« AnteriorContinuar »
as notorious as it had been mysterious, as barefaced as it once was blushing; for with public opinion, with esteem in England, there is happily no compromise. Rank and wealth, and extraordinary dexterity, may keep some women afloat for a season upon the surface of society, in spite of faults and errors; but the surest weight which drags them to the bottom is opprobrium. The very great share of public attention excited in this country by the unexpected emersion of a female from the privacy of concealment to calamitous celebrity, as if a sun were to burst into the meridian at midnight, is precisely the thing which proves the comparative unfrequency of error. Yet, strange to say, much of the depreciation of the reputation of English women, both at home and abroad, is due to this very circumstance. In certain more civilized regions, it must be owned, one is amused with no extraordinary tales of love and intrigue. All goes on smoothly; no Doctors Commons, no damages, no divorces, no intrusive husbands. If a woman escapes the general contagion, she becomes almost as remarkable as those in England, whose loves have been brought before the woolsack. When Madame de Genlis mentions a lady of whom she chooses to tell no scandal, or of whom no scandal can be told, she seldom fails to bestow upon her the due note of singularity.
It would be difficult to refine upon the principles of depravity with more ability than the French have done; and, whenever their mettle is not raised by our assertion of purer morality, there is no subject which elates them more than the superior elegance of their corruption. Perhaps,' say they sometimes, perhaps we may be as vicious as the English, but then we are bad more gracefully;' and a few instances of very ungraceful vice indeed in some of our fair countrywomen have confirmed this opinion. But a thing which the French have hardly seen at all, or ever can see, is the interior of an English family in the middling ranks of society; in that numerous class which is the broad and solid basis of English worth, and English prosperity. There they might behold -though perhaps they might not comprehend-woman in all her glory; not a doll to carry silks and jewels, a puppet to be dangled by coxcomb children, an idol for profane adoration; reverenced to-day, discarded to-morrow; always justled out of the true place which nature and society would assign her by sensuality or by contempt; admired but not respected, desired but not esteemed; ruling by fashion, not by affection; imparting her weakness, not her constancy, to the sex which she should exalt; the source and the mirror of vanity. They would see her as a wife partaking the cares, and cheering the anxiety of a husband; dividing his labours by her domestic diligence, spreading cheerfulness around her;
for his sake sharing in the decent refinements of the world, without being vain of them; placing all her pride, all her joy, all her happiness in the merited approbation of the man she honours. As a mother, they would find her the affectionate, the ardent instructress of the children she had tended from their infancy; training them up to thought and virtue, to meditation and benevolence, addressing them as rational beings, and preparing them to be men and women in their turn.
Our morals, male and female, are chastened by one general cause a cause of which, even while the French confess its existence, they deny the effect. We are too busy a people to be vicious. We have not time to carry on long and complicated intrigues, to be profound in duplicity; to lavish away a year in Corsica, write volumes, and travesty ourselves perpetually, for the purpose of blasting the reputation of a woman, of seducing her, or of making the public believe that she, and not the wife of our brother, is the object of our desires. We have other matters to settle; and better is it for us to be condemned to labour for our country's good than to luxuriate in olives, vines, and vices.
If the various occupations of Englishmen divide them more from the fair sex than the futile pleasures of the French, we cannot but think that though there may be some cause for regret, on both sides, for this separation, yet the advantages of our sys tem more than compensate its defects. The men remain more men than when softened by the perpetual presence of females. Their minds are more masculine, more capable of the great affairs to which they seem destined by nature, and not unfitted for any of the minor social relations. The women have more leisure for their domestic concerns, more time for improvement; and, as they know that their mates and partners will return to them with invigorated minds, it is natural that they should endeavour to meet them on the same heights. The avocations of the men to public meetings, public dinners, &c. and the seclusion in which the ladies live during those moments, are, we are convinced of it, favourable to both parties; and their meeting again, when those are past, has no taste of satiety. The exclusive tea-table may sometimes be as dull as Madame de Staël has described it in her Corinna; and the evening sittings of the gentlemen may be now and then abusive. But we are persuaded that were these daily secessions to be abolished, as in France, both sexes would be the worse for it, and the nation would lose a part of its greatness. France, says Madame de Genlis, is the paradise of women: but never do we see any of those noble creatures, whose true and Christian paradise on earth we maintain to be Britain, wiled away from their native land to wed in foreign climes, to give up their country, their religion, to wish
for the defeat of England in some future war, to disbelieve their Bible, or else to think salvation impossible to the friends, the relations of their youth, without a sentiment of deep regret; and most bitterly do we think those parents to be blamed who, for their own gratification, or for the purpose of teaching a daughter to dance at a little less expense, expose her to such temptation. Generally indeed those who yield to it are not the most to be regretted of our females, but still they might have been preserved. In making these observations we would be understood not to give them a careless breadth of application. We do not mean to say that there is no female chastity in France, no female profligacy in England. We mean to say that the proportions in each country are such as to authorize the conclusions we have drawn, and to make these not universal, but general. We are ready also to make some other concessions ;-we are quite willing to allow that the dissoluteness of one country diminishes much of the blame, and some of the degradation, attached to the individual;--that a French woman may err with less contamination to herself than an English woman—that she who has been educated in English principles, who is allowed to make her own choice of a husband, who has so many domestic joys, who is called away from them by so few seductions, who has eternally before her eyes the respect paid to those of her sex that perform their duty, and the contempt and misery which awaits those who do not-who must practise so much dissimulation, or brave so much fame-is more to be blamed and pitied when she swerves from virtue's rule.' La Rochefoucault has said, that the smallest fault of a woman of gallantry is her gallantry. If this be true generally, it is particularly true here.
