Paris in 1894: A Superficial Impression
Paris in 1894: A Superficial Impression
It is a bold thing, on the strength of a few days' study of the Boulevards, to venture upon a comparison between two nations. Still it happens occasionally that in a flying visit one receives impressions more clearly than in a lengthy stay. Repetition blunts the effect. The most superficial observer cannot fail to be struck by the innumerable points of difference between our own ways and those of our neighbours, nor can be help weighing their respective advantages as judged from his own point of view. If these were drawn up in parallel columns, it would show, I think, that each nation has as much to teach as to learn.
To begin with the points which tell in favour of the French, their national temperance is the one which is most obvious and incontestable. In a day spent at a race-meeting we did not see one person the worse for drink. The general taste for light beers and wines, and the apparent impossibility of being served with spirits except in a liqueur glass, put a check on the abuse of stimulants. A French friend tells me that the working classes have taken to spirits of late years, but we saw no sums of it among them.
Then, of course, there is their unrivalled taste in the laying-out of their city and the beauty of their public buildings. Now that London has ceased to be a collection of vestry-governed villages, and has coalesced into a town, we shall no doubt, with our wealth and our energy, soon make up for past misgovernmont. But a man must be blinded by prejudice if he can seriously claim that the streets of London are anything but squalid in comparison with those of Paris. And yet what fine opportunities we have! Fancy, for example, what an avenue a French architect would plan out from Trafalgar-square to the Houses of Parliament! How long would Parisian taste allow a sprinkling of dingy dwelling-houses and little cookshops to ruin what should be the central Street of London?
Again, at the risk of seeming unpatriotic, I cannot help thinking that the French are a cleaner and more tidy people than we are. From Calais to Nancy, right across the breadth of France, you look out of your carriage window and you always have that impression of neatness conveyed to you. Test the bed-linen of a London lodging-house against that of a French one-or the landlady's collar and cuffs, or the caps of the maids. I think they have the better of us there.
And again, to pass to a more contentious subject, their enjoyment of the Sunday seems to me infinitely more rational than our custom. Their picture galleries are as crowded on that day as our public-houses are. It is surely the one day of the week on which everything which is elevating and instructive should be put within the reach of the people. They make it the brightest day, and we make it the gloomiest-in which, by the way, we differ from either the country of Luther or that of Calvin. Another point to the credit of the French is their management of the social evil. In our morality we have made the streets of London the most openly unmoral of those of any capital in Europe. I know no other where it is difficult to take a lady out in some of the principal streets at night. In France they recognise that if an evil cannot be abolished it should be localised and regulated.
Their law too is, as I am told, far cheaper and simpler than ours. Of all things in the world surely justice is the one which should be most within the reach of every man. If it is so in France it is another immense advantage which they have over us.
It is more pleasant to speak of the things in which we can claim to be in front of them. In their view of duelling and of war they seem to be 50 years behind us. We look on fighting as an occasional unpleasant necessity. The Frenchman seems to regard it as the grand test of the worth of a nation. Battles and generals give their names to the vast majority of streets and squares. No doubt the military history of France is magnificent, but she gives her soldiers an undue predominance over her savants and her saints. We are far more humane to animals. It is impossible to sit quietly behind some of the French cabmen and see how they ill-treat their over-worked, underfed horses. In our lover of outdoor exercise and athletics we have a great advantage, though the French seem to be coming round to our view of the matter. The middle-aged Frenchman is very middle-aged indeed. It is seldom that you see among them any of those hard, grizzled-haired men who are common enough over here, where a man preserves some of his youthful habits long after his youth is past. The French generals will have some curious material to deal with when they call their reserves in.
The newspapers are astonishingly inaccurate as compared to ours. One of them sent us to a theatrical performance which had ceased a fortnight before. Such a thing would be inconceivable in London. The Legion of Honour seems to have become as much part of the equipment of a well-dressed Frenchman as his hat or his boots. We sat in the Grand Café of the Louvre, and tried to count the red-ribbon gentlemen as they passed. What can the value of a distinction be which is shared by so many? and what bitterness there must be amongst the excluded!
And then there is the position of woman, in which, again, I think that we are far in front of the French. The unmarried girl is still fenced round with restrictions which seem to us to be preposterous. And the lover arranges matters on a strictly cash basis with the parent or guardian. We met one young lady who had had three offers, all of which had fallen through because there was a difference between what the lover required and what the guardian could promise.
Such are a few of the impressions left upon my mind by what I saw and heard in Paris. They may at least serve to give someone who knows more about it something to contradict.
A. CONAN DOYLE