Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI: Of Society in England, and of Its Connection with Social Order. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER VI: Of Society in England, and of Its Connection with Social Order. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Of Society in England, and of Its Connection with Social Order.
It is not probable that we shall ever see in any country, not even in France, such a society as we there enjoyed during the first two years of the Revolution and the period that preceded it. Foreigners who flatter themselves with finding anything of the kind in England are much disappointed, for they often get bored there. Although that country contains the most enlightened men and the most interesting women, the enjoyments which society can procure are but rarely met with. When a foreigner understands English well and is admitted to small circles composed of the superior men of the country, he tastes, if he be worthy of them, the most noble enjoyments which the communication of reflecting beings can afford; but it is not in these intellectual feasts that the society of England consists. People in London are invited every day to vast assemblies where they elbow each other as in the pit of a theater. The women form there the majority and the crowd is, in general, so great that even their beauty does not have enough room for display; still less can any pleasure of the mind be thought of. Considerable physical force is required to cross the salons without being stifled and to get back to one’s carriage without accident; but I do not well see that any other superiority is necessary in such a crowd. Accordingly, serious men soon renounce the tax which in England is called fashionable company; and it is, it must be confessed, the most tiresome combination which can be formed out of such distinguished elements.
These reunions arise from the necessity of admitting a very great number of persons into the circle of one’s acquaintance. The list of visitors which an English lady receives is sometimes of twelve hundred persons. French society is infinitely more exclusive: the aristocratic spirit which regulated the formation of its circles was favorable to elegance and amusement, but nowise in correspondence with the nature of a free state. Thus, in frankly admitting that the pleasures of society are found very rarely, and with great difficulty, in London, I shall examine if these pleasures are compatible with the social order of England. If they are not, the choice cannot be a matter of doubt.
Men of large property in England generally discharge some public duty in their respective counties; and, from a wish to be returned to Parliament or to influence the election of their relations and friends, they pass eight or nine months in the country. The consequence is that social habits are entirely suspended during two-thirds of the year, and it is only by meeting every day that people form familiar and easy connections. In the part of London where the higher circles reside, there are whole months in summer and autumn during which the town has the appearance of being visited by a contagion, such is the solitude that prevails. The meeting of Parliament seldom takes place until January, and people do not come to London till that time. The men living much on their estates pass half the day in riding or sporting; they come home fatigued and think only of taking rest, or sometimes even of drinking, although the reports made of English manners in this respect are grossly exaggerated, particularly if referred to the present time. However, such a mode of life does not fit people for the pleasures of society. The French being called neither by their business nor by their taste to live in the country, one might find at Paris during the whole year houses in which to enjoy very agreeable conversation; but the consequence also is that Paris alone enjoyed existence in France, while in England political life is felt in every county. When the interests of the country come under the jurisdiction of everyone, the most attractive conversation is that of which public business is the object. Now, in considering this subject, we do not so much regard the lightheartedness of spirit as the real importance of the things discussed. Often does a man, in other respects far from agreeable, captivate his hearers by the power of his reasoning and information. In France, the art of being agreeable lay in never exhausting a subject and in never dwelling too long on those which were not interesting to women. In England, women never come conspicuously forward in discourse; the men have not accustomed them to take a share in general conversation: when they leave the room after dinner, conversation of this kind becomes more keen and animated. The mistress of a house does not, as among the French, think herself obliged to lead the conversation, and particularly to take care that it does not languish. People are quite resigned to this evil in English society; and it seems much easier to bear than the necessity of taking a conspicuous part for the sake of re-animating the discourse. English women are extremely timid in this respect; for in a free country, men preserving their natural dignity, females feel themselves subordinate.1
The case is not the same in an unlimited monarchy such as existed in France. As nothing there was impracticable or determinate, the conquests made by elegance and grace were unbounded, and women necessarily triumphed in contests of this kind. But in England what ascendancy could a woman, even the most amiable, exercise in the midst of popular elections, of the eloquence of Parliament, and the inflexibility of the law? Ministers have no idea that a woman could send them a request on any subject whatever unless she had neither brother, son, nor husband to undertake it. In the country of the greatest publicity, state secrets are better kept than anywhere else. There are here no intermediates, if we may use the expression, between the newspapers and the ministerial cabinet; and this cabinet is the most discreet in Europe. There is no example of a woman having known, or at least having told, what ought to have been kept secret. In a country where domestic manners are so regular, married men have no mistresses; and it is only mistresses who dive into secrets and particularly who reveal them.
