Letter from France No. 2

Miss Porden

Rouen. Hotel de L’Europe
August 1816

The chamber to which we were led on our arrival here, my dear Eliza, is a specimen of French luxury, but a la mode de France. It is at once a bedroom and hall of audience. It size is more than ample, there are three windows on each side, the tables are of black marble, the looking glasses, which almost hide the walls, are of a size not often seen in England, the chairs and sofa are of massy fabric and covered with crimson velvet, and the bed, light and elegant in its form, is one of the least prominent of the articles of furniture, so that notwithstanding its repugnance to all English ideas, I am no sooner engaged in writing or working than I almost forget its presence. But alas! with all this magnificence we have no carpet. The floor is of little pieces of oak fitted together in sort of square pattern, or parquet, as it is called, and this is polished so assiduously with wax that I fear at every step I take lest my broken limbs bear testimony to the industry of the artist, who fixing his brush upon his naked foot, comes every morning to dance it to a brighter polish. So much for this room, or chambre aux Dames. As for my guardian’s, I must not waste much gorgeous language on it — anything here seems to be considered good enough for a gentleman (man, I ought to say, for I already perceive that a gentleman is a rarity in France) and he is mounted into a shabby sky parlour on the eighth story. I also have left the above splendid apartment for one less grand but very good aux troisième. Little use is made in this country of the rez de chaussée or ground floor, except in stabling and offices. The entresol which is next attained is the abode of the family and servants, and has the room appropriated to the Table D’Hôte — the premier or first floor, in reality the second, is too expensive for us, the seconde is let, and so here I am, at a height superior to that of a London attic, and yet considered as in the lower part of the house — you will laugh perhaps, but I feel it no laughing matter when I come in fatigued by a long walk and a broiling sun.

The morning after my arrival I was awakened at four o’clock by the busy hum of men and on looking out discovered that our hotel was in the middle of a market, where the women sat under the shade of their large fixed umbrellas, retailing their fruit, flowers, clothes, &c. In the middle of the group was a young woman who was giving an account of the wonderful feats of juggling she intended to exhibit, while a man accompanied her speech with his fiddle. The noise of a hundred voice, all jabbering in a language not familiar to my ears, the grotesque appearance of the Norman costume, the red and purple umbrellas, the brilliant hues of the flowers, and the large piles of ripe melons sold whole or by the slice, gave to the scene a gaiety and novelty extremely pleasing while the delightful fragrance of the carnations, and the orange blossoms were doubly grateful in preventing the intrusion of less balmy odours. With a manful disdain of guides and commissionaires we sallied forth after breakfast — alone — and soon lost ourselves in the labyrinth of the intricate city. But I will carry you a shorter road than we took to the principal buildings &c. We blundered first into the Church of St John which has been sadly injured dans la Revolution, but is now repaired, and as we entered, the workmen all laid down their tools to contemplate such extraordinary animals, but on the whole we found the people very civil, and fond of showing any scraps of English they had acquired. “London wash more fine than Rouen,” said one, but he had never been there. We next went to the Cathedrale, whose solemn walls sheltered us from the glare and heat of a burning sun. It is a noble building both within and without. It has five aisles and the circular end common to French churches and is spacious and lofty, but the pillars of the quire are, as I have since perceived to be here universally the case, an older style than the nave and transepts. They are of a sort of debased Corinthian, less clumsy than what we in England call the Saxon, but have something of the same character. The pillars of the nave appear to have been originally the same, but to have had a few colonnets (if I may coin a word) added round them to transform them into Gothic. I think I have not yet seem a specimen of a regular clustered column. The spire and turretted towers of the front are beautifully light, as is an open gallery over the majestic entrance, but the right hand is not quite completely complete. When we entered a marriage was performing in the sacristy and we went directly to the quire. We saw the spot where the heart of Richard de Coeur was deposited to the right of the grand altar. He bequeathed his heart to the city which he loved, but his body rests at Fontevraud, at the feet of his father. On the other side of the altar is the grave of Henry, elder brother of Richard and behind it, that of the Duke de Betford, who burned the Maid of Orleans when Regent of France. Next to the Cathedral in importance and I think in simplicity and grandeur, is the Church of St Ouen. It is much loftier, of a very good style of Gothic architecture and nearly all of one age. I did not feel the claims of York Minster shaken by the Cathedral, but they perhaps might, by the Church of St Ouen.

