THE PARISIAN LADY. FEMME COMME IL FAUT.
By Honoré de Balzac, 1840.
PASSING along, in certain quarters of Paris, some fine morning between the hours of two and five, you observe a Lady approaching. The first glance is like the preface to some charming book,-it presents to you a world of things graceful and elegant! As the botanist detects among the hills and valleys some choice and unexpected prize, so you, amid Parisian vulgarities, have encountered a rareand exquisite blossom! It is the PARISIAN LADY!-the “FEMME COMME IL FAUT.”
Either the “cynosure” is accompanied by two distinguished-looking men,-one, at least, decorated with “an order:” or she is followed, at short distance, by a servant in undress livery. She wears no dazzling colors, no elaborately carved zone or buckle; no embroidered flounce is seen waving over her instep; on her feet are shoes of prunella, the sandals crossing a cotton stocking of exceeding fineness, or a plain silk one of soberest grey; or else she wears a delicate boot of the simplest character.
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Her gown is of a stuff well chosen, but of no great cost; yet its style and fashion shall attract you, and excite the envy of many a city-bred dame; it is usually a wrapper, fastened with knots or bows, and prettily edged with a cord that is but slightly perceptible. She has a manner, all her own, of folding around her a cloak or shawl, which she arranges about her neck and shoulders with a sort of bridling curvet that would convert a bourgeoise into a hunchback, but which, in her, is made to indicate the most exquisite proportions of form-even in the very act of veiling them. But how is this done? Ah! that is her secret; and she keeps it without requiring the protection of a patent.
Poets, artists, lovers! all ye who worship Ideal Beauty, that mystic Rose of Genius happily unrevealed to the mere creatures of common life,-hover round and admire this flower of loveliness-at once so judiciously concealed, and so skillfully displayed!
The coquette! -observe her! Her walk is a kind of waving and harmonized motion, that makes her soft and dangerous form to quiver beneath its draperies, as at mid-day the serpent goes gliding through the trembling grass. Is it to a demon or an angel that she owes the graceful undulation, mantling beneath her long scarf of black silk, agitating the lace of its edge, and scattering around a breath of balm that I would fain call the Zephyrine of the “Parisienne?” You perceive about her arms, waist, and throat, a display of “science in folds,” that compels the most restive material into classic drapery, and reminds you of the antique Mnemosyne! Ah! how well she understands the eloquence of motion! -Observe her manner of advancing the foot, and thus moulding her dress with so exact a propriety, that she excites an admiration-which dares be nothing warmer, only because restrained by the profoundest respect.
An Englishwoman essaying such a step, has the air of a grenadier dashing forward to attack a redoubt. To the Parisian Lady be the honor and the glory of the perfect walk! Yes, the civic power did well to accord her the smooth asphalte of the “trottoir”-it was her due! Your bright Unknown displaces no passer-by; but waits with a proud humility till all have made way! The look of distinction peculiar to a highly-bred woman, is noted more especially in her mode of crossing her shawl or mantle over her bosom. She displays, even in walking, an air of serene self-possession that brings before you the Madonnas of Raphael in their frames. Her attitude-at once dignified and composed-compels the most insolent ” dandy” to move out of her path. Her bonnet, of the simplest form, has the freshest ribands imaginable. Flowers, perhaps, or feathers? No! flowers invite too many gazers; and feathers demand a carriage. Beneath this head-dress, you find the fresh and tranquil face of a woman self-assured, yet not to fatuity; who looks at nothing, but sees everything; whose vanity, half annihilated by repletion, has given to her expression a sort of indifference that piques one’s curiosity; she knows that all eyes follow her; she knows that all, even of her own sex, will turn round to watch her steps. Thus she traverses Paris, a vestal shining in the Purity-OF HER TACT.
But this beautiful genus loves only the warmest latitudes – the most select longitudes of Paris. You will find it between the 20th and the 116th arcade of the Rue Rivoli, under the line of the Boulevards, from the glowing equator of the Panoramas, where flourish the productions of the Indies, where burst into blossom the most richly elaborated products of industry, even to the Cape of the Madeleine, or to those least impure lands of citizendium, between the numbers 30 and 150 of the Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré.
