Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter III

Boulogne, August 15, 1763.

SIR— I am much obliged to you for your kind enquiries after my health, which has been lately in a very declining condition. In consequence of a cold, caught a few days after my arrival in France, I was seized with a violent cough, attended with a fever, and stitches in my breast, which tormented me all night long without ceasing. At the same time I had a great discharge by expectoration, and such a dejection of spirits as I never felt before. In this situation I took a step which may appear to have been desperate. I knew there was no imposthume in my lungs, and I supposed the stitches were spasmodical. I was sensible that all my complaints were originally derived from relaxation. I therefore hired a chaise, and going to the beach, about a league from the town, plunged into the sea without hesitation. By this desperate remedy, I got a fresh cold in my head: but my stitches and fever vanished the very first day; and by a daily repetition of the bath, I have diminished my cough, strengthened my body, and recovered my spirits. I believe I should have tried the same experiment, even if there had been an abscess in my lungs, though such practice would have been contrary to all the rules of medicine: but I am not one of those who implicitly believe in all the dogmata of physic. I saw one of the guides at Bath, the stoutest fellow among them, who recovered from the last stage of a consumption, by going into the king’s bath, contrary to the express injunction of his doctor. He said, if he must die, the sooner the better, as he had nothing left for his subsistence. Instead of immediate death, he found instant case, and continued mending every day, till his health was entirely re-established. I myself drank the waters of Bath, and bathed, in diametrical opposition to the opinion of some physicians there settled, and found myself better every day, notwithstanding their unfavourable prognostic. If I had been of the rigid fibre, full of blood, subject to inflammation, I should have followed a different course. Our acquaintance, doctor C — while he actually spit up matter, and rode out every day for his life, led his horse to water, at the pond in Hyde-Park, one cold frosty morning, and the beast, which happened to be of a hot constitution, plunged himself and his master over head and ears in the water. The poor doctor hastened home, half dead with fear, and was put to bed in the apprehension of a new imposthume; instead of which, he found himself exceedingly recruited in his spirits, and his appetite much mended. I advised him to take the hint, and go into the cold bath every morning; but he did not chuse to run any risque. How cold water comes to be such a bugbear, I know not: if I am not mistaken, Hippocrates recommends immersion in cold water for the gout; and Celsus expressly says, in omni tussi utilis est natatio: in every cough swimming is of service.

I have conversed with a physician of this place, a sensible man, who assured me he was reduced to meer skin and bone by a cough and hectic fever, when he ordered a bath to be made in his own house, and dipped himself in cold water every morning. He at the same time left off drinking and swallowing any liquid that was warm. He is now strong and lusty, and even in winter has no other cover than a single sheet. His notions about the warm drink were a little whimsical: he imagined it relaxed the tone of the stomach; and this would undoubtedly be the case if it was drank in large quantities, warmer than the natural temperature of the blood. He alledged the example of the inhabitants of the Ladrone islands, who never taste any thing that is not cold, and are remarkably healthy. But to balance this argument I mentioned the Chinese, who scarce drink any thing but warm tea; and the Laplanders, who drink nothing but warm water; yet the people of both these nations are remarkably strong, healthy, and long-lived.

You desire to know the fate of my books. My lord H— d is not yet come to France; but my letter was transmitted to him from Paris; and his lordship, with that generous humanity which is peculiar to his character, has done me the honour to assure me, under his own hand, that he has directed Mr. N— lle, our resident at Paris, to apply for an order that my books may be restored.

I have met with another piece of good fortune, in being introduced to general Paterson and his lady, in their way to England from Nice, where the general has been many years commandant for the king of Sardinia. You must have heard of this gentleman, who has not only eminently distinguished himself, by his courage and conduct as an officer; but also by his probity and humanity in the exercise, of his office, and by his remarkable hospitality to all strangers, especially the subjects of Great-Britain, whose occasions called them to the place where he commanded. Being pretty far advanced in years, he begged leave to resign, that he might spend the evening of his days in his own country; and his Sardinian majesty granted his request with regret, after having honoured him with very particular marks of approbation and esteem. The general talks so favourably of the climate of Nice, with respect to disorders of the breast, that I am now determined to go thither. It would have been happy for me had he continued in his government. I think myself still very fortunate, in having obtained of him a letter of recommendation to the English consul at Nice, together with directions how to travel through the South of France. I propose to begin my journey some time next month, when the weather will be temperate to the southward; and in the wine countries I shall have the pleasure of seeing the vintage, which is always a season of festivity among all ranks of people.

