France - Brides And Bridegrooms
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
" THE truth is, I have no time to get married," was the reply of a hard-worked French officer to an English friend rallying him on the subject of his old-bachelorhood.
The retort was no mere pleasantry. In England, alike from the humblest to the highest, the business of getting married may be reduced to a minimum of time, deliberation, and expense. In the case of the wealthy, a few pencilled instructions to the family lawyer as to marriage settlements and a special licence are all the formularies absolutely necessary ; in the case of the middle classes, the brief church service and an equally brief reception of friends and relations afterwards entail comparatively little outlay, mental or material, on either side.
In France wedlock is no mere individual, but a family matter, a kind of joint-stock affair. An Englishman marries a wife. A Frenchman takes not only his bride for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, but her entire kith and kin, fortunately a far less numerous contingent than with us. A British matron, when informing acquaintances of her daughter's marriage, says, "We have lost our daughter." A French mother, in similar case, frames her piece of news thus, "We have gained a son." The former writes or speaks of our daughter and her husband," or " our son and his wife," the latter in either case of " our children," A son-in-law addresses his wife's mother as " my mother," or more familiarly mamma."
A still more striking instance of what may be called clanship in France is afforded by the black-bordered faire part, or announcement of decease. This notification is made not only in the name of next of kin on both sides, but of every member of both families down to babies in arms. With ourselves such a list would often fill a column of a newspaper. French families are small, and one side of a page of letter-paper more than suffices. The Roman gens was not a more compact and tightly knit body of society than the allied group in France, the bond having, like most things, an advantageous and a reverse side. It is often taken for granted here that youths and maidens are paired for life on the other side of the Manche as unceremoniously as for a waltz or quadrille. Nothing can be a greater mistake, and here, as in most intricacies of domestic life among our neighbours, we must take the Code Civil into account. Paternal authority is far from being a dead letter after majority, as with ourselves. Since June, 1896, marriage laws have been modified with a considerable diminution of such authority. At the present time sons and daughters aged respectively twenty-five and twenty-one, in case of parental refusal, need only make one what is called sommation respectueuse, or extra - judicial remonstrance, instead of three as was formerly the case. Should the parents prove obdurate, young people having attained their majority and complied with this formality, are at liberty to marry whom they please.
These modifications have had in view the facilitating of marriage generally. The same may be said of the laws relating to natural children, noticed elsewhere.
This power being placed in the hands of doting fathers and mothers, they are hardly likely to use it amiss. Instead of marrying their children against their will, they contrive to prevent them from marrying against their own ; so, at least, I should put it. Match-making in France is a very delicate process of elimination. Undesirable social elements are shut out. The young girl emerging from her almost cloistered seclusion, the stripling having passed his baccalaureat and his military service, will be thrown in the way of desirable partners, and of desirable partners only. Balzac, that encyclopaedic delineator of French life, has hit off this subject in a sentence. " Love never entered into her calculations," he writes of a fond mother arranging her only son's marriage in " Béatrix." But as at such susceptible age falling in love, or what takes the place of it, is excessively easy, betrothals ofttimes appear quite voluntary, an arrangement brought about, as in England, by the young people themselves.
Nothing like the free-and-easy intercourse of boys and girls, young men and maidens, enjoyed by Anglo-Saxons, is permissible in France, in this respect the most eclectic, least democratic country existing.
But dances in the winter, croquet and `garden-parties, both of English introduction, in summer, afford opportunities of acquaintance. The seaside or inland resort, too, is a fruitful field for maternal match-making. Two mothers who have taken their first communion in company, often a lifelong tie with Frenchwomen, will arrange to spend the summer holidays by the seaside in order that their sons and daughters may be thrown together. And when they return home the usual printed notice will be sent out on both sides : " Monsieur and Madame A- have the honour to inform Monsieur and Madame B of the betrothal of their daughter Berthe with Monsieur Marcel C-," and so on.
In cases where prior acquaintance has afforded no guarantee of a young man's character and habits, advances on his part will not be accepted till inquiry, or rather the most scrupulous investigation, has proved satisfactory. Bachelors emancipated from parental authority are often married through the friendly mediation of acquaintances. I was one day at a picnic consisting of a dozen families near Besançon, the said families numbering husband, wife, and one child.
