Woman in the Nineteenth Century

by Margaret Fuller

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"Courrier Des Etas Unis"

No other nation can hope to vie with the French in the talent of communicating information with ease, vivacity and consciousness. They must always be the best narrators and the best interpreters, so far as presenting a clear statement of outlines goes. Thus they are excellent in conversation, lectures, and journalizing.

After we know all the news of the day, it is still pleasant to read the bulletin of the "Courrier des Etats Unis." We rarely agree with the view taken; but as a summary it is so excellently well done, every topic put in its best place, with such a light and vigorous hand, that we have the same pleasure we have felt in fairy tales, when some person under trial is helped by a kind fairy to sort the silks and feathers to their different places, till the glittering confusion assumes the order,—of a kaleidoscope.

Then, what excellent correspondents they have in Paris! What a humorous and yet clear account we have before us, now, of the Thiers game! We have traced Guizot through every day with the utmost distinctness, and see him perfectly in the sick-room. Now, here is Thiers, playing with his chess-men, Jesuits, &c. A hundred clumsy English or American papers could not make the present crisis in Paris so clear as we see it in the glass of these nimble Frenchmen.

Certainly it is with newspaper-writing as with food; the English and Americans have as good appetites, but do not, and never will, know so well how to cook as the French. The Parisian correspondent of the "Schnellpost" also makes himself merry with the play of M. Thiers. Both speak with some feeling of the impressive utterance of Lamartine in the late debates. The Jesuits stand their ground, but there is a wave advancing which will not fail to wash away what ought to go,—nor are its roarings, however much in advance of the wave itself, to be misinterpreted by intelligent ears. The world is raising its sleepy lids, and soon no organization can exist which from its very nature interferes in any way with the good of the whole.

In Germany the terrors of the authorities are more and more directed against the communists. They are very anxious to know what communism really is, or means. They have almost forgotten, says the correspondent, the repression of the Jews, and like objects, in this new terror. Meanwhile, the Russian Emperor has issued an edict, commanding the Polish Jews, both men and women, to lay aside their national garb. He hopes thus to mingle them with the rest of the mass he moves. It will be seen whether such work can be done by beginning upon the outward man.

The Paris correspondent of the "Courrier," who gives an account of amusements, has always many sprightly passages illustrative of the temper of the times. Horse-races are now the fashion, in which he rejoices, as being likely to give to France good horses of her own. A famous lottery is on the point of coming off,—to give an organ to the Church of St. Eustache,—on which it does not require a very high tone of morals to be severe. A public exhibition has been made of the splendid array of prizes, including every article of luxury, from jewels and cashmere shawls down to artificial flowers.

A nobleman, president of the Horticultural Society, had given an entertainment, in which the part of the different flowers was acted by beautiful women, that of fruit and vegetables by distinguished men. Such an amusement would admit of much light grace and wit, which may still be found in France, if anywhere in the world.

There is also an amusing story of the stir caused among the French political leaders by the visit of a nobleman of one of the great English families, to Paris. "He had had several audiences, previous to his departure from London, of Queen Victoria; he received a despatch daily from the English court. But in reply to all overtures made to induce him to open his mission, he preserved a gloomy silence. All attentions, all signs of willing confidence, are lavished on him in vain. France is troubled. 'Has England,' thought she, 'a secret from us, while we have none from her?' She was on the point of inventing one, when, lo! the secret mission turns out to be the preparation of a ball-dress, with whose elegance, fresh from Parisian genius, her Britannic majesty wished to dazzle and surprise her native realm."

'T is a pity Americans cannot learn the grace which decks these trifling jests with so much prettiness. Till we can import something of that, we have no right to rejoice in French fashions and French wines. Such a nervous, driving nation as we are, ought to learn to fly along gracefully, on the light, fantastic toe. Can we not learn something of the English beside the knife and fork conventionalities which, with them, express a certain solidity of fortune and resolve? Can we not get from the French something beside their worst novels?



The Courrier laughs, though with features somewhat too disturbed for a graceful laugh, at a notice, published a few days since in the Tribune, of one of its jests which scandalized the American editor. It does not content itself with a slight notice, but puts forth a manifesto, in formidably large type, in reply.

With regard to the jest itself, we must remark that Mr. Greeley saw this only in a translation, where it had lost whatever of light and graceful in its manner excused a piece of raillery very coarse in its substance. We will admit that, had he seen it as it originally stood, connected with other items in the playful chronicle of Pierre Durand, it would have impressed him differently.

But the cause of irritation in the Courrier, and of the sharp repartees of its manifesto, is, probably, what was said of the influence among us of "French literature and French morals," to which the "organ of the French-American population" felt called on to make a spirited reply, and has done so with less of wit and courtesy than could have been expected from the organ of a people who, whatever may be their faults, are at least acknowledged in wit and courtesy preëminent. We hope that the French who come to us will not become, in these respects, Americanized, and substitute the easy sneer, and use of such terms as "ridiculous," "virtuous misanthropy," &c., for the graceful and poignant raillery of their native land, which tickles even where it wounds.

