Jean de La Bruyère (1645–1696). Characters. 1885.

Of the Town


(1.)PEOPLE in Paris, without giving any notice beforehand, and as if it were some public assignation, meet every evening on the Cours or in the Tuileiries, to stare around and criticise one another.

They cannot dispense with those very persons whom they do not like and whom they deride.

They wait for one another in these public walks, and they examine one another; carriages, horses, liveries, coats of arms, nothing escapes their gaze; everything is looked at keenly or maliciously, and they respect or contemn the persons they meet according to the greater or lesser splendour of their equipages.

(2.)Everybody knows that long bank which borders and confines the Seine where it joins the Marne on entering Paris; close by men come to bathe during the heat of the dog-days, and people at a little distance see them amuse themselves by jumping in and out of the water. Now, as long as there is no bathing, the city ladies never walk that way, and when the season is over they walk there no longer.

(3.)In those places of general resort, where the ladies assemble only to show their fine dresses, and to reap the reward for the trouble they have taken with their apparel, people do not walk with a companion for the pleasure of conversation, but they herd together to get a little more confidence, to accustom themselves to the public, and to keep one another in countenance against criticisms. They talk but say nothing, or rather they talk to be taken notice of by those for whose sake they raise their voices, gesticulate, joke, bow carelessly, and walk up and down.

(4.)The town is split up into several sets, which, like so many little republics, have their peculiar laws, customs, dialects, and jests. As long as such a set remains in force, and as long as the conceit lasts, nothing is allowed to be well said or well done which it had no hand in, and it cannot enjoy anything from strangers; it even contemns those who have not been initiated in its mysteries. An intelligent man, whom chance has thrown amongst the members of such a set, is a stranger to them: he is, as it were, in a distant country, where he is ignorant of the roads, the language, the manners and the laws; he sees a sort of people who talk, rattle, whisper, burst out laughing, and presently relapse into a gloomy silence; he does not know what to do, and can hardly tell where to put in a word, or even when to listen. Some sorry buffoon is ever at hand who is the head and, as it were, the hero of such a set, and has always to keep them merry and to make them laugh before he has uttered a single word. If at any time a woman comes amongst them, who is not one of them, these jolly fellows are amazed she does not laugh at things she cannot understand, and appears not to be amused with some nonsense they would not understand themselves, if it were not their own; they will not overlook her tone of voice, her silence, her figure, her dress, her coming or going out of the room. This same set, however, does not last two years; in the first year are already sown those seeds of division which break it up the following year; quarrels about some woman, disputes at play, extravagant entertainments, which, though moderate at first, soon degenerate into pyramids of viands and sumptuous banquets, overthrow the commonwealth, and finally give it a mortal blow, and in a little while there is no more talk about them than about last year’s flies.

(5.)There are in town lawyers belonging to the grande robe, and others to the petite robe; and the first take on the second their revenge for the contempt and the supercilious way in which they are treated by a court of justice. It is not easy to know where the grande robe begins and the petite ends; there is even a large number of lawyers who refuse to belong to the second class and who are yet not considered to be of the first; they will, however, not abandon their pretensions, but, on the contrary, endeavour, by their sedate carriage and by the money they spend, to show themselves the equals of the magistrates; they have often been heard to say that their sublime duties, the independence of their profession, their eloquence, and their personal merits, balance at least the bags of money which the sons of financiers and bankers have paid for their offices.

(6.)You are very inconsiderate to sit musing, or perhaps dosing, in your carriage. Rouse yourself, and take a book or your papers, and begin to read; and hardly return the bows of those people who pass you in their carriages, for they will believe you to be very busy, and say everywhere that you are hard-working and indefatigable, and that you read and work even in the streets or on the highroad. You may learn from a pettifogger that you should ever seem to be immersed in business, knit your brows and muse most profoundly about nothing at all; that you should not always have the time for eating or drinking, and that as soon as you are in the house you should vanish like a ghost, and betake yourself to your dark private room, hide yourself from the public, avoid the theatre, and leave that to those who run no risk in appearing there, though they have hardly the leisure for it, to the Gomons and the Duhamels.

(7.)There are a certain number of young magistrates with large estates and fond of pleasure, who have become acquainted with some of those men who are called at court “dandies;” they imitate them, behave in a manner unbecoming the gravity of a judge, and believe that on account of their youth and fortune they have no need to be discreet or passionless. They borrow from the court the very worst qualities, appropriate to themselves vanity, effeminacy, intemperance, and indecency, as if all those vices were their privilege, thus affecting a character quite the opposite to what they ought to maintain, and, in the end, according to their wishes, become exact copies of very wicked originals.

(8.)A gentleman of the legal profession is not like the same man in the city and at court; when he has returned home he resumes his natural manners, look, and gestures, which he left behind, and is no longer so embarrassed nor so polite.