During the winter, she prefers the platform of the Feuillants to the pavement of bitumen that borders it. Ay, and this bird of beauty may also be seen floating along the avenue of the Champs-Élysées, limited by the Place Louis Quinze (Place de la Concorde) on the east, on the west by the avenue of Marigny, on the south by the Chaussée, and on the north by the gardens of the Faubourg St. Honoré, but never in the hyperborean regions of the Rue St Denis; never in the Kamschatka of the commercial districts; and in bad weather, you will find her-nowhere. These Parisian flowers bloom only for the morning hours; then only do they perfume the promenades; but five o’clock once passed, they fold up, as doth the lily of the day.
The women you see at a later hour, having a slight resemblance to those just described, and seeking to ape them in all things, are of sadly opposite habits and character, whilst the beautiful Unknown-your Beatrice of the day-is the true Parisian lady, the femme comme il faut. Strangers find it difficult to recognize the differences, by which our practiced observers distinguish them, for woman is an admirable actress; but the Parisian is not to be deceived;-a fastening ill concealed-lacings showing their net-work through a yawning cleft in the back of the dress-shoes frayed, or ill-fitted-bonnet ribands just escaped from the smoothing-iron -a gown too much inflated-a “manner of being” -too stiffly starched! You will observe an affected lowering of the eyes-a sort of studied conventionalism in the whole attitude.
As to the city-bird, the Bourgeoise, it were impossible for us to confound her with the exquisite Parisian Lady; she is an admirable foil to this enchantress, and explains clearly the charm that your Beatrice has thrown around you. The Bourgeoise has a busy look- she goes- she comes- she peers well about her- she trots to purpose -does not know exactly whether she will, or will not enter a shop. The Lady “comme il faut” knows perfectly what she desires, or will do. The Bourgeoise is undecided; she tucks up her gown to cross the gutters-nay, absolutely drags a child by the hand, which compels her to look out for the coaches. She parades her maternity to the public eye, and cordially chatters to her offspring. It is evident that she has money in her rush-made reticule, and transparent stockings are upon her feet! In winter, she wears a boa over her fur tippet-in summer, both shawl and scarf. Your city dame is skilled to admiration in the redundancies of dress!
But your Beatrice-you will find her again (if you have the requisite qualification.) at “the Italians” -the opera-a ball-where she is seen under an aspect so different, that you would say- “Here are two creations without analogy.” The woman has come forth from her vestments of mystery like a butterfly from its silken cone. She now serves up as a delicacy, to your enraptured eyes, those contours that in the morning the involutions of her drapery scarcely permitted you to divine. At the theatre, she will not be found beyond the second boxes, except at “the Italians;” you may there study at your leisure the refined deliberation of her every movement. Adorable deceiver! She makes use of a thousand little artifices of feminine policy, with an appearance of nature that excludes all idea of premeditation or art. Has she a royally beautiful hand? The most astute observer shall believe it absolutely needful that she twist, remodel, put back, or move forward the very ringlet, or tress, she caresses or torments.
It shall seem to you that she does but seek to infuse irony, or give grace to the remark just making to her neighbor-while she is really taking the precise position for producing that magic effect of a half-vanishing profile so delighted in by great painters-the light reposing on the cheek-a clear line designating the nose, the delicate rose-tint of the illuminated and transparent nostril- the brow designed with a vivid keenness-the look of fire directed into the distance, while a beam of light points admirably the white roundness of the chin. If she have a pretty foot, she will throw herself on a divan with the coquetry of a cat in the sun, her feet peeping from beneath her drapery. Yet shall you find in her attitude as delicious a model as was ever given by Lassitude to the statuary!
It is only the Parisian “Lady” who displays perfect ease in, her dress. She suffers nothing to constrain her. You never can surprise her, as you might the Bourgeoise, arranging a disorderly epaulette – compelling obedience from a rebellious girdle – observing if the tucker continues a faithful guardian to its trust or consulting a glass as to the arrangement of her hair. Her toilette is in perfect keeping with her character: she has had time to study it, and decide on what becomes her; what does not become her she has known long, and well.
To be a woman of this exquisite fashion does not require great talent, but it does require great taste. Your fair one always disappears before the conclusion of the performance; if by chance she shows herself on the red steps of the staircase, she is then a prey to some violent emotion; she is there for a purpose; she has some stealthy look to give, some promise to receive; perhaps she descends thus slowly to satisfy the vanity of some slave-whom she sometimes obeys in her turn.
