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February 25th, 2003

  All-Vapouring France


All this anti-French commentary these past few weeks has stirred warm feelings of nostalgia in my breast. This is my home territory; this is stuff I know. Frog-bashing is only an occasional and desultory pleasure for Americans, but growing up in England, I took in Francophobia with my mother's milk.

"With my father's cigarette smoke" would be more accurate. My mother actually held no strong opinions on the matter. "They let us down in the War," she would say when the subject of the French came up, but in a tone more of sorrow than anger. A gentle and kindly person, my mother bore no large resentments. The great fount of anti-French feeling in the Derbyshire family was my father.

In his youth Dad had had some intimate encounters of the military type with both France, as ally, and Germany, as enemy. Those encounters had left him with an abiding admiration for the Germans and a deep loathing of the French. My earliest mental map of the world included the facts, which I took to be as indisputable as the Laws of Thermodynamics, that the Germans, though they might sometimes get above themselves and need keeping in check, were basically sound, while the French, though we had to go to their aid every so often in order to prevent the Germans overrunning everything, were scum. Dad spent his declining years writing furious letters to the newspapers denouncing the European Common Market (fore-runner of the EU), which he saw as a cunning plot on the part of the French to strip Englishmen of their birthright and their money — to obtain by guile what Louis XIV and Napoleon had been unable to get by force.

My father was drawing on a deep reservoir of anti-French feeling among his countrymen. Readers of Patrick O'Brian's novels will recall that English sailors of the early 19th century were summoned to meals by a drummer beating out the rhythm of "The Roast Beef of Old England." This song long pre-dated Napoleon. Written by Richard Leveridge in 1735, it is a critical commentary on the England of that time. It begins:

When Mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman's food
It ennobl'd our veins and enrichéd our Blood.
Our Soldiers were Brave & our Courtiers were Good:
Chorus: Oh! the Roast Beef of old England,
And old English Roast Beef.

The second verse gets down to business:

But since we have learned from all-vapouring France,
To eat their Ragouts, as well as to Dance,
We are fed up with nothing but vain Complaisance.
Chorus:  Oh! the Roast Beef … Etc.**

Thus we see that 200 years ago the basic image of the French as a nation of effeminate dancing-masters who eat mush was already well established in the Anglo-Saxon world-view.

This was by no means the beginning of it, though. A couple of lifetimes earlier, William Shakespeare had his first commercial success with the play we know as Henry VI Part I, one of the most anti-French works in all of English literature. This play is not often staged. I myself have never seen it. The version done for the BBC CompleteShakespeare is said to be very good, and I have it on my to-buy list, but at present I know the play only from reading it, and from reading about it in Peter Saccio's wonderful little classic Shakespeare's English Kings.

The main point of the play is to show the origins of the Wars of the Roses. This sorry business was a distant consequence of the fact that Edward III, who ruled England through the middle years of the 14th century, had too many sons. The trick of medieval kingship was to leave behind you precisely one healthy and strong-willed male heir to carry on the dynasty. Less than one, or more than one, spelled trouble. Edward Plantagenet over-egged the pudding, producing five healthy sons, two of whom — the Duke of Lancaster ("John of Gaunt" in Shakespeare) and the Duke of York — engendered mini-dynasties of their own. The subsequent tensions were kept fairly well under control so long as there was a strong king in charge; but when Henry VI ascended to the throne in 1422 at the age of nine months, things began to go awry. Henry grew up to be bookish and weak-willed, and in the third quarter of the 15th century England descended into civil war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, whose emblems were a white rose and a red rose, respectively.

The good news about all this discord is that it provided Shakespeare, writing at the end of the 16th century, with material for eight fine plays. Henry VI Part I is usually reckoned as the first of the eight to have been written, though there are the inevitable scholarly wrangles about this. We actually have a review from August 1592 of what is almost certainly this play.

Though the lead-up to the Wars of the Roses forms the principal theme of the play, the tail-end of the Hundred Years' War between England and France is also acted out onstage. The horror of political disorder that runs through all of Shakespeare's work is clearly visible here in his picture of squabbling, scheming English aristocrats bringing the nation to ruin. The particular ruin they bring England to in Henry VI Part I is the loss of the "first British Empire" — the possessions in France that English kings had laid claim to, with various degrees of plausibility, for three centuries, that had actually been fought over pretty continuously since the early years of Edward III, and that the glorious campaigns of Henry V in 1415-22 had made into firm stepping-stones towards the conquest of all France.

Showing these losses, however, presented Shakespeare with difficulties of presentation. His countrymen were flushed with national pride following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. How could he display the disasters in France 160 years earlier to an audience full of a sense of their nation's invincibility? The dissensions of the English nobles gave him one hook to hang his story on. See what happens when we quarrel among ourselves. For the other, he drew a scathing picture of the French as wily cowards, who basically won by cheating and witchcraft. See what happens when you deal with the French as people of honor.