(9.)The Crispins join and club together to drive out with six horses to their carriage, and with a swarm of men in livery, to which each has furnished his share; they figure at the Cours or at Vincennes as brilliantly as a newly-married couple, or as Jason who is ruining himself, or as Thraso who wishes to get married, and who has deposited the money to buy an important place.

(10.)I hear a good deal of talk about the Sannions; about “the same name, the same arms, the elder branch, the younger branch, the younger sons of the second branch; about the first bearing their arms plain, the second with a label, and the third with a bordure indented.” Their colour and metal are the same as those of the Bourbons, and, like them, they bear two and one; it is true these are not “fleurs de lis,” but they are satisfied; perhaps, in their inmost hearts, they believe their bearings as noble; at least, they are the same as those of lords of the highest rank who are quite content with them. We see them on their mourning hangings, and on the windows of their chapels, on the gates of their castle, on their justiciary pillar, where many a man is condemned to be hanged who only deserved banishment; they are visible anywhere, on their furniture and their locks, while their carriages are covered with them, and the liveries of their servants do not disgrace their escutcheon. I should like to tell the Sannions that their ostentation is too precipitate; that they should have waited at least until their race had existed a century; that those persons who knew and conversed with their grandfather are old and cannot live long, and that, after their death, no one will be able to say where he kept his shop, and what a very dear one it was.

The Sannions and the Crispins had rather be thought extravagant than covetous; they tell you a long story of a feast or a collation they gave, of their losses at play, and express aloud their regrets they have not lost more. They mention in their peculiar language certain ladies of their acquaintance; they have ever many pleasant things to tell each other, are always making new discoveries, and confide to one another their successes with the fair. One of them, coming lately to his country-house, hastens to bed, and rises with the dawn, then puts on his gaiters and a linen suit, and fastens on his belt and his powder-horn, ties back his hair, takes his gun, and is a sportsman, if he did but shoot well. He returns at night, wet and weary, without any game, but goes shooting again on the morrow, and spends the whole day in missing thrushes and partridges.

Another man speaks of some wretched dogs he has as “his pack of hounds;” he knows where the meet is held, and goes there; he is at the starting, and enters the thicket with the huntsmen, with his horn by his side; he does not ask, like Menalippus, “Do I enjoy myself?” but he thinks he does; he forgets the law and all lawsuits, and would be thought an Hippolytus. Menander, who yesterday was engaged in a lawsuit, paid him a visit, but to-day would not know again his judge. To-morrow you may see him at court, where a weighty and capital case is going to be tried; he gets his learned brethren about him, and informs them that he did not lose the stag, but that he is quite hoarse with hallooing after the hounds which lost the scent, or after those sportsmen who were at fault, and that, with half a dozen hounds, he was in at the death; but the clock strikes, and he has no more time to talk of the stag being at bay, or of the quarry: he must take his seat with the other magistrates and administer justice.

(11.)How great is the infatuation of certain men, who, being possessed of the wealth their fathers acquired by trade, which they have just inherited, imitate princes in their dress and retinue, and by excessive expenditure and ridiculous pomp provoke the remarks and sneers of the whole town they think to dazzle, and thus ruin themselves to be laughed at!

Some have not even the sorry advantage of having their follies talked about beyond their immediate neighbourhood, and the only spot where their vanity is displayed. They do not know in the Ile that André makes a figure and squanders his patrimony in the Marais. If he were only better known in town and in the suburbs, perhaps, amongst so large a number of citizens, who are not all able to judge sensibly of everything, possibly one of them might declare André has a magnificent spirit, and give him credit for his banquets to Xanthe and Ariston, and for his entertainments to Elamire; but he ruins himself obscurely, and hastens to become poor only for the sake of two or three persons, who do not esteem him in the least, and though at present he rides in his coach, in six months he will hardly be able to go on foot.

(12.)Narcissus rises in the morning to lie down at night; he spends as many hours in dressing as a woman; he goes every day to mass at the Feuillants or the Minims; is very agreeable in company, and in his parish they reckon on him to make a third man at ombre or reversis. He sits for hours together at Aricia’s, where every night he ventures his five or six golden pistoles; he never misses reading the Gazette de Hollande or the Mercure Galant; he has read Bergerac, Desmarets, Lesclache, Barbin’s stories, and some collections of poetry; he walks with the ladies on the Plaine or the Cours, and is scrupulously punctual in his visits; he will do to-morrow precisely what he has done to-day and did yesterday; thus he lives, and thus he will die.