If your meeting be at a ball or evening party, your ear will eagerly and rapidly gather the sweetness, real or affected, of her skillfully modulated voice: you will be delighted with every word – “signifying nothing,” perhaps, but to which she communicates the efficacy of deep thought by a skill inimitable: the mind of this woman is the triumph of an art entirely plastic; you know nothing, you retain nothing, exactly, of all that she says; but you shall be charmed,- spellbound, nevertheless. She shakes her head, shrugs gracefully her ivory shoulders, gilds the most insignificant phrase by an incipient smile or pretty pout, and utters an epigram of Voltaire’s with a gesture-an “ah!” – or a “there” “and then!”
An air of the head becomes the most active interrogation- there is eloquence in the movement that balances her Cassolette as it hangs by a ring to her finger; it is the artificially great, resulting from the superlatively small: she drops her hand with a noble grace, suspending it from the arm of her chair, where it hangs like a dewdrop on the edge of a flower,- and behold!- all is said!- she has pronounced a judgment, from which there is no appeal, and which might animate the most insensible. She listens to you; she affords you opportunity for being spiritual- and I appeal to your modesty, are not such occasions rare? In her presence you are shocked by no inharmonious thought, while you cannot talk for half an hour with a “Bourgeoise,” but she will bring her spouse before you in one form or another. Should your Beatrice be married, she has the delicacy so closely to veil her husband, that the scrutiny of a Columbus would not discover him; unassisted you could never do it. But you may observe her, towards the close of the evening, looking fixedly at some distinguished person of middle age: her carriage is ordered-she departs; and you bear to your pillow the golden fragments of a delicious dream, that will probably continue when the heavy hand of sleep shall have opened the ivory door of Fancy’s temple.
At home, this creature of bright imaginings is not visible, on her receiving days, until four. She has the prudence to make you wait. In her house everything is in the best taste,-the very staircase breathes a cordial warmth, habits of luxury pervade her every moment, and are refreshed with unerring judgment? The costly trifles of the day are scattered in profusion, but seek not to compete with a museum of curiosities. No object of beauty is obscured by glass, cases of glass, or odious envelopes affixed by way of safeguard. Bright flowers rejoice the eyes on every side,- flowers, the only present she accepts- nor this, but from the selected few: flowers live not beyond the day, give pleasure, and require to be renewed; these are to her, as they are in the East, a symbol and a promise. You will find her at her fireside seated on her causeuse, from whence she salutes you without rising: her conversation is no longer that of the ball; there it was your duty to amuse her-in her own house, it is her affair that you be entertained. How delicate are these shades ;-the Parisian Lady comprehends them to perfection.
She values you as one who is to increase her circle of society,- a paramount object of solicitude with her: thus to fix you in her drawing-room she will exert a thousand wiles- it is in her own house that you feel how completely isolated is the woman of our day, and why it is that each desires to be the sun of her sphere-the one luminary of the world she lives for.
Conversation is an impossibility without generalities; the epigram-that volume in a word-no longer turns, as it did in the 18th century, on persons or things, but on the most trifling events, and it perishes with the moment of its birth. The talent of the Parisian lady, if she have any, consists in throwing doubts on all things, while that of the Bourgeoise is to support and maintain them; this constitutes one great distinction between these two women. The Bourgeoise is unquestionably virtuous. The Parisian Lady is not sure that she is so, either in reference to the present or the future; she hesitates and resists, precisely where the other refuses-this indecision, as to all and everything, is one of the last graces which the existing state of society has left her.
She goes rarely to church, but will talk to you of religion, and even seek to convert you, should you indulge in fashionable incredulity, for you will thus have given occasion to those pretty airs, those graceful gestures, those formal phrases, so delightful in every woman. “Ah! shame on you! I thought you too high minded to attack religion!- what! you see society crumbling around us, and would remove its latest prop; but do you not perceive that religion, in these days, is our all-nay, our very selves-it is you-us,-our property, and the future existence of our children. Ah! do not let us be egotists! Selfishness is the vice of the age, and religion is its only corrective; it is that alone which unites those whom your laws tend to separate.”
Such will be her exclamations. She will enter on a seriopolemical homily, well sprinkled with political notions, and neither Catholic nor Protestant, but moral! oh, supremely moral! and you shall find it a perfect specimen of tissue, woven out of all the various modern doctrines, however opposed and irreconcilable they may be. Her lecture will manifest that she represents no less the confusion Intellectual, than the confusion Political of the day, just as she is surrounded externally by the brilliant but fragile products of an industry, ever busied in destroying its own works for the sole purpose of reproducing them.
