The Impolite Sex by Guy de Maupassant
Madame de X. to Madame de L.
My Dear Aunt:
I am coming to see you without anyone knowing it. I shall be at Les
Fresnes on the 2d of September, the day before the hunting season opens,
as I do not want to miss it, so that I may tease these gentlemen. You are
too good, aunt, and you will allow them, as you usually do when there are
no strange guests, to come to table, under pretext of fatigue, without
dressing or shaving for the occasion.
They are delighted, of course, when I am not present. But I shall be
there and will hold a review, like a general, at dinner time; and, if I
find a single one of them at all careless in dress, no matter how little,
I mean to send them down to the kitchen with the servants.
The men of to-day have so little consideration for others and so little
good manners that one must be always severe with them. We live indeed in
an age of vulgarity. When they quarrel, they insult each other in terms
worthy of longshoremen, and, in our presence, they do not conduct
themselves even as well as our servants. It is at the seaside that you
see this most clearly. They are to be found there in battalions, and you
can judge them in the lump. Oh! what coarse beings they are!
Just imagine, in a train, a gentleman who looked well, as I thought at
first sight, thanks to his tailor, carefully took off his boots in order
to put on a pair of old shoes! Another, an old man who was probably some
wealthy upstart (these are the most ill-bred), while sitting opposite to
me, had the delicacy to place his two feet on the seat quite close to me.
This is a positive fact.
At the watering-places the vulgarity is unrestrained. I must here make
one admission—that my indignation is perhaps due to the fact that I
am not accustomed to associate, as a rule, with the sort of people one
comes across here, for I should be less shocked by their manners if I had
the opportunity of observing them oftener. In the office of the hotel I
was nearly thrown down by a young man who snatched the key over my head.
Another knocked against me so violently without begging my pardon or
lifting his hat, coming away from a ball at the Casino, that it gave me a
pain in the chest. It is the same way with all of them. Watch them
addressing ladies on the terrace; they scarcely ever bow. They merely
raise their hands to their headgear. But, indeed, as they are all more or
less bald, it is the best plan.
But what exasperates and disgusts me particularly is the liberty they
take of talking in public, without any kind of precaution, about the most
revolting adventures. When two men are together, they relate to each
other, in the broadest language and with the most abominable comments
really horrible stories, without caring in the slightest degree whether a
woman's ear is within reach of their voices. Yesterday, on the beach, I
was forced to leave the place where I was sitting in order not to be any
longer the involuntary confidante of an obscene anecdote, told in such
immodest language that I felt just as humiliated as indignant at having
heard it. Would not the most elementary good-breeding teach them to speak
in a lower tone about such matters when we are near at hand. Etretat is,
moreover, the country of gossip and scandal. From five to seven o'clock
you can see people wandering about in quest of scandal, which they retail
from group to group. As you remarked to me, my dear aunt, tittle-tattle
is the mark of petty individuals and petty minds. It is also the
consolation of women who are no longer loved or sought after. It is
enough for me to observe the women who are fondest of gossiping to be
persuaded that you are quite right.
The other day I was present at a musical evening at the Casino, given by
a remarkable artist, Madame Masson, who sings in a truly delightful
manner. I took the opportunity of applauding the admirable Coquelin, as
well as two charming vaudeville performers, M——and Meillet.
I met, on this occasion, all the bathers who were at the beach. It is no
great distinction this year.
Next day I went to lunch at Yport. I noticed a tall man with a beard,
coming out of a large house like a castle. It was the painter, Jean Paul
Laurens. He is not satisfied apparently with imprisoning the subjects of
his pictures, he insists on imprisoning himself.
Then I found myself seated on the shingle close to a man still young, of
gentle and refined appearance, who was reading poetry. But he read it
with such concentration, with such passion, I may say, that he did not
even raise his eyes towards me. I was somewhat astonished and asked the
proprietor of the baths, without appearing to be much concerned, the name
of this gentleman. I laughed to myself a little at this reader of rhymes;
he seemed behind the age, for a man. This person, I thought, must be a
simpleton. Well, aunt, I am now infatuated about this stranger. Just
fancy, his name is Sully Prudhomme! I went back and sat down beside him
again so as to get a good look at him. His face has an expression of
calmness and of penetration. Somebody came to look for him, and I heard
his voice, which is sweet and almost timid. He would certainly not tell
obscene stories aloud in public or knock up against ladies without
apologizing. He is assuredly a man of refinement, but his refinement is
of an almost morbid, sensitive character, I will try this winter to get
an introduction to him.
I have no more news, my dear aunt, and I must finish this letter in
haste, as the mail will soon close. I kiss your hands and your cheeks.
