Letter from France No. 3

Miss Porden

Paris — Rue de la Chausée D’Antin

Here we are, my dear Eliza, in one of the gayest quarters of this city of gaiety, but tho’ Paris crowds upon my thoughts I must shake off all her wonders to tell you how we got here.

Rouen, besides the many churches still devoted to sacred purposes, has several which havve been stripped of their ornaments during the Revolution and converted into haylofts, Bureaux des diligences &c. It was from one of them, in which the horses that drew us had before been stabled, and were now harnessed to their clumsy vehicle that we set out at four o’clock in the afternoon, in an equipage which almost baffles description. Five cart horses, fat enough to be sure, but whom nature seemed never to have intended should trot, were harnessed with ropes (two next the vehicle and three in front) to a carriage which seemed to aks the strength of Atlas to move.

One of the horses next the carriage bore the postillion, slipshod, in blue striped stockings, his feet not even in the stirrups, in a loose blue jacket and a sort of nightcap, which had it only exchanged its tassels for bells, would have well beseemed the motley jester of our antient courts. In this trim he jogged quietly on, smoking his pipe and flourishing his long carter’s whip, now over the horse at his side, now over the three which were yoked abreast before him. We had taken our places in the front or open part called the cabriolet, which is much the pleasantest for viewing the country. Its denizens never see, and may easily forget, the clumsy vehicle they are trailing behind them. Above our heads sat Monsieur the Conducteur, whose office is that of guard, or at least Chargé d’affaires, every now and then sending his legs on before him and making free use of my knee as a support, when he alighted to mend the ropes that still would break, or clog the wheels as we descended a hill. When the nature of the country made frequent attention necessary he sat upon part of the shaft before him and occasionally honoured us with a word. But strange as was our equipage we still felt our importance as being under the immediate protection of the government. Carts, horses, men, asses, pigs, and dogs — everything made way for the diligence, which moved on like an elephant and turned aside for nothing.

We had chosen the lower road to Paris, by way of Mantes. It is very beautiful. On leaving Rouen, a great range of chalk hills on the left, rises immediately above the road. Below it, on the right, is the Seine, studded with innumberable islands, and beyond the fertile plains and gently rising hills of Lower Normandy. The chalk hills on the left are remarkable for being all of nearly equal height and similar sugar loaf form. They are a range of mighty giants that seem to guard the country. One hill only, which has been quarried and rises perpendicularly from the road, reminded me of the Undercliff in the Isle of Wight. The Seine also here expanding considerably on the opposite side of the road, spreads like a lake to heighten the resemblance.

When we had passed these hills the country became more wooded and various, but still on our right

Mid hills abrupt, and woods and verdant plain
Flow’d, gemm’d with countless isles, the placid Seine
Those isles with evening’s softest radiance bright
Like emeralds floated in a lake of light.
But no bright oar disturb’d the slumbering wave
Nor white-curl’d smoke a living interest gave
In the pure air no waving branches played
No cottage rose beneath th’ embowering shade
No sound was heard, no bird its carol pours
Mix’d with the fragrance from those smiling shores.
Oh! for one touch of man’s creative hand
To warm with life the silent, lonely land.

We now ascended a tremendous hill, and beautiful was the prospect when we reached its summit. In about two hours we arrived at Pont de L’Arche. The whole town appears to be a bridge which spans and extensive morass, formed by numerous branches of the Seine. Two regular bridges, one old the other new, connect the different parts of the town, and form one elevated line across the valley. From this place to Louviers the road again is beautiful, but just as we had passed thro Louviers round turned the diligence, albeit unfitted as a crocodile for turning, and wheeled us again into the cente of the town. Here we waited nearly an hour, deeply regretting our wasted daylight, and our inability to employ its last light alike in beholding the beauties of the country, or a fine but singular church, whose majestic porch we had recently passed. At length we proceeded, but thro’ such a road! It was indeed a male passo, and required all the strength of our cumbrous tortoise machine and clumsy horses to drage us safe thro’ it. The road was quite a bog, and we swayed so much from side to side, that at every step we were all but overturned. On our right a wall was obliging ready to dash our our brains, on our left and far below a branch of the Seine spread its soft bed for our reception. Right glad were we to escape their hospitable offers and move again on Terra Firma. No Englishman would have trusted himself, his carriage, or his horses, in such jeopardy, and the French inside passengers aware of the danger, of which it was thought perfectly unnecessary to warn us, had walked through. We now overtook them and learned the cause which turned us from the usual road. A bridge was building at Louviers, and till it was completed this change of route was necessary.

