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A Residence in France During the Years 1792, 1793, 1794 and 1795, by An English Lady

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the English now in France at Brest, and then to sink the ships.--Perhaps
the Committee of Public Welfare are now in a sort of benevolent
indecision, whether this, or Collot d'Herbois' gunpowder scheme, shall
have the preference. Legendre's iron cage and simple hanging will,
doubtless, be rejected, as too slow and formal. The mode of the day is
"les grandes mesures." If I be not seriously alarmed at these
propositions, it is not that life is indifferent to me, or that I think
the government too humane to adopt them. My tranquillity arises from
reflecting that such measures would be of no political use, and that we
shall most likely be soon forgotten in the multitude of more important
concerns. Those, however, whom I endeavour to console by this reasoning,
tell me it is nothing less than infallible, that the inutility of a crime
is here no security against its perpetration, and that any project which
tends to evil will sooner be remembered than one of humanity or justice.

[End of Vol. I. The Printed Books]

[Beginning of Volume II. Of The Printed Books]

Providence, Dec. 20, 1793.

"All places that are visited by the eye of Heaven, are to the wise man
happy havens." If Shakspeare's philosophy be orthodox, the French have,
it must be confessed, many claims to the reputation of a wise people; and
though you know I always disputed their pretensions to general gaiety,
yet I acknowledge that misfortune does not deprive them of the share they
possess, and, if one may judge by appearances, they have at least the
habit, more than any other nation, of finding content under situations
with which it should seem incompatible. We are here between six and
seven hundred, of all ages and of all ranks, taken from our homes, and
from all that usually makes the comfort of life, and crowded together
under many of the inflictions that constitute its misery; yet, in the
midst of all this, we fiddle, dress, rhyme, and visit as ceremoniously as
though we had nothing to disturb us. Our beaux, after being correctly
frizz'd and powdered behind some door, compliment the belle just escaped
from a toilet, performed amidst the apparatus of the kitchen; three or
four beds are piled one upon another to make room for as many
card-tables; and the wits of the prison, who are all the morning
employed in writing doleful placets to obtain their liberty, in the
evening celebrate the loss of it in bout-rimees and acrostics.

I saw an ass at the _Corps de Garde_ this morning laden with violins and
music, and a female prisoner seldom arrives without her complement of
bandboxes.--Embarrassed, stifled as we are by our numbers, it does not
prevent a daily importation of lap-dogs, who form as consequential a part
of the community in a prison, as in the most superb hotel. The faithful
valet, who has followed the fortunes of his master, does not so much
share his distresses as contribute to his pleasure by adorning his
person, or, rather, his head, for, excepting the article of
hair-dressing, the beaux here are not elaborate. In short, there is an
indifference, a frivolity, in the French character, which, in
circumstances like the present, appears unaccountable. But man is not
always consistent with himself, and there are occasions in which the
French are nothing less than philosophers. Under all these externals of
levity, they are a very prudent people, and though they seem to bear
with infinite fortitude many of the evils of life, there are some in
which their sensibility is not to be questioned. At the death of a
relation, or the loss of liberty, I have observed that a few hours
suffice, _pour prendre son parti;_ [To make up his mind.] but on any
occasion where his fortune has suffered, the liveliest Frenchman is _au
desespoir_ for whole days. Whenever any thing is to be lost or gained,
all his characteristic indifference vanishes, and his attention becomes
mentally concentrated, without dissipating the habitual smile of his
countenance. He may sometimes be deceived through deficiency of
judgment, but I believe not often by unguardedness; and, in a matter of
interest, a _petit maitre_ of five-and-twenty might _tout en badinage_
[All in the way of pleasantry.] maintain his ground against a whole
synagogue.--This disposition is not remarkable only in affairs that may
be supposed to require it, but extends to the minutest objects; and the
same oeconomy which watches over the mass of a Frenchman's estate,
guards with equal solicitude the menu property of a log of wood, or a
hen's nest.

There is at this moment a general scarcity of provisions, and we who are
confined are, of course, particularly inconvenienced by it; we do not
even get bread that is eatable, and it is curious to observe with what
circumspection every one talks of his resources. The possessor of a few
eggs takes care not to expose them to the eye of his neighbour; and a
slice of white bread is a donation of so much consequence, that those who
procure any for themselves do not often put their friends to the pain
either of accepting or refusing it.

Mad. de ____ has been unwell for some days, and I could not help giving a
hint to a relation of her's whom we found here, and who has frequent
supplies of bread from the country, that the bread we eat was peculiarly
inimical to her; but I gained only a look of repulsive apprehension, and
a cold remark that it was very difficult to get good bread--_"et que
c'etoit bien malheureux."_ [And that it certainly was very unfortunate.]
I own this kind of selfishness is increased by a situation where our
wants are numerous, and our enjoyments few; and the great distinctions of
meum and tuum, which at all times have occasioned so much bad fellowship
in the world, are here perhaps more rigidly observed than any where else;
yet, in my opinion, a close-hearted consideration has always formed an
essential and a predominant quality in the French character.

