The French Character

Lord d’Abernon

Diplomat Sir Edgar Vincent, 1st Viscount d’Abernon, analyses the French. This was written shortly after the first world war.

In the realm of manners the French have been supreme. It is to them that Europe owes such refinement and grace as its customs possess, and above all it owes to France the establishment of a standard of social behaviour. Who can deny that the progress from the sodden orgies of prolonged duration which dinners in England and Germany presented in the eighteenth century is largely due to French taste assisted by French cookery ? To French eyes drunkenness is not the unfailing source of humour and amusement that it constitutes on the English stage. As a social custom it is not tolerated, as a subject of ridicule it is not required. The part we assign to the drunkard has long been taken by the mother-in-law and the deceived husband : these adequately meet the requirements of French comedy, perhaps more than adequately, yet they never appear to weary a Gallic audience.

One of the most characteristic peculiarities of the French mind is the extraordinary amount of diversion derived from sexual relationship and conjugal misfortune. These themes never seem to weary either in theory or practice. The French have a considerable contempt for our views on these matters, and probably underrate our capacity for deriving satisfaction from them. An extreme instance of their misjudgment was heard at Monte Carlo, when a professional lady said scornfully to an unresponsive Anglo-Saxon : “Votre luxure à vous autres, c’est le viskey.”

Not that the French are abnormally immoral ; certainly not as immoral as they appear to the casual foreigner, but they extract an inordinate amount of amusement from immorality. And this notwithstanding the fact that family life in France is closer than with us. Families live more together, and mutual obligations such as that of son to parent, and still more daughter to mother, are so rigorous that they would be found intolerable on this side of the Channel.

Throughout all relations of life the French live more by rule than by instinct. Everything is laid down and codified, little or nothing is left to individual judgment and personal feeling. There is a precise standard in all matters—to fall below it is to commit a solecism. Habits have become law-law which must not be infringed. And indeed most Frenchmen have no desire to infringe it. The discipline of custom and good manners is willingly observed. Many of these observances we should find beyond our indolent, easy-going habit of life. The minute formalities about introductions, the strict etiquette of visits, the obligation to engage for hours in general conversation, and forego the more intimate delights of téte-à-téte, these customs and many others Englishmen would find irksome and oppressive.

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