We dined this day at the Table D’Hôte which has not given us a very high idea either of French cookery or politeness, and hot as was the day, our feet were chilled by the stone floor of the apartment. Just after we entered, and man of uncommon stature and handsome features, but with a marked expression of scorn and ferocity, came in, and after walking briskly about the room, and giving a scornful glance at the company, snatched up his plate, turned it, and flung it again on the table, to secure his place. There was nothing military in his dress, yet I was sure he must have been a Colonel of the Imperial Guard, from his ferocity, and christened him M. Le Loup. To each plate was placed a napkin and a roll about eighteen inches long and three in diameter — all crust, and hollow-hearted like a Frenchman. There was besides an enormous flat loaf of pain aigre or pain de menage from which those who had exhausted their allowance cut enormous slices at discretion. Discretion was also allowed with respect to the draught cider, which was placed in liberal measures on the table, but it tasted like dirty water, and we preferred paying for our wine. Mine host sat in the middle of one side, helped every dish and did his utmost to be civil, freely doling to each their portion of soup, or rather of stewed crust and cabbage, which came first, in an enormous tureen, in solitary grandeur. The soup was eaten in peace, but M. Le Loup soon disturbed the tranquility. He asked the waiter for some sauce, and the unfortunate boy brought him a wrong one, on which he immediately began to lecture mine host. He told him he was a thief. He took people’s money to instruct their children in the trade, and taught them nothing. His waiters would know no more after they had been with him two years, than the first day they entered the house (the waiters laughed). If they were once told the names of the dishes, and shown the proper courses, they would never forget them. The host parried his attacks with great good humour, but the Colonel went on, speaking very loud and engrossing the conversation; now thumping the table, now flourishing the empty plate, now his formidable knife, and now his long pig of bread with which he rammed the table like a pavier. He told mine host that he was a slave, and he would die a slave — he was fit for nothing better. He himself had been eight years with a marchand and had been taught nothing, but in three months at his uncle’s he had learnt his business. He was master of it all. He turned soldier. There he was taught properly. The soldiers were people who were properly taught their trade. “And a pretty trade it is,” said the host, “to do as much harm as you can to your fellow men.” — “Our fellow men! Are they not our enemies, the English, the Russians, the Prussians,” said he with a look of ineffable scorn. He continued talking on, and at last flourished his knife with so much earnestness that my guardian, who sat next to him, moved to avoid l’eloquence de son couteau.

After dinner we went to the theatre — of good form, and once handsomely fitted up, but now dingy and dirty. The form of Drury Lane Theatre, and the columns on the stage, were combined with the pigeon holes of Covent Garden, here called le Paradis. The admission to the front boxes, first circle, and to the Parquet, or space with seats next to the orchestra, is three francs. We were in the box next to the front, the front box being lined with crimson velvet and reserved for the governor and his lady, who is and Englishwoman. There are little latticed boxes behind these which are private, and it had a very odd effect to look back and see persons peeping out of a hole over our heads. The house was not full. In the parterre the people, all men, and chiefly military, stood during the performance. Between every act it was empty. We were amused to see Le Loup at a distance, talking to a lady and playing L’Agneau. He smoothed his ferocious brow and tried to look soft and gentle, like a surly dog blinking in the sunshine. The actors were not very good, before the end of the play something being said about the clemency of the king, a man in the parterre began flourishing his hat and singing Vive Le Roi, till the audience, who at first applauded, seemed to tire of his over loyalty. Towards the close I met with an accident, in changing my place to be nearer a French lady whom we had found very pleasant. The seat which was awkwardly hooked on gave way, and we sunk with it to the floor but soon rose to join in the laugh of the whole audience.

Next morning we had a pleasant walk on the port, under a majestic avenue of elms. We visited the bridge of boats, admired the beautiful isle de moreque (Isle of Muck!) and went up to a stupendous chalk cliff which overhangs the road to Paris. This was one of the most pleasing and richest views I have seen in France. It appears a favourite promenade, and the vessels which thickly stud the river, here as wide as the Thames, make an English heart feel almost at home. The French appear always to live in the air, and their cheerful countenances and grotesque costume give a delightful gaiety to scenes as beautiful by nature as the Port of Rouen. In our way we amused ourselves with glancing at an open theatre scarcely bigger than a watchbox where two men seemed performing various antic parts. Four large Tuscan columns, which seemed intended for a portico, stood detached before it, and appeared to mourn their disunion.

We now took a cabriolet to the Hill of St Catherines, a montagne of tremendous height and steepness which rises at the end of the port by the Barrière d’Octroy on the road to Paris. We were obliged to make many windings to attain the summit, among the ruins of an ancient fort, which must have been almost impregnable before the use of artillery. It has been surrounded by fosse upon fosse, and wall upon wall, and must even now be a very strong position since it commands the port, and the whole town of Rouen. The top of the hill appears exactly in a line with the extreme point of the spire of the Cathedral.

