The Physiology of Marriage/Part 1/Med 3

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Meditation III: Of the Honest Woman[edit]

The preceding meditation has proved that we possess in France a floating population of one million women reveling in the privilege of inspiring those passions which a gallant man avows without shame, or dissembles with delight. It is then among this million of women that we must carry our lantern of Diogenes in order to discover the honest women of the land.

This inquiry suggests certain digressions.

Two young people, well dressed, whose slender figures and rounded arms suggest a paver's tool, and whose boots are elegantly made, meet one morning on the boulevard, at the end of the Passage des Panoramas.

"What, is this you?"

"Yes, dear boy; it looks like me, doesn't it?"

Then they laugh, with more or less intelligence, according to the nature of the joke which opens the conversation.

When they have examined each other with the sly curiosity of a police officer on the lookout for a clew, when they are quite convinced of the newness of each other's gloves, of each other's waistcoat and of the taste with which their cravats are tied; when they are pretty certain that neither of them is down in the world, they link arms and if they start from the Theater des Varietes, they have not reached Frascati's before they have asked each other a roundabout question whose free translation may be this:

"Whom are you living with now?"

As a general rule she is a charming woman.

Who is the infantryman of Paris into whose ear there have not dropped, like bullets in the day of battle, thousands of words uttered by the passer-by, and who has not caught one of those numberless sayings which, according to Rabelais, hang frozen in the air? But the majority of men take their way through Paris in the same manner as they live and eat, that is, without thinking about it. There are very few skillful musicians, very few practiced physiognomists who can recognize the key in which these vagrant notes are set, the passion that prompts these floating words. Ah! to wander over Paris! What an adorable and delightful existence is that! To saunter is a science; it is the gastronomy of the eye. To take a walk is to vegetate; to saunter is to live. The young and pretty women, long contemplated with ardent eyes, would be much more admissible in claiming a salary than the cook who asks for twenty sous from the Limousin whose nose with inflated nostrils took in the perfumes of beauty. To saunter is to enjoy life; it is to indulge the flight of fancy; it is to enjoy the sublime pictures of misery, of love, of joy, of gracious or grotesque physiognomies; it is to pierce with a glance the abysses of a thousand existences; for the young it is to desire all, and to possess all; for the old it is to live the life of the youthful, and to share their passions. Now how many answers have not the sauntering artists heard to the categorical question which is always with us?

"She is thirty-five years old, but you would not think she was more than twenty!" said an enthusiastic youth with sparkling eyes, who, freshly liberated from college, would, like Cherubin, embrace all.

"Zounds! Mine has dressing-gowns of batiste and diamond rings for the evening!" said a lawyer's clerk.

"But she has a box at the Français!" said an army officer.

"At any rate," cried another one, an elderly man who spoke as if he were standing on the defence, "she does not cost me a sou! In our case —wouldn't you like to have the same chance, my respected friend?"

And he patted his companion lightly on the shoulder.

"Oh! she loves me!" said another. "It seems too good to be true; but she has the most stupid of husbands! Ah!—Buffon has admirably described the animals, but the biped called husband—"

What a pleasant thing for a married man to hear!

"Oh! what an angel you are, my dear!" is the answer to a request discreetly whispered into the ear.

"Can you tell me her name or point her out to me?"

"Oh! no; she is an honest woman."

When a student is loved by a waitress, he mentions her name with pride and takes his friends to lunch at her house. If a young man loves a woman whose husband is engaged in some trade dealing with articles of necessity, he will answer, blushingly, "She is the wife of a haberdasher, of a stationer, of a hatter, of a linen-draper, of a clerk, etc."

But this confession of love for an inferior which buds and blows in the midst of packages, loaves of sugar, or flannel waistcoats is always accompanied with an exaggerated praise of the lady's fortune. The husband alone is engaged in the business; he is rich; he has fine furniture. The loved one comes to her lover's house; she wears a cashmere shawl; she owns a country house, etc.

In short, a young man is never wanting in excellent arguments to prove that his mistress is very nearly, if not quite, an honest woman. This distinction originates in the refinement of our manners and has become as indefinite as the line which separates bon ton from vulgarity. What then is meant by an honest woman?

On this point the vanity of women, of their lovers, and even that of their husbands, is so sensitive that we had better here settle upon some general rules, which are the result of long observation.

Our one million of privileged women represent a multitude who are eligible for the glorious title of honest women, but by no means all are elected to it. The principles on which these elections are based may be found in the following axioms:


I. An honest woman is necessarily a married woman.

II. An honest woman is under forty years old.

III. A married woman whose favors are to be paid for is not an honest woman.

IV. A married woman who keeps a private carriage is an honest woman.

V. A woman who does her own cooking is not an honest woman.

VI. When a man has made enough to yield an income of twenty thousand francs, his wife is an honest woman, whatever the business in which his fortune was made.

VII. A woman who says "letter of change" for letter of exchange, who says of a man, "He is an elegant gentleman," can never be an honest woman, whatever fortune she possesses.

VIII. An honest woman ought to be in a financial condition such as forbids her lover to think she will ever cost him anything.

IX. A woman who lives on the third story of any street excepting the Rue de Rivoli and the Rue de Castiglione is not an honest woman.

X. The wife of a banker is always an honest woman, but the woman who sits at the cashier's desk cannot be one, unless her husband has a very large business and she does not live over his shop.

