Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Life in a French kitchen - Part 2


(Continued from p. 97.)


On my first arrival in Paris, being a thorough idler, and having nothing to do after dining at a Restaurant, which pleasure could not be well extended beyond seven o’clock, I went a few times to the theatres, although doing so was contrary to my rule of only indulging in amusements which cost nothing. However, either from the actors speaking too quickly, or from my limited knowledge of French, I only made out half what was said, and lost all the points; so I gave it up. But when I came to understand what the natives said, even when they were talking among themselves, I visited the pit of every theatre in Paris, except the opera, which was beyond my finances.

One day, I proposed to Madame Blot, that we should make a party for one of the theatres. Madame, who loves an outing in summer, can scarcely be induced to cross the threshold in winter; but the natural love of a Frenchwoman for a theatre overcame her expected sufferings from cold feet, and we arranged to go the following Sunday to the Gymnase, to see a piece called Les Parents, which had been acted one hundred and seventy-four times, and still drew houses. The party consisted of Madame and Marguerite, the lieutenant and myself, the chéri being left at home to guard the house, and to have a hot supper ready when we came home. The feet of Madame being carefully encased in woollens, boots, and galoshes, so as entirely to stop the circulation, and the evening being fine, we started to walk, and arrived in about twenty minutes at the doors, where we joined the queue. There is no crowding or crush at the doors of a French theatre, as in a civilised place like London, but the people fall in, two and two, like a company of soldiers in file, sometimes extending sixty or seventy yards along the trottoir. I do not know whether this is done by mutual consent, or by orders of the police, but an attempt is never made to get in front of those who are already in the queue. Half an hour before the play begins, the bureau is opened, and about six or seven of the two queues (for there is a second one for the gallery) are admitted at a time. They pay their money through a wire grating, and are ushered into their places, without the most tender female suffering any annoyance. This would never do in England. It would be infringing on the liberty of young Bull, if he was not allowed to jostle the old lady and her two daughters, and to make their visit to the play as disagreeable as he could.

All this is a pleasant contrast to our system; but indeed the whole business of a theatre is better organised there than in England. The seats are more comfortable, and even in the pit there is room for the legs—a great consideration to a man of six feet. The house holds a certain number, and that number is admitted, and no more. It is well ventilated, and sufficiently lighted with one large chandelier and the foot-lights. There is no shouting or uproarious applause. A spectator may be amused, but he is not expected to applaud more than he would do in a drawing-room. Those men in front of us, in the first and second rows of the pit, are the claqueurs—that is their chêf with the diamond breastpin—and they do all the applause. They pay nothing for their places, and receive a small allowance from the actors: a curious system, but it saves a deal of confusion. The audience is very well behaved, great courtesy being shown to ladies. Indeed the audience never gave me any other idea than that it was composed of a quiet set of ladies and gentlemen who came to be amused at something going on in a large drawing-room. The door-keepers are women, who practise a little extortion on their own sex—but it is only for a few sous, for footstools.

There was only one piece to be acted, Les Parents, which means “relations” as well as parents. It was in seven acts and eighteen tableaux—something to undergo; but the interest of the audience never flagged for a moment. The intrigue, or plot, was not only considerably involved, but the thread of it was nearly lost to me altogether, when several events, which had happened previous to the first act were told by an old negress in nigger-French, a language I do not understand. However, thanks to some explanations by Marguerite between the acts, I made out the following story.

There are two sorts of heroes on the French stage; a popular ruffian who sticks at nothing, and never makes love for an honest purpose; and a spoony hero who gains the prize in a school of design, or can ride without stirrups; who does all the honest love in the play, and whose fate in the end is generally matrimony. There are two heroes in Les Parents,—a spoony and a vagabond.

An old Monsieur Dubois is married to a young wife, and they have one son, but they live separate, in consequence of her having given him cause to be jealous of a Count de Champsey. During the first revolution, Dubois escapes with his child to England, and afterwards settles in one of the West India Islands, where he dies and leaves his property to his son, provided he never speaks to his mother, to whom he also leaves a small annuity, which she loses if she speaks to her son. The ship in which the boy is returning to France is wrecked, and all hands are lost except young Dubois, and another boy of the same age, and a black woman, by whose means the two children are saved.