We had been obliged to leave our cabriolet, not before we had broken our rope harness, and run great danger of being overturned in a slough, but the fatigue of our walk was amply compensated by the fine view that opened upon us. The whole town of Rouen, with its numerous churches, particularly the Cathedral and St Ouen, the Fauxbourgs de Deville, et de St Sever (celebrated for the manufacture of cotton stuffs in imitation of our ginghams, called Rouenneries). The Colline des Malades, the port with its numerous vessels, the boulevards with their thick rows of stately elms that having replaced the antient fosse and walls, entirely surround the town; The Valley of Malaunay; the Seine with its silvery windings and numerous islands; the ample plain thro’ which it meanders; the distant hills of lower Normandy — and behind the spectator, the Hill of St Catherines itself, broken into a thousand varied forms by the ruins of the fort formed together a panorama of great beauty and interest.

On our way to St Catherines we met a pretty positive proof that we were not in England. Just after we had passed the Barrière we saw over a door about fifty wolves heads, some recently placed there, some much decayed. Our driver told us that chasseurs lived there, and that their activity had very much diminished the wolves in this province.

On our return M. Le Loup who snuffed the feast, was waiting in the passage but was so far humanized as to raise his hat as we passed. He wore his sheep’s clothing at dinner, but it sometimes sat awkwardly upon him and sometimes the paw peeped out. We has some new faces at the Table D’Hôte. One young man I was inclined to think well of, for he looked almost like an Englishman and an elderly gentleman — the only Frenchman I have seen deserving the name. A new actor whom we had seen the night before was spoken of and it was generally remarked that he was deaf. At length said Le Loup, “Il est sourd comme un anglois,” then seeming to recollect himself he turned to my guardian with an apology, saying he did not mean it to him &c. But my guardian verified the proverb, for he heard neither the speech nor the excuse.

I am sorry, my dear Lavinia, not to have a better hero to present you than this Le Loup, yet ferocious as he is, I have had a debate with an English lady who thinks him a perfect Antinous and called on me to witness the resemblance. He is more a Conrad or a Captain of Banditti. He is however eloquent, and yesterday made a sensible speech. He said the Revolution was certainly a terrible thing but that so much was now said on both sides it was impossible to judge. It was only when all the actors were dead that it could be fairly estimated.

In the dusk of the evening we went into the Cathedral. The service was performing in the sacristy and had a solemn effect but we regretted that the building was not better lighted. We paid more than we need for our chairs thro’ ignorance, and did not return to our hotel till it was quite dark. While in our first magnificent apartment we had had plenty of wax and candles in silver sticks, but having since exchanged it we had only one dirty tallow candle in a brass stick. We asked to have a pair. By excess of attention three waiters obeyed at once and we had five. Justin, a good-natured man, with a laughing face, entered with the two last, et se mit à rire. We had some difficulty in settling which we should keep, especially as the French wine had produced on my guardian’s English head, and inverse effect to that it is usually supposed to have, and he could only see four. At length we put one out, keeping two lighted, and sent away the other two. But as Justin was going out with these, my guardian unthinkingly snuffed them out, and left to find his way along the intricate passages in the dark. Justin laughed, paused a moment, and then proved his strange conception of the Lex Talionis by setting down the two extinguished candles and walking quietly off with the two that were lighted.

This morning we had a whimsical adventure, not worth recording, but as it is illustrative of French manners. The doors in France all open by a latch within and a key on the outside. This key we took in as usual at night, but going out in haste in the morning shut the door after us and forgot the key. When we returned we found ourselves most ingeniously locked out of our chamber, and literally prisoners at large.

In our walk this morning we have taken leave of the Cathedral and visited St Maclou, a small but interesting church. We have been in treaty with a man to convey us in a handsome carriage to Paris, but he shuffled and hesitated so much that we have discarded him — to the great disappointment of a waiter here, who I am sure was to be remembered for making the bargain.

We have been to see the statue of the Maid of Orleans in the Place Pucelle, near the Vieux Marché, it is a colossal figure on a pedestal of considerable size, and has been of good sculpture but is much injured by weather. Near this place is the Rue de la Pie, and the house is still shown that was rendered memorable by the accident which forms the plot of the Maid and the Magpie. The poor girl was hung before the truth was discovered.

In half an hour we quit this interesting city, where in spite of its narrow and ill-built streets, one cannot stir without running against some magnificent building or stately avenue. There appears to be no difference of class here. Every house is that of a marchand. The French call us a nation of shopkeepers, but to judge from Rouen they better deserve the title. There seems no genteel end of the town tho’ we yesterday got into a sort of Wapping. The French seem very fond of animals. The cats are particularly sleek and fat, and have all the politesse so vaunted by the grande Nation.

One thing only we have missed seeing. The Hotel De Ville, which being opposite to us we could not remember. The building is fine externally and there is a collection of pictures within, but I have heard it slightingly spoken of — but you are weary and I must pack. My next shall be from Paris.

your affectionate