Story type: Essay
When sixty years ago Lord Brougham, en route for Italy, was thrown from his travelling berline and his leg was broken, near the Italian hamlet of Cannes, the Riviera was as unknown to the polite world as the centre of China. The grand tour which every young aristocrat made with his tutor, on coming of age, only included crossing from France into Italy by the Alps. It was the occurrence of an unusually severe winter in Switzerland that turned Brougham aside into the longer and less travelled route via the Corniche, the marvellous Roman road at that time fallen into oblivion, and little used even by the local peasantry.
During the tedious weeks while his leg was mending, Lord Brougham amused himself by exploring the surrounding country in his carriage, and was quick to realize the advantages of the climate, and appreciate the marvellous beauty of that coast. Before the broken member was whole again, he had bought a tract of land and begun a villa. Small seed, to furnish such a harvest! To the traveller of to-day the Riviera offers an almost unbroken chain of beautiful residences from Marseilles to Genoa.
A Briton willingly follows where a lord leads, and Cannes became the centre of English fashion, a position it holds to-day in spite of many attractive rivals, and the defection of Victoria who comes now to Cimiez, back of Nice, being unwilling to visit Cannes since the sudden death there of the Duke of Albany. A statue of Lord Brougham, the “discoverer” of the littoral, has been erected in the sunny little square at Cannes, and the English have in many other ways, stamped the city for their own.
No other race carry their individuality with them as they do. They can live years in a country and assimilate none of its customs; on the contrary, imposing habits of their own. It is just this that makes them such wonderful colonizers, and explains why you will find little groups of English people drinking ale and playing golf in the shade of the Pyramids or near the frozen slopes of Foosiyama. The real inwardness of it is that they are a dull race, and, like dull people despise all that they do not understand. To differ from them is to be in the wrong. They cannot argue with you; they simply know, and that ends the matter.
I had a discussion recently with a Briton on the pronunciation of a word. As there is no “Institute,” as in France, to settle matters of this kind, I maintained that we Americans had as much authority for our pronunciation of this particular word as the English. The answer was characteristic.
“I know I am right,” said my Island friend, “because that is the way I pronounce it!”
Walking along the principal streets of Cannes to-day, you might imagine yourself (except for the climate) at Cowes or Brighton, so British are the shops and the crowd that passes them. Every restaurant advertises “afternoon tea” and Bass’s ale, and every other sign bears a London name. This little matter of tea is particularly characteristic of the way the English have imposed a taste of their own on a rebellious nation. Nothing is further from the French taste than tea-drinking, and yet a Parisian lady will now invite you gravely to “five o’clocker” with her, although I can remember when that beverage was abhorred by the French as a medicine; if you had asked a Frenchman to take a cup of tea, he would have answered:
“Why? I am not ill!”
Even Paris (that supreme and undisputed arbiter of taste) has submitted to English influence; tailor-made dresses and low-heeled shoes have become as “good form” in France as in London. The last two Presidents of the French Republic have taken the oath of office dressed in frock-coats instead of the dress clothes to which French officials formerly clung as to the sacraments.
The municipalities of the little Southern cities were quick to seize their golden opportunity, and everything was done to detain the rich English wandering down towards Italy. Millions were spent in transforming their cramped, dirty, little towns. Wide boulevards bordered with palm and eucalyptus spread their sunny lines in all directions, being baptized Promenade des Anglais or Boulevard Victoria, in artful flattery. The narrow mountain roads were widened, casinos and theatres built and carnival fetes organized, the cities offering “cups” for yacht- or horse-races, and giving grounds for tennis and golf clubs. Clever Southern people! The money returned to them a hundredfold, and they lived to see their wild coast become the chosen residence of the wealthiest aristocracy in Europe, and the rocky hillsides blossom into terrace above terrace of villa gardens, where palm and rose and geranium vie with the olive and the mimosa to shade the white villas from the sun. To-day, no little town on the coast is without its English chapel, British club, tennis ground, and golf links. On a fair day at Monte Carlo, Nice, or Cannes, the prevailing conversation is in English, and the handsome, well-dressed sons of Albion lounge along beside their astonishing womankind as thoroughly at home as on Bond Street.
