7. Of The Town
From Characters by Jean De La Bruyère (1688)

1. The people of Paris keep a tacit, but most punctual, rendezvous every evening on the Cours or in the Tuileries, to stare each other in the face and disapprove of one another.

They cannot do without their fellow-citizens, whom they dislike and scoff at. On a public promenade people wait to see one another pass; they file past for mutual inspection: carriages, horses, liveries, coats of arms, nothing escapes observation, everything is curiously or maliciously noted; and according to the size of the equipage, the owner is either respected or despised.

2. Everybody knows that long embankment that restricts and confines the bed of the Seine, where it enters Paris after its confluence with the Marne: men bathe at its foot during the heat of the dogdays; they can be seen close up, plunging into the water and then coming out of it; it's quite an entertainment. Until that season comes, the townswomen don't walk that way, and when it is past, they no longer walk there.

3. In crowded places, where women forgather to show off fine materials and to reap the fruit of their toilette, they walk in pairs not for the sake of conversation, but to seek mutual support on the stage, to acquire familiarity with their audience and strength to resist their critics: it is here that ladies talk to one another with nothing to say, or rather talk at the passers-by, for whose benefit they raise their voices, gesticulate and jest, bow casually and saunter back and forth.

4. The town is divided into various groups, which form so many little states, each with its own laws and customs, its jargon and its jokes. While the association holds and the fashion lasts, they admit nothing well said or well done except by one of themselves, and they are incapable of appreciating anything from another Source, to the point of despising those who are not initiated into their mysteries. A man of quality whom chance has brought among them, however intelligent he may be, is a stranger to them; he finds himself there as though in a distant land where he knows neither the roads, nor the language, nor the ways, nor the customs; he sees a crowd of people talking, murmuring, whispering, bursting into laughter and then relapsing into gloomy silence; he is discomfited, he does not know how to put in a single word nor even what to listen to. There is always some detestable buffoon there who is cock of the walk, and seems to be the hero of the company; he has made himself responsible for the others' delight, and he always raises a laugh even before he has spoken. If a woman should appear who does not share their pleasures, the merry band cannot see why she fails to laugh at things she does not understand, or to appreciate feeble jokes which they only enjoy because they make them themselves; they forgive neither her tone of voice, nor her silence, nor her figure, nor her face, nor her dress, nor her way of coming in or going out. No coterie, however, can last out two years; the first twelvemonth always contains the seeds of division that will shatter it during the second; rivalry between beauties, incidents of the gaming table, the extravagance of meals which, modest to begin with, soon degenerate into sumptuous banquets with pyramids of foodstuffs, all these things disturb the commonwealth and finally deal it a death-blow; and in a very short while there is no more talk of this nation than of last year's flies.

5. There are, in town, lawyers of the greater and the lesser sort, the grande and the petite robe; the former take their revenge on the latter for the disdainful attitude of the Court, and the petty humiliations endured there. To know where their limits lie, where the grande robe ends and the petite begins, is no easy matter. There is even an important section of the profession which refuses to belong to the lower order, and which the higher is reluctant to admit; it will not give way, however, it seeks rather by its gravity and its lavish expenditure to equal the magistracy, or to run it close; and we have heard it claimed that the nobility of its function, its professional independence, the oratorical talents and personal merit of its members counterbalance, at least, the money-bags that the tax-farmer's or the banker's son has managed to lay out for his office.

6. What do you mean by day-dreaming in your carriage, or taking your case there? Pick up your book or your papers, Vitus, read, give the curtest of nods to these people driving past; they will see how busy you are; they will say: 'What an industrious, indefatigable man; he goes on reading and working even in the streets or on the high road.' You must learn from the meanest pettifogger how to appear overwhelmed with business, how to knit your brows and ponder profoundly over nothing; how to do without food and drink at the right moment; how to show yourself briefly in your own home, then disappear and vanish like a ghost into the gloom of your study; how to hide from public view, to shun an audience, leaving that to those who run no risk by showing themselves, and who scarcely have leisure to do so, men like Gomont and Duhamel.

7. There are a certain number of young magistrates whose great wealth and pleasure-loving habits have led them to associate with those who are known at Court as petits-maîtres, fops; they imitate these, they consider the gravity of their profession far beneath them, and hold themselves excused, by their youth and wealth, from prudence and moderation. They borrow the worst features of Court life; they adopt vanity, indolence, intemperateness, impiety as though all these vices were theirs by right, and thus affecting a character remote from that which they ought to maintain, they become, as they wished to, faithful copies of worthless originals.

8. A lawyer in town and a lawyer at Court are two different men. Back at home he resumes the habits, the figure and face which he had left behind there: he is no longer so bashful, or so polite.

