paris before the revolution -- 2/23/21
Today's selection -- from The Golden Voyage: The Life and Times of William Bingham, 1752-1804 by Robert C. Alberts. In the period after the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia’s Anne and William Bingham came to Paris, where they experienced the best of Parisian society:
"Anne Bingham [found] Paris … enchanting in its excitement and variety. She came upon the city in its last full-blown brilliance at the end of an era, shortly before a period of chaos and terror. A city of some 700,000, Paris was thronged with foreign visitors and with young officers who had come back from a victorious war in America, wearing the decoration of a republican army, their pockets filled with I.O.U.'s for back pay from the American Congress, their minds filled with ideas from the new world. This was a time of scholarly revelation, of new theories, experiments and advances in all the sciences, of the utmost confidence in the power of education to improve human nature. Reform and progress were the subject of general discussion in the world's most skeptical and articulate society. The countryside was destitute and the peasants' bread was made of pounded roots and herbs; but the philosophers believed that the golden age was close at hand. No one who had not lived in Paris before the Revolution, Prince Talleyrand later said, had any idea how pleasant life could be.
"The women's coiffures were towering and the young men's hats enormous. People were talking of Beaumarchais' new play, The Marriage of Figaro, at the Comedic Francaise: of the Italian alchemist Cagliostro; of the Austrian physician Mesmer with his cures through 'animal magnetism'; of the music of Gluck, Mozart and Gretry: of the beauty of their queen from Austria, Marie Antoinette; of the rage for Freemasonry; and of the latest balloon ascension.
"There was an inordinate curiosity about Americans in Europe after the Revolution; and entry into this society was easy for a rich, educated American with friends in high places and a wife whose beauty and amiable manners everyone had read about in Chastellux's Travels. …
"Anne adapted herself readily to the customs and conditions of this strange new land. 'The state of society in different countries,' she said philosophically, 'requires corresponding manners and qualifications.' In this society the newcomer to the city made the first call; there were no introductions at large parties; the men and women alternated beside each other at the table instead of sitting separately, the men down one side, the women down the other, as in America; the gentleman smelled the serving of meat before it was put on his partner's plate to make sure it was not spoiled; the men wore swords and kissed each other in greetings and leave takings. In this society the husbands took mistresses; the wives took lovers; the servants performed one household function only and refused to perform any other. In this city the streets were putrid with filth; one-half the children were reputedly illegitimate; and some 52,000 women were registered prostitutes; but the Parisians of all classes had grace and style, an animation and spirit, that was to be found nowhere else on earth. The women, Anne found, seemed frivolous to American eyes, but they were 'more accomplished, and understand the intercourse of society better than in any other country.' To Mr. Jefferson, with whom she was debating the nature of the French character, Anne later wrote:
We are irresistibly pleased with them, because they possess the happy art of making us pleased with ourselves. Their education is of a higher cast, and by great cultivation they procure a happy variety of genius, which forms their conversation, to please either the fop, or the philosopher ....
"The agreeable resources of Paris must certainly please and instruct every class of characters. The Arts of Elegance are there considered essential, and are carried to a state of perfection; the mind is continually gratified with the admiration of works of taste."