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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Tastes of Good Society
By Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (1828–1893)
 
From ‘The Ancient Régime’: Translation of John Durand

SIMILAR circumstances have led other aristocracies in Europe to nearly similar ways and habits. There also the monarchy has given birth to the court, and the court to a refined society. But the development of this rare plant has been only partial. The soil was unfavorable, and the seed was not of the right sort. In Spain, the King stands shrouded in etiquette like a mummy in its wrappings; while a too rigid pride, incapable of yielding to the amenities of the worldly order of things, ends in a sentiment of morbidity and in insane display. In Italy, under petty despotic sovereigns, and most of them strangers, the constant state of danger and of hereditary distrust, after having tied all tongues, turns all hearts toward the secret delights of love, or toward the mute gratifications of the fine arts. In Germany and in England, a cold temperament, dull and rebellious to culture, keeps man up to the close of the last century within the Germanic habits of solitude, inebriety, and brutality. In France, on the contrary, all things combine to make the social sentiment flourish; in this the national genius harmonizes with the political régime, the plant appearing to be selected for the soil beforehand.  1
  The Frenchman loves company through instinct; and the reason is, that he does well and easily whatever society calls on him to do. He has not the false shame which renders his northern neighbors awkward, nor the powerful passions which absorb his neighbors of the south. Talking is no effort to him, he having none of the natural timidity which begets constraint, and no constant preoccupation to overcome. He accordingly converses at his ease, ever on the alert; and conversation affords him extreme pleasure. For the happiness which he requires is of a peculiar kind,—delicate, light, rapid, incessantly renewed and varied, in which his intellect, his self-love, all his emotional and sympathetic faculties, find nutriment; and this quality of happiness is provided for him only in society and in conversation. Sensitive as he is, personal attention, consideration, cordiality, delicate flattery, constitute his natal atmosphere, out of which he breathes with difficulty. He would suffer almost as much in being impolite as in encountering impoliteness in others. For his instincts of kindliness and vanity there is an exquisite charm in the habit of being amiable; and this is all the greater because it proves contagious. When we afford pleasure to others there is a desire to please us, and what we bestow in deference is returned in attentions. In company of this kind one can talk; for to talk is to amuse another in being oneself amused,—a Frenchman finding no pleasure equal to it. Lively and sinuous conversation to him is like the flying of a bird: he wings his way from idea to idea, alert, excited by the inspiration of others, darting forward, wheeling round and unexpectedly returning, now up, now down, now skimming the ground, now aloft on the peaks, without sinking into quagmires or getting entangled in the briers, and claiming nothing of the thousands of objects he slightly grazes but the diversity and the gayety of their aspects.  2
  Thus endowed and thus disposed, he is made for a régime which for ten hours a day brings men together; natural feeling in accord with the social order of things renders the drawing-room perfect. The King, at the head of all, sets the example. Louis XIV. had every qualification for the master of a household: a taste for pomp and hospitality, condescension accompanied with dignity, the art of playing on the self-love of others and of maintaining his own position, chivalrous gallantry, tact, and even charms of intellectual expression. “His address was perfect: whether it was necessary to jest, or he was in a playful humor, or deigned to tell a story, it was ever with infinite grace, and a noble refined air which I have found only in him.” “Never was man so naturally polite, nor of such circumspect politeness, so powerful by degrees, nor who better discriminated age, worth, and rank, both in his replies and in his deportment…. His salutations, more or less marked, but always slight, were of incomparable grace and majesty…. He was admirable in the different acknowledgments of salutes at the head of the army and at reviews…. But especially toward women there was nothing like it…. Never did he pass the most indifferent woman without taking off his hat to her; and I mean chambermaids whom he knew to be such. Never did he chance to say anything disobliging to anybody…. Never before company anything mistimed or venturesome; but even to the smallest gesture, his walk, his bearing, his features, all being proper, respectful, noble, grand, majestic, and thoroughly natural.”  3
  Such is the model; and nearly or remotely, it is imitated up to the end of the ancient régime. If it undergoes any change, it is only to become more sociable. In the eighteenth century, except on great ceremonial occasions, it is seen descending step by step from its pedestal. It no longer imposes “that stillness around it which lets one hear a fly walk.” “Sire,” said the Marshal de Richelieu (who had seen three reigns), addressing Louis XVI., “under Louis XIV. no one dared utter a word; under Louis XV. people whispered; under your Majesty they talk aloud.” If authority is a loser, society is the gainer: etiquette, insensibly relaxed, allows the introduction of ease and cheerfulness. Henceforth the great, less concerned in overawing than in pleasing, cast off stateliness like an uncomfortable and ridiculous garment, “seeking respect less than applause. It no longer suffices to be affable: one has to appear amiable at any cost, with one’s inferiors as with one’s equals.” The French princes, says again a contemporary lady, “are dying with fear of being deficient in graces.” Even around the throne “the style is free and playful.” The grave and disciplined court of Louis XIV. became at the end of the century, under the smiles of the youthful Queen, the most seductive and gayest of drawing-rooms. Through this universal relaxation, a worldly existence gets to be perfect. “He who was not living before 1789,” says Talleyrand at a later period, “knows nothing of the charm of living.”  4
