The Paris Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On some French Fashionable Novels

With a plea for romances in general.

There is an old story of a Spanish court painter, who, being pressed for money, and having received a piece of damask, which he was to wear in a state procession, pawned the damask, and appeared, at the show, dressed out in some very fine sheets of paper, which he had painted so as exactly to resemble silk. Nay, his coat looked so much richer than the doublets of all the rest, that the Emperor Charles, in whose honor the procession was given, remarked the painter, and so his deceit was found out.

I have often thought that, in respect of sham and real histories, a similar fact may be noticed; the sham story appearing a great deal more agreeable, life-like, and natural than the true one: and all who, from laziness as well as principle, are inclined to follow the easy and comfortable study of novels, may console themselves with the notion that they are studying matters quite as important as history, and that their favorite duodecimos are as instructive as the biggest quartos in the world.

If then, ladies, the big-wigs begin to sneer at the course of our studies, calling our darling romances foolish, trivial, noxious to the mind, enervators of intellect, fathers of idleness, and what not, let us at once take a high ground, and say — Go you to your own employments, and to such dull studies as you fancy; go and bob for triangles, from the Pons Asinorum; go enjoy your dull black draughts of metaphysics; go fumble over history books, and dissert upon Herodotus and Livy; OUR histories are, perhaps, as true as yours; our drink is the brisk sparkling champagne drink, from the presses of Colburn, Bentley and Co.; our walks are over such sunshiny pleasure-grounds as Scott and Shakspeare have laid out for us; and if our dwellings are castles in the air, we find them excessively splendid and commodious; — be not you envious because you have no wings to fly thither. Let the big-wigs despise us; such contempt of their neighbors is the custom of all barbarous tribes; — witness, the learned Chinese: Tippoo Sultaun declared that there were not in all Europe ten thousand men: the Sklavonic hordes, it is said, so entitled themselves from a word in their jargon, which signifies “to speak;” the ruffians imagining that they had a monopoly of this agreeable faculty, and that all other nations were dumb.

Not so: others may be DEAF; but the novelist has a loud, eloquent, instructive language, though his enemies may despise or deny it ever so much. What is more, one could, perhaps, meet the stoutest historian on his own ground, and argue with him; showing that sham histories were much truer than real histories; which are, in fact, mere contemptible catalogues of names and places, that can have no moral effect upon the reader.

As thus:—

Julius Caesar beat Pompey, at Pharsalia.
The Duke of Marlborough beat Marshal Tallard at Blenheim.
The Constable of Bourbon beat Francis the First, at Pavia.

And what have we here? — so many names, simply. Suppose Pharsalia had been, at that mysterious period when names were given, called Pavia; and that Julius Caesar’s family name had been John Churchill; — the fact would have stood in history, thus:—

“Pompey ran away from the Duke of Marlborough at Pavia.”

And why not? — we should have been just as wise. Or it might be stated that —

“The tenth legion charged the French infantry at Blenheim; and
Caesar, writing home to his mamma, said, ‘Madame, tout est perdu
fors l’honneur.’”

What a contemptible science this is, then, about which quartos are written, and sixty-volumed Biographies Universelles, and Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedias, and the like! the facts are nothing in it, the names everything and a gentleman might as well improve his mind by learning Walker’s “Gazetteer,” or getting by heart a fifty-years-old edition of the “Court Guide.”

Having thus disposed of the historians, let us come to the point in question — the novelists.

On the title-page of these volumes the reader has, doubtless, remarked, that among the pieces introduced, some are announced as “copies” and “compositions.” Many of the histories have, accordingly, been neatly stolen from the collections of French authors (and mutilated, according to the old saying, so that their owners should not know them) and, for compositions, we intend to favor the public with some studies of French modern works, that have not as yet, we believe, attracted the notice of the English public.

Of such works there appear many hundreds yearly, as may be seen by the French catalogues; but the writer has not so much to do with works political, philosophical, historical, metaphysical, scientifical, theological, as with those for which he has been putting forward a plea — novels, namely; on which he has expended a great deal of time and study. And passing from novels in general to French novels, let us confess, with much humiliation, that we borrow from these stories a great deal more knowledge of French society than from our own personal observation we ever can hope to gain: for, let a gentleman who has dwelt two, four, or ten years in Paris (and has not gone thither for the purpose of making a book, when three weeks are sufficient — let an English gentleman say, at the end of any given period, how much he knows of French society, how many French houses he has entered, and how many French friends he has made? — He has enjoyed, at the end of the year, say —

At the English Ambassador’s, so many soirées.
At houses to which he has brought letters, so many tea-parties.
At Cafés, so many dinners.
At French private houses, say three dinners, and very lucky too.

