Letter from France No. 6

Miss Porden

Amiens August 1816

I concluded my last letter, dear Eliza, rather abruptly with our arrival at Villers Cotterets. My guardian, who left but half his English prejudices at Paris, and who has not yet learned thoroughly to distinguish between France and Italy, had his head so filled with hobgoblins and banditti that he durst not travel two hours after dark to enable us to reach Soissons, and though what I had hitherto seen of the country had not much raised my expectations, yet I own I should have been sorry to have lost even the certainty that there was nothing to see. One of our English prejudices however we rued and lost at Villers Cotterets. Namely, the idea that a post town and especially one of such considerable size must necessarily be able to afford us a comfortable lodging. The inn was indeed large enough for a palace, but retained much of a primitive character. The beds instead of blankets had couvertures of down with cases of white taffety, embroidered with silk of every hue. It was too hot to bear them on, and too cold to throw them off. The morning showed the town as dirty and the garcon, a handsome young woman, told me that there was but one fountain to supply the town, and that when it stopped in dry summers, water was more scarce than wine.

Leaving Villers Cotterets, our first stage to Verte Feuille was thro’ the forest of Soissons, where our undeviating road frequently cut thro’ small open greens, or circles, from which three grass roads branched off on each side to villages or chateaux in the forest. The tracks were of grass, and the trees closed over them. There were small direction posts affix’d to each, but many were almost illegible and at any rate it presented a fine scene for romance.

The trees I thought appeared smaller than in our island but the forest was picturesque and cool, and I was sorry when we quitted it to enter again on the unenclosed country, whose hills were too low to excite interest. Long ere we reached Soissons the two spires of the Church of St Jean attracted us, and we felt deep regret to perceive that the church which they ought to have protected was in ruins. Soissons is a fortified town of more importance in history and in war, than its appearance of loneliness and decay would indicate. It is in a valley thro’ which the Marne winds, and is surrounded by table lands. The gate thro’ which we entered bears many traces of the Prussian cannon. We first went to the Cathedral, a handsome church with a fine tower, nearly of the proportions of Notre Dame at Paris, but in better task, and adorned with good sculpture. Its companion has never been built. The Church on the outside is all in the lancet style. Within the columns are single and of the same Lombard or Bastard Corinthian observed in the choirs of Rouen and Paris Cathedrals. One little colonnet is however stuck on the columns of the nave, towards the centre aisles and Gothic arches spring from the round columns, stopping their varied moulding against the square abacus. The four columns alone which form the centre of the Cross have a Gothic casing. This Cathedral has the peculiar round end which characterizes all the principal churches of France. The South Transept is also semicircular, and I think is the most pleasing part of the building. One column here is a near approach to the Corinthian, and very beautiful.

I was however much more interested with the remains of the Church and Monastery of St Jean, a little out of the city, but still within the ramparts. Two towers (as I have already observed) unequal in height, but both very fine, enriched by good sculpture and surmounted by spires had claimed our admiration long ere we entered Soissons, and on approaching I felt doubly grieved to find Masons busy in destroying the few remaining vestiges of the Church, by order of government. A fuller statement however somewhat reconciled us. The Church had been pulled to pieces in the Revolution, and in consequence, about seven years ago, orders had been given that the rest should be pulled down and sold as materials, to defray the expense of repairing the two towers and the Cathedral. The Monastery has been very extensive. The cloisters and halls are still very fine, but the former are receptacles for all sorts of filth, a la mode de France, and the latter are degraded into wine cellars and haylofts. This Monastery was of great celebrity. It received none but persons of noble birth, and a libraire told me that the Church was built by the English. I begin to feel proud of the Gothic buildings of France, for as Denon observed, we seem to have erected them all.

Continuing our walk thro’ Soissons, we saw a very handsome house, entirely dilapidated and deserted, and were told it was formerly the Hotel of the Maire but had been burned “dans le temps des Russes,” after the third battle near Soissons. The Russians had made it an hospital for their wounded, and as they were generally drunk, set it on fire one night with their pipes. The Mayor is now forced to occupy a much humbler dwelling.

