Small talk in the van.

The Frenchwoman of the century; Fashions – Manners – Usages, by Octave Uzanne.


DIFFICULTIES enough of all kinds there are to be overcome in the domain of artistic productions, but I believe, from my own personal experience, that there are none more arduous, more insurmountable, more discouraging than those which surge at every instant, at every turn of the leaf, in the making up of a handsome book, conceived in a fashion apart from the common style and from ordinary routine.

In every innovation dreamed over, ripened, incubated during long hours, numerous details remain in the perfidious penumbra of theories; and so, when we come to practice, to material execution, everything threatens to sink through in the incredible and indescribable complexity of the different transformations necessitated by the faithful reproduction of an original illustration. It seems, too, that everything betrays the director of the work, from time to interpreters, that everything comes in opposition to caressed projects, and that absolute harmony is impossible in the concourse of talents which he calls to his aid.
One desires to perfect an exceptional book, and imagines he can inspire with his ideas, his ardours, his pushings towards the regions of the beautiful a whole world of executants, and then is vexed to encounter involuntary defections, mediocre results, which arise often from this oddity, that the artist was too much of a workman and that the workman felt himself too much of an artist. Ah! the wings of wax which bear us toward the ideal melt at the first sun of human realities and cause us to fall, broken by our efforts, bruised by our fall, into that eternal sheep-walk of the commonplace and the very near.

The public which seeks, not without reason, the coquettish, the gracious, the amiable, in every case in preference to the correct, the severe, the impeccable, in the familiar decoration of a volume, which loves a flirting look at the vignettes rather than to take possession of the very body of the work — the public, which is ignorant almost always of the processes of manufacture as well as of the researches infinitely combined for the happy disposition of a text or the matching and favourable marriage of colours, that same public, in fine, which judges with a cool eye, inexorably practical, the work which is presented to it, will never know what this pretty thing which it favours with its attention has cost of cares, of fatigues, of solicitudes, and of despairs.
A book! — who ever would imagine it? it is written, printed, stitched together, and sold at a shop.

In truth—since this lady, under the figure of an ornamental letter, seems to be rising here quite naked and enamoured of my inkstand,— I must confess that this publication of a volume de luxe is not so rudimentary, not so accessible, especially to the first comer, and that its gestation is long and incredibly feverish. The result of its success is rarely found in relation with the bustle it has excited; it is an ungrateful child one has given birth to, and transforms not in truth into vain prettinesses even, at a reasonable reckoning, all the artistic riches and the hopes with which it has been endowed. It will have the lot of frivolous beings, the art to please, not that to captivate; some grace will be accorded to it, but none will stop—as they ought—at its merits; its style will be praised, its good taste will be perhaps discussed; those who will receive it with knowledge of its circumstances will have for it some indulgence, but for him who has but glanced at it, handled it, looked at it in haste, it will be comparable at the most to the grapes in the fable— not ripe enough— I tell you so!
So wags the world! However, before a work sets sail over the ocean of ages, to follow the consecrated image, it is not altogether unwise to ornament it, to deck it with flags, to mark the device of its author upon its prow beforehand, and so to enclose in this frail brigantine, according to custom, the plans and specifications of its construction, in order that in the end, if it withstand the calms or braves the foul weather, its civil status may be preserved, and by that its origin and its history in some degree be known.

The Frenchwoman of the Century is, so far as regards conception and execution, the resultant of an effort real and doubly meritorious, in this sense that the book has been written, combined, and executed almost against the grain, and against the wish of its creator, I may expose straightforwardly and furnish the reason of this peculiarity, since the fantastic monographist of the Ornements de la Femme (1) has not judged me unworthy, although a pure hidalgo by birth, to set here some Small Talk of the Vanguard at the head of these chapters of light erudition on the manners and dresses of the time. My excellent friend Uzanne will not accuse me of treachery, if I deliver here, duty free, the confidences which he has been good enough to accord me in our private conversations, in those hours of melancholy and of sombre discouragement in which nothing exists any longer in appreciable sensation in the present, but everything accentuates itself in a radiant manner on the blue horizons of the future.

After the publication of the three volumes which form the charming collection of which this work is the complement, the author of Son Altesse la Femme (2) dreamed of putting a term to these editions of rare curios which, furnished with all the charms of illustration, and literary and delicate as he was quite willing to allow them in a certain mean to be, gave no satisfaction to his aspirations of an original literary man and ardent litterateur, very much more in love himself with a beautiful style than with elegant “bibliophily.” In reality, I cannot blame the writer of these smart fantasies; the very fact of his being minutely careful about the decoration and the dress of his volumes must create for him a false situation, and one differently interpreted by Opinion, that giddy trifler who ordinarily catches her judgments with a flying line in the common place current of the on dits, above all the superficialities of matters and of men.