Amongst the means of rendering society more animated we must reckon coquetry: now, this hardly exists in England, except among young men and women who may perhaps subsequently intermarry; conversation gains nothing by it, but the reverse. Indeed, so low in general is their tone of voice that these persons can scarcely hear each other; but the consequence is that people are not married without being acquainted; while in France, to save the tediousness of these timid amours, young girls were never introduced into company until their marriage had been concluded on by their parents. If there are in England women who deviate from their duty, it is with so much mystery or with so much publicity that the desire of pleasing in company, of exhibiting their fascinations, of shining by grace and sprightliness of mind has no connection whatever with their conduct. In France the power of conversation led to everything; in England talents of this kind are appreciated, but they are nowise useful to the ambition of those who possess them; public men and the people make a choice, among the candidates for power, of very different marks of superior faculties. The consequence is that people neglect what is not useful, in this as in everything else. The national character, moreover, being strongly turned toward reserve and timidity, a powerful motive is necessary to triumph over these habits, and this motive is found only in the importance of public discussions.
It is difficult to give a thorough explanation of what in England is called shyness, that is, the embarrassment which confines to the bottom of the heart the expressions of natural benevolence; for one often meets the coldest manners in persons who would show themselves most generous toward you if you stood in need of their aid. The English are as far from being at ease among each other as with foreigners; they do not speak till after having been introduced to each other; familiarity becomes established only after long acquaintance. In England one scarcely ever sees the younger branches live after their marriage in the same house with their parents; home is the prevailing taste of the English, and this inclination has perhaps contributed to make them detest the political system which, in other countries, permits exile or arbitrary arrest. Each family has its separate dwelling; and London consists of a vast number of houses of small size, shut as close as boxes, and into which it is not much easier to penetrate. There are not even many brothers or sisters who go to dine at each other’s houses without invitation. This formality does not render life very amusing; and in the taste of the English for traveling, the motive is partly a desire to withdraw from the constraint of their customs, as well as the necessity of escaping from the fogs of their country.
In every country the pleasures of society concern only the first class, that is, the unoccupied class; who, having a great deal of leisure for amusement, attach much importance to it. But in England, where everyone has his career and his employment, it is natural for men of rank, as for men of business in other countries, to prefer physical relaxation, walks, the country, in short, pleasure of any kind in which the mind is at rest rather than conversation, in which one must think and speak with almost as much care as in the most serious business. Besides, the happiness of the English being founded on domestic life, it would not suit them that their wives should, as in France, make a kind of family selection of a certain number of persons constantly brought together.
We must not, however, deny that with all these honorable motives are mixed certain defects, the natural results of all large associations of men. In the first place, although in England there is much more pride than vanity, a good deal of stress is laid on marking by manners the ranks which most of the institutions tend to bring closer together. There prevails a certain degree of egoism in the habits, and sometimes in the character. Wealth and the tastes created by wealth are the cause of it: people are not disposed to submit to inconvenience in anything, so great is their power of being comfortable in everything. Family ties, so intimate as regards marriage, are far from intimate in other relations, because the substitutions2 render the eldest sons too independent of their parents, and separate also the interest of the younger brothers from those of the inheritor of the fortune. The entails3 necessary to the support of the peerage ought not, perhaps, to be extended to other classes of proprietors; it is a remnant of the feudal system, of which one ought, if possible, to lessen the vexatious consequences. From this it happens likewise that most of the women are without marriage portions, and that in a country where the institution of convents cannot exist, there are a number of young ladies whom their mothers have a great desire to get married, and who may, with reason, be uneasy as to their prospects. This inconvenience produced by the unequal partition of fortunes is sensibly felt in society; for the unmarried men take up too much of the attention of the women, and wealth in general, far from conducing to the pleasure of social intercourse, is necessarily hurtful to it. A very considerable fortune is required to receive one’s friends in the country, which is, however, the most agreeable mode of living in England: fortune is necessary for all the relations of society; not that people would take pride in a sumptuous mode of life; but the importance attached by everybody to the kind of enjoyment called comfortable would prevent any person from venturing, as was formerly the case in the most agreeable societies in Paris, to make up for a bad dinner by amusing anecdotes.
