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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

The Frenchwoman

By William Crary Brownell (1851–1928)

[Born in New York, N. Y., 1851. Died in Williamstown, Mass., 1928. French Traits. 1889.]

THE DOMESTICITY aimed at by the Spanish convent and cultivated by the Germanic hearth and chimney-corner is in no sense the object of the Frenchman’s ambition for the Frenchwoman. Here as elsewhere his social instinct triumphs over every other, and he regards the family circle as altogether too narrow a sphere for the activities of a being who occupies so much of his mind and heart, and in whose consideration he is as much concerned as she in his. To be the mother of his children and the nurse of his declining years is a destiny which, unrelieved by the gratification of her own instincts of expansion, he would as little wish for her as she would for herself. To be the ornament of a society, to awake perpetual interest, to be perpetually and universally charming, to contribute powerfully to the general aims of her environment, never to lose her character as woman in any of the phases or functions of womanly existence, even in wifehood or maternity—this central motive of the Frenchwoman’s existence is cordially approved by the Frenchman. In fact it is because he approves and insists upon it that she is what she is. It is for this reason that she devotes so much attention to dress, which in her thus, spite of those surface indications that mislead the foreigner, is almost never due to the passion for dress in itself to which similar preoccupation infallibly testifies in the women of other societies. A New York belle dresses for her rivals—when she does not, like the aborigines of her species, dress for herself alone. Mr. Henry James acutely represents the Mrs. Westgate of his “International Episode” as “sighing to think the Duchess would never know how well she was dressed.” To induce analogous regret in a Frenchwoman a corresponding masculine obtuseness would be absolutely indispensable. And this among her own countrymen she would never encounter. Her dress, then, is a part of her coquetry—one of the most important weapons in a tolerably well-stocked arsenal; but it is nothing more, and it in no degree betokens frivolity. Like her figure and her carriage it is a continual ocular demonstration and a strong ally of her instinct, her genius, for style. In these three regards she is unapproachable, and in every other attribute of style she is certainly unsurpassed. In elegance, in intelligence, in self-possession, in poise, it would be difficult to find exceptions in other countries to rival the average Parisienne. And her coquetry, which endues her style with the element of charm (of which it is, as I said, the science), is neither more nor less than the instinct to please highly developed. It is not, as certainly coquetry elsewhere may sometimes be called, the instinct to please deeply perverted. The French coquette does not flirt. Her frivolity, her superficiality, may be great in many directions—in religion, in moral steadfastness, in renunciation, in constancy, even in sensibility—but in coquetry she is never superficial; the dimly veiled, half acknowledged insincerity of what is known as flirtation would seem to her frivolous to a degree unsuspected by her American contemporary. To her as to her countrymen the relations of men and women are too important and too interesting not to be at bottom entirely serious.

In fine, to estimate the Frenchwoman’s moral nature with any approach to adequacy it is necessary entirely to avoid viewing her from an Anglo-Saxon standpoint. Apart from her milieu she is not to be understood at all. The ideals of woman in general held by this milieu are wholly different from our ideals. To see how and wherein let us inquire of some frank French friend. “We shall never agree about women,” he will be sure to admit at the outset; and he may be imagined to continue very much in this strain: “We Frenchmen have a repugnance, both instinctive and explicit, to your propensity to make companionability the essential quality of the ideal woman. Consciously or unconsciously this is precisely what you do. It is in virtue of their being more companionable, and in an essentially masculine sense, that the best of your women, the serious ones, shine superior in your eyes to their frivolous or pedantic rivals. You seem to us, in fact, to approach far more nearly than your English cousins to the ideal in this respect of your common Gothic ancestors. Your ideal is pretty closely the Alruna woman—an august creature spiritually endowed with inflexible purity and lofty, respect-compelling virtues, performing the office of a ‘guiding-star’ amid the perplexities of life, whose approval or censure is important in a thousand moral exigencies, and one’s feeling for whom is always strongly tinctured—even in the days of courtship—with something akin to filial feeling. In your daily life this ideal becomes, of course, familiarized—you do not need to be reminded that ‘familiarized’ is, indeed, an extenuating term to describe the effect upon many of your ideals when they are brought into the atmosphere of your daily life, that the contrast between American ideals and American practice frequently strikes us as grotesque. In the atmosphere of your daily life the Alruna woman becomes a good fellow. She despises girls who flirt, as you yourselves despise our dandies and our petits jeunes gens. She despises with equal vigor the lackadaisical, the hysterical, the affected in any way. She plays a good game of tennis; it is one of her ambitious to cast a fly adroitly, to handle an oar well. She is by no means a Di Vernon. She has a thoroughly masculine antipathy to the romantic, and is embarrassed in its presence. She reads the journals; she has opinions, which, unlike her inferior sisters, she rarely obtrudes. She is tremendously efficient and never poses. She is saved from masculinity by great tact, groat delicacy in essentials, by her beauty which is markedly feminine, by her immensely narrower sphere, and by Divine Providence. She is thus thoroughly companionable, and she is after all a woman. This makes her immensely attractive to you. But nothing could be less seductive to us than this predominance of companionableness over the feminine element, the element of sex. Of our women, ideal and real (which you know in France, the country of equality, of homogeneity, of averages, is nearly the same thing), we could better say that they are thoroughly feminine and that they are, after all, companionable. Indeed, if what I understand by ‘companionable’ be correct, i.e., rien que s’entendre, they are quite as much so as their American sisters, though in a very different way, it is true.

