The creation of the Directory. Nymphs and Merveilleuses.
The Frenchwoman of the century; fashions – manners – usages by Octave Uzanne, 1886.
The nineteenth century awakes
Allow it, for it is the truth; our nineteenth century awakes, is born on the morrow of the 9 Thermidor. Under the Directory, which was, it was wittily said, as the Regency of the Revolution, French society reforms itself in oblivion of the past, carelessness of the future, and the most utter epicurism of the present. Logically, we may say that the frontier of the eighteenth century is cleared, and that a new era commences with all the transformations of manners, language, and customs which mark the normal evolution of France towards a new regime. The public spirit was reposing after the terrible nightmare of the Terror, and one might believe for a moment in the intoxication of that sudden lull, in a complete popular appeasement, in a serious political reparation and a true civil renovation.
Tableau de Paris
Mercier, who then was writing a new Tableau de Paris *, declares that all is changed. “Luxury comes out more brilliant than ever from the smoking ruins, the culture of arts takes again all its lustre; literature, too, whatever one may say, suffered but a passing eclipse… .“ Shows have taken to them again their pomp, and the fashions are again the chief object of idolatry.
“From all parts of the social body,” he continues, “new opulent men have been seen to emerge, and with them gold and riches: so that at the first glance it might be said that the great evils were repaired; but it is not so.“
Paris being a town essentially commercial, essentially skilled, essentially composed of taverns, it might be believed that for her the misfortune which is no longer has never been.
The reaction of Thermidor
A brilliant surface disguises the plaints and veils the murmurs. Luxury is like a spirituous liquor which entirely intoxicates the spirits; and I know not what mobility in opinion makes every one attach himself, for his part, to a sort of epicurism which lets the world slide on, thinking only of the present moment.
“The present moment,” says Mercier at the conclusion of his preface, “already makes an astonishing and perfect contrast with that of servitude, of terror, of disruption of families, of tears and of blood. “If all the disastrous circumstances are not forgotten in the midst of our feasts and our pleasures, they are covered with a curtain which one fears to raise, or rarely raises.” (1)
No contemporary judgment is more exact or more clear than this. The citizen Mercier sums up in it in a marvellous manner the state of men’s spirits in the first days of the Directory. The most perfect anarchy succeeded the “National Razor;” the Revolution had destroyed all, even the empire of women; the clubs, the assemblies of the street had caused to disappear even the last traces of the assembly rooms; all French spirit, grace and finesse seemed to have been submerged in the bloody deliriums of the crowd. The reaction of Thermidor had to create, to institute everything new; it had also the honour to efface the last monstrous recollections of the Terror.
So it is not astonishing to see everywhere the resurrection of pleasure, games and joy, after so long constraint; confusion is in all places; one feels that one lives in a moral interregnum: folly, forgetfulness, drunkenness, abandonment of oneself with facility and without regard for the means, is the order of the day. Woman, above all, knows that she has regained her most charming rights. Nothing had revolted her more, as the citizen Thérémin (2) remarks, than that absurd attempt of the Revolution which was for introducing into our manners the severity or the ferocity of the social laws of the first Romans. Terrified by that austerity calling itself republican, our Frenchwomen strove to give birth to a corruption greater even than that under the monarchy; to reassure us for ever against those false Spartan rigours; they wished only to please, and their seductive power was more mighty than any amount of rigid decrees, than the majority of the measures taken in order to establish virtue and morality.
The creation of the Directory
The creation of the Directory replaced woman on the mythologic throne of the Graces and the Loves, made her the mad queen of a society, panting, feverish, agitated, resembling a fair open to all appetites, to all low passions, to stockjobbing, to loves by auction, to every kind of trade which excluded sentiment, “Look into the drawing-rooms,” write the MM. de Goncourt; (3) “glance over the street: the public promenades, the public balls, these are the drawing-rooms of the Directory, drawing-rooms of equality, with wide open folding doors for every one that comes, for every one that can pay. Pleasure was nothing but a small family feast: it is now a brotherly repast! no more caste! no more rank! All the world amuses itself together and in the open air! society is only at home when not at home! The young girl dances with the first comer; actresses and wives of directors, spouses and courtesans elbow and cross one another! … noise, movement, meetings! It is delicious, it is incredible.”
Letters of a Mameluke
But the art of living, the art of pleasing, the exquisite politeness, that happy mixture of regard and deference, of anticipation and delicacy, of confidence and respect, of ease and modesty, as it is phrased in the Letters of a Mameluke ? Politeness ? it is no longer aught but a prejudice: young men address women with their hats on; does an old man anticipate their requests, the young men ridicule the worthy fellow. You pick up a woman’s fan, she has no word of thanks; you salute her, she returns not your salute. She passes on, ogling the fine youngsters, laughing in the face of the deformed. The woman of the Directory seems to have materialised her spirit and “animalised” her heart; no more sentimentalism, scented and delicate gallantries, but in every meeting direct exchanges of proposals which bring about hasty couplings. It is no longer the forbidden fruit in this paradise of paganism; all the tactics of love consist in provoking desire and satisfying it as quickly as possible. One conjugates the verb after the caprice of the moment: I want you, you want me, we want each other, never passing on to the impersonal, preferring to arrive at once at the imperfect or the past definite. Divorce is there to untie the bonds of those tortured by jealousy, the cynicism of the time has made these delicacies rare. Marriage is no more considered, save as, according to the terrible expression of Cambaceres in the Code, “Nature in action;” that civil act is held but temporary, incompatibility of humour unbinding those whom physical agreements had united.
“From husband to husband” say, strangely enough, the historians of the Directory, “the woman wanders, pursuing her happiness, unbinding and rebinding her girdle. She circulates as a pretty piece of merchandise; she is spouse so long as she is not tired of it; she is mother while it amuses her … . The husband runs from the arms of one to the arms of another, demanding a concubine in a wife, and the satisfaction of his appetite in continual marriages. Divorce occurs for a mere nothing … marriage is its prelude; the husband has no jealousy of the past, the wife has no shame. It seems that the marriages of that time took their model in a stud where a trial is allowed.”
- (1) Paris pendant la Revolution. Preamble of 10 frimaire, an VII.
- (2) Thérémin, De la condition des femmes, an VII. (Amazon: De la condition des femmes dans les Républiques, 1799, Charles-Guillaume Théremin; préface de Marie-France Silver. Published 1996 by Indigo & Côté-femmes éditions in Paris.)
- (3) E. and J. de Goncourt, Histoire de la société française pendant le Directoire, ch. iv. (Free Ebook: Goncourt, Edmond de, 1822-1896; Goncourt, Jules de, 1830-1870)
Source: The Frenchwoman of the century; fashions – manners – usages, by Octave Uzanne (1852-1931). Illustrations in water colours by Albert Lynch (1851–1912). Engraved in colours by Eugène Gaujean (1850-1900). London, John C. Nimmo, 14, King William Street, Strand, W.C. 1886.
- With his “Tableau de Paris,” Louis-Sébastien Mercier has discovered the city as a social cosmos and described with empathetic devotion and sharp wit. A fascinating insight into the literary life in Paris before the Revolution. Mercier is the first big-city reporter in history. Read online as free eBook: Tableau de Paris by Louis-Sébastien Mercier. Volume 1., Volume 2., Volume 3., Volume 4., Volume 5-6.,
Read more about Louis-Sébastien Mercier (free eBooks)
Louis XIV. , Louis XV. , Louis XVI., Baroque, Rococo, Directoire, French Revolution, Regency, Empire, Restoration or Romanticism fashion era. German Biedermeier.
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