He has, we say, seen an immense number of wax candles, cups of tea, glasses of orgeat, and French people, in best clothes, enjoying the same; but intimacy there is none; we see but the outsides of the people. Year by year we live in France, and grow gray, and see no more. We play écarté with Monsieur de Trêfle every night; but what know we of the heart of the man — of the inward ways, thoughts, and customs of Trêfle? If we have good legs, and love the amusement, we dance with Countess Flicflac, Tuesday’s and Thursdays, ever since the Peace; and how far are we advanced in acquaintance with her since we first twirled her round a room? We know her velvet gown, and her diamonds (about three-fourths of them are sham, by the way); we know her smiles, and her simpers, and her rouge — but no more: she may turn into a kitchen wench at twelve on Thursday night, for aught we know; her voiture, a pumpkin; and her gens, so many rats: but the real, rougeless, intime Flicflac, we know not. This privilege is granted to no Englishman: we may understand the French language as well as Monsieur de Levizac, but never can penetrate into Flicflac’s confidence: our ways are not her ways; our manners of thinking, not hers: when we say a good thing, in the course of the night, we are wondrous lucky and pleased; Flicflac will trill you off fifty in ten minutes, and wonder at the bêtise of the Briton, who has never a word to say. We are married, and have fourteen children, and would just as soon make love to the Pope of Rome as to any one but our own wife. If you do not make love to Flicflac, from the day after her marriage to the day she reaches sixty, she thinks you a fool. We won’t play at écarté with Trêfle on Sunday nights; and are seen walking, about one o’clock (accompanied by fourteen red-haired children, with fourteen gleaming prayer-books), away from the church. “Grand Dieu!” cries Trêfle, “is that man mad? He won’t play at cards on a Sunday; he goes to church on a Sunday: he has fourteen children!”

Was ever Frenchman known to do likewise? Pass we on to our argument, which is, that with our English notions and moral and physical constitution, it is quite impossible that we should become intimate with our brisk neighbors; and when such authors as Lady Morgan and Mrs. Trollope, having frequented a certain number of tea-parties in the French capital, begin to prattle about French manners and men — with all respect for the talents of those ladies, we do believe their information not to be worth a sixpence; they speak to us not of men but of tea-parties. Tea-parties are the same all the world over; with the exception that, with the French, there are more lights and prettier dresses; and with us, a mighty deal more tea in the pot.

There is, however, a cheap and delightful way of travelling, that a man may perform in his easy-chair, without expense of passports or post-boys. On the wings of a novel, from the next circulating library, he sends his imagination a-gadding, and gains acquaintance with people and manners whom he could not hope otherwise to know. Twopence a volume bears us whithersoever we will; — back to Ivanhoe and Coeur de Lion, or to Waverley and the Young Pretender, along with Walter Scott; up the heights of fashion with the charming enchanters of the silver-fork school; or, better still, to the snug inn-parlor, or the jovial tap-room, with Mr. Pickwick and his faithful Sancho Weller. I am sure that a man who, a hundred years hence should sit down to write the history of our time, would do wrong to put that great contemporary history of “Pickwick” aside as a frivolous work. It contains true character under false names; and, like “Roderick Random,” an inferior work, and “Tom Jones” (one that is immeasurably superior), gives us a better idea of the state and ways of the people than one could gather from any more pompous or authentic histories.

We have, therefore, introduced into these volumes one or two short reviews of French fiction writers, of particular classes, whose Paris sketches may give the reader some notion of manners in that capital. If not original, at least the drawings are accurate; for, as a Frenchman might have lived a thousand years in England, and never could have written “Pickwick,” an Englishman cannot hope to give a good description of the inward thoughts and ways of his neighbors.

To a person inclined to study these, in that light and amusing fashion in which the novelist treats them, let us recommend the works of a new writer, Monsieur de Bernard, who has painted actual manners, without those monstrous and terrible exaggerations in which late French writers have indulged; and who, if he occasionally wounds the English sense of propriety (as what French man or woman alive will not?) does so more by slighting than by outraging it, as, with their labored descriptions of all sorts of imaginable wickedness, some of his brethren of the press have done. M. de Bernard’s characters are men and women of genteel society — rascals enough, but living in no state of convulsive crimes; and we follow him in his lively, malicious account of their manners, without risk of lighting upon any such horrors as Balzac or Dumas has provided for us.

Let us give an instance:— it is from the amusing novel called “Les Ailes d’Icare,” and contains what is to us quite a new picture of a French fashionable rogue. The fashions will change in a few years, and the rogue, of course, with them. Let us catch this delightful fellow ere he flies. It is impossible to sketch the character in a more sparkling, gentlemanlike way than M. de Bernard’s; but such light things are very difficult of translation, and the sparkle sadly evaporates during the process of DECANTING.


“MY DEAR VICTOR— It is six in the morning: I have just come from the English Ambassador’s ball, and as my plans, for the day do not admit of my sleeping, I write you a line; for, at this moment, saturated as I am with the enchantments of a fairy night, all other pleasures would be too wearisome to keep me awake, except that of conversing with you. Indeed, were I not to write to you now, when should I find the possibility of doing so? Time flies here with such a frightful rapidity, my pleasures and my affairs whirl onwards together in such a torrentuous galopade, that I am compelled to seize occasion by the forelock; for each moment has its imperious employ. Do not then accuse me of negligence: if my correspondence has not always that regularity which I would fain give it, attribute the fault solely to the whirlwind in which I live, and which carries me hither and thither at its will.