We saw a third church, Gothic, but with a Roman front. It was now part dwelling house, part stable. Rambling on we came again to the ramparts and the River L’Aisne, which [is rather stream] had on it many barges laden with wood, and was adorned with two bridges. One of these had had an arch destroyed in the war, and it was now replaced by another of different construction. The walls of the town towards the river were still pierced with holes made to fire muskets from, and had been battered with many a hostile ball. Having contented ourselves with the inside of the town, we were glad to escape from its dirt and stink and continue our walk on the ramparts, which the fine hills without, the fine churches rising within, and the fine weather beaming light over every object, and pleasure into every heart, made delightful. In one place there was a striking view of the towers of St John and of the Cathedral to which the ramparts, and the trees in the moat, form a most picturesque foreground, and a great breach lets in the country beyond. This breach, I was at first told, was made by the Russian cavalry, but it was afterwards said that it was caused by some persons walking incautiously with iron nails in their shoes in a depôt of powder that was underneath and that it blew up. I am inclined to believe the former story for it seems an unlikely place for a magazine, and I find the French at all times much more ready to feign an improbable cause for any accident, than to acknowledge that they have suffered at all from their enemies. Our bookseller above mentioned told me that Soissons shut its gates against the Russians, but the Russians did not care for that. They bombarded them, and might have destroyed them if they had liked. The soldiers would have done a great deal of mischief if their officers had not controlled them, but I heard no complaints of them. I believe I should have got a good deal of information from this man, but my guardian, who is always impatient of conversations he cannot understand or join pulled me away, and after watching the workmen who were repairing the ramparts we mounted our cabriolet.

To Braine sur Vesle the country has little change of character but we had on our left the valley thro’ which the Vesle winds among numerous villages which marked its course tho’ we could not see the stream. In the distance rose the Vignobles or Champagne, unsightly things that look like rows of ragged stripling poplars, did not their peculiar yellow-green betray them. On our right we pass a church at a village called Vausen, remarkable for its open tower, surmounted by four gables. At Braine we ran up the town while our horses were changing, to look at the ruined church of an old monastery. It has been a fine structure very much like Bylands Abbey with the same mixture of lancet windows of round and pointed end. It is now a hay loft.

The country was still unvaried. The magpies as usual almost the only living things we saw. In one place we saw fourteen together, and in another there was quite a flock. I did not before know that these animals were gregarious, but they seem as plentiful in France as rooks were in England. By the by there is a rookery in the church tower of Saissons, the first we had seen. In one place we saw a few water wagtails, and two pairs of crows. The road continued good till we got within a post of Reines, where the soil was sandy, and it became execrable. It was Sunday, the weather fine, and the town clean. Gay groups were scattered in the favourite promenade under the shade of majestic elms, and we drove thro’ a handsome cast iron archway into a noble street, straight, wide, and well built, at the end of which rose the towers of the Cathedral, which enlarged upon our view as we approached and stopped just opposite to them at the Hotel de Moulinet. And here before other matters divert my attention, let me transcribe for you the card of the inn, half-French, half-English.

Hotel du Moulinet

Poste aux Chevaux — vis a vis le Portail de la Cathedral à Reims.

Le Sieur Desmaretz prie la public de ne pas croire les mauvaix bruits que pleusiers de ses confreres font repandre par despostillons qu’ils payent pour leur faire conduire les étrangers et annoncer qu’il ne tient plus Hotel. Messieurs les voyagers trouveront toujours chez lui tous les avantages désirables: ils seront servis comme à l’ordinaire, par des domestiques zélés, attentifs, at logés comme le permet la maison, qui est connue pour la plus belle de la ville et tres bien située à tous égards.

Nota. Il part tous les deux jours du dit Hôtel une diligence pour Paris — dont le bureau à Paris est Rue du Jour No. 4

Moulinet Hotel

Post Horses Office, in face of the gate of the Cathedrale AT REIMS.

M. Desmaretz prays travellers not to believe the false reports that some of his partners scatter by post boys (that the pay) in design of bringing foreigners to their house, in annonicing that he keeps no more his Hotel. Strangers will always find in his Hotel all the advantages that a traveller could desire. They will be servee as by the past, by zealous et intent servants, et lodged as the house which is renowned for the finest et best situated of the town can permit it.

