its cage, and lighting suddenly on her shoulder, pecked at the Host.”

“Oh, Monsieur l’Abbe — and what did you do?”

“I blessed the bird,” he answered with his quiet smile.

Another day he was talking of the great frost in Paris, when the Seine was frozen over for days, and of the sufferings it had caused among the poor. “I shall never forget the feeling of that cold. On one of the worst nights — or rather at three in the morning, the coldest hour of the twenty-four — I was called out of bed by the sacristan of Sainte Clotilde, who came to fetch me to take the viaticum to a poor parishioner. The sick man lived a long way off, and oh, how cold we were on the way there, Lalouette and I— the old sacristan’s name was Lalouette (the lark),” he added with a reminiscent laugh.

The play on the name was irresistible, and I exclaimed: “Oh, how tempted you must have been, when he came for you, to cry out: ”Tis not the lark, it is the nightingale’ — ” I broke off, fearing that my quotation might be thought inappropriate; but with his usual calm smile the Abbe answered: “Unfortunately, Madame, we were not in Verona.”

Once, in another vein, he was describing the marriage of two social “climbers” who had invited all fashionable Paris to their nuptial Mass, and had asked the Abbe (much sought after on such occasions also) to perform the ceremony. At the last moment, when the guests were already assembled, he discovered (what had perhaps been purposely slurred over), that the couple were in some way technically disqualified for a church marriage. “So,” said the Abbe drily, “I blessed them in the sacristy, between two sterilized palms; and of course I could not prevent their assisting afterward at Mass with the rest of the company.”

Another day we were lunching together at a friend’s house, and the talk having turned on the survival in the French provinces of the old-fashioned village atheist and anti-clerical (in the style of Flaubert’s immortal Monsieur Homais), our hostess told us that she had known an old village chemist near her father’s place in the Roussillon who was a perfect type of this kind. His family were much distressed by his sentiments, and when he lay on his death-bed besought him to receive the parish priest; but he refused indignantly, and to his wife’s question: “But what can you have against our poor Cure?,” replied with a last gust of fury: “Your cures — your cures, indeed! Don’t tell me! I know all about your cures — ”

“But what do you know against them?”

“Why, I read in a history book long ago that ten thousand cures died fighting for the beautiful Helen under the walls of Troy.”

A shout of mirth received this prodigious bit of history, and as our laughter subsided we heard the Abbe’s chuckle, and saw the little flame-like tuft quiver excitedly on his crest.

“Well, Monsieur l’Abbe, what do you think of that?”

“Ah, would to heaven it were true!” the Abbe murmured sadly.

The war broke up that company of friendly people; death followed on war, and now the whole scene seems as remote as if it had belonged to a past century, and I linger with a kind of piety over the picture of that pleasant gray-panelled room with its pictures and soft lights, and arm-chairs of faded tapestry. I see Bourget and James talking together before the fire, soon to be joined by the Abbe Mugnier, Bonnard and Walter Berry; Monsieur d’Haussonville, Hervieu and Larreta listening to Matilde Serao, and Chambrun, Berenson and Tardieu forming another group, and in and out among her guests Madame de Fitz–James weaving her quiet way, leaning on her stick, watching, prodding, interfering, re-shaping the groups, building and rebuilding her dam, yet somehow never in the way, because, in spite of her incomprehension of the talk, she always manages to bring the right people together and diffuses about her such an atmosphere of kindly hospitality that her very blunders add to the general ease and good humour.

11.4.

I have dwelt so long on one pre-war salon that it might seem as if the greater part of my life in Paris had been spent in it; but I risked producing this impression because I wished to put first among my Parisian glimpses the vision of a little society in which the old douceur de vivre was combined with an intelligent interest in current ideas and events.

Naturally, in the course of my Parisian years, I saw other typical scenes, and came to know many people in other circles, and to form friendships quite outside of Madame de Fitz–James’ agreeable drawing-room; but hers remains with me as peculiarly characteristic of a vanished order.