“Let me explain. The strictness of your social code effectually shuts off the American woman from interest in, and the American girl from knowledge of, what is really the essential part of nearly half of life; I mean from any mental occupation except in their more superficial aspects with the innumerable phenomena attending one of the two great instincts from which modern science has taught us to derive all the moral perceptions and habits of human life. This is explainable no doubt by the unwritten but puissant law which informs every article of your social constitution that relates to women: namely, the law that insures the precedence of the young girl over the married woman. With you, indeed, the young girl has le haut du pavé in what seems to us a very terrible degree. Your literature, for example, is held by her in a bondage which to us seems abject, and makes us esteem it superficial. ‘Since the author of “Tom Jones” no one has been permitted to depict a man as he really is,’ complains Thackeray. With you it is even worse, because the young girl exercises an even greater tyranny than in England. Nothing so forcibly illustrates her position at the head of your society, however—not even her overwhelming predominance in all your social reunions within and without doors, winter and summer, at luncheons, dinners, lawn-parties, balls, receptions, lectures, and church—as the circumstance that you endeavor successfully to keep her a girl after she has become a woman. You desire and contrive that your wives shall be virgins in word, thought, and aspiration. That this should be the case before marriage every one comprehends. That is the end of our endeavor equally with yours. In every civilized society men wish to be themselves the introducers and instructors of their wives in a realm of such real and vital interest as that of which marriage, everywhere but in your country, opens the door. But with us the young girl is constantly looking forward to becoming, and envying the condition of, a woman. That is the source of our restrictions, of our conventual regulations, which seem to you so absurd, even so dishonoring. You are saved from having such, however, by the fact that with you the young girl is the rounded and complete ideal, the type of womanhood, and that it is her condition, spiritually speaking, that the wife and even the mother emulate. And you desire ardently that they should. You do not ‘see any necessity,’ as you say in your utilitarian phraseology, of a woman’s ‘losing’ anything of the fresh and clear charm which perfumes the existence of the young girl. You have a short way of disposing of our notion that a woman is the flower and fulfilment of that of which the young girl is the bud and the promise. You esteem this notion a piece of sophistry designed to conceal our really immoral desire to rob our women of the innocence and naïveté which we insist upon in the young girl, in order that our social life may be more highly spiced. Your view is wholly different from that of your race at the epoch of its most considerable achievements in the ‘criticism of life’ and antecedent to the Anglo-Saxon invention of prudery as a bulwark of virtue. It is a view which seems to spring directly from the Puritan system of each individual managing independently his own spiritual affairs without any of the reciprocal aids and the division of labor provided for in the more elaborate scheme of Catholicism, in consequence of which each individual left in this way wholly to himself is forced into a timid and distrustful attitude toward temptation. Nothing is more noticeable in your women, thus, than a certain suspicious and timorous exclusion from the field of contemplation of anything unsuited to the attention of the young girl. It is as if they feared contamination for virtue if the attitude and habit of mind belonging to innocence were once abandoned. They probably do fear vaguely that you fear it for them, that your feminine ideal excludes it.

