France - The Young Business Lady
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
" A PERFECT woman nobly planned" for practical life, the young business lady offers a study complex as that of the fastidiously-reared demoiselle belonging to fashionable society, whose dowry of itself ensures her a brilliant marriage.
The exact counterpart of the French young lady of business, I should say, is nowhere to be found, certainly not in England. Aptitudes, ideals, physical and mental equation are essentially and ancestrally Gallic and conservative. The wave of féminisme, or the woman's rights' movement, has not reached the sphere in which she moves
if not a radiant figure, she is, at all times, a dignified and edifying one, by her Milton's precept having been early taken to heart
That which before us lies in daily life
Is the prime wisdom."
It may here be mentioned that, no matter her rank, a French girl is regarded as an old maid at the age of twenty-five. If neither married nor betrothed by the time she reaches that venerable period, by general consent, single blessedness awaits her. The spinster of fashion and society has two avenues from which to choose—conventual seclusion or devotion to good works outside its walls. The business young lady pursues her avocations without mortifiication or repining at unpropitious fate.
In leisured and wealthy classes the thought of approaching spinsterhood is a veritable nightmare. The hiding of mortified vanity or misplaced sentiment in a convent, or the assumption of a pietistic rôle amid old surroundings, involve bitter disillusion. What an end to the dazzling dreams and airy hopes of a few years before ! What a contrast to existence as pictured by the youthful communicant in anticipatory bridal dress ! The Rubicon of twenty-five passed, a lady clerk or manageress contemplates the future undismayed.
Old maids of twenty-five, whether portioned or no, may, of course, occasionally marry, especially in the workaday world ; and here it is curious to note the rigidity of etiquette obligatory on both.
I have mentioned elsewhere that brides and bridegrooms elect, moving in good society, are invariably chaperoned. Alike indoors and out, a third person, not necessarily listening or looking on, must keep them company. But seeing that girls, who earn their own living, attain habits of independence at an early age, we should expect to find such rules relaxed in their case. No such thing ! The young lady forewoman or bookkeeper, whether under or over twenty-five, cannot go to the theatre with her fiancé unaccompanied by a relation ; still less can she take train with him, in order to visit friends ten miles off, whilst tête-à-tête strolls or visits to public places of entertainment are wholly out of the question. Even a well-conducted femme de chambre is here as scrupulous as her eighteen-year-old mistress.
The reputation of the young business lady, like that of Caesar's wife, must be beyond reproach. Dress, speech, deportment, must defy criticism. Advancement, increase of pay, her very bread, depend upon circumspection, a standard of conduct never deviated from in the least little particular.
Flirtation is no more permissible in the business world than in good society. The thing not existing in France, no equivalent for the word can be found in French dictionaries. A girl may have the maternal eye upon her or find herself thrown upon the world. Etiquette and bringing up forbid flirtation. Moreover, in young French-women of all ranks, outside Bohemia, is found what, for want of a precise term, I will call instinctive decorum (l instinct de bienséance), and sentimentality is not a French failing. No young business lady sighs for the kind of distraction so necessary to her English and American sisters. If marriage comes in her way, before arriving at a decision, she will carefully go over the pros and cons, wisely taking material as well as social matters into consideration. It the spinsterhood traditionally entered upon at twenty-five takes the shape of destiny, with even mind she will pursue her calling, to that devoting undivided energies, endeavouring every year to make herself more valuable to employers. Attracted as a needle by the magnet, step by step she will approach the goal of French workers, a small independence, the dignity of living upon one's means, of being able to inscribe one's self in the census rentier or rentière.
The pre-eminence of the French business woman I set down, firstly, to consummate ability ; secondly, to dogged, unremitting absorption in her duties. There is here no waste of mental force, no frittering away of talents. Capacities and acquirements are focussed to a single point.
One of my acquaintances in the French work-a-day world is a girl of twenty-six, already at the head of a large establishment in Paris, having two clerks of the other sex, and older than herself, at her orders, and enjoying confidence so complete that her books are never so much as glanced at by the proprietors
This young lady once observed to me—
" I possess what, of course, is necessary to one in my position—an excellent memory. Nobody is infallible, but I may say this much for myself, I rarely, if ever, forget anything. And the way to cultivate memory is to trust to it. ` Never write down what you are bound to re-member,' I say to my young clerks when I see them bring out a note-book."
I have somewhere read that Thomas Brassey, the great railway contractor, was of the same opinion, using his memory only as tablets.