Nota. A flying coach departs every two days for Paris where the office is Rue du Jour No. 4

M. Desmaretz had certainly some reason for his puff, for the Moulinet was the best hotel we have seen in France. It excels all others in comfort, and also in one particular which its owner had forgot to puff — the exorbitance of its charges. We however occupied the apartment which we were told the Duke of Wellington always claimed when there, and studied from our windows the magnificent portal of the Cathedral. It is perhaps narrow, and somewhat barbarous in its style, but it is long and lofty, and has an air of simple grandeur about it that makes me prefer it to all I have seen in France, even to St Ouen and St Denis. It is open from one end to the other, and there is no enclosure round the choir: an arrangement which though it may not be for the comfort of the officiating priests, adds much to the grandeur of the edifice. The columns are tall but have all been of the Lombard style, and have four small cylinders running up them, before, behind, and on each side; but in the choir there is only one cylinder fronting to the centre aisle. We saw the robes in which the Kings of France are crowned, and also some Arras and Gobelins Tapestry which disfigures the north aisle, and which only prove the progress this art has made. In the nave near the choir is a flat blue stone with this inscription

Hoc in loco
Sanctus Nicasius Remenisis Archipraesul
Truncato capite martyr
Occubuit anno domini 406

We now went to call on M. Ruinart de Brimont, to whom we had letters of introduction. Of the Count himself we saw little, as he was in the act of being chosen one of the Chambre des Deputés, but he spoke good English, and was in short, very like an Englishman. His wife, born of English parents, tho’ she occasionally intermingled a Gallicism, spoke English with great elegance and an excellent accent. She appeared a woman of uncommon abilities and information, and as well acquainted with the churches of England and of the South of France as with those of her own favourite Reims. The family is numerous and justified what we had been told of them, that they had past thro’ all the scenes of the Revolution without being stained by one of its principles or vices.

Me. Ruinart regretted very much the destruction of St Nicaise, one of the most celebrated of the Remensian churches. It was so light, it seemed to have no walls, and built in so bold a manner that the spectator could hardly conceive how it was supported. It was something in the style of St Ouen at Rouen, but much lighter and more elegant. Here was the famous trembling tower of which it was said that if a glass filled with water were left upon it top, the water would be all trembled out of it in the course of half an hour. The carving of the ornaments was also particularly fine. At the Revolution, that terrible fiend who seemed to delight in destroying whatever was most valuable of every kind, Centerre, delighted with the opportunity of overthrowing a building dedicated to the Almighty, purchased the church and nearly completed its demolition. What little remained is now pulling down by order of government, who seem eager to destroy their most valuable monuments if with them they may also obliterate the memory of the Revolution. When after a fatiguing walk we arrived at its site we found only one pier standing, all the rest was a more heap of rubbish, and Masons were squaring the stones.

Madame Ruinart then gave us an account of the Church of St Remy, the oldest in the town. The earliest lancet style had been engrafted on the debased Roman. The floor and ceilings were of brick, and the low narrow windows admitted only “a dim religious light”. The outside which had two Saxon round towers between which a lancet window had been introduced, appeared still more antient than the interior. On one side of the choir was a painted trophy of cloth bearing the arms of France with an inscription

Au Roi Lothaire
Sacré en 954, et inhumer en 986 ici
Trophée erigé le vingt cinq Août 1816
En reparation de l’outrage fair à sa statue l’an 1793

