French Characters

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Introduction to Character Type

The "French characters" group includes a vast assortment of major and minor characters in about one-quarter of the total number of plays in this collection. Several subgroups of francophone and francophile characters recur throughout the collection. These smaller groups include French servants (particularly the stock French valet), French professionals, upwardly-mobile French people, upper-class French people, and English people who affect Frenchness, often as a way of improving their lot socially. The profusion of French characters relative to the nearly complete lack of German characters suggests that London audiences were extremely interested in the French. Traditionally, the French serve as an opposition to the English, aiding the latter to define their own cultural understanding.

The primary subgroup of French characters is the French servant, a prominent stock character. Valets, and, less frequently, maidservants, occur in many plays, including Burgoyne's The Heiress (1786), Colman's The Jealous Wife (1761), Colman and Garrick's The Clandestine Marriage (1766), Colman's The English Merchant (1767), Cowley's The Belle's Stratagem (1780; published 1781), Murphy's News from Parnassus (1776; published 1786), Richard Brinsley Sheridan's A Trip to Scarborough (1777; published 1781), and Griffith's The Platonic Wife (1765). This character undergoes no transition throughout the play, and is always a minor figure with very little involvement in the action. Like the stereotyped country squire, the French valet tends to carry a similar name (often La France or Monsieur Paris). (An interesting deviation from this norm is La Varole in A Trip to Scarborough, whose name refers to part of the brain stem.) These characters speak in Franglais without exception. Their accents are represented by non-standard orthography (often "d" for "th"), by grammatical inconsistency, and by recurring French idioms, as in this excerpt from The English Merchant:

La Fr. Oh, que oui ! but dis be for de young laty dat lif here; for Mademoiselle: mi Lor lov her! ma foi ; he lov her à la folie .

Spat. And he loved Lady Alton à la folie , did not he?

La Fr. Oh, que non ! he lov her so gentely ! si tranquilement ; ma foi , he lov her à la Françoise .--- But now he lov Mademoiselle; he no eat, no sleep, no speak, but Mademoiselle; no tink but of Mademoiselle; quite an oder ting, Monsieur Spatter, quite an oder ting! (Colman 33).

French professionals differ from French servants in several ways. These figures are often more distanced from the primary English characters and play a more significant role in the plays' action than do the servants. The professions most often represented have to do with personal appearance. Hairdressers and barbers occur in Murphy's No One's Enemy But His Own (1764), Foote's The Englishman in Paris (1753), Reed's The Register Office (1761) and Thomas Sheridan's The Brave Irishman (1742). However, other professionals, such as an engineer (Kemble's The Female Officer (1763)), an innkeeper (Foote's A Trip to Calais (1776; published 1778)), and a composer of ballets (Colman's New Brooms! (1776)) are represented. Like the French servant, the French professional employs non-standard orthography and grammar, and French idioms, which distinguishes him from the other characters.

Upwardly-mobile French people are a particularly important subgroup of the "French characters" group. These characters are usually professionals who have reinvented themselves as members of the nobility or aspire to do so, often aided by their immigration to England. These upwardly-mobile characters occur in Cumberland's The Imposters (1789), in which a French Jew dresses up as a valet to a false lord; The Englishman in Paris, in which a language-master is paid to act as a marquis to pose a rival to Lucinda's English suitor; The Register Office, in which a hair- and corn-cutter seeks a position at a school so he can seduce an heiress; Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Critic (1779; published 1781), in which a French-speaking character poses as an Italian interpreter despite his obvious lack of both Italian and English; and The Brave Irishman , in which Monsieur Ragou, a hairdresser, has transformed himself into a nobleman in England.