There are no good French people in this play at all. Every one of them is arrogant, or crafty, or duplicitous, or in league with "fiends." One of the French principals bears the name "Bastard of Orleans." All their victories are won by tricks, or by the use of unfair, un-gentlemanly weapons like cannon. Most scandalous of all to French sensibilities is Shakespeare's portrayal of the French national heroine and saint, Joan of Arc. In Henry VI Part I Joan is a scheming slut who dabbles in the black arts. "Search out thy wit for secret policies, And we will make thee famous through the world," hisses the Bastard to Joan after the loss of Rouen. She goes off to consult her "fiends."

The play is full of sentiments to gladden the heart of any Francophobe. Just 25 lines into the first act, here is the Duke of Exeter at the funeral of Henry V:

 … Shall we curse the planets of mishap
That plotted thus our glory's overthrow?
Or shall we think the subtile-witted French
Conjurers and sorcerers, that, afraid of him,
By magic verses have contrived his end?

Later the French take Rouen by a sly ruse of Joan's, then lose it by cowardice. Scoffs the English hero, Lord Talbot, in between the gain and the loss:

 … Base muleteers of France!
Like peasant footboys do they keep the walls
And dare not take up arms like gentlemen.

When the Duke of Burgundy, up to this point an ally of England's, is seduced away to the French side by Joan of Arc, she thanks him with a line that would get as good a laugh from Jonah Goldberg as it must have got from the Elizabethan audience:

Done like a Frenchman — [aside] turn and turn again.

Henry VI himself, in Paris for his coronation, warns his nobles to:

 … remember where we are,
In France, among a fickle wavering nation.

After the decisive English loss at Bordeaux, the French Dauphin greets an English emissary with: "On what submissive message art thou sent?" The Englishman replies haughtily:

Submission, Dauphin? 'Tis a mere French word.
We English warriors wot not what it means.

There is even a gratuitous swipe at the Belgians. A messenger, reporting on an attempt to assassinate Talbot, tells us the dirty deed was done by "a base Walloon" who, "to win the Dauphin's grace, Thrust Talbot with a spear into the back."

That the Bard could make free with all this Frog-bashing was the more remarkable in that at the time he was writing, England and France were allies, with Spain their common enemy. France had given no trouble to the English for decades, having been consumed by her own wars of religion and a bloody change of dynasty. In 1592, when Henry VI Part I appeared, the jovial and capable Henri IV, first of the Bourbons, had title to the French crown. He was a Protestant, which made him popular with the English, and English soldiers were actually in the field with him, fighting to help him take Paris, which was in the hands of a Catholic faction. Henri's victory over Catholic forces at the Battle of Ivry in 1590 had been cheered in England; the British Museum has a copy of a printed song-sheet sold in the streets of London to celebrate the occasion. Elizabeth I sent Henri gifts — a scarf she had made herself, and an emerald — and addressed him in letters (written in her own hand, in her own excellent French) as "dearest brother." She signed herself off as "your very assured good sister and cousin."

The Queen regarded Henri as an insurance policy against England's worst nightmare: a grand Catholic alliance between France and Spain. When he cynically turned Catholic in 1593 with the famous remark that "Paris is worth a mass," neither Elizabeth nor her countrymen held it against him, and the two nations remained on cordial terms until the Franco-Spanish alliance of the late 1620s, ten years after Shakespeare's death. (It was Henri IV, by the way, who is supposed to have planned the "Grand Design" for a Franco-German Christian republic, with a council of Europe to discuss affairs of common interest — a first draft, if you like, of the European Union.)

All of which goes to prove that Frog-bashing requires no actual excuse, and can be enjoyed at any time, with the support of no less an authority than the Swan of Avon. [Note to editor: If you don't like my title for this piece, how about "Swan Bashes Frogs"?] When the French actually do go out of their way to vex the Anglosphere, as they did recently in the U.N. Security Council, there is no reason to restrain ourselves at all. All those jokes you have been hearing this past few weeks about French treachery and pusillanimity — "French rifle for sale; almost new; only thrown down in surrender twice … " — have a long and respectable pedigree. Go ahead, enjoy yourself. Did you hear that the French government has banned fireworks at Euro Disney? They are afraid that the sounds of the explosions might cause soldiers at a nearby French army garrison to surrender.

** I have mezzo-soprano Lucie Skeaping singing this song, backed by Jeremy Barlow's traditional-instruments ensemble, on a CD titled Favourite English Songs, produced by Past Times recordings of Oxford, England in 1993.