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

THE DUC DE LAUZUN finds it difficult to obtain a good tutor for his son; for this reason, the latter writes, “he conferred the duty on one of my late mother’s lackeys who could read and write tolerably well, and to whom the title of valet-de-chambre was given to insure greater consideration. They gave me the most fashionable teachers besides; but M. Roch (which was my mentor’s name) was not qualified to arrange their lessons, nor to qualify me to benefit by them. I was, moreover, like all the children of my age and of my station, dressed in the handsomest clothes to go out, and naked and dying with hunger in the house:” and not through unkindness, but through household oversight, dissipation, and disorder; attention being given to things elsewhere. One might easily count the fathers who, like the Marshal de Belle-Isle, brought up their sons under their own eyes, and themselves attended to their education methodically, strictly, and with tenderness. As to the girls, they were placed in convents: relieved from this care, their parents only enjoy the greater freedom. Even when they retain charge of them, the children are scarcely more of a burden to them. Little Félicité de Saint-Aubin sees her parents “only on their waking up and at meal-times.” Their day is wholly taken up: the mother is making or receiving visits; the father is in his laboratory or engaged in hunting. Up to seven years of age the child passes her time with chambermaids, who teach her only a little catechism, “with an infinite number of ghost stories.” About this time she is taken care of, but in a way which well portrays the epoch. The marquise her mother, the author of mythological and pastoral operas, has a theatre built in the château; a great crowd of company resorts to it from Bourbon-Lancy and Moulins: after rehearsing twelve weeks the little girl, with a quiver of arrows and blue wings, plays the part of Cupid, and the costume is so becoming she is allowed to wear it for common during the entire day for nine months. To finish the business they send for a dancing-fencing master, and still wearing the Cupid costume, she takes lessons in fencing and in deportment. “The entire winter is devoted to playing comedy and tragedy.” Sent out of the room after dinner, she is brought in again only to play on the harpsichord or to declaim the monologue of Alzire before a numerous assembly. Undoubtedly such extravagances are not customary: but the spirit of education is everywhere the same; that is to say, in the eyes of parents there is but one intelligible and rational existence,—that of society,—even for children; and the attentions bestowed on these are solely with a view to introduce them into it or to prepare them for it.  1
  Even in the last years of the ancient régime, little boys have their hair powdered, “a pomatumed chignon [bourse], ringlets, and curls”; they wear the sword, the chapeau under the arm, a frill, and a coat with gilded cuffs; they kiss young ladies’ hands with the air of little dandies. A lass of six years is bound up in a whalebone waist; her large hoop-petticoat supports a skirt covered with wreaths; she wears on her head a skillful combination of false curls, puffs, and knots, fastened with pins, and crowned with plumes, and so high that frequently “the chin is half-way down to her feet”; sometimes they put rouge on her face. She is a miniature lady, and she knows it: she is fully up in her part, without effort or inconvenience, by force of habit; the unique, the perpetual instruction she gets is that on her deportment: it may be said with truth that the fulcrum of education in this country is the dancing-master. They could get along with him without any others; without him the others were of no use. For without him, how could people go through easily, suitably, and gracefully, the thousand and one actions of daily life,—walking, sitting down, standing up, offering the arm, using the fan, listening and smiling, before eyes so experienced and before such a refined public? This is to be the great thing for them when they become men and women, and for this reason it is the thing of chief importance for them as children. Along with graces of attitude and of gesture, they already have those of the mind and of expression. Scarcely is their tongue loosened when they speak the polished language of their parents. The latter amuse themselves with them and use them as pretty dolls; the preaching of Rousseau, which during the last third of the last century brought children into fashion, produces no other effect. They are made to recite their lessons in public, to perform in proverbs, to take parts in pastorals. Their sallies are encouraged. They know how to turn a compliment, to invent a clever or affecting repartee, to be gallant, sensitive, and even spirituelle. The little Duc d’Angoulême, holding a book in his hand, receives Suffren, whom he addresses thus: “I was reading Plutarch and his ‘Illustrious Men.’ You could not have entered more àpropos.” The children of M. de Sabran, a boy and a girl, one eight and the other nine, having taken lessons from the comedians Sainval and Larive, come to Versailles to play before the King and Queen in Voltaire’s ‘Oreste’; and on the little fellow being interrogated about the classic authors, he replies to a lady, the mother of three charming girls, “Madame, Anacreon is the only poet I can think of here!” Another, of the same age, replies to a question of Prince Henry of Prussia with an agreeable impromptu in verse. To cause witticisms, insipidities, and mediocre verse to germinate in a brain eight years old—what a triumph for the culture of the day! It is the last characteristic of the régime which after having stolen man away from public affairs, from his own affairs, from marriage, from the family, hands him over, with all his sentiments and all his faculties, to social worldliness,—he and all that belong to him. Below him fine ways and forced politeness prevail, even with his servants and tradesmen. A Frontin has a gallant unconstrained air, and he turns a compliment. An abigail needs only to be a kept mistress to become a lady. A shoemaker is a “monsieur in black,” who says to a mother on saluting the daughter, “Madame, a charming young person, and I am more sensible than ever of the value of your kindness;” on which the young girl, just out of a convent, takes him for a suitor and blushes scarlet. Undoubtedly less unsophisticated eyes would distinguish the difference between this pinchbeck louis d’or and a genuine one; but their resemblance suffices to show the universal action of the central mint—machinery which stamps both with the same effigy, the base metal and the refined gold.  2
 
