On French Customs and Manners by a Scotsman

Tobias George Smollett, by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, ca. 1764, French Customs, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Tobias George Smollett, by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, ca. 1764, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Tobias George Smollett was a Scottish poet and author best known for his eighteenth century novels, which included The Adventures of Roderick Random and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle. Smollett was also a great traveler with strong opinions. In the mid 1700s he went abroad with his wife and did so not only for pleasure but also because he was ordered to go by his physicians. He also traveled for one other reason: A “deliberate intention of making as much money as possible out of his Travel papers.” The result was Travels through France and Italy, a book published in 1766 composed of lively travel letters and written by Smollett with wit and acerbity. In addition, wherever he traveled he quarreled: He quarreled with innkeepers, postilions, and fellow travelers. He also held foreigners in contempt and derided their customs, their social status, and their faith.

One letter dated October 12, 1763, mentioned the manners and customs of the French. Here is a portion of it (almost) verbatim:

“The French are … remarkable for a natural levity … This is reinforced by the most preposterous education, and the example of a giddy people engaged in the most frivolous pursuits. A Frenchman is taught by some priest or monk to read his mother tongue and to say his prayers in a language he does not understand. He is accomplished in dancing and fencing by the masters of those sciences; to which if he adds some knowledge of music, he esteems himself irresistible. But he piques himself most on being polished above the natives of any other country by his conversation with the fair-sex. In the course of  this communication, with which he is indulged from his tender years, he learns, like a parrot, by rote, the whole circle of French compliments; which consist of nothing more than a set of phrases ridiculous to excess, and those he throws out indiscriminately to all women, without regard to age, place, or circumstance. By the frequent repetition of his exercise, he becomes very pert, very familiar, and very impertinent.

Being accustomed to gallantry from his earliest infancy, a Frenchman becomes perfectly acquainted with the very minutiae of female customs and humours; and, apparently by instinct, performs a thousand little offices to serve them, which men, whose time has been spent in making more valuable acquisitions, would entirely overlook. He enters a lady’s bed chamber, while she is in bed, without ceremony, reaches her whatever she wants, airs her shift, and thinks himself guilty of no indecorum in officiously assisting to put it on. He attends at her toilette, regulates the distribution of her patches, and directs where she may paint with the happiest effect. Should he enter when she is dressed, and perceive the least impropriety in her COIFFURE, he insists on adjusting it with his own hands. Constantly furnished with a comb, scissors, and pomatum, if he sees a curl, or even a single hair, amiss, he immediately sets about rectifying it with all the dexterity of a professed FRIZEUR. He attends her to every place of public or private resort, whether on business or on pleasure; and, by dedicating his whole time to her service, renders himself absolutely the slave of her caprices, and the minion of her pleasures.

Such is the genuine character of a Frenchman of taste. A coxcomb by profession, impertinent through the extravagance of his politeness, and the humblest vassal of female vanity, while he is ministering to the gratification of his own. In short, a French PETIT MAITRE (and of that description are all in general form the marquis who glitters in lace and embroidery, to the GARÇON BARBIERE covered with meal) is one of the most idle, insignificant, and foppish creatures, that creation can afford.

A Frenchman values his hair more than his God, and will sooner pawn his shirt than part with his QUEUE. Even the very CANNAILLE, the boy who cleans shoes at the corner of the street, and the beggar who drives his ass, are all alike partial to a long tail…behind, though perhaps they may be destitute of a shirt and breeches.

But this partiality, however ridiculous, is perhaps less criminal than another equally universal, at least in one sex, which we are about to mention; that is paint, which seems to carry human affectation to the farthest verge of folly and extravagance. In other countries, it is true, some part of the fair-sex use FARD and vermilion to mend a bad or a faded complexion, to heighten their natural graces, or to conceal the defects of nature, as well as the ravages of time, and even this will appear disgusting and artificial to every lover of nature; but in France, where fashion prescribes it to all ladies of conditions, who indeed cannot appear without this badge of distinction, the practice becomes odious and detestable, and every spectator who has a relish for real beauty must be hurt at the reflection. As to FARD, or white, with which the neck and shoulders are plaistered, it may in some measure be excusable to conceal a skin naturally sallow, and might be laid on from a desire of appearing more agreeable; but the rouge, which bedaubs their faces from the chin up to the eyes, without the least art of dexterity, destroys all distinction of features, renders the aspect really frightful, and excites nothing but ideas of disgust and aversion. Yet this horrible mask forms the only distinction of rank; and without it no married lady is admitted to court, or into any polite assembly; nor dare any of the lower classes assume this badge.”

References:

  • Smollett, Tobias, Travels Through France and Italy, 1766 
  • -, Chester Courant, 8 August 1815

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