Your devoted niece,
BERTHE DE X.
P. S.—I should add, however, by way of justification of French
politeness, that our fellow-countrymen are, when travelling, models of
good manners in comparison with the abominable English, who seem to have
been brought up in a stable, so careful are they not to discommode
themselves in any way, while they always discommode their neighbors.
Madame de L. to Madame de X.
LES FRESNES, Saturday.
My Dear Child:
Many of the things you have said to me are very sensible, but that does
not prevent you from being wrong. Like you, I used formerly to feel very
indignant at the impoliteness of men, who, as I supposed, constantly
treated me with neglect; but, as I grew older and reflected on
everything, putting aside coquetry, and observing things without taking
any part in them myself, I perceived this much—that if men are not
always polite, women are always indescribably rude.
We imagine that we should be permitted to do anything, my darling, and at
the same time we consider that we have a right to the utmost respect, and
in the most flagrant manner we commit actions devoid of that elementary
good-breeding of which you speak so feelingly.
I find, on the contrary, that men consider us much more than we consider
them. Besides, darling, men must needs be, and are, what we make them. In
a state of society, where women are all true gentlewomen, all men would
Come now; just observe and reflect.
Look at two women meeting in the street. What an attitude each assumes
towards the other! What disparaging looks! What contempt they throw into
each glance! How they toss their heads while they inspect each other to
find something to condemn! And, if the footpath is narrow, do you think
one woman would make room for another, or would beg pardon as she sweeps
by? Never! When two men jostle each other by accident in some narrow
lane, each of them bows and at the same time gets out of the other's way,
while we women press against each other stomach to stomach, face to face,
insolently staring each other out of countenance.
Look at two women who are acquaintances meeting on a staircase outside
the door of a friend's drawing-room, one of them just leaving, the other
about to go in. They begin to talk to each other and block up all the
landing. If anyone happens to be coming up behind them, man or woman, do
you imagine that they will put themselves half an inch out of their way?
I was waiting myself, with my watch in my hands, one day last winter at a
certain drawing-room door. And, behind me, two gentlemen were also
waiting without showing any readiness, as I did, to lose their temper.
The reason was that they had long grown accustomed to our unconscionable
The other day, before leaving Paris, I went to dine with no less a person
than your husband, in the Champs Elysees, in order to enjoy the fresh
air. Every table was occupied. The waiter asked us to wait and there
would soon be a vacant table.
At that moment I noticed an elderly lady of noble figure, who, having
paid for her dinner, seemed on the point of going away. She saw me,
scanned me from head to foot, and did not budge. For more than a quarter
of an hour she sat there, immovable, putting on her gloves, and calmly
staring at those who were waiting like myself. Now, two young men who
were just finishing their dinner, having seen me in their turn, hastily
summoned the waiter, paid what they owed, and at once offered me their
seats, even insisting on standing while waiting for their change. And,
bear in mind, my fair niece, that I am no longer pretty, like you, but
old and white-haired.
It is we, you see, who should be taught politeness, and the task would be
such a difficult one that Hercules himself would not be equal to it. You
speak to me about Etretat and about the people who indulged in
"tittle-tattle" along the beach of that delightful watering-place. It is
a spot now lost to me, a thing of the past, but I found much amusement
therein days gone by.
There were only a few of us, people in good society, really good society,
and a few artists, and we all fraternized. We paid little attention to
gossip in those days.
As we had no monotonous Casino, where people only gather for show, where
they whisper, where they dance stupidly, where they succeed in thoroughly
boring one another, we sought some other way of passing our evenings
pleasantly. Now, just guess what came into the head of one of our
husbands? Nothing less than to go and dance each night in one of the
farm-houses in the neighborhood.
We started out in a group with a street-organ, generally played by Le
Poittevin, the painter, with a cotton nightcap on his head. Two men
carried lanterns. We followed in procession, laughing and chattering like
a pack of fools.
We woke up the farmer and his servant-maids and farm hands. We got them
to make onion soup (horror!), and we danced under the apple trees, to the
sound of the barrel-organ. The cocks waking up began to crow in the
darkness of the out-houses; the horses began prancing on the straw of
their stables. The cool air of the country caressed our cheeks with the
smell of grass and of new-mown hay.
How long ago it is! How long ago it is! It is thirty years since then!
I do not want you, my darling, to come for the opening of the hunting
season. Why spoil the pleasure of our friends by inflicting on them
fashionable toilettes on this day of vigorous exercise in the country?
This is the way, child, that men are spoiled. I embrace you. Your old
GENEVIEVE DE L.