I was told, before I left England, that I should find that French liberty had destroyed French urbanity. But every thing I have seen and heard, since my arrival in France, has contradicted this assertion, and led me to believe that the French will carefully preserve, from the wreck of their monarchical government, the old charter they have so long held of superiority in politeness. I am persuaded the most determined Democrates of the nation, whatever other privileges they may choose to exercise, will always suffer the privilege of being rude to lie dorman.
In every country it is social pleasure that sheds the most delicious flowers which grow on the path of life; but in France she covers the whole way with roses, and the traveller can scarcely mark its ruggedness. Happy are a people, so fond of talking as the French, in possessing a language modelled to all the charming purposes of conversation. Then turn of expression is a dress that hangs so gracefully on gay ideas, that you are apt to suppose that wit, a quality parsimoniously distributed in other countries, is in France as common as the gift of speech. Perhaps that brilliant phraseology, which dazzles a foreigner, may be familiar and common to a French ear; but how much ingenuity must we allow to a people who have formed a language, of which the common-place phrases give you the idea of wit!
Text: Helen Maria Williams , Letters on the French Revolution, written in France, in the summer of 1790, to a friend in England : containing, various anecdotes relative to that interesting event, and memoirs of Mons. and Madame Du F, Letter 23, Volume I, p.121-122. Printed at Boston, by J. Belknap and A. Young, sold at their printing-office, no. 34, Newbury Street, and by the booksellers in town and country, 1791-1792.
Image: Portrait of Helen Maria Williams (1761–1827). London: Dean and Munday, 1816, NYPL, The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle.