The Crayon Papers/English and French Character

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English and French Character[edit]

As I am a mere looker on in Europe, and hold myself as much as possible aloof from its quarrels and prejudices, I feel something like one overlooking a game, who, without any great skill of his own, can occasionally perceive the blunders of much abler players. This neutrality of feeling enables me to enjoy the contrasts of character presented in this time of general peace, when the various peoples of Europe, who have so long been sundered by wars, are brought together and placed side by side in this great gathering-place of nations. No greater contrast, however, is exhibited than that of the French and English. The peace has deluged this gay capital with English visitors of all ranks and conditions. They throng every place of curiosity and amusement; fill the public gardens, the galleries, the cafes, saloons, theaters; always herding together, never associating with the French. The two nations are like two threads of different colors, tangled together but never blended.

In fact they present a continual antithesis, and seem to value themselves upon being unlike each other; yet each have their peculiar merits, which should entitle them to each other's esteem. The French intellect is quick and active. It flashes its way into a subject with the rapidity of lightning; seizes upon remote conclusions with a sudden bound, and its deductions are almost intuitive. The English intellect is less rapid, but more persevering; less sudden, but more sure in its deductions. The quickness and mobility of the French enable them to find enjoyment in the multiplicity of sensations. They speak and act more from immediate impressions than from reflection and meditation. They are therefore more social and communicative; more fond of society, and of places of public resort and amusement. An Englishman is more reflective in his habits. He lives in the world of his own thoughts, and seems more self-existent and self-dependent. He loves the quiet of his own apartment; even when abroad, he in a manner makes a little solitude around him by his silence and reserve; he moves about shy and solitary, and, as it were, buttoned up, body and soul.

The French are great optimists; they seize upon every good as it flies, and revel in the passing pleasure. The Englishman is too apt to neglect the present good, in preparing against the possible evil. However adversities may lower, let the sun shine but for a moment, and forth sallies the mercurial Frenchman, in holiday dress and holiday spirits, gay as a butterfly, as though his sunshine were perpetual; but let the sun beam never so brightly, so there be but a cloud in the horizon, the wary Englishman ventures forth distrustfully, with his umbrella in his hand.

The Frenchman has a wonderful facility at turning small things to advantage. No one can be gay and luxurious on smaller means; no one requires less expense to be happy. He practices a kind of gilding in his style of living, and hammers out every guinea into gold leaf. The Englishman, on the contrary, is expensive in his habits, and expensive in his enjoyments. He values everything, whether useful or ornamental, by what it costs. He has no satisfaction in show, unless it be solid and complete. Everything goes with him by the square foot. Whatever display he makes, the depth is sure to equal the surface.

The Frenchman's habitation, like himself, is open, cheerful, bustling, and noisy. He lives in a part of a great hotel, with wide portal, paved court, a spacious dirty stone staircase, and a family on every floor. All is clatter and chatter. He is good-humored and talkative with his servants, sociable with his neighbors, and complaisant to all the world. Anybody has access to himself and his apartments; his very bedroom is open to visitors, whatever may be its state of confusion; and all this not from any peculiarly hospitable feeling, but from that communicative habit which predominates over his character.

The Englishman, on the contrary, ensconces himself in a snug brick mansion, which he has all to himself; locks the front door; puts broken bottles along his walls, and spring guns and man-traps in his gardens; shrouds himself with trees and window-curtains; exults in his quiet and privacy, and seems disposed to keep out noise, daylight, and company. His house, like himself, has a reserved, inhospitable exterior; yet whoever gains admittance is apt to find a warm heart and warm fireside within.

The French excel in wit, the English in humor; the French have gayer fancy, the English richer imagination. The former are full of sensibility; easily moved, and prone to sudden and great excitement; but their excitement is not durable; the English are more phlegmatic; not so readily affected, but capable of being aroused to great enthusiasm. The faults of these opposite temperaments are that the vivacity of the French is apt to sparkle up and be frothy, the gravity of the English to settle down and grow muddy. When the two characters can be fixed in a medium, the French kept from effervescence and the English from stagnation, both will be found excellent.

This contrast of character may also be noticed in the great concerns of the two nations. The ardent Frenchman is all for military renown; he fights for glory, that is to say, for success in arms. For, provided the national flag is victorious, he cares little about the expense, the injustice, or the inutility of the war. It is wonderful how the poorest Frenchman will revel on a triumphant bulletin; a great victory is meat and drink to him; and at the sight of a military sovereign, bringing home captured cannon and captured standards, he throws up his greasy cap in the air, and is ready to jump out of his wooden shoes for joy.

John Bull, on the contrary, is a reasoning, considerate person. If he does wrong, it is in the most rational way imaginable. He fights because the good of the world requires it. He is a moral person, and makes war upon his neighbor for the maintenance of peace and good order, and sound principles. He is a money-making personage, and fights for the prosperity of commerce and manufactures. Thus the two nations have been fighting, time out of mind, for glory and good. The French, in pursuit of glory, have had their capital twice taken; and John, in pursuit of good, has run himself over head and ears in debt.