Daylight was now gone, and we had to trust alone to the moon, which rose in full orbed splendour directly before us, and lighted us thro’ a very woody and seemingly delightful country. It now grew cold, and we were forced to draw the curtains of the carriage, but whenever we peeped out, we regretted this necessity and the absence of daylight. As we wound thro’ a deep wood, we asked M. le Conducteur if there were any wolves there. He said no! which I did not believe, but they must indeed be wolves of no ordinary courage that would attack the diligence. At last, however, we got tired of the everlasting Seine, always by our side at the right or left, and heartily glad were we, when at three o’clock in the morning, instead of one, as we had been given to expect, we stopped at the Grand Cerf at Mantes. All were in bed, but the chambermaid with great alacrity and good humour rose and procured us everything we wanted, while the master reanimated the dying embers.

The next morning we walked out. The day was sultry, but of cloudless beauty, and the town for a wonder clean. It reminded us both of Stamford and Beverley. The first it resembles by its bridges, its white houses, and the uneveness of the ground, and it forms with Rouen nearly the same contrast that the quiet, cleanliness, and gentility of Beverley does to the bustle of Hull. The church is fine, but not equal to some of those at Rouen. A beautiful white figure of the virgin and child stands in a niche at the end of the Lady Chapel, on a blue ground studded with stars, above which a stream of daylight fell picturesquely, though not very naturally, on the figure. The effect from the quire is celestial. On one side of the church is also a chapel filled with a representation of Mount Calvary. The mountain is composed of shells like a grotto, with an angel kneeling at the feet of the crucified Saviour. The sculpture of both is very good. The mass was performing, and the men and women, but chiefly the latter, occupied their chairs without any order in the body of the church. Near the altar stood three or four boys. Two of them had occasion to approach the high altar while we were there, which they did, dropping for an instant on one knee, both in going and returning. I wondered that practice had not taught them to do it more gracefully. Two men richly dressed walked backwards and forwards before the altar, chanting the service, but at the same time blowing their noses and spitting on the pavement.

We wanted a cabriolet to convey us to Paris, for the diligences passed at unseasonable hours. We were directed to a M. Philibert who first agreed to take us for 24 francs, then found out he could not take our baggage, which was very light, but he would send it by the diligence, then said he could take it in a larger cabriolet with 2 hourses for 36 francs. We agreed, for we were in his power, and fixed to set out at 10 next morning. He then asked five francs to close the bargain, for he said that when the carriage was all ready and the time come, if we were hopped off, where was his remedy. My guardian was very angry but forced to submit. He told the man he did not know the honour of an Englishman, but this custom of earnest we found was not unusual. The shuffling M. Philibert revenged himself for our anger. When the carriage was at the door, and we were in it, we found that two men were to sit on the outside before us with the driver. We were to have the dedans for ourselves, but M. Philibert had thought it still his right to let the dehors as he pleased. The dedans was indeed more than we wanted, for it had seats for six persons. It was in fact M. Philibert’s diligence, which out to have set out at six in the morning, but having no other passengers he had detained it, and made us pay for the whole.

The country was beautiful, but accompanied by the everlasting Seine, narrowing as we advanced, but still varied with numerous islands. In the fields we saw women holding two or three cows in a string, which they allowed to graze on the little strips of grass which divided the crops of corn or beans in the unenclosed fields. But these were rare occurrences, and these cows, carefully restrained from intruding on the corn of their neighbours, were highly privileged above their race, in this country usually confined to the stable. We were now near Paris yet no carriages, no cattle, no bustle of business and population, seemed to announce the metropolis of a great empire. No country villas, and no superior cultivation. We passed thro’ St Germain, but had not time to see the palace, and indeed the heat was so great as absolutely to unfit us for exertion. We laughed at the clumsy machines erected on the Seine at Marly, for conveying water to Versailles. They block up the river, and waste a world of timber to do what one steam engine might effect with ease.

