The MHRA Centenary Lectures

The Centenary Lectures was a series of ten major public lectures, delivered by distinguished speakers at universities across Great Britain and Ireland. Their full text is published here as a lasting record of the Association's Centenary year of 2018.

ContentsPreface by Barbara BurnsImprint page
Lectures by Thomas DohertyElaine TreharneEdwin WilliamsonAlberto ManguelManfred EngelMarina WarnerSusan BassnettMichael CroninAlain Viala

La galanterie française

Professor Alain Viala

University of Oxford

Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues, thank you for coming. I am very honoured to be invited to deliver this lecture and I would like to thank the MHRA warmly for this. I must ask you to indulge my very poor English and my strong French accent. But I would also like to take this opportunity to share a serious French concern with you: France is today under pressure, from a large and thorny bundle of serious issues, and of a very varied nature. Among these, and greater than Monsieur Macron’s lack of popularity or Monsieur Melenchon’s aggressiveness, greater even than Brexit (hard or in name only), there is — right at the heart of the mass of problems — the “Galanterie française”. For more than a year now, every month, even every week there is a new episode of the “Querelle de la galanterie française”: the Quarrel of French Gallantry.

Nine months ago, a newspaper, Le Monde published a manifesto signed by a hundred people, mainly women, of whom the most famous was Catherine Deneuve. This manifesto was a protest against the “Me too” movement, and a defence of “la galanterie française”. There were immediate responses and polemics, and Le Canard enchaîné published a cartoon entitled La Galanterie c’est fini! (Fig. 1). It shows a woman and a man in front of a lift door, and the woman says: “Get on first, you pig, or you’ll get a slap in the face!”. Just a few days ago, Le Monde asked the following question: “Is it still possible, in a café or restaurant, for a man to leave the banquette to a woman without risking being called a stalker?” A question which attracts attention even on this side of the Channel, as just a month ago The Telegraph began covering the debate.

Fig. 1. Le canard enchainé takes up the Quarrel

So: what is the issue here? How did this became a sort of national quarrel? I shall try to set out some facts on the history of galanterie in France (the subject of my forthcoming book).1 The story could be summarized by the following question: how did an ideal became an ordeal?

In the beginning

In the beginning, there was an end: the end, in France, of a century of civil wars. From the mid-16th century, with the Wars of Religion, to the mid-17th and the rebellion against absolutism called La Fronde, France had suffered a long period of troubles. The monarchy looked to new social élites in order to manage the administrative services of the kingdom. They couldn’t be from the old aristocracy, as the main aristocratic families were involved in these rebellions, nor from the Catholic Church, for the same reason. As a result some part of the nobility and the bourgeoisie, particularly from what was called “la Robe” — lawyers and judges — were promoted.

To be a good member of this new élite, one needed to show personal qualities — to have personal merit rather than just an old name or huge wealth. These new managers of the country had neither military nor religious backgrounds: therefore, they were selected because they were educated as well as reliable. And the term given to that quality was galant homme: all the dictionaries of this time give as the first definition of galant homme “a reliable man”. A way to show evidence of their education was their good behaviour in social life. Living neither in castles nor in monasteries, but in towns, they were urban people: therefore, they needed urbanity, especially in their time of leisure. In French urbanité means politeness, but since it has a pedantic sound to it, an echo of the Latin urbanitas, people also used the new word galanterie.

Integrity and sociability are the two bases of galanterie. That was the first part of the ideal. A pleasant sociability implies style and wit, and that involves an ability to enjoy arts. That was the second part of this ideal. And, since social life involved both men and women, a special attention was given to the politeness of men toward women. This too was part of the ideal of the “galant homme”. And the “galante dame” was, symmetrically, a woman with virtue, wit and distinction. This ideal was neither a simple dress code, nor a list of polite manners, but a style or, if you prefer, as Madeleine de Scudéry says, “un air”, with an element of “je-ne-sais-quoi”.

Inside this framework, if a romantic affair developed, it was very important to take time to ensure, on both sides, that it was a real feeling, a profound one. Madeleine de Scudéry symbolized such a real love, with mutual esteem and respect, as an expedition through Utopia — mapping it out in La Carte de Tendre (Fig. 2). Love is a long journey, from the first encounter — Nouvelle Amitié — to a solid feeling of Tendre-sur-Estime or Tendre-sur-Reconnaissance. The shortest route was pure “Inclination”, or sexual attraction, but that leads to the perilous sea, the “Mer dangereuse”. And so the Utopia of the Carte de Tendre is an idealised image of mutual love and respect.