You have been very much mis-informed, by the person who compared Boulogne to Wapping: he did a manifest injustice to this place which is a large agreeable town, with broad open streets, excellently paved; and the houses are of stone, well built and commodious. The number of inhabitants may amount to sixteen thousand. You know this was generally supposed to be the portus Itius, and Gessoriacum of the antients: though it is now believed that the portus Itius, from whence Caesar sailed to Britain, is a place called Whitsand, about half way between this place and Calais. Boulogne is the capital of the Boulonnois, a district extending about twelve leagues, ruled by a governor independent of the governor of Picardy; of which province, however, this country forms a part. The present governor is the duc d’Aumout. The town of Boulogne is the see of a bishop suffragan of Rheims, whose revenue amounts to about four-and-twenty thousand livres, or one thousand pounds sterling. It is also the seat of a seneschal’s court, from whence an appeal lies to the parliament of Paris; and thither all condemned criminals are sent, to have their sentence confirmed or reversed. Here is likewise a bailiwick, and a court of admiralty. The military jurisdiction of the city belongs to a commandant appointed by the king, a sort of sinecure bestowed upon some old officer. His appointments are very inconsiderable: he resides in the Upper Town, and his garrison at present consists of a few hundreds of invalids.

Boulogne is divided into the Upper and Lower Towns. The former is a kind of citadel, about a short mile in circumference, situated on a rising ground, surrounded by a high wall and rampart, planted with rows of trees, which form a delightful walk. It commands a fine view of the country and Lower Town; and in clear weather the coast of England, from Dover to Folkstone, appears so plain, that one would imagine it was within four or five leagues of the French shore. The Upper Town was formerly fortified with outworks, which are now in ruins. Here is a square, a town-house, the cathedral, and two or three convents of nuns; in one of which there are several English girls, sent hither for their education. The smallness of the expence encourages parents to send their children abroad to these seminaries, where they learn scarce any thing that is useful but the French language; but they never fail to imbibe prejudices against the protestant religion, and generally return enthusiastic converts to the religion of Rome. This conversion always generates a contempt for, and often an aversion to, their own country. Indeed it cannot reasonably be expected that people of weak minds, addicted to superstition, should either love or esteem those whom they are taught to consider as reprobated heretics. Ten pounds a year is the usual pension in these convents; but I have been informed by a French lady who had her education in one of them, that nothing can be more wretched than their entertainment.

The civil magistracy of Boulogne consists of a mayor and echevins; and this is the case in almost all the towns of France.

The Lower Town is continued from the gate of the Upper Town, down the slope of a hill, as far as the harbour, stretching on both sides to a large extent, and is much more considerable than the Upper, with respect to the beauty of the streets, the convenience of the houses, and the number and wealth of the inhabitants. These, however, are all merchants, or bourgeoise, for the noblesse or gentry live all together in the Upper Town, and never mix with the others. The harbour of Boulogne is at the mouth of the small river, or rather rivulet Liane, which is so shallow, that the children wade through it at low water. As the tide makes, the sea flows in, and forms a pretty extensive harbour, which, however, admits nothing but small vessels. It is contracted at the mouth by two stone jetties or piers, which seem to have been constructed by some engineer, very little acquainted with this branch of his profession; for they are carried out in such a manner, as to collect a bank of sand just at the entrance of the harbour. The road is very open and unsafe, and the surf very high when the wind blows from the sea. There is no fortification near the harbour, except a paltry fort mounting about twenty guns, built in the last war by the prince de Cruy, upon a rock about a league to the eastward of Boulogne. It appears to be situated in such a manner, that it can neither offend, nor be offended. If the depth of water would admit a forty or fifty gun ship to lie within cannon-shot of it, I apprehend it might be silenced in half an hour; but, in all probability, there will be no vestiges of it at the next rupture between the two crowns. It is surrounded every day by the sea, at high water; and when it blows a fresh gale towards the shore, the waves break over the top of it, to the terror and astonishment of the garrison, who have been often heard crying piteously for assistance. I am persuaded, that it will one day disappear in the twinkling of an eye. The neighbourhood of this fort, which is a smooth sandy beach, I have chosen for my bathing place. The road to it is agreeable and romantic, lying through pleasant cornfields, skirted by open downs, where there is a rabbit warren, and great plenty of the birds so much admired at Tunbridge under the name of wheat-ears. By the bye, this is a pleasant corruption of white-a-se, the translation of their French name cul-blanc, taken from their colour for they are actually white towards the tail.

Upon the top of a high rock, which overlooks the harbour, are the remains of an old fortification, which is indiscriminately called, Tour d’ordre, and Julius Caesar’s fort. The original tower was a light-house built by Claudius Caesar, denominated Turris ardens, from the fire burned in it; and this the French have corrupted into Tour d’ordre; but no vestiges of this Roman work remain; what we now see, are the ruins of a castle built by Charlemagne. I know of no other antiquity at Boulogne, except an old vault in the Upper Town, now used as a magazine, which is said to be part of an antient temple dedicated to Isis.

