Laurence Sterne. (1713–1768). A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
The reader may suppose, that after so obliging a proof of courtesy, I could not be at a loss to say something handsome to the inquiry.
—Mais passé, pour cela—Speak frankly, said he: do you find all the urbanity in the French which the world give us the honor of?—I had found everything, I said, which confirmed it.—Vraiment, said the Count.—Les Franĉois sont polis.—To an excess, replied I.
The Count took notice of the word excesse; and would have it I meant more than I said. I defended myself a long time as well as I could against it—he insisted I had a reserve, and that I would speak my opinion frankly.
I believe, Monsieur le Comte, said I, that man has a certain compass, as well as an instrument; and that the social and other calls have occasion by turns for every key in him; so that if you begin a note too high or too low, there must be a want either in the upper or under part, to fill up the system of harmony.—The Count de B—— did not understand music, so desired me to explain it some other way. A polish’d nation, my dear Count, said I, makes every one its debtor; and besides, urbanity itself, like the fair sex, has so many charms, it goes against the heart to say it can do ill: and yet, I believe, there is but a certain line of perfection, that man, take him altogether, is empower’d to arrive at—if he gets beyond, he rather exchanges qualities than gets them. I must not presume to say, how far this has affected the French in the subject we are speaking of—but should it ever be the case of the English, in the progress of their refinements, to arrive at the same polish which distinguishes the French, if we did not lose the politesse du cœur, which inclines men more to human actions, than courteous ones—we should at least lose that distinct variety and originality of character, which distinguishes them, not only from each other, but from all the world besides.
I had a few of King William’s shillings as smooth as glass in my pocket; and foreseeing they would be of use in the illustration of my hypothesis, I had got them into my hand, when I had proceeded so far.—
See, Monsieur le Comte, said I, rising up, and laying them before him upon the table—by jingling and rubbing one against another for seventy years together in one body’s pocket or another’s, they are become so much alike, you can scarce distinguish one shilling from another.
The English, like ancient medals, kept more apart, and passing but few people’s hands, preserve the first sharpnesses which the fine hand of nature has given them—they are not so pleasant to feel—but, in return, the legend is so visible, that at the first look you see whose image and superscription they bear.—But the French, Monsieur le Comte, added I, wishing to soften what I had said, have so many excellences, they can the better spare this—they are a loyal, a gallant, a generous, an ingenious, and good-temper’d people as is under heaven—if they have a fault—they are too serious.
Mon Dieu! cried the Count, rising out of his chair.
Mais vous plaisantez, said he, correcting his exclamation.—I laid my hand upon my breast, and with earnest gravity assured him it was my most settled opinion.
The Count said he was mortified he could not stay to hear my reasons, being engaged to go that moment to dine with the Duc de C——.
But if it is not too far to come to Versailles to eat your soup with me, I beg, before you leave France, I may have the pleasure of knowing you retract your opinion—or, in what manner you support it.—But if you do support it, Monsieur Anglois, said he, you must do it with all your powers, because you have the whole world against you.—I promised the Count I would do myself the honor of dining with him before I set out for Italy—so took my leave.