Max of the Month 1. I have often quoted from the works of Max O’Rell over the last few years, one of my favourite travel writers from the 19th Century, now virtually forgotten. His books are so packed with fascinating and entertaining social history that I have barely scratched the surface so far, so let’s make looking at his writing a monthly feature for a while. We’ll start with one of his books that I haven’t quoted from at all so far: John Bull’s Womankind, published in 1884, which focusses on women in England at the time. O’Rell was from France, so this was an outsider’s perspective.
Seeing that the word flirtation seems to have been definitely received into the French vocabulary, it is natural to suppose that our language contained no equivalent for it, or that the thing itself never existed in France.
Flirtation is, in fact, an essentially English pastime. No one flirts in France: we are more serious than that in love affairs…
Flirtation is a very innocent little pastime. I have read in the confession albums of young ladies of good society, “What is your favourite occupation? Flirting.” The answer is not in exquisite taste, even from the English point of view, I admit; but no one would think of taking it amiss. … all the more so, I should add, because these confessions are not meant to be taken very seriously.
Young girls who at a ball had made themselves specially agreeable to certain of their partners, and succeeded in drawing a few compliments from them, might say, “We had such flirtation.”
To flirt, then, is to make a young fellow believe that ”on l’a remarqué, distingué,” as the Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein says; it is to encourage him by sweet smiles and tender wiles, to quit his reserve and carry his gallantry almost so far as to declare himself. This kind of thing would be very dangerous with a young Frenchman; it leads to no bad consequences with the young Englishman, for flirtation is “attention without intention,” as some one – I forget whom – has very aptly put it; and an Englishman is able to pay a lady attentions without harbouring any intentions. I compliment him upon it.
A woman who flirted would pass in France for giddy, even fast: she knows her countrymen well, and is aware, when she coquettes with them, what she is exposing herself to. A young girl would never even think of it. But, in England, men are not so inflammable, and in flirting, a woman does not play with fire.
The Grand-Duchess of Gerolstein is an Opera by Offenbach, and O’Rell is referring to a passage where the Duchess’s flirtations go unnoticed.
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