You leave her, saying to yourself, “She certainly has superiority of mind!” – and you think this all the more, because she has sounded the depths of your own heart with a most tender and delicate plummet. She has fathomed your secrets by appearing ignorant that she can learn them; but there are some things she never knows, however profoundly she may be acquainted with them. One thought alone disturbs you- you know nothing of her heart! The “great ladies” of old times threw no veils over the features of their lovers-they were posted up-announced, – universally known: but now-a-days, “the Lady” has her “preference” ruled like music paper, with its minims, crotchets, quavers, sharps, flats, organ stops, and what not. Weak woman! she sports with the lightning! she will compromise neither her husband nor the welfare of her children -but neither will she give up her lover!- In our age, name and station are no longer held in respect sufficient to shelter those they dignify.
The whole body of the Aristocracy will not now stand forward as a screen for the woman who has erred. “La femme comme il faut” cannot, like the “great lady” of by-gone days, march on by main force: she can trample no one under foot-it is herself who may be trampled on: hence she becomes a combination of jesuitical half-measures, and most ambiguous distinctions: carefully guarding all outward proprieties, she steers her slight bark among the breakers-the breath of the passions stealing none the less through her sails. This woman, so unfettered in the ball-room, so attractive on the promenade, is a slave in her home, and possesses independence only in her closet or her thoughts: she desires to be considered a model of propricty, and to seem so is her perpetual study;-she dreads her servants as an Englishwoman fears Doctors’ Commons; for a woman now-a-days, if separated from her husband, may be reduced to some trifling annuity, and then, divested of all luxury, without a carriage, a box at the opera, or the deifying accessories of the toilet, she has no longer place or position-she becomes a nobody-a mere non-entity?
The Lady, therefore, may give occasion to many whispers, but never to open condemnation. She is something between English hypocrisy and the graceful frankness of the 18th century. She forms part of a false system, that indicates a period when nothing which follows resembles that which departs, and the transitions of which lead to no results; wherein all striking features are effaced, slight shades alone remain, and all distinctions are purely personal. In my opinion, it were impossible that any woman, were she next of kin to the very throne, should acquire, before her 25th year, that universal knowledge of nothings, that science of contrivances, those important trifles-great little things-those serpentine inflections of voice, those harmonies of color, those angelic devilries, those innocent villanies, the eloquence and silence, the seriousness and bantering, the tact and stupidity, the refined policy and unconscious ignorance which constitute “la femme comme il faut.” Certain indiscreet persons have asked us if a literary lady be a lady “comme il faut?” If she have genius-yes, possibly: if not-she is then a lady such as- we must decline to describe.
And now what is this woman?-whence comes she?-to what family does she belong? We reply, she must take the position which the revolution has given to her; she is essentially a modern creation, a triumph of the elective system, applied to the fair sex. Each revolution has its pass-word, a word by which it depicts itself, and wherein its spirit is made manifest; to explain certain words, added from age to age to the French language, would be to write a magnificent history: “organize,” for example, is a word of the Empire,-it is Napoleon concentrated! For nearly half a century we have been aiding and assisting the ruin of all social distinctions; we ought to have saved our women from this prodigious wreck; but the Civil Code has crushed them, too, in its progress!- The “Great Lady” -is dead; she has expired with her gorgeous solemnities of the past century-her powder, patches, high-heeled shoes, and well-stiffened stays, all bedizened with bows. A Duchess goes now through all doors without having anyone of them enlarged for the passage of her hoop; in short, the Empire saw the last of the “long-trained gowns.” I have yet to learn why the Sovereign, who chose to sec his court swept by satins and velvets, did not establish, by some irrevocable law, the right of primogeniture for, at least, certain families.
Napoleon did not foresee the application of the code he so gloried in-in creating Duchesses, he gave birth only to our “femmes comme il faut.” -they resulted from his legislation, and may be called its “mediate product.” The splendors of the social state have been demolished. Now-a-days, every booby who is competent to carry a head upright above his collar, to cover his broad chest with half an ell of satin by way of cuirass, display a brow with certain suspicious signs of apocryphal genius beneath curling locks, balance himself on shining pumps, surmounted by silk stockings at five shillings a pair, and hold his eye-glass between a frontal arch and distorted cheek, though he be a lawyer’s clerk, the heir of a contractor, or a banker’s son (with the bend sinister on his shield), may yet stare impertinently at the loveliest Duchess.