“Now, it is very evident that however admirable in its results this position may be, and however sound in itself, it involves an important limitation of that very companionableness which you so much insist on in your women. In this sense, the average Frenchwoman is an equal, a companion, to a degree almost never witnessed with you. After an hour of feminine society we do not repair to the club for a relaxation of mind and spirit, for a respiration of expansion, and to find in unrestrained freedom an enjoyment that has the additional sense of being a relief. Our clubs are in fact mere excuses for gambling, not refuges for bored husbands and homeless bachelors. Conversation among men is perhaps grosser in quality, the équivoque is perhaps not so delicate, so spirituelle, but they do not differ in kind from the conversational tissue in mixed company, as with you they do so widely. With you this difference in kind is notoriously an abyss. In virtue of our invention of treating delicate topics with innuendo, our mixed society gains immensely in interest and attractiveness, and our women are more intimately companionable than yours….

“Even if your women were intimately companionable they would none the less radically differ from our own; we should still reproach them with a certain masculine quality in the elevated, and a certain prosaic note in the familiar types. By masculine, I certainly do not here intend the signification you give to your derisive epithet ‘strong-minded.’ In affirming that there is a generous ampleness in the feminine quality of our women unobservable in yours, I do not mean to charge them with inferiority in what you call ‘pure mentality’; in intelligence and capacities we believe them unequalled the world over. But they are essentially less masculine in avoiding strictly all competition with men, in conserving all their individuality of sex and following their own bent. Nothing is more common than to hear American women lament their lack of opportunity, envy the opportunity of men. Nothing is rarer with us. It never occurs to a Frenchwoman to regret her sex. It is probable that almost every American woman with any pretensions to ‘pure mentality,’ feels, on the contrary, that her sex is a limitation, and wishes, with that varying ardor and intermittent energy which characterize her, that she were a man and had a man’s opportunity. In a thousand ways she is the man’s rival, which with us she never is. Hence the popularity with you of the agitation for woman suffrage, practically unknown in France….

“The difference is nowhere so luminously illustrated as in the respective attitudes of French and American women toward the institution of marriage. With us from the hour when she begins first to think at all of her future—an epoch which arrives probably much earlier than with you—marriage is the end and aim of a woman’s existence. And it is so consciously and deliberately. A large part of her conduct is influenced by this particular prospect. It is the conscious and deliberate aim also of her parents or guardians for her. They constantly remind her of it. Failure to attain it is considered by her and by them as the one great failure, to avoid which every effort should tend, every aspiration be directed. In its excess this becomes either ludicrous or repulsive as one looks at it. ‘Si tu veux te marier, ne fais jamais ça’—‘Cela t’empêchera de te marier’—who has not been fatigued with such maternal admonitions which resound in interiors by no means always of the basse classe? But the result is that marriage occupies a share of the young girl’s mind and meditation which to your young girls would undoubtedly seem disproportionate, and indeed involve a sense of shame. There is no more provision in the French social constitution than in the order of nature itself for the old maid. Her fate is eternal eccentricity, and is correspondingly dreaded among us who dread nothing more than exclusion from the sympathies of society and a share in its organized activities. Marriage once attained, the young girl, though become by it a woman, is not of course essentially changed, but only more highly organized in her original direction. You may be surprised to hear that sometimes it suffices her—as it suffices English, and used to American women; though it must be admitted that our society does not make of even marriage an excuse for exacting the sum of a woman’s activities which it is the Anglo-Saxon tendency to do, and that thus her merit is less conspicuous. If marriage do not suffice her, it is not in ‘Sorosis’ or Dorcas or Browning societies, or art or books that she seeks distraction, but in the consolation strictly cognate to that of marriage which society offers her. Accordingly, whatever goes to make up the distinctively feminine side of woman’s nature tends with us to become highly developed. It acquires a refinement, a subtlety, of organization quite unknown to societies whose ideal women inspire filial feeling. We have as a rule very few Cornelias. Our mothers themselves are far from being Spartan. The Gothic goddess is practically unknown in France. ‘Woman’s sphere,’ as you call it, is totally distinct from man’s. The action and reaction of the two which produce the occupation, the amusement, the life of society are far more intimate than with you, but they are the exact reverse of homogeneous.

