By special guest writer Philippa Campsie, Toronto, Canada and Barbara Redmond

Rue de Rivoli, Paris, by Barbara Redmond

Rue de Rivoli, Paris, by Barbara Redmond

We have trademarked the words “A Woman’s Paris” for our articles, illustrations, and itineraries, but we are by no means the first to use that expression. In 1900, Mary Abbot published A Woman’s Paris: A Handbook of Everyday Living in the French Capital to help American women travelling to Paris. This quirky volume is available as a reprint and can be read online here.

All we know about the author is what we can surmise from her book; we don’t know where she came from, how old she was when she wrote the book, or what happened to her. But her personality emerges on every page: energetic, opinionated, sometimes sarcastic. If a movie were made about her, we think Maggie Smith would be perfect for the role.

Books about Paris…

The delightful preface begins, “Books about Paris appear to have been prepared for three classes of readers only,―prowlers after the haunts of Molière and Alfred de Musset, men in search of Bohemian resorts, and mad sight-seers who have to be steered through the show-places like lightning.” (Today, perhaps, she might add jet setters in search of the latest boutique hotel and the trendiest eatery, and the shop-till-you-drop types who are willing to line up for hours to buy the latest “it” bag.)

The American lady coming to Paris

Abbot addresses her little book to “the American lady coming to Paris for a longer or shorter period, for reasons not literary, nor Bohemian, nor demanding wild haste. This lady wishes to do the agreeable things there are to do, and to avoid the disagreeable things there are not to do.” That second sentence is a gem – hard to parse, perhaps, but a lovely thing nonetheless.

She urges her American lady reader to rent an apartment rather than staying in a hotel (we couldn’t agree more) and to make every effort to speak in French, no matter how “awkward and halting.” She recommends going to the theatre for practice in listening to spoken French, but we find that French-language cinema, television, and radio do just as well.

Although much of her advice is timeless, some chapters are period pieces, such as the one on dealing with servants (such a bother), or hiring the horse-drawn cab known as a fiacre, or finding a suitable dressmaker (prêt-à-porter will do nicely for us, thank you).

She devotes an entire chapter to the vexed question of the pourboire (the French word for “tip”) and another to “French society.” The brief description of this particular chapter in the table of contents is telling: “Futility of trying to enter it unless one is prepared to make sacrifices ― Impossibility, perhaps, even then…”

Paris ― daily life in the streets

As for sightseeing, she has sound advice. “More characteristic knowledge may be gained of a nation by observing its daily life in streets and houses than in an ignorant examination of its monuments, or one made perfunctorily; for thousands of ‘sight-seers’ immolate themselves weekly on the altar of supposed education [in museums], and are simply bored.” Indeed. We enjoy museums on rainy days, and we have learned a great deal from them, but the real education and entertainment are to be found on Paris’s lively streets.

Mary Abbot is fond of cemeteries and parks, markets and laundries, weddings and funerals, omnibuses and tramways – she would no doubt approve of the reintroduction of trams to Paris in recent years. Alas, some of the people she describes have disappeared forever – the beribboned nurserymaids, the newsboys, the men who cut dogs’ hair on the banks of the Seine, the women with little dog-carts who pick up rubbish – the latter now replaced by the ever-efficient Proprété de Paris.

Occasionally she is patronizing about the French, and sometimes her categorical opinions are comical (“bicycling,” she says firmly, “has had its day”), but she is in general a reliable guide to a city in the throes of the 1900 exposition, urging her readers to explore and experience the city to the fullest.

We hope to keep the spirit of Mary Abbot alive in our blogs and itineraries.

Mary’s French vocabulary includes some vanished elements such as le fiacre (a horse-drawn cab) and la claque (a part of a theatre audience paid to applaud at strategic moments). However, other words are still current, such as un pourboire (a tip), les ouvreuses (the officious ladies who show you to a theatre seat – do NOT forget un pourboire for these women), and un strapontin (a pull-down seat she noted in the theatre and today you find in the Metro).

Vocabulary: French to English translations

La claque: Part of a theater audience paid to applaud at strategic moments.
Le fiacre: Horse-drawn cab.
Les ouvreuses: Ladies who show you a theatre seat.
Prêt-à-porter: Ready-to-wear clothing.
Un pourboire: A tip.
Un strapontin: Pull-down seat in the theatre, today you find in the Metro.

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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond
All rights reserved.