Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The English in Paris

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Un Anglais à Mabille.

A gentleman, under the signature of “G. U.,” has been writing to the “Times,” complaining in the most indignant terms of the slovenly manner in which our countrymen and countrywomen dress immediately they put the straits between them and home. He sees and, according to his own account, shirks his best friends because they appear in the streets of Paris in the costumes of cab-drivers. The ladies are offenders of a deeper dye; they mount battered round hats, and save up their old dresses for the sake of appearing perfect drabs in the polite city of Paris. Our proud G. U., who we should surmise to be one of those resident Britons who have become more French than the Parisians, is deeply hurt at our bad habits, and is evidently very much ashamed of his touring fellow-countrymen, and dreadfully afraid of what the satirical Parisians will think of them. Having myself returned from a month’s holiday on the Continent, a week of which was spent in Paris, I was not a little astonished at the frightful pelting which I, in common with the rabble rout of Englishmen, have received at the hands of G. U. Having a desire for a few weeks climbing, I took pattern by the great Napier, and thought that when I had reduced my impedimenta to a piece of soap, a towel, and two flannel shirts, I had done a clever thing. In this light marching order I had the audacity to return home by way of Paris; had I had the honour of G. U.’s acquaintanceship, possibly I might have been received by courteous cut direct; but as I only know an inferior sort of people, who don’t judge friends by their clothes, I happily escaped that infliction. I must candidly confess that my own impressions of my fellow-countrymen abroad did not by any means tally with those of G. U., who is so very sensitive for the honour of his fellow-subjects. When I strolled up the Champs Elysées, if amid the crowd of natives in lacquered boots, dress coats, and the other etcetera appertaining to the full mufti in which Parisians will appear abroad before dinner, if, I say, I observed a particularly manly-looking fellow in a light lounging-coat and lace-up boots, I was pretty sure to find, on looking into his honest face, that he was a young Englishman. If a brighter young Hebe than usual passed by, in “maiden meditation fancy free,” it was sure to be a dear young English girl. Amid the arid faces of the Parisian fair, to my eye the bright cheek of our English rose was as the waters of some oasis to the traveller after the dreary desert. They might have had round hats, but what of that? I am quite sure they were not “battered,” and also certain that they crowned the face with more grace than the best bonnet of Paris would have done. It is pretty well conceded that the young Englishman is the best dressed man in the world (a fact which G. U. evidently does not know); but I mean to assert, what will doubtless be contested, that the English gentlewoman carries the palm for the ease and simple elegance of her attire. The grace of the human frame is less disguised in her by the milliner; you see more of the woman and less of the mode. Possibly there may be a reason for this in the finer condition of the raw material, if we may be allowed such a phrase when speaking of the gentler sex. We know very well that cooking has arrived at such perfection in France as only to disguise the badness of the meat.

An Englishman and his Belongings, from the Meridian of Paris

But letting this pass, and returning again to the sensitive feelings of G. U., let us see what evidence he has to give of the sneers of the Parisians at our slovenly appearance in their fair city. He tells us that we are caricatured in every printseller’s window, and that the Palais Royal is full of plaster statuettes which jeer us as we pass. We may remark en passant that, in the caricature line at least, the Parisians—the acute, sarcastic Parisians—are the dullest dogs in Europe. If an actor, taking the rôle of a Frenchman, were to talk of eating frogs at the lowest theatre in London, he would be hissed off the stage for the staleness of his joke; but in the best Parisian theatres the Englishman is still represented with top-boots and belcher-handkerchiefs, either beating his wife, or exhibiting her for sale in the market-place with a rope round her neck. This is considered capital fun in Paris to this day, and is sure to bring the house down. When “Punch” touches up the Frenchman, or when Wigan brings him on the boards, they hit him, we fancy, a little harder. But let us see what their caricaturists can do. G. U. tells us that our slovenly outlandish dressing is the constant theme of their pencil.

At the head of the chapter is the gentleman who holds the mirror up to nature, and shows us just as we appear in that delightful spot, the Jardin Mabille. At a glance the reader perceives there is not much of the cabman about him; on the contrary, in his dress, at least, there is somewhat of the petit-maître. But where, by all that is gracious! did our Englishman get that hat? Could he obtain it at any price here? Did Lincoln and Bennett or Christy ever see such a specimen? That necktie, again. Come, now, G. U., confess that cabmen do not do the thing in that style. And the coat, waistcoat, and flower—why Jimmy Jessimy never turned out in brighter trim. If this is the Frenchman’s typical Englishman, he certainly is far removed from the “cabman” of G. U. The only ghost of a joke, as far as we can see, is the delightful mixture that “Un Anglais” is indulging in—coffee, claret and rum-and-water (by the lemon floating in it)—warranted, we should say, to take the bloom from his cheeks next morning. Is it a fact, we may ask, that the Adam’s-apple in the Englishman’s throat is more prononcé than in other people’s, or is the exaggeration of the picture another of our Parisian friend’s brilliant jokes?

But what have our friends across the water to say to the English ladies? This is the reply in the shape of one of the innumerable clay statuettes, which abound in the shops of the Palais Royal, and a specimen of which will be found on the previous page.

Of course, our critics don’t neglect to hang the ladies on the arm of their conductor, like two panniers. We know in good society this is voted dreadfully provincial, and we don’t think well-bred people are guilty of such a solecism; nevertheless, the custom has its charm, the cavalier is nearer to his work, and no advantage of position is given to either fair. Moreover it is a very pretty position to find yourself, as it were, the battle ground across which the nimble fire of feminine tongues is exchanged. But let that pass; we will plead guilty to the possibility of Paris being shocked by this kind of coupling; but are these the round battered hats of our censor? Are these the slovenly English? The man is evidently a prig got up at a great expense by Mr. Moses; but he certainly runs into the opposite extreme of cabbyism. Of course, the Parisians must poke their fun at the English coiffure. In the majority of the statuettes, the English lady wears the hair in single ringlets down to the waist,—the French face can’t stand the hair thus dressed; moreover, the French hair won’t curl so kindly as ours; hence the sneer;—but here we have the very agony of dishevelled locks, and the very Quakerism of braids, not very true as to the ladies’ coiffures, but yet not quite an absurd caricature. But those waists, and those ridiculous polka jackets, falling over those crinolineless skirts! Are they a libel, or not, fair reader, on English ladies’ costume abroad? If I can believe my own eyes, they don’t dress so in the bath-room-village of Interlachen, at Spa, or Baden-Baden. We never met any of them on the boulevards in Paris; and even if we had, they do not carry out G. U.’s atrocious libel upon fair Englishwomen’s costumes abroad, that it is slovenly and slipshod. An idea strikes us. We know that in France and other continental countries, luggage is always paid for box by box. We have seen Paterfamilias standing aghast at the pile of trunks he has to see weighed in foreign railway stations. We know this forms a very important source of revenue of their railway companies; is G. U., we ask in all good faith, bribed by them to pile up this mountain of impedimenta still higher, and does he do his work accordingly by abusing, in the “Times,” his fair countrywomen for their shabbiness? If I know anything of my fair countrywomen, I think I am not far out in believing that their instincts to make themselves as taking as possible are not likely to be dulled by a visit to Paris; and, of this I am certain, the English gentlemen who dress like cabmen, are confined to the personal friends of the fine gentleman who signs himself G. U. in the “Times.”

A. W.