In all countries the pretensions of young persons of fashion are engrafted on national defects; they exhibit a caricature of these defects, but a caricature has always some traits of an original. In France the pretenders to elegance endeavored to strike and tried to dazzle by all possible means, good or bad. In England this same class of persons wish to be distinguished as disdainful, indifferent, and completely satiated of everything. This is disagreeable enough; but in what country of the world is not self-conceit a resource of vanity to conceal natural mediocrity? Among a people where everything bears a salient aspect, as in England, contrasts are the more striking. Fashion has remarkable influence on the habits of life, and yet there is no nation in which one finds so many examples of what is called eccentricity, that is, a mode of life altogether original, and which makes no account of the opinion of others. The difference between the men who live under the control of others and those who live to themselves is recognized everywhere; but this opposition of character is rendered more conspicuous by the singular mixture of timidity and independence remarkable among the English. They do nothing by halves, and they pass all at once from a slavish adherence to the most minute usages to the most complete indifference as to what the world may say of them. Yet the dread of ridicule is one of the principal causes of the coldness that prevails in English society: people are never accused of insipidity for keeping silence; and as nobody requires of you to animate the conversation, one is more impressed by the risks to which one exposes oneself by speaking than by the inconvenience of silence. In the country where people have the greatest attachment to the liberty of the press, and where they care the least for the attacks of the newspapers, the sarcasms of society are very much dreaded. Newspapers are considered the volunteers of political parties, and in this as in other respects, the English are very fond of keeping up a conflict; but slander and irony, when they take place in society, irritate highly the delicacy of the women and the pride of the men. This is the reason that people come as little forward as possible in the presence of others. Animation and grace necessarily lose greatly by this. In no country of the world have reserve and taciturnity ever, I believe, been carried so far as in certain societies in England; and if one falls into such companies, it is easy to conceive how a disrelish of life may take possession of those who find themselves confined to them. But out of these frozen circles, what satisfaction of mind and heart may not be found in English society when one is happily placed there? The favor or dislike of ministers and the court are absolutely of no account in the relations of life; and you would make an Englishman blush were you to appear to think of the office which he holds or of the influence he may possess. A sentiment of pride always makes him think that these circumstances neither add to nor deduct in the slightest degree from his personal merit. Political disappointments cannot have any influence on the pleasures enjoyed in high society; the party of opposition is as brilliant as the party in power: fortune, rank, intellect, talents, virtues are shared among them; and never do either of the two think of drawing near to or keeping at a distance from a person by those calculations of ambition which have always prevailed in France. To quit one’s friends because they are out of power and to draw near to them because they possess it is a kind of tactics almost unknown in England; and if the applause of society does not lead to public employment, at least the liberty of society is not impaired by combinations foreign to the pleasures which may be tasted there. One finds there almost invariably the security and the truth which form the bases of all enjoyment, because they form their security. You have not to dread those perpetual broils which in other countries fill life with disquietude. What you possess in point of connection and friendship you can lose only by your own fault, and you never have reason to doubt the expressions of benevolence addressed to you, for they will be surpassed by the actual performance and consecrated by time. Truth, above all, is one of the most distinguished qualities of the English character. The publicity that prevails in business, the discussions by which people arrive at the bottom of everything have doubtless contributed to this habit of absolute truth which cannot exist but in a country where dissimulation leads to nothing but the mortification of being exposed.
It has been much repeated on the Continent that the English are not polite, and a certain habit of independence, a great aversion to restraint may have given rise to this opinion. But I know no politeness, no protection, so delicate as that of the English toward women in every circumstance of life. Is there question of danger, of trouble, of a service to be rendered, there is nothing that they neglect to aid the weaker sex. From the seamen who, amidst the storm, support your tottering steps to English gentlemen of the highest rank, never does a woman find herself exposed to any difficulty whatever without being supported; and everywhere do we find that happy mixture which is characteristic of England, a republican austerity in domestic life and a chivalrous spirit in the relations of society.
A quality not less amiable in the English is their disposition to enthusiasm.4 This people can see nothing remarkable without encouraging it by the most flattering praises. One acts then very rightly in going to England, in whatever state of misfortune one is placed, if conscious of possessing in oneself anything that is truly distinguished. But if one arrives there like most of the rich idlers of Europe, who travel to pass a carnival in Italy and a spring in London, there is no country that more disappoints expectation; and we shall certainly quit it without suspecting that we have seen the finest model of social order, and the only one which for a long time supported our hopes in human nature.
I shall never forget the society of Lord Grey, Lord Lansdowne, and Lord Harrowby. I cite their names because they all three belong to different parties,5 or to shades of different parties, which comprise almost all the political opinions of England. There are other names which I should, in like manner, have had much pleasure in mentioning.
