Letter from France No. 4

Miss Porden

Paris — August 1817

Well Eliza, this is indeed an enchanted city, for though I keep every day exclaiming how tired I am! or how stupid was yesterday’s fête! I cannot break the spell or stay one day quietly at home. It would be an endless task to describe all our sightseeing, yet I must tell of some principal objects. The Sunday before last was the only day in the year when the Great Waters play at Versailles, so tout le monde was there and we could not be absent. The road is beautiful. The noble buildings of Paris embellish its commencement, and when they are lost, the manufactory at Sevres, the woods and palace of St Cloud and afterwards those of Versailles open on the view. The Bois de Boulogne, so long the seat of the English camp, the small white cottage where Blucher reluctantly signed the Capitulation of Paris, and even the house where Mrs Jordan expired, are interesting to English feelings. The entrance view of Versailles does not please me. It seems a set of irregular offices, extensive enough, but without grandeur or regularity. The old part, the hunting seat of Louis Treize and the part added by Louis Quatorze, and decorated partout with white busts is very bad, but workmen are now embellishing this front with some handsome pieces of modern architecture. The front to the garden is very extensive, and of good architecture, but the centre wants height, and the whole variety. The formality of the gardens, and above all of the Orangery, is indeed sickening. A strongly picturesque building might perhaps have contrasted with them, but the tame character of the Chateau requires more winding walks and umbrageous groves. The inside of the Palace is richly gilt, but unfurnished. It tired us at first by a long succession of apartments all white and gold, of one pattern — but the painted ceilings of the halls of Apollo Diana, and a half a hundred other divinities, and above all the grande galerie de glace, painted by Le Brun, are of almost unrivalled magnificence. But painted ceilings give me a pain in my neck, and I abused these before I had paid my tribute of applause to half the allegorical victories of Louis Quatorze. The Chapel is a grand building, and the Theatre remarkable for its extent and loftiness, but all is desolate and unfinished. There are many paintings piled up in the Theatre, some bad some good. A tolerable one of Anne of Austria, and close to it, a miserable daub of Henri Quatre when a boy. We now went to the Grand Trianon. Here are some beautiful chairs, of the Gobelins manufacture, some splendid chandeliers, fine pictures and furniture, but nothing that equalled what I had been taught to expect. In one room there is a well table of Malachite nearly three feet in diametre, and two pedestals of candelabra of the same. They were presented by the Emperor Alexander, and are I should think almost unrivalled. The Petit Trianon has nothing remarkable but the chamber, first of Marie Antoinette, next of Josephine, and now of the Duchesse D’Angoulême. The Theater is handsome, and the gardens, planned in the English style by the taste of Marie Antoinette and sacred to her memory, are delightful after the formality of French Cheesecake. They do not however rival Stowe or Studley nor in my opinion is Castle Howard equalled by all the pomp of Versailles. At Castle Howard the statues are finer, the gardens and woods much more grand, and in far better taste, while the house if small by comparison is far more picturesque. Fountains are in general but splendid toys, and it requires and Italian or Iberian sun to give them all their charm. I prefer to see the water

Not to the skies in useless columns tost,
Or in proud falls magnificently lost,
But clear and artless, pouring through the plain
Health to the sick and solace to the swain.

Yet I am glad to have seen the waterworks at Versailles and especially that grand scene where above 60 streams play into one bason, among pieces of majestic sculpture, and a living scene as gay as that presented by the banks of the Serpentine at the Grand Naumachia. To my mind, elephants and whales or dolphins are the only animals that can with propriety be employed as fountains, as in whatever way the water is made to issue from others, the idea is disgusting. But here in every corner were fountains in the very acme of dutch taste — wolves and bears squirting at each other, and a hundred frogs spitting at Latona.

We had not long contemplated this spectacle, when on a sudden we turned, and all had vanished like a dream. The fountains, and those the smaller ones only, play for about ten minutes once a month, and reminded me of some lines of Mason describing such spurts of occasional magnificence.

