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   Chapter 6 THE NOBILITY.

The Eve of the French Revolution By Edward J. Lowell Characters: 24674

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The second order in the state was the Nobility. It is a mistake, however, to suppose that this word bears on the Continent exactly the same meaning as in England. Where all the children of a nobleman are nobles, a strict class is created. An English peerage, descending only to the eldest son, is more in the nature of an office. The French noblesse in the latter years of the old monarchy comprised nearly all persons living otherwise than by their daily toil, together with the higher part of the legal profession. While the clergy had political rights and a corporate existence, and acted by means of an assembly, the nobility had but privileges. This, however, was true only of the older provinces, the "Lands of Elections," whose ancient rights had been abolished. In some of the "Lands of Estates," which still kept a remnant of self-government, the order was to some extent a political body with constitutional rights.

The nobility have been reckoned at about one hundred thousand souls, forming twenty-five or thirty thousand families, owning one fifth of the soil of France. Only a part of this land, however, was occupied by the nobles for their gardens, parks, and chases. The greater portion was let to farmers, either at a fixed rent, or on the métayer system, by which the landlord was paid by a share of the crops. And beside his rent or his portion, the noble received other things from his tenants: payments and services according to ancient custom, days of labor, and occasional dues. He could tramp over the ploughed lands with his servants in search of game, although he might destroy the growing corn. The game itself, which the peasant might not kill, was still more destructive. Such rights as these, especially where they were harshly enforced, caused both loss and irritation to the poor. Although there were far too many absentees among the great families, yet the larger number of the nobles spent most of their time at home on their estates, looking after their farms and their tenants, attending to local business, and saving up money to be spent in visits to the towns, or to Paris. When they were absent, their bailiffs were harder masters than themselves. Unfortunately the eyes of the noble class were turned rather to the enjoyments of the city and the court than to the duties of country life on their estates, an inevitable consequence of their loss of local power.

If the nobles had few political rights, they had plenty of public privileges. They were exempt from the most onerous taxes, and the best places under the government were reserved for them. Therefore every man who rose to eminence or to wealth in France strove to enter their ranks, and since nobility was a purchasable commodity, through the multiplication of venal offices which conferred it, none who had much money to spend failed to secure the coveted rank. Thus the order had come to comprise almost all persons of note, and a great part of the educated class. To describe its ideas and aspirations is to describe those of most of the leaders of France. Nobility was no longer a mark of high birth, nor a brevet of distinction; it was merely a sign that a man, or some of his ancestors, had had property. Of course all persons in the order were not equal. The descendants of the old families, which had been great in the land for hundreds of years, despised the mushroom noblemen of yesterday, and talked contemptuously of "nobility of the gown." Theirs was of the sword, and dated from the Crusades. And under Louis XVI., after the first dismissal of Necker, there was a reaction, and ground gained by the older nobility over the newer, and by both over the inferior classes. As the Revolution draws near and financial embarrassment grows more acute, the pickings of the favored class have become scarcer, while the appetite for them has increased. Preferment in church or state must no longer go to the vulgar.

There is a distinction among nobles quite apart from the length of their pedigree. We find a higher and a lower nobility, with no clear line of division between them. They are in fact the very rich, whose families have some prominence, and the moderately well off. For it may be noticed that among nobles of all times and countries, although wealth unaided may not give titles and place, it is pretty much a condition precedent for acquiring them. A man may be of excellent family, and poor; but to be a great noble, a man must be rich. In old France the road to preferment was through the court; but to shine at court a considerable income was required; and so the noblesse de cour was more or less identical with the richer nobility.

In this small but influential part of the nation, both the good and the bad qualities which are favored by court life had reached a high degree of development. The old French nobility has sometimes been represented as exhibiting the best of manners and the worst of morals. I believe that both sides of the picture have been painted in too high colors. The courtier was not always polite, nor were all great nobles libertines. Faithful husbands and wives were by no means exceptional; although, as in other places, well behaved people did not make a parade of their morality. There is such a thing as a French prig; but prigs are neither common nor popular in France. Before the Revolution the art of pleasing was more studied than it is to-day,-that art by which men and women make themselves agreeable to their acquaintance.

"In old times, under Louis XV. and Louis XVI.," says the Viscount of Ségur, "a young man entering society made what was called a début. He cultivated accomplishments. His father suggested and directed this work, for work it was; but the mother, the mother only, could bring her son to that last degree of politeness, of grace and amiability, which completed his education. Beside her natural tenderness, her pride was so much at stake that you may judge what care, what studied pains, she used in giving her children, on their entrance into society, all the charm that she could develop in them, or bestow upon them. Thence came that rare politeness, that exquisite taste, that moderation in speech and jest, that graceful carriage, in short that combination which characterized what was called good company, and which always distinguished French society even among foreigners. If a young man, because of his youth, had failed in attention to a lady, in consideration for a man older than himself, in deference for old age, the mother of the thoughtless young fellow was informed of it by her friends the same evening; and on the following day he was sure to receive advice and reproof."[Footnote: The Viscount of Ségur was brother to the Count of Ségur, from the preface to whose Memoirs this extract is taken.]