  A society which obtains such ascendency must possess some charm: in no country indeed, and in no age, has so perfect a social art rendered life so agreeable. Paris is the schoolhouse of Europe,—a school of urbanity to which the youth of Russia, Germany, and England resort to become civilized. Lord Chesterfield in his letters never tires of reminding his son of this, and of urging him into these drawing-rooms, which will remove “his Cambridge rust.” Once familiar with them they are never abandoned; or if one is obliged to leave them, one always sighs for them. “Nothing is comparable,” says Voltaire, “to the genial life one leads there, in the bosom of the arts and of a calm and refined voluptuousness; strangers and monarchs have preferred this repose—so agreeably occupied and so enchanting—to their own countries and thrones. The heart there softens and melts away like aromatics slowly dissolving in moderate heat, evaporating in delightful perfumes.” Gustavus III., beaten by the Russians, declares that he will pass his last days in Paris in a house on the boulevards; and this is not merely complimentary, for he sends for plans and an estimate. A supper or an evening entertainment brings people two hundred leagues away. Some friends of the Prince de Ligne “leave Brussels after breakfast, reach the opera in Paris just in time to see the curtain rise, and after the spectacle is over, return immediately to Brussels, traveling all night.”  3
  Of this delight, so eagerly sought, we have only imperfect copies; and we are obliged to revive it intellectually. It consists, in the first place, in the pleasure of living with perfectly polite people: there is no enjoyment more subtle, more lasting, more inexhaustible. The self-love of man being infinite, intelligent people are always able to produce some refinement of attention to gratify it. Worldly sensibility being infinite, there is no imperceptible shade of it permitting indifference. After all, man is still the greatest source of happiness or of misery to man; and in those days the ever-flowing fountain brought to him sweetness instead of bitterness. Not only was it essential not to offend, but it was essential to please: one was expected to lose sight of oneself in others, to be always cordial and good-humored, to keep one’s own vexations and grievances in one’s own breast, to spare others melancholy ideas, and to supply them with cheerful ideas. “Was any one old in those days? It is the Revolution which brought old age into the world. Your grandfather, my child, was handsome, elegant, neat, gracious, perfumed, playful, amiable, affectionate, and good-tempered, to the day of his death. People then knew how to live and how to die; there was no such thing as troublesome infirmities. If any one had the gout, he walked along all the same and made no faces; people well brought up concealed their sufferings. There was none of that absorption in business which spoils a man inwardly and dulls his brain. People knew how to ruin themselves without letting it appear, like good gamblers who lose their money without showing uneasiness or spite. A man would be carried half dead to a hunt. It was thought better to die at a ball or at the play, than in one’s bed between four wax candles and horrid men in black. People were philosophers: they did not assume to be austere, but often were so without making a display of it. If one was discreet, it was through inclination, and without pedantry or prudishness. People enjoyed this life, and when the hour of departure came they did not try to disgust others with living. The last request of my old husband was that I would survive him as long as possible, and live as happily as I could.” [So discourses her beautiful grandmother to George Sand.]  4
 
 
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