Letter from France No. 1

Miss Porden

My dear Eliza,

I promised you to be a good girl, so here on the wings of the first packet comes my first epistle. We set out yesterday morning for Brighton in the Stage. The Stage! How horrible! What heroine ever travelled in a stage coach and mais n’importe. My guardian ruminated all the way in silence, and one might have thought that his intended visit to Paris was the performance of a disagreeble duty, rather that a trip of pleasure. But I am of gayer mood, and could quiz the fat lady who sat opposite in her red and yellow cotton gown, her black mode cloak and purple velvet bonnet, chatty, important good humour’d and vulgar. And offering incessantly to her companions the provisions which overcooked before were cooked a second time in her pocket. Or the thin gentleman in black, whose stately airs of assumed affability and anecdotes of high life imposed on her credulity, till an unlucky word let out the valet. Or the lady whom we took up at the door of her school, and whose recent trip to Paris had much increased her native importance. She was exceedingly talkative, and very liberal of advice; lavished on us recommendations of honest Parisian tradesmen and particularly directed us to a tenth cousin of hers, and Monsieur Bartholomieu of the Palais Royal who she assured us would take care that nobody cheated us — but himself, we presume — or the hard head of a gentleman opposite whose thick black locks had parried a blow from the heavy bundle of an outside passenger as he entered and who, whenever I admired a picturesque cottage, a thickly wooded park, or an expanded prospect amused himself and thought he amused me with speculations on the rent of the cottage, the age, quantity and value of the timber, the nature of the crops and the land, with an occasional sneer at bad farming. He seemed to have no delight in the cultured plains of England, or the extensive prospect from Reigate Hill, which delighted me, even though surveyed from the vapoury windows of a stage coach. His mind seemed not to expand while flying with eagle’s swiftness over the unbounded downs, or gazing for the first time on the mighty ocean. The waves sparkled in the sunshine — a few light barks danced gaily over their surface, and their low roar as they dashed against the rocks, invited rather than alarmed me. I could scarcely tear myself from the sight, and though this mighty water was soon to divide me from those most loved, hope dressed the promised land beyond in hues so bright that I could not refrain from counting impatiently the hours that must elapse before our embarkation — for Brighton so attractive to many, and which might have been so to me, had I contemplated a sojourn, was now only an obstacle between me and my wishes. To pass away this tedious time we visited the pavilion. At our first entrance we could not help admiring the beauty and extent of the grounds, which were much greater than I had imagined. We had heard a great deal of the Prince Regent’s folly in collecting a number of extravagant and incongruous articles, but were agreeably surprised at the magnificence of the Pavilion. Nearly one half has been added within the last ten years and the whole is superbly furnished in the Chinese manner. The Chinese paintings let into the walls, the vases, pagodas and figures are innumerable and exceedingly beautiful. The spectator appears to be traversing the Palace of Aladdin and meets in various places with the emerald leaves and jewell’d flowers of the Garden of the Lamp, and looking across the beautiful grounds to the Stables, their style, though not the same, harmonizes well with the barbaric magnificence of the Pavilion. One only regrets that its Ionic Portico could not be screened, and that a pump which stands full in view has not yet been thought worthy of ornament.

On passing into the Marlborough House, I felt as if some spell had fallen from my eyes, and changed my fairy dream to the sober realities of life, and on returning to the Pavilion, to the yet more superb apartments where we were then conducted, I exclaimed, “Abu Hassan is Caliph again!” The long gallery, the dining and drawing rooms &c. &c. are magnificent. The great defect throughout appears to be a want of height in the rooms though the new apartments are much more lofty than the old. The whole building wants dignity and grandeur to entitle it to the name of regal palace, but it is what it ought to be, and the Pavilion of a Prince, though I could wish that the outside were cased, to make its architecture agree with the interior. The Stables are of a much grander and more majestic character, and I beheld with admiration their general magnificence, the simplicity and picturesque effect of a style of architecture very little known in England and sincerely hope that no untoward accident may prevent his Royal Highness from finishing, as I was told he intends to do, the Tennis Court and Green House which formed parts of this superb design. We all agreed that the Stables might justly be called the Hall of four and twenty windows — the apartment that terminated and crowned the Palace of Aladdin to which we had likened the Pavilion. The dome is certainly the most important feature in Brighthelmstone. With the spacious Riding House, which is also of Hindu architecture, I was much pleased, though I could not enter scientifically into the construction of the roof which has been so much applauded. It is not a bad idea of some of the Brightonians, who call it a man of war with its keel turned upward.