  It was too great: no other way of living was appreciated; it engrossed men wholly. When society becomes so attractive, people live for it alone. There is neither leisure nor taste for other matters, even for things which are of most concern to man, such as public affairs, the household, and the family. With respect to the first, I have already stated that people abstain from them, and are indifferent; the administration of things, whether local or general, is out of their hands and no longer interests them. They only allude to it in jest; events of the most serious consequence form the subject of witticisms. After the edict of the Abbé Terray, which threw the funds half into bankruptcy, a spectator too much crowded in the theatre cried out, “Ah, how unfortunate that our good Abbé Terray is not here to cut us down one-half!” Everybody laughs and applauds. All Paris, the following day, is consoled for public ruin by repeating the phrase. Alliances, battles, taxation, treaties, ministries, coups d’état—the entire history of the country is put into epigrams and songs. One day in a group of young people belonging to the court, one of them, as the current witticism was passing around, raised his hands in delight and exclaimed, “How can one help being pleased with great events, even with disturbances, when they give us such wit!” Thereupon the wit circulates, and every disaster in France is turned into nonsense. A song on the battle of Hochstädt was pronounced poor, and some one in this connection said: “I am sorry that battle was lost, the song is so worthless.”  5
  Even when eliminating from this trait all that belongs to the sway of impulse and the license of paradox, there remains the stamp of an age in which the State is almost nothing and society almost everything. We may on this principle divine what order of talent was required in the ministers. M. Necker, having given a magnificent supper with serious and comic opera, “finds that this festivity is worth more to him in credit, favor, and stability than all his financial schemes put together…. His last arrangement concerning the vingtième excited remark only for one day, while everybody is still talking about his fête; at Paris, as well as in Versailles, its attractions are dwelt on in detail, people emphatically declaring that M. and Madame Necker are a grace to society.” Good society devoted to pleasure imposes on those in office the obligation of providing pleasures for it. It might also say, in a half-serious, half-ironical tone, with Voltaire, “that the gods created kings only to give fêtes every day provided they differ; that life is too short to make any other use of it; that lawsuits, intrigues, warfare, and the quarrels of priests, which consume human life, are absurd and horrible things; that man is born only to enjoy himself;” and that among the essential things we must put the “superfluous” in the first rank.  6
  According to this, we can easily foresee that they will be as little concerned with their private affairs as with public affairs. Housekeeping, the management of property, domestic economy, are in their eyes vulgar, insipid in the highest degree, and only suited to an intendant or a butler. Of what use are such persons if we must have such cares? Life is no longer a festival if one has to provide the ways and means. Comforts, luxuries, the agreeable, must flow naturally and greet our lips of their own accord. As a matter of course and without his intervention, a man belonging to this world should find gold always in his pocket, a handsome coat on his toilet table, powdered valets in his antechamber, a gilded coach at his door, and a fine dinner on his table; so that he may reserve all his attention to be expended in favors on the guests in his drawing-room. Such a mode of living is not to be maintained without waste; and the domestics, left to themselves, make the most of it. What matter is it, so long as they perform their duties? Moreover, everybody must live, and it is pleasant to have contented and obsequious faces around one. Hence the first houses in the kingdom are given up to pillage. Louis XV., on a hunting expedition one day, accompanied by the Duc de Choiseul, inquired of him how much he thought the carriage in which they were seated had cost. M. de Choiseul replied that he should consider himself fortunate to get one like it for 5,000 or 6,000 francs; but “his Majesty, paying for it as a king, and not always paying cash, might have paid 8,000 francs for it.” “You are wide of the mark,” rejoined the King; “for this vehicle, as you see it, cost me 30,000 francs…. The robberies in my household are enormous, but it is impossible to put a stop to them.”  7