Over such a state of morals as the earlier volumes of these Memoirs exhibit in such glaring light, a revolution swept with all its blasting virulence. The portion of virtue which it had to destroy, did not consume much of its strength; the refinements of vice soon yielded before its open profligacy. Its new laws permitted a promiscuous intercourse, and marriages were dissolved on demand. Many of the beasts who roam wild in the woods are bound to their females by more lasting ties than those which the legislature of regenerated France made necessary among the human creatures which it governed; and this system predominated, in various degrees, for more than twenty years. It was not till after the restoration of the Bourbons that it can be said to have ceased; and even then the marriage bond was, in every catholic opinion at least, left incomplete. The law which made wedlock a mere civil contract was maintained; the parties were allowed to perform or not, as they pleased, the ceremonies of their respective churches; and the catholic rite,
which held it as a sacrament before, was thus shaken in one of its seven fundamental points. During many years, the ceremony before the municipality alone was practised; and when the churches were re-opened, and religion restored, as was the language of the day, by Buonaparte, a few couples proceeded to the altar-and but a few indeed. We have seen extracts from parish registers between 1800 and 1814, in which the average of these was only one in seven. Now indeed the clergy of France exhort their flock to have recourse to the church, after the municipality, and, if they never did worse than this, we should applaud them. A small portion of public opinion too helps them a little; but, in all the concerns of religion in France, those who will have any thing will have too much; those who will not have too much will have nothing. Sooner or later the people will demand a reformed creed: And they will obtain it, but the waters of their baptism will be blood.
To annul the marriage contract-and its vow-was, however, at every step toward returning order, made a little less easy and in 1814 and 1815, the two first years of the restoration, it had become very difficult indeed! for, in the city of Paris, in a population then much under 700,000 souls, there were in each of those years, only thirty-two divorces; that is to say, one divorce in about 20,000 persons; or, according to an official statement of the number of marriages at the same time, one divorce to 184 marriages. Now in England, as we have been told, not two divorces and a half are the annual average; which being pronounced in a population of to be within bounds-fifteen millions, makes one divorce in six millions of persons, or only of the proportion of French divorces at the time when they were the most difficult to be obtained. If it be said that we allow but one ground for divorcing, we grant it, and rejoice in the morality of our legislation. If again it be objected that we have many legal separations, &c., we answer, no number that, even were they divorces, could raise our ratio to any thing like one in 184 or even 1840 marriages. The French are convinced that the sale of a wife in the public market, with a halter round her neck, is with us a legal dissolution of marriage, and quite in our habits-and let them think so.
The system of society was so torn during the revolution, that it would require a separate dissertation to give a just idea of that immense chasm; and it creates no small surprize to see that so much has been already brought back to its former order. Nevertheless many essential differences still strike the observer. The feelings and opinions upon female virtue, upon chastity, are indeed, we greatly fear, the same as formerly in all classes; neither atheism nor bigotry could improve them much. But the style of present intercourse,
intercourse, the habits of the times, cares, anxieties, the loss of fortune, the dependence upon royal or ministerial bounties, the trade of arms no longer exclusive to the nobility, no longer the domain of gallantry, with numberless other influences great and small, have produced some changes in the relations between men and women, which, without correcting the principles, have considerably modified the practice of morality. One of the most prominent features of actual manners, is the diminution of that politeness so remarkable formerly; and which, though it consisted entirely in forms and behaviour, though a very large portion of it could be taught by the dancing-master, though it was utterly independent of the heart, very much facilitated the circulation of society, and was unquestionably the great, the boasted charm of France. Now, without this, there is not gallantry; and, without gallantry, love intrigues, of the sort described in Madame de Genlis's earlier tomes, cannot be so generally and so systematically pursued, as when both men and women were the pampered fondlings of luxury. A chapter in one of her later volumes will afford a sad contrast, in this respect, to the suppers of the old régime; and show the dismal ebb of that elegance and refinement which had studied gracefulness even in their offendings, and a show of good breeding even in their impertinences. Mad. de Genlis dined at her son-in-law's, Gen. Valence, with four French peers two of whom were dukesfour marshals, and three generals. At dinner she was placed between two peers, who opened not their mouths to her, but talked politics across the table during the whole time. After dinner they returned to the drawing-room where she seated herself; but suddenly all the dukes, peers, marshals, and generals, made a rush, carrying off their seats, and established themselves in a ring, outside of which sat the deserted proprietress of the most charming 'petit nez retroussé' in the world. Her first surmise was, that these grave personages had formed their impenetrable circle for the purpose of playing small games, which she thought an innocent and not unlaudable pastime; but what was her surprize when she heard them discuss the most difficult questions of state; declaim, scream, dispute, roar, as if they were in the chamber of deputies!
They had no president, (says she,) and I had a mind to take upon myself the office and call them to order; but I had no bell, and I feared that my voice would be extinguished by their vociferations.'
They continued thus during an hour and a half, after which time she left them hoarse and perspiring, without having advanced a step in argument, and still arguing.
Oh le bon tems (exclaims the reminiscent) que celui où, lors qu'on se rassembloit