(13.)“I have seen this man somewhere,” you’ll say, “and, though his face is familiar to me, I have forgotten where it was.” It is familiar to many other people, and, if possible, I will assist your memory. Was it on the Boulevard, in a carriage, or in the large alley of the Tuileries, or else in the dress-circle at the theatre? Was it at church, at a ball, or at Rambouillet; or, rather, can you tell me where you have not seen him, and where he is not to be met with? If some well-known criminal is going to be executed, or if there are any fireworks, he makes his appearance at a window at the town-hall; if some one enters the town in state, you see him in the reserved seats; if a carousel is ridden, he enters and takes his place on some bench; if the king gives an audience to an ambassador, he sees the whole procession, is present at the reception, and thrusts himself in the ranks when it returns. His presence is as essential at the solemn renewal of the alliance between the Swiss Cantons as that of the Lord Chancellor or the Helvetian plenipotentiaries. You see his face on the almanacks amongst the people or the bystanders; if there is a public hunt going on or a Saint Hubert, he will be present on horseback; they say to him that a camp is going to be pitched or that a review is going to be held, and off he will start for Houilles or Achères; he is very fond of the army, the militia, and war, of which he has seen a good deal, even the taking of Fort Bernardi. Chamlay knows something of marches, Jacquier of the commissariate, du Metz of the artillery, but our gentleman is a looker-on, has grown old in the service of looking-on, and is a spectator by profession; he does not do anything that a man ought to do, and he does not know anything that a man ought to know; but he boasts that he has seen everything that was to be seen, and now does not regret to die. But what a loss will his death be for the whole town! Who will inform us, as he did, that the Cours is closed, and nobody is walking there, that the pond of Vincennes has been filled up and is now a raised moat, and that no carriage will any more be upset on that spot? Who will acquaint us when there is a concert, a choral service in church, or something wonderful to be seen at the fair? Who will let us know that Beaumavielle died yesterday, and that Rochois has got a cold and will not be able to sing for a week? Who will inform us that Scapin bears the “fleur de lis” on his arms, and who is very glad he does so? Who will pronounce, with the most boastful emphasis, the name of a mere citizen’s wife, or who will be better provided with topical songs? Who will lend to the ladies the Annales Galantes and the Journal Amoureux? Who will sing at table a whole dialogue of an opera, or the madness of “Roland” in a ruelle, as well as he does? To conclude, since there are in the city and elsewhere some very foolish people as well as some dull and idle people, who have nothing to do, who will so exactly suit every one of them as he did?

(14.)Theramenes was rich and had some merit; some property was left him, and therefore he is now much wealthier and has a great deal more merit; all the women set to work to make him their gallant, and all the young girls to get him for a husband; he goes from house to house, to make the mothers believe that he is inclined to marry. As soon as he has taken his seat they withdraw, to leave full liberty to their daughters to be amiable and to Theramenes to declare his intentions. Here he is the rival of a magistrate; there he throws into the shade a military man or a nobleman. The ladies could not covet more passionately any rosy-cheeked, gay, brisk, witty young fellow, nor could he be better received; they snatch him out of one another’s hands, and can hardly find leisure to vouchsafe a smile to any other person who visits them at the same time. How many gallants is he going to defeat! how many good matches will be broken off on his account! Will he bestow his hand on the large number of heiresses who court him? He is not only the terror of husbands, but the dread of all these who wish to be so, and to whom marriage is the only resource for obtaining a sufficient sum to replace the money they paid for their official situations. A man so happy and so wealthy ought to be banished from a well-governed city, and the fair sex should be forbidden, under pain of being considered insane or degraded, to treat him better than if he were merely a person of merit.

(15.)The people in Paris commonly ape the court, but they do not always know how to imitate it; they by no means resemble it in those agreeable and flattering outward civilities with which some courtiers, and particularly the ladies, affably treat a man of merit, who possesses nothing but merit. Such ladies never inquire after that man’s means or his ancestors; they find him at court, and that is sufficient for them; they give themselves no airs, they esteem him, and do not ask whether he came in a carriage or on foot, or whether he has a post, an estate, or followers; as they are satiated with pomp, splendour, and honour, they like to recreate themselves with philosophy or virtue. If a city lady hears the rattling of a carriage stopping at her door, she is anxious to be acquainted with any person who is in it, and to be polite to him, without at all knowing him; but from her window she has caught a glance of a set of fine horses, a good many liveries, is dazzled by the numerous rows of finely gilt nails, and is very impatient to behold such a military man or a magistrate in her apartments. How well will he be received! She’ll never take her eyes off him. Nothing is lost upon her, and she has already given him credit for the double braces and springs of his carriage, which make it go easier, and she esteems him the more and loves him the better for them,

(16.)The infatuation of some city women in their wretched imitation of those at court is more offensive than the coarseness of the women of the people and the rusticity of country-women, since it is a mixture of both, and of affectation as well.

