Ramblings about France and Britain from habits to literature via Brexit

I guess that for some of you the life of The Little Family, Anne-Fleur’s tears and my relations with Red Tape as a carer treated as a diary, have little or no interest. They are first written for another blog created to talk about these issues, and called “Lights and Shades”. However, readers are more used to “Sketches and Vignettes” and I have come to re-post the entries of “Lights and Shades” here, where they are read, get comments and support – two things of which we are in awful need.

But I understand that they go across regular reading of bookish ramblings, therefore here is one of these musings.

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I was rather dejected the other day about the number of British writers I do not know or I know badly. Then the Brexit and the discussions around it before and after the referendum reminded me that I was French. I was reminded of that fact rather coarsely and crudely, sometimes with a spat of xenophobia and parochialism that I had never encountered although I had had a taste of it before.

My “real”(non virtual) English friends criticize our bread consumption but do not understand that there are days when we drink no tea at all and prefer strong Italian coffee. I have heard them laugh at the French more than once but they will not hear a word against British people. The French are plunged too much in administration, regulations and rules. The French are lazy. The French are drunkards. The French are messy. It is too hot in France. The French do not drive on the good side of the road. The French do not eat at the right hours. The French are unruly. The French are not fair players. The French politics are far from being democratic and they had Bastille Day and a revolution where they cut off everybody’s heads. The French did not have an Empire (I do not speak of the Napoleonic Empire: this was bad and a heresy) or if they had one, they did not know how to manage it. The French have no decent literature: they do not have Shakespeare. Why do the French want to speak French now that English is the global language? Instead, “we, in this country…” England, sweet England, Rule Britannia and God Save the Queen.

I agreed to all this, drank tea at ungodly hours for a French woman; ate weird things at weird hours; dutifully found that British fashion was the best; froze in British houses in Spring and even during Summer with a smile; waved to the Queen and the Royal Family; enjoyed the rain; enjoyed queuing in the rain; appreciated cricket; went to Anglican services, RSPB, RHS, and other Rs meetings where tea-urns were hissing and spitting; listened to and admired the supremacy of the Empire; vowed that without Britain, France would have been destroyed during the two last WWs because the French are poor soldiers; admitted that France should have been under the domination of England, then Great Britain and the United Kingdom instead of winning the One Hundred Years War and trying afterwards to keep her independence and even to shine under some rulers, etc.

But now I have decided to draw a line, at least, at writers, painters, musicians, artists.

France has a perfectly great literature with some geniuses. France has perfectly good painters, even geniuses. France has perfectly great musicians, even geniuses.

As to my reading British literature, I know at least as many writers as British citizens do, and probably more than many. I even know more obscure literati, literature movements and currents than the proverbial average man in the street.

And I know the same quantity of things about France and French things. At least.

So why should I complex?

End of complex.

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Let’s ask the question the other way round. How many British people write their blogs in French, read in French, know French literature down to the equivalent of the poor D.S. Stevenson (I apologize to her fans and admirers) – and are not French Literature graduates or teachers/professors?

So why should I complex?

End of complex.

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And, talking of poor D.S. Stevenson and revived British authors, why are they so present in the current British literary landscape? As are costume dramas with great success: think Downton Abbey, think Cranford, think Lark Rise to Candleford, think Jane Austen’s novels, think Poldark novels, think Charles Dickens’ novels, etc.

There are mostly no costume dramas in France. We are overwhelmed by US and British crime series, full of blood and violence; we have our own crime and detective series, more and more full of blood and violence; we have series with a social message – politically correct: gay and lesbian tolerance, pro-step-families, host families for children with various problems, pro-single-parent families, against racism, against anti-semitism, against anti-Muslims (before ISIS, DAESH, terrorist attacks – but they are recycled as examples of vivre ensemble / living together); we have series where we are challenged to beat our breasts for our faults before, during and after WWI and WWII and the Indochina War and the Algerian War and wars that came as consequences of decolonization – in fact, we are becoming champions of asking for mercy and asking for forgiveness; we have some so-called humorous and family series. But we have no costume dramas.

It seems that we are not raised to be proud of our country as the Britons are raised to be proud of theirs.

At the same time, we do not live in the past.

Our social structure has always been different from the British social structure. Before 1789, and before les Etats Généraux (not what is called elsewhere “the Bastille Day” – 14 juillet 1789), there were what were called three “States”: Aristocracy, Clergy, and Tiers Etat (what remained). We all know that the guillotine worked a lot throughout the Révolution, until 1794 and Robespierre’s death: that left a great void in the Aristocracy and the Clergy. But the Napoleonic period created a new aristocracy and so did all political regimes which succeeded in the 19th century – of course, they are too new to be the real aristocracy: what are two centuries and a half? A mere nothing. These people still smell of pushiness and upstart. We had to leave the system of “Etats” to adopt that of classes. But it came slowly. There was no pride in being in the bank or the trade. There were no great aristocratic landowners left. The Industrial Revolution came later than in the UK, among the convulsions of succeeding revolutions: 1815, 1830, 1848, 1851, 1871, 1875, all civil wars and international wars before the great trauma of WWI. The new élites were political, industrial, from the civil service and, later from “les Grandes Ecoles”. There is nothing there to make anyone dream.

