Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter V

Boulogne, September 12, 1763.

DEAR SIR — My stay in this place now draws towards a period. ‘Till within these few days I have continued bathing, with some advantage to my health, though the season has been cold and wet, and disagreeable. There was a fine prospect of a plentiful harvest in this neighbourhood. I used to have great pleasure in driving between the fields of wheat, oats, and barley; but the crop has been entirely ruined by the rain, and nothing is now to be seen on the ground but the tarnished straw, and the rotten spoils of the husbandman’s labour. The ground scarce affords subsistence to a few flocks of meagre sheep, that crop the stubble, and the intervening grass; each flock under the protection of its shepherd, with his crook and dogs, who lies every night in the midst of the fold, in a little thatched travelling lodge, mounted on a wheel-carriage. Here he passes the night, in order to defend his flock from the wolves, which are sometimes, especially in winter, very bold and desperate.

Two days ago we made an excursion with Mrs. B— and Capt. L— to the village of Samers, on the Paris road, about three leagues from Boulogne. Here is a venerable abbey of Benedictines, well endowed, with large agreeable gardens prettily laid out. The monks are well lodged, and well entertained. Tho’ restricted from flesh meals by the rules of their order, they are allowed to eat wild duck and teal, as a species of fish; and when they long for a good bouillon, or a partridge, or pullet, they have nothing to do but to say they are out of order. In that case the appetite of the patient is indulged in his own apartment. Their church is elegantly contrived, but kept in a very dirty condition. The greatest curiosity I saw in this place was an English boy, about eight or nine years old, whom his father had sent hither to learn the French language. In less than eight weeks, he was become captain of the boys of the place, spoke French perfectly well, and had almost forgot his mother tongue. But to return to the people of Boulogne.

The burghers here, as in other places, consist of merchants, shop-keepers, and artisans. Some of the merchants have got fortunes, by fitting out privateers during the war. A great many single ships were taken from the English, notwithstanding the good look-out of our cruisers, who were so alert, that the privateers from this coast were often taken in four hours after they sailed from the French harbour; and there is hardly a captain of an armateur in Boulogne, who has not been prisoner in England five or six times in the course of the war. They were fitted out at a very small expence, and used to run over in the night to the coast of England, where they hovered as English fishing smacks, until they kidnapped some coaster, with which they made the best of their way across the Channel. If they fell in with a British cruiser, they surrendered without resistance: the captain was soon exchanged, and the loss of the proprietor was not great: if they brought their prize safe into harbour, the advantage was considerable. In time of peace the merchants of Boulogne deal in wine brandies, and oil, imported from the South, and export fish, with the manufactures of France, to Portugal, and other countries; but the trade is not great. Here are two or three considerable houses of wine merchants from Britain, who deal in Bourdeaux wine, with which they supply London and other parts of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The fishery of mackarel and herring is so considerable on this coast, that it is said to yield annually eight or nine hundred thousand livres, about thirty-five thousand pounds sterling.

The shop-keepers here drive a considerable traffic with the English smugglers, whose cutters are almost the only vessels one sees in the harbour of Boulogne, if we except about a dozen of those flat-bottomed boats, which raised such alarms in England, in the course of the war. Indeed they seem to be good for nothing else, and perhaps they were built for this purpose only. The smugglers from the coast of Kent and Sussex pay English gold for great quantities of French brandy, tea, coffee, and small wine, which they run from this country. They likewise buy glass trinkets, toys, and coloured prints, which sell in England, for no other reason, but that they come from France, as they may be had as cheap, and much better finished, of our own manufacture. They likewise take off ribbons, laces, linen, and cambrics; though this branch of trade is chiefly in the hands of traders that come from London and make their purchases at Dunkirk, where they pay no duties. It is certainly worth while for any traveller to lay in a stock of linen either at Dunkirk or Boulogne; the difference of the price at these two places is not great. Even here I have made a provision of shirts for one half of the money they would have cost in London. Undoubtedly the practice of smuggling is very detrimental to the fair trader, and carries considerable sums of money out of the kingdom, to enrich our rivals and enemies. The custom-house officers are very watchful, and make a great number of seizures: nevertheless, the smugglers find their account in continuing this contraband commerce; and are said to indemnify themselves, if they save one cargo out of three. After all, the best way to prevent smuggling, is to lower the duties upon the commodities which are thus introduced. I have been told, that the revenue upon tea has encreased ever since the duty upon it was diminished. By the bye, the tea smuggled on the coast of Sussex is most execrable stuff. While I stayed at Hastings, for the conveniency of bathing, I must have changed my breakfast, if I had not luckily brought tea with me from London: yet we have as good tea at Boulogne for nine livres a pound, as that which sells at fourteen shillings at London.