But what are the causes of this state of things? Let us see. A Duke of-what you please-under Louis XVIII. or Charles X., with 200,000 francs a year, a magnificent hotel and well-appointed household, might be still an important personage- (the last of these great French nobles, the Prince de Talleyrand, has just died.) This duke leaves four children, of whom two are daughters;- now, supposing all were married, neither of his heirs has more than 100,000 francs a year: each is the parent of several children, consequently is obliged to live in a mere “apartment” on the ground or first floor of some house, and that with the closest economy, or is even occupied, perhaps, in seeking “a fortune.” Henceforward the wife of the eldest son is Duchess only in name,-she has neither equipage, servants, opera box, nor even leisure-for she nurses her babies, buys their dear little stockings, and educates her daughters, whom she no longer sends to a convent. The most noble among our women is thus become a respectable housewife-she is buried as completely in the duties of her married life, as the woman of the Rue St. Denis in her shop affairs-our era has none of the beautiful flowers of womankind which adorned the “great ages.” The fan of the “great lady” is broken; it is not now, as it once was, the efficient auxiliary of the Graces, because Woman has half laid aside her airs; she has not now to bridle, blush, whisper, advance, or retire, as a kind of “parade exercise” necessary to be gone through: no-the fan is used but to agitate the air; and when a thing becomes applicable only to a purpose for which it was intended, it is too useful to be any longer a luxury.
All things in France have thus conspired to give influence to our “femme comme il faut.” The aristocracy assented to her government by retiring to their distant seats, where they hide themselves to die. The women who might have mould cd the manners of Europe-commanded opinion and fitted it as their glove-ruled the world by governing its rulers-the men of resource,-of thought,-they have committed the error of abandoning the field, because ashamed at having to contend with the middle classes, who, intoxicated with power, have thrown themselves into the arena to be torn in pieces, perhaps, by the brute multitude that is following rapidly in their steps. Thus, when the citizen goes to look at a princess, he perceives only a young person “comme il faut,” No prince can, now-a-days, find “great ladies” to compromise; he cannot now render illustrious the object of his choice; the Duke de Bourbon was the last who attempted to exert this privilege, and heaven only knows what it cost him. In these dreary times even princes themselves must be content with- “des femmes comme il faut”- each holding her opera box, merely in common with some half 11 dozen friends, and whom royal favor does not elevate a hair’s breadth. No; she glides along silently between the stream of the noble and the city-born, neither altogether the one, nor yet wholly of the other.
The Press has taken the place of the Woman; it has become heir to that which was hers. She is no longer the speaking oracle! fair medium of delicious slanders in drapery of silken words. We have now Written Diaries, and these in a patois changing every third year,-gazettes, graceful as an orangoutang, amusing as a death’s head, and light as the lead of their types? French conversations are now made in revolutionary Iroquois from one end of France to the other, by long columns printed in ancient mansions, where the press groans and gnashes its teeth in halls, once hallowed by the brightest forms, and consecrated by discourse the most brilliant.
The knell of high society is sounding! Do you hear it?- the first stroke is the modern phrase of “La femme comme il faut;”- this woman, proceeding from the ranks of nobility, or put forward by the Bourgeoisie, coming indifferently from all parts, capital or province, is the type of the actual time-a last image of good taste, talent, grace, and distinction united, but all lessened and degenerated. We shall see no more “great ladies” in France, but there will long exist “des femmes comme il faut,” sent by public opinion into a feminine Chamber of Peers, and which will be for the fair sex what the distinction of “Gentleman” is in England. And this is progress!
Formerly, a woman might have the voice of a fish-seller, the stride of a grenadier, the brow of the boldest courtesan, a thick and heavy hand, and the foot of an elephant,-she was none the less a “Great Lady”-but now, were she a Montmorency (if the daughter of a Montmorency could be so degenerate,) she would be no longer “une femme comme il faut.”
Source: Pictures of the French by Jules Janin. A SERIES OF LITERARY AND GRAPHIC DELINEATIONS OF FRENCH CHARACTER. BY JULES JANIN, BALZAC, CORMENIN, AND OTHER CELEBRATED FRENCH AUTHORS. WITH UPWARDS OF TWO HUNDRED AND THIRTY ENGRAVINGS, DRAWN ON THE WOOD BY GAVARNI, H. MONNIER, AND MEISSONIEK, AND ENGRAVED BY LAVIEILLE, ETC. LONDON: Wm, S. ORR AND CO., PATERNOSTER ROW. 1840.