Lord Grey is one of the most ardent friends of liberty in the House of Peers: the nobleness of his birth, of his figure, and of his manners preserves him most decidedly from that kind of vulgar popularity which some are eager to attribute to the partisans of the rights of nations; and I would defy anyone not to feel for him every kind of respect. His eloquence in Parliament is generally admired. To eloquence of language he joins a force of interior conviction which makes his audience participate in his feelings. Political questions produce emotion in him because a generous enthusiasm is the source of his opinions. As in company he always expresses himself with calmness and simplicity on topics that interest him the most, it is by the paleness of his look that we sometimes become aware of the keenness of his feelings; but it is without desiring either to conceal or display the affections of his soul that he speaks on subjects for which he would give up his life. It is well known that he has twice refused to be prime minister because he could not agree in certain points with the prince who was ready to appoint him. Whatever diversity of opinion there may be on the motives of that resolution, nothing appears more natural in England than to decline being minister. I would not then notice the refusal of Lord Grey had his acceptance implied the slightest renunciation of his political principles; but the scruples by which he was determined were carried too far to be approved by everybody. And yet the men of his party, while they censured him in this respect, did not think it possible to accept without him any of the offices that were offered to them.
The house of Lord Grey offers an example of those domestic virtues so rare elsewhere in the highest class. His wife, who lives only for him, is worthy, by her sentiments, of the honor that Heaven has allotted her in uniting her with such a man. Thirteen children, still young, are educated by their parents and live with them, during eight months of the year, at their country seat in the extremity of England, where they have hardly ever any other variety than their family circle and their habitual reading. I happened to be one evening in London in this sanctuary of the most noble and affecting virtues; Lady Grey had the politeness to ask her daughters to play music; and four of these young persons, of angelic candor and grace, played duets on the harp and piano with a harmony that was admirable and that showed a great habit of practicing together; their father listened to them with affecting sensibility. The virtues which he displays in his family afford a pledge of the purity of the vows that he makes for his country.
Lord Lansdowne is also a member of the opposition; but, less decided in his political opinions, it is by a profound study of administration and finance that he has already served and will still serve his country. Affluent and high in rank, young and singularly fortunate in the choice of his domestic partner, none of these advantages dispose him to indolence; and it is by his superior merit that he stands in the foremost rank in a country where nothing can exempt a man from owing distinction to personal exertion. At his seat at Bowood, I have met the most delightful assemblage of enlightened men that England, and consequently the world, can offer. Sir James Mackintosh, pointed out by public opinion to continue Hume and to surpass him by writing the history of the constitutional liberty of England, a man of such universal information and such brilliancy of conversation that the English quote him with pride to foreigners to prove that in this respect also they are capable of taking a lead; Sir Samuel Romilly,6 the luminary and honor of that English jurisprudence which in itself is the object of the respect of all mankind; poets, literary men not less distinguished in their career than statesmen in politics; all contributed to the pure splendor of such a society, and of the illustrious master of the house. For in England the culture of intellect and the practice of morality are almost always combined; in fact, at a certain level they do not admit of separation.
Lord Harrowby, president of the Privy Council, is naturally a member of the ministerial, or Tory, party; but in the same way that Lord Grey has all the dignity of aristocracy in his character, Lord Harrowby partakes, by his mind, of all the knowledge of the liberal party. He knows foreign literature, and that of France in particular, somewhat better than ourselves. I had the honor of seeing him sometimes amidst the most critical moments of the war before last;7 and while in other quarters one is obliged to behave and speak in a certain way before a minister when public affairs are discussed, Lord Harrowby would have felt himself offended had people considered him otherwise than personally when conversing on questions of general interest. We see neither at his table nor at that of the other English ministers any of those subordinate flatterers who surround powerful people in an absolute monarchy. There is in England no class in which such men could be found, nor any men in office who would listen to them. As a speaker, Lord Harrowby is distinguished for the purity of his language and the brilliant irony of which he knows how to make an appropriate use. Accordingly he justly attaches much more importance to his personal reputation than to his temporary office. Lord Harrowby, seconded by his intelligent partner, exhibits in his house the most complete example of what a conversation may be when literary and political by turns, and when both subjects are treated with equal ease.