The instruction thus early given was not confined to forms. Indeed, French society in that day was probably less formal in some ways than any other European society; and in Paris people were more free than in the provinces. Although making a bow was a fine art, although a lady's curtsey was expected to be at once "natural, soft, modest, gracious, and dignified," ceremonious greetings were considered unnecessary, and few compliments were paid. To praise a woman's beauty to her face would have been to disparage her modesty. Good manners consisted in no small part in distinguishing perfectly what was due to every one, and in expressing that distinction with lightness and grace. Different modes of address were appropriate toward parents, relations, friends, acquaintances, strangers, your superiors in rank, your poor dependents, yet all must be treated with courtesy and consideration. Such manners are possible only where social distinctions are positively ascertained. In old France, at least, every man had his place and knew where he was.

But it was in their dealings with ladies that the Frenchmen of that day showed the perfection of their system. Vicious they might be, but discourteous they were not. No well-bred man would then appear in a lady's room carelessly dressed, or in boots. In speech between the sexes, the third person was generally used, and a gentleman in speaking to a lady dropped his voice to a lower tone than he employed to men. Gentlemen were careful before ladies not to treat even each other with familiarity. Still less would one of them, however intimate he might be with a lady's husband or brother, speak to her of his friend by any name less formal than his title. These habits have left their mark in France and elsewhere to this day; but the mark is fast disappearing, not altogether to the advantage of social life.[Footnote: Genlis, Dictionnaire des étiquettes, i. 94, 218; ii. 194, 347.]

Friendship between men was sometimes carried so far as to interfere with the claims of domestic affection. At least it was faithful and sincere, and the man on whom fortune had frowned, the fallen minister, or the disgraced courtier, was followed in his adversity by the kindness of his friends. Of all the virtues this is perhaps the one which in our hurried age tends most to disappear. It is left for the occupation of idle hours, and the smallest piece of triviality which can be tortured into the name of business, is allowed to crowd away those constantly repeated attentions which might add a true grace and refinement to the lives of those who gave and of those who received them. It is often said that friendships are formed only in youth. Is not this partly because youth Revolution, men of all ages made friendships, and supported them by the consideration for others which is at the bottom of all politeness. The Frenchman is nervous and irritable. When he lets his temper get beyond his control, he is fierce and violent. He has little of the easy-going good-nature under inconveniences, which some branches of the Teutonic race believe themselves to possess. He has less kindly merriment than the Tuscan. But he has trained himself for social life; and has learned, when on his good behavior, to make others happy about him. And it is part of the well-bred Frenchman's pride and happiness to be almost always on his good behavior.

In one respect Paris in the eighteenth century was more like a provincial town than like a great modern capital. Acquaintanceship had not swallowed up intimacy. A man or a woman did not undertake to keep on terms of civility with so many people that he could not find time to see his best friends oftener than once or twice a year. The much vaunted salons of the old monarchy were charming, in great measure because they were reasonably organized. An agreeable woman would draw her friends about her; they would meet in her parlor until they knew each other, and would be together often enough to keep touch intellectually. The talker knew his audience and felt at home with it. The listener had learned to expect something worth hearing. The mistress of the house kept language and men within bounds, and had her own way of getting rid of bores. But even French wit and vivacity were not always equal to the demands upon them. "I remember," says Montesquieu, "that I once had the curiosity to count how many times I should hear a little story, which certainly did not deserve to be told or remembered; during three weeks that it occupied the polite world, I heard it repeated two hundred and twenty-five times, which pleased me much."[Footnote: Oeuvres, vii 179 (Pensées diverses).]

Beside the tie of friendship we may set that of the family. In old France this bond was much closer than it is in modern America. If a man rose in the world, the benefit to his relations was greater than now; and there was no theory current that a ruler, or a man in a position of trust, should exclude from the places under him those persons with whom he is best acquainted, and of whose fidelity to himself and to his employers he has most reason to be sure. On the other hand, a disgrace to one member of a family spread its blight on all the others, and the judicial condemnation of one man might exclude his near relations from the public service-a state of things which was beginning to be repugnant to the public conscience, but which had at least the merit of forming a strong band to restrain the tempted from his contemplated crime.

In fact, the old idea of the family as an organic whole, with common joys, honors, and responsibilities, common sorrows and disgraces, was giving way to the newer notion of individualism. In France, however, the process never went so far as it has done in some other countries, including our own.