A young Lady is not obliged to be an antiquary yet you would perhaps reprove me if I did not inform you that a few miles from Brighton are two hills of a singular form called the Devil’s Dyke. They are supposed to have been shaped by art, and to be of the number of those which the antient Britons cut into terraces to allow their scythed chariots to career upon the sides as described by Caesar. The Church of Brighthelmstone is also a curiosity. Instead of being placed in a sheltered situation within the town, and where it would be convenient for the inhabitants, it is perched much more picturesquely on the exposed brow of one of the higher downs. Tradition says that it was many times commenced in the valley, but that invisible hands destroyed every night the labours of the day and carried the stones to the hill where it now stands. It is probable that those unseen hands were in reality those of the more superstitious of the inhabitants recently converted to Christianity, and still attached to the spot consecrated by the worship of their forefathers, as many stones of peculiar form and some apparently monumental, are in the immediate vicinity of the Church, and are apparently vestiges of the Druids. One large stone in particular is placed in a basin of the same, like the pestle of a gigantic mortar. There is a beautiful font in Brighton Church.

But you will think that my letters from France would be more properly termed “Letters from Brighton”, if I do not make haste to embark on board the Eliza and set sail. We made choice of the Eliza, not only because it bears your name, but because it engaged to furnish provisions for the passengers, an engagement which is not very expensive, as few of the voyagers have much inclination for eating. The vessel however was comfortable and everyone very attentive but I shall not entertain you with the details of my nausea which surprised me the more as

Oft have I ridden on the dancing wave
And loved its roughness for the speed it gave

and felt

The waters bound beneath me as a steed
That knows his rider.

I have often heard of persons losing all care for themselves or for the future in the reckless misery of sea sickness, but till now I had rather lost them in a sensation of indefinable and indescribable pleasure, which made me equally careless of the pains or pleasures I was to expect on reaching the shore, and only anxious to prolong my voyage. None who have not thus ridden o’er the ocean can tell

Th’ exulting thrill, the pulse’s maddening play
That thrills the wanderers of her trackless way

or sympathize with Lord Byron, who in this one instance sympathizes with me.

About five o’clock the wind, which till then had carried us rapidly along, failed, and in the direction where I looked for the coast of France, and immense bank of fog spread itself out so like a range of granite mountains, that I in vain endeavoured to reconcile its appearance with all I had heard of the chalky cliffs of Dieppe. But the fog cleared up, and Dieppe, tho’ in sight, was alas! very far distant, and about ten o’clock when a boat came to put the pilot on board, we were so completely becalmed that most of the passengers embarked in it to be rowed to Dieppe, which was said to be about ten miles off. The wind would not at all swell the sails, and we had only three oars, so that we made little progress. It was impossible not to notice the unfinish’d, unpainted, disorderly appearance of the boat, or the noisy contradiction of the rowers, who were all ordering and none obeying. About three o’clock we reached Dieppe. The tide was out, and we could not get into the harbour, but remained some time beating about very unpleasantly, when a boat, apparently private property, took compassion on the ladies and landed them while the gentlemen were hoisted on the shoulders of some Gallic mermaids in whose matted locks they fixed their grasp.

But what shall I say to you of Dieppe. It was Sunday and everyone in the streets, all the women in white caps — the butterfly or the cauchoise — both which you have heard described before — blue bodies and petticoats, and wooden shoes, with manners, language and physiognomy completely anti-British, yet all looking gay and good-humoured. The men also had a foreign air, but I can scarcely tell in what it consisted. It did not depend alone on fur caps or shoe buckles. It is remarkable how much the cauchoise cap resembles the prints to Froissart’s Chronicles — a proof that the inhabitants of Normandy have not materially changed their fashions for the last 400 years. A bonnet, that indispensable article in Paris, seems here unheard of.