Books of the nature of these resemble very much those pretty women of the world of whom are everywhere vaunted — if they are not discussed — the toilets, the splendour, the jewels; but few persons desire to know and to penetrate their wit and their real qualities, every one preferring, rather than divulge them, to stifle their secret distinction and their refined delicacies under that eternal and horrible denomination: the beautiful Madame X-.

How many persons and things pass thus in our chatterbox and little penetrating society under the false gold cope of a borrowed reputation! In this country of Latin and noble race the money-making author, we must say, is not alone considered, but the public spirit pleases itself more than anywhere else in classing, ticketing, and cataloguing, in innumerable subdivisions, all the producers and cultivators of thought.
A moral circle is traced somewhat too lightly, and after his first works, around every intellectual artist or artisan. It is desired to specialise the talent of one, to assign definitively a place to another. Here is a man who is penned up, or, better still, imprisoned in a sphere from which, it seems, all hope of issue is interdicted. Here is another who is exiled in his little domain without having permission to enlarge or to vary his perspectives. It is often very troublesome to appeal against these summary and frequently ill-delivered decisions of opinion.

Now my intractable friend revolts like a young devil in a holy water-pot against all these baptisms with which people desire to inundate him specially. Will it be believed? The uniform epithets of erudite, bibliophilist, or bibliographist, which are conferred upon him from all quarters with justice, irritate him sometimes excessively. Inconstant by temperament as unstable, haughty even to madness, he makes a show of repudiating his past work, his loves of resurrection, his researches of literary history, his gallantries reported, and, above all, those gracious books in which he has joined better than any one artistic taste to delicacies of form and style. He dreams, unhappy man! in horror of this silly classification, of being unfaithful to the reputation which he already amply enjoys among a small number of the fastidious; he swears that he will live after the caprices of “his butterfly,” and only create in future natural children, conceived across fields of fantasy in the hedge schools and legitimate passions of his independent caprices.
He wishes to cull henceforth the red flowers of the ideal in the country of the imagination, to listen to the echo of his sentiments, the vibrations of his sensations, to nourish himself with the fruits of nature, to live, in a word, in the good warm sun of thought, here and there, without shackles, without adopting any party or line of conduct, just as the wind may blow, and, above all, no more to restrict himself with such ardour to the trituration of engravings and of illuminations in the basement of his trade.

Bound by close and cordial sympathy, as well by the cult of books as by the connection of travels, how often have I not seen him promenading up and down and emitting curious monologues in my little library of Salmantica, swearing to abandon for a long season those reddish-brown and satin books which make gay the shop-windows of the booksellers, and, in fine, to cease to be the “agreeable author of the Fan!” Nothing equalled his bursts of passion relating to these enterprises agreed upon “by the job;” and it was all in vain for me to object to him, that he was free, that nothing constrained his talent or his character to conform itself to these things, that, on the other hand, he might make, under these elegant envelopes, as many beautiful works as it might please him to invent.
I added that Son Altesse la Femme was besides a book of an essentially original bearing, and worthy of the esteem of the true dainty lovers of the language; but all this availed not to stop his discontented humour; he said in a sombre fashion that one must not judge men hastily, that a man who thinks to make his life finds out one day that he endures it; that for him the taste for books had insensibly conducted him to the composition, to the architecture even of the bouquin, and that caught in the gear of the artistic and interesting employment, he had felt himself little by little dragged further than he had desired. So with what almost childish joy he hailed now the approaching epoch in which he should return to pretty works, black or white, scarcely regarding small vignettes, gliding peacefully into the text like gondolas upon a lake!

All that I could obtain from this singular enemy of himself and others, from this umbrageous madman, from this seeker of the moon in midday, was that he should complete, before putting in operation his living evolution of literary mystic and dreamer, this collection directed to the feminine graces which remained singularly bandy-legged with its three volumes. I made him understand that he could not thus leave the game like a bad player, and that it was equitable to accord, so to speak, their revenge to the world of bibliophilists by reason of the non-perfection of the illustrations aquarellées of his last book. I got his promise, under the condition, however, that I should present, in virtue of our old friendship, his letters of credit to that same public which he treated so unceremoniously scarcely a year ago in a preface of true Castilian style. And so I came, without power of withdrawing myself, to prove afresh that there are no longer any Pyrenees by publishing familiarly here this too long certificate of the origin of The Frenchwoman of the Century.

