“My Inner French Girl”

"The Swing," Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1767

“The Swing,” Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1767

“My Inner French Girl”

Lately I’ve been reading a book with the charming title, Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. The author, Debra Ollivier, was married to a Frenchman and lived there ten years. We owe her a vote of thanks for her pointers and the musings prompted by them.

During my Fulbright year in Paris, we American woman scholars spent sociable afternoons bemoaning the fathomless chic and sexiness of the French girl. We confessed to devoting morning hours to fixing ourselves up so that we could venture into the street. “And in the end,” our story would always conclude, “you look nothing like French girls anyway.”

Coincidentally, I’m also reading Stefan’s Zweig’s exhaustive biography, Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman. Does the most ill-fated Queen of France count as French, since her detractors called her l’autrichienne, the Austrian woman? But listen to one recollection:

  • “I think it is difficult to put more grace and more kindliness into civility than she does. She shows a peculiar affability which does not allow us to forget that she is queen, and yet always produces in us the impression that she herself has forgotten it.”

This from Madame de Stael, a woman whose unsentimental and clear-eyed intelligence enabled her to see through Napoleon’s romantic facade, to the dictator underneath.

And hey, if that’s not what any girl in glass slippers would like to have said about her, after the party ends and the coach and four turns into a pumpkin, I can’t think what would be.

As biographer, Zweig has read everything on Marie Antoinette but her laundry lists. The picture that emerges bit by bit had even me saying, “She got what she deserved.” What she wanted to get was anything that pleased her, including all the pleasures of being admired. She heaped on herself, her admirers and their kith and kin, adornments and sinecures, till she began to affect the solvency of France. To drain the wealth of a nation is to make its promises null and void. Her husband, King Louis XVI, summoned the Estates General in 1789 because the national debt could no longer be serviced!

It’s quite a morality tale. Does it have any relevance to the modern French girl, who is still the queen of her sex?

Debra Ollivier underscores “the premium the French girl puts on experiencing pleasure: Pleasure in ordinary moments. Pleasure in extraordinary moments. “ This “comes from … feeling an almost tactile pleasure and evocative power in the seemingly mundane.”

From this defining trait, a cascade of choices follow. The style, the look, the self-containedness, the precision with which one’s unique qualities are underscored rather than offset – all reflect a capacity to find in the moment … its perfect pitch. The delectable center of subjective experience.

I remember one hour in Renee’s house in Princeton, in her garden, under the weeping willow tree. I was about sixteen. We were having tea. The conversation had turned to the question of sex. I knew nothing of sex, but listened with keen attention to Renee’s remonstrances to the young Swiss graduate student who was one of her boarders during her widowhood.

“Are you saying that sex is not fun?” he asked her.

A+!” was her commendation. He’d gotten the right answer.

What she was perhaps teaching me, by example, was the solemn, solitary seriousness of perfect pitch. It can’t be sustained, of course. The chanson, “Les feuilles mortes,” (“Autumn Leaves”) is one of innumerable French songs with the self-same message:

And the sea erases on the sand

The footsteps of disunited lovers.

There is a problem. Take Jeanne Moreau, who played the Frenchwoman of seasoned maturity when she first appeared on screen. Had she conquered time itself and become ageless? I saw her on TV a few decades later, when she was on the wrong end of the hour glass — the only woman in a conversation on cultural themes with male French pundits. The men did not even accord her the respect one pays to a celebrated ruin. She had simply become what the French call a quantite negligeable. I’ve seen the same ravaged look in the visage of Brigitte Bardot – less surprising in her case, since she had the image of unbounded youth, not seasoned maturity.

This doesn’t happen to all the “snows of yesteryear” in France, of course. Nor do Puritanic American ladies, who shun the wiles of Eve, offer an appealing alternative. Some of the brazen or tough guy moods in current American feminism look to me like the old puritanic rejection of coquetry updated, under new hat and cloak.

That said, having qualified all our generalizations, and allowed for multitudinous exceptions, we still have our question:

How does a woman who appeared to have mastered

the perfect pitch of the French girl

lose it all?

Well, I don’t mean to sound like a crass American talking money, but —

you can’t invest all of your assets in Perfect Pitch;

if you want to keep your portfolio,

you have to diversify.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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3 Responses to “My Inner French Girl”

  1. Pingback: “Encore Marie Antoinette” | "Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column"

  2. Elmer Sprague says:

    Dear Abigail.
    You preface your essay on the French girls with Fragonard’s “The Swing.” Do you see the painting as I do? I see it is an allegory on how hard it is for a man to know a French girl, and the lengths he must go to accomplish it. Best! Elmer

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks much for the comment, cher collegue! It seems to me, positioned as he is, he’s on the verge of “knowing” quite a bit more than he ought to. But then I may be showing my incompetence to answer Freud’s perennial question (paraphrased here): ‘Vot does man vant?’

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