Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter LV
Rica to Ibben, at Smyrna
AMONG the Europeans, the first quarter of an hour of marriage settles all difficulties; the last favors are always contemporary with the marriage blessing. The women here are not like those of Persia, who sometimes dispute the ground for months together. They give themselves at once; and if they lose nothing, it is because they have nothing to lose. One shameful result of this is, that one can always tell the moment of their defeat; and, without consulting the stars, it is possible to predict to the very hour the birth of their children.  1
  The French seldom speak of their wives: 1 they are afraid to do so before people who may know them better than themselves.  2
  There are, among the French, a set of most miserable men, whom nobody comforts—jealous husbands, to wit; there are among them those whom everybody hates—namely, jealous husbands; there are men whom the whole world despises—once more, jealous husbands.  3
  And so, there is no country where there are so few of them as in France. Their peace of mind is not based upon the confidence which they have in their wives; but on the bad opinion which they have of them. All the wise precautions of the Asiatics; the veils which cover them, the prisons in which they are kept, the eunuchs who guard them, seem to the French only so many obstacles better fitted to exercise than to tire the ingenuity of women. Here, husbands accept their lot with a good grace, and the infidelities of their wives seem to them as inevitable as fate. A husband, who would wish to monopolize his wife, would be looked upon as a disturber of the pleasure of the public, as a lunatic who wanted to enjoy the light of the sun to the exclusion of everybody else.  4
  Here, a husband who loves his wife is a man who has not enough merit to engage the affections of some other woman; who makes a bad use of the power given him by the law to supply those pleasures which he can obtain in no other way; who claims all his rights to the prejudice of the whole community; who appropriates to his own use that which he only holds in pawn; and who tries, as far as he can, to overturn the tacit agreement, in which the happiness of both sexes consists. The fame, so little desired in Asia, of being married to a beautiful woman, is here the source of no uneasiness. No one has ever to seek far for entertainment. A prince consoles himself for the loss of one place by taking another’s when Bagdad fell to the Turks, were we not taking from the Mogul the fortress of Candahar?  5
  Generally speaking, a man who winks at his wife’s infidelities, does not lose respect; on the contrary, he is praised for his prudence: dishonor only attaches to special cases.  6
  Not that there are no virtuous women; there are, and they may be said to be distinguished too. My conductor always took care to point them out; but they were all so ugly that one would require to be a saint not to hate virtue.  7
  After what I have told you of the morals and manners of this country, you will easily imagine that the French do not altogether plume themselves upon their constancy. They believe that it is as ridiculous to swear eternal love to a woman, as to insist that one will always be in the best of health, or always as happy as the day is long. When they promise a woman to love her all their lives, they suppose that she on her side undertakes to be always lovable; and if she breaks her word, they think that they are no longer bound by theirs.

  PARIS, the 7th of the moon of Zilcade, 1714.
Note 1. It was a rule of good society. “Most men understand that they should say very little about their wives; but few know that they should talk still less about themselves.”—LA ROCHEFOUCAULD. [back]

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