The Church of St Remy was of great sanctity, and was particularly odious to the Jacobins because in it was kept the sacred oil used for anointing the kings of France. Here was baptized Clovis, the first Christian King of France. His remains were enclosed in a golden shrine ornamented with jewels, and his tomb, a handsome Gothic structure, had 15 pieces of fine sculpture. The stone was dug from a quarry at Brimont, now the estate of M. Ruinart. The figures were rudely sketched out in France and then sent to Rome to be worked. They consist of six temporal peers of France: The Duke of Normandy, Count of Toulouse, Count of Flandres, Duke of Acquitaine, Duke of Burgundy, and Count of Champagne; and the six ecclesiastical peers: the Archdeacon of Reims, the Bishop of Laon, of Chartres, of Beauvais, and of Noyon. The three other figures are St Remigius himself and his attendant with Clovis kneeling to receive his benediction. The sculpture is all fine, but the Saint and his attendant are indeed exquisite. Clovis only has a smirk which I cannot admire. Well! neither the sanctity of St Remigius nor the splendour of his shrine were likely to escape the Revolutionists. The figures were thrown, I believe, on a dung hill, and the dirt thrown upon them preserved them. The Saint was stripped of his golden coffin, and his bones carried to the cemetery of a military hospital, to a part of the ground reserved for the burial such soldiers as had had the itch. Here he was interred, a soldier above, and a soldier below him, that his remains might be undistinguishable; but when the reign of terror was past, and the piety of the people began to revive, a surgeon assisted them to dig up the saint, and to distinguish the bones that had been mouldering for centuries from those of the newly dead. Neither the religion nor the wealth of the present age allowed them so pompous a tomb as they had formerly possessed. They are now enclosed in only a wooden coffin, and the man employed to design the new monument has not shown any exuberance of taste. He has taken for his model the Rotunda of the Café du Caveau in the Palais Royal, has stuck the Saint’s wooden coffin in the middle, which in front is the principal object, and all around are the figures, which having no backs, might as well have decorated with some of the dresses which the Catholics are so fond of affixing to their saints. At the back and seen only from the high altar, are the Saint, the King, and the Saint’s attendant. Remigius himself I cannot too much admire. The figure is so finely executed, so animated, and so natural. Behind of the King of course were the fleurs de lys but these were jumbled with the star of the Legion of Honour, and above was written decret de Moscow et de Varsovie because Buonaparte’s permission to re-erect the monument was obtained at that place.

The Place Royale is a handsome but unfinished square with a good fountain in the middle. The town is less intricate and more populous than most of those in France, and its manufacturers of cloth counterpanes seem in full vigour. It is also clean and sweet. The Cathedral is nearly in the centre, and in returning to our inn was always an excellent sign post. On asking our way to the Post Office, we were elegantly directed suivex la cours du ruisseau which being interpreted is, “follow the course of the gutter”. This gutter we found a most excellent direction, and afterwards pursued it to the public walks, which are under many rows of fine elms, just on the outside of the ramparts and extending to the River Vesle. The walk is very long and we pursued it as far as a Roman triumphal arch, called the Arch of Romulus and Remus, built I believe by Caesar, and which was formerly a sort of propylea to the city. It is now very much dilapidated and the capital of the column had just fallen. Funds had been collected for its restoration, just before the Russians invaded France, when alas! they were turned to the support of the war. We tried to enter the Arch, but found it impracticable from the steepness of the bank — for the arch forms part of the wall of the city which surmounts the ramparts. We finished our survey of Reims with the Church of St Jacques, a yet more extraordinary mixture of Gothic and Lombard than any we had seen. Its outside is plain and ugly as one could wish.

We meant to have gone to Amiens by Laon and St Quentin but the war had rendered the road absolutely impassable and we were forced to return to Soissons. A few women were collecting the scanty vintage as we rode by, but we were told that no wine could be made in Champagne this year.

The lodgings we had met at the Croix d’Or did not induce us to return thither, and we went to the Lion Rouge, positively considered the best inn at Soissons. Bad indeed was the best. We were shown into a large room, with the strangest dirtiest patched stone floor I ever saw, and with a bed at each of the four corners, decorated with embroidery, but dirty and antient. Two of these were destined for my guardian and myself, and I did not know but the postillion might be intro to a third. The girl however with great naïveté assured us that they never put different parties into one room, and seemed much surprised when we insisted on other apartments. Our enquiries about dinner were referred with much importance to the Clerk of the Kitchen, who in his own conceit was indeed no mean personage.

Next morning early we left his inn and its fifteen cats, and we started for Amiens in a thick fog which did not abate all day. Before we had gone a mile the road became so terrible that if that by Laon were worse, it was indeed well that we attempted it not. Instead of mending as we advanced it grew worse, especially after we had passed Compiegne. In one place, near Cuvilly, the sides of two hills and all the valley between were striped with deep ruts like ribband grass. The commerce of the road appeared so very little, that it could not thus have cut up the country, and we suspect that artillery had been to blame — but it was impolite to learn. The horses were often knee deep in pools of water or ruts, stumbling occasionally and giving us the expectation of being overturned or thrown out, while the happier alternative of sticking fast in the clay seemed almost inevitable. But skill and perseverance conquer all. Our drivers were careful, our carriage strong, and happy were we, when as darkness added to the fog, we reached some better road, our horses for the first time were able to trot, and carried us in darkness to Montdidier, where we were forced to rest. Had the road been good we might well have reached Amiens before sunset, but as that was impracticable we congratulated ourselves that a town of such consequence as Montdidier appeared on the map and was ready to receive us.