Then down the formal stairs
It leaps with short-lived fury, wasting there.
Poor Prodigal! what many a summer’s shower
And many a winter’s rain shall late restore.

I was somewhat disappointed that the water from all these jets was not collected into one grand cascade, instead of passing unheard and unseen away.

One of the jets was remarkably high, and the water, instead of falling back into the bason, dissipated itself in mist, like the cascade described in Bowles’s Missionary.

And the proud Cataract that bursts so high,
As not to mar the deep tranquillity
And stealing drop by drop, in mist descends.

As soon as the fountains had vanished, the thousands that were collected to admire them vanished also, and we returned to Paris to finish the evening at the Café des Italiens. We were here much amused with an Algerine in the dress of his country, who tempted us very ingeniously with his perfumed amulet. He had been drinking his coffee in as much state as any of the company when suddenly he rose and brought his little shop round to every party. He spoke English, French, and Italian with us, all with fluency and humour. I understand he is a well known character, very clever, and teaches all the oriental languages. We had found he was well versed in those of the West. He generally frequented the Café des Mille Colonnes but la belle Limonadiére was now in the country, and it was deserted.

I dare say you think my letters uncommonly stupid or perhaps you are lost in wonder that I should have been so long in this country of all gallantry, and not have treated you with one “melting story of true love.” Alas! Eliza, France is sadly changed, and if I give you one I must go to the Catacombs to seek it. Nay! do not be alarmed. The catastrophe was not quite so serious as this locality may imply, and as I was not the heroine — why — tant mieux. One rainy day we obtained a ticket to visit these vast excavations, and on driving to the Porte d’Enfer, which wondrous to tell our coachman had great difficulty to find, we perceived a large party assembled. The English, if we believe the French, have always had a taste for such places, and therefore you will not wonder if we met many of our countrymen, and among them, many private friends, with whom we had sought a rencontre amid all the gaieties of Paris in vain. Well, we each armed ourselves with a lighted wax taper, and prepared to quit the light of day. Our party increased every moment, as one by one we descended the winding flight of steps which led to these antient quarries, supported by pillars of stone, sometimes merely rude stones piled one upon the other till they reached the roof. As yet I thought we had seen nothing to appal the most nervous, but a young English damsel now fainted most picturesquely, and M. Le Conducteur grumbled as sublimely. He felt it impossible to leave her there by herself and proceed. It was equally disagreeable to waste his valuable moments in returning with her. But a young man, whose dress proclaimed him of the Garde du Corps, sprang to her assistance and advocated her cause so powerfully that the guide relented, and while leaning on the arm of her champion she slowly withdrew, and we waited, with spirits no wise damped, the return of our conductor. He brought back a fresh party, and we were by this time nearly 60. We proceeded rather rapidly, and soon arrived at the place where the bones taken from the different churchyards of Paris begin to be piled on each side, and we met at every turn with altars of skulls, and Latin and French inscriptions over them, all appropriate, and many exceedingly elegant. In the days of the Revolution its impious principles had invaded the Catacombs but have been since expelled, for we did not meet with one objectionable motto. I do not know whether the largeness of our party might tend to produce the effect, but I seemed to feel that these immense ranges of bones made less impression on me from their very number. I should have been more affected by two or three skeletons or a single skull well placed than with all this parade of death. Yet I should much like to go thro’ the Catacombs again with only one or two persons. In some parts the ground was very wet, and the drops fell on us from the ceiling, which in one place was gemmed with stalactites, but in general the free burning of our tapers so numerous as to cause an illumination in these regions of darkness, proved the purity of the air, while our feelings attested its warmth. In one place our party divided, and we met again by different routes. On every side we saw passages branching off to other parts of the Labyrinth, in which we were guided by a black streak along the ceiling. We made a circuit, and returned by the same gate at which we had descended.

