France - The Baby
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE French baby usually comes into the world an heir. Outside the venue of penury and lawlessness, it may be said that every Gallic bantling is born with a silver spoon in its mouth. The Code Civil has made fathers in France mere usufructuaries of their children's fortune. " Thou shalt enrich thy offspring" is an eleventh commandment rigidly obeyed.
When a little Anglo-Saxon announces himself with kicks, screams, and doubling of his tiny fists, the attitude is symbolic. Unless he is born to a peerage or a million, his career, even in pacific fields, will be combative, earliest experiences evoking a spirit of enterprise, self-reliance, and, above all, compromise.
If a tiny Gaul behaves in similar fashion at the onset of life, his attitude soon changes. Mite as he is, he immediately discovers that there is not the slightest necessity to kick, scream, and double his fists. Everything he wants he gets without such expenditure of lungs and muscles. His nod is that of an infant Jupiter Olympus. For the French baby born of reputable wedlock is a unit, occasionally one of two—never a superfluity. When a fond French parent tells you that "sa petite famille va bien" (his little family is well), he means that the one boy or one girl of his house is in good health. When a Frenchman proudly informs you that he is "père de famille" (the father of a family), he means that he owns a son or a daughter. With undivided sway the new-comer rules, not the nursery (nurseries being unknown in France), but the entire household. He is regarded as a quite transhuman entity, a phenomenon, a small divinity whose humour under no circumstances whatever is to be crossed. From the moment of his birth he is entrusted to a deputy mother—in other words, a wet nurse—who must never let her charge cry.
" Take my advice," I once heard a young matron say to another, and immediately dismiss your nurse if baby cries, I changed mine for Cécile half a dozen times before I succeeded in obtaining one who understood her business. Depend on it, if an infant cries the fault lies with the nurse." The task of rearing infants under such conditions may seem onerous. The rewards are proportionate.
Next to the little heir or heiress under her care, the nurse is by far the most important person in the house. She lives on the fat of the land, and is never allowed to cry herself—that is to say, she must never sigh for the bantling she has left behind. Her wages range from a pound a week, and if she gets her foster child well over its teething, she receives a gold watch in addition to other perquisites. When madame's visits do not lie in the direction of any public garden, she takes a fiacre, and nurse and baby have the carriage and pair to themselves. In the Tuileries Gardens, the Parc Monceau, and on the Champs Elysées, instead of nursemaids in white dresses and perambulators, we see veritable walls of these foster-mothers in spick-and-span grey alpaca circular cloaks, and close-fitting mob-caps with streamers of broad ribbon reaching to their heels. This ribbon is a special manufacture of St. Etienne, and costs ten francs a yard. It is a plaid, red denoting the nurse of a boy, blue of a girl, at least four yards being used. A right jovial time of it have these wearers of circular cloaks and ribbon costing ten francs a yard. On a par with Juliet's immortal nurse are evidently most of them, well-meaning, but coarse, ignorant countrywomen attracted from the poorest and least progressive parts of France by high wages and riotous living. And concerning them has lately been waged a war as determined in spirit as that waged about Captain Dreyfus. Laws have been promulgated against the practice of vicarious motherhood. One of the most popular French novelists has scathingly indicted the system in fiction ; and at the eclectic Théâtre Antoine, night after night, vast audiences have been moved to tears by Les Remplaçantes, a play owing its inspiration to the same subject. Whether the excellent Loi Roussel forbidding mothers to go out as nurses till their own infants are seven months old, René Bazin's moving history of "Donatienne," or M. Brieux' still more moving play, Les Remplacantes, will reduce that living wall in the Paris gardens is a moot question. And why fond French mothers as persistently relegate their maternal duties to others as when Rousseau issued his fulminations a hundred and fifty years ago, I have never learned.
Alike in humble ranks the baby is an idol, but ofttimés a hindrance, an encumbrance, a tiny white elephant. The Loi Roussel may prohibit working women from acting the part of foster-mothers ; it cannot compel them to be mothers indeed. In all the first-class Paris hotels house-work is done by married couples, these being necessarily in the prime of life and the pick of their class. Whenever a baby is born to one of these chambermaids, it is immediately boarded out in the country, faring, doubtless, every whit as well as Chérubim in Paul de Kock's amusing story, and reared no more intelligently. You may still see babies emmailloté in the country, so swaddled that they cannot move a limb, their little unwashed heads in close-fitting caps. But out of sight is by no means a case of out of mind. From the moment of its birth the baby in France is the pivot on which everything turns, the centre of parental hopes and ambitions. A day out means a run into the country to see Bébé. Every English half-crown bestowed by passing travellers goes towards the little daughter's dowry or the little son's equipment for life. In the Pyrenees, no sooner is a girl born than the mother begins to spin and weave her trousseau—the enormous stock of house and family linen that will long outlast the life just begun. And no sooner is a daughter born to the professional man or small functionary than her modest dowry is insured by yearly payments--a few thousand francs to become her own on her marriage day. We all know the story of Diderot, who sold his library to dower his daughter. That charming story-teller, Charles Nodier, author of " Trilby " (did du Maurier here borrow the title of his once famous book ?), bookworm and bibliographer though he was, made a similar sacrifice. Tremendous, indeed, is the sense of parental responsibility in France. The care, bringing up, and providing for one child seem enough for ordinary mortals. " Ah ! how happy you will be when Denise has a brother to keep her company ! " I said to a gentleman of means and position who was talking rapturously of his baby granddaughter. "Another ? " was the reply. "What should I do with two grandchildren? I have only one pair of arms ! "
It is not for a moment to be inferred that more affection or care is lavished upon babies over the water than here. But, as Thiers remarked when France was torn to pieces by Bonapartist, Orleanist, and Legitimist factions, "A single crown cannot be worn by three heads," so the numerous occupants of an English nursery cannot all be little divinities.
