Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The salons of Paris


It is not to be denied, that, under the present empire, the Parisian salons are one of the chief centres of opposition. Of all the institutions of France, the salons of the capital are those which have least wavered in the antipathy to the “Neveu de l’oncle,” as Louis Napoleon has been proverbially called. But at this I see my English readers ready to ask one question; namely, what on earth I can mean by calling the salons of Paris an “institution?”

Now, in truth, I know of no other name to give them; for they seem to me to be somewhere about the only force that is persistent and self-subsistent, and that, springing from what I can only call the moral soil of the country, has grown with the growth of the nation, identified itself with its habits and manners, and resisted governmental oppression under all its several forms. Every country has its particular agent of opposition to the executive power that rules it. We alone, in this happy island of ours, we being a self-governing set (which is precisely one of those “eccentricities” that no foreigner can understand), escape all necessity of confining the Protestant or opposing element to this or that particular portion of society. We have our House of Commons, our great public meetings, and our “Times.” Of what use on earth would it be to us, who can speak for ourselves on all subjects, and at all times, to commit the guardianship of our rights and liberties to a hundred fine ladies, a hundred sprightly wits, threescore members of the Institute, or a thousand long-haired students with flat woollen caps and sea-spawn pipes. Yet these are the guardians of public liberties both in Germany and in France; and when they do not succeed in guarding liberty from insult or attack, they, at all events, undertake to protest against and worry out of their lives those who have attacked or insulted the glorious goddess. We, perverse, mad-headed, indecorous islanders (disrespect for the conventionalities of decorum is what we are most reproached with abroad), we do all the work for ourselves, and object to being “cared for,” or even “made free,” by lawyers, or bishops, or heroines, or poets, by duchesses, or even by Herr Professors. This is a whim of ours, and it being an averred fact, that we are the most obstinate and “contrairy” race in existence, we had e’en best be left to our own devices, and not meddled with, though not necessarily taken as an example by other better brought-up nations. They do these things in a very different way in France and Germany. When a small German potentate has attempted, by some obscure, incomprehensible enactment, to change the current of civilisation in the state over which he holds sway—when he has ordained something in the matter of beer, for instance, or made it unlawful to enter his metropolis by some one particular gate after ten o’clock at night—we all know what he has to look out for: the Herrn Studenten assemble, and, after some talking, more drinking, most of all smoking, they sally forth by daylight or torchlight, as it may be, and with any amount of patriotic choruses, shouted at the top of their voices, they bring what is termed “public opinion” to bear upon “the State,” which is usually represented by a dozen heavy dragoons and one gunner. Whether Government or the “youth of the schools” gain the victory, is a matter of small moment. Public opinion has not its own way upon every occasion, even in the freest country in the world; but the important thing for us is, to know where “public opinion” resides—where the “corrective” for despotism is to be sought for. The corrective for despotism is to be sought for in Germany in the youth of the schools.

The analogous force in France must be looked for in the salons of Paris. What the German students do by dint of smoke, the salon-haunters of Paris do by dint of talk. Their pipes inspire the former to protect the rights of their fellow-citizens, the noise of their own tongues prompts the latter to a work of protestation that is eternal. What Mr. Bright does at Birmingham or elsewhere, when the spirit moves him to wage war upon the aristocracy of these realms, and declare the existence of dukes and marquises incompatible with the freedom of “the artisans whose labour fills all our shops and all our ships”—what Mr. Bright does upon these occasions, is done in France by great ladies and members of the Académie Française. And far be it from me to seem, in word or tone, disparaging to either. If France at the present hour has still retained any notion of social dignity, or any tradition of what would appear to us the commonest honesty or conviction, she owes it entirely to the steadfastness of opposition of the salons of Paris. Russians, under the reign of the first Emperor, Alexander, and just after the mysterious suppression of his father the madman Paul, used (quoting Voltaire) to say of their own form of Government, that it was “despotism tempered by assassination;” now you may really say of Imperial France, that its Government is “despotism tempered by talk.”

Let us only fancy what a curious state of things it would be in which all our great “houses” should be either closed or hostile, sulky or shut. No Stafford House, or Devonshire House, or Cambridge House. No Houses at all! Suppose all Piccadilly, all Park Lane, Belgravia, and May Fair —suppose all those “family mansions” with their shutters shut, as in the month of September, or opened only to the voice of discontent. The thing would seem odd even to such Londoners as never participate in their stately festivities. When London is alive, and going its usual round of “dinners, balls, and parties,” the very cabman on the stand knows that, though he and the owner of the palace opposite may not think alike on all points, there are some on which there is small difference of opinion between them. Try the unanimity of feeling on such a subject, for instance, as the Volunteer movement, or our Indian heroes, or the Queen, and see whether the duke and the dustman are not of one mind, and whether upon all occasions, when the national heart is touched, every fibre of the national body does not quiver responsively from head to heel! But here is just what does not take place in France. All the houses in Paris, from the Hôtel Pozzo to the Hôtel Duchâtel, are inhabited by masters and mistresses whose business it is, if they open their doors at all, to open them only to people who repudiate and declaim against the acts of the Government. And if you believe that honesty is better than fraud, and freedom preferable to oppression, you are obliged to be very glad for the morality of France that these centres of opposition still exist. They, at all events, keep alive a certain abstract moral sense in the public.