“However, you are not the only person with whom I am behindhand: I assure you, on the contrary, that you are one of a very numerous and fashionable company, to whom, towards the discharge of my debts, I propose to consecrate four hours today. I give you the preference to all the world, even to the lovely Duchess of San Severino, a delicious Italian, whom, for my special happiness, I met last summer at the Waters of Aix. I have also a most important negotiation to conclude with one of our Princes of Finance: but n’importe, I commence with thee: friendship before love or money — friendship before everything. My despatches concluded, I am engaged to ride with the Marquis de Grigneure, the Comte de Castijars, and Lord Cobham, in order that we may recover, for a breakfast at the Rocher de Cancale that Grigneure has lost, the appetite which we all of us so cruelly abused last night at the Ambassador’s gala. On my honor, my dear fellow, everybody was of a caprice prestigieux and a comfortable mirobolant. Fancy, for a banquet-hall, a royal orangery hung with white damask; the boxes of the shrubs transformed into so many sideboards; lights gleaming through the foliage; and, for guests, the loveliest women and most brilliant cavaliers of Paris. Orleans and Nemours were there, dancing and eating like simple mortals. In a word, Albion did the thing very handsomely, and I accord it my esteem.

“Here I pause, to call for my valet-de-chambre, and call for tea; for my head is heavy, and I’ve no time for a headache. In serving me, this rascal of a Frédéric has broken a cup, true Japan, upon my honor — the rogue does nothing else. Yesterday, for instance, did he not thump me prodigiously, by letting fall a goblet, after Cellini, of which the carving alone cost me three hundred francs? I must positively put the wretch out of doors, to ensure the safety of my furniture; and in consequence of this, Eneas, an audacious young negro, in whom wisdom hath not waited for years — Eneas, my groom, I say, will probably be elevated to the post of valet-de-chambre. But where was I? I think I was speaking to you of an oyster breakfast, to which, on our return from the Park (du Bois), a company of pleasant rakes are invited. After quitting Borel’s, we propose to adjourn to the Barrière du Combat, where Lord Cobham proposes to try some bull-dogs, which he has brought over from England — one of these, O’Connell (Lord Cobham is a Tory,) has a face in which I place much confidence; I have a bet of ten louis with Castijars on the strength of it. After the fight, we shall make our accustomed appearance at the ‘Cafe de Paris,’ (the only place, by the way, where a man who respects himself may be seen,)— and then away with frocks and spurs, and on with our dress-coats for the rest of the evening. In the first place, I shall go doze for a couple of hours at the Opera, where my presence is indispensable; for Coralie, a charming creature, passes this evening from the rank of the RATS to that of the TIGERS, in a pas-de-trois, and our box patronizes her. After the Opera, I must show my face to two or three salons in the Faubourg St. Honoré; and having thus performed my duties to the world of fashion, I return to the exercise of my rights as a member of the Carnival. At two o’clock all the world meets at the Théâtre Ventadour: lions and tigers — the whole of our menagerie will be present. Evoé! off we go! roaring and bounding Bacchanal and Saturnal; ’tis agreed that we shall be everything that is low. To conclude, we sup with Castijars, the most ‘furiously dishevelled’ orgy that ever was known.”

The rest of the letter is on matters of finance, equally curious and instructive. But pause we for the present, to consider the fashionable part: and caricature as it is, we have an accurate picture of the actual French dandy. Bets, breakfasts, riding, dinners at the “Café de Paris,” and delirious Carnival balls: the animal goes through all such frantic pleasures at the season that precedes Lent. He has a wondrous respect for English “gentlemen-sportsmen;” he imitates their clubs — their love of horse-flesh: he calls his palefrenier a groom, wears blue birds’s-eye neck-cloths, sports his pink out hunting, rides steeple-chases, and has his Jockey Club. The “tigers and lions” alluded to in the report have been borrowed from our own country, and a great compliment is it to Monsieur de Bernard, the writer of the above amusing sketch, that he has such a knowledge of English names and things, as to give a Tory lord the decent title of Lord Cobham, and to call his dog O’Connell. Paul de Kock calls an English nobleman, in one of his last novels, Lord Boulingrog, and appears vastly delighted at the verisimilitude of the title.

For the “rugissements et bondissements, bacchanale et saturnale, galop infernal, ronde du sabbat tout le tremblement,” these words give a most clear, untranslatable idea of the Carnival ball. A sight more hideous can hardly strike a man’s eye. I was present at one where the four thousand guests whirled screaming, reeling, roaring, out of the ball-room in the Rue St. Honoré, and tore down to the column in the Place Vendôme, round which they went shrieking their own music, twenty miles an hour, and so tore madly back again. Let a man go alone to such a place of amusement, and the sight for him is perfectly terrible: the horrid frantic gayety of the place puts him in mind more of the merriment of demons than of men: bang, bang, drums, trumpets, chairs, pistol-shots, pour out of the orchestra, which seems as mad as the dancers; whiz, a whirlwind of paint and patches, all the costumes under the sun, all the ranks in the empire, all the he and she scoundrels of the capital, writhed and twisted together, rush by you; if a man falls, woe be to him: two thousand screaming menads go trampling over his carcass: they have neither power nor will to stop.

