This is the way they manage in France.
Renee has reached the age of eighteen, and is "delicieuse," the classic adjective applied to all young girls in France. Her mother does not agitate herself about a coming-out ball, though she may give a bal blanc - all girls and boys - nor launch forth into a series of wasteful entertainments. She merely remarks to her family and friends:
"Renee is eighteen; her father will give her so much down on her wedding day, and when we die there will be so much more. The child's tastes are musical " - or artistic, or scientific - or sporting (or whatever it may be) - "and we should naturally prefer a fiance who shares them."
She does not mention that the parti must have an income suitable to Renee's, be of equal social position, if possible resident in the same town, of unblemished family, of spotless character, and of amiable disposition, because all these things go without saying.
Immediately among Renee's family, friends, and friends' friends, there begins inquiry for a suitable young man. The elderly ladies are particularly keen, because it is understood that on the wedding day the lady who introduces the parti will receive a very handsome present - something worth from £5 to 50, according to the status of the bride.
"How mercenary!" I once heard an Englishwoman say, but at least the French jeune fille is saved the humiliation of competing with other girls for the attentions of the local bachelors; she waits aloof in her royal innocence, and when the suitor is brought to her, she accepts or rejects him at her pleasure.
The cruel parent forcing the odious bridegroom on the sobbing bride may have flourished before the Revolution, but I have never heard of one in the France of to-day. This is the sort of thing that happens now.
Maman takes Renee out walking in her prettiest toilette. They drop in at a little picture-gallery, or other quiet, deserted spot, and maman sees, with delighted surprise, her old friend Madame Chose. A few moments later another couple enter, whom Madame Chose recognises joyfully as her dear friends Monsieur and Madame Un Tel. May she present them? She presents them. Conversation follows on general topics, Renee, dignified and gracious, as are all French young girls, pretends not to feel the gimlet eye of Madame Un Tel fixed upon her whenever she turns away. After half an hour they separate, and a similar comedy is played with Renee's parents and the son Un Tel. Then pourparlers as to family, "dot," character of the young man, and so forth, and if all goes well there is another meeting at which the young people meet, after which each is asked:
"How does he please thee? Does he seem to thee sympathetic?"
If Renee or the young man says, "No, decidedly he is not sympathetic; I cannot endure his voice," or his nose, etc, that is the end; everybody regrets, and another parti is produced. If Renee says: "I think
I like him "three or four more interviews are arranged, possibly even six, and if all goes well the engagement is announced, and the marriage never long delayed.
Observe that before seeing each other the young people are each willing to marry, provided that they find the other "sympathetic."
The young man has no anxious qualms as to whether the girl is as sweet as she looks. His mother has seen to that. Nor need he anxiously ask himself whether he can afford to marry. Moreover, he knows that she really is musical or sporting, or a good cook, and does not merely pretend to be, while the girl is in no doubt as to whether "he" will propose or not, can support her or not, is "good" or not. If he were not eligible, she would not have seen him.
The sole question at issue between them is "Are we sympathetic? When we meet, do we feel that sense of harmony, that absence of jarring notes, which makes it probable that a lifelong partnership will conduce to our happiness?"
Given this prompt sympathy, equality of social position, consent of parents, sufficient means, thorough domestic, training on the part of the woman, and the love of home life and desire for feminine sympathy implanted in every Frenchman by his mother and the day-school system, you have the ingredients for a happy marriage - at least as good a chance, at any rate, as the average English couple, who meet perhaps on a holiday, and are engaged before they have the least certainty as to each other's true character.
It is, of course, a trying system for novelists, because it precludes the pre-matrimonial thrills which are the breath of life to English fiction, and that is why the average French novel deals with the lurid few instead of the peaceful and virtuous many. You simply cannot make a novel out of a French girl's anti-wedding-day career.
The attitude of the French son towards his mother's matchmaking is well illustrated in a little incident which happened to a friend of my own. A parti was proposed, and sounded rather promising, but while the pourparlers were going on between the family friends, and before A had seen him at all, his mother wrote in distress to say that she had spoken of the affair to Jean's elder brother Paul, who was a doctor in a provincial town, and Paul had written back to say that it sounded delightful, but "What about me, my mother? Do I not need a wife? Why is my younger brother preferred before me for happiness?"
The mother felt the force of this reproach, and said it would be impossible for her to pursue the negotiations until she had married her eldest son, and as A's parents refused to consider any parti who lived out of Paris, the pourparlers dropped.