We entered Paris by the Champs Elysée and the Place Louis Quinze, and if Paris in all its quarters fulfilled the expectations raised by this unrivalled entrance, it would indeed be the most magnificent city in the world. The Champs Elysée are extensive groves of elms, in the shade of which the Parisian belles and their attendant cavaliers sat on the ground, enjoying their fruit or their ices, and realizing the poetic dreams of pastoral life. On our right as we advanced rose the Chambre des Deputés, with its grand portico, the hospital and the gilded dome of the Invalides. On the left the beautiful though less imposing mansions of the guard meuble. We passed by the boasted quays of Paris, which are indeed beautiful, but beautiful because they are useless. We looked on at least four bridges. We inhaled the balmy fragrance of the gardens of the Tuileries, and forget in the impression of general grandeur their sickening formality and the barbarous taste of the Palace. We turned up the Place Vendome with its lofty columns, and thence thro’ the Rue de la Paix to the Boulevards, where again a new scene awaited us. The trees which adorn them are much less majestic than at Rouen, but they contrast finely with the whiteness and grandeur of the edifices on either side. While the crowds thronging in every direction amid double rows of stalls spread on the foot paths, with lace, jewelry, fruits and flowers, make the whole a perpetual fair, and form one of the gayest scenes I ever witnessed. Yet I have now been here long enough to feel that much of the spell is fallen from my eyes. I can perceive that the streets in general are narrow, intricate, and dirty. That much of meanness lurks beneath this outward gorgeous robe, and that notwithstanding all that in her public edifices we must concede to Paris, the fitness, the undoubted prosperity, and the finished neatness of our own less obtrusive but more really splendid capital will please the longest and the last. Conscious of her wealth and worth, London does not obtrude them on the stranger, but he who sees may find in the unblazon’d efforts of her private individuals, works of magnificence which even Paris cannot rival, tho’ an uncontrolled mind has expended on her the wealth of a nation.

The Rue de la Chausée D’Antin, one of the most fashionable in Paris and therefore chosen as the residence of the Hermit who bears its name turns immediately out of the Boulevards, and looks up to Montmartre crown’d with windmills. We have here two very good apartments. Mine in particular, though a bedroom, is so spacious and handsomely furnished, and its oaken floor so brighly polished, that I am quite pleased with it. My guardian’s, the next to it, has only a tiled floor, but that is of no importance here. Both these apartments communicate with the unfurnished and stone floor’d chamber, in which we meet at dinner the other inhabitants of the house. For we have thought it more convenient for us, and more comfortable to our English ideas, to put ourselves en pension, than to be constantly obliged to see our meals at a restaurant.

The fineness of the evening tempted us to the Boulevards, and it had tempted thousands. They seemed like a large Vauxhall, more diffused tho’ not so brilliant. The cafés were gaily lighted and look most tempting. That Des Italiens in particular wooed us by the glass chandeliers that glittered at a distance, and the softened strains of music breathing thro’ the passage that led to it. We strolled in, and found a large apartment in form resembling a theatre, tho’ neither pit not gallery were divided by benches. The walls were well decorated, and liberally graced with looking glasses. On what appeared the stage, sat several musicians, who struck up God Save the King, to compliment the entrance of our English party. In what resembled the pit, or in the gallery round, sat each at a small marble table the numerous parties, formed not less of gentlemen than of ladies waving their white plumes or wreaths of roses whose artificial bloom vied with the delicate tints of nature, as they sipped their coffee, their lemonade, or their ponche a la romaine, flaming like the enchanted bowl of a magician. Nor were the enjoyments of those on the Boulevards confined to air and exercise alone. Chairs might be hired for a sous, and a peach bought for another, while the neighbouring cafés were ready to spread their little tables with whatever the caprice of Parisian beauty might require. To an Englishwoman, always accustomed to domestic enjoyment, this habit of living and doing everything in the open air forms a singular contrast and gives an air of gaiety and independence, at once convenient and fascinating to the stranger. This is indeed a city for travellers for every object of curiosity or amusement is laid open to them with unexampled liberality — a liberatlity not always extended to the natives.

