The Bourgeois Citizen in Nineteenth-Century France: Gender, Sociability, and the Uses of Emulation

By Carol E. Harrison | Go to book overview
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Conclusion: The Limits of Emulation

By the end of the revolutionary period, France's old regime had disintegrated, but a new, stable social order had yet to take its place. In the immediate post-revolutionary decades, the practice of association served as a crucial strategy for reordering society as the atomized individuals defined by revolutionary law reconstituted social groups and hierarchies. Voluntary associations marked the perimeters of these groups and mapped out the boundaries of class society. As one of a company of target- shooters, savants, horticulturists, or charitable donors, a Frenchman knew his place in the bourgeois social order. His bourgeois status denoted personal achievement: a reward for individual probity and success. It also represented his acknowledgement of the limits of individualism: the French bourgeois was not simply the self-made man because he owed his position to the associative civic spirit of his fellows.

For much of the nineteenth century, Frenchmen understood bourgeois status as competitive, but they did not assume that it fuelled class conflict. Rather, bourgeois men reconfigured society as emulative--as composed of differing groups united in harmonious rivalry to contribute to general prosperity. Bourgeois men who, in working hours, faced the uncertainties of the industrializing economy, dedicated their leisure to less destructive rivalries. In seeking to outdo their fellow citizens with the excellence of their verse, the size of their vegetables, the skill of their musical performance, or the depth of their civic commitment, bourgeois Frenchmen asserted that competition, and, indeed, early industrial capitalism, did not have to be selfish or destructive. Bourgeois sociability could organize competition--much as early French socialists wanted to organize labour --so that harmony and association might govern modern society.

Establishing the bourgeois society of voluntary associations and civic involvement was men's work. The emulative sociability of the association removed itself from the home and, with its formal parliamentary procedure, established its norms in direct opposition to those of domestic social practice. Early nineteenth-century voluntary associations were at pains to

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