Good manners were certainly the rule at the French court, but there were exceptions, and not inconspicuous ones, for Louis XV. was an unfeeling man, and Louis XVI. was an awkward one. When Mademoiselle Genêt, fifteen years old, was first engaged as reader to the former king's daughters, she was in a state of agitation easy to imagine. The court was in mourning, and the great rooms hung with black, the state armchairs on platforms, several steps above the floor, the feathers and the shoulder-knots embroidered with tinsel made a deep impression on her. When the king first approached, she thought him very imposing. He was going a-hunting, and was followed by a numerous train. He stopped short in front of the young girl and the following dialogue took place:-

"Mademoiselle Genêt, I am told that you are very learned; that you know four or five foreign languages."

"I know only two, sir," trembling.

"Which are they?"

"English and Italian."

"Do you speak them fluently?"

"Yes, sir, very fluently."

"That's quite enough to put a husband out of temper;" and the king went on, followed by his laughing train, and left the poor little girl standing abashed and disconsolate.[Footnote: Campan, i. pp. vi. viii.]

The memoirs of the time are full of stories proving that the rigorous enforcement of étiquette and the general training in good manners had not done away with eccentricity of behavior. The Count of Osmont, for instance, was continually fidgeting with anything that might come under his hand, and could not see a snuff-box without ladling out the snuff with three fingers, and sprinkling it over his clothes like a Swiss porter. He sometimes varied this pleasant performance by putting the box itself under his nose, to the great disgust of whomever happened to be its owner. He once spent a week at the house of Madame de Vassy, a lady who was young and good-looking enough, but stiff and ceremonious. This lady wore a skirt of crimson velvet over a big panier, and was covered with pearls and diamonds. Madame de Vassy would not reprove Monsieur d'Osmont in words for his method of treating her magnificent golden snuff-box; but used to get up from her place at the card-table as soon as he had so used it, empty all the snuff into the fireplace, and ring for more. D'Osmont, meanwhile, would go on without noticing her, laugh and swear over his cards, and get in a passion with himself if the luck ran against him. Yet when he was not playing, the man was lively, modest and amiable, and except for his fidgety habits, had the tone of the best society.[Footnote: Dufort, ii. 46.]

That which above all things distinguished the French nobility, and especially the highest ranks of it, from the rest of mankind was the amount of leisure which it enjoyed. Most people in the world have to work, most aristocracies to govern The English gentleman of the eighteenth century farmed his estates, acted as a magistrate, took part in politics. Living in the country, he was a mighty hunter. The French nobleman, unless he were an officer in the army (and even the officers had inordinately long leave of absence), had nothing to do but to kill time. Only the poorer country gentlemen ever thought of farming their own lands. For the unemployed nobles of Paris, there was but occasional sport to be had. Indeed, the Frenchman, although he likes the more violent and tumultuous kinds of hunting, is not easily interested in the quieter and more lasting varieties of sport. He will joyfully chase the wild boar, when horses, dogs, and horns, with the admiration of his friends and servants, concur to keep his blood boiling; but he will not care to plod alone through the woods for a long afternoon on the chance of bringing home a brace of woodcock; nor can he mention fishing without a sneer. Being thus deprived of the chief resource by which Anglo-Saxons combine activity and indolence, the French nobility cultivated to their highest pitch those human pleasures which are at once the most vivid and the most delicate. They devoted themselves to society and to love-making. Too quick-witted to fall into sloth, too proud to become drunkards or gluttons, they dissipated their lives in conversation and stained their souls with intrigue. Never, probably, have the arts which make social intercourse delightful been carried to so high a degree of excellence as among them. Never perhaps, in a Christian country, have offenses against the laws of marriage been so readily condoned, where outward decency was not violated, as in the upper circles of France in the century preceding the Revolution.

The vice of Parisian society under Louis XV. and his grandson presented a curious character. Adultery had acquired a regular standing, and connections dependent upon it were openly, if tacitly recognized. Such illicit alliances were even governed by a morality of their own, and the attempt to induce a woman to be unfaithful to her criminal lover might be treated as an insult.[Footnote: Witness Rousseau and Mme. d'Houdetot in the Confessions. Mlle. d'Aydie was accounted very virtuous for dissuading her lover from marrying her, even after the birth of her child, for fear of injuring his prospects. Yet the match would not seem, to modern ideas, to have been a very unequal one.] But this pedantry of vice was not always maintained. There were men and women in high life who changed their connections very frequently, yielding to the caprice of the moment, as the senses or the wit might lead them. Such people were not passionate, but simply depraved; yet the mass of the community, deterred partly by fear of ridicule, and partly by the Philosophic spirit which had decided that chastity was not a part of natural morals, did not visit them with very severe condemnation.

