The Art of Life


HE who has not lived in the years around 1780,” said Talleyrand, “has not known the pleasure of life.”* Provided, of course, one belonged to the upper classes, and had no prejudices in favor of morality.

It is hard to define morality, for each age makes its own definition to suit its temper and sins. Frenchmen had through centuries relieved monogamy with adultery, as America relieves it with divorce; and in the Gallic view judicious adultery does less hurt to the family—or at least to the children—than divorce. In any case adultery flourished in eighteenth-century France, and was generally condoned. When Diderot, in his Encyclopédie, wished to distinguish bind and attach, he gave as example: “One is bound to one’s wife, attached to one’s mistress.”2 “Fifteen out of twenty of the noble lords about the court,” according to a contemporary, “are living with women to whom they are not married.”3 To have won a mistress was as necessary to status as to have money. Love was frankly sensual: Boucher painted it en rose, Fragonard gave it lace and grace; Buffon said, brutally, “There is nothing good in love but the flesh.”4

Here and there the finer love appeared, even in Crébillon fils;5 and among the philosophes Helvétius dared to be enamored of his wife, while d’Alembert remained faithful to Julie de Lespinasse through all the variations on her absorbing theme. Jean-Jacques Rousseau undertook in this age a one-man reform of morals; and shall we also credit the novels of Samuel Richardson? Some women put on virtue as a fashion,6 but some received gratefully the recollected gospel of premarital chastity and postmarital fidelity as saving them from the indignity of serving as steppingstones for philanderers. At least monogamy ceased to be a badge of shame. Roués, married, rediscovered old pleasures in family life; better to plumb the depths of unity than be forever scratching the surface of variety. Many women who had begun as frivolous surfaces settled down when children came; some nursed their children, even before Rousseau’s exhortations; and often those children, growing up under maternal love, returned it with filial interest. The Maréchale de Luxembourg, after an adventurous youth, became a model wife, faithful to her husband while gently mothering Rousseau. When the Comte de Maurepas died (1781), after serving both Louis XV and Louis XVI and suffering a long exile between his ministries, his wife recalled that they “had spent fifty years together, and not one day apart.”7 We hear too much—we ourselves have spoken too much—of women who gained entrance into history by breaking marriage vows; we hear too little of those who could not be made unfaithful even by infidelity. Mlle. Crozat, betrothed at twelve to the future Duc de Choiseul, bore with patience his infatuation with his ambitious sister; she accompanied him in exile, and even the sophisticated Walpole honored her as a saint. The Duchesse de Richelieu continued to love her husband through all his adulteries, and was grateful that fate allowed her to die in his arms.8

Perversions, pornography, and prostitution continued. French law required the penalty of death for sodomy, and indeed two pederasts were burned in the Place de Grève in 1750;9 but usually the law ignored voluntary and private homosexual acts between adults.10 Economic morality was then as now; note the passage in Rousseau’s Émile11 (1762) about the adulteration of food and drinks. Political morality was then as now; there were many devoted public servants (Malesherbes, Turgot, Necker), but also many who secured their posts by money or connections, and reimbursed themselves, in office, beyond the letter of the law. Many idle nobles lived luxuriously on the blood of their peasants; but public and private charity abounded.

All in all, the French of the eighteenth century were a kindly people, despite a code of sexual ethics that violated Christian norms by its candor. See, in the career of Rousseau, the number of people who came to his aid and comfort despite the difficulty of pleasing him; and often these sympathetic souls belonged to that aristocracy which he had reviled. Chivalry had declined in the relation of men to women, but it survived in the conduct of French officers to war captives of their class. The irritable and hostile Smollett, traveling in France in 1764, wrote: “I respect the French officers in particular for their gallantry and valor, and especially for that generous humanity which they experience to their enemies, even amidst the horrors of war.”12 Goya pictured, but probably exaggerated, the cruelty of French soldiers to Spanish commoners in the Napoleonic Wars. Certainly the French could be callously cruel, presumably because they had been inured to brutality by war and the penal code. They were turbulent, given to knife-wielding college brawls, and to street riots as a substitute for elections. They were impetuous, and plunged into good or evil with little loss of time in deliberation. They were chauvinists who could not understand why the rest of the world was so barbarous as to speak any other language but French. Mme. Denis refused to learn the English word for bread—“Why can’t they all say pain?”13 Perhaps more than any other people they loved glory. Soon they would die by the thousands crying, “Vive l’ Empereur!”