" Do you see that young lady in pink, beside her wet nurse and baby ?" my companion said to me. " Her marriage to Professor T— was arranged by friends of mine. After the first introduction he declared that no, nothing on earth would induce him to marry a girl with such a nose ; she has a very long nose, certainly. But on further knowledge he found her agreeable and accomplished, and now they are as happy as possible."
This is a typical story. But, of course, drawbacks more formidable than a nose â la Cyrano de Bergerac will some-times confront a would-be suitor.
The wisest and fondest parental foresight cannot prevent discord arising from unsuitability of temperament and character ; by these precautions misunderstandings arising from pecuniary disillusions and disappointments can entirely be avoided. Here every particular is minutely gone into before the trousseau and wedding day are so much as mooted.
The word " courtship " has no equivalent in the French tongue, because the thing itself does not exist. Stolen tête-a-tetes, even furtive kisses, may, of course, be indulged in, but only under a modified chaperonage, the half-shut eye of parents or guardians. No young French lady would be permitted, for instance, to undertake a cycling expedition with her future husband. Still less could she take train with him for the purpose of visiting relations in the country, were the journey of half an hour's duration only. Love-making begins with the honeymoon.
The financial inquisition just alluded to is necessitated by the marriage contract. For centuries, alike in the humblest as well as the highest ranks, matrimonial settlements have kept family possessions together in France—and enriched village notaries !
No sooner was serfdom abolished than the peasants followed bourgeois example, dowering their daughters and securing the interests of their sons b y law, In provincial archives exist many of these documents, the rustic bride's portion consisting of furniture, clothes, money, and some-times cattle or a bit of land. The archives of the Aube contain the marriage contract of a skilled day labourer (manouvrier) and a widow whose property was double that of his own. The deed secured him joint enjoyment and ownership. I cannot here, of course, enter into the intricacies of the French marriage laws. There is the régime dotal, which safeguards the dowry of the wife ; there is the rig/ me de la communaute, which makes wedlock strictly a partnership as far as income and earnings are concerned. And there are minute regulations as to the provision for children and widows. The latter are always sacrificed to the former.
Twenty-five years ago an officer was not only obliged to secure a small dowry with his wife, about a thousand pounds rigidly tied down to her and her children ; he was also under the necessity of furnishing the Minister of War with two authoritative attestations of the bride's respectability and, up to a certain point, social standing. The moderate pay of French officers, and the Draconian edicts against the incurrence of debt in the French Army, quite prevent military men from taking portionless brides. And, indeed, outside Bohemia, slum-land, or the world of the déclassé, portionless brides in France are an anomaly. No matter what her rank or condition, a girl brings her husband something, in modest hard-working circles often a little dowry of her own earning. The notary is as indispensable an agent of matrimony as the mayor or even the priest. Preliminaries of this kind comfortably settled, a bridegroom is in duty bound to make the acquaintance of his new family, and as the French character is eminently affectionate and sociable, this is frequently regarded as the pleasantest task possible.
Especially will a sisterless, brotherless bachelor find it delightful to be able to boast of newly acquired relations—ma belle-saur, ma cousine, and so on. But a round of formal visits necessitates leisure, hence one reason for my friend's plaint, " I have no time to get married." The etiquette of betrothals is exceedingly strict, and upon every occasion love-making has to be sacrificed to conventionalities. Thus, whenever an accepted suitor accompanies his future mother-in-law and fiancée on visits of ceremony, he must offer his arm to the former ; on no occasion must he allow inclination to stand before punctilio.
Trousseau and marriage ceremony quickly follow betrothals. An engagement protracted throughout months and years, as is often the case in England, is unknown over the water. When a young man is in a position to marry he seeks a wife, not before. The fortune-hunters so scathingly dealt with in the brothers Margueritte's novel, " Femmes Nouvelles," I leave out of the question. What I am here attempting to describe is the normal, the average, the standard, not exceptional phases of French society. No self-respecting parents would have anything to do with the suitors described in the popular novel just named.
A word or two about trousseaux before entering upon the long-drawn-out marriage ceremonial.
A French friend never gives, always offers a gift : note the verbal nicety. Our own rough and ready way of making wedding presents shocks our neighbours no little. True that grandparents, uncles, and cousins may present a bride with an elegant purse containing money or notes ; outsiders must never send cheques, as is so often done here.