The Catacombs were formerly much more extensively shewn, but we were told that the falling in of several parts had rendered farther progress dangerous. But what, you will say, is become of the fainting damsel and her gallant. We found her quite recovered and chatting with him over a good fire and some eau de vie, which strange to tell (no! not at all strange in France) he permitted her to pay for. He had accompanied a party to the Catacombs, and as a warrior durst not acknowledge a fear, but it was plain that his courage did not weigh a grain more than that of his companion, and that he rejoiced at any excuse that allowed him honourably to quit those dreary abodes.

He sighed, and spelt for an invitation to accompany us farther, but our coaches were full and we would not take the hint. We therefore proceeded to the Val de Grace and saw its fine Church, now converted into a magazine for military clothing. The ceiling is painted, and the canopy and columns which surround the altar resemble those of St Peters at Rome. We next went to the Hôpital des Enfants-trouvés close by, and were much amused by the sight of so many lines of neat clean cradles, all ready, and many of them tenanted. One child had been found and received that morning, and the superieure told me they had 3500 this year. I suspected her of some exaggeration. The Chapelaine of this society, also one of the Sisters of Charity, was we understood exceedingly beautiful; but were were not permitted to see la belle Religieuse.

We next went to the larger establishment in the Grande Rue du Fauxbourg St Antoine, and saw the children now employed in sticking leather for carding cotton, sorting gum-arabic, shoemaking, &c. The girls were chiefly at needlework. Their dormitories are very large and have each four rows of small beds, very neat and clean, in which the children sleep singly. We saw their dining halls. The plates and goblets are pewter. Many both of boys and girls were in the Chapel and the priest was teaching her catechism to a pleasing girl of about twelve years old.

But where is my romance? All in due time, my dear. Nay, you need not peep to the end of the paper, for you will be no wiser till you come to it in due course.

We went the next morning with a party among which was the fair Decima (my heroine, a tenth child) to see the King at Mass. We were too late and he was just going out. The carriage and harness England would have called shabby and our Lord Mayor would have spurned. The horses, 8 in number, were very fine, but the prettiest part of the scene was the different dresses of various corps of military who seemed to have their representatives in attendance. Two or three of the King’s own guard, 2 of the national guard, 3 cuirassiers, one lancer and four Swiss, though had they all been of one corp the cortege would have seemed more respectable. The carriage drove under the gallery, and the King, seemingly in good health, entered it. We immediately went into the Tuilleries. The rooms are large, and much of the furniture has been splendid, but on the whole I thought they looked naked, faded, and dirty. One room that we entered had the chapel on one side, and the theatre on the other — a national trait. As we passed thro’ the Salles des Marechaux Decima was stopped by the gallant Blondel, for his interesting name may as well pop out at once. He inquired after her health and proffered her his services to obtain us admission wherever we wished, and managed matters so well that my guardian gave him his card.

Next day he called. Decima and her mother were out and he was ushered to my guardian who, not conversing readily in French, called me in as an interpreter. I thought Blondel looked disappointed, but the length of his visit gave no proof that he thought my conversation tedious. My patience was exhausted, dinner was nearly ready, my drawing room was my dressing room also, and I wished to nettoyer un peu. I gave hints, and I fidgeted, but no — the faithful swain lingered as fondly as his namesake beneath the window of his imprison’d sovereign. At length dinner was on the table, and we were forced to expel him by a promise to avail ourselves of his interest, to obtain us (and our friends) a sight of the King at Mass. We went, and the lovely Decima tho’ always feigning disgust when his name was mentioned, adjusted her white sarcenet spencer with peculiar grace and discarded her bonnet for a French cap in which she thought she would appear to more advantage in a French man’s eyes — but Blondel’s interest was not equal to his good will, and after all, we were indebted to another for admission.