9. The Crispin family have clubbed together and collected six horses between them to lengthen their train, which, with a swarm of liveried footmen to which they have each contributed, enables them to ride in triumph along the Cours or the Vincennes road, as splendidly as brides, or as Jason, who is ruining himself, or as Thraso, who is planning to take a wife and who has laid down money for a high office.

10. I hear it said of the Sannions:

'The name's the same, so are the arms: there's the senior branch, the junior branch, the juniors of the second branch: the former bear their arms plain, the second with a label, and the third with a label indented. They blazon the same colours and the same metal as the Bourbons: they carry, like these, two pieces in chief and one at the tip; these are not fleurs-de-lis, but they don't mind; perhaps they think in their hearts that their arms are just as honourable, and they bear them in common with certain great nobles who are satisfied with them; you can see these arms on funeral hangings and in church windows, on the gates of their country house, and on the gibbet where, as justiciary nobles, they have just hanged a man who deserved banishment; they are displayed here, there and everywhere, they are on pieces of furniture and on the locks of doors, and are scattered all over their carriages; their liveries don't disgrace their armorial bearings.'

I should like to tell the Sannions:

'Your folly is premature; wait at least until your line has seen out the century; the men who have known your grandfather, who have spoken to him, are old and cannot live much longer. Who will be able to say, as they can: "That's where he showed his wares, and sold them very dear"?

The Sannions and the Crispins are even more anxious to be considered big spenders than to be so in reality. They will describe at tedious length some entertainment or dinner-party that they have given; they will tell you how much money they have lost at play, and loudly regret not having ventured more. They talk in riddles about certain women; 'They have a hundred amusing things to tell one another: they have made certain discoveries lately'; and they acknowledge one another to be successful ladies' men. One of them, who went to bed late in the country and would have liked to go on sleeping, gets up betimes, puts on gaiters and a linen coat, slips on a cord from which his equipment is hanging, ties back his hair and takes up a gun; he's a huntsman now, if he could only shoot. He comes back at nightfall, wet and weary, having killed nothing. He goes hunting again next morning, and spends the whole day missing thrushes and partridges.

Another, who has a few wretched hounds, would like to be able to say: 'My pack.' He knows where tile hunt is meeting and he manages to be there; he is present when they slip the bounds; he ventures into the depths of the wood, mingles with the huntsmen; he has a horn. He does not say, like Menalippus: 'Am I enjoying myself?' He thinks he is. He forgets laws and procedures; he's a regular Hippolytus. Menander, who saw him yesterday about a lawsuit which is in his hands, would not recognize a judge-advocate today. Should you go to see him tomorrow in court, where a serious and important case is to be tried, he gets his colleagues to gather round him and tells them how he never lost track of the quarry, how he shouted himself hoarse directing the hounds which had lost the scent, or those of the hunters who were on a false trail, and how he saw six hounds in pursuit. Time presses; he finishes telling them about the stag at bay and the kill, and hurries off to sit with the rest to pass judgement.

11. How misguided are certain individuals who, enriched by their fathers' trade, the profits from which they have just inherited, model themselves on princes as regards their dress and equipage, and by their excessive expenditure and absurd ostentation incur the mocking taunts of the whole town, which they had sought to dazzle, and thus ruin themselves in order to be laughed at!

Some of them have not even the dubious advantage of making their folly known beyond the district where they live: their vanity enjoys no other theatre. Nobody on the Île {Saint-Louis} knows that André; is the shining light of the Marais, and squanders his patrimony there: if at least he were known throughout the town and its suburbs, surely, among so large a crowd of citizens, who are not always wise judges of everything, there could hardly fail to be someone who would say of him: He is magnificent, and who would give him credit for the banquets he offered Xanthus and Ariston, and the fêtes at which he entertained Elamire; but he ruins himself in obscurity: it's for the sake of two or three people who have no respect for him that he is hurrying towards destitution, and that whereas today he rides in a coach, in six months' time he will not even have shoes to walk in.

12. Narcissus gets up in the morning in order to go to bed at night; he has regular hours for his toilet, like a woman; he goes every day without fail to the fashionable Mass at the Feuillants or the Minimes; he is considered pleasant company, and he can be relied on in the district to make a third or a fifth at ombre or reversi. He presides for four hours running at Aricie's, where he ventures five gold pistoles a night. He is a careful reader of the Gazette de Hollande and the Mercure Galant; he has read Bergerac, Des Marets, Lesclache, Barbin's Historiettes and a few collections of verse. He goes walking with the ladies on the Plaine {des Sablons} or the Cours {la Reine}, and is impeccably punctual when he pays visits. He will do tomorrow what he has done today and what he did yesterday: and thus, at last, he will die after having lived.