Fig. 2. Carte de Tendre, Madeleine de Scudéry, Clélie, 1654

The original venues for this “galante” society were the salons of Paris, but in the 1650s the style was adopted too by the Court of Louis XIV. Louis was himself a “galant homme”; I mean this quite literally — in a ballet dedicated to La Galanterie du temps (1655) the King danced the character of “Le Galant”. There were Court events officially designated as “Fêtes galantes”. They offered the regime an opportunity to exhibit an ideal of pleasant leisure, which means an ideal of peace, to counterbalance the other side of Louis XIV's image: that is, the military one. In short, then, galanterie became the principal style of French élites for at least a century to follow, and it established itself as a myth.

That myth gave rise to many poems, plays, novels, operas, and paintings. The most famous painter was Watteau, the most famous composer Rameau; among the writers, there were Madeleine de Scudéry or Mme de La Fayette; the majority of Molière’s work can be seen as galanterie, and then there is Marivaux, and so on. The style spread widely throughout Europe: in Germany, for instance, Frederick II was a passionate admirer of Watteau’s painting. There were of course discussions about it, but the fact is that this French ideal became internationally famous.

Fig. 3. Jean-Antoine Watteau, Le Pèlerinage à l'île de Cythère (1717)

Nevertheless, some people were implacably opposed to these new ideals. Highly traditional Catholics, such as the Jansenists, rejected the ideal of “divertissement mondain”. Misogynists were also hostile: Boileau, for instance, in his Art poétique of 1674, accused galant writers of making “Brutus galant et Caton dameret”. And the enemies of Louis XIV took this opportunity to criticize him as “galant”. As you know, in French, an adjective changes its meaning according to where it is put, before or after the noun. In this case, “galant homme” means a perfectly reliable, educated and polite man; but “homme galant” means a seducer. As you can imagine, it was even worse for women. And so this range of enemies of galanterie gave the word also a pejorative sense.2 If a man was full of polite attentions to a women, it was said he was trying to seduce her. Resistance to the gallant can be summarized, in a word, by saying that the gallant myth became Janus-faced. And this remained the case throughout the Ancien Régime.

From the Revolution to the bourgeois repression

From the beginning of the Revolution, in 1789, every outward sign of the Ancien Régime was suppressed. During the Revolutionary period, galanterie disappeared almost entirely, and as a model of social behaviour it was strongly attacked by writers. Fabre d’Eglantine — one of the creators of the new Republican calendar — considered gallantry as a form of corruption, and his play Philinte (1791) rewrites Molière’s Misanthrope according to the views of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The gallant model of Court writing was attacked by Germaine de Staël in De la literature (1800).

The pictorial style of the Fêtes galantes met with particular disdain, or even aggression. Watteau’s masterpiece, Le pélerinage à Cythère, the model of its whole genre, continued to hang in the design classroom of the Ecole des Beaux Arts: but now it was censoriously attacked by Jacques-Louis David, and some of the students habitually threw pellets of bread at it. Seeing this, a curator took the poor thing down and put it in the attic of the Louvre: it was not shown again until 1816. To artists of this new age, the bourgeoisie which had overthrown the monarchy should be dedicated to business with dignity, not to leisure with games and fantasy. And so the artistic style associated with galanterie must be condemned as frivolous and artificial.

To summarize the result: in 1812, a moralist like Jouy could write in his Ermite de la Chaussée d’Antin that “Il n’y a plus de galanterie, plus de politesse, la Révolution a tué tout cela” — there is no more galanterie, the Revolution killed it. The refrain was already: “La galanterie c’est fini”…. Over a period of 25 years, the bourgeois’ doxa had repressed this style very efficiently.

But as everyone knows, ghosts have a tendency to leave their attics, and whatever the social superego represses, there are always desires to make dents in this barrier. In fact, throughout the 19th century, French gallantry was a sort of prismatic object, with three sides. Each provides a different use and a different meaning of the words galant and galanterie.