The corbeille formerly offered by the bridegroom consisted of rich velvets and silks, furs, old lace, family and modern jewels, a fan, and a missal, all packed in an elegant basket or straw box lined with satin. Among more modest ranks these objects were replaced by dress pieces of less expensive material and trinkets. Some years since the fashion was introduced of replacing the corbeille by a considerable sum of money enclosed in an envelope. The custom, however, is not universal, and most often rings and jewellery, as in England, form a bridegroom's gifts.
Bridal gifts of friends are selected with great care, no amount of thought or time being grudged upon the selection. These preliminaries being satisfactorily arranged, the wedding day, or rather wedding days, quickly follow marriage contracts and the preparation of trousseaux. I use the plural noun, for in the land pre-eminently of method, precision, and formulary, a single day does not suffice for the most important ceremonial in human life. A Frenchman may not be twice wedded, but most often he is privileged with two wedding days : the civil, that is to say, the only legal marriage, preceding by twenty-four hours what is aptly called the nuptial benediction in church.
The civil marriage is gratuitous. On the arrival of the mayor, announced by officials, the wedding party rise. The mayor then reads the articles of the Code Civil relating to conjugal duties. The declaration of the fiancés and the permission of their parents being given, the pair are declared man and wife, and the register is handed to the lady for signature. Having affixed her name, she offers the pen to her husband, who replies, "Merci, madame," the coveted title now heard by her for the first time.
How, it may be asked, can municipal authorities find time to get through the work imposed by this obligation ? The answer is simple. The mayor can always be represented by his deputy, or adjoint. In small communes one of these suffices ; in large cities several are necessary. Thus, at Lyons the mayor is supported by no less than twelve adjoints, himself officiating only at the marriage of noteworthy personages. Fashionable folks are beginning to simplify wedding festivities after English example, but the two days' programme still finds general favour, a jeuner, dinner, and ceremonies keeping bridegroom and best man, or garcon d ' honneur, in their dress-coats from morning till night.
If French girls were not trained to habits of self-possession from childhood upwards, the double ordeal would be trying indeed. A mayor, especially if he happens to know the bride, will anticipate by a friendly little speech the solemn harangue of the priest to follow. Thus, when some years ago an Orleanist princess married into the Danish royal family, the mayor of the arrondissement wished her well, adding a few touching words about such leave-takings of kinsfolk and country.
Church ceremonials are very expensive affairs in France, weddings, like funerals, being charged for according to style. Those of the first and second class entitle the pro-cession to entry by the front door of cathedral or church; to more or less music of the full orchestra, and to carpets laid down from porch to altar. Wedding parties of the third division go in by a side entrance, and without music or carpet traverse the aisle, the charges even so diminished being considerable.
I must say that were I a French bride-elect I should bargain for a wedding of the first class at any sacrifice. To have the portal of a cathedral thrown wide at the thrice-repeated knock of the beadle's staff, to hear the wedding march from " Lohengrin " pealed from the great organ, to reach the altar preceded by that gorgeous figure in cocked hat, red sash, plush tights, pink silk stockings, and silver-buckled shoes, all the congregation a-titter with admiration-.-.surely the intoxication of such a moment were unrivalled ! The strictest etiquette regulates every part of the proceedings. Accommodated with velvet armchairs, the bride's parents and relations are placed, according to degrees of consanguinity, immediately behind her prie-dieu ; the bridegroom's family, arranged with similar punctiliousness, having seats on the other side of the nave. I well remember, at the first-class wedding of an acquaintance in Nantes Cathedral, how a little girl belonging to the bride's party had somehow got seated between relations of the bridegroom. Before the ceremony began the child was put in her proper place. Such a breach of etiquette could not on any account be permitted.
Churches in France are not always decorated with palms and flowers as with ourselves. Any additional expense would indeed be the last straw breaking the camel's back, rendering weddings a veritable corvée. But the high altar blazes with tapers, and floral gifts, natural and in paper or wax, adorn the chapels of the Virgin or patron saint.
One feature of the long-drawn-out ceremonial is the charge before alluded to made respectively to bride and bridegroom, a tremendous ordeal, one would think. Fortunately, French girls are equal to the occasion. The theme of priestly admonition, the cynosure of all eyes, a young bride will listen downcast and demure, but not in the least discomposed or in need of smelling-salts. Long training has fortified her against sentimentality or unbecoming show of emotion.