A set of Malays drunk with bhang and running amuck, a company of howling dervishes, may possibly, in our own day, go through similar frantic vagaries; but I doubt if any civilized European people but the French would permit and enjoy such scenes. Yet our neighbors see little shame in them; and it is very true that men of all classes, high and low, here congregate and give themselves up to the disgusting worship of the genius of the place. — From the dandy of the Boulevard and the “Café Anglais,” let us turn to the dandy of “Flicoteau’s” and the Pays Latin — the Paris student, whose exploits among the grisettes are so celebrated, and whose fierce republicanism keeps gendarmes for ever on the alert. The following is M. de Bernard’s description of him:—

“I became acquainted with Dambergeac when we were students at the Ecole de Droit; we lived in the same Hotel on the Place du Panthéon. No doubt, madam, you have occasionally met little children dedicated to the Virgin, and, to this end, clothed in white raiment from head to foot: my friend, Dambergeac, had received a different consecration. His father, a great patriot of the Revolution, had determined that his son should bear into the world a sign of indelible republicanism; so, to the great displeasure of his godmother and the parish curate, Dambergeac was christened by the pagan name of Harmodius. It was a kind of moral tricolor-cockade, which the child was to bear through the vicissitudes of all the revolutions to come. Under such influences, my friend’s character began to develop itself, and, fired by the example of his father, and by the warm atmosphere of his native place, Marseilles, he grew up to have an independent spirit, and a grand liberality of politics, which were at their height when first I made his acquaintance.

“He was then a young man of eighteen, with a tall, slim figure, a broad chest, and a flaming black eye, out of all which personal charms he knew how to draw the most advantage; and though his costume was such as Staub might probably have criticised, he had, nevertheless, a style peculiar to himself — to himself and the students, among whom he was the leader of the fashion. A tight black coat, buttoned up to the chin, across the chest, set off that part of his person; a low-crowned hat, with a voluminous rim, cast solemn shadows over a countenance bronzed by a southern sun: he wore, at one time, enormous flowing black locks, which he sacrificed pitilessly, however, and adopted a Brutus, as being more revolutionary: finally, he carried an enormous club, that was his code and digest: in like manner, De Retz used to carry a stiletto in his pocket by way of a breviary.

“Although of different ways of thinking in politics, certain sympathies of character and conduct united Dambergeac and myself, and we speedily became close friends. I don’t think, in the whole course of his three years’ residence, Dambergeac ever went through a single course of lectures. For the examinations, he trusted to luck, and to his own facility, which was prodigious: as for honors, he never aimed at them, but was content to do exactly as little as was necessary for him to gain his degree. In like manner he sedulously avoided those horrible circulating libraries, where daily are seen to congregate the ‘reading men’ of our schools. But, in revenge, there was not a milliner’s shop, or a lingère’s, in all our quartier Latin, which he did not industriously frequent, and of which he was not the oracle. Nay, it was said that his victories were not confined to the left bank of the Seine; reports did occasionally come to us of fabulous adventures by him accomplished in the far regions of the Rue de la Paix and the Boulevard Poissonnière. Such recitals were, for us less favored mortals, like tales of Bacchus conquering in the East; they excited our ambition, but not our jealousy; for the superiority of Harmodius was acknowledged by us all, and we never thought of a rivalry with him. No man ever cantered a hack through the Champs Elysées with such elegant assurance; no man ever made such a massacre of dolls at the shooting-gallery; or won you a rubber at billiards with more easy grace; or thundered out a couplet out of Béranger with such a roaring melodious bass. He was the monarch of the Prado in winter: in summer of the Chaumière and Mont Parnasse. Not a frequenter of those fashionable places of entertainment showed a more amiable laisser-aller in the dance — that peculiar dance at which gendarmes think proper to blush, and which squeamish society has banished from her salons. In a word, Harmodius was the prince of mauvais sujets, a youth with all the accomplishments of Göttingen and Jena, and all the eminent graces of his own country.

“Besides dissipation and gallantry, our friend had one other vast and absorbing occupation — politics, namely; in which he was as turbulent and enthusiastic as in pleasure. La Patrie was his idol, his heaven, his nightmare; by day he spouted, by night he dreamed, of his country. I have spoken to you of his coiffure à la Sylla; need I mention his pipe, his meerschaum pipe, of which General Foy’s head was the bowl; his handkerchief with the Charte printed thereon; and his celebrated tricolor braces, which kept the rallying sign of his country ever close to his heart? Besides these outward and visible signs of sedition, he had inward and secret plans of revolution: he belonged to clubs, frequented associations, read the Constitutionnel (Liberals, in those days, swore by the Constitutionnel), harangued peers and deputies who had deserved well of their country; and if death happened to fall on such, and the Constitutionnel declared their merit, Harmodius was the very first to attend their obsequies, or to set his shoulder to their coffins.