The greatest of these was the bourgeois anti-galant ideology. This was an obsession. It was due, in large part, to the fact that Paris was – if I may speak plainly — full of prostitutes. It was called “le marché aux putains”, or “le bordel de l’Europe”. Bourgeois morality became obsessed, haunted, by these shameful examples of the “femme galante”, in a sort of moral complex. Any behaviour with a trace of seduction was immediately denounced, with a highly pejorative connotation, as galant.

But the popular classes had a quite different complex, and one in which galant had a more positive sense. After Napoléon’s defeat, Paris was occupied by Russian, Prussian and even British soldiers, and one way in which the people of the city coped with the trauma of defeat was to mock their occupiers. Popular engravings depicted Russian, Prussian or English men as rude, or stupid, or as brutally trying to catch a French woman. The same engravings contrast this with the galanterie française, a model of elegance, charm and delicacy. Here is the origin of galanterie as a national superiority complex, a way to evoke the ghost of old French distinction and so to compensate for defeat. This patriotic image of galanterie was gradually adopted even by the lower middle class, at a time when France was confronted by Germany, as we shall see soon; and galanterie was also a way to mimic the old aristocratic distinction.

The third side of this prism came from, as I put it earlier, the power of the ghosts in the attic: Watteau and his gallant artistic style. A handful of young creative artists began to draw inspiration from it once more. This group centred around two poets, Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval. Nerval called it “La Bohême galante”, and it published a journal entitled L’artiste. Members of the group acted as advisors for rich capitalists building art collections (most notably the Hertford family, who developed the Wallace Collection on show today). Those who were painters once again painted Fêtes galantes. Those who were poets wrote poems in a gallant style. And Nerval explains how important this style was. Not as a frivolous pastime, but:

Hors de Paris, de ses querelles stériles et de ses vaines agitation, jeme ressource dans ma terre maternelle, le Valois, une province où j’ai été élevé et qu’on appelle spécialement “la France”. Le Voyage à Cythère de Watteau a été conçu dans les brumes transparentes et colorées de ce pays.

In doing this, these artists expressed two attitudes at once. In terms of international politics, they were exhibiting a national myth. In this period, Germany was gaining unity and power, and France was obsessed by that increasing influence. Germany had a tradition of considering the arts as the expression of the soul of its nation, and artists like Nerval replied that the gallant style is the proper expression of French grace, distinction and finesse — just the opposite of the slow, heavy and loudly sentimental German spirit. And in terms of France's internal politics, members of La Bohême galante could mock the bad taste of the bourgeois unable to appreciate Watteau, and could thereby lampoon bourgeois social and political power. This tendency had its acme in a collection of poems published by Verlaine and entitled Fêtes galantes (1869), as we shall see.

Thus, what had been a Janus-faced myth was now a prism facing three ways: for the bourgeois, the disturbing face of the “femme galante”; for the people, the mask of politeness and charm; and for the artistic élite, the sign of distinction. And so, we enter the period known in France as...

The Belle Epoque

The disaster of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was followed by a great revival of nationalist ideology, and in particular, the galant myth was revived. The fantasy of a delicate and elegant spirit returned. Just a minute ago, I mentioned Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes. This was initially poetry for the happy few. Inspired by the atmosphere of Watteau’s painting, Verlaine aims to provide a feeling of charm and melancholy. Love becomes a sort of game of flirtation. For instance, the beginning of the first poem (Clair de lune):

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth, et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

Despite its defeat, France enjoyed a period of prosperity after 1870 — a period only later called “la Belle Epoque”, but in which culture could flourish. Composers such as Claude Debussy or Gabriel Fauré created from it the genre of “mélodie galante”.

Claude Debussy plays his own Clair de lune, inspired by Verlaine's poem of the same name

They took inspiration from Verlaine’s verses to compose melodies which became a national genre: the idea was to oppose this French delicacy to the German lieder. And in this way, gallant style expanded from the small sphere of the aesthete to a broader audience.

Fig. 4. The 24th edition (!) of the Baronne Staffe's Usages du Monde: Règles du Savoir-Vivre.

