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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Parisian Society before the Revolution

By Abigail Adams Smith (1765–1813)

[Born in Braintree, Mass., 1765. Died at Quincy, Mass., 1813. Journal and Correspondence of Miss Adams. Edited by her Daughter. 1841.]

MARCH 20th. Well might the Abbé Arneau say that people in this country put their children into convents to keep them out of the influence of their manners. Mrs. —— told me last Monday when she dined here, she was going to pass the eve with Madame la Marquise de Buillye, and, added she, I suppose I shall play cards there till the morning. She said she was there the last day of the Carnival, and she stayed until two o’clock in the morning, then came away leaving the company at cards; that a gentleman who was of the party, called upon her the next day at ten, and assured her when he came away he left the company at play; she told me that the Marquis de B. went to bed, rose the next morning, went in full dress to pay his wife a visit, and found the company as he had left them! What a picture!

She adds, that there are five ladies and some gentlemen, who are of that particular party; they meet at each other’s houses five nights in the week, as constantly as the week passes; that four nights they play till morning; the other two nights they reserve for other parties; that they go to the play in the forepart of the evening, and after the play or opera is over, they meet. She said she knew a gentleman who was of all their parties, and that it was inconceivable the money he had lost this winter at play with them. These are the wives’ parties. The husbands meet at their public clubs, and have gamed until it was prohibited by the king lately. There are two of these, the saloons, and the arcander, where the first and principal men of the kingdom meet every night; they have the public papers, and all the news, and a supper, and used to play, till forbidden. There must be a formal reception, for which they pay a certain sum. These clubs are not approved of by the government of this country, and it is said they would be forbidden. But what a portrait of real life!—who could be induced to believe that human beings sacrificed their time and lives to such practices, if they were not assured of the truth of it? The picture Swift has drawn of a fashionable lady, I now believe verily true in every iota; these are the people, and these are the manners, that my father will not introduce us to; there are a few exceptions, the Marquis de la Fayette and family. I have heard madame the marquise say, that she seldom went out except into her family connections. I suppose the true reason is that the company she would go into would be of this sort, and it would not be agreeable to her. I have heard her express her disapprobation of gaming, or indeed of play; even Mrs. B. is not so pleased with it as when she first arrived. As an American lady, she might always have excused herself from playing, if she had wished it, “but,” said Mrs. ——, “I became fond of it, before the winter was over, and have won sometimes twenty guineas of an evening.” Of all practices, this is to me the most detestable.

There is scarce a greater offence against delicacy possible to be committed, than to go into company with a little powder upon your face; it is almost the criterion of indecency; but at the same time, a lady will put an ounce or two of rouge upon her face, and even think she is not dressed without it.

Mr. Williams told me an anecdote. When he first arrived in Paris, a friend of his accompanied him to dine with a lady of his acquaintance. The first thing that struck him was being introduced to the ladies’ bed-chamber, which is here as usual as it is to visit. The lady was rather in a dishabille, except her head, which was highly dressed. When dinner was served, they went into another room; after dining, they returned again to the lady’s bed-chamber; a gentleman in company took from the table an orange; while the rest of the company were taking their coffee, he was eating his orange—and, unfortunately, happened to put the peel upon the side of the chimney-piece, and after a little time went away, as is usual in this country, without taking leave. Some time after he was gone, the lady called her servant and inquired for this gentleman; the servant told her he had gone, but he had heard him order his servants to drive him to such a hotel. She ordered her servant to go and request the gentleman to return, for she wished to see him; in less than an hour the gentleman returned, begging to know her commands—when she called her servant and ordered him to take that orange peel away. This, said Mr. W., completed my wonder and astonishment.

When I dined at Dr. Franklin’s last Thursday, I asked Mr. F., by whom I was seated at table, whether the image in the centre of it represented any particular device, as I observed a crown of laurel and some figures?—he said “he believed it was Love and Hymen, an old-fashioned idea, you know,” said he; “they used to talk of such things in former times, but at present they know better.” I told him I was surprised to find it at his table, I believed it was not of his choice. He is strongly attached to the French. He told me he preferred an English lady who had acquired the graces of French manners; which, he added, were to be gained nowhere but at Paris—that was the centre, and there they were all collected and resided. I believe he was here right; there is a something not to be defined, that the French women possess, which, when it ornaments and adorns an English lady, forms something irresistibly charming.