“Such were his tastes and passions: his antipathies were not less lively. He detested three things: a Jesuit, a gendarme, and a claqueur at a theatre. At this period, missionaries were rife about Paris, and endeavored to re-illume the zeal of the faithful by public preachings in the churches. ‘Infâmes jesuites!’ would Harmodius exclaim, who, in the excess of his toleration, tolerated nothing; and, at the head of a band of philosophers like himself, would attend with scrupulous exactitude the meetings of the reverend gentlemen. But, instead of a contrite heart, Harmodius only brought the abomination of desolation into their sanctuary. A perpetual fire of fulminating balls would bang from under the feet of the faithful; odors of impure assafoetida would mingle with the fumes of the incense; and wicked drinking choruses would rise up along with the holy canticles, in hideous dissonance, reminding one of the old orgies under the reign of the Abbot of Unreason.

“His hatred of the gendarmes was equally ferocious: and as for the claqueurs, woe be to them when Harmodius was in the pit! They knew him, and trembled before him, like the earth before Alexander; and his famous war-cry, ‘La Carte au chapeau!’ was so much dreaded, that the ‘entrepreneurs de succès dramatiques’ demanded twice as much to do the Odeon Theatre (which we students and Harmodius frequented), as to applaud at any other place of amusement: and, indeed, their double pay was hardly gained; Harmodius taking care that they should earn the most of it under the benches.”

This passage, with which we have taken some liberties, will give the reader a more lively idea of the reckless, jovial, turbulent Paris student, than any with which a foreigner could furnish him: the grisette is his heroine; and dear old Béranger, the cynic-epicurean, has celebrated him and her in the most delightful verses in the world. Of these we may have occasion to say a word or two anon. Meanwhile let us follow Monsieur de Bernard in his amusing descriptions of his countrymen somewhat farther; and, having seen how Dambergeac was a ferocious republican, being a bachelor, let us see how age, sense, and a little government pay — the great agent of conversions in France — nay, in England — has reduced him to be a pompous, quiet, loyal supporter of the juste milieu: his former portrait was that of the student, the present will stand for an admirable lively likeness of


“Saying that I would wait for Dambergeac in his own study, I was introduced into that apartment, and saw around me the usual furniture of a man in his station. There was, in the middle of the room, a large bureau, surrounded by orthodox arm-chairs; and there were many shelves with boxes duly ticketed; there were a number of maps, and among them a great one of the department over which Dambergeac ruled; and facing the windows, on a wooden pedestal, stood a plaster-cast of the ‘Roi des Français.’ Recollecting my friend’s former republicanism, I smiled at this piece of furniture; but before I had time to carry my observations any farther, a heavy rolling sound of carriage-wheels, that caused the windows to rattle and seemed to shake the whole edifice of the sub-prefecture, called my attention to the court without. Its iron gates were flung open, and in rolled, with a great deal of din, a chariot escorted by a brace of gendarmes, sword in hand. A tall gentleman, with a cocked-hat and feathers, wearing a blue and silver uniform coat, descended from the vehicle; and having, with much grave condescension, saluted his escort, mounted the stair. A moment afterwards the door of the study was opened, and I embraced my friend.

“After the first warmth and salutations, we began to examine each other with an equal curiosity, for eight years had elapsed since we had last met.

“‘You are grown very thin and pale,’ said Harmodius, after a moment.

“‘In revenge I find you fat and rosy: if I am a walking satire on celibacy — you, at least, are a living panegyric on marriage.’

“In fact a great change, and such an one as many people would call a change for the better, had taken place in my friend: he had grown fat, and announced a decided disposition to become what French people call a bel homme: that is, a very fat one. His complexion, bronzed before, was now clear white and red: there were no more political allusions in his hair, which was, on the contrary, neatly frizzed, and brushed over the forehead, shell-shape. This head-dress, joined to a thin pair of whiskers, cut crescent-wise from the ear to the nose, gave my friend a regular bourgeois physiognomy, wax-doll-like: he looked a great deal too well; and, added to this, the solemnity of his prefectural costume, gave his whole appearance a pompous well-fed look that by no means pleased.

“‘I surprise you,’ said I, ‘in the midst of your splendor: do you know that this costume and yonder attendants have a look excessively awful and splendid? You entered your palace just now with the air of a pasha.’

“‘You see me in uniform in honor of Monseigneur the Bishop, who has just made his diocesan visit, and whom I have just conducted to the limit of the arrondissement.’

“‘What!’ said I, ‘you have gendarmes for guards, and dance attendance on bishops? There are no more janissaries and Jesuits, I suppose?’ The sub-prefect smiled.

“‘I assure you that my gendarmes are very worthy fellows; and that among the gentlemen who compose our clergy there are some of the very best rank and talent: besides, my wife is niece to one of the vicars-general.’

“‘What have you done with that great Tasso beard that poor Armandine used to love so?’

“‘My wife does not like a beard; and you know that what is permitted to a student is not very becoming to a magistrate.’

