Tuesday, 6 September 2016

8 January 1881 - 'French School-Girls'

The newspapers recently had many comments on the opening of a young ladies' college at Castle-Sarrasin, between Toulouse and Bordeaux, the first of many similar institutions to supplement if not displace the convent schools, where girls of the upper and middle classes could alone get education. Mr. G.A. Sala, in an article in a daily paper, had some interesting statements about "the French school-girl." French married ladies enjoy a surprising amount of freedom, which, it is to be hoped, they invariably turn to the best of uses; but French unmarried girls cannot be said to enjoy any freedom at all. They are not maltreated, for, although the French do not outrageously spoil their children as the Americans do, they treat them, as a rule, with unvarying kindness and tenderness, and consort with them on terms of much greater familiarity than is customary in children-loving but austere England. French fathers and mothers are petite pere and petite mere to their youngest children, who are accustomed to "thee" and "thou" them from infancy, and are not taught to dread them. On the other hand, they venerate them, and a grey-bearded Frenchman of fifty does not think it derogatory to his dignity, when writing to his mother, to subscribe himself ton fils soumis et obeisant.

But the French girl, until she be marriageable, is kept in the strict seclusion. She may not walk out alone, or even in the company of her sister. She is never left alone with an unmarried gentleman. She may not write to a gentleman under sixty, unless he be of kindred to her. She is debarred from indulging in a hundred harmless pastimes and frolics in which English girls habitually indulge, and the enthusiasm which Frenchmen are wont to express for les charmantes jeunes Meeses Anglaises may be to a great extent explained by the fact that they very rarely have a chance to freely communing with unmarried young ladies of their own nation. Married women, and not girls, are usually the heroines of French novels of society, and when the novelist does incidentally allude to a young girl of gentle nurture he generally dismisses her as a jeune fille reveuse. The truth is, that the author has so few opportunities of speaking to her that he has no experience to guide him in picturing to himself what she may be dreaming about. Precluded by the Median and Persian laws of la famille from describing female character in the upper and middle ranks of society, the romance-writers fly in despair to the foyer of the actress, the boudoir of the cocotte, or the garret of the ouvriere. There they are able to find an abundance of models and a plenitude of opportunities  for the observation and analysis of social characteristics. La famille has concerned itself very little with female Bohemia, who have not by any means been kept in seclusion in their girlhood.

That the segregation of unmarried girls from general society in France has been concurrently attended by very imperfect educational training is undeniable. Were it not that the French are a naturally witty, shrewd, and self-possessed people, a French girl of the upper middle classes might appear to an English or American young lady to be a lamentably ignorant specimen of "femininity." She may have picked up a few scraps of English in her pensionnat, but she is never taught even the rudiments of Latin; she would think it unpatriotic to speak German; her knowledge of the history and literature of her own country is limited, and that of the history and literature of other countries usually nil. A little linear drawing constitutes the sum of her acquaintance with mathematics, and she may be deemed fortunate if she has managed to gather a slight smattering of physical science, and that not of a very accurate kind, from the writings of M. Jules Verne. If she has been educated in a convent, the good nuns have probably taught her that three-fourths of the things which she will enjoy with such eager zest when she is married and free are essentially wicked, and it is not at all improbable that if she has been brought up in a nunnery in the provinces, her clerical instructors have instilled into her such ideas on politics as to make her regard the existing Government of her country with horror and aversion.

An English school-girl happily knows much more about hardbake and almond rock than she does about Conservatism or Liberalism; and from the age of sixteen to twenty she is too much occupied with matters of dress and amusement and affairs of the heart to trouble herself about which political party is in office, or which is in opposition. If she has any politics at all they are "papa's"; unhappily, as French society is at present constituted, the politics of a French young lady are in most cases directly the reverse of those of her papa. They are mamma's, and mamma's politics are those of M. Le Cure. The only wonder is that, educationally hampered and restricted at every turn, incessantly watched by the Argus eyes of parents and priests, the young Frenchwoman, when she has passed through the probationary stages of a school-girl and a demoiselle a marier should bear herself with the confident aplomb and hold her own in the brilliantly self-assured manner customary with her after marriage. The formalities at the Mairie and the ceremonial of the nuptial benediction at the church seem instantaneously to have transformed her into another personage, and she takes her place, be it in society or behind the comptoir of her husband's shop or cafe, with a perfectly easy, self-reliant, and satisfied air. Yesterday she was all timidity and taciturnity. Today she would confront M. Le Prefet without hesitation, and is loquacious even to garrulity. She is free; and that may have something to do with the rapidity and the completeness of the metamorphosis.

Whether increased educational facilities by means of public school or collegiate training of a liberal and secular kind will exercise a favourable influence on the character of the always fascinating but often uneducated young Frenchwoman remains to be seen. The progress of the experiment at Castel-Sarrasin will be watched with much interest on both sides of the Channel, but the gibers and jokers must hold their hands for a time, and refrain from prematurely sarcastic disparagement of a new generation of les femmes savants.

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