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The perils of pretty English girls, for a Frenchman in Étretat

Hotel Hauville in Étretat , Normandy - match!
Hotel Hauville in Étretat , Normandy – match!

We are delighted to introduce as our guest blogger this week Guy de Maupassant!

Here he interviews old friend Henri Sidoine on the Havre-Trouville ferry.  Henri has a terrible warning for his fellow Frenchman. Over to Guy…

Guy Maupassant, brilliant writer, not yet mad.
Guy de Maupassant, esteemed author and Normandy blogger


The steamer was crowded with people and the crossing promised to be good. I was going from Havre to Trouville.

The ropes were thrown off, the whistle blew for the last time, the whole boat started to tremble, and the great wheels began to revolve, slowly at first, and then with ever-increasing rapidity.

We were gliding along the pier, dark with people. Those on board were waving their handkerchiefs, as though they were leaving for America, and their friends on shore were answering in the same manner.

The big July sun was shining down on the red parasols, the light dresses, the joyous faces and on the ocean, barely stirred by a ripple. When we were out of the harbour, the little vessel swung round the big curve and pointed her nose toward the distant shore which was barely visible through the early morning mist. On our left was the broad estuary of the Seine, her muddy water, which never mingles with that of the ocean, making large yellow streaks clearly outlined against the immense sheet of the pure green sea.

Port du Havre, Camille Pissaro
Port du Havre, Camille Pissaro

My old friend

As soon as I am on a boat I feel the need of walking to and fro, like a sailor on watch. Why? I do not know. Therefore I began to thread my way along the deck through the crowd of travellers. Suddenly I heard my name called. I turned around. I beheld one of my old friends, Henri Sidoine, whom I had not seen for ten years.

We shook hands and continued our walk together, talking of one thing or another. Suddenly Sidoine, who had been observing the crowd of passengers, cried out angrily:

“It’s disgusting, the boat is full of English people!”

“Can we not stop their coming to France!”

It was indeed full of them. The men were standing about, looking over the ocean with an all-important air, as though to say: “We are the English, the lords of the sea! Here we are!”

The young girls, formless, with shoes which reminded one of the naval constructions of their fatherland, wrapped in multi-colored shawls, were smiling vacantly at the magnificent scenery. Their small heads, planted at the top of their long bodies, wore English hats of the strangest build.

And the old maids, thinner yet, opening their characteristic jaws to the wind, seemed to threaten one with their long, yellow teeth. On passing them, one could notice the smell of rubber and of tooth wash.

Sidoine repeated, with growing anger:

“Disgusting! Can we never stop their coming to France?”

From the Gazette of Fashion, and Cutting Room Companion 1870
Henri & Guy, probably. From the Gazette of Fashion, and Cutting Room Companion 1870

What has Henri against the English?

I asked, smiling:

“What have you got against them? As far as I am concerned, they don’t worry me.”

He snapped out:

“Of course they don’t worry you! But I married one of them.”

I stopped and laughed at him.

“Go ahead and tell me about it. Does she make you very unhappy?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“No, not exactly.”

“Then she—is not true to you?”

“Unfortunately, she is. That would be cause for a divorce, and I could get rid of her.”

“Then I’m afraid I don’t understand!”

Traps set for the marriagable man

“You don’t understand? I’m not surprised. Well, she simply learned how to speak French – that’s all! Listen.

“I didn’t have the least desire of getting married when I went to spend the summer at Étretat two years ago. There is nothing more dangerous than watering-places. You have no idea how it suits young girls. Paris is the place for women and the country for young girls.

“Donkey rides, surf-bathing, breakfast on the grass, all these things are traps set for the marriageable man. And, really, there is nothing prettier than a girl about eighteen, running through a field or picking flowers along the road.

“I made the acquaintance of an English family who were stopping at the same hotel where I was. The father looked like those men you see over there, and the mother was like all other Englishwomen.

Étretat , travel poster
Étretat , travel poster.  The man in the hat on the left is probably English.

A heavenly blonde

“They had two sons, the kind of boys who play rough games with balls, bats or rackets from morning till night; then came two daughters, the elder a dry, shrivelled-up Englishwoman, the younger a dream of beauty, a heavenly blonde. When those chits make up their minds to be pretty, they are divine. This one had blue eyes, the kind of blue which seems to contain all the poetry, all the dreams, all the hopes and happiness of the world!

“What an infinity of dreams is caused by two such eyes! How well they answer the dim, eternal question of our heart!

“It must not be forgotten either that we Frenchmen adore foreign women. As soon as we meet a Russian, an Italian, a Swede, a Spaniard, or an Englishwoman with a pretty face, we immediately fall in love with her. We enthuse over everything which comes from outside—clothes, hats, gloves, guns and—women. But what a blunder!

“I believe that that which pleases us in foreign women is their accent. As soon as a woman speaks our language badly we think she is charming, if she uses the wrong word she is exquisite and if she jabbers in an entirely unintelligible jargon, she becomes irresistible.

Claude Monet, Springtime
Claude Monet’s painting ‘Springtime’

I loved her wildly!

“My little English girl, Kate, spoke a language to be marvelled at. At the beginning I could understand nothing, she invented so many new words; then I fell absolutely in love with this queer, amusing dialect. All maimed, strange, ridiculous terms became delightful in her mouth. Every evening, on the terrace of the Casino, we had long conversations which resembled spoken enigmas.

“I married her! I loved her wildly, as one can only love in a dream. For true lovers only love a dream which has taken the form of a woman.

Henri’s mistake

“Well, my dear fellow, the most foolish thing I ever did was to give my wife a French teacher. As long as she slaughtered the dictionary and tortured the grammar I adored her. Our conversations were simple. They revealed to me her surprising gracefulness and matchless elegance; they showed her to me as a wonderful speaking jewel, a living doll made to be kissed, knowing, after a fashion, how to express what she loved. She reminded me of the pretty little toys which say ‘papa’ and ‘mamma’ when you pull a string.

“Now she talks – badly – very badly. She makes as many mistakes as ever – but I can understand her.

“I have opened my doll to look inside – and I have seen. And now I have to talk to her!

Auguste Renoir 'Confidences' 1875
Auguste Renoir’s painting ‘Confidences’ 1875

The ideas of a well educated young English girl

“Ah! you don’t know, as I do, the opinions, the ideas, the theories of a well-educated young English girl, whom I can blame in nothing, and who repeats to me from morning till night sentences from a French reader prepared in England for the use of young ladies’ schools.

“You have seen those cotillion favours, those pretty gilt papers, which enclose candies with an abominable taste. I have one of them. I tore it open. I wished to eat what was inside and it disgusted me so that I feel nauseated at seeing her compatriots.

I married a parrot

“I have married a parrot to whom some old English governess might have taught French. Do you understand?”

The harbour of Trouville was now showing its wooden piers covered with people.

I said:

“Where is your wife?”

He answered:

“I took her back to Étretat.”

“And you, where are you going?”

“I? Oh, I am going to rest up here at Trouville.”

Then, after a pause, he added:

“You have no idea what a fool a woman can be at times!”

Guy de Maupassant, Étretat

The Trouville to Havre ferry 'lAugustin Normand'
The Havre to Trouville ferry ‘lAugustin Normand’

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