Fifteen years are supposed to have elapsed between the first and second acts, which opens with Madame Dubois, rather low in the world, and longing all the more to see her son, because she is forbidden to do so.

The old black nurse, who is the mysterious character in the play, hints at having something on her conscience, and excites the curiosity of Madame Dubois by asking if she would know her son if she met him.

Madame says she would, by a mole on his neck.

Young Dubois, who is the spoony hero, is in love with Marie, the daughter of the very Count de Champsey already mentioned, and he has a rival in Auguste, the vagabond hero and the other boy who was saved from the wreck. But as the latter has nothing but lieutenant’s pay, she is betrothed to Dubois, although her heart is naturally with Auguste, who is rather a fine fellow with all his faults.

Madame Dubois watches her son’s door till she sees him, but she cannot rest till she has also seen the mole on his neck, which must be done without his knowledge. She manages to get into his house by being employed to make some alterations in the curtains of his bed; and a fine scene takes place between the son and the agitated mother, as she endeavours to look for the mole on his neck while he is dressing. The mother’s doubts and love, and the son’s absence of all expression, except a little impatience, made a good contrast, and were well acted; and the whole scene, in which not twenty words were spoken, commanded great attention.

Auguste, who does everything compatible with noble ruffianism, tries all methods to get possession of Marie, and, on one occasion, would have carried her off, if it had not been for a very fine dog, whose clever performance on the stage is, no doubt, one of the causes of the success of the piece.

He has now to join his regiment in Spain, whither we follow him through two rather long acts, in which he performs wonders on a grey charger, also produced on the stage.

Among other feats, he rides through an embrasure of a field-work, sabres all the gunners, and is only prevented carrying off the colours of an English regiment, by their having been captured the week previous in a victory, the name of which is not mentioned.

In the sixth act, Dubois and Marie are about to be married, when his mother enters. She tries to get near him to whisper something in his ear, but he will not listen, and she is put out. But, after the marriage, she contrives to meet him alone, about ten o’clock at night, Marie having gone to her bed-room, when she tells him that she is his mother, that he is the son of the Count de Champsey, and therefore married to his half-sister. Dubois, very naturally, is not a little startled, but a discussion takes place—which is fairly argued on both sides—whether he ought to proceed further or jump out of the window. He comes to the conclusion that the latter is the correct thing to do under the circumstances; so, tearing himself from his mother, he throws himself with a run from a window at the back of the stage. Madame faints, and Auguste—who has returned from the wars a colonel covered with glory—here enters. She recognises her real son from his likeness to the Count de Champsey; he shows the mole on his neck, and the black nurse confesses that, to make her old master’s child rich, she changed the children at the wreck.

Madame sends Auguste to tell Marie what has happened, and the scene changes. The audience have been very attentive, and now become quite silent. A pin would have been heard to drop when Marie appears in her night-dress (and very nice she looked) and passes into the bridal chamber. But when Auguste crosses the stage, and follows her into the bed-room—knowing, as we all do, that he is capable of any mortal thing—I felt Marguerite’s heart thumping against my arm, and when I looked round the girl was as white as a sheet.

Two years are supposed to have elapsed, and in the last tableau Marie and Dubois (who, of course, was not killed by the jump from the window) appear in a drawing-room with the rest of the characters. She is dressed in a drab moire, with one deep flounce trimmed with crimson velvet. This is her eighth change during the piece—one more beautiful than another. There is no applause, but you are aware, by a low murmur, that the dress is creating a sensation. She announces that Dubois, not being her half-brother, is still her husband, and that she has presented him with a son and heir—also produced on the stage in the arms of the black nurse. Each of the characters now repeats a couplet, and the curtain falls.

Marguerite, who realised every situation in the play, is silent all the way home. All her sympathies were with Dubois, and she firmly believed that Marie was en chemise behind the scene when Auguste went into her bed-room, and she cannot shake off the idea. By the time we reach home she is more cheerful, and comes quite round at the sight of the supper provided by the chéri—a brace of partridges aux truffes and a magnificent mayonnaise.