  In effect, the great help themselves as well as the little—either in money, or in kind, or in services. There are in the King’s household fifty-four horses for the grand equerry, thirty-eight of them being for Madame de Brionne, the administratrix of the office of the stables during her son’s minority; there are two hundred and fifteen grooms on duty, and about as many horses kept at the King’s expense for various other persons, entire strangers to the department. What a nest of parasites on this one branch of the royal tree! Elsewhere I find Madame Elisabeth, so moderate, consuming fish amounting to 30,000 francs per annum; meat and game to 70,000 francs; candles to 60,000 francs: Mesdames burn white and yellow candles to the amount of 215,068 francs; the light for the Queen comes to 157,109 francs. The street at Versailles is still shown, formerly lined with stalls, to which the King’s valets resorted to nourish Versailles by the sale of his dessert. There is no article from which the domestic insects do not manage to scrape and glean something. The King is supposed to drink orgeat and lemonade to the value of 2,190 francs; “the grand broth, day and night,” which Madame Royale, aged six years, sometimes drinks, costs 5,201 francs per annum. Towards the end of the preceding reign the femmes-de-chambre enumerate in the dauphine’s outlay “four pairs of shoes per week; three ells of ribbon per diem, to tie her dressing-gown; two ells of taffeta per diem, to cover the basket in which she keeps her gloves and fan.” A few years earlier the King paid 200,000 francs for coffee, lemonade, chocolate, orgeat, and water-ices; several persons were inscribed on the list for ten or twelve cups a day: while it was estimated that the coffee, milk, and bread each morning for each lady of the bedchamber cost 2,000 francs per annum.  8
  We can readily understand how, in households thus managed, the purveyors are willing to wait. They wait so well that often under Louis XV. they refuse to provide, and “hide themselves.” Even the delay is so regular that at last they are obliged to pay them five per cent. interest on their advances; at this rate, in 1778, after all Turgot’s economic reforms, the King still owes nearly 800,000 livres to his wine merchant, and nearly three millions and a half to his purveyor. The same disorder exists in the houses which surround the throne. “Madame de Guéménée owes 60,000 livres to her shoemaker, 16,000 livres to her paper-hanger, and the rest in proportion.” Another lady, whom the Marquis de Mirabeau sees with hired horses, replies to his look of astonishment, “It is not because there are not seventy horses in our stables, but none of them are able to walk to-day.” Madame de Montmorin, on ascertaining that her husband’s debts are greater than his property, thinks she can save her dowry of 200,000 livres; but is informed that she had given security for a tailor’s bill, which, “incredible and ridiculous to say, amounts to the sum of 180,000 livres.” “One of the decided manias of these days,” says Madame d’Oberkirk, “is to be ruined in everything and by everything.” “The two brothers Villemer build country cottages at from 500,000 to 600,000 livres; one of them keeps forty horses to ride occasionally in the Bois de Boulogne on horseback.” In one night M. de Chenonceaux, son of M. and Madame Dupin, loses at play 700,000 livres. “M. de Chenonceaux and M. de Francueil ran through seven or eight millions at this epoch.” “The Duc de Lauzun, at the age of twenty-six, after having run through the capital of 100,000 crowns revenue, is prosecuted by his creditors for nearly two millions of indebtedness.” “M. le Prince de Conti lacks bread and wood, although with an income of 600,000 livres,” for the reason that “he buys and builds wildly on all sides.”  9
  Where would be the pleasure if these people were reasonable? What kind of a seignior is he who studies the price of things? And how can the exquisite be reached if one grudges money? Money, accordingly, must flow and flow on until it is exhausted, first by the innumerable secret or tolerated bleedings through domestic abuses, and next in broad streams of the master’s own prodigality,—through structures, furniture, toilets, hospitality, gallantry, and pleasures. The Comte d’Artois, that he may give the Queen a fête, demolishes, rebuilds, arranges, and furnishes Bagatelle from top to bottom, employing nine hundred workmen day and night; and as there is no time to go any distance for lime, plaster, and cut stone, he sends patrols of the Swiss guards on the highways to seize, pay for, and immediately bring in all carts thus loaded. The Marshal de Soubise, entertaining the King one day at dinner and over night, in his country-house, expends 200,000 livres. Madame de Matignon makes a contract to be furnished every day with a new head-dress, at 24,000 livres per annum. Cardinal de Rohan has an alb bordered with point lace, which is valued at more than 100,000 livres, while his kitchen utensils are of massive silver.  10
  Nothing is more natural, considering their ideas of money: hoarded and piled up, instead of being a fertilizing stream, it is a useless marsh exhaling bad odors. The Queen, having presented the dauphin with a carriage whose silver-gilt trappings are decked with rubies and sapphires, naïvely exclaims, “Has not the King added 200,000 livres to my treasury? That is no reason for keeping them!” They would rather throw it out of the window—which was actually done by the Marshal de Richelieu with a purse he had given to his grandson, and which the lad, not knowing how to use, brought back intact. Money, on this occasion, was at least of service to the passing street-sweeper that picked it up. But had there been no passer-by to pick it up, it would have been thrown into the river. One day Madame de B——, being with the Prince de Conti, hinted that she would like a miniature of her canary-bird set in a ring. The prince offers to have it made. His offer is accepted, but on condition that the miniature be set plain and without jewels. Accordingly the miniature is placed in a simple rim of gold. But to cover over the painting, a large diamond, made very thin, serves as a glass. Madame de B—— having returned the diamond, “M. le Prince de Conti had it ground to powder which he used to dry the ink of the note he wrote to Madame de B—— on the subject.” This pinch of powder cost four or five thousand livres, but we may divine the turn and tone of the note. The extreme of profusion must accompany the height of gallantry; the man of the world being important in the ratio of his contempt for money.  11
 
 
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