Read CHAPTER XVI. of English Pharisees and French Crocodiles, free online book, by Max O'Rell, on


A worshiper of grace and beauty, the Frenchman has given to woman a place which she occupies in no other nation.

Since the days when Aspasia inspired Socrates and advised Pericles, in no other country has woman’s sovereignty been so supreme as it has always been, and still is, in France.

The Frenchman is keenly alive to woman’s influence, and woman is an ever-present, a fixed, idea with him.  Whether he study her from the artistic, physiological, or psychological point of view, his interest in her is never exhausted.

It is a case of woman worship.  Parodying Terence’s lines, he says: 

“I am a man, and all that concerns woman interests me.”

Nothing is more absurd in the eyes of the English than this ever-present idea of woman in the mind of the Frenchman, and as our dear neighbors do not know us any better than if an ocean, instead of a silver streak, separated us and them, they indulge in a thousand and one commentaries upon the puerility of our character.

However, it is to our education, and to that alone, that this weak but charming side of our national character must be attributed.

If, from the tenderest age, we were used to liberty and the companionship of children of the other sex, we should grow up thinking very little about liberty and women, and we should succeed in acquiring that sangfroid which is the foundation-stone of the prosperity and the greatness of the Anglo-Saxon race.

When we were schoolboys, and a rumor spread through the class rooms that the sister of So-and-So was in the parlor, do you remember, my dear compatriots, what a commotion it created throughout the whole establishment?  Do you remember how we climbed on tables and chairs, and how happy we were if we could but catch sight of the corner of a petticoat at the other end of the courtyard?  No wonder, for, to us, a girl was quite an extraordinary being, something almost supernatural.  The scream of the young ladies of Miss Tomkins’ Seminary, on hearing that “a man is behind the door!” is nothing, compared to the magic cry, “Une fille!” in a French school.

Is not the object of man’s worship always something unknown, extraordinary, ideal?  Is it not always clothed in mystery?  Have we ever bestowed unlimited admiration upon those whose society we frequent every day?  Habit kills admiration, as it kills all sentiments that live upon illusions.  If, from our childhood, woman were the companion of our daily games and walks, should we not look upon her with different eyes?

To us Frenchmen, woman is a being whom we consider greatly superior to ourselves, because we have made an ideal of her.

To the Englishman, woman is a creature whom he looks down upon as a frail and frivolous being, greatly inferior to himself.  With what an air of sovereign condescension the English schoolboy tells his young girl friends all about the game of football or cricket, in which he has taken part!  His manner seems to say:  “Is it not awfully kind of me to take the trouble to enter into these details with poor, puny creatures like you, who cannot appreciate them?”

In France, whatever a woman does is right; even her errors almost turn to her advantage.  If she breaks her marriage vows, it is not she who is covered with shame, it is her husband who is covered with ridicule; and people immediately look for defects in him, and excuses for her.

A society thus governed by women may lack firmness, but its salient points are sure to be good taste, delicacy, tact, wit, and amiability.

It is impossible not to mention here the ascendancy which women took over French literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and during the early part of the present one, through the influence of the salons littéraires.  Does it not seem, in fact, as if the history of French literature might be summed up by naming the Hotel de Rambouillet, and the salons of Mme. des Loges, Mlle. de Scudery, Mme. de Sable, Ninon de Lenclos, Mme. Scarron, the Duchesse du Maine, the Marquise de Lambert, Mme. du Deffand, Mme. d’Epinay, Mme. de Caylus, Mme. de Vintimille, Mme. Recamier, Mme. de Stael, and Mme. Girardin?  Do we not know the courts of Louis XIV., Louis XV., Louis XVI., and Napoleon I. by the letters and memoirs of this splendid legion of women belonging to “la société polie” who have taught us the art of causer, that art of which we French have the monopoly?

This woman worship, from which chivalry sprang, is the source of another trait characteristic of the French nation, a trait which we have a right to be proud of.  I speak of our respect for the weak.  I engage that the lowest quarter of any French town would be roused into revolution at the sound of a man having ill-treated a woman or child.  It is a sentiment innate in the Celt, and which would be found in the Englishman, if the Germanic element had not gained the ascendancy in England.

Is there any prettier sight than that of our public gardens filled with well-dressed, bright-faced young mothers, whose husbands come, when business is over, to listen to the band at their side, and to take them to their homes, from which care is banished as far as possible, and where they are made sharers in each joy of their husbands?

Can we imagine a pleasure party of any kind without the presence of women?  And when I say we, I mean all classes of society.  When our workman sets out, on Sunday mornings, for the Jardin de la Muette or the Bois de Meudon, with provisions for the day, he takes his wife and children with him; and even his old mother, if he have one, must go too, or the party is not complete.

I confess that those world-famed English dinners which are not brightened by the presence of ladies have but little charm for me.

“Those English people enjoy themselves as we bore ourselves to death,” once said Mme. Vigee-Lebrun.

When I say that women are rarely seen at the great public dinners, which are the distinguishing feature of English society, I exaggerate.  They are sometimes admitted ... to the galleries, from thence to contemplate the lords of creation consuming their prodigious repast.

Gallantry could surely go no further.

Looking from the gallant knights of the trencher to the pretty faces in the gallery, I have more than once exclaimed to myself:  “Nobody can say that an Englishman’s eyes are bigger than his stomach.”