A revival of galanterie also aided some bourgeois theoreticians of social life — writers of treatises of good manners, who wanted to resist the rise of feminism, and all claims of equality between men and women. The most famous of these writers were la Baronne de Staffe and la Baronne d’Orval. Today, they are left out in the garbage of the history of ideas, but in their day they had millions of readers. And they explained the relationship between men and women as follows. First, they excluded love: what is important is marriage, and marriage is not an affair of love. Second: in conjugal business, woman is not equal to her husband. But, third, in Staffe's words: “la femme est une reine au point de vue mondain et malgré la loi salique, selon la galanterie qui appartient de tout temps aux Français” — woman is a Queen in social life, according to the galanterie which is a proper French tradition. What this means really is that women do not have political rights, but can get power by being charming. Men have power, but women have seduction. And these theoreticians were also nationalists, explaining that France is the best place in the world to provide such a feminine influence.

If you compare this with the initial Utopia of the Carte de Tendre, you see the difference. The ideal of mutual respect has drifted into a theory of seduction. Mutual seduction: men have the power in the economics and politics, and desire women, while women desire to be desired and gain power indirectly. That is a very brief summary, but I hope correct enough.

And so, from now on, the gallant was an image of superiority; an image of a tradition of respect and wit; and an image of mutually seductive behaviour. The myth is no longer Janus-faced, but multi-faced: it is no longer a list of acts, but is a way to characterise a whole variety of behaviours. These images can even be contradictory: galanterie can, for one person, mean only a banal form of “drague”, of chatting people up, while another person means it to signify a respectful social relationship. Therefore — just to take stock on the methodological front — galanterie is a good example of the social processes of qualification. I mean: the social act of qualifying. Qualifying behaviours and images is an action of classification. And, at the same time, to classify the people who exhibit these behaviours and use these images. Qualification is a social and political operation, the locus of a social and political contest: the uses of galanterie differ according to the social groups involved in them, and their particular interests.

And so I would like give a view of this in France today.

The present: ghosts and battles

In France today, among the various ways of using this word and of conceive and practice galanterie, I think there are two major tendencies.

The first face of the myth today is a new use of the old heritage as a way to suggest how great is France. Almost every year there is an exhibition of “Fêtes galantes” paintings. At the moment, if you go to the Louvre Lens you can visit the pompously named “Amour”, with a huge – and interesting I think — section entitled: “La relation: la galanterie”. If you go to the Château de Versailles next June, and if you can afford a ticket, you can attend a special event, as you can every year, called a “Fête galante”. Tickets cost at least 150 euros, and are more than 400 for the most expensive. These events are very selective: only 350 people are allowed. And they have to buy or rent clothes imitating 17th or 18th century court style. It is a way to recreate the atmosphere of the “fêtes galantes” during the Ancien Régime, a viewing of the ghosts of ancient France (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Fête galante à Versailles, 2018

These tickets are mainly sold to rich French bourgeois and to American or Chinese tourists. This is galanterie as a means of distinction, and love is not the main goal.

And people who fancy exterior signs of distinction and wealth can also buy a dress like this one (Fig. 6), designed by Alessandro Michele, the designer of Gucci, who uses the image of the Carte de Tendre:

Fig. 6. Alessandro Michele, for Gucci. Fashion week, Milan 2016

This dress brings out the idea of the old French tradition of distinction, of “produit de luxe”, and of >Galanterie as a high point of it. But at the same time, there is a second sign inside. Michele said that Carte de Tendre was for him “a moving topography of desire”. And this becomes perfectly visible when the dress has been bought by Michelle Obama (Fig. 7). When Michelle Obama wore this dress, it became not only a sign of distinction but also a sign that a woman has chosen to make visible that desire should be respectful; that to be desirable means also to be respectable and respected.

Fig. 7. Michelle Obama wearing Carte de Tendre dress on the Ellen TV show, 2016

But on the other hand, there are also debates about the inheritance of the theory of seduction. This theory has been criticized by Simone de Beauvoir in Le deuxième sexe (1949): she said that galanterie was, for women, an illusion to compensate for their lack of equality. And a little later the famous feminist activist Gisèle Halimi, in her book La cause des femmes (1973), asked to eradicate this illusion: “Il faut éliminer purement et simplement la galanterie, cette forme de domination maxculine” — we must eradicate galanterie as a form of male domination.

Some French feminist theoreticians took a different tack. The first was probably Julia Kristeva in a paper entitled Le rituel galant, in 1991. She said that women can accept an asymmetrical relationship between men and women because the illusion provided by the seduction is precious. And people like Mona Ozouf, in Les mots des femmes. Une singularité française, and, mainly, Claude Habib, in her book Galanterie française (2006), followed the same path. They say they are feminist, but with a moderate view of it. They are, above all, as you can see from the titles of her books, anxious to defend a specific French model. They are linked with people such as Alain Finkielkraut, and published chapters in his book Qu’est-ce que la France? (2007). They express a very anxious French desire to protect the “exception culturelle française” — among which would be a “féminisme à la française”.