The houses of Dieppe have a peculiar and antiquated character. They are of stone, large and lofty, with three or four stories in the roof, forming the most picturesque groups. The streets are wide but dirty, and the whole town, especially in the neighbourhood of the basons, most delectably fragrant. There is a fine view from a bridge over the second bason, along the course of an interrupted river which divides two ranges of hills, but the country looks naked, uncomfortable and cheerless. The castle standing on a commanding height, and the cliffs which surround the harbour are the most picturesque of the inanimate objects. I was surprised to find so antiquated an air in the houses, since the original town, built by our Henry 2nd, was completely destroyed by the English bombardment in 16 and has since been reconstructed. We were at an hotel which professed to call itself English, yet how soon did we miss English comforts and conveniences. The private sitting room, the neatness, cleanliness, and decorum of our inns. The beggars clambered up to the windows to ask us for an English penny. The cooking, the staircase, the furniture, all were French, and we had already to make trial of our philosophy. These trials were, it is true, ludicrous, yet there is something sad, my dear Eliza, in the feelings of one who first bids adieu to her native land, to those features which she has thought common to all the human race, to that language which she inhaled with her earliest breath, and whose sweet tones have ever floated round her as freely as the pure air of heaven. She may be able to express herself with ease in this new tongue, but it is still strange to her mind and to her ears. She feels as if in the crowds around her, she could no longer hope to find a friend, or one who would feel the least interest about her, as if an insurmountable though transparent barrier were suddenly placed between her and her species — in short, as if she were looking at every object thro’ a coloured medium.

The principal church at Dieppe is a fine one — and the men and women were scattered about it on little bass bottomed chairs but without much seeming order or devotion. In the little chapels and before the altars, small candles seemed to blush for those who bade them vie with daylight. In one place, the only one which really needed them, was an extraordinary number of these tapers. It was a sort of cave — within which was a picture, cut out, and standing from the wall of the entombment of our saviour, which had a singular and impressive effect. An old woman who was praying near it gave us to understand by her gestures that it was a place of peculiar sanctity, but she would not speak. There are two other churches but much inferior to the Cathedral, as it was called, but I believe incorrectly. One externally resembles our architecture of Queen Elizabeth’s time, having Tuscan columns with Doric above them. The inside is old Gothic and Saxon, some parts very fine.

We of course slept at Dieppe, and could not get out of it till one next day, in a little ugly inconvenient cabriolet, our postillion, a lad of seventeen, equipped as usual in huge jackboots, flourishing his whip over his head, and cracking it incessantly except when to his great mortification it attached itself for half and hour to the cord with which the horses were harnessed.

I was disappointed in the boasted scenery from Dieppe to Rouen. The country may be fine — there was wood enough, and an agreeable interchange of hill and dale — but oh! for the rich dress of English cultivation, the winding roads, the white cottages, and umbrageous groves, the appearance of population, plenty and prosperity. The road was straight, with a row of pear or cherry trees on each side, all leaning one way. Here and there a miserable cottage but no traffic, no population. We got a dear dinner in a wretched inn, where the postillion had a great inclination to make us sleep, and set off in the dusk, after being warned of the danger of losing our baggage in the valley of Malaunay. Darkness deepened and the horses went slower as we would farther into a valley shut up with trees on each side which appeared almost endless. By daylight it must have been beautiful and was still so when the moon pierced for an instant the clouds which enveloped her. At length we left the valley, and reached something like a country town that proved to be Des Cambrai which we hoped we had long passed, and were sorry that we were not yet half way from Tostes to Rouen, a distance which in England we might have gone in about two hours. When thro the town the post boy stopped to fasten the trunks, we asked if the dangerous valley was entirely past. Non Madame, il va commencer. Il faut ici que je regarde les malles. The valley however thro’ which we now wound was sprinkled with cottages in which we felt a kind of protection, tho’ we could not answer for the disposition of their inhabitants. As we advanced, they increased, the wagons returning from work, and passengers of every description growing every minute more numerous announced our vicinity to the capital of Normandy. At length we reached a barrière where our passports were examined, and then turned off into a long avenue of stately trees, with a light shining at the end, which had much the effect of the approach to the Inn at Castle Howard. The moon too shone brightly down the avenue. We had before seen the Seine winding at a distance thro’ the country. It was now by our side, and we caught thro’ the trees a glimpse of its waters, and of the vessels and their masts. Many lamps were swung on ropes across the road, but none were lighted. Our postillion who had evidently been in great tribulation ever since we left Tostes and had never once dared to crack his whip, now resumed his noisy flourishes as we turned into the town of Rouen and rattled along its streets to the Hotel de L’Europe where we stopped just as the clock struck ten, and where I must stop too, for you must needs be tired, and so am I, besides being unwilling to lose more of a fine morning in a new town. Your affectionate cousin