Expat Magazine

Anomalies of French Life: Love of the 18th Century

By Sedulia @Sedulia

I'm having one of those "I love France" days, in spite of the drizzling rain and the freezing cold. I've just been looking through some of my shop-window photographs, because shop windows are one of the glories of Paris. And thinking how often you see the XVIIIe -- in France, the centuries are always spelled with Roman numerals-- as the iconic French century in the vitrines. It's even nicknamed le Grand Siècle, really the reigns of Louis XIV and XV, 1654-1774.

The eighteenth century was not a good time for my own ancestors, driven out of Ireland, Scotland and Nova Scotia by the wicked Sassenachs and out of France by poverty. Some of them were American Indians and things went from bad to worse for them in those hundred years. But it was a great era in France for art and literature,  architecture and science.


And furniture. I once saw the eighteenth century described as the last time when you could send a servant ahead of you to furnish your rental house, and it would be in perfect taste. (By "you," I don't mean you hoi polloi, but nobles and gentlemen, of course.)


As an American, I can't forget why my ancestors left Europe, but French people I meet all seem fond of the 18th century as if they are all descendants of the ancien régime, which isn't possible. Perhaps they like it because it was the last time France was really powerful (till 1815) and not coincidentally the last time its population was the largest in Europe. This may explain the huge number of biographies of royalty and aristocrats in any French bookstore, and also the children's plates above, which feature cartoon characters, many in 18th-century dress, saying, "I always offer [a dish] to my neighbor [at table] before serving myself" and "I taste before saying I don't like [something]." I don't know if the clothes would work if these were aimed at American children....


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