Though the ladies of France are not very handsome, they are sensible and witty. To many of them, without the least flattery, may be applied the distich which Sappho ascribes to herself:
“If partial nature has denied me beauty, the charms of my mind amply make up for the deficiency.”
No women upon earth can excel, and few rival them, in their almost native arts of pleasing all who approach them. Add to this, an education beyond that of most European ladies, a consummate skill in those accomplishments that suit the fair sex, and the most graceful manner of displaying that knowledge to the utmost advantage.
Such is the description that may safely be given of the French ladies in general. But the spirit, or rather the evil genius of gallantry, too often perverts all these lovely qualities, and renders them subservient to very iniquitous ends.
In every country, women have always a little to do, and a great deal to say. In France, they dictate almost every thing that is said, and direct every thing that is done. They are the most restless beings in the world. To fold her hands in idleness, and impose silence on her tongue, would be to a French woman worse than death. The sole joy of her life is to be engaged in the prosecution of some scheme, relating either to fashion, ambition, or love.
Among the rich and opulent, they are entirely the votaries of pleasure, which they pursue through all its labyrinths, at the expense of fortune, reputation, and health. Giddy and extravagant to the last degree, they leave to their husbands economy and care, which would only spoil their complexions, and furrow their brows.
When we descend to tradesmen and mechanics, the case is reversed: the wife manages every thing in the house and shop, while the husband lounges in the back-shop an idle spectator, or struts about with his sword and bag-wig.
Matrimony among the French, seems to be a bargain entered into by a male and female, to bear the same name, live in the same house, and pursue their separate pleasures without restraint or control. And, so religiously is this part of the bargain kept, that both parties shape their course exactly as convenience and inclination dictate.
The French girls are kept under very strict superintendence. They are not allowed to go to parties, or places of public amusement, without being accompanied by some married female relation; and they see their lovers only in the presence of a third person. Marriages are entirely negotiated by parents; and sometimes the wedding day is the second time that a bride and bridegroom see each other. Nothing is more common than to visit a lady, and attend her parties, without knowing her husband by sight; or to visit a gentleman without ever being introduced to his wife. If a married couple were to be seen frequently in each other’s company, they would be deemed extremely ungenteel. After ladies are married, they have unbounded freedom. It is a common practice to receive morning calls from gentlemen, before they have risen from bed; and they talk with as little reserve to such visiters, as they would in the presence of any woman of refinement.
In no country does real politeness shew itself more than in France, where the company of the women is accessible to every man who can recommend himself by his dress, and by his address. To affectation and prudery the French women are equally strangers. Easy and unaffected in their manners, their politeness has so much the appearance of nature, that one would almost believe no part of it to be the effect of art. An air of sprightliness and gaiety sits perpetually on their countenances, and their whole deportment seems to indicate that their only business is to “strew the path of life with flowers.” Persuasion hangs on their lips; and, though their volubility of tongue is indefatigable, so soft is their accent, so lively their expression, so various their attitudes, that they fix the attention for hours together on a tale of nothing.
The Jewish doctors have a fable concerning the etymology of the word Eve, which one would almost be tempted to say is realized in the French women. “Eve,” say they, “comes from a word, which signifies to talk; and she was so called, because, soon after the creation, there fell from heaven twelve baskets full of chit chat, and she picked up nine of them, while her husband was gathering the other three.”
French ladies, especially those not young, use a great deal of rouge. A traveller who saw many of them in their opera boxes, says, “I could compare them to nothing but a large bed of pionies.”
After the French revolution, it became the fashion to have everything in ancient classic style. Loose flowing drapery, naked arms, sandaled feet, and tresses twisted, were the order of the day.
The state of gross immorality that prevailed at this time ought not to be described, if language had the power. The profligacy of Rome in its worst days was comparatively thrown into the shade. Religion and marriage became a mockery, and every form of impure and vindictive passion walked abroad, with the consciousness that public opinion did not require them to assume even a slight disguise. The fish-women of Paris will long retain an unenviable celebrity for the brutal excess of their rage. The goddess of Reason was worshipped by men, under the form of a living woman entirely devoid of clothing; and in the public streets ladies might be seen who scarcely paid more attention to decorum.