I remember that during my first weeks as a newly engaged, newly resident of Paris, I received from a malevolent Irishman a copy of Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing, which concerns an Englishwoman who marries a Frenchman and discovers that, although he obliges her beautifully in the evenings, he spends his afternoons with his mistress. The book shook me. At each fresh example of the husband’s perfidy, I exclaimed to Pierre: “So this is the way a Frenchman spends his honeymoon!” Is this the way a French husband toys with the tea hour? Is this…….., etc.”
Pierre was enraged. Finally he threatened to throw the book out the window, howling, “No, eet ees not true about Gaston, Alain, Georges, Robert, Raymond, Thierry, Jean-Pierre, Jean-Claude, or Jean-Paul!” Then he ran out of breath. I was en-heartened, but not wholly convinced. So I studied all our friends — Gaston, Alain, Georges, Robert, Raymond, Thierry, and all three Jeans — and found that it was clearly true, none of them was unfaithful to his wife, and obviously had no desire ever to be so.
Somewhat reassured though I was about my own personal destiny, I felt a curious sensation of dismay and bewilderment about Frenchman as a whole, and confided to Andre Maurois one day at tea that I was rather shocked by the discrepancy between the reputation of the French husband and the low incidence of infidelity that really existed chez lui.
Having agreed that the average Frenchman much preferred to be faithful to his wife, Maurois reflected for a moment and decided that the reputation must once have been well-founded — “in the romantic period,” he said, “over a century ago, when the life of the feelings was given so much importance, and when the poetic imagination was accorded so much expression. Nowadays the style is different because conditions are difference. The French husband no longer has the leisure that his inheritance used to assure him, because the last two wars have wiped out the old French institution of the carefully nurtured and passed-on family fortune, and almost every modern Frenchman must therefore work. He marries young and has his children promptly. And you know,” concluded Maurois, “to have a mistress, a man must have the money for it — and the time — and the energy!”
With Pierre that evening I did a little careful checking. The family fortune had been thoroughly wiped out by 1946. He must have been bewildered by my expression of pure delight. He was puzzled but pleased when I myself took The Blessing and threw it out the window. After all, it was about the rarest type of modern Frenchman — a marquis, who had the time, the money, and the energy!
Extracted from Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland, 1961