The bourgeois of this place seem to live at their ease, probably in consequence of their trade with the English. Their houses consist of the ground-floor, one story above, and garrets. In those which are well furnished, you see pier-glasses and marble slabs; but the chairs are either paultry things, made with straw bottoms, which cost about a shilling a-piece, or old-fashioned, high-backed seats of needle-work, stuffed, very clumsy and incommodious. The tables are square fir boards, that stand on edge in a corner, except when they are used, and then they are set upon cross legs that open and shut occasionally. The king of France dines off a board of this kind. Here is plenty of table-linen however. The poorest tradesman in Boulogne has a napkin on every cover, and silver forks with four prongs, which are used with the right hand, there being very little occasion for knives; for the meat is boiled or roasted to rags. The French beds are so high, that sometimes one is obliged to mount them by the help of steps; and this is also the case in Flanders. They very seldom use feather-beds; but they lie upon a paillasse, or bag of straw, over which are laid two, and sometimes three mattrasses. Their testers are high and old-fashioned, and their curtains generally of thin bays, red, or green, laced with taudry yellow, in imitation of gold. In some houses, however, one meets with furniture of stamped linen; but there is no such thing as a carpet to be seen, and the floors are in a very dirty condition. They have not even the implements of cleanliness in this country. Every chamber is furnished with an armoire, or clothes-press, and a chest of drawers, of very clumsy workmanship. Every thing shews a deficiency in the mechanic arts. There is not a door, nor a window, that shuts close. The hinges, locks, and latches, are of iron, coarsely made, and ill contrived. The very chimnies are built so open, that they admit both rain and sun, and all of them smoke intolerably. If there is no cleanliness among these people, much less shall we find delicacy, which is the cleanliness of the mind. Indeed they are utter strangers to what we call common decency; and I could give you some high-flavoured instances, at which even a native of Edinburgh would stop his nose. There are certain mortifying views of human nature, which undoubtedly ought to be concealed as much as possible, in order to prevent giving offence: and nothing can be more absurd, than to plead the difference of custom in different countries, in defence of these usages which cannot fail giving disgust to the organs and senses of all mankind. Will custom exempt from the imputation of gross indecency a French lady, who shifts her frowsy smock in presence of a male visitant, and talks to him of her lavement, her medecine, and her bidet! An Italian signora makes no scruple of telling you, she is such a day to begin a course of physic for the pox. The celebrated reformer of the Italian comedy introduces a child befouling itself, on the stage, OE, NO TI SENTI? BISOGNA DESFASSARLO, (fa cenno che sentesi mal odore). I have known a lady handed to the house of office by her admirer, who stood at the door, and entertained her with bons mots all the time she was within. But I should be glad to know, whether it is possible for a fine lady to speak and act in this manner, without exciting ideas to her own disadvantage in the mind of every man who has any imagination left, and enjoys the entire use of his senses, howsoever she may be authorised by the customs of her country? There is nothing so vile or repugnant to nature, but you may plead prescription for it, in the customs of some nation or other. A Parisian likes mortified flesh: a native of Legiboli will not taste his fish till it is quite putrefied: the civilized inhabitants of Kamschatka get drunk with the urine of their guests, whom they have already intoxicated: the Nova Zemblans make merry on train-oil: the Groenlanders eat in the same dish with their dogs: the Caffres, at the Cape of Good Hope, piss upon those whom they delight to honour, and feast upon a sheep’s intestines with their contents, as the greatest dainty that can be presented. A true-bred Frenchman dips his fingers, imbrowned with snuff, into his plate filled with ragout: between every three mouthfuls, he produces his snuff-box, and takes a fresh pinch, with the most graceful gesticulations; then he displays his handkerchief, which may be termed the flag of abomination, and, in the use of both, scatters his favours among those who have the happiness to sit near him. It must be owned, however, that a Frenchman will not drink out of a tankard, in which, perhaps, a dozen of filthy mouths have flabbered, as is the custom in England. Here every individual has his own gobelet, which stands before him, and he helps himself occasionally with wine or water, or both, which likewise stand upon the table. But I know no custom more beastly than that of using water-glasses, in which polite company spirt, and squirt, and spue the filthy scourings of their gums, under the eyes of each other. I knew a lover cured of his passion, by seeing this nasty cascade discharged from the mouth of his mistress. I don’t doubt but I shall live to see the day, when the hospitable custom of the antient Aegyptians will be revived; then a conveniency will be placed behind every chair in company, with a proper provision of waste paper, that individuals may make themselves easy without parting company. I insist upon it, that this practice would not be more indelicate than that which is now in use. What then, you will say, must a man sit with his chops and fingers up to the ears and knuckles in grease? No; let those who cannot eat without defiling themselves, step into another room, provided with basons and towels: but I think it would be better to institute schools, where youth may learn to eat their victuals, without daubing themselves, or giving offence to the eyes of one another.

