The Faubourg Of St. Germain by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

There has been too much said and written in the last dozen years about breaking down the “great wall” behind which the aristocrats of the famous Faubourg, like the Celestials, their prototypes, have ensconced themselves. The Chinese speak of outsiders as “barbarians.” The French ladies refer to such unfortunates as being “beyond the pale.” Almost all that has been written is arrant nonsense; that imaginary barrier exists to-day on as firm a foundation, and is guarded by sentinels as vigilant as when, forty years ago, Napoleon (third of the name) and his Spanish spouse mounted to its assault.

Their repulse was a bitter humiliation to the parvenue Empress, whose resentment took the form (along with many other curious results) of opening the present Boulevard St. Germain, its line being intentionally carried through the heart of that quarter, teeming with historic “Hotels” of the old aristocracy, where beautiful constructions were mercilessly torn down to make way for the new avenue. The cajoleries which Eugenie first tried and the blows that followed were alike unavailing. Even her worship of Marie Antoinette, between whom and herself she found imaginary resemblances, failed to warm the stony hearts of the proud old ladies, to whom it was as gall and wormwood to see a nobody crowned in the palace of their kings. Like religious communities, persecution only drew this old society more firmly together and made them stand by each other in their distress. When the Bois was remodelled by Napoleon and the lake with its winding drive laid out, the new Court drove of an afternoon along this water front. That was enough for the old swells! They retired to the remote “Allee of the Acacias,” and solemnly took their airing away from the bustle of the new world, incidentally setting a fashion that has held good to this day; the lakeside being now deserted, and the “Acacias” crowded of an afternoon, by all that Paris holds of elegant and inelegant.

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Where the brilliant Second Empire failed, the Republic had little chance of success. With each succeeding year the “Old Faubourg” withdrew more and more into its shell, going so far, after the fall of Mac Mahon, as to change its “season” to the spring, so that the balls and fetes it gave should not coincide with the “official” entertainments during the winter.

The next people to have a “shy” at the “Old Faubourg’s” Gothic battlements were the Jews, who were victorious in a few light skirmishes and succeeded in capturing one or two illustrious husbands for their daughters. The wily Israelites, however, discovered that titled sons-in- law were expensive articles and often turned out unsatisfactorily, so they quickly desisted. The English, the most practical of societies, have always left the Faubourg alone. It has been reserved for our countrywomen to lay the most determined siege yet recorded to that untaken stronghold.

It is a characteristic of the American temperament to be unable to see a closed door without developing an intense curiosity to know what is behind; or to read “No Admittance to the Public” over an entrance without immediately determining to get inside at any price. So it is easy to understand the attraction an hermetically sealed society would have for our fair compatriots. Year after year they have flung themselves against its closed gateways. Repulsed, they have retired only to form again for the attack, but are as far away to-day from planting their flag in that citadel as when they first began. It does not matter to them what is inside; there may be (as in this case) only mouldy old halls and a group of people with antiquated ideas and ways. It is enough for a certain type of woman to know that she is not wanted in an exclusive circle, to be ready to die in the attempt to get there. This point of view reminds one of Mrs. Snob’s saying about a new arrival at a hotel: “I am sure she must be ‘somebody’ for she was so rude to me when I spoke to her;” and her answer to her daughter when the girl said (on arriving at a watering- place) that she had noticed a very nice family “who look as if they wanted to know us, Mamma:”

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“Then, my dear,” replied Mamma Snob, “they certainly are not people we want to meet!”

The men in French society are willing enough to make acquaintance with foreigners. You may see the youth of the Faubourg dancing at American balls in Paris, or running over for occasional visits to this country. But when it comes to taking their women-kind with them, it is a different matter. Americans who have known well-born Frenchmen at school or college are surprised, on meeting them later, to be asked (cordially enough) to dine en garcon at a restaurant, although their Parisian friend is married. An Englishman’s or American’s first word would be on a like occasion:

“Come and dine with me to-night. I want to introduce you to my wife.” Such an idea would never cross a Frenchman’s mind!