“I began to laugh. ‘Harmodius and a magistrate! — how shall I ever couple the two words together? But tell me, in your correspondences, your audiences, your sittings with village mayors and petty councils, how do you manage to remain awake?’

“‘In the commencement,’ said Harmodius, gravely, ‘it WAS very difficult; and, in order to keep my eyes open, I used to stick pins into my legs: now, however, I am used to it; and I’m sure I don’t take more than fifty pinches of snuff at a sitting.’

“‘Ah! apropos of snuff: you are near Spain here, and were always a famous smoker. Give me a cigar — it will take away the musty odor of these piles of papers.’

“‘Impossible, my dear; I don’t smoke; my wife cannot bear a cigar.’

“His wife! thought I; always his wife: and I remember Juliette, who really grew sick at the smell of a pipe, and Harmodius would smoke, until, at last, the poor thing grew to smoke herself, like a trooper. To compensate, however, as much as possible for the loss of my cigar, Dambergeac drew from his pocket an enormous gold snuff-box, on which figured the self-same head that I had before remarked in plaster, but this time surrounded with a ring of pretty princes and princesses, all nicely painted in miniature. As for the statue of Louis Philippe, that, in the cabinet of an official, is a thing of course; but the snuff-box seemed to indicate a degree of sentimental and personal devotion, such as the old Royalists were only supposed to be guilty of.

“‘What! you are turned decided juste milieu?’ said I.

“‘I am a sous-préfet,’ answered Harmodius.

“I had nothing to say, but held my tongue, wondering, not at the change which had taken place in the habits, manners, and opinions of my friend, but at my own folly, which led me to fancy that I should find the student of ‘26 in the functionary of ‘34. At this moment a domestic appeared.

“‘Madame is waiting for Monsieur,’ said he: ‘the last bell has gone, and mass beginning.’

“‘Mass!’ said I, bounding up from my chair. ‘You at mass like a decent serious Christian, without crackers in your pocket, and bored keys to whistle through?’— The sous-préfet rose, his countenance was calm, and an indulgent smile played upon his lips, as he said, ‘My arrondissement is very devout; and not to interfere with the belief of the population is the maxim of every wise politician: I have precise orders from Government on the point, too, and go to eleven o’clock mass every Sunday.”’

There is a great deal of curious matter for speculation in the accounts here so wittily given by M. de Bernard: but, perhaps, it is still more curious to think of what he has NOT written, and to judge of his characters, not so much by the words in which he describes them, as by the unconscious testimony that the words all together convey. In the first place, our author describes a swindler imitating the manners of a dandy; and many swindlers and dandies be there, doubtless, in London as well as in Paris. But there is about the present swindler, and about Monsieur Dambergeac the student, and Monsieur Dambergeac the sous-préfet, and his friend, a rich store of calm internal debauch, which does not, let us hope and pray, exist in England. Hearken to M. de Gustan, and his smirking whispers, about the Duchess of San Severino, who pour son bonheur particulier, &c. &c. Listen to Monsieur Dambergeac’s friend’s remonstrances concerning pauvre Juliette who grew sick at the smell of a pipe; to his naïve admiration at the fact that the sous-préfet goes to church: and we may set down, as axioms, that religion is so uncommon among the Parisians, as to awaken the surprise of all candid observers; that gallantry is so common as to create no remark, and to be considered as a matter of course. With us, at least, the converse of the proposition prevails: it is the man professing irreligion who would be remarked and reprehended in England; and, if the second-named vice exists, at any rate, it adopts the decency of secrecy and is not made patent and notorious to all the world. A French gentleman thinks no more of proclaiming that he has a mistress than that he has a tailor; and one lives the time of Boccaccio over again, in the thousand and one French novels which depict society in that country.

For instance, here are before us a few specimens (do not, madam, be alarmed, you can skip the sentence if you like,) to be found in as many admirable witty tales, by the before-lauded Monsieur de Bernard. He is more remarkable than any other French author, to our notion, for writing like a gentleman: there is ease, grace and ton, in his style, which, if we judge aright, cannot be discovered in Balzac, or Soulié, or Dumas. We have then —“Gerfaut,” a novel: a lovely creature is married to a brave, haughty, Alsacian nobleman, who allows her to spend her winters at Paris, he remaining on his terres, cultivating, carousing, and hunting the boar. The lovely-creature meets the fascinating Gerfaut at Paris; instantly the latter makes love to her; a duel takes place: baron killed; wife throws herself out of window; Gerfaut plunges into dissipation; and so the tale ends.

Next: “La Femme de Quarante Ans,” a capital tale, full of exquisite fun and sparkling satire: La femme de quarante ans has a husband and THREE lovers; all of whom find out their mutual connection one starry night; for the lady of forty is of a romantic poetical turn, and has given her three admirers A STAR APIECE; saying to one and the other, “Alphonse, when yon pale orb rises in heaven, think of me;” “Isadore, when that bright planet sparkles in the sky, remember your Caroline,” &c.