The bourgeois of Boulogne have commonly soup and bouilli at noon, and a roast, with a sallad, for supper; and at all their meals there is a dessert of fruit. This indeed is the practice all over France. On meagre days they eat fish, omelettes, fried beans, fricassees of eggs and onions, and burnt cream. The tea which they drink in the afternoon is rather boiled than infused; it is sweetened all together with coarse sugar, and drank with an equal quantity of boiled milk.

We had the honour to be entertained the other day by our landlord, Mr. B — who spared no cost on this banquet, exhibited for the glory of France. He had invited a newmarried couple, together with the husband’s mother and the lady’s father, who was one of the noblesse of Montreuil, his name Mons. L— y. There were likewise some merchants of the town, and Mons. B—‘s uncle, a facetious little man, who had served in the English navy, and was as big and as round as a hogshead; we were likewise favoured with the company of father K — a native of Ireland, who is vicaire or curate of the parish; and among the guests was Mons. L— y’s son, a pretty boy, about thirteen or fourteen years of age. The repas served up in three services, or courses, with entrees and hors d’oeuvres, exclusive of the fruit, consisted of about twenty dishes, extremely well dressed by the rotisseur, who is the best cook I ever knew, in France, or elsewhere; but the plates were not presented with much order. Our young ladies did not seem to be much used to do the honours of the table. The most extraordinary circumstance that I observed on this occasion — as, that all the French who were present ate of every dish that appeared; and I am told, that if there had been an hundred articles more, they would have had a trial of each. This is what they call doing justice to the founder. Mons. L— y was placed at the head of the table and indeed he was the oracle and orator of the company; tall, thin, and weather-beaten, not unlike the picture of Don Quixote after he had lost his teeth. He had been garde du corps, or life-guardman at Versailles; and by virtue of this office he was perfectly well acquainted with the persons of the king and the dauphin, with the characters of the ministers and grandees, and, in a word, with all the secrets of state, on which he held forth with equal solemnity and elocution. He exclaimed against the jesuits, and the farmers of the revenue, who, he said, had ruined France. Then, addressing himself to me, asked, if the English did not every day drink to the health of madame la marquise? I did not at first comprehend his meaning; but answered in general, that the English were not deficient in complaisance for the ladies. “Ah! (cried he) she is the best friend they have in the world. If it had not been for her, they would not have such reason to boast of the advantages of the war.” I told him the only conquest which the French had made in the war, was atchieved by one of her generals: I meant the taking of Mahon. But I did not choose to prosecute the discourse, remembering that in the year 1749, I had like to have had an affair with a Frenchman at Ghent, who affirmed, that all the battles gained by the great duke of Marlborough were purposely lost by the French generals, in order to bring the schemes of madame de Maintenon into disgrace. This is no bad resource for the national vanity of these people: though, in general, they are really persuaded, that theirs is the richest, the bravest, the happiest, and the most powerful nation under the sun; and therefore, without some such cause, they must be invincible. By the bye, the common people here still frighten their wayward children with the name of Marlborough. Mr. B—‘s son, who was nursed at a peasant’s house, happening one day, after he was brought home, to be in disgrace with his father, who threatened to correct him, the child ran for protection to his mother, crying, “Faites sortir ce vilaine Malbroug,” “Turn out that rogue Marlborough.” It is amazing to hear a sensible Frenchman assert, that the revenues of France amount to four hundred millions of livres, about twenty millions sterling, clear of all incumbrances, when in fact their clear revenue is not much above ten. Without all doubt they have reason to inveigh against the fermiers generaux, who oppress the people in raising the taxes, not above two-thirds of which are brought into the king’s coffers: the rest enriches themselves, and enables them to bribe high for the protection of the great, which is the only support they have against the remonstrances of the states and parliaments, and the suggestions of common sense; which will ever demonstrate this to be, of all others, the most pernicious method of supplying the necessities of government.

