Edith Wharton

Those who have sought insightful and colorful ways to describe French behavior that is simultaneously inscrutable, maddening, and delightful can stop their search. A stunningly written gem of a book does it all with panache. French Ways and Their Meanings by Edith Wharton could have been written yesterday. Wharton is known as a penetrating observer of human behavior, especially within New York high society. She also was a Francophile of long duration and instinct and, in fact, is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles.  Her perceptions on the French, including comparison with American culture, are so trenchant as to leave the reader stammering. She places her observations in five general areas: Reverence, Taste, Intellectual Honesty, Continuity, and The New Frenchwoman. The following are mere morsels of fuller discussions.   Love-making versus Pornography? From almost 100 years ago, plus ca change… “They attach a great deal of importance to love-making, but they consider it more simply and less solemnly than we do. They are cool, resourceful and merry, crack jokes about the relations between the sexes, and are used to the frank discussion of what someone tactfully called ‘the operations of Nature.’ They are puzzled by our queer fear of our own bodies, and accustomed to relate openly and unapologetically the anecdotes that Anglo-Saxons snicker over privately and with apologies. They define pornography as a taste for the nasty, and not as an interest in the natural.”  Sex, Politics, Business Scandals in the Millenium? Listen to Wharton:  “If in France there is a distinction between private and business morality it is exactly the reverse of that prevailing in America, and the French conscience rejects with abhorrence the business complaisances which the rigidly virtuous American too often regards as not immoral because not indictable.”  On French versus American women, a fascinating portrait of relations between the sexes: “First of all, she is, in nearly all respects, as different as possible from the average American woman… Is it because she dresses better, or knows more about cooking, or is more ‘coquettish,’ or more ‘feminine,’ or more excitable, or more emotional, or more immoral? All these reasons have been often suggested, but none of them seems to furnish a complete answer… It is simply that, like the men of her race, the Frenchwoman is grown up… For if Frenchman care too much about other things to care as much as we do about making money, the chief reason is largely because their relations with women are more interesting.”   Wharton wittily triangulates three well-known French qualities, aloofness, thriftiness, and the “almost Chinese reverence” for manners:  “No one knows more than the French about good manners: manners are codified in France, and there is the possibility of an insult in the least deviation for established procedure… The complaint of Anglo-Saxons that, in traveling in France, they see little of the much-vaunted French courtesy is not unjustified. The French are not courteous from any vague sense of good-will toward mankind; they regard politeness as a coin with which certain things are obtainable, and being notably thrifty they are cautious about spending it on strangers…”   If any of these observations perturb or delight you, search out this slim, 150 page book.* Wharton’s finely tuned insights cover much more than these I have described, including Cardinal Richelieu (“a bad man and great statesman”) and the French Academy, language as the “vessel” to preserve a nation, the glacial movement of French bureaucracy, geography as destiny, and “la gloire, l’amour, la volupte, et le plaisir.” It is indispensable. * pub. 1919, repub. 1997, Edith Wharton Restoration at The Mount (Lenox, Mass.) and Berkshire House Publishers (Lee, Mass.)
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