Of course the French were supreme in manners. The customs of courtesy established under Louis XIV were tarnished by hypocrisy, cynicism, and superficiality, but essentially they survived, and gave to life in the educated classes a grace which no society can rival today. “The French are so polite, so obliging,” said Casanova, “that one feels drawn to them at once”—but he adds that he could never trust them.14

They excelled in cleanliness; in the Frenchwoman this became one of the cardinal virtues, practiced till death. And it was a part of good manners to be neatly dressed. The men and women of the court sometimes sinned against good taste by extensive finery or extravagant coiffures. Men wore their hair in a queue, which Maréchal de Saxe deprecated as dangerous in war, giving a handle to the enemy; and they powdered their hair as assiduously as did their ladies. The women raised their hair to such elevation that they feared to dance, lest they catch fire from chandeliers. A German visitor calculated that the chin of a French lady lay exactly midway between her feet and the top of her hair.15 Hairdressers made fortunes by changing hair fashions frequently. Cleanliness did not extend to the female hair, for this took hours to arrange, and all but the fanciest women kept the same hairdos for days without disturbing them with a comb. Some ladies carried grattoirs of ivory, silver, or gold, to scratch the head with piquant grace.

Facial make-up was as complex as now. Leopold Mozart wrote to his wife from Paris in 1763: “You ask if Parisian ladies are beautiful. How can one say, when they are painted like Nuremberg dolls, and so disfigured by this repulsive trick that the eyes of an honest German cannot tell a naturally beautiful woman when he sees her?”16 Women carried their cosmetics with them, and renewed their complexions in public as brazenly as today. Mme. de Monaco rouged herself before riding off to be guillotined. Corpses were made up, powdered, and rouged, as in our time. Feminine dress offered a challenging mixture of invitations and impediments: low necklines, lacy bodices, hypnotizing gems, great spreading skirts, and high-heeled shoes, usually of linen or silk. Buffon, Rousseau, and others protested against corsets, but these remained de rigueur till the Revolution discarded them.

The variety and gaiety of social life were among the attractions of Paris. The cafés Procope, La Régence, and Gradot entertained intellectuals and rebels, men about town and women about men, while the luminaries of literature, music, and art shone in the salons. The lords of pedigree or wealth kept Versailles and Paris dancing with dinners, receptions, and balls. In the upper classes the arts included eating and conversation. The French cuisine was the envy of Europe. French wit had now reached a refinement where it had worn all topics thin, and boredom clouded brilliance. The art of conversation declined in the second half of the eighteenth century; declamation overheated it, speakers outran listeners, and wit was cheapened by its own profusion and its careless stings. Voltaire, who himself could sting, reminded Paris that wit without courtesy is crudity;17 and La Chalotais thought that “the taste for cleverness … has banished science and true learning” from the salons.18

In the parks—which were neatly groomed and alive with statuary—people strolled at their ease, or followed their children or their dogs, and gay blades pursued damsels skilled in vain retreat. The Gardens of the Tuileries were probably more beautiful then than now. Hear Mme. Vigée-Lebrun:

The Opéra was close by in those days, bordering on the Palais-Royal. In summer the performance ended at half-past eight o’clock, and all the elegant people came out, even before the end, to walk about the grounds. It was the fashion for women to carry very large nosegays, which, together with the scented powder in their hair, literally perfumed the air.... I have known these gatherings, before the Revolution, to continue till two in the morning. There were musical performances by moonlight in the open. … There was always a great crowd.19

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