Mons. L— y seasoned the severity of his political apothegms with intermediate sallies of mirth and gallantry. He ogled the venerable gentlewoman his commere, who sat by him. He looked, sighed, and languished, sung tender songs, and kissed the old lady’s hand with all the ardour of a youthful admirer. I unfortunately congratulated him on having such a pretty young gentleman to his son. He answered, sighing, that the boy had talents, but did not put them to a proper use —“Long before I attained his age (said he) I had finished my rhetoric.” Captain B — who had eaten himself black in the face, and, with the napkin under his chin, was no bad representation of Sancho Panza in the suds, with the dishclout about his neck, when the duke’s scullions insisted upon shaving him; this sea-wit, turning to the boy, with a waggish leer, “I suppose (said he) you don’t understand the figure of amplification so well as Monsieur your father.” At that instant, one of the nieces, who knew her uncle to be very ticklish, touched him under the short ribs, on which the little man attempted to spring up, but lost the centre of gravity. He overturned his own plate in the lap of the person that sat next to him, and falling obliquely upon his own chair, both tumbled down upon the floor together, to the great discomposure of the whole company; for the poor man would have been actually strangled, had not his nephew loosed his stock with great expedition. Matters being once more adjusted, and the captain condoled on his disaster, Mons. L— y took it in his head to read his son a lecture upon filial obedience. This was mingled with some sharp reproof, which the boy took so ill that he retired. The old lady observed that he had been too severe: her daughter-inlaw, who was very pretty, said her brother had given him too much reason; hinting, at the same time, that he was addicted to some terrible vices; upon which several individuals repeated the interjection, ah! ah! “Yes (said Mons. L— y, with a rueful aspect) the boy has a pernicious turn for gaming: in one afternoon he lost, at billiards, such a sum as gives me horror to think of it.” “Fifty sols in one afternoon,” (cried the sister). “Fifty sols! (exclaimed the mother-inlaw, with marks of astonishment) that’s too much — that’s too much! — he’s to blame — he’s to blame! but youth, you know, Mons. L— y — ah! vive la jeunesse!”—“et l’amour!” cried the father, wiping his eyes, squeezing her hand, and looking tenderly upon her. Mr. B— took this opportunity to bring in the young gentleman, who was admitted into favour, and received a second exhortation. Thus harmony was restored, and the entertainment concluded with fruit, coffee, and liqueurs.

When a bourgeois of Boulogne takes the air, he goes in a one-horse chaise, which is here called cabriolet, and hires it for half-a-crown a day. There are also travelling chaises, which hold four persons, two seated with their faces to the horses, and two behind their backs; but those vehicles are all very ill made, and extremely inconvenient. The way of riding most used in this place is on assback. You will see every day, in the skirts of the town, a great number of females thus mounted, with the feet on either side occasionally, according as the wind blows, so that sometimes the right and sometimes the left hand guides the beast: but in other parts of France, as well as in Italy, the ladies sit on horseback with their legs astride, and are provided with drawers for that purpose.

When I said the French people were kept in good humour by the fopperies of their religion, I did not mean that there were no gloomy spirits among them. There will be fanatics in religion, while there are people of a saturnine disposition, and melancholy turn of mind. The character of a devotee, which is hardly known in England, is very common here. You see them walking to and from church at all hours, in their hoods and long camblet cloaks, with a slow pace, demure aspect, and downcast eye. Those who are poor become very troublesome to the monks, with their scruples and cases of conscience: you may see them on their knees, at the confessional, every hour in the day. The rich devotee has her favourite confessor, whom she consults and regales in private, at her own house; and this spiritual director generally governs the whole family. For my part I never knew a fanatic that was not an hypocrite at bottom. Their pretensions to superior sanctity, and an absolute conquest over all the passions, which human reason was never yet able to subdue, introduce a habit of dissimulation, which, like all other habits, is confirmed by use, till at length they become adepts in the art and science of hypocrisy. Enthusiasm and hypocrisy are by no means incompatible. The wildest fanatics I ever knew, were real sensualists in their way of living, and cunning cheats in their dealings with mankind.