Business hours over, the desk closed, office doors shut upon her, fast as omnibus, tramway, or metropolitan can carry her, the young business lady hurries home. The home, the family circle, added to these, perhaps, some friend of school days, exercise magnetic attraction. If the weather admits, not a moment will be spent indoors ; shopping and visits, in company of mother, sister, or friend, during the winter ; lounges in the public gardens, drives in the Bois, or excursions by penny steamer during the summer, make leisure moments fly. On half-holidays Chantilly, St. Germain-en-Laye, Meudon, even Fontainebleau are visited, whilst all the year round the drama forms a staple recreation. These young business women are often uncommonly good dramatic critics. If by virtue of twenty-five years, assumed spinsterhood, and position, they can patronize theatres inaccessible to girls of a different rank, they can fully appreciate the opera and the Français. It was in the company of a lady clerk that I witnessed La Course au Flambeau, at the Renaissance, a piece from beginning to end serious as a sermon, its vital interest depending, not upon lovers' intrigues, but upon humdrum fireside realities, the tragedy of everyday family life. No more intelligent or appreciative companion at a play could be wished for than my young friend. Here, I would observe, that just as the interest of French travel is doubled by the fact companionship, so should theatre-going be enjoyed in French society.
Novel-reading is not much indulged in by these busy girls. The French notion of enjoyment and relaxation is to be abroad, sunshine and fresh air, taken with beloved home-folk. Beyond such quiet pleasures and occasional excitements of wedding celebrations, always long drawn out in bourgeois circles, a visit to the opera, and in summer a brief holiday by the sea, life flows evenly. We are accustomed to regard the French as a volatile, pleasure-seeking, even frivolous, race. Nothing can be farther from the truth. In very truth our neighbours are the most persistently serious folk on the face of the earth.
If French employers are exacting, they are at the same time generous. A capable and trustworthy manageress, head clerk, or superintendent is sure to be handsomely remembered on New Year's Day, to have her salary raised from time to time, and growing confidence will be testified in many ways.
The subject of Frenchwomen's position in the industrial world would fill a volume. Skilfully treated, the dry bones of statistics may be made to live ; but such a work is quite beyond my own powers, and would have little interest for the general reader. I leave figures and generalizations to others, contenting myself with describing business women I have known, and adding a few details as to salary, leisure, and accommodation. Naturally the non-resident clerk, giving a certain number of hours daily, is in a very different position to the directrice, or the manageress, who lives on the premises and can call no time her own, except precisely limited periods, sure to be spent by her at home. Board, lodging, and laundress being very expensive in Paris, quite a third higher than in any English town, the directrice is well rewarded for the sacrifice of time, the domestic beside, and independence. I know at the present time a young lady employed in a public office whose salary is 8 a month for seven hours' daily attendance, with occasional Sunday duty. As she lives with her parents, such a sum enables her to contribute to the family budget, and at the same time lay by a little for old age or a dowry ! Many young business women achieve a modest portion with which to enter upon the partnership of wed. lock. The resident manageress, on the other hand, not only economizes the triple outlay of above mentioned, but obtains at least a higher salary. She is, however, expected to dress well, and dress in France, like everything else, from a postage stamp upwards, is much dearer than in England. The toilette of a business young lady makes a large hole in her earnings. Again, likely as not, she has family claims upon her, perhaps the partial support of a widowed mother, maybe the education of a young sister or brother. In spite of these and other drains upon her purse, you may be sure that she makes yearly or half-yearly investments. The young business woman, no less than the peasant, rendered M. Thiers' colossal task feasible. It was the indomitable thrift of the work-a-day world that enabled him to pay off the Prussian war indemnity of two hundred million sterling before the allotted term.
The French nation is not like our own, an egregiously holiday-making one. Sunday closing, or partial closing, is on the increase both in town and country, but statutory holidays are unknown.
A fortnight or three weeks during the year, an after-noon every other Sunday, two hours or so every alternate day—with such breaks in the round of duty, a young business lady feels no call for dissatisfaction. And although serenely contemplating spinsterhood at twenty-five, marriage, with its mutually-shared cares and benisons, may come in her way ; if not, advancing years, loneliness, and other drawbacks of a celibate existence will be cheered and dignified by an honestly earned independence, the affectionately-hungered for position of rentière, or a lady living upon her dividends.
I have mentioned a young business lady's keen appreciation of high dramatic art. But taste is so generally cultivated in France that the trait is by no means exceptional. It may, indeed, be said that up to a certain point every French man or woman is an artist.