Front Page Titles (by Subject) EXTRACT FROM MR. SENIOR'S JOURNAL. - Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 2
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EXTRACT FROM MR. SENIOR’S JOURNAL. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 2 
Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville. Translated from the French by the translator of Napoleon’s Correspondence with King Joseph. With large Additions. In Two Volumes (London: Macamillan, 1861). 2 vols.
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EXTRACT FROM MR. SENIOR’S JOURNAL.
Paris, April 26, 1858.
Tocqueville spent the evening with us. We talked of novels.
“I read none,” he said, “that end ill. Why should one voluntarily subject oneself to painful emotions? to emotions created by an imaginary cause, and therefore impelling you to no actions? I like vivid emotions, but I seek them in real life, in society, in travelling, in business; but above all in political business. There is no happiness comparable to political success, when your own excitement is justified by the magnitude of the question at issue, and is doubled and re-doubled by the sympathy of your supporters. Having enjoyed that, I am ashamed of being excited by the visionary sorrows of heroes and heroines.
“I have a friend,” he continued, “a Benedictine, who is now ninety-six. He was, therefore, about thirteen when Louis XVI. began to reign. He is a man of talents and knowledge, has always lived in the world, has attended to all that he has seen and heard, and is still unimpaired in mind, and so strong in body, that when I leave him he goes down to embrace me, after the fashion of the eighteenth century, at the bottom of the staircase.”
“And what effect,” I asked, “has the contemplation of seventy years of revolution produced on him? Does he look back, like Talleyrand, to the ancien régime as a golden age?”
“He admits,” said Tocqueville, “the material superiority of our own age; but he believes, that intellectually and morally, we are far inferior to our grandfathers. And I agree with him. These seventy years of revolution have destroyed our courage, our hopefulness, our self-reliance, our public spirit, and, as respects by far the majority of the higher classes, our passions, except the vulgarest and most selfish ones, vanity and covetousness.
“Even ambition seems extinct. The men who seek power, seek it not for itself, not as a means of doing good to their country, but as a means of getting money and flatterers.
“It is remarkable,” he continued, “that women whose influence is generally greatest under despotisms have none now. They have lost it, partly in consequence of the gross vulgarity of our dominant passions, and partly from their own nullity. They are like London houses, all built and furnished on exactly the same model, and that a most uninteresting one.
“Whether a girl is bred up at home or in a convent, she has the same masters, gets a smattering of the same accomplishments, reads the same dull books, and contributes to society the same little contingent of superficial information.
“When a young lady comes out, I know beforehand how her mother and her aunts will describe her.
“ ‘Elle a les goûts simples, elle est pieuse, elle aime la campagne, elle aime la lecture, elle n’aime pas le bal, elle n’aime pas le monde, elle y va seulement pour plaire à sa mère.’*
“I try sometimes to escape from these generalities, but there is nothing behind them.”
“And how long,” I asked, “does this simple, pious, retiring character last?”
“Till the orange flowers of her wedding chaplet are withered,” he answered. “In three months she goes to the Messe d’une heure.”
“What is the Messe d’une heure?” I asked.
“A priest,” he answered, “must celebrate mass fasting, and in strictness ought to do so before noon. But, to accommodate fashionable ladies who cannot rise by noon, priests are found who will starve all the morning and say mass in the afternoon. It is an irregular proceeding, though winked at by the ecclesiastical authorities. Still to attend it is rather discreditable; it is a middle term between the highly meritorious practice of going to early mass, and the scandalous one of never going at all.”
“What was the education,” I asked, “of women under the ancien régime?”
“The convent,” he answered.
“It must have been better,” I said, “than the present education, since the women of that time were superior to ours.”
“It was so far better,” he answered, “that it did no harm. A girl at that time was taught nothing. She came from the convent a sheet of white paper. Now, her mind is a paper scribbled over with trash. The women of that time were thrown into a world far superior to ours, and with the sagacity, curiosity, and flexibility of French women, caught knowledge, and tact, and expression from the men.”
“I knew well,” he continued, “Madame Récamier. Few traces of her former beauty remained; but we were all her lovers and her slaves. The talent, labour, and skill, which she wasted on her salon would have gained and governed an empire. She was virtuous, if it be virtuous to persuade every one of a dozen men to believe that you wish to favour him, though some circumstances always occur to prevent your doing so. Every friend thought himself preferred. She governed us by little distinctions, by letting one man come five minutes before the others, or stay five minutes after. Just as Louis XIV. raised one courtier to the seventh heaven by giving him the taper at night, and another by taking his shirt from him in the morning. She said little, but knew what each man’s forte was, and placed from time to time a mot which led him to it. If anything were peculiarly well said, her face brightened. You saw that her attention was always active and always intelligent.
“And yet, I doubt whether she really enjoyed conversation. Tenir salon was to her a game, which she played well and almost always successfully; but she must sometimes have failed, and often must have been exhausted by the effort. Her salon was, perhaps, pleasanter to us, than it was to herself.
“One of the last,” he continued, “of that class of potentates was the Duchesse de Dinon. Her early married life was active and brilliant; but not intellectual. It was not till about forty, when she had exhausted other excitements, that she took to bel esprit. But she performed her part as if she had been bred to it.”
This was our last conversation. I left Paris the next day, and we never met again.
[*]“Her tastes are simple. She is religious; she likes the country; she likes reading; she does not like balls; she does not like the great world; she goes into it only to please her mother.”