The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century

by Bonnie G. Smith
Princeton University Press, 303 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Madame va descendre à l’instant: elle vous prie de l’attendre,” said the neat servant, in her immaculate black and white uniform, as she showed me into the salon of the enormous red-brick house. It was a familiar opening, almost a ritual; and I knew, from previous experience, that “à l’instant” could be extended to ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, while Madame tarried in the mysterious rooms upstairs, engaged in whatever strongly feminine activities that kept her on the higher stories of the silent house.

Preparing for a long wait, I took in the details of an equally familiar salon: a heavily waxed and polished parquet floor, covered in rugs, on which were placed a semicircle of identical faux-Louis XV chairs, lined in silken floral patterns. I sat bolt upright on the edge of one of them toward the end of the semicircle, so that I would not have my back to the door when Madame eventually came down.

Everything seemed to be in place: above the mantelpiece there was a recess, painted in blue and edged in white, that contained a small statue of the Virgin holding the Child Jesus, both in white. A huge clock in a glass case ticked loudly in the silence of the still house. On side tables and marble-topped consoles there were nine photographs in heavy silver frames of children, five girls and four boys, the former in white dresses and with floral arrangements in their hair, the latter in black suits and Eton collars, with large white bows on their right arms, all holding white-bound missals, a range of premières communions extending over a dozen years. There were three more photographs, framed in dark wood, two of them of nuns, the third of a rather startled looking young priest in heavy glasses.

A glass-fronted corner cupboard, well stocked with colored bottles bearing familiar labels, the Dubonnet cat to the fore, seemed to smile at me, spelling out a message less austere and more laical. And on a, small and highly decorated round table, placed in the exact middle of the motionless semicircle, was the usual talisman of local rank and hierarchy, a volume bound in rich red marocain and carrying in golden letters on its spine the proud title: Les Grandes Familles de Roubaix-Tourcoing, a volume, always as prominently displayed, with which I had filled in the gap of a great many “à l’instants,” up and down the boulevard de Cambrai, the boulevard de Paris, and the leafy avenues off the Parc Barbieux.

It was a volume that gave much greater weight to the second half of the alphabet than to the first, as if there were more virtue in a name beginning with an M or a P, or a W (unique to this area) than to one beginning with an A or a C or a D: Masurel, Motte, Prouvost, Tiberghien, Toulemonde, Wibaux. The book was like a pack of cards that, constantly reshuffled …

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