People here do not ruin themselves, as with us, by hospitality; and
examples of that thoughtless profusion which we censure and regret,
without being able entirely to condemn, are very rare indeed. In France
it is not uncommon to see a man apparently dissipated in his conduct, and
licentious in his morals, yet regular, even to parsimony, in his
pecuniary concerns.--He oeconomizes with his vices, and indulges in all
the excesses of fashionable life, with the same system of order that
accumulates the fortune of a Dutch miser. Lord Chesterfield was
doubtless satisfied, that while his son remained in France, his precepts
would have all the benefit of living illustration; yet it is not certain
that this cautious and reflecting licentiousness has any merit over the
more imprudent irregularity of an English spendthrift: the one is,
however, likely to be more durable than the other; and, in fact, the
character of an old libertine is more frequent in France than in England.

If oeconomy preside even over the vices of the rich and fashionable, you
may conclude that the habits of the middling ranks of people of small
fortunes are still more scrupulously subjected to its influence. A
French _menage_ [Household.] is a practical treatise on the art of
saving--a spirit of oeconomy pervades and directs every part of it, and
that so uniformly, so generally, and so consistently, as not to make the
same impression on a stranger as would a single instance where the whole
was not conducted on the same principle. A traveller is not so forcibly
stricken by this part of the French character, because it is more real
than apparent, and does not seem the effect of reasoning or effort, which
is never consequential, but rather that of inclination and the natural
course of things.

A degree of parsimony, which an Englishman, who does not affect the
reputation of a Codrus, could not acquire without many self-combats,
appears in a Frenchman a matter of preference and convenience, and till
one has lived long and familiarly in the country, one is apt to mistake
principles for customs, and character for manners, and to attribute many
things to local which have their real source in moral causes.--The
traveller who sees nothing but gay furniture, and gay clothes, and
partakes on invitation of splendid repasts, returns to England the
enamoured panegyrist of French hospitality.--On a longer residence and
more domestic intercourse, all this is discoverable to be merely the
sacrifice of parsimony to vanity--the solid comforts of life are unknown,
and hospitality seldom extends beyond an occasional and ostentatious
reception. The gilding, painting, glasses, and silk hangings of a French
apartment, are only a gay disguise; and a house, which to the eye may be
attractive even to splendour, often has not one room that an Englishman
would find tolerably convenient. Every thing intended for use rather
than shew is scanty and sordid--all is _beau, magnifique, gentil,_ or
_superb,_ [Fine magnificent, genteel, or superb.] and nothing
comfortable. The French have not the word, or its synonime, in their
language.

In France, clothes are almost as durable as furniture, and the gaiety
which twenty or thirty years ago we were complaisant enough to admire is
far from being expensive. People are not more than five or six hours a
day in their gala habits, and the whole of this period is judiciously
chosen between the hours of repast, so that no risk in incurred by
accidents at table. Then the caprices of fashion, which in England are
so various and despotic, have here a more limited influence: the form of
a dress changes as long as the material is convertible, and when it has
outlasted the possibility of adaptation to a reigning mode, it is not on
that account rejected, but is generally worn in some way or other till
banished by the more rational motive of its decay. All the expences of
tea-visits, breakfast-loungings, and chance-dinners, are avoided--an
evening visit is passed entirely at cards, a breakfast in form even for
the family is unusual, and there are very few houses where you could dine
without being previously engaged. I am, indeed, certain, that (unless in
large establishments) the calculation for diurnal supply is so exact,
that the intrusion of a stranger would be felt by the whole family. I
must, however, do them the justice to say, that on such occasions, and
where they find the thing to be inevitable, they put the best face
possible on it, and the guest is entertained, if not plentifully, and
with a very sincere welcome, at least with smiles and compliments. The
French, indeed, allow, that they live less hospitably than the English:
but then they say they are not so rich; and it is true, property is not
so general, nor so much diffused, as with us. This is, however, only
relative, and you will not suspect me of being so uncandid as to make
comparisons without allowing for every difference which is the effect of
necessity. All my remarks of this kind are made after an unprejudiced
comparison of the people of the same rank or fortune in the two
countries;--yet even the most liberal examination must end by concluding,
that the oeconomy of the French too nearly approaches to meanness, and
that their civility is ostentatious, perhaps often either interested, or
even verbal.

You already exclaim, why, in the year 1793, you are characterizing a
nation in the style of Salmon! and implying a panegyric on the moral of
the School for Scandal! I plead to the first part of the charge, and
shall hereafter defend my opinion against the more polished writers who
have succeeded Salmon. For the moral of the School for Scandal, I have
always considered it as the seal of humanity on a comedy which would
otherwise be perfection.

It is not the oeconomy of the French that I am censuring, but their
vanity, which, engrossing all their means of expence, prefers show to
accommodation, and the parade of a sumptuous repast three or four times a
year to a plainer but more frequent hospitality.--I am far from being the
advocate of extravagance, or the enemy of domestic order; and the
liberality which is circumscribed only by prudence shall not find in me a
censurer.

My ideas on the French character and manner of living may not be unuseful
to such of my countrymen as come to France with the project of retrieving
their affairs; for it is very necessary they should be informed, that it
is not so much the difference in the price of things, which makes a
residence here oeconomical, as a conformity to the habits of the country;
and if they were not deterred by a false shame from a temporary adoption
of the same system in England, their object might often be obtained
without leaving it. For this reason it may be remarked, that the English
who bring English servants, and persist in their English mode of living,
do not often derive very solid advantages from their exile, and their
abode in France is rather a retreat from their creditors than the means
of paying their debts.

Adieu.--You will not be sorry that I have been able for a moment to
forget our personal sufferings, and the miserable politics of the
country. The details of the former are not pleasant, and the latter grow
every day more inexplicable.

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