“It is an inevitable corollary from this that that sentimental side which you seem to us to be endeavoring to subordinate in your more serious women, receives in the Frenchwoman that greatest of all benefits, a harmonious and natural development. Before and after marriage, and however marriage may turn for her, it is her disposition to love and her capacity for loving which are stimulated constantly by her surroundings, and which are really the measure of the esteem in which she is held. To love intensely and passionately is her ideal. It is so much her ideal that if marriage does not enable her to attain it, it is a virtue rather than a demerit in her eyes to seek it elsewhere. Not to die before having attained in its fulness this end of the law of her being is often the source of the Frenchwoman’s tragic disasters. But even when indubitable disaster arrives to her it is at least tragic, and a tragedy of this kind is in itself glorious. To remain spiritually an être incomplet is to her nearly as dreadful a fate as to become a monstrosity. Both are equally hostile to nature, and we have a national passion for being in harmony with nature. It is probably impossible to make you comprehend how far this is carried by us. Take the life of George Sand as an instance. It was incontestably the inspiration of her works, and to us it is the reverse of reprehensible, ‘for she loved much’; it is not her elopement with Musset but her desertion of him that indicates to our mind her weak side. In this way the attitude of the Frenchwoman toward love is one of perfect frankness. So far from dissembling its nature—either transcendentally or pietistically, after the fashion of your maidens, or mystically, after the fashion in the pays de Gretchen—she appreciates it directly and simply as a passion, and for her the most potent of the passions, the passion whose praise has been the burden of all the poets since the morning stars first sang together, and whose possession shares equally with the possession of superior intelligence the honor of distinguishing man from the lower animals. This is why to our women, as much as to our men, your literature, your ‘criticism of life,’ seems pale, as we say—pale and superficial. This is why we had such an engouement for your Byron and never heard of your Wordsworth. This is why we occupy ourselves so much with cognate subjects as you will have remarked.

“And the sentimental side, being thus naturally and harmoniously developed, becomes thus naturally and spontaneously the instrument of woman’s power and the source of her dignity. Through it she seeks her triumphs and attains her ends. To it is due not her influence over men—as with your inveterate habit of either divorcing the sexes into a friendly rivalry or associating them upon the old-fashioned, English, harem-like, basis, you would inevitably express it—but her influence upon society. This results in a great gain to women themselves—increases indefinitely their dignity and power. It is axiomatic that anything inevitable and not in itself an evil it is far better to utilize than to resist. Every one acknowledges the eminence of the sentimental side in woman’s nature, the great part which it plays in her conduct, the great influence it has upon her motives. And since it has, therefore, inevitably to be reckoned with, its development accomplishes for women results which could not be hoped for if sentiment were merely treated as an inevitable handicap to be modified and mitigated. Your own logic seems to us exceedingly singular. You argue that men and women should be equal, that the present regrettable inequality with you is due to the greater influence of sentiment on women’s minds in viewing purely intellectual matters (you are constantly throwing this up to your woman suffragists), and that therefore the way in which women are to be improved and elevated (as you curiously express it) is clearly by the repression of their sentiment. It is the old story: you are constantly teaching your women to envy the opportunities of men, to regret their ‘inferiority’ hitherto, and to endeavor to emulate masculine virtues by mastering their emotions and suppressing their sentiment; that is to say, you are constantly doing this by indirection and unconsciously, at least, and by betraying the fact that such is your ideal for them. You never seem to think they can be treated as a fundamentally different order of capacity and disposition. I remember listening for two hours to one of your cleverest women lecturing on Joan of Arc, and the thesis of her lecture was that there was no mystery at all about the Maid and her accomplishments, except the eternal mystery of transcendent military genius, that she was in fact a female Napoleon and that it was the ‘accident of sex’ simply that had prevented her from being so esteemed by the purblind masculine prejudice which had theretofore dominated people’s minds. Thinking of what Jeanne d’Arc stands for to us Frenchmen, of her place in our imaginations, of the way in which she illustrates for us the puissance of the essentially feminine element in humanity, I said to myself, ‘No, the Americans and we will never agree about women.’”