Those wonderful English women are the source of unending marvel and amusement to the French. They can never understand them, and small wonder, for with the exception of the small “set” that surrounds the Prince of Wales, who are dressed in the Parisian fashion, all English women seem to be overwhelmed with regret at not being born men, and to have spent their time and ingenuity since, in trying to make up for nature’s mistake. Every masculine garment is twisted by them to fit the female figure; their conversation, like that of their brothers, is about horses and dogs; their hats and gloves are the same as the men’s; and when with their fine, large feet in stout shoes they start off, with that particular swinging gait that makes the skirt seem superfluous, for a stroll of twenty miles or so, Englishwomen do seem to the uninitiated to have succeeded in their ambition of obliterating the difference between the sexes.
It is of an evening, however, when concealment is no longer possible, that the native taste bursts forth, the Anglo-Saxon standing declared in all her plainness. Strong is the contrast here, where they are placed side by side with all that Europe holds of elegant, and well-dressed Frenchwomen, whether of the “world” or the “half-world,” are invariably marvels of fitness and freshness, the simplest materials being converted by their skilful touch into toilettes, so artfully adapted to the wearer’s figure and complexion, as to raise such “creations” to the level of a fine art.
An artist feels, he must fix on canvas that particular combination of colors or that wonderful line of bust and hip. It is with a shudder that he turns to the British matron, for she has probably, for this occasion, draped herself in an “art material,”–principally “Liberty” silks of dirty greens and blues (aesthetic shades!). He is tempted to cry out in his disgust: “Oh, Liberty! Liberty! How many crimes are committed in thy name!” It is one of the oddest things in the world that the English should have elected to live so much in France, for there are probably nowhere two peoples so diametrically opposed on every point, or who so persistently and wilfully misunderstand each other, as the English and the French.
It has been my fate to live a good deal on both sides of the Channel, and nothing is more amusing than to hear the absurdities that are gravely asserted by each of their neighbors. To a Briton, a Frenchman will always be “either tiger or monkey” according to Voltaire; while to the French mind English gravity is only hypocrisy to cover every vice. Nothing pleases him so much as a great scandal in England; he will gleefully bring you a paper containing the account of it, to prove how true is his opinion. It is quite useless to explain to the British mind, as I have often tried to do, that all Frenchmen do not pass their lives drinking absinthe on the boulevards; and as Englishmen seem to leave their morals in a valise at Dover when off for a visit to Paris, to be picked up on their return, it is time lost to try to make a Gaul understand what good husbands and fathers the sons of Albion are.
These two great nations seem to stand in the relation to each other that Rome and Greece held. The English are the conquerors of the world, and its great colonizers; with a vast capital in which wealth and misery jostle each other on the streets; a hideous conglomeration of buildings and monuments, without form and void, very much as old Rome must have been under the Caesars, enormous buildings without taste, and enormous wealth. The French have inherited the temperament of the Greeks. The drama, painting, and sculpture are the preoccupation of the people. The yearly exhibitions are, for a month before they open, the unique subject of conversation in drawing-room or club. The state protects the artist and buys his work. Their conservatoires form the singers, and their schools the painters and architects of Europe and America.
The English copy them in their big way, just as the Romans copied the masterpieces of Greek art, while they despised the authors. It is rare that a play succeeds in Paris which is not instantly translated and produced in London, often with the adapter’s name printed on the programme in place of the author’s, the Frenchman, who only wrote it, being ignored. Just as the Greeks faded away and disappeared before their Roman conquerors, it is to be feared that in our day this people of a finer clay will succumb. The “defects of their qualities” will be their ruin. They will stop at home, occupied with literature and art, perfecting their dainty cities; while their tougher neighbors are dominating the globe, imposing their language and customs on the conquered peoples or the earth. One feels this on the Riviera. It reminds you of the cuckoo who, once installed in a robin’s nest, that seems to him convenient and warmly located in the sunshine, ends by kicking out all the young robins.