A brilliant Anglo-French friend of mine was of opinion that French amiability is due to the fact of early indulgence, children's tempers never being spoiled by contradiction. Be that as it may, other characteristics must certainly be attributed to bringing up—sociableness, for instance, also gastronomic discrimination. Whilst to the little Anglo-Saxon the populous nursery becomes a school of life, to his neighbour the salon and salle à manger become schools of manners. Nurseries and nursery meals being unknown in France, no sooner is baby weaned than he takes his place at the dinner-table, rapidly acquiring ease of manner and appreciative habits.
" Ma fille adore le poisson" (" My daughter adores fish "), one day said the proud mamma of a year-old baby to her table d'hôte neighbour. This happened to be an English lady, who with no little amusement was watching the infantine gourmet. Everything that French babies like is supposed to be good for them, and, as the national physique is noted for its elasticity and powers of resistance, there may be practical wisdom in thus eschewing nursery diet.
French parents, alike the rich and the poor, hold with Henri d'Albret, King of Navarre, and grandfather of the gay Gascon. No sooner was the future King of France born than the old man took him in his arms, and from a gold cup made him swallow a few drops of choice wine, in order, as chroniclers relate, to make him grow up strong and manly. French children are wine-drinkers from their infancy.
Some years since I was staying with a Frenchwoman who received boarders. One afternoon the excellent maid-of-all-work brought in my tea, looking ready to cry of vexation.
" It is unbearable ! " she burst out. " Think of it, madame ; nine to cook for, and in the midst of my vegetable cleaning I have to leave off and get a dinner ready for Suzanne because she is going out with her grandmother."
The grandmother, who lived near, was to fetch Mademoiselle Suzanne at half-past five. Here is the bill of fare, the young lady being just two and a half soup, fish, beef steak, fried potatoes, cheese, dessert, and, of course, wine.
Upon another occasion I was dining with rich people living in their own hotel, and, wonderful to relate, the parents of seven children, from three to fifteen. All sat down to dinner, the younger ones being carried off to bed as soon as they nodded over their plates.
The introduction of the nursery would necessitate the entire reconstruction of Paris. In luxurious private hotels only is anything like an English installation for babies possible, whilst even in handsome flats costing several hundreds a year there are never two rooms available for the purpose. As to smaller appartements, the bedrooms are mere slips ; a nursery in these is every whit as out of the question as a servants' hall. One reason, perhaps, why children should be so much scarcer in Paris than in London is that in the French capital there is positively no room for more. And as the scarcity of any commodity immensely enhances its preciousness, French babies are never in the way, or supposed to be in the way.
I have heard an animated political discussion going on whilst a boy of two and a half was hammering the lid of a wooden box. No notice was taken either by his parents or their second visitor. Nor are French children ever sup-posed to be naughty.
I was one day walking in the country with friends when their little girl, aged three, began to fret, as children will without knowing why. " Ce n'est pas la petite Georgette qui pleure, c'est la petite Louise" ("It is not little Georgette who is crying, but little Louise "), said Georgette's father, her waywardness being thus attributed to an imaginary culprit. Another friend, a hardworking professional man, lately observed to me, "My wife and I have given up going to the theatre. Our little boy cries at the notion of being left behind, so we stay at home."
When, some years ago, the famous novelist Alphonse Daudet was in London with his wife and little girl, nothing astonished Madame Daudet so much as the fact of the child not being invited to luncheons, dinners, and receptions.
" J'ai toujours gardé mes enfants dans ma poche " (" I have always kept my children in my pocket "), she said indignantly to an interviewer. That English parents should not do the same seemed in this lady's eyes the height of insular moroseness. As I have said, the French baby is never supposed to be in the way. The other day I was dispatching a telegram from a French terminus. The clerk was enjoying his domesticities as he worked. By his side played a boy of three, keeping him company a sage-looking dog, her puppy nursed on the master's knee. And the last time I called upon my dressmaker, near Fontainebleau, her baby, of course, was in the workroom, one apprentice after another delightedly acting the part of nurse.
Beautiful is this French adulation of infantine life. Whether excessive spoiling later on is the best preparation for after years is another matter,