“Un Acte de Vertu,” from which we have taken Dambergeac’s history, contains him, the husband — a wife — and a brace of lovers; and a great deal of fun takes place in the manner in which one lover supplants the other. — Pretty morals truly!

If we examine an author who rejoices in the aristocratic name of le Comte Horace de Viel-Castel, we find, though with infinitely less wit, exactly the same intrigues going on. A noble Count lives in the Faubourg St. Honoré, and has a noble Duchess for a mistress: he introduces her Grace to the Countess his wife. The Countess his wife, in order to ramener her lord to his conjugal duties, is counselled, by a friend, TO PRETEND TO TAKE A LOVER: one is found, who, poor fellow! takes the affair in earnest: climax — duel, death, despair, and what not? In the “Faubourg St. Germain,” another novel by the same writer, which professes to describe the very pink of that society which Napoleon dreaded more than Russia, Prussia, and Austria, there is an old husband, of course; a sentimental young German nobleman, who falls in love with his wife; and the moral of the piece lies in the showing up of the conduct of the lady, who is reprehended — not for deceiving her husband (poor devil!)— but for being a flirt, AND TAKING A SECOND LOVER, to the utter despair, confusion, and annihilation of the first.

Why, ye gods, do Frenchmen marry at all? Had Père Enfantin (who, it is said, has shaved his ambrosial beard, and is now a clerk in a banking-house) been allowed to carry out his chaste, just, dignified social scheme, what a deal of marital discomfort might have been avoided:— would it not be advisable that a great reformer and lawgiver of our own, Mr. Robert Owen, should be presented at the Tuileries, and there propound his scheme for the regeneration of France?

He might, perhaps, be spared, for our country is not yet sufficiently advanced to give such a philosopher fair play. In London, as yet, there are no blessed Bureaux de Mariage, where an old bachelor may have a charming young maiden — for his money; or a widow of seventy may buy a gay young fellow of twenty, for a certain number of bank-billets. If mariages de convenance take place here (as they will wherever avarice, and poverty, and desire, and yearning after riches are to be found), at least, thank God, such unions are not arranged upon a regular organized SYSTEM: there is a fiction of attachment with us, and there is a consolation in the deceit (“the homage,” according to the old mot of Rochefoucauld) “which vice pays to virtue”; for the very falsehood shows that the virtue exists somewhere. We once heard a furious old French colonel inveighing against the chastity of English demoiselles: “Figurez-vous, sir,” said he (he had been a prisoner in England), “that these women come down to dinner in low dresses, and walk out alone with the men!”— and, pray heaven, so may they walk, fancy-free in all sorts of maiden meditations, and suffer no more molestation than that young lady of whom Moore sings, and who (there must have been a famous lord-lieutenant in those days) walked through all Ireland, with rich and rare gems, beauty, and a gold ring on her stick, without meeting or thinking of harm.

Now, whether Monsieur de Viel-Castel has given a true picture of the Faubourg St. Germain, it is impossible for most foreigners to say; but some of his descriptions will not fail to astonish the English reader; and all are filled with that remarkable naïf contempt of the institution called marriage, which we have seen in M. de Bernard. The romantic young nobleman of Westphalia arrives at Paris, and is admitted into what a celebrated female author calls la crême de la crême de la haute volée of Parisian society. He is a youth of about twenty years of age. “No passion had as yet come to move his heart, and give life to his faculties; he was awaiting and fearing the moment of love; calling for it, and yet trembling at its approach; feeling in the depths of his soul, that that moment would create a mighty change in his being, and decide, perhaps, by its influence, the whole of his future life.”

Is it not remarkable, that a young nobleman, with these ideas, should not pitch upon a demoiselle, or a widow, at least? but no, the rogue must have a married woman, bad luck to him; and what his fate is to be, is thus recounted by our author, in the shape of


“A lady, with a great deal of esprit, to whom forty years’ experience of the great world had given a prodigious perspicacity of judgment, the Duchess of Chalux, arbitress of the opinion to be held on all new comers to the Faubourg Saint Germain, and of their destiny and reception in it; — one of those women, in a word, who make or ruin a man — said, in speaking of Gerard de Stolberg, whom she received at her own house, and met everywhere, ‘This young German will never gain for himself the title of an exquisite, or a man of bonnes fortunes, among us. In spite of his calm and politeness, I think I can see in his character some rude and insurmountable difficulties, which time will only increase, and which will prevent him for ever from bending to the exigencies of either profession; but, unless I very much deceive myself, he will, one day, be the hero of a veritable romance.’

“‘He, madame?’ answered a young man, of fair complexion and fair hair, one of the most devoted slaves of the fashion:—‘He, Madame la Duchesse? why, the man is, at best, but an original, fished out of the Rhine: a dull, heavy creature, as much capable of understanding a woman’s heart as I am of speaking bas-Breton.’