13. 'There's a man,' you say, 'whom I have seen somewhere; it's hard to say where; but his face is familiar to me.' So it is to many others; and I shall try to help your memory. Was it on the Boulevard {de la Porte-Saint-Antoine}, perched on the folding-seat of a carriage, or in the long walk at the Tuileries, or in the balcony at the play? Was it at a sermon, or at a ball, or at Rambouillet? Where could you have failed to see him? Where is he not to be seen? If there's a famous execution in the Place, or a firework display, he appears at a window of the Hotel de Ville; if a ceremonial entry is expected, he has his place on a scaffolding; if a tournament is held, he is sitting ready in the amphitheatre; if the King receives ambassadors, he watches their arrival, he witnesses their audience, he is among those that line the streets when they return from their audience. His presence is as essential at the Swiss League ceremonies as is that of the chancellor, and even of the Leagues themselves. It's his face that you can see on almanacs, representing the people or the spectators. If there is a public hunt, a Saint-Hubert, there he is on horseback; if there's talk of a camp and a review, he is at Ouilles, he is at Achères. He loves the army, the militia and war; he has seen it at close quarters, actually in Bernardi's fort. Chanley knows all about routes, Jacquier about provisions, Du Metz about artillery: 13 this man looks on, he has grown grey in harness looking on, he is a professional onlooker; he does nothing of what a man should do, he knows nothing of what a man should know; but he has seen, he tells us, everything that there is to be seen, and he will have no regrets when he dies. What a sad loss that will be for the whole town! Who will say, when he is gone: 'The Cours is closed, nobody's walking there; the mud-pit at Vincennes has been dried up and filled in, we shan't overturn there any more?' Who will inform us of a coming concert, of some fashionable service, of the latest wonder at the Fair? Who will let you know that Beaumavielle died yesterday; that Rochois has a cold and won't be singing for a week? Who, like him, will recognize a bourgeois by his coat of arms and liveries? Who will say: 'Scapin carries fleurs de lys' and who will be more impressed by it? Who will pronounce the name of an ordinary bourgeoise with greater affectation and pomposity? Who will be better provided with vaudevilles? Who will lend women the Annales galantes and the Journal amoureux? Who else can sing at table a whole operatic dialogue, or render Orlando furioso in a lady's chamber? In a word, since in town, as elsewhere, there are some very foolish people, dull, idle people with nothing to do, who can suit them as perfectly?

14. Theramenes was rich, and a man of parts; he has inherited, so now he is very rich and a man of exceptional parts. All the women battle to get him for a lover, all the girls for a suitor. He goes from house to house raising the hopes of mothers; as soon as he sits down they withdraw, leaving their daughters free to be charming and Theramenes to propose. Here, he holds his own against a magistrate; there, he outshines a knight and a gentleman. No young man in radiant health, lively, cheerful and witty, is longed for more ardently, nor more warmly welcomed; the ladies fight over him, they scarcely have leisure to spare a smile for any other visitor. How many lovers will be put to confusion! how many good matches will he spoil! How can he cope with all the heiresses who are pursuing him? He is not only a terror to married men, he is the bugbear of all those who would like to get married, and who hope that a dowry will fill the purse emptied by the purchase of an office. Such fortunate and moneyed people should be banned from any well-governed city, or else all women should be condemned, on pain of being disgraced or considered mad, to treat them no better than if they had merely been men of parts.

15. Paris, which commonly apes the Court, sometimes falls short of its model: it utterly fails to imitate those pleasant and gracious manners which a few courtiers, and women in particular, unaffectedly display towards a man of parts, even if he has nothing else to recommend him; they do not inquire as to his contracts or his ancestors; they see him at Court, and that's enough; they accept him, they appreciate him; they do not ask whether he came in a chair or on foot, whether he has a position, an estate or an equipage; since they are surfeited with splendour, pomp and ceremony, they gladly relax in the company of philosophy or virtue. When a citizen's wife hears the rumble of a carriage drawing up before her door, she bubbles over with goodwill and graciousness for whoever is inside it, without knowing him; but if she has seen from her window a fine team of horses, and a crowd of liveries, if the rows of brilliantly gilded studs that adorn the carriage have dazzled her, how impatient she feels to entertain in her room the knight or the magistrate! what a delightful welcome she will give him! will she ever take her eyes off him? She appreciates everything about him: the double strappings and springs that make him ride more comfortably are held to his credit; she respects him the more, she loves him better on their account.

