Edith Wharton: Reverence

“Take care! Don’t eat blackberries! Don’t you know they’ll give you the fever?”

Any American soldier who stops to fill his cap with the plump blackberries loading the hedgerows of France is sure to receive this warning from a passing peasant.

Throughout the length and breadth of France, the most fruit-loving and fruit-cultivating of countries, the same queer conviction prevails, and year after year the great natural crop of blackberries, nowhere better and more abundant, is abandoned to birds and insects because in some remote and perhaps prehistoric past an ancient Gaul once decreed that “blackberries give the fever.”

An hour away, across the Channel, fresh blackberries and blackberry-jam form one of the staples of a great ally’s diet; but the French have not yet found out that millions of Englishmen have eaten blackberries for generations without having “the fever.”

Even if they did find it out they would probably say: “The English are different. Blackberries have always given us the fever.” Or the more enlightened might ascribe it to the climate: “The air may be different in England. Blackberries may not be unwholesome there, but here they are poison.”

There is not the least foundation for the statement, and the few enterprising French people who have boldly risked catching “the fever” consume blackberries in France with as much enjoyment, and as little harm, as their English neighbors. But one could no more buy a blackberry in a French market than one could buy the fruit of the nightshade; the one is considered hardly less deleterious than the other.

The prejudice is all the queerer because the thrifty, food-loving French peasant has discovered the innocuousness of so many dangerous-looking funguses that frighten the Anglo-Saxon by their close resemblance to the poisonous members of the family. It takes a practiced eye to distinguish cepes and morilles from the deadly toadstool; whereas the blackberry resembles nothing in the world but its own luscious and innocent self. Yet the blackberry has been condemned untried because of some ancient taboo that the French peasant dares not disregard.

Taboos of this sort are as frequent in France as the blackberries in the hedges, and some of them interfere with the deepest instincts of the race.

Take, for instance, the question of dinner-giving. Dining is a solemn rite to the French, because it offers the double opportunity of good eating and good talk, the two forms of aesthetic enjoyment most generally appreciated. Everything connected with dinner-giving has an almost sacramental importance in France. The quality of the cooking comes first; but, once this is assured, the hostess’ chief concern is that the quality of the talk shall match it. To attain this, the guests are as carefully chosen as boxers for a championship, their number is strictly limited, and care is taken not to invite two champions likely to talk each other down.

The French, being unable to live without good talk, are respectful of all the small observances that facilitate it. Interruption is considered the height of discourtesy; but so is any attempt, even on the part of the best talkers, to hold the floor and prevent others from making themselves heard. Share and share alike is the first rule of conversational politeness, and if a talker is allowed to absorb the general attention for more than a few minutes it is because his conversation is known to be so good that the other guests have been invited to listen to him. Even so, he must give them a chance now and then, and it is they who must abstain from taking it, and must repeatedly let him see that for once they are content to act as audience. Moreover, even the privileged talker is not allowed to dwell long on any one topic, however stimulating. The old lady who said to her granddaughter: “My dear, you will soon learn that an hour is enough of anything” would have had to reduce her time-limit to five minutes if she had been formulating the rules of French conversation.

In circles where interesting and entertaining men are habitually present the women are not expected to talk much. They are not, of course, to sit stupidly silent; responsiveness is their role, and they must know how to guide the conversation by putting the right question or making the right comment. But above all they are not to air their views in the presence of men worth listening to. The French care passionately for ideas, but they do not expect women to have them, and since they never mistake erudition for intelligence (as we uneducated Anglo-Saxons sometimes do) no woman can force her way into the talk by mere weight of book-learning. She has no place there unless her ideas, and her way of expressing them, put her on an equality with the men; and this seldom happens. Women (if they only knew it!) are generally far more intelligent listeners than talkers; and the rare quality of the Frenchwoman’s listening contributes not a little to the flashing play of French talk.

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