In France we have a number of women who have acquired reputation merely by the power of conversation or by writing letters which resembled conversation.8 Madame de Sévigné is the first of all in this department; but subsequently Madame de Tencin, Madame du Deffant, Madlle. de l’Espinasse, and several others have acquired celebrity by the quality of their mind. I have already said that the state of society in England hardly admitted of distinction in this way, and that examples of it could not be cited. There are, however, several women remarkable as writers: Miss Edgeworth, Madame D’Arblay, formerly Miss Burney, Mrs. Hannah Moore, Mrs. Inchbald, Mrs. Opie, Miss Baillie are admired in England and read with avidity in French; but they live in general in complete retirement, and their influence is confined to their books. Were we to cite a woman uniting in the highest degree that which constitutes the strength and moral beauty of the English character, it would be necessary to seek her in history.
Lady Russell, the wife of the illustrious Lord Russell, who was beheaded under Charles II for opposing the encroachments of royal power, seems to me the true model of an Englishwoman in all her perfection. The court that tried Lord Russell asked him what person he desired to serve him as secretary during his trial; he made choice of Lady Russell because, he said, she unites the information of a man to the tender affection of a wife. Lady Russell, who adored her husband, sustained, nevertheless, the presence of his iniquitous judges and the barbarous sophistry of their questions with all the presence of mind with which the hope of being useful inspired her; but it was in vain. When the sentence of death was pronounced, Lady Russell threw herself at the feet of Charles II, imploring him in the name of Lord Southampton, whose daughter she was, and who had devoted himself for the cause of Charles I. But the remembrance of services rendered to the father had no effect on the son, whose frivolity did not prevent his being cruel. Lord Russell, in parting from his wife to go to the scaffold, pronounced these memorable words: “Now the bitterness of death is past.” There are indeed affections of which the whole of our existence may be composed.9
Letters written by Lady Russell after the death of her husband have been published and bear the stamp of the deepest affliction, moderated by religious resignation. She lived to bring up her children; she lived because she did not think it lawful to give herself a voluntary death. By weeping continually she became blind, and the remembrance of him she had so loved was ever alive in her heart. She had one moment of joy when liberty was established in 1688, when the sentence pronounced against Lord Russell was repealed, and his opinions triumphed. The partisans of William III, and Queen Anne herself, often consulted Lady Russell on public affairs as having preserved some sparks of the light of Lord Russell. It was by that title she answered their call, and, amidst the deep mourning of her soul, interested herself in the noble cause for which the blood of her husband had been shed. She appeared always the widow of Lord Russell, and it is by the constancy of that feeling that she claims admiration. Such again would a true Englishwoman be if a scene so tragical, a trial so terrible, could be renewed in our days, and if, thanks to liberty, such calamities were not removed forever. The duration of the sorrows caused by the loss of those we love often absorbs, in England, the life of persons by whom they are felt. If women there have not personally active habits, they live so much more strongly in the objects of their attachment. The dead are not forgotten in that country, where the human soul possesses all its beauty; and that honorable constancy which struggles with the instability of this world exalts the feelings of the heart to the rank of things eternal.
[1. ] For a splendid account of the role of women in French society, see Ozouf, Women’s Words.
[2. ] The substitutions were legal procedures by which one could bequeath to someone all or a part of one’s assets with the mandate of transmitting them to a third person designated in advance. The substitutions were outlawed by the Convention in October 1792.
[3. ] In French, majorats, a form of substitution required to support a title of nobility. The majorats were abolished in France in June 1790, reestablished by Napoléon in 1806, and outlawed in 1835.
[4. ] On the issue of enthusiasm, also see the last three chapters of Madame de Staël’s On Germany (bk. II, pt. IV, chaps. x–xii).
[5. ] Lord Grey (1764–1845) and Lord Lansdowne (1780–1863) were Whigs; Lord Harrowby (1762–1847) was a Tory.
[6. ] Samuel Romilly (1757–1818) was a prominent Whig legal reformer, close friend of Mirabeau, and author of, among others, Thoughts on the Probable Influence of the Late Revolution in France upon Great Britain (1790).
[7. ] Allusion to the war against Napoléon (1813–14).
[8. ] For more information on this issue, see Ozouf, Women’s Words.
[9. ] Lady Russell (1636–1723) was the second daughter of Thomas Wriothesley, the fourth Earl of Southampton. Her second husband, Lord William Russell, was charged with complicity in the Rye House Plot in 1683 and was convicted of high treason and executed. In L’amour dans le mariage, Guizot eulogized Lady Russell; Guizot’s book appeared in English in New York in 1864 under the title Love in Marriage and in London in 1883 as The Devoted Life of Rachel Lady Russell. For more information, see Schwoerer, “William, Lord Russell: The Making of a Martyr, 1683–1983.”