Let me try to draw a comparison between the English and French stages. We are supposed to have the best of it in the language, for, though French is very telling in light conversation, and capable of great point and precision, yet it fails in melodramatic power independent of the situation. The tones are nasal, and the chant (or sing-song, as it may be called,) of a person declaiming, though musical, is monotonous and tiresome to a degree. When sitting with closed eyes, a little beyond the distance of hearing distinctly, it would not be easy to say whether the sing-song is from Regnier the actor, Monsieur Dupin the senator, or Monsieur Coquerel (père) the distinguished preacher in the Rue Marbœuf. To overcome this monotony, an expressive manner is required. A Frenchman does not assume it, for he has it naturally, and in the ordinary conversation of daily life he has as much manner as an Englishman assumes on the stage. Without this assumed manner English acting would look bald and cold. Hence it is that the French do not appear to be acting in light or genteel comedy, for nothing more is required of them but their natural manner, whereas our actors always seem to be acting a part.

The French come on the stage in a quiet manner, as if nobody was watching; they join in the conversation, as if nobody was listening but the actors, and they move about as if they were in a room. They have much saluting and kissing of foreheads and both cheeks, which they do gracefully, and naturally too, for it is the daily custom among relations, and sometimes among friends when they meet even in the streets.

In a play which I saw in Paris, called Cendrillon, and founded on our Cinderella, the favourite daughter, a grown-up woman, fairly lived in her mother’s arms, and they kissed each other every two minutes. The table-cloth is generally laid in one of the scenes of a French play—not that a meal has anything to do with the plot, but it is made a vehicle for dialogue. All this manner and these petty occupations tend to employ the hands and to fill up scenes which, on the English stage, look bald and bare, as if an artist had painted a picture without a background.

French Tragedy is a very painful lady. Her breast is ever heaving with passion, and her hands trembling with emotion above her head. She has no dignity, for she cannot keep her hands quiet for a moment. To me there is no greater punishment than a French five act tragedy—“Iphegenie en Aulide,” for instance. It has very little action on the stage, and it is played from beginning to end without a change of scene or even fall of the curtain; and the ladies wear no crinoline. It is written in couplets, which always have a jingling effect which Rachel may have overcome, but I never saw her act.

The forte of the French players is genteel comedy, and in this line they can give us many lessons in grace, manners, and imitation of real life. They certainly have no actors equal to ours of the first class, but they have a much higher average. I never saw a “regular stick” on the Paris stage. Most of them—particularly the women—have an easy manner, are perfectly self-possessed, and look the part without any great exaggeration in the make-up.

When they have to act gentlemen (a difficult part for them, as they have no very clear idea of what we call gentlemen, the word gentilhomme only extending to birth and dress,) they look and play the part as well as Frenchmen can, and it is only now and then that we see a Frenchwoman on the stage that does not look like a lady. Whereas our actresses have left an impression on my mind that they are lady’s-maids promoted.

The French are great play-goers. Being good judges of acting they go to see the play, and to be amused, and therefore make a most attentive audience. No conversation is allowed during the acts. Parties not satisfied with the performance, and showing signs of disapprobation are walked out, but whether their money is returned at the door or not I cannot say.

It is said that the French are excitable, but they gave me more the idea of being frivolous—easily pleased and patient in their amusements. They will make queue on a wet night, half-an-hour before the doors are opened, and they will wait another half-hour before the curtain rises to one long piece of perhaps seven acts, and an indefinite number of tableaux. They delight in small jokes, and there are a few of not a very delicate description, which no amount of repetition can deprive of their point, and without which a French farce would no more be complete than an English pantomime without a hot poker.

On the subject of propriety on the stage, their ideas and ours differ not a little, and a great deal takes place, and is applauded with them, that would damn a piece at once with us.

In a farce called Une chambre à deux lits, which is the foundation of our Box and Cox, two of the actors take off their clothes, except shirt and drawers and get into the two beds. In Les Parents the audience attached no indelicate idea to the part where Marie, on her wedding night, appeared in her night-dress and went into the bedroom, followed at once by a man that was not her husband.

If this play was translated into English, and had its French sentiment turned into corresponding English pathos,—if it had the advantage of the best cast and mise en scêne, it would not live beyond the first act on any boards in London.