We had stopped on our way to see the palace at Compiegne, which is a fortified town, and entered thro’ a long and low archway. The Palace is built at the bottom of a large square court. The Duchess of Angoulême had left it only two days before, and the soldiers kept guard with more state that at the Tuileries, and with much of the stiffness of the old regime, which seemed to pervade all its arrangements. The Palace is more splendidly furnished than any other I have seen in France, and really gave me an idea of regal magnificence. The decorations are chiefly modern, and in very good taste. We were shown thro’ a very expensive suite of apartments, and saw that we did not see the whole. The chamber of the guard is a handsome Roman room decorated in a chivalrous style. Chivalrous trophies are placed over the doors, spears occupy the fluting of the columns, and helmets form the modillions of the cornice. In one of the first rooms was Canova’s beautiful group of the reconciliation of Cupid and Psyche. I think I hardly ever saw sculpture so animated, tho’ perhaps the limbs of Cupid are rather too slender. In another room was his Innocence, and in a third Cupid and Psyche with the Butterfly. I hardly know which of these three to prefer. The state beds of the King and the Duchess, with golden angles supporting the curtains are superior to any I have seen in France. The boudoir of the Duchess is lined with glass, and its unnumbered reflections have an extraordinary effect, and the pillows on the sofa were repeated till I could almost have fancied myself in Fingal’s Cave. There were two antique statues and two vases all very fine. The rooms all splendid, and the ballroom almost superior to the Gallery at Versailles.

At the Grenadier Francois at Montdidier we hailed boarded floors, tho’ they had never been washed in their lives. A turkey and three partridges were roasting in the kitchen, which our mouths watered at, but found they were destined for the sub-prefect, who has a dinner from the inn three times a week, but dines at all hours. There were three domestiques, or rather three sisters of the maitresse, who all made errands into the room, and crowded round us, and gaped, and stared, as if we had been oxen with three heads, or some such monsters. They seemed to have few travellers and talked much of an English lady who had slept there 6 months before, with her four children. Of course we were expected to know them, as well as a gentleman who had occupied our room a month before, and who appeared to be the most recent traveller. A fat stout girl, who was our principal attendant, tho’ another came with her to do the looking on part, need not have told us she had never been in Paris, for her accent spoke for her. We had bespoke hot embers for our beds, but overcome by the fatigues of our perilous journey, we leant our heads on a bed we were not to occupy and fell sound asleep. Presently in came Ma’amselle, who fancying us established for the night, told us that was not one of our beds, there were no sheets there, and that the ladies (for a friends had joined us at Reims) ought to sleep in another room. We turned but a drowsy ear so she left us, and when on awaking, writing our journals and chatting an hour, we wished to retire in good earnest, all were asleep. Our rooms contained chairs by the dozen of all shapes and sizes but neither pillow, blanket, water, nor napkin. We called in vain but no one heard. My guardian went down and said the fire was out. We began to despair of mending our accommodation, when my friend, starting from her journal, in which she had seemed absorbed, called on my guardian as a quire flew down the stairs, chased the cats from the hearth, and found some live embers. But where was the warming pan? After searching upstairs and down, and disturbing two or three sleeping pilgrims it was at last found and the beds half-warmed, in came Ma’amselle, en chemise. We now got all we wanted. She snatched the pillow from her master’s head (the only pillow that the house could boast) and brought it ready warmed, while at each successive visit she slipped on some fresh article of clothing, and when completely dressed at last, seemed as little inclined to go to bed for our accommodation as she had been to stay up for it. The green damask of our beds embroidered with various coloured roses spoke of better days, and I must leave to suppose us sound asleep till I have time to renew the thread of my adventures.

your affectionate