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Theodore Child.
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LOVE AND FINANCE CONVERSATIONS IN A FRENCH SALON – THE COST OF A WIFE Paris, March 24th, 1880. – In France marriages are made not in heaven, but in the notary’s parlor. A man with a position worth so much can marry a woman with a dowry of so much. It is all reckoned according to a sliding scale. Theoretically, the wife ought to have a dowry, the interest on the capital of which is equal to the amount of the annual earning of the husband. This is the theory: the practice departs from it but very slightly. Marriages of love, are very rare, and marriages of reason are not on the increase. I do not propose in this letter to treat the question of marriages in France from the point of view of statistics which would more than bear out my statement above; I will simply treat it from the point of view of a Frenchman, by reporting as faithfully as I can remember a conversation which I happened to overhear in a salon a few nights ago. The salon was in the Boulevard Malesherbes, in one of those luxurious abodes where the modern stockbrokers live like princes. Two men, still young – that is to say, on the right side of forty – were lounging in a corner of the room, with eyeglasses fixed and restless eyes, seeking rather to see than be seen. At the moment when the orchestra gave the signal for a fresh quadrille, the elder said suddenly to the other: “Look my friend, there is the charming person whom I wished to show you.” “That little brunette with a white rose in her hair.” “Yes” “Very pretty indeed, large blue eyes and long lashes.” “Well, you have only to ask her hand, in the old style. You will obtain it.” “One question! Permit me. What is the figure of her dowry?” “Three hundred thousand francs.” “A mere nothing! I might as well buy a rope to hang myself with. Merci, mon tres cher.” “What! Three hundred thousand francs; do you call that nothing?” “Certainly.” “Explain yourself, I pray.” “Three hundred thousand francs in 1880. The game is not worth the candle.” “Well?” “For safety’s sake, in order to avoid bankruptcy, a dowry of three hundred thousand francs would be placed in the State securities at three per cent, or else in railway stock guaranteed by the State.” “Admitted.” “Consequently it does not bring in five percent. Nevertheless let us suppose that the dowry when invested does bring in five percent. That means an income of fifteen thousand francs. The little brunette with a white rose in her hair would cost more than that.” “Ah! You don’t mean that?” “You will see, my dear fellow, I go to the Bourse every day, and I must be allowed to know something about arithmetic. Now, let us consider and make our calculations. The little brunette is pretty; therefore she must be seen, and therefore she must be well dressed. She must have at least two dresses each season, which makes eight costumes a year. These costumes will cost the trifle of six thousand francs at the least, considering the price of ribbons, silk velvet, and dressmakers work.” “Good; six thousand francs.” “Love, and by love I mean marriage, likes linen white as the driven snow. Linen, lace, gloves, hair dressing, perfumery, jewelry, will cost say two thousand francs, and that is a ridiculously small sum. Then, I have not reckoned shoes. She has the feet of a fairy, and so she needs silk stockings, chamber brodequins like those of Cinderella and what not. Put another thousand francs.” “Well, that will bring us up to nine thousand francs.” “Have I included hats and bonnets, artificial flowers, feathers, veils, muffs, false hair ? For the fairest use false hair. No! Well, let me be liberal for once and not reckon those items. Still there are certain small expenses which are indispensable: there is the piano and the tuning of it, new music, new novels, an illustrated journal, Vie Parisienne, writing materials, postage stamps, wool work, a seat at church, or at the synagogue, knick-knacks to be bought, alms to be given. For all that, let us say fifteen hundred francs. Total, ten thousand five hundred francs. I beg you will remark that I have, out of pure magnaminity, nor said a word about the necessary things of life – house rent, table, cellar, and servants, I have not done so because in the actual state of society it is admitted on all hands that a wife is no longer an object of utility, but an object of luxury. We must, therefore, continue our calculations on this hypothesis. Now madame, having brought with her a dowry of 300,000 francs, thinks herself almost a princess. Besides the other servants, she must have a femme de chambre, specially devoted to her service. The wages, board, lodging, and presents of this chambermaid will cost at least 2,000 francs.” “Very good, 12,500 francs.” “There is an item which I ought to have mentioned among the first – it is that of washing. Formerly washing was nothing, in Louis Phillip’s time, when people nevertheless flattered themselves on being moderately clean, washing used to cost very little, because much less linen was shown than is now the case; and then again it was the custom for ladies, even if they were princesses, to look after their own linen. But all that has been changed. Nowadays, there is not a petite bourgeoise who does not spend fifteen hundred francs a year on washing. I therefore propose this figure at the risk of making my contemporaries irradiate their countenance with a smile of pity.” “Fourteen thousand francs is our present total.” “Wait! During the winter madame will have been in society, at the theatre, at dinner parties, at races. Summer comes. Ah! Summer is vacation time for the women of Paris. Paris rivals Zanzibar in heat. It would be almost indecent for a pretty face to be seen there, and so we must go to watering places – to Switzerland, to Mendon, or to the seaside. Madame will throw her arms around her husband’s neck and remind him that it is the usual to leave Paris in the summers. To go to Vichy or Etretat, to stay simply a month, with your wife and the inseparable chambermaid, will cost say 2,000 francs. I defy you to do it for less. We have now gone beyond our income of 15,000 francs, and I leave you to be the judgement of my figures. Well, this is nothing.” “Sixteen thousand francs for having committed matrimony; do you call that nothing?” “No, my dear fellow, it is merely the beginning. Just think for a moment of the almost inevitable consequence of marriage. By keeping strictly to the programme that I have traced, by using the income of the dowry as I have supposed, by working, by spending nothing for superfluities on his side. By providing for the household expenses, and so forth, a man might find no reason to repent of having married. But you are aware why society advocates marriage; it is in order to perpetuate the race. Let us suppose that you have only a son and a daughter, or what the bourgeois call a King’s desire. Gracious heavens! Have you reflected on the series of servitudes without name which this paternal felicity involves? The nurses, schooling, professional training, a dowry – no, I dare not enter into details. It would make your hair stand on end. No! No! Let others cull the white rose; I am not a marrying man.” The two young men retired to the buffet and left me to think. Whose fault is it that my stockbroker friend is not a marrying-man? Is it the fault of the girls or of modern society? Formerly, a young girl of 17 used to elope with a handsome musketeer or escape from the convent school with the help of a silken ladder. So the novels of those days were full of convents, musketeers, ladders, and elopements. In those days the heart spoke of the age of 10; nowadays it waits before it becomes the home of tenderness. The young girl of to-day, ambitious and vain, marries at 18 for position, and takes her revenge at the age of 25, by means of a combination known in France as menage a trois, of triple household. As the conversation of my two stockbrokers would lead you to suppose, the dreams of the young girl of Modern France are dreams of pride. She marries a young man only on the condition that he gives her a position in society, a handsome fortune, and a fine house. A young man who has hopes is refused; an old man who has no longer anything to hope is preferred. C’est triste, mais c’est comme ca.