It comes as no surprise that some feminists, notably Joan W. Scott, radically criticized such a “féminisme à la française”. To sum up her view, Scott explains that this “théorie de la séduction” might actually be French, but is not feminist. This quarrel had various episodes, various battles, particularly when it was the issue of “le foulard islamique” and again during “l’affaire Strauss-Khan” in 2011. It deeply divides French intellectuals. This quarrel is still in progress, as we have seen at the very beginning of this lecture.

And beyond.

I would like to finish, then, by looking at a very different form of the gallant myth — what might be called a radical change of our point of view. This change has been created by the British artist Yinka Shonibare. Shonibare exhibited in 2007 an art installation called Le Jardin d’amour (Fig. 8) in the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris — now known, following a decision of Président Chirac, as the “Musée des Arts Premiers”.

Fig. 8. Yinka Shonibare, The Pursuit, in The garden of love, Paris, Musée du Quai Braly, 2007

Shonibare picked up his inspiration from a work created by Fragonard in the 1770s, a group of three paintings titled The progress of love.

Fig. 9. Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Les Progrès de l'amour: Le rendez-vous (c. 1771).

Shonibare’s installation consists of a group of life-sized mannequins in a garden, a sort of labyrinthine garden. The mannequins are dressed in lovely clothes, imitating Fragonard paintings, but these clothes are done not with silk or satin, but with batik cotton. And, they are headless. In doing this, Shonibare says four things at once. First, that the dresses are like those of slaves during the colonial period. Second, that these slaves have a presence in French history. But, third, not only in French history, because colonialism was an international business: batik was originally produced in the Dutch East Indies, then the boats carried it to Africa, where they took slaves to the West Indies and America. And fourth, Shonibare tells us that the question was less about love, and more about leisure. And leisure is the time during which rich Europeans wasted the riches provided by colonial imperialism and slavery.

Choosing Fragonard was an acute way to mobilise the French myth of galanterie, which is primarily a myth of leisure. The myth of a happy leisure, in a locus amoenus — a place for happiness: in this case, the garden — with plenty of time dedicated to pleasure, to games, to art and love. Because the Musée du Quai Branly is dedicated to arts from Asia, America and Africa, that is, from the colonial world, placing this installation there has been a way to re-interrogate European attitudes towards other parts of the world. This act modifies the focus and scope of the galanterie myth. It brings out the point that galanterie is not only about manners, art or love, but about leisure. And the focus, here, is no longer only about Frenchness but about a stage in world history.

From a French myth to a global question: this could be another way to summarize the journey of galanterie in the last Century.

And it could be the last word here. At least for me. Because when some people active in these quarrels say “galanterie c’est fini”, I do not know. And because I am not here to express my own opinion. I have asked to do so by several journalists. My answer is always: that’s not interesting. I am not here to say if galanterie is a good thing or a bad one. I am just trying to observe how it had various clashing definitions. And these clashes are always produced by differences of opinions and interest between different social groups. For instance, today, the people in favour of “la galanterie française” and “le féminisme à la française” belong to a category of institutional state intellectuals. I see them as defending the national myth from this position. But they are not representative of all French people — even when they pretend to define what is France, and what is to be French.

This example brings out how galanterie could be an example of cultural symbols as objects of manipulations, ideological actions and even fights. Galanterie and its history from the initial ideal to the present ordeal seems to me an instructive case study of that. Ssocial life is full of such processes. And I think for all of us who are working in the Humanities, observing those processes, defining and redefining categories and values, can be an important part of our job.

And so I have been particularly happy to be invited to speak here, and I thank you very much for your attention and your indulgent and gallant understanding.

Given at the Nazrin Shah Centre, Oxford, 9 November 2018; © Alain Viala 2018


1Two books, in fact: La galanterie, une mythologie française (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2019), and Le dossier galant (Paris: Les dossiers du Grihl, online).↩︎

2See, for instance, the article “Galant” in the Encyclopédie: there are, in fact, three articles, which give clear evidence of this multiple meaning.↩︎