Next day he called again. Decima was in her chambre with her mother. So was I. I cannot say it was bien propre but the door was wide open and he entered without ceremony. Decima’s mother spoke not a word of French, and not withstanding Blondel fancied he could understand her and reply with the aid of a dictionary. I thought it would be a relief to the young lady if I remained — perhaps my good nature was stimulated by perceiving that he wished me away. We were all going to the Royal Manufactory of the Gobelins, and found no alternative between turning him out, and asking him to accompany us. The offer was accepted with transport, and as he rode along, the enamoured swain contrived to make an offer of his heart and hand to Decima. Whether by mistake or bashfulness before strangers, or what I know not, but he was rejected, and the catastrophe followed immediately. The fiâcre stopped at the Gobelins. The coachman opened one door for us to descend, but Blondel, between anguish and confusion, attempted his exit by the other. Unhappy swain — he fell — he measured his gigantic length in the Boue de Paris and put an end to — his trousers. He rose at length, and Decima, anxious to repair the ills she had occasioned, covered each unseemly rent with her embroidered shawl, and led him thro’ the Gobelins. We were much pleased with them. Their effect seems to equal that of painting without the glare of varnish. The manufacturers were at work darning or weaving in the colours on threads all stretched one way. Many tapestry pictures, not very recent but very good, were on the walls, and many much finer in progress, particularly a series from the History of Henry 4th all for Versailles. We were told that four years are necessary to complete a picture. And now before you bid him farewell for ever, will not you say with me — Alas! poor Blondel!

My letter is already long yet I must tell you of last Sunday. In the morning we visited several churches and in that of the Oratoire, where the Protestant service was performed, saw the only respectable congregation we had witnessed in France. After Mr Guyp’s excellent sermon we drove to St Maur to visit and English family who had insisted on our spending the day with them and joining the village dance. In spite of the fête at St Cloud, and the horse races and balloon in the Champs de Mars, where all Paris appeared crowding, we found the vehicles plying at the Porte St Antoine as much in requisition, and the foot passengers as numerous as if there had been a fair on that side too. A fine sunny day draws everyone forth and we passed many parties in the Bois de Vincennes regaling sur l’herbe or gamboling among the trees. The pleasing village of St Maur was formerly a favourite retreats of the rich Parisians, and a melancholy feeling is excited by the number of handsome villas a louer presentement half inhabited, or falling into ruins. We walked thro’ it to see the tunnel which is making thro’ the neck of a peninsula, to shorten the navigation of the Marne — a noble work, and as we passed the church heard some hoarse voices howling vespers, but they had not many auditors. On the contrary many of the farming servants were at work, and we feared that the Sunday was more marked by the holiday amusements that diversify or close the day, than by the devotion which is its proper business. After continuing our walk over the site of the Chateau and Gardens of the Prince de Condé, destroyed to the foundation by the Parisian mob at the Revolution, we dined with our friends and accompanied them to the village ball. A rising ground which commands a pretty view, and the walks about which are neatly kept by the peasants, is the place of assembly, and a smooth space under the trees, partly inclosed by canvas, was prepared for dancing. We had heard the violins during our dinner, but it was dusk when we went out, and a number of lamps suspended from the trees illuminated the dance. Here we found the whole village assembled. The different ranks, though dancing to the same music, not being confounded. At one part were place a number of chairs for the gentry, who formed their set for a dance near them. At another place were seats for the middling class, and at a third benches for the peasants. Two old fiddlers presided over the whole, calling out the figure at the commencement of each movement. The dances were what we call quadrilles, there named Contredanses Françaises, with a waltz between every set, when, as we understood, the beaux paid the musicians. In the Contredanses, three or four sets generally danced at once, and the waltzers were numerous. We were a good deal amused by the fine dancing of some Paris tradespeople, particularly a man who seemed to have come to astonish the natives, many of whom danced well, tho’ the generality only bounded joyously thro’ the figures. The scene altogether was so new and pleasing that we could not help forgetting our English habits respecting Sunday, and joining in it. We stayed till those who did not dance were chilled by the night air, and the hour was late when we got back to Paris.

I had meant to have copied you and old legend, but must defer it. Believe me

Your ever affectionate