" You, mademoiselle," I once heard a village curé address a parishioner, a young woman belonging to the middle ranks, "you have before you the example of a mother fulfilling in every respect the duties now before yourself, wifely, maternal, and Christian," and so on, and so on, the bride listening calmly to personalities, admonitions, and forecasts that seemed in the highest degree disconcerting.
The wedding-rings, obligatory on both sides, received on a gold salver, blessed and adjusted, the plate is again proffered, this time for alms. Bank-notes, and gold or silver pieces are given, naturally the two former when marriages fall under the category of first and second class.
But by far the most distinctive and pictorial function of a French wedding is la quete, or collection for the poor. Next in interest to the bride herself is the demoiselle d'honneur, or bridesmaid, upon whom falls this conspicuous and graceful duty. A bride, distractingly pretty although she may be, has no part to play. All that is required of her is automatic collectedness and dignity. But the demoiselle d'honneur is under the necessity of acting a role, and, as a rule, most beautifully is it acted. The ceremony cone to an end, the organist plays a prelude, and two figures detach themselves from the wedding party, both selected for personal charm, sprightliness, and savoir-faire —I am compelled to use a word for which we have no equivalent—both, also, perfectly dressed. The garçon d'honneur, or best man, wears dress-coat, white tie, waist-coat and gloves, his companion the newest, most elegant toilette de ville, or carriage costume. She gives her left hand to her cavalier, in her right holding a velvet bag ; then the pair step airily forth, the most engaging smile, the most finished bow soliciting and acknowledging donations. It is the prettiest sight imaginable ; and no wonder that the velvet bag rapidly fills, as, having made their way down the nave, lady and cavalier make the round of the church. And the name of the charming quêteuse invariably figures in the society column of the Figaro or local paper, a testimony to spirit, grace, and beauty.
A wedding gift in the form of a cheque shocks French susceptibilities. But at bridal receptions English taste is equally offended by the exhibition of the entire trousseau. In one of her essentially Parisian novels that delightful writer, Madame Bentzon, describes this feature, or rather animadverts upon such a display. The author of " Tchevelek," however, has consorted so much with the Anglo-Saxon world that, although Parisian to the tips of her fingers, she sees certain things through English and Trans-atlantic spectacles. The spreading before everybody's eyes of slips and stockings, no matter how elaborate, evoked delicate irony from her pen.
It must not be supposed that, to use a homely simile, bride and bridegroom are yet out of the wood. A ball often follows breakfast or reception, the newly married pair stealing away in the small hours of the night, like hunted hares compelled to covert flight. This remark especially holds good with the middle and humbler ranks, and with provincial life. Society, following English initiative in everything, as I have said, has inaugurated English simplifications.
In one respect all unions resemble each other, and up to a certain point differ from our own. Family life in France is a wheel within a wheel, a piece of closely implicated machinery, a well-welded-together agglomeration of social and material interests. Marriage is not wholly a dual affair. Willy-nilly, brides and bridegrooms enter a clan, become members of a patriarchal tribe. Hence the parental inquisition on both sides, that minute investigation of character, circumstances, and family history so foreign to insular notions. Hence the widespread, I am tempted to say incalculable, effects of worldly ruin, loss of reputation, or other misfortune. A blow falls crushingly not only upon the immediate victim or culprit, but upon every one of their blood or bearing their name.
A French writer who knew England well once remarked that " César Birotteau" could not have been written of English commercial life. In that country a bankrupt ruins himself, not his entire family.
And some years ago, when walking with an old friend in Dijon, he said to me---
" Did you observe that nice-looking girl I saluted just now ? Poor thing ! she can never marry, her uncle having failed dishonourably in business."
An untarnished record, a roof-tree at which none can point a finger ; last, but far from least, an accession rather than a diminution of well-being---such is the ideal of a French Coelebs in search of a wife.
" Find me an English wife," a bachelor friend once said to me in all seriousness. " Your recommendation will suffice. Provided you consider the lady a suitable partner for me, I shall be entirely satisfied. I place my fortune in your hands."
A. highly characteristic incident.