“‘Well, Monsieur de Belport, you will speak bas-Breton. Monsieur de Stolberg has not your admirable ease of manner, nor your facility of telling pretty nothings, nor your — in a word, that particular something which makes you the most recherché man of the Faubourg Saint Germain; and even I avow to you that, were I still young, and a coquette, AND THAT I TOOK IT INTO MY HEAD TO HAVE A LOVER, I would prefer you.’

“All this was said by the Duchess, with a certain air of raillery and such a mixture of earnest and malice, that Monsieur de Belport, piqued not a little, could not help saying, as he bowed profoundly before the Duchess’s chair, ‘And might I, madam, be permitted to ask the reason of this preference?’

“‘O mon Dieu, oui,’ said the Duchess, always in the same tone; ‘because a lover like you would never think of carrying his attachment to the height of passion; and these passions, do you know, have frightened me all my life. One cannot retreat at will from the grasp of a passionate lover; one leaves behind one some fragment of one’s moral SELF, or the best part of one’s physical life. A passion, if it does not kill you, adds cruelly to your years; in a word, it is the very lowest possible taste. And now you understand why I should prefer you, M. de Belport — you who are reputed to be the leader of the fashion.’

“‘Perfectly,’ murmured the gentleman, piqued more and more.

“‘Gerard de Stolberg WILL be passionate. I don’t know what woman will please him, or will be pleased by him’ (here the Duchess of Chalux spoke more gravely); ‘but his love will be no play, I repeat it to you once more. All this astonishes you, because you, great leaders of the ton that you are, never fancy that a hero of romance should be found among your number. Gerard de Stolberg — but, look, here he comes!’

“M. de Belport rose, and quitted the Duchess, without believing in her prophecy; but he could not avoid smiling as he passed near the HERO OF ROMANCE.

“It was because M. de Stolberg had never, in all his life, been a hero of romance, or even an apprentice-hero of romance.

“Gerard de Stolberg was not, as yet, initiated into the thousand secrets in the chronicle of the great world: he knew but superficially the society in which he lived; and, therefore, he devoted his evening to the gathering of all the information which he could acquire from the indiscreet conversations of the people about him. His whole man became ear and memory; so much was Stolberg convinced of the necessity of becoming a diligent student in this new school, where was taught the art of knowing and advancing in the great world. In the recess of a window he learned more on this one night than months of investigation would have taught him. The talk of a ball is more indiscreet than the confidential chatter of a company of idle women. No man present at a ball, whether listener or speaker, thinks he has a right to affect any indulgence for his companions, and the most learned in malice will always pass for the most witty.

“‘How!’ said the Viscount de Mondragé: ‘the Duchess of Rivesalte arrives alone to-night, without her inevitable Dormilly!’— And the Viscount, as he spoke, pointed towards a tall and slender young woman, who, gliding rather than walking, met the ladies by whom she passed, with a graceful and modest salute, and replied to the looks of the men BY BRILLIANT VEILED GLANCES FULL OF COQUETRY AND ATTACK.

“‘Parbleu!’ said an elegant personage standing near the Viscount de Mondragé, ‘don’t you see Dormilly ranged behind the Duchess, in quality of train-bearer, and hiding, under his long locks and his great screen of moustaches, the blushing consciousness of his good luck? — They call him THE FOURTH CHAPTER of the Duchess’s memoirs. The little Marquise d’Alberas is ready to die out of spite; but the best of the joke is, that she has only taken poor de Vendre for a lover in order to vent her spleen on him. Look at him against the chimney yonder; if the Marchioness do not break at once with him by quitting him for somebody else, the poor fellow will turn an idiot.’

“‘Is he jealous?’ asked a young man, looking as if he did not know what jealousy was and as if he had no time to be jealous.

“‘Jealous! the very incarnation of jealousy; the second edition, revised, corrected, and considerably enlarged; as jealous as poor Gressigny, who is dying of it.’

“‘What! Gressigny too? why, ’tis growing quite into fashion: egad! I must try and be jealous,’ said Monsieur de Beauval. ‘But see! here comes the delicious Duchess of Bellefiore,’” &c. &c. &c.

Enough, enough: this kind of fashionable Parisian conversation, which is, says our author, “a prodigious labor of improvising,” a “chef-d’oeuvre,” a “strange and singular thing, in which monotony is unknown,” seems to be, if correctly reported, a “strange and singular thing” indeed; but somewhat monotonous at least to an English reader, and “prodigious” only, if we may take leave to say so, for the wonderful rascality which all the conversationists betray. Miss Neverout and the Colonel, in Swift’s famous dialogue, are a thousand times more entertaining and moral; and, besides, we can laugh AT those worthies as well as with them; whereas the “prodigious” French wits are to us quite incomprehensible. Fancy a duchess as old as Lady —— herself, and who should begin to tell us “of what she would do if ever she had a mind to take a lover;” and another duchess, with a fourth lover, tripping modestly among the ladies, and returning the gaze of the men by veiled glances, full of coquetry and attack! — Parbleu, if Monsieur de Viel-Castel should find himself among a society of French duchesses, and they should tear his eyes out, and send the fashionable Orpheus floating by the Seine, his slaughter might almost be considered as justifiable COUNTICIDE.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00