16. The silliness of certain town ladies, which makes them attempt to imitate those of the court, is something worse than the coarseness of working women or the rusticity of peasants: there is affectation here into the bargain.

17. What a cunning invention it is to offer your bride splendid presents which have cost you nothing, but which later will be repaid to you in cash!

18. What a useful and admirable practice it is to squander a third of a bride's dowry on the wedding expenses! and to start off by growing poor together, through the accumulation of superfluous possessions, and by borrowing from one's capital to settle Gaultier's and to pay for one's furniture and dress!

19. What a fine and judicious custom is that of exposing a bride, after her wedding night, on a bed as though on the stage, in brazen defiance of seemliness and modesty, and there make a laughing-stock of her for three days, to satisfy the curiosity of people of both sexes who, known or unknown, hurry from all over the town to see the sight while it lasts! Such a custom would seem entirely bizarre and incomprehensible if we read it in some traveller's tale about Mingrelia.

20. What a wearisome custom, what a trying bondage it is for women to go in constant pursuit of one another, while eagerly hoping not to meet! to meet one another, only to talk about trifles, to tell each other news that both know already, and that are really not worth knowing! to go into a room for no other purpose than to go out of it; to leave one's home in the afternoon merely to return there in the evening, quite satisfied with having seen, in the space of five hours, three porters, one woman one scarcely knows and another that one does not like! Were one to reflect on the value of time, and how irreparable is the loss of it, one would weep bitterly over such a pitiful waste.

21. The town dweller is brought up in complete indifference to the things of the countryside; he scarcely distinguishes the plant that bears hemp from the one that produces flax, and wheat from rye, or either from maslin; he is content to get his food and clothing from them. It's no use talking to most bourgeois about fallow land or saplings, about layered vines or aftermath, if you want to be understood; they don't know what the terms mean. Speak to some of them about yardage, tariffs and taxes, to others about appeal procedure, civil petitions, settlements and summonses. They know society, albeit in its ugliest and least admirable aspects; they know nothing about nature, its origins, its progress, its gifts and its bounties. Their ignorance is often deliberate, and based on their esteem for their own profession and talents. The meanest pettifogger, buried in his gloomy, smoke-blackened study, his mind obsessed with even blacker chicanery, thinks himself superior to the ploughman, who enjoys the open sky, who tills the ground, who sows in season and reaps rich harvests; and if he should sometimes hear talk of primitive men or of the patriarchs, of their rustic way of life and its harmonious order, he wonders how they could have lived in such times, when there were no offices or commissions, no attorneys or Presidents; he cannot understand how people ever survived without the clerk of the court, the public prosecutor and the refreshmentroom at the law-courts.

22. The Roman emperors never made their triumphal entry with such luxury, such comfort, such sure protection against wind and rain, dust and heat as the Parisian bourgeois enjoys when he drives through the town; what a difference from his ancestors, who rode on mule-back! They had not yet learned to give up essentials for the sake of superfluities, nor to prefer the showy to the useful. You would not have seen them burn wax candles, and go short of fuel; wax was for the altar or the palace. They did not climb into a coach, after eating a wretched dinner; they were convinced that man's legs were meant for walking, and they walked. They kept clean when the weather was dry; and when it was wet they soiled their shoes, crossing streets and squares as unperturbed as a huntsman walking over a ploughed field, or a soldier wading through a trench. Nobody had as yet thought of harnessing two men to a litter; there were even a number of magistrates who went on foot to the two Chambers of the Parlement, as cheerfully as Augustus used to walk to the Capitol. Pewter, in those days, shone on tables and sideboards, as iron and copper did on hearths; silver and gold were kept in coffers. Women were waited on by women; women were even employed in the kitchen. The fine titles of tutor and governess were not unfamiliar to our forefathers: they knew who was in charge of the children of monarchs and great nobles; but they themselves were directly responsible for their own children's education, and shared with them the services of their household. In all matters, they reckoned with themselves alone: their expenses were proportionate to their receipts; their liveries, their carriage and horses, their furniture, their table, their houses in town or in the country were all ordered according to their income and rank. There were external distinctions between them which prevented the attorney's wife from being mistaken for the magistrate's, the commoner or mere lackey from the gentleman. Less concerned with squandering or swelling their patrimony than with maintaining it, they left it entire to their heirs, and thus passed from a temperate life to a quiet death. They did not say 'Times are hard our poverty is great, our money is scarce'; they had less of it than we have, yet they had enough, being richer through their thrift and moderation than through their incomes and estates. In short, they were imbued with the conviction that what is splendour, pomp, magnificence in men of high rank is dissipation, folly and stupidity in private individuals.