Our Empire was different from that established by the UK. We needed soil to grow and to take off part of the burden of too much population in poor regions. We never created much counters for trade and ports where our navy could stop en route to further territories. We sent settlers who took the soil from their owners. We did not let our colonies stay countries but we mostly annexed them to France as part of France, making them “départements”. There always were frozen wars between indigenous peoples and settlers. And if the countries were annexed to France, the civil service and the civil servants were French of course.

These are two examples of the differences between the UK and France and perhaps the roots for the breast beating of the French. There is – excuse me to be so frank – no pride, no arrogance, and nowadays few regrets about our past. There is no regret for a lost Empire. There is no idyllic vision of a peaceful rural France, a pre-lapsarian France, a France where aristocrats were mooning between Paris and their country seat. Our only exaltation is that of Revolutions, perpetual search for freedom, the Republic, the surge of Labour, Socialists, the fights against the bourgeoisie. No hotbed for costume drama.

As there are few regrets for the past, there are few regrets for past writers who are considered as minor if they are not the monsters all know: Balzac, Stendhal, Hugo, Flaubert, Sand Zola, Maupassant, the little Réaliste and Naturaliste schools, Proust, Gide, Colette, Romain Rolland, Martin-du-Gard, Cocteau, Mauriac, Vian, Sartre… I am talking of novelists only here, not of poets; otherwise there would be Lamartine, Vigny, Musset, Hugo, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Aragon, Eluard, Prévert, Péguy… But who remembers today Maurois, Brasillac, Chardonne, Dorgelès, Bourget, Toulet, Morand… There is a line of political divide even among writers: some went too much in favour of conservatives. Their song of the French ground is now considered as the song of the Far Right, and this reminds us too much of Dreyfus, Collaboration, Vichy. Here we are again breast beating.

What about women in this list of writers? There is Simone de Beauvoir of whom I have not spoken. The others were authors for children and young ladies, like Charlotte M Yonge. Conservatism again. Then came the feminists. There are shelves of novels by feminist ladies that belonged to Mother. Are they any good? They were serving a cause and were relevant then. Today, they must go into limbo and wait for a possible revival. But it is too soon yet.

***

Going back to my initial question:

And, talking of poor D.S. Stevenson and revived British authors, why are they so present in the current British literary landscape? As are costume dramas with great success: think Downton Abbey, think Cranford, think Lark Rise to Candleford, think Jane Austen’s novels, think Poldark novels, think Charles Dickens’ novels, etc.

I can answer in linking this with the Brexit commotion. The British past has nothing to do with the French past. The French do not turn that much to their past: they are aware of its flaws and do not dream it as something to come back to. There is only the temptation of the Far Right, with which almost all countries in the West are flirting. This is a Western temptation of “what was before that might be restored”, a supposed greatness that never truly existed for all citizens of these countries. And, for me – but I am writing on my blog and therefore may say what I wish -, it is a danger.

Now, most of my friends are interested in the revival of British or American writers who have been forgotten or left aside. I do not want to hurt them (even more as I share their enthusiasm in the re-discovery of these authors) but looking back to give a second life to these writers does participate of the mourning of the past. I find it, when it becomes almost obsessive, rather unhealthy.

Unless it serves as a ground to build a future.

P.S. Of course, I count on my readers’ sense of humour: a lot of what is written here about non-French people (as well as things and issues) is done tongue in cheek

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4 thoughts on “Ramblings about France and Britain from habits to literature via Brexit

  1. That’s telling them/us/everybody! You go, girl. Though I rather wish the French would make more costume dramas for film and TV. The English ones aren’t anywhere as good as they used to be. And you might disapprove of the French TV programmes I like to watch. Yes, they’re violent. But very stylish. And none of the women in them looks like she’s had cosmetic surgery. Long may that last.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s also telling the French. Some of our approaches of social problems or diplomatic problems have been very bad and it is only right that we go breast beating. But we tend to overdo it now. Except if it keeps us from falling into the arms of the Far/Extreme Right.
      I have some BBC costume dramas – adaptations of classics like Dickens, Mrs Gaskell or Trollope – which are very good. But I don’t like this cult of seeing the past with nostalgia as it is developed in Downton Abbey. The French produce less costume dramas but there have been series of adaptations of Maupassant short stories for instance that are very, very good.
      As to our new detective series, they are thrillers with more and more violence. Most of the time, there is a social background (in those I have seen), which is perhaps true to life: I am no expert in all areas in French societies and in crime! Cosmetic surgery comes slowly but does come. Unfortunately. Have you noticed that women with cosmetic surgery of the lips often look like ducks?

      Like

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