Among the lower class of people at Boulogne, those who take the lead, are the sea-faring men, who live in one quarter, divided into classes, and registered for the service of the king. They are hardy and raw-boned, exercise the trade of fishermen and boatmen, and propagate like rabbits. They have put themselves under the protection of a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary, which is kept in one of their churches, and every year carried in procession. According to the legend, this image was carried off, with other pillage, by the English, when they took Boulogne, in the reign of Henry VIII. The lady, rather than reside in England, where she found a great many heretics, trusted herself alone in an open boat, and crossed the sea to the road of Boulogne, where she was seen waiting for a pilot. Accordingly a boat put off to her assistance, and brought her safe into the harbour: since which time she has continued to patronize the watermen of Boulogne. At present she is very black and very ugly, besides being cruelly mutilated in different parts of her body, which I suppose have been amputated, and converted into tobacco-stoppers; but once a year she is dressed in very rich attire, and carried in procession, with a silver boat, provided at the expence of the sailors. That vanity which characterises the French extends even to the canaille. The lowest creature among them is sure to have her ear-rings and golden cross hanging about her neck. Indeed this last is an implement of superstition as well as of dress, without which no female appears. The common people here, as in all countries where they live poorly and dirtily, are hard-featured, and of very brown, or rather tawny complexions. As they seldom eat meat, their juices are destitute of that animal oil which gives a plumpness and smoothness to the skin, and defends those fine capillaries from the injuries of the weather, which would otherwise coalesce, or be shrunk up, so as to impede the circulation on the external surface of the body. As for the dirt, it undoubtedly blocks up the pores of the skin, and disorders the perspiration; consequently must contribute to the scurvy, itch, and other cutaneous distempers.

In the quarter of the matelots at Boulogne. there is a number of poor Canadians, who were removed from the island of St. John, in the gulph of St. Laurence. when it was reduced by the English. These people are maintained at the expence of the king, who allows them soldier’s pay, that is five sols, or two-pence halfpenny a day; or rather three sols and ammunition bread. How the soldiers contrive to subsist upon this wretched allowance, I cannot comprehend: but, it must be owned, that those invalids who do duty at Boulogne betray no marks of want. They are hale and stout, neatly and decently cloathed, and on the whole look better than the pensioners of Chelsea.

About three weeks ago I was favoured with a visit by one Mr. M — an English gentleman, who seems far gone in a consumption. He passed the last winter at Nismes in Languedoc, and found himself much better in the beginning of summer, when he embarked at Cette, and returned by sea to England. He soon relapsed, however, and (as he imagines) in consequence of a cold caught at sea. He told me, his intention was to try the South again, and even to go as far as Italy. I advised him to make trial of the air of Nice, where I myself proposed to reside. He seemed to relish my advice, and proceeded towards Paris in his own carriage.

I shall tomorrow ship my great chests on board of a ship bound to Bourdeaux; they are directed, and recommended to the care of a merchant of that place, who will forward them by Thoulouse, and the canal of Languedoc, to his correspondent at Cette, which is the sea-port of Montpellier. The charge of their conveyance to Bourdeaux does not exceed one guinea. They consist of two very large chests and a trunk, about a thousand pounds weight; and the expence of transporting them from Bourdeaux to Cette, will not exceed thirty livres. They are already sealed with lead at the customhouse, that they may be exempted from further visitation. This is a precaution which every traveller takes, both by sea and land: he must likewise provide himself with a passe-avant at the bureau, otherwise he may be stopped, and rummaged at every town through which he passes. I have hired a berline and four horses to Paris, for fourteen loui’dores; two of which the voiturier is obliged to pay for a permission from the farmers of the poste; for every thing is farmed in this country; and if you hire a carriage, as I have done, you must pay twelve livres, or half-a-guinea, for every person that travels in it. The common coach between Calais and Paris, is such a vehicle as no man would use, who has any regard to his own case and convenience and it travels at the pace of an English waggon.

In ten days I shall set out on my journey; and I shall leave Boulogne with regret. I have been happy in the acquaintance of Mrs. B — and a few British families in the place; and it was my good fortune to meet here with two honest gentlemen, whom I had formerly known in Paris, as well as with some of my countrymen, officers in the service of France. My next will be from Paris. Remember me to our friends at A—‘s. I am a little heavy-hearted at the prospect of removing to such a distance from you. It is a moot point whether I shall ever return. My health is very precarious. Adieu.

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