One of the first friends I made was Jacques–Emile Blanche, the distinguished painter and man of letters, in whose house one met not only most of the worthwhile in Paris, but an interesting admixture of literary and artistic London. Blanche speaks and writes English fluently, and he and Madame Blanche often went to London, and had many English friends in the world of society and letters, as well as among painters; and before the war their picturesque half-timbered house at Auteuil welcomed all that was newest and most amusing in cosmopolitan society. In such houses as the Blanches’, and that of another friend, Monsieur Andre Chevrillon (the nephew of Taine), pre-war Paris was first brought into familiar contact with English artists, savants and men of letters, and made aware of the riches of intellectual and artistic life in England. It is hard to realize now how few those contacts were before the war, and how completely, except for a handful of Parisians, France remained enclosed in her own culture.

Blanche, besides being an excellent linguist, and a writer of exceptional discernment on contemporary art, is also a cultivated musician; and in those happy days painters, composers, novelists, playwrights — Diaghilew, the creator of the Russian ballet, Henry Bernstein, whose plays were the sensation of the hour, George Moore, Andre Gide, my dear friend Mrs. Charles Hunter, the painters Walter Sickert and Ricketts, and countless other well-known people, mostly of the cosmopolitan type — met on Sundays in the delightful informality of his studio, or about a tea-table under the spreading trees of the garden. The lofty studio-living-room (his real painting room is tucked away in a corner upstairs) was in those days the most perfect setting for such meetings. Everything in it was harmonious in colour and tone, from the tall Coromandel screens, the old Chinese rugs on the floor, and the early Chinese bronzes and monochrome porcelains, to the crowning glory of the walls, hung with pictures by Renoir, Degas, Manet, Corot, Boudin, Alfred Stevens and Whistler — the “Bathing Women” of Renoir, the sombre and powerful “Young Woman with the Glove” of Manet (a portrait of one of Madame Blanche’s aunts in her youth), and an early Gainsborough landscape of a peculiar hazy loveliness; and among them, or else in the upper gallery, some of the most notable of our host’s own portraits; the perfect study of Thomas Hardy, the Degas, the Debussy, the Aubrey Beardsley, the George Moore and the young Marcel Proust — for Blanche, with singular insight, began long ago that unique series of portraits of his famous contemporaries which ought some day to be permanently grouped as a whole.

On other afternoons there met at the Blanches’ a small company of music-lovers (“Les Amis de la Musique,” I think they were called), and it was enchanting to listen to Bach and Beethoven, Franck, Debussy or Chausson, with those great pictures looking down from the walls, and the glimpse of lawn and shady trees deepening the impression of the music by enclosing it in a country solitude.

The Blanches, for years, have spent their summers in a charming little stone manor-house in the village of Offranville, near Dieppe. A garden bursting with flowers divides the house from the village street, and at the back the windows look out on a beautiful orchard where the calves from the neighbouring farm caper under the apple-blossoms. I used to go there often to stay, and the first time I went I met a young man of nineteen or twenty, who at that time vibrated with all the youth of the world. This was Jean Cocteau, then a passionately imaginative youth to whom every great line of poetry was a sunrise, every sunset the foundations of the Heavenly City. Excepting Bay Lodge I have known no other young man who so recalled Wordsworth’s “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” Every subject touched on — and in his company they were countless — was lit up by his young enthusiasm, and it is one of the regrets of later years to have watched the fading of that light. Life in general, and Parisian life in particular, is the cause of many such effacements — or defacements; but in Cocteau’s case the pity is particularly great because his gifts were so many, and his fervours so genuine. For many years I saw a great deal of him; he came often to the rue de Varenne, and to many of my friends’ houses; but I never enjoyed his talk as much as in the leafy quiet of Offranville. I wish now that I had set down a thousand of his sayings; but all have vanished, save one strangely beautiful story, which he told me he had read somewhere, but which I have never be able to trace.

One day when the Sultan was in his palace at Damascus a beautiful youth who was his favourite rushed into his presence, crying out in great agitation that he must fly at once to Baghdad, and imploring leave to borrow his Majesty’s swiftest horse.

The Sultan asked why he was in such haste to go to Baghdad. “Because,” the youth answered, “as I passed through the garden of the Palace just now, Death was standing there, and when he saw me he stretched out his arms as if to threaten me, and I must lose no time in escaping from him.”

The young man was given leave to take the Sultan’s horse and fly; and when he was gone the Sultan went down indignantly into the garden, and found Death still there.” How dare you make threatening gestures at my favourite?” he cried; but Death, astonished, answered: “I assure your Majesty I did not threaten him. I only threw up my arms in surprise at seeing him here, because I have a tryst with him tonight in Baghdad.”

