Essays by Alice Meynell
By Alice Meynell

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A Counterchange

“Il s’est trompe de defunte.” The writer of this phrase had his sense of that portly manner of French, and his burlesque is fine; but–the paradox must be risked–because he was French he was not able to possess all its grotesque mediocrity to the full; that is reserved for the English reader. The words are in the mouth of a widower who, approaching his wife’s tomb, perceives there another “monsieur.” “Monsieur,” again; the French reader is deprived of the value of this word, too, in its place; it says little or nothing to him, whereas the Englishman, who has no word of the precise bourgeois significance that it sometimes bears, but who must use one of two English words of different allusion–man or I gentleman– knows the exact value of its commonplace. The serious Parisian, then, sees “un autre monsieur;” as it proves anon, there had been a divorce in the history of the lady, but the later widower is not yet aware of this, and explains to himself the presence of “un monsieur" in his own place by that weighty phrase, “Il s’est trompe de defunte.”

The strange effect of a thing so charged with allusion and with national character is to cause an English reader to pity the mocking author who was debarred by his own language from possessing the whole of his own comedy. It is, in fact, by contrast with his English that an Englishman does possess it. Your official, your professional Parisian has a vocabulary of enormous, unrivalled mediocrity. When the novelist perceives this he does not perceive it all, because some of the words are the only words in use. Take an author at his serious moments, when he is not at all occupied with the comedy of phrases, and he now and then touches a word that has its burlesque by mere contrast with English. “L’Histoire d’un Crime,” of Victor Hugo, has so many of these touches as to be, by a kind of reflex action, a very school of English. The whole incident of the omnibus in that grave work has unconscious international comedy. The Deputies seated in the interior of the omnibus had been, it will be remembered, shut out of their Chamber by the perpetrator of the Coup d’Etat, but each had his official scarf. Scarf–pish!–"l’echarpe!” “Ceindre l’echarpe"–there is no real English equivalent. Civic responsibility never was otherwise adequately expressed. An indignant deputy passed his scarf through the window of the omnibus, as an appeal to the public, “et l’agita." It is a pity that the French reader, having no simpler word, is not in a position to understand the slight burlesque. Nay, the mere word “public,” spoken with this peculiar French good faith, has for us I know not what untransferable gravity.

There is, in short, a general international counterchange. It is altogether in accordance with our actual state of civilization, with its extremely “specialized” manner of industry, that one people should make a phrase, and another should have and enjoy it. And, in fact, there are certain French authors to whom should be secured the use of the literary German whereof Germans, and German women in particular, ought with all severity to be deprived. For Germans often tell you of words in their own tongue that are untranslatable; and accordingly they should not be translated, but given over in their own conditions, unaltered, into safer hands. There would be a clearing of the outlines of German ideas, a better order in the phrase; the possessors of an alien word, with the thought it secures, would find also their advantage.

So with French humour. It is expressly and signally for English ears. It is so even in the commonest farce. The unfortunate householder, for example, who is persuaded to keep walking in the conservatory “pour retablir la circulation,” and the other who describes himself “sous-chef de bureau dans l’enregistrement,” and he who proposes to “faire hommage” of a doubtful turbot to the neighbouring “employe de l’octroi"–these and all their like speak commonplaces so usual as to lose in their own country the perfection of their dulness. We only, who have the alternative of plainer and fresher words, understand it. It is not the least of the advantages of our own dual English that we become sensible of the mockery of certain phrases that in France have lost half their ridicule, uncontrasted.

Take again the common rhetoric that has fixed itself in conversation in all Latin languages–rhetoric that has ceased to have allusions, either majestic or comic. To the ear somewhat unused to French this proffers a frequent comedy that the well-accustomed ear, even of an Englishman, no longer detects. A guard on a French railway, who advised two travellers to take a certain train for fear they should be obliged to “vegeter” for a whole hour in the waiting-room of such or such a station seemed to the less practised tourist to be a fresh kind of unexpected humourist.

One of the phrases always used in the business of charities and subscriptions in France has more than the intentional comedy of the farce-writer; one of the most absurd of his personages, wearying his visitors in the country with a perpetual game of bowls, says to them: “Nous jouons cinquante centimes–les benefices seront verses integralement e la souscription qui est ouverte e la commune pour la construction de notre maison d’ecole.”

