Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

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

ONE can very well understand this kind of pleasure in a summary way, but how is it to be made apparent? Taken by themselves the pastimes of society are not to be described: they are too ephemeral; their charm arises from their accompaniments. A narrative of them would be but tasteless dregs,—does the libretto of an opera give any idea of the opera itself? If the reader would revive for himself this vanished world, let him seek for it in those works that have preserved its externals or its accent; and first in the pictures and engravings of Watteau, Fragonard, and the Saint-Aubins, and then in the novels and dramas of Voltaire and Marivaux, and even in Collé and Crébillon fils: then do we see the breathing figures and hear their voices. What bright, winning, intelligent faces, beaming with pleasure and with the desire to please! What ease in bearing and gesture! What piquant grace in the toilet, in the smile, in vivacity of expression, in the control of the flute-like voice, in the coquetry of hidden meanings! How involuntarily we stop to look and listen! Attractiveness is everywhere,—in the small spirituelle heads, in the slender hands, in the rumpled attire, in the pretty features, in the demeanor. The slightest gesture, a pouting or mutinous turn of the head, a plump little wrist peering from its nest of lace, a yielding waist bent over an embroidery frame, the rapid rustling of an opening fan, is a feast for the eyes and the intellect. It is indeed all daintiness, a delicate caress for delicate senses, extending to the external decoration of life, to the sinuous outlines, the showy drapery, and the refinements of comfort in the furniture and architecture.  1
  Fill your imagination with these accessories and with these figures, and you will take as much interest in their amusements as they did. In such a place and in such company it suffices to be together to be content. Their indolence is no burden to them, for they sport with existence. At Chanteloup, the Duc de Choiseul, in disgrace, finds the fashionable world flocking to see him; nothing is done, and yet no hours of the day are unoccupied. “The duchess has only two hours’ time to herself, and these two hours are devoted to her toilet and her letters: the calculation is a simple one,—she gets up at eleven, breakfasts at noon, and this is followed by conversation, which lasts three or four hours; dinner comes at six, after which there is play and the reading of the memoirs of Madame de Maintenon.” Ordinarily “the company remains together until two o’clock in the morning.” Intellectual freedom is complete. There is no confusion, no anxiety. They play whist and tric-trac in the afternoon and faro in the evening. “They do to-day what they did yesterday, and what they will do to-morrow; the dinner-supper is to them the most important affair in life, and their only complaint in the world is of their digestion. Time goes so fast I always fancy that I arrived only the evening before.” Sometimes they get up a little race, and the ladies are disposed to take part in it, “for they are all very spry and able to run around the drawing-room five or six times every day.” But they prefer indoors to the open air; in these days true sunshine consists of candle-light, and the finest sky is a painted ceiling,—is there any other less subject to inclemencies, or better adapted to conversation and merriment? They accordingly chat and jest, in words with present friends, and by letters with absent friends. They lecture old Madame du Deffand, who is too lively, and whom they style the “little girl”; the young duchess, tender and sensible, is “her grandmama.” As for “grandpapa,” M. de Choiseul, “a slight cold keeping him in bed, he has fairy stories read to him all day long: a species of reading to which we are all given; we find them as probable as modern history. Do not imagine that he is unoccupied. He has had a tapestry frame put up in the drawing-room; at which he works, I cannot say with the greatest skill, but at least with the greatest assiduity…. Now our delight is in flying a kite: grandpapa has never seen this sight, and he is enraptured with it.” The pastime, in itself, is nothing; it is resorted to according to opportunity or the taste of the hour,—now taken up and now let alone,—and the abbé soon writes: “I do not speak about our races, because we race no more; nor of our readings, because we do not read; nor of our promenades, because we do not go out. What then do we do? Some play billiards, others dominoes, and others backgammon. We weave, we ravel, and we unravel. Time pushes us on, and we pay him back.”  2
  Other circles present the same spectacle. Every occupation being an amusement, a caprice or an impulse of fashion brings one into favor. At present it is unraveling; every white hand at Paris, and in the châteaux, being busy in undoing trimmings, epaulettes, and old stuffs, to pick out the gold and silver threads. They find in this employment the semblance of economy, an appearance of occupation,—in any event something to keep them in countenance. On a circle of ladies being formed, a big unraveling bag in green taffeta is placed on the table, which belongs to the lady of the house; immediately all the ladies call for their bags, and “voilà les laquais en l’air.” It is all the rage. They unravel every day and several hours in the day; some derive from it a hundred louis d’or per annum. The gentlemen are expected to provide the materials for the work: the Duc de Lauzun, accordingly, gives to Madame de V—— a harp of natural size, covered with gold thread; an enormous golden fleece, brought as a present from the Comte de Lowenthal, and which cost two or three thousand francs, brings, picked to pieces, five or six hundred francs. But they do not look into matters so closely. Some employment is essential for idle hands, some manual outlet for nervous activity; a humorous petulance breaks out in the middle of the pretended work. One day, when about going out, Madame de R—— observes that the gold fringe on her dress would be capital for unraveling; whereupon, with a dash, she cuts one of the fringes off. Ten women suddenly surround a man wearing fringes, pull off his coat, and put his fringes and laces into their bags; just as if a bold flock of tomtits, fluttering and chattering in the air, should suddenly dart on a jay to pluck off its feathers: thenceforth a man who enters a circle of women stands in danger of being stripped alive.  3
  All this pretty world has the same pastimes, the men as well as the women. Scarcely a man can be found without some drawing-room accomplishment, some trifling way of keeping his mind and hands busy, and of filling up the vacant hour: almost all make rhymes, or act in private theatricals; many of them are musicians and painters of still-life subjects. M. de Choiseul, as we have just seen, works at tapestry; others embroider or make sword-knots. M. de Francueil is a good violinist, and makes violins himself; and besides this he is “watchmaker, architect, turner, painter, locksmith, decorator, cook, poet, music-composer, and he embroiders remarkably well.” In this general state of inactivity it is essential “to know how to be pleasantly occupied in behalf of others as well as in one’s own behalf.” Madame de Pompadour is a musician, an actress, a painter, and an engraver. Madame Adelaide learns watchmaking, and plays on all instruments from a horn to the jew’s-harp; not very well, it is true, but as well as a queen can sing, whose fine voice is never more than half in tune. But they make no pretensions. The thing is to amuse oneself and nothing more; high spirits and the amenities of the hour cover all. Rather read this capital fact of Madame de Lauzun at Chanteloup:—“Do you know,” writes the abbé, “that nobody possesses in a higher degree one quality which you would never suspect of her,—that of preparing scrambled eggs? This talent has been buried in the ground,—she cannot recall the time she acquired it; I believe that she had it at her birth. Accident made it known, and immediately it was put to the test. Yesterday morning, an hour forever memorable in the history of eggs, the implements necessary for this great operation were all brought out,—a heater, some gravy, some pepper, salt, and eggs. Behold Madame de Lauzun, at first blushing and in a tremor, soon with intrepid courage, breaking the eggs, beating them up in the pan, turning them over, now to the right, now to the left, now up and now down, with unexampled precision and success! Never was a more excellent dish eaten.” What laughter and gayety in the group comprised in this little scene; and not long after, what madrigals and allusions! Gayety here resembles a dancing ray of sunlight; it flickers over all things, and reflects its grace on every object.  4

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