One American I know is a striking example of this. He was born in Paris, went to school and college there, and has lived in that city all his life. His sister married a French nobleman. Yet at this moment, in spite of his wealth, his charming American wife, and many beautiful entertainments, he has not one warm French friend, or the entree on a footing of intimacy to a single Gallic house.

There is no analogy between the English aristocracy and the French nobility, except that they are both antiquated institutions; the English is the more harmful on account of its legislative power, the French is the more pretentious. The House of Lords is the most open club in London, the payment of an entrance-fee in the shape of a check to a party fund being an all-sufficient sesame. In France, one must be born in the magic circle. The spirit of the Emigration of 1793 is not yet extinct. The nobles live in their own world (how expressive the word is, seeming to exclude all the rest of mankind), pining after an impossible restauration, alien to the present day, holding aloof from politics for fear of coming in touch with the masses, with whom they pride themselves on having nothing in common.

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What leads many people astray on this subject is that there has formed around this ancient society a circle composed of rich “outsiders,” who have married into good families; and of eccentric members of the latter, who from a love of excitement or for interested motives have broken away from their traditions. Newly arrived Americans are apt to mistake this “world” for the real thing. Into this circle it is not difficult for foreigners who are rich and anxious to see something of life to gain admission. To be received by the ladies of this outer circle, seems to our compatriots to be an achievement, until they learn the real standing of their new acquaintances.

No gayer houses, however, exist than those of the new set. At their city or country houses, they entertain continually, and they are the people one meets toward five o’clock, on the grounds of the Polo Club, in the Bois, at fetes given by the Island Club of Puteaux, attending the race meetings, or dining at American houses. As far as amusement and fun go, one might seek much further and fare worse.

It is very, very rare that foreigners get beyond this circle. Occasionally there is a marriage between an American girl and some Frenchman of high rank. In these cases the girl is, as it were, swallowed up. Her family see little of her, she rarely appears in general society, and, little by little, she is lost to her old friends and relations. I know of several cases of this kind where it is to be doubted if a dozen Americans outside of the girls’ connections know that such women exist. The fall in rents and land values has made the French aristocracy poor; it is only by the greatest economy (and it never entered into an American mind to conceive of such economy as is practised among them) that they succeed in holding on to their historical chateaux or beautiful city residences; so that pride plays a large part in the isolation in which they live.

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The fact that no titles are recognized officially by the French government (the most they can obtain being a “courtesy” recognition) has placed these people in a singularly false position. An American girl who has married a Duke is a good deal astonished to find that she is legally only plain “Madame So and So;” that when her husband does his military service there is no trace of the high-sounding title to be found in his official papers. Some years ago, a colonel was rebuked because he allowed the Duc d’Alencon to be addressed as “Monseigneur” by the other officers of his regiment. This ought to make ambitious papas reflect, when they treat themselves to titled sons-in-law. They should at least try and get an article recognized by the law.

Most of what is written here is perfectly well known to resident Americans in Paris, and has been the cause of gradually splitting that once harmonious settlement into two perfectly distinct camps, between which no love is lost. The members of one, clinging to their countrymen’s creed of having the best or nothing, have been contented to live in France and know but few French people, entertaining among themselves and marrying their daughters to Americans. The members of the other, who have “gone in” for French society, take what they can get, and, on the whole, lead very jolly lives. It often happens (perhaps it is only a coincidence) that ladies who have not been very successful at home are partial to this circle, where they easily find guests for their entertainments and the recognition their souls long for.

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What the future of the “Great Faubourg” will be, it is hard to say. All hope of a possible restauration appears to be lost. Will the proud necks that refused to bend to the Orleans dynasty or the two “empires” bow themselves to the republican yoke? It would seem as if it must terminate in this way, for everything in this world must finish. But the end is not yet; one cannot help feeling sympathy for people who are trying to live up to their traditions and be true to such immaterial idols as “honor” and “family” in this discouragingly material age, when everything goes down before the Golden Calf. Nor does one wonder that men who can trace their ancestors back to the Crusades should hesitate to ally themselves with the last rich parvenu who has raised himself from the gutter, or resent the ardor with which the latest importation of American ambition tries to chum with them and push its way into their life.

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