Many of my other encounters at the Blanches’ were full of interest; and so were other adventures in the more specialized world of letters, and of the University. Bourget one day brought to see me (two years or more before we came to live in Paris) a young friend of his, Charles Du Bos, who was anxious to translate my recently published novel, “The House of Mirth.” Charles Du Bos, being Anglo–American on his mother’s side, was exceptionally proficient in English, and he desired to follow a literary career without yet knowing precisely what turn it would take. Bourget, who was an old friend of his family, and naturally in sympathy with this ambition, suggested his getting his hand in by translating my book; and so it happened that “The House of Mirth” was given to French readers by the future literary critic, and biographer of Byron, who in the course of the work became one of my closest friends.

11.5.

When we finally settled in the rue de Varenne “The House of Mirth,” then appearing in the “Revue de Paris,” was attracting attention in its French dress, partly because few modern English and American novels had as yet been translated, but chiefly because it depicted a society utterly unknown to French readers. The success of the book was so great that translations of my short stories (I had as yet written but two novels) were in great demand in the principal French reviews, and to this I owe an interesting glimpse of the Parisian life of letters. Those were the days when the “Revue de Paris,” edited by that remarkable man, Louis Ganderax, rivalled (if it did not out-rival) the “Revue des Deux Mondes” in interest and importance, and I was lucky enough to be made welcome in the editorial groups of both reviews, and to be much invited out in those agreeable circles.

Oddly enough, it was an old American friend of my husband’s who enlarged my range in this direction. Archibald Coolidge (future Librarian of Harvard) was giving the Hyde Lectures that winter at the Sorbonne, and as soon as he found we were in Paris he decided that I must be made known to his friends in the University. So indefatigable was this kindly being in bringing to the house the most agreeable among his colleagues, as well as other acquaintances, that my husband and I christened him “the retriever.” It was thanks to him, I think, that I first met Monsieur Andre Chevrillon, the author of a number of delightful books on English literature, and two or three exceptionally sensitive records of travel in India and North Africa. All the Taine nephews and nieces inherited the great man’s English culture, spoke the language fluently, and were thoroughly versed in English literature; and it was Monsieur Chevrillon who first made not only Ruskin but Kipling known to French readers. It was in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of his house at Saint Cloud that I first met, among other interesting people, the Comte Robert d’Humieres, whose translations of Kipling rank with Scott Moncrieff’s of Proust. Robert d’Humieres was one of the most versatile of that alert and cultivated group; an admirable linguist, quick, well-read and responsive to new ideas, he combined great social gifts with a real love of letters. He wrote a brilliant little volume on the English in India, and another, equally remarkable, on contemporary England. He and his charming wife went often to England, and on one of their visits I gave them a letter for James. He asked them down to Lamb House, and a letter to me (published in Percy Lubbock’s edition of the Letters) records his delighted impression of the pair. Robert d’Humieres and I became great friends. He came very often to the rue de Varenne, and in 1914 he began a translation of my recently published novel, “The Custom of the Country.” I had had many offers to translate this book, but had always refused, as I thought it almost impossible to make a tale so intensely American intelligible to French readers. But Robert d’Humieres was perfectly fitted for the task, and judging from the first chapters his translation would have been masterly. The war sent him at once to the front; but in 1916 a bad attack of rheumatism obliged him to return to Paris, and he sent me word to come and see him. I found him, though very ill and worn, hard at work again on “The Custom of the Country”; but as soon as he was discharged he asked to go back to the trenches, and almost immediately fell in leading an attack. His broken-hearted wife died soon afterward.

Another friend whom I got to know through the devoted “retriever” was Victor Berard, the eminent director of the “Ecole des Hautes Etudes,” whose speculative and picturesque interpretation of the Odyssey (“Les Pheniciens et l’Odyssee”) had aroused great interest far beyond University circles. Victor Berard was a big handsome man, with a brain bursting with intellectual enthusiasms and rash hypotheses. He had the indefatigable activity, the almost limitless powers of work, of the typical French scholar, and his wife told me that, winter and summer, he was always at his desk at five in the morning, and that his working and teaching day often did not end till midnight. In spite of this he and Madame Berard dispensed a tireless hospitality, receiving in their big old-fashioned house, which overlooked the neighbouring gardens of the Observatoire, many of the most distinguished men of letters, historians and archeologists of the day — and eminent painters as well, for Berard was the intimate friend of Lucien Simon, Cottet and Rene Menard, who were always great friends of each other, and consequently often to be seen together at his house.