“Fletrir,” again. Nothing could be more rhetorical than this perfectly common word of controversy. The comic dramatist is well aware of the spent violence of this phrase, with which every serious Frenchman will reply to opponents, especially in public matters. But not even the comic dramatist is aware of the last state of refuse commonplace that a word of this kind represents. Refuse rhetoric, by the way, rather than Emerson’s “fossil poetry,” would seem to be the right name for human language as some of the processes of the several recent centuries have left it.

The French comedy, then, is fairly stuffed with thin-S for an Englishman. They are not all, it is true, so finely comic as “Il s’est trompe de defunte.” In the report of that dull, incomparable sentence there is enough humour, and subtle enough, for both the maker and the reader; for the author who perceives the comedy as well as custom will permit, and for the reader who takes it with the freshness of a stranger. But if not so keen as this, the current word of French comedy is of the same quality of language. When of the fourteen couples to be married by the mayor, for instance, the deaf clerk has shuffled two, a looker-on pronounces: “Il s’est empetre dans les futurs.” But for a reader who has a full sense of the several languages that exist in English at the service of the several ways of human life, there is, from the mere terminology of official France, high or low–daily France–a gratuitous and uncovenanted smile to be had. With this the wit of the report of French literature has not little to do. Nor is it in itself, perhaps, reasonably comic, but the slightest irony of circumstance makes it so. A very little of the mockery of conditions brings out all the latent absurdity of the “sixieme et septieme arron- dissements,” in the twinkling of an eye. So is it with the mere “domicile;” with the aid of but a little of the burlesque of life, the suit at law to “reintegrer le domicile conjugal” becomes as grotesque as a phrase can make it. Even “e domicile” merely–the word of every shopman–is, in the unconscious mouths of the speakers, always awaiting the lightest touch of farce, if only an Englishman hears it; so is the advice of the police that you shall “circuler” in the street; so is the request, posted up, that you shall not, in the churches.

So are the serious and ordinary phrases, “maison nuptiale,” “maison mortuaire,” and the still more serious “repos dominical,” “oraison dominicale.” There is no majesty in such words. The unsuspicious gravity with which they are spoken broadcast is not to be wondered at, the language offering no relief of contrast; and what is much to the credit of the comic sensibility of literature is the fact that, through this general unconsciousness, the ridicule of a thousand authors of comedy perceives the fun, and singles out the familiar thing, and compels that most elaborate dulness to amuse us. US, above all, by virtue of the custom of counter-change here set forth.

Who shall say whether, by operation of the same exchange, the English poets that so persist in France may not reveal something within the English language–one would be somewhat loth to think so- -reserved to the French reader peculiarly? Byron to the multitude, Edgar Poe to the select? Then would some of the mysteries of French reading of English be explained otherwise than by the plainer explanation that has hitherto satisfied our haughty curiosity. The taste for rhetoric seemed to account for Byron, and the desire of the rhetorician to claim a taste for poetry seemed to account for Poe. But, after all, patatras! Who can say?


Ceres’ Runaway  •  Wells  •  Rain  •  The Tow Path  •  The Tethered Constellations  •  Rushes and Reeds  •  A Northern Fancy  •  Pathos  •  Anima Pellegrina!  •  A Point of Biography  •  The Honours of Mortality  •  Composure  •  The Little Language  •  A Counterchange  •  Harlequin Mercutio  •  Laughter  •  The Rhythm of Life  •  Domus Angusta  •  Innocence and Experience  •  The Hours of Sleep  •  Solitude  •  Decivilized  •  The Spirit of Place  •  Popular Burlesque  •  Have Patience, Little Saint  •  At Monastery Gates  •  The Sea Wall  •  Tithonus  •  Symmetry and Incident  •  The Plaid  •  The Flower  •  Unstable Equilibrium  •  Victorian Caricature  •  The Point of Honour  •  The Colour of Life  •  The Horizon  •  In July  •  Cloud  •  Shadows  •  The Seventeenth Century  •  Mrs. Dingley  •  Prue  •  Mrs. Johnson  •  Madame Roland  •  Fellow Travellers With a Bird  •  The Child of Tumult  •  The Child of Subsiding Tumult  •  The Unready  •  That Pretty Person  •  Under the Early Stars  •  The Illusion of Historic Time  •  Footnotes

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