On the other side of the harbour, opposite to the Lower Town, there is a house built, at a considerable expence, by a general officer, who lost his life in the late war. Never was situation more inconvenient, unpleasant, and unhealthy. It stands on the edge of an ugly morass formed by the stagnant water left by the tide in its retreat: the very walks of the garden are so moist, that, in the driest weather, no person can make a tour of it, without danger of the rheumatism. Besides, the house is altogether inaccessible, except at low water, and even then the carriage must cross the harbour, the wheels up to the axle-tree in mud: nay, the tide rushes in so fast, that unless you seize the time to a minute, you will be in danger of perishing. The apartments of this house are elegantly fitted up, but very small; and the garden, notwithstanding its unfavourable situation, affords a great quantity of good fruit. The ooze, impregnated with sea salt, produces, on this side of the harbour, an incredible quantity of the finest samphire I ever saw. The French call it passe-pierre; and I suspect its English name is a corruption of sang-pierre. It is generally found on the faces of bare rocks that overhang the sea, by the spray of which it is nourished. As it grew upon a naked rock, without any appearance of soil, it might be naturally enough called sang du pierre, or sangpierre, blood of the rock; and hence the name samphire. On the same side of the harbour there is another new house, neatly built, belonging to a gentleman who has obtained a grant from the king of some ground which was always overflowed at high water. He has raised dykes at a considerable expence, to exclude the tide, and if he can bring his project to bear, he will not only gain a good estate for himself, but also improve the harbour, by increasing the depth at high-water.

In the Lower Town of Boulogne there are several religious houses, particularly a seminary, a convent of Cordeliers, and another of Capuchins. This last, having fallen to decay, was some years ago repaired, chiefly by the charity of British travellers, collected by father Graeme, a native of North-Britain, who had been an officer in the army of king James II. and is said to have turned monk of this mendicant order, by way of voluntary penance, for having killed his friend in a duel. Be that as it may, he was a well-bred, sensible man, of a very exemplary life and conversation; and his memory is much revered in this place. Being superior of the convent, he caused the British arms to be put up in the church, as a mark of gratitude for the benefactions received from our nation. I often walk in the garden of the convent, the walls of which are washed by the sea at high-water. At the bottom of the garden is a little private grove, separated from it by a high wall, with a door of communication; and hither the Capuchins retire, when they are disposed for contemplation. About two years ago, this place was said to be converted to a very different use. There was among the monks one pere Charles, a lusty friar, of whom the people tell strange stories. Some young women of the town were seen mounting over the wall, by a ladder of ropes, in the dusk of the evening; and there was an unusual crop of bastards that season. In short, pere Charles and his companions gave such scandal, that the whole fraternity was changed; and now the nest is occupied by another flight of these birds of passage. If one of our privateers had kidnapped a Capuchin during the war, and exhibited him, in his habit, as a shew in London, he would have proved a good prize to the captors; for I know not a more uncouth and grotesque animal, than an old Capuchin in the habit of his order. A friend of mine (a Swiss officer) told me, that a peasant in his country used to weep bitterly, whenever a certain Capuchin mounted the pulpit to hold forth to the people. The good father took notice of this man, and believed he was touched by the finger of the Lord. He exhorted him to encourage these accessions of grace, and at the same time to be of good comfort, as having received such marks of the divine favour. The man still continued to weep, as before, every time the monk preached; and at last the Capuchin insisted upon knowing what it was, in his discourse or appearance, that made such an impression upon his heart “Ah, father! (cried the peasant) I never see you but I think of a venerable goat, which I lost at Easter. We were bred up together in the same family. He was the very picture of your reverence — one would swear you were brothers. Poor Baudouin! he died of a fall — rest his soul! I would willingly pay for a couple of masses to pray him out of purgatory.”

Among other public edifices at Boulogne, there is an hospital, or workhouse, which seems to be established upon a very good foundation. It maintains several hundreds of poor people, who are kept constantly at work, according to their age and abilities, in making thread, all sorts of lace, a kind of catgut, and in knitting stockings. It is under the direction of the bishop; and the see is at present filled by a prelate of great piety and benevolence, though a little inclining to bigotry and fanaticism. The churches in this town are but indifferently built, and poorly ornamented. There is not one picture in the place worth looking at, nor indeed does there seem to be the least taste for the liberal arts.

In my next, I shall endeavour to satisfy you in the other articles you desire to know. Mean-while, I am ever — Yours.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30