These gatherings at the Berards’, and also at the Ganderaxes’, the Rene Doumics’, and other houses in the old closely-shut Parisian world of science and letters, were naturally of great interest to a stranger like myself; but they lacked — as such societies have wherever I have known them — the ease and amenity to be found only where intelligent people of various callings, with a few cultivated idlers among them, predominate over the highly-trained specialist. The only completely agreeable society I have ever known is that wherein the elements are selected and blent by a woman of the world, instinctively alert for every shade of suitability, and whose light hand never suffers the mixture to stiffen or grow heavy. At that time in Paris the appearance of a “foreigner” in any society not slightly cosmopolitanized still caused a certain constraint, especially among its womenkind; and I gradually perceived that in University circles the presence of an American woman was almost paralyzing to the ladies of the party. As the men, immediately after the meal was over, always fled with coffee and cigarettes to the farthest corner of the room, leaving the women to themselves, I was subjected on such occasions to an hour’s desolating conversation, which invariably began with the three questions: “Are you soon to give us the pleasure of reading another of your wonderful novels?,” “Do you write in French, and then have your books translated into English?” and “Have you already seen all the new plays?” — after which the talk languished into silence, my burdensome presence preventing the natural interchange of remarks on children, servants and prices which would otherwise have gone on between the ladies.

In many different sets I continued to make friends, and I keep a special niche in my memory for some of these. Among the dearest was Gustave Schlumberger, the celebrated archaeologist and historian of the Byzantine Empire, who looked like a descendant of one of the Gauls on the arch of Titus, and who was cherished by a large group of devoted friends for the inexhaustible interest of his talk as much as he was dreaded by others for his uncurbed violence of speech. To me he was invariably kind, partly no doubt because of my interest in the archaeological wonders of his beloved country; and during the last years of his life I saw him frequently. Another dear friend, very different in character though they shared certain artistic interest, was Auguste Laugel, whose acquaintance I made through Etta Reubell, my old friend, and Henry James’s. Monsieur Laugel, the devoted friend of the Orleans family, who was especially attached to the Duc d’Aumale, and to whose learning and taste the Duke was indebted for the creation of the famous library at Chantilly, was an old man when I first knew him, and lived a quiet meditative life among his books and his friends. But his early years had been full of distinguished and successful activities, as a graduate of Polytechnique, as civil engineer, and professor at the Ecole des Mines, as a linguist, a traveller, and a writer on scientific subjects. To these interests he added a keen love of art and letters, and that highly specialized knowledge of books and of their makers which made of him one of the most accomplished bibliophiles of his day.

During a long sojourn in America, at the time of our Civil War, he was in frequent and intimate contact with the leading Northern generals and statesmen, and the result of those experiences was summed up in a series of notable articles in the Parisian press. Subsequently he followed the fortunes of the Duc d’Aumale, twice accompanying him into exile, and returning to France only when the Prince was finally allowed to re-establish himself at Chantilly.

Of all these years of labour and adventure there remained, when I knew him, only the mellowing influences left by a life of fruitful activity. Monsieur Laugel had married an American lady who had been very beautiful. They were a devoted couple, and after her death he had privately printed a small volume of poems, not addressed to the young bride in her freshness, but to the old and dying wife, as she lay helpless and motionless, for months, like the statue on her own grave. He did me the honour of giving me this book, as well as other treasures from his private library, and in particular one of its most precious volumes. I happened one day to mention that another of my friends, also a learned bibliophile, knowing my admiration for Racine, had given me the rare first editions of “Athalie” and “Esther,” but had never been able to add to them a copy of the far rarer, the almost unfindable, “Phedre.” The next day Monsieur Laugel sent me the missing treasure; and I never look at the slim exquisite volume without a grateful thought for my delightful old friend, the perfect model of the distinguished and cultivated French gentleman of his day.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/backward_glance/chapter11.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30