They Eat Horses Don’t They? The Romantic Myths About the French Debunked
A new book on the French titled They Eat Horses Don’t They? caught my eye for two reasons.
First, the book takes a hard and critical look at French society in much the same way I do in my own book, Home Again in Paris. Second, the book is the latest, and much welcomed, example of a new trend among Anglo-Saxon authors who are challenging the romantic “joie de vivre” myths about France.
The author, Pui Marie Eatwell, has a curious surname for an English writer taking on the myth of French cuisine – but it would seem it’s her real name. She is a trained barrister, married to a lawyer, mother to three children, and has been living in France for several years. This is her first book. In that respect, Eatwell falls into a well-worn category of Anglo expat writers in France who, ever since Peter Mayle earned wealth and fame with A Year in Provence, are keen to add their own French tale to the genre. But Eatwell, perhaps due to her legal training, takes a different approach. She sets out to debunk the myths about France.
Unlike my book, which is a memoir that threads observations about French society through a personal narrative, They Eat Horses Don’t They? is more journalistic in style and fact-based in method. Eatwell builds her case, backed up with evidence and statistics, about specific French myths: the fabulous cuisine, the stylish women, the perfect children, the joys of sexual seduction, the intellectual films, the addiction to holidays, and so on. The book’s subtitle says it all: “The Truth About the French”.
“For some reason Brits have this desire to romanticize and idealize France but we don’t do it for any other country,” she says. “You don’t get books telling us how to be like the Japanese or how to dress like the Germans. France is the only country we do this for. It’s almost like we have this need to aspire to this ideal country where the women are all slim, the sun shines all day long and life is great.”
It’s difficult to disagree with that assertion. Perhaps one explanation is the time-honoured tradition of romanticised books about France stretching back to Les Années Folles. Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast comes to mind. It should be noted however that in previous epochs – leaving aside Napoleon’s “nation of shopkeepers” remark — it was the French who tended to admire Britain. Voltaire considered England as a paradise of liberty. And Napoleon III, nephew of the emperor, was a passionate anglophile who redesigned Paris during the Second Empire on the model of London.
In more recent times, the marketing gurus behind the French fashion, beauty, wine and cuisine industries certainly have done an excellent job branding France as a superior culture (think of those sultry Chanel perfume adverts with Catherine Deneuve). In book publishing, it was undoubtedly Mayle’s Year in Provence that triggered the boom of romanticised accounts of France as a lavender-scented paradise where we uncultured, porridge-eating Anglo-Saxons must go if we hope to attain some semblance of French savoir vivre. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that, in publishing, francophilia has become a veritable industry – from the cornucopia of foodie and fashion blogs to the plethora of so-called “Froglit” books.
Eatwell (in photo above) argues that most of it is over-egged fantasy pudding. The battalions of expat foodies in France certainly won’t be thrilled to read this from Eatwell: “They come to France thinking the food is wonderful and they end up with a stale croissant and a watery coffee in a dingy café.” And the thousands of expat Brits who have migrated to the bucolic shires of Aquitaine won’t feel especially emboldened by this harsh assessment: “They come over and buy a house hoping to have this lovely French lifestyle and discover they have to file all these papers with the Town Hall or the builders don’t turn up because they are on holiday or that they can’t get by without the French language, because it’s just not possible in France.”
I enjoyed Eatwell’s chapter on the French taste for horsemeat – or “hippophagy” — a culinary habit that makes most Anglo-Saxons shudder with horror. In fact, I recall my first extended trip to France nearly thirty years ago when I was a young student here attempting to improve my French. I was living with a French family with two teenage children. One evening at the dinner table my hostess served me horsemeat without telling me.
After the meal, she asked: “So, did you enjoy your dinner?” I politely confirmed that I did. Cruelly satisfied, she informed me that I’d just eaten horsemeat. She wanted to prove to me that we Anglo-Saxons were arrogantly dismissive of the French – and proof was that, when we ate horsemeat, we liked it as much as our Sunday rosbif. From that day on, I quietly distrusted that woman. And thirty years later, I still shudder at the thought of eating horsemeat. Eatwell concludes, incidentally, that the horsemeat myth about the French is “partly true” — but that the French eat less horsemeat than Italians.
If I have one caveat about this book it’s that it perhaps strives too aggressively to knock down the French myths. As noted, the general tone is journalistic. There is nothing wrong with that. But sometimes Eatwell’s determination to debunk a myth blinkers her analysis. To take just one example, she challenges the myth that “French women don’t get fat” with an arsenal of statistics, some of which are undoubtedly valid. But she neglects some key facts: first, that French women, especially in Paris, smoke cigarettes as a “coupe faim” to stay thin and moreover many take prescription medication to prevent weight gain. These are established facts that have been widely written about in the French press. Eatwell’s conclusions emerge from a combination of statistics and anecdotal observations. More thorough research would have produced better insights into the “truth” about the French she is seeking to reveal.
From a strictly style point of view, readers who enjoy a richly embroidered narrative with nuanced observations – as Adam Gopnik gave us with his excellent book Paris to the Moon – might be disappointed with this book, which reads like a succession of arguments backed up with evidence. While at times it can seem a seem a bit relentless, the case-by-case structure and argumentative style doubtless make it a more marketable book. Its true/false conceit undeniably has a thumbs up/thumbs down accessibility. Perhaps it proves that, just as romanticised, cliché-riddled books about France pander to a certain readership, so do books that openly attempt to demolish the myths. The French, of course, will regard certain parts of this book as yet another example of “French bashing”.
I think They Eat Horses Don’t They? should be applauded as one of a growing number of books written by Anglo-Saxons that expose the “truth” about life in France. Recent books in this trend include Sophie Pedder’s book on French “denial” about the country’s catastrophic economic situation (she calls the French “spoilt children”); and Peter Gumbel’s two books They Shoot School Kids Don’t They? (note the similarity between Eatwell’s and Gumbel’s titles) and France’s Got Talent. Gumbel’s first book explores the dehumanising experience of the French school system; and the follow-up is a fierce critique of elitism in French society.
Eatwell’s book squarely belongs in this new, refreshing genre that puts fact before fiction. These authors are still a minority voice however. The number of breezy Froglit books about the joys of life in France could fill a vast library. The reverential savoir vivre books about France include everything from light novels with titles like Bonjour Happiness (see a longer list here) to more journalistic accounts of how the French are better than us — such as Mireille Guiliano‘s French Women Don’t Get Fat and Pamela Druckerman‘s book about parenting, French Children Don’t Throw Food (Eatwell dismantles the wonderfemme myth of the perfect French mother). There are undoubtedly some very good books in this genre. They all, whatever their merits, constitute a specific category of writing about France that clearly finds an eager Anglo-Saxon audience that want to escape into the French savoir vivre myth.
It’s doubtful that the emergence of Anglo-Saxon authors challenging the infatuated myths about the French will do much to stop the flow of romantic accounts of life in France. But at least readers now have alternatives – whether personal memoirs like my own and Gopnik’s or fact-based books like those of Pedder, Gumbel and Eatwell – that attempt to get behind the myths. When reading about France, book buyers can now choose between fantasy and reality.
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