XI. The unmarried niece of a bishop when she lives with him can pass for an honest woman, because if she has an intrigue she has to deceive her uncle.

XII. An honest woman is one whom her lover fears to compromise.

XIII. The wife of an artist is always an honest woman.

By the application of these principles even a man from Ardeche can resolve all the difficulties which our subject presents.

In order that a woman may be able to keep a cook, may be finely educated, may possess the sentiment of coquetry, may have the right to pass whole hours in her boudoir lying on a sofa, and may live a life of soul, she must have at least six thousand francs a year if she lives in the country, and twenty thousand if she lives at Paris. These two financial limits will suggest to you how many honest women are to be reckoned on in the million, for they are really a mere product of our statistical calculations.

Now three hundred thousand independent people, with an income of fifteen thousand francs, represent the sum total of those who live on pensions, on annuities and the interest of treasury bonds and mortgages.

Three hundred thousand landed proprietors enjoy an income of three thousand five hundred francs and represent all territorial wealth.

Two hundred thousand payees, at the rate of fifteen hundred francs each, represent the distribution of public funds by the state budget, by the budgets of the cities and departments, less the national debt, church funds and soldier's pay, (i.e. five sous a day with allowances for washing, weapons, victuals, clothes, etc.).

Two hundred thousand fortunes amassed in commerce, reckoning the capital at twenty thousand francs in each case, represent all the commercial establishments possible in France.

Here we have a million husbands represented.

But at what figure shall we count those who have an income of fifty, of a hundred, of two, three, four, five, and six hundred francs only, from consols or some other investment?

How many landed proprietors are there who pay taxes amounting to no more than a hundred sous, twenty francs, one hundred francs, two hundred, or two hundred and eighty?

At what number shall we reckon those of the governmental leeches, who are merely quill-drivers with a salary of six hundred francs a year?

How many merchants who have nothing but a fictitious capital shall we admit? These men are rich in credit and have not a single actual sou, and resemble the sieves through which Pactolus flows. And how many brokers whose real capital does not amount to more than a thousand, two thousand, four thousand, five thousand francs? Business!—my respects to you!

Let us suppose more people to be fortunate than actually are so. Let us divide this million into parts; five hundred thousand domestic establishments will have an income ranging from a hundred to three thousand francs, and five thousand women will fulfill the conditions which entitle them to be called honest women.

After these observations, which close our meditation on statistics, we are entitled to cut out of this number one hundred thousand individuals; consequently we can consider it to be proven mathematically that there exist in France no more than four hundred thousand women who can furnish to men of refinement the exquisite and exalted enjoyments which they look for in love.

And here it is fitting to make a remark to the adepts for whom we write, that love does not consist in a series of eager conversations, of nights of pleasure, of an occasional caress more or less well-timed and a spark of amour-propre baptized by the name of jealousy. Our four hundred thousand women are not of those concerning whom it may be said, "The most beautiful girl in the world can give only what she has." No, they are richly endowed with treasures which appeal to our ardent imaginations, they know how to sell dear that which they do not possess, in order to compensate for the vulgarity of that which they give.

Do we feel more pleasure in kissing the glove of a grisette than in draining the five minutes of pleasure which all women offer to us?

Is it the conversation of a shop-girl which makes you expect boundless delights?

In your intercourse with a woman who is beneath you, the delight of flattered amour-propre is on her side. You are not in the secret of the happiness which you give.

In a case of a woman above you, either in fortune or social position, the ticklings of vanity are not only intense, but are equally shared. A man can never raise his mistress to his own level; but a woman always puts her lover in the position that she herself occupies. "I can make princes and you can make nothing but bastards," is an answer sparkling with truth.

If love is the first of passions, it is because it flatters all the rest of them at the same time. We love with more or less intensity in proportion to the number of chords which are touched by the fingers of a beautiful mistress.

Biren, the jeweler's son, climbing into the bed of the Duchesse de Courlande and helping her to sign an agreement that he should be proclaimed sovereign of the country, as he was already of the young and beautiful queen, is an example of the happiness which ought to be given to their lovers by our four hundred thousand women.

If a man would have the right to make stepping-stones of all the heads which crowd a drawing-room, he must be the lover of some artistic woman of fashion. Now we all love more or less to be at the top.

It is on this brilliant section of the nation that the attack is made by men whose education, talent or wit gives them the right to be considered persons of importance with regard to that success of which people of every country are so proud; and only among this class of women is the wife to be found whose heart has to be defended at all hazard by our husband.

What does it matter whether the considerations which arise from the existence of a feminine aristocracy are or are not equally applicable to other social classes? That which is true of all women exquisite in manners, language and thought, in whom exceptional educational facilities have developed a taste for art and a capacity for feeling, comparing and thinking, who have a high sense of propriety and politeness and who actually set the fashion in French manners, ought to be true also in the case of women whatever their nation and whatever their condition. The man of distinction to whom this book is dedicated must of necessity possess a certain mental vision, which makes him perceive the various degrees of light that fill each class and comprehend the exact point in the scale of civilization to which each of our remarks is severally applicable.

Would it not be then in the highest interests of morality, that we should in the meantime try to find out the number of virtuous women who are to be found among these adorable creatures? Is not this a question of marito-national importance?