If eccentricity sometimes overrode étiquette and even politeness, good morals and religion not infrequently made a stand against corruption. There were loving wives and careful mothers among the highest nobility. Of the Duchess of Ayen we get a description from her children. Her mansion was in the Rue St. Honoré, and had a garden running back almost to that of the Tuileries (for the Rue de Rivoli was not then in existence). The house was known for the beauty of its apartments, and for the superb collection of pictures which it contained. After dinner, which was served at three o'clock, the duchess would retire to her bedchamber, a large room hung with crimson damask, and take her place in a great armchair by the fire. Her books, her work, her snuff-box, were within reach. She would call her five girls about her. These, on chairs and footstools, squabbling gently at times for the places next their mother, would tell of their excursions, their lessons, the little events of every day. There was nothing frivolous in their education. Their old nurse had not filled their minds with fairy tales, but with stories from the Old Testament and with anecdotes of heroic actions.

The pleasures of these girls were simple. Once or twice in a summer they went on a visit to their grandfather, the Marshal de Noailles at Saint Germain en Laye. In the autumn they spent a week with their other grandfather, Monsieur d'Aguesseau at Fresnes. An excursion into the suburbs, a ride on donkeys on the slopes of Mont Valérien, made up their innocent dissipations. Their most frivolous excitement was to see their governess fall off her donkey.

The piety of the duchess might in some respects appear extravagant. Her fourth daughter had two beggars of the parish for god-parents, as a constant reminder of humility. The same child was of a violent and willful disposition, but was converted at the age of eleven and became mild, patient, and studious. The conversion of so young a sinner, and the seriousness with which the event was treated by the family, seem rather to belong to the atmosphere of Puritanism than to that of the Catholicism of the eighteenth century. But if the religion of the Duchess of Ayen sometimes led her to fantastic extremes, these were not its principal characteristics. Her piety was applied to the conduct of her daily life and to the education of her daughters in honesty, reasonableness, and self-devotion. Their faith and hers were to be tested by the hardest trials, and to be victorious both in prison and on the scaffold. We are fortunate in possessing their biographies. In how many cases at the same time and in the same country did similar virtues go unrecorded?[Footnote: Vie de Madame de Lafayette, Mme. de Montagu.]

As for the smaller nobility, the "sparrow hawks,"[Footnote: Hobéraux.] living in the country, they dwelt among their less exalted neighbors, doing good or evil as the character of each one of them directed. Sometimes we find them on friendly terms with the villagers, acting as godfathers and godmothers to the children, summoning the peasants to take part in the chase, or to dance in the courtyard of the castle. We find them endowing hospitals, giving alms, keeping an eye on the conduct of the village priest. A continual interchange of presents goes on between the cottage and the great house. A new lord is welcomed by salvos of musketry, the ladies of his family are met by young girls bearing flowers. Such relations as these are said to have grown less common as the great Revolution drew near. It has often been remarked of the Vendée and Brittany, where a larger proportion of lords resided on their estates than was the case elsewhere, that a friendlier feeling was there cultivated between the upper and the lower classes; and that it was in those provinces that a stand was made by lords and peasants alike for the maintenance of the old order of things. In some parts of the country the peasants and their lords were continually quarreling and going to law. The royal intendant was besieged with complaints. The poor could not get their pay for their work. They received blows instead of money. Arrogance and injustice on the one side were met by impudence and fraud on the other. The old leadership had passed away. The upper class had lost its power and its responsibility; it insisted the more tenaciously on its privileges. Exemption from certain taxes was the chief of these, but there were others as irritating if less important. Quarrels arose with the priest about the lord's right to be first given the holy water. One vicar in his wrath deluged his lordship's new wig.

In general, we may conceive of the lesser nobles, deprived of their useful function of regulating and administering the country, leading somewhat penurious and useless lives. They hunted a good deal, they slept long. Generally they did not eat overmuch, for gluttony is not a vice of their race. They grumbled at the ascendency of the court, and at the new army-regulations. They preserved in their families the noble virtues of dignity and obedience. Children asked their parents' blessing on their knees before they went to bed. The elder Mirabeau, the grim Friend of Men, still knelt nightly before his mother in his fiftieth year. The children honored their parents in fact as well as in form, and took no important step in life without paternal consent. The boys ran rather wild in their youth, but settled down at the approach of middle life; the oldest inheriting the few or barren paternal acres; the younger sons equally noble, and thus debarred from lucrative occupations, pushing their fortunes in the army. The girls were married young or went into a convent. Marriages were arranged entirely by the parents. "My father," said a young nobleman, "I am told that you have agreed on a marriage for me. Would you be kind enough to tell me if the report be true, and what is the name of the lady?" "My son," answered his parent, "be so good as to mind your own business, and not to come to me with questions."[Footnote: Babeau, Le Village, 158. Ch. de Kibbe, 169. Mme. de Montagu, 57. Genlis, Dictionnaire des étiquettes, i. 71. Lavergne, Les économistes, 127.]

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