About this time I offended my landlady and blundered into genteel society,—two great mistakes.

A Parisian never travels, and speaks no language but his own. If he is driven from home by business, or by the heat of Paris, to London or to the German baths, he is in exile till he is again inside the barrier. Like all untravelled people he thinks that his country is the most beautiful and the most glorious in all the world; that the natives are the most enlightened and civilised; and that Paris is everything that is attractive, and gay. He resents, as a personal insult, the pretensions of other nations to compete with his.

Now, Madame Blot, who never was out of Paris in the course of her life, is exceedingly touchy on this point; and not being aware of her weakness, I was constantly giving offence, which was quite unintentional on my part, and, it must be said, as soon forgiven on hers. But, in the course of ten minutes of one unlucky day, I said three unpardonable things, creating a wound that did not heal for a whole fortnight. First: I preferred English bacon to French—a dreadful heresy. Secondly: I had not seen a better looking woman in France than the Empress, forgetting she was a Spaniard. And the third unlucky remark referred to the expressive way the French have of shrugging their shoulders and raising their hands as high as the waist, at the same time turning out the palms. This they do when they have no words to express their ideas, or no ideas to express, or when they wish to finish the argument. I went through the motion, remarking that it said a hundred things.

Madame, who, without my observing it, had felt hurt at my admiration of the Empress and English bacon, now thought that I was imitating her when I shrugged my shoulders. She boiled up at once, and bounced out of the kitchen to her seat near the window, where I could see her working furiously at the endless border. Next day, when I hung my key on the board in the bureau, she was so huffy that I told Blot I would dine en ville for a short time.

There was a M. de Falaise, or some such name, who, during the Exibition in 1851, brought a letter of introduction to me in London. I took lodgings for him, and gave him a dinner or two at the club. In return, he hoped I would call upon him if ever I was in Paris; and meeting him a day or two after the row with Madame, he said he would be glad to introduce me to Madame de Falaise, who gave a ball every other Thursday. “Would I go to the next?”

There is no society more expensive than that which one gets for nothing, and hitherto I had avoided going into society on that account. But I thanked him, and went.

The ladies were plain enough, but they were studies, quite pictures in dress. They were friendly at once, and agreeable without formality. Madame de Falaise introduced me to some other French families, and, at the end of the week I had been to four balls and a dinner. Here was success! But could I afford it? I had to buy a new hat with a white lining, for my old Donaldson was too bad for anything, and could not be concealed by even a broad band, worn for an imaginary relative who died about that time. At a ball in Paris a man does not part with his hat till he has asked a lady to dance, and he then places it in her chair, which is thereby kept for her till the dance is over. I was rather ashamed of Donaldson on the first occasion,—he was left alone on a fauteuil of white satin trimmed with pink silk cording—and next morning I gave twenty-two francs for a new hat. Besides this sum, which came, as it were, out of the capital account, there were three francs every night for gloves; two francs for a cab there, and the same back, not including the pourboire—seven francs for the night’s amusement!

And then I was led by Louis Velay to visit, by gaslight, several of the low parts of Paris,—a subject to which, not being required in his examination, he had paid great attention. And thus it was that in taking stock of the finances at the end of fourteen days, I found I had spent my whole month’s allowance.

I could see Madame Blot was wishing for a reconciliation.

Marguerite asked me one day, on meeting her between the hotel and her mother’s shop, “How it was that I had deserted my old friends?” This was rather good, but she had probably been deputed to ask the question; and as she believes everything that is said to her, of course she was satisfied that it was I that was offended. On leaving the key of my room in the bureau next morning, and, as usual of late, merely bowing to Madame without speaking, she made me a gracious bow, and ended by hoping she would soon see me again in my old place in the kitchen. I was not sorry to get back, for genteel society had played harlequin with my finances, and we became better friends than before. I managed her better afterwards. When she was at all touchy, or less amiable than usual, I used to flatter her and her country; French beauty and French bacon—everything at dinner and everything she had on—and I never paid her a compliment too large for her swallow.

I gave up genteel society, and contented myself with Rampse, and my friends in the kitchen.