Without doubt, the great historiographer of L’Ombrelle will give us in future romances, novels of a highly precious character and of excellent make; certainly I am certain the introducer of the Poètes de Ruelles will yet point his pen -in physiologies, in portraits, in thoughts and in observations, in critical studies of a subtle science and of a penetrating art; but here I will invoke one of our old proverbs of Castille: “Cada mosca tiene su sombra; Every fly has its shadow.” The bigger the wings of the fly will grow, the more distandy will their shadow project itself over the swarm of mosquitoes and of midges, over the crowd of the envious and the cold-blooded reptiles.
Who knows if, later on, in the midst of successes less particular than those which have welcomed him up to this day, the philologist, the ex-courtier of Son Altesse la Femme will not have to regret, with a sweet sadness, his ancient enveloping passions, when, writer and artist by turns, he lived in the happy harmony of these two sensations of creatorship, in books young and original, which, whatever he may choose to say about them, will remain always in his honour? Who knows if he will not have dropped the substance for the shadow, and if he will be able to seize again the single hair of opportunity which at present he holds so fast? Man of whims, lover of the impossible, disdainful of conquests dearly obtained, he will not be long in remarking that the higher one rises the greater is one’s isolation, the more one defines, the less one is generally understood; and that, in sum of all, these amiable works merited more complaisance and esteem than he has deigned to accord them.

Of this I want no other example than this present book, The Frenchwoman of the Century, which I have just run through with the pleasure of a dilettante as an astonishing diorama of our manners and customs since the Revolution. It is indeed the history of the bon ton and the social eccentricities to be found in that period; a history infinitely varied on a theme which seems always the same, which shows the French spirit as futile, as ingenious, as disinterested as it will always present itself to the admiration of other peoples, like that spirit of the enfant terrible which even whilst it alarms disarms.
All these scintillating Parisian pictures, these minute descriptions of costume which follow one another from the year VIII, of the Republic up to the last year which has just passed away, this so successful evocation of so many vanished reigns under the eternal weathercock sceptre of Fashion, these diverse chapters, concise, judicially ordered, without historic pretensions or moral or political considerations, these pages nourished of small documents, well chosen and melted together; all in this book is conceived and writ with a something, what it is I cannot say, which marks an evident personality.
My grumbling comrade, in whom pride, or the consciousness of his worth, creates this eccentric duality that he is always discontented with the work which he has just finished, and prodigiously inflated with that which he dreams of executing, defends himself from having written a book of any value. He protests against it, the brevity and the strangulation of the epochs described; he argues that the work must be considered as a hasty glance of the eye over the century which marches so hastily to its last hour; that he has done nothing but stitch together some notes on fashions and small facts consigned by divers contemporaries; that he has fastened together the whole as well as he could; that he insists on proclaiming that nothing is to be found here but a sort of summary of the work which is to be prepared in the future.
All this useless verbiage, what in the world does it matter to us who find his book pleasant, light, gracious, and gallantly presented; it remains in its proper mean and returns to its proper end. We certainly do not ask for a work of a somniferous nature, worthy of the academic palms, about the Société française an XIX’ siècle; what we want is a book frankly of the world, sown with traits, with original views, filled with the rustling of fashions, with the tumble of manners, with all the echoes of elegant life which may be as a revolving mirror of customs, a coquettish collection which we may read as sage moralists, skimming all, dwelling on nought—album of the drawing-rooms or little monument of costume, eloquent image of our frivolity;— what do we want more ?
Pretty rosy and tapering fingers will turn over those pages delicately; women’s eyes, laughing and inconstant, will pilfer the text at haphazard; old and charming dowagers will read it attentively, moved on a sudden by the recollection of their Pamela hats or their first sleeves à la folle; around and about these living and picturesque chapters conversation will become animated, the ashes of the past will be stirred once more. How much love and how many nervous sensations have no few of our women of the world now in their decline left folded in a canezou of book muslin or a barège skirt!

Such as it presents itself in the polychromatic harmony of its delicate decoration, this beautiful work will traverse centuries and brave more surely posterity— even as a literary composition—than all the heavy encyclopedias, and the majority, above all, of the realistic romances of this time, of which the vogue is already passing away. This poor Uzanne must take philosophically his part of the success which will certainly welcome this last production which he reproves. I, since he exacts it, must write here his P.P.C; but I have a feeling that his absence will not be of long duration, and that a light repose will be sufficient to bring calm again to his spirits in a very little while.
It will be for the friends of pretty publications to bring back this fugitive who smiles skeptically at this conclusion which he watches me write; but even though he now refuses to allow it, let us hope that after the publication of the singular books which he has in incubation, to be served to us in small shape, he is yet reserving for us in the future some beautiful and estimable illustrated composition as coquettish and as smart as The Frenchwoman of the Century.

Toledo, October 10, 1885.

Introduction from the Book: The Frenchwoman of the century; Fashions – Manners – Usages, by Octave Uzanne. Illustrations in water colours by Albert Lynch. Engraved in colours by Eugène Gaujean. London, John C. Nimmo, 14, King William Street, Strand, W.C. 1886.

Free eBooks:

Leave a Reply