We may say, in reply to the Courrier, that if Fourierism "recoils towards a state of nature," it arises largely from the fact that its author lived in a country where the natural relations are, if not more cruelly, at least more lightly violated, than in any other of the civilized world. The marriage of convention has done its natural office in sapping the morals of France, till breach of the marriage vow has become one of the chief topics of its daily wit, one of the acknowledged traits of its manners, and a favorite—in these modern times we might say the favorite—subject of its works of fiction. From the time of Molière, himself an agonized sufferer behind his comic mask from the infidelities of a wife he was not able to cease to love, through memoirs, novels, dramas, and the volleyed squibs of the press, one fact stares us in the face as one of so common occurrence, that men, if they have not ceased to suffer in heart and morals from its poisonous action, have yet learned to bear with a shrug and a careless laugh that marks its frequency. Understand, we do not say that the French are the most deeply stained with vice of all nations. We do not think them so. There are others where there is as much, but there is none where it is so openly acknowledged in literature, and therefore there is none whose literature alone is so likely to deprave inexperienced minds, by familiarizing them with wickedness before they have known the lure and the shock of passion. And we believe that this is the very worst way for youth to be misled, since the miasma thus pervades the whole man, and he is corrupted in head and heart at once, without one strengthening effort at resistance.

Were it necessary, we might substantiate what we say by quoting from the Courrier within the last fortnight, jokes and stories such as are not to be found so frequently in the prints of any other nation. There is the story of the girl Adelaide, which, at another time, we mean to quote, for its terrible pathos. There is a man on trial for the murder of his wife, of whom the witnesses say, "he was so fond of her you would never have known she was his wife!" Here is one, only yesterday, where a man kills a woman to whom he was married by his relatives at eighteen, she being much older, and disagreeable to him, but their properties matching. After twelve years' marriage, he can no longer support the yoke, and kills both her and her father, and "his only regret is that he cannot kill all who had anything to do with the match."

Either infidelity or such crimes are the natural result of marriages made as they are in France, by agreement between the friends, without choice of the parties. It is this horrible system, and not a native incapacity for pure and permanent relations, that leads to such results.

We must observe, en passant, that this man was the father of five children by this hated woman—a wickedness not peculiar to France or any nation, and which cannot foil to do its work of filling the world with sickly, weak, or depraved beings, who have reason to curse their brutal father that he does not murder them as well as their wretched mother,—who, more unhappy than the victim of seduction, is made the slave of sense in the name of religion and law.

The last steamer brings us news of the disgrace of Victor Hugo, one of the most celebrated of the literary men of France, and but lately created one of her peers. The affair, however, is to be publicly "hushed up."

But we need not cite many instances to prove, what is known to the whole world, that these wrongs are, if not more frequent, at least more lightly treated by the French, in literature and discourse, than by any nation of Europe. This being the case, can an American, anxious that his country should receive, as her only safeguard from endless temptations, good moral instruction and mental food, be otherwise than grieved at the promiscuous introduction among us of their writings?

We know that there are in France good men, pure books, true wit. But there is an immensity that is bad, and more hurtful to our farmers, clerks and country milliners, than to those to whose tastes it was originally addressed,—as the small-pox is most fatal among the wild men of the woods,—and this, from the unprincipled cupidity of publishers, is broad-cast recklessly over all the land we had hoped would become a healthy asylum for those before crippled and tainted by hereditary abuses. This cannot be prevented; we can only make head against it, and show that there is really another way of thinking and living,—ay, and another voice for it in the world. We are naturally on the alert, and if we sometimes start too quickly, that is better than to play "Le noir Faineant"—(The Black Sluggard).

We are displeased at the unfeeling manner in which the Courrier speaks of those whom he calls our models. He did not misunderstand us, and some things he says on this subject deserve and suggest a retort that would be bitter. But we forbear, because it would injure the innocent with the guilty. The Courrier ranks the editor of the Tribune among "the men who have undertaken an ineffectual struggle against the perversities of this lower world." By ineffectual we presume he means that it has never succeeded in exiling evil from this lower world. We are proud to be ranked among the band of those who at least, in the ever-memorable words of Scripture, have "done what they could" for this purpose. To this band belong all good men of all countries, and France has contributed no small contingent of those whose purpose was noble, whose lives were healthy, and whose minds, even in their lightest moods, pure. We are better pleased to act as sutler or pursuivant of this band, whose strife the Courrier thinks so impuissante, than to reap the rewards of efficiency on the other side. There is not too much of this salt, in proportion to the whole mass that needs to be salted, nor are "occasional accesses of virtuous misanthropy" the worst of maladies in a world that affords such abundant occasion for it.

In fine, we disclaim all prejudice against the French nation. We feel assured that all, or almost all, impartial minds will acquiese in what we say as to the tone of lax morality, in reference to marriage, so common in their literature. We do not like it, in joke or in earnest; neither are we of those to whom vice "loses most of its deformity by losing all its grossness." If there be a deep and ulcerated wound, we think the more "the richly-embroidered veil" is torn away the better. Such a deep social wound exists in France; we wish its cure, as we wish the health of all nations and of all men; so far indeed would we "recoil towards a state of nature." We believe that nature wills marriage and parentage to be kept sacred. The fact of their not being so is to us not a pleasant subject of jest; and we should really pity the first lady of England for injury here, though she be a queen; while the ladies of the French court, or of Parisian society, if they willingly lend themselves to be the subject of this style of jest, or find it agreeable when made, must be to us the cause both of pity, and disgust. We are not unaware of the great and beautiful qualities native to the French—of their chivalry, their sweetness of temper, their rapid, brilliant and abundant genius. We would wish to see these qualities restored to their native lustre, and not receive the base alloy which has long stained the virginity of the gold.

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