Yesterday — Thursday, August 15th — was the Assumption of the Virgin and the Voeu de Louis Treize, one of the most important of the numerous fêtes of Paris. We went to hear High Mass at Notre Dame in the morning. This cathedral, imposing from its size and venerable aspect, is in its architecture certainly inferior to the churches of Rouen. Like them it has five aisles and the circular end before noticed. In this circular end, that is in the gallery above and behind the high altar, we got excellent places, and looked down on the whole ceremony and saw besides the entire extent of the church, and the people with which the nave was crowded. A number of priests officiated in their richest robes, the music swelled along the aisles, and the incense flung from silver censers mounted even to our elevated station. The ceremony is certainly magnificent, but I did not feel much devotion in it. I never enter a cathedral without a feeling of awe and veneration, assure as it were of the presence of the Being to whom it is dedicated, but so completely was this feeling destroyed by the appearance of acting, the moving from one place to another, the carrying the tapers up and down, the swinging the censers (an office both difficult and laborious), the kissing the Bible, &c. &c., that really I had looked on for a long time as I should at any other show, before I recollected that it was a religious ceremony. Is this want of habit, is it something peculiar in me, or is it really the nature of the ceremony. I own I like the splendour of Catholic worship. I like the magnificence of the dress, the decoration of the altar, the fine pictures and sculpture, and I would fain unite much of this splendour with our solemn simplicity, our fervour, our devotion of the heart, and also our decorum, which teaches not to eat, drink, or spit in our most sacred temples.

When High Mass was finished we took the Pantheon or Church of St Genevieve as an interlude. It is a most beautiful building and must have been still more so before the architect found himself obliged to turn some of its open space into four massive pillars. The majestic piles of other days, at least what remains to us of the Grecian, the Roman, and the Gothic structures, will long I hope be preserved by the care of posterity; yet they are fading and must one day be levelled with the dust. I am therefore rejoiced, be it in what corner of the Earh it may, when I see a building like the Church of St Genevieve, still fair in youthful vigour, and bidding defiance to centuries to come. I like to feel that there is something which will prove to posterity the existence, the power, and the riches of their forefathers.

I like the arrangements of the tombs under this church tho’ I could not feel much reverence for some of the characters they enclose. Many of them — Rousseau’s for instance — are only models of painted wood, and I think it a doubt whether the stone monuments will now ever replace them. This crypt is of the Tuscan order, and though not heavy in its way, contrasts well with the graceful lightness of the Corinthian superstructure.

We returned to Notre Dame for the procession, making our way with some difficulty thro’ the crowd, and the National Guard. We were indeed indebted to the politeness of one of the Garde du corps. We got chairs by the side of the middle aisle from which we saw very well on standing up. Not only the streets along which the procession was to pass, but the middle aisle of Notre Dame was lined with the National Guard, who bye the bye take their arms into the Church at all times. We waited near two hours for the procession. The Members of the Royal Family and great officers entered privately and did not appear till it began. The first and most pleasing part of the sight was at least 200 girls, who had been then admitted to communion. They were all in white, the emblem of purity, with white veils, and many of them with garlands of white flowers and white nosegays. A few nuns marshalled them, and they went out two and two, some pretty little girls not more than five or six years old leading the way. Then followed the Bishops, and the silver image of the Madonna and Child, the grateful offering for the birth of Louis the 14th. Next came the bodyguard of Monsieur who followed and after him the whole of the Royal Family except the King — but the anxiety to see the Duchesse de Berri was so great we could hardly get a peep. After these came what appears to answer to our law and city officers &c. We got out as soon as we could, not wishing to wait the return of the procession and made our way with great difficulty thro’ a solid mass of people, streaming on both sides of the Quay. Some of these gave us great proofs of the politeness of Parisian mobs. We saw plenty of Gens d’Armerie, a sort of mounted Bow Street Officers. I do not much like their looks nor those of the National Guard. The uniforms of the Body Guard of the King and of Monsieur are very handsome and they look like what they are — gentlemen noblesse. All the others have something farouche about them.

We got home about 6 o’clock as heartily tired as you must be with this long epistle, so no more at present from

your affectionate Cousin