Though France is our nearest neighbour, and despite the entente cordiale, there are few subjects on which English people are worse informed than this one of the way in which marriages are made across the Channel.
We think we know, no doubt. Speak to an English mother of the French marriage system, and she will look at you with big eyes, and say in a hushed voice:
"Isn't it terrible? No love, no real wooing, no freedom of choice; just money, money, money. Oh, I am glad that my girls haven't a penny, so that whoever marries one of them must do it only because he really loves."
If you question her further, she will assure you that French parents think only of the dot when marrying their child, that young girls are often forced to wed men they have seen but once, "brought from the convent to the altar," and so on.
Yet the fact is that French young people weave almost as much romance about their marriages as we do, and the percentage of mercenary parents over there is just about the same as with us; possibly it is smaller, since French parents do most certainly make much greater sacrifices for their children than English parents. But the French, though lively and sociable in a railway train or on a plage, are so extremely reserved in their homes that it is very difficult for the English stranger to find his way into the family circle of someone whose acquaintance he may have made at a French hotel, hence English notions regarding French marriages are still largely founded on the conditions prevalent among the aristocracy before the Revolution.
The true facts of the case to-day are absurdly different.
To begin with, there is a real gulf between the two nations' conception of parental duty. The English parent loves his child, educates him, starts him in life, but when it comes to marriage stands back and says, "Choose for yourself; pray don't let me influence you! It is none of my business."
A match-making mother is disliked and despised in England; a delicate-minded woman with true romantic notions would be perfectly shocked at the suggestion that she should lift a finger to help on even her daughter's marriage, while as for her son's! Nothing so greatly amazes Frenchwomen who know England as the way in which English mothers actually strive to prevent their sons from marrying, exert their influence to "shield them from designing girls," as though marriage were a sort of measles which most people were bound to take, but which one always hoped, with care, might be avoided.
It sounds quite strange in England to hear a mother say, "I wish my son would marry!" and English novels constantly describe the jealous pang the mother feels when her son comes home with the news that he loves, and how she unselfishly strives to suppress it for his sake, and to master her antagonism to the woman.
The French mother does not understand this at all. She looks upon marriage as the natural state of life for human beings. Without much of the Englishwoman's book-learning, she has a decidedly wider knowledge of human nature and its needs, and would feel herself a monster if she condemned her son to celibacy simply that she might absorb his whole heart.
No, the French mother desires her children, of cither sex, to marry, to marry young, and be happy. But she no more dreams of leaving this matter of their life-partnership to chance and their own young ignorance than she would their education.
The much misunderstood "dot" system is the outcome of this unselfish wish. In France, as in England, few young men from twenty-five to thirty make an income sufficient for them to marry upon without painful economies, which are only too apt to "rub the gilt off the gingerbread" of young love. In some cases, for young Army officers, bank clerks, and so on, marriage, without private means, is simply out of the question.
The Merits of the "Dot" System
The English parent too often stands aside, spends his income to the last penny, and lays the blame on things in general, practically telling his boys that they must suppress all their natural instincts, fall out of love if they have fallen into it, or else drag the weary chain of a long, long engagement while they and the girl they love grow old and worn, "set in their ways," and tired. But the French parent says, as each child is born, "I will put aside so much yearly for Marie or Jean, that when they grow up their fortune, added to that of the parti I shall seek out for them, will enable them to live in modest comfort, and without making too great a step down from the position they are in at home."
Viewed in this light, the matter sounds very different. Yet that is how the vast majority of French parents look upon the matter. Incidentally it may be pointed out that the "dot" system - and a "dot" is provided for both sons and daughters, though in the son's case it may be spent upon their professional training - obliges French parents to live well within their means, often only half the actual income being spent, so that any sudden pinch - even such a catastrophe as the war of 1870 - is far less felt than it otherwise would be, and the spectacle, so often seen in England, of the death of a well-to-do father forcing several middle-aged daughters to turn out and strive to earn a livelihood, or the sons to leave the university, or give up their medical training, etc., is practically unknown.
A Mother's Wisdom
But, having saved up a "dot" for her child, the French mother has no notion of leaving her marriage to the casual thing called "falling in love." Her firm conviction is that she will be a much better judge as to who is likely to make the adored one happy than the adored one herself can ever be. Most English mothers have the same conviction, but they lack the courage to act upon it, nor does society permit them the free hand that the French mother is permitted.