For instance, just take the following as a slight example of the “manners of the day.” We are in a magnificently furnished apartment, upon whose plain white (very soberly gilded) panellings hang a few pictures by masters of the old French school (mostly family portraits). There is splendour everywhere and some comfort (except that the doors shut badly). Quiet is the presiding deity of the scene; the lamp-light is subdued and quiet; the dresses of the ladies and the manners of the men are eminently quiet—all is quiet except the voices of the talkers; these are harsh in the male, shrill in the female occupants of the salon. Towards ten o’clock visitors drop in; and here is a vicomte, or a marquis, or simply Gaston de This, or Roger de That, from either the Jockey or the Baby Club.[1] And these young men are full of what has just happened to one of their own friends, and they tell the following story:

M. de N——, having a very fine horse, for which he does not particularly care, sells him one fine day to the administration of the Imperial stables. He sells him at the price he bought him for—200 guineas. A fortnight after the sale, his club-mates greet him laughingly, and say he has known how to “make a good thing for himself out of his nag.” He looks surprised, and he is treated to the information that his horse was paid for by the Emperor four hundred pounds.

“You only doubled, old fellow, which was no bad result!” says one man among the rest, and M. de N—— is so determined to sift the entire business to the uttermost, that at last, much as he dislikes it, he is driven to ask an audience from the Emperor Louis Napoleon. And from the Emperor he gets the truth, and the truth is, that he, M. de N——, sold the horse for 200 guineas, but his Majesty paid 400! and the remainder has gone into the pockets of a very high-placed star-and-cross-bespangled personage. To M. de N——’s very natural indignation, his Majesty only replies the following:

“Well, I have an excellent stud-master,—perhaps you have too. Mine cheats me—perhaps yours does too. But what remedy is there?”

Now, in the salon we are in, this whole proceeding is spoken of indignantly, and is it not well that it should be so? In Imperialist circles, alas! if allowed to be spoken of, it would not be condemned, because where would be found those who could venture to “throw the first stone?” Is it not, therefore, well—whatever may be their other little absurdities—that there should be some few social centres where honesty and dishonesty are still called by their names?—where family traditions have for several generations taught that fraud was ungentlemanlike, and where really the very portraits on the walls would blush if they saw the younger ones of their race resorting to practices to which the law—when it takes cognisance of them—uses hard terms?

Here, then, the salon is useful as a corrective.

We will new step into another of these drawing-rooms: but this one shall be situated in another quarter, and shall be somewhat less aristocratical. It shall be less quiet too. Here there is gilding in profusion, and great magnificence, and a large assemblage of men and women are gathered together, among whom you may note all the celebrities of Louis Philippe’s day, and they talk loudly of all that is going on. At last some one says: “But is it true that Madame M—— has been taken back to her husband by her father-in-law?” and at this question there is a slight lull in the conversation. People look round, and seem cautious; and then a few voices say, in a low tone: “Of course it is true:” and some one adds: “I was at O—— (naming a provincial town), “when it happened, and I know all about it.” Then the speaker steps forth, and comes near to the master of the house, and they whisper together, and the story is this:

The son of a great Imperialist dignitary marries a large fortune, represented by a young lady. They go honeymooning to O——, where the bridegroom is named (by his own father) to a high financial post. The bridegroom had clamorous creditors, however, who, now he is married richly, will be paid. He charges a friend of his to settle all these unpleasant affairs; but they are not to be settled, and no money is forthcoming. So at last the young husband flies to his young wife, and says: “Lend me 20,000l.” (400,000f.), and the young wife says: “I won’t;” besides which she adds, “I can’t; for papa tied up my money, you know, before marriage, by the régime dotal.” Then the young lord and master flies into a rage, and ends by horsewhipping his fair spouse, who runs away, and takes refuge with her father in the town of R——. Scandal therefore is terrible in two provincial cities, and soon in Paris, and “everybody” who is “anybody” knows the whole story in a week, and this creates fierce anger in high quarters.

Well then, here are our salon-full of people occupied about this anecdote, when a lady, addressing an elderly man of singularly intelligent countenance, but whose whole attitude is one of the bitterest contempt that can be incarnate in a human form, says: “But you, M. V——,” (and she names such an illustrious name!) “you must know all about this.” The man thus addressed nods his head: “Of course I do,” he replies, in a whisper; “and so do many others,—but I request you will not quote me!”

And now, why does a man so illustrious as V——, a man who was one of his sovereign’s ministers for many years, and to whom all France looks with pride—why does he hang back, and about a mere piece of drawing-room scandal “request” not to be quoted as an authority for what he admits he “well knows?” Why? Why because two nights before, a lesser man, an obscurer citizen, had been seized by order of the Ministry of the Interior, and transported from his home to the prison of Mazes, where it was thought advisable he should reflect upon the danger of talking too freely. Here was his crime: he had “talked!” This citizen was the “friend” who had been charged to “settle” M. M——’s affairs with his creditors, and his testimony to the truth of the whole, imprudently given, had brought down upon him the ministerial rigours, and probably several months will now pass by before this helpless victim of despotic rule will be restored to freedom. This is why such a man as V—— is desirous “not to be quoted;” and this is the kind of “talk” that goes on in Paris salons. In some, there is more indignation than fear; in others more fear than indignation: but in all there is opposition, and all contribute, in a greater or less part, to the work of “correcting” the despotic form of government under which France now groans. Who shall be prepared to say their action is a mistaken or a useless one? Shall we, who live in the very midst of publicity and daylight, sneer at just this one only little evidence of public opinion that escapes from all the silent obscurity that hems the French nation in?

Parisian salons are, I maintain, an Institution, and the French of this day may be as glad they have got them still, as they had a right to be, when, under Louis XV., Madame du Deffand “spoilt and flattered” Horace Walpole in her own salon, or when, under Louis XIV., Madame la Marquise de Sévigné, in the salon of Madame de Rambouillet, played at Blind Man’s Buff with the great Corneille.

  1. The supplementary Jockey Club, incorporated just now with the former, but which, until quite lately, subsisted under the name I give, from its members being young men of one or two-and-twenty.