(17.)What a cunning contrivance to give during courtship valuable presents which cost nothing, and which after marriage have to be returned in kind!

(18.)It is sensible and praiseworthy in a man to spend on his nuptials one-third of his wife’s dowry; to begin with deliberately impoverishing himself by buying and collecting superfluous things; and already to take from his capital in order to pay Gaultier, the cabinet-maker, and the milliner!

(19.)Truly it is a charming and judicious custom which, in defiance of modesty and decency, and through some kind of shamelessness, compels a newly-married bride to lie on her bed for show, and to render herself ridiculous for some days, by exposing her to the curiosity of a few men and women whom she may know, or who may be strangers to her, and who hasten from all quarters of the town to look on such a sight as long as it lasts. There is nothing wanting to make this custom seem very absurd and incomprehensible, except to see it mentioned in print in some book of travels in Mingrelia.

(20.)What a painful habit and what a troublesome kind of obligation it must be for certain persons to be continually anxious of meeting one another, yet when they meet to have nothing but trifles to say to one another, and to communicate reciprocally things which were previously known to both, and of no matter of importance to either; to enter a room merely to leave it again; to go out after dinner, only to come home in the evening, highly satisfied with seeing in five hours three Swiss, a woman they hardly knew, and another they scarcely liked. Whoever will rightly consider the value of time, and how irreparable its loss is, must lament bitterly such wretched trifling.

(21.)In town, people are brought up in complete ignorance of rural and country affairs; they can scarcely distinguish flax from hemp, wheat from rye, and neither of them from meslin; they are satisfied with eating, drinking, and dressing. Do not mention to a large number of townsfolk such words as fallow-land, staddles, layers, or after-grass, if you wish to be understood, for they will not think it is their mother-tongue. Speak to some of them of measures, tariffs, taxes, and to others of appeals, petitions, decrees, and injunctions; for they know the world, and above all, what is ugly and vulgar in it; but they do not know Nature, its beginning, growth, gifts, and bounteousness. Their ignorance often is voluntary, and based on the conceit they have of their own callings and talents. There is not a low pettifogger in his dark and grimy room, his brain teeming with the most wicked legal quibbles, who does not prefer himself to a husbandman, who, blest of Heaven, cultivates the land, sows when it is needed, and gathers a rich harvest; and if at any time the former hears mention made of the first men or the patriarchs, their rural lives and their husbandry, he wonders how people could have been living in those days without lawyers, commissioners, presidents, or solicitors, and cannot understand how they could ever have done without rolls-offices, courts of judicature, and refreshment-rooms.

(22.)When the Roman emperors were making their triumphal entries, they never protected themselves in a more effeminate, easy, and efficacious manner against the wind, the rain, the dust, and the sun, than the citizens of Paris do when they are driven from one end of the town to another. What a difference between their habits and the mules on which their forefathers rode! The latter did not know how to deprive themselves of the necessaries of life to get superfluities, nor to prefer show to substance; their houses were never illuminated with wax-candles, and they never warmed themselves by a little fire, for in their time such candles were only used at the altar and in the Louvre; they never ate a bad dinner in order to keep a carriage; they were convinced that men had legs given them to walk, and they did walk. In dry weather they kept themselves clean; in wet they did not mind to dirty their shoes and stockings, and to cross a street or passage with the same alacrity as a sportsman rides over ploughed fields, or a soldier gets wet in the trenches. They had not then invented the harnessing of two men to carry them in a Sedan chair; then several magistrates walked to the two courts, and with as good a grace as Augustus formerly went on foot to the Capitol. Pewter in those days shone on the tables and the sideboards, brass and iron in the chimneys, whilst silver and gold lay safe in coffers. Women were then waited on by women, and there were even women in the kitchen. Such fine names as “governor” and “governess” were not unknown to our forefathers, for they knew to whom the children of kings and of great princes were intrusted; but their children had the same servants they had, and they themselves were satisfied to superintend their education. Everything they did was calculated; their expenses were in proportion to their means; their liveries, their carriages, their furniture, their household expenses, their town and country houses were all in accordance with their incomes and their station in life. Outward distinctions existed, however, amongst them, so that it was impossible to mistake the wife of an attorney for the wife of a judge, and a commoner or a mere servant for a nobleman. Less desirous to spend or enlarge their patrimony than to keep it, they left it entire to their heirs, led a tranquil life, and died a peaceful death; then, there was no complaint of hard times, of excessive misery, of scarcity of money; they had less than we have, and yet they had enough, richer through their economy and their moderation than through their incomes or estates. To conclude, in former days people observed this maxim, that what is splendour, pomp, and magnificence in nobles of high rank, is extravagance, folly, and stupidity in private gentlemen.