True upper-class French characters form a much smaller group than their upwardly-mobile counterparts. Only two female characters represent the French nobility: Mme. La Rouge in Murphy's Know Your Own Mind (1777; published 1778) and Sabina in Cumberland's First Love (1795), whose parents were killed in the Revolution and who has been exiled from France. The representation of upper-class women is surprising, as nearly all of the French servants and professionals are male (save Fontange, the serving-maid in The Platonic Wife). This is perhaps a commentary on women's mobility in the period, as only men and the highest-ranking of women are geographically mobile in this collection of plays. Mme. La Rouge and Sabina offer quite different linguistic representations, as the former speaks with non-standard grammar and a thick accent, while Sabina's English is nearly perfect, as she only incorporates French idioms when she is at her most emotional.

Finally, the list of "French" characters includes an important subgroup of English francophiles who take on French guises as part of the action. These characters impersonate French people for two main reasons. First, they do so because they believe in the superiority of French culture. These characters include Buck in The Englishman Return'd from Paris and Luke Lapelle in A Trip to Calais. Playing on the stereotype of the Latin lover, Lapelle calls his wife "Mademoiselle" to ensure that the French do not flirt with her, and uses French idioms whenever possible. Likewise, Buck undergoes a complete transformation from his hearty English persona in The Englishman in Paris by adopting French mannerisms in its sequel, The Englishman Return'd from Paris. He explains the reasons for this change:

Buck. Who, I. Damn your Premises, and Conclusions too. But this I conclude, from what I have seen, my dear, that the French are the first People in the Universe; that in the Arts of living, they do or ought to give Laws to the whole World, and that whosoever wou'd either eat, drink, dress, dance, fight, sing or even sneeze, avec Elegance , must go to Paris , to learn it. This is my Creed (Foote 22).

However, some English characters take on French personas as a means of advancing their own romantic or pecuniary interests. Papillon, a valet in Foote's The Lyar (1762; published 1764) feigns Frenchness when necessary as it is more socially impressive for a nobleman to have a French servant: "all de doors dat was shut in your face as footman Anglois, will fly open demselves to a French valet de chambre" (Foote 7). The barber in The Englishman in Paris does not withstand Buck's questioning, admitting after some provocation that he is English. Lastly, Granger, the suitable suitor in Cowley's Who's the Dupe? (1779), impersonates a French female mantua-maker as a quick disguise when the irascible Doiley enters unexpectedly during Granger's intimate conversation with Miss Doiley.

The recurring subgroups of French characters, including the stock servants, the professionals, the upwardly-mobile French characters, the upper-class individuals, and the francophiles, provide a panoramic view of a French presence in the English cultural understanding. The French characters are sometimes accompanied by a political message; one of the strongest of these is The Platonic Wife's conclusion that the English should hire British servants rather than French ones. The selection and abundance of French characters throughout this collection is indicative of the importance of this social group to the consciousness of the London audience.

Works Cited:

Colman, George. The English Merchant. London: T. Becket and P. A. De Hondt ... and R. Baldwin [etc.], 1767. Literature Online. 12 August 2008.

Foote, Samuel. The Englishman Return'd from Paris. London: Paul Vaillant, 1756. Literature Online. 12 August 2008.

---. The Lyar. London: G. Kearsly, 1764. Literature Online. 12 August 2008.

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List of Plays

The Heiress (Burgoyne)

The Jealous Wife (Colman)

The Clandestine Marriage (Colman and Garrick)

The English Merchant (Colman)

New Brooms! (Colman)

Who's the Dupe? (Cowley)

The Belle's Stratagem (Cowley)

The Imposters (Cumberland)

First Love (Cumberland)

The Englishman in Paris (Foote)

The Englishman Return'd from Paris (Foote)

The Lyar (Foote)

A Trip to Calais (Foote)

The Female Officer (Kemble)

No One's Enemy But His Own (Murphy)

News from Parnassus (Murphy)

Know Your Own Mind (Murphy)

The Register Office (Reed)

A Trip to Scarborough (R.B. Sheridan)

The Camp (R.B. Sheridan)

The Critic (R.B. Sheridan)

The Brave Irishman (T. Sheridan)

The Platonic Wife (Griffith)

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©2009 Arden Hegele