Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter VI

Paris, October 12, 1763.

DEAR SIR — Of our journey from Boulogne I have little to say. The weather was favourable, and the roads were in tolerable order. We found good accommodation at Montreuil and Amiens; but in every other place where we stopped, we met with abundance of dirt, and the most flagrant imposition. I shall not pretend to describe the cities of Abbeville and Amiens, which we saw only en passant; nor take up your time with an account of the stables and palace of Chantilly, belonging to the prince of Conde, which we visited the last day of our journey; nor shall I detain you with a detail of the Trefors de St. Denis, which, together with the tombs in the abbey church, afforded us some amusement while our dinner was getting ready. All these particulars are mentioned in twenty different books of tours, travels, and directions, which you have often perused. I shall only observe, that the abbey church is the lightest piece of Gothic architecture I have seen, and the air within seems perfectly free from that damp and moisture, so perceivable in all our old cathedrals. This must be owing to the nature of its situation. There are some fine marble statues that adorn the tombs of certain individuals here interred; but they are mostly in the French taste, which is quite contrary to the simplicity of the antients. Their attitudes are affected, unnatural, and desultory; and their draperies fantastic; or, as one of our English artists expressed himself, they are all of a flutter. As for the treasures, which are shewn on certain days to the populace gratis, they are contained in a number of presses, or armoires, and, if the stones are genuine, they must be inestimable: but this I cannot believe. Indeed I have been told, that what they shew as diamonds are no more than composition: nevertheless, exclusive of these, there are some rough stones of great value, and many curiosities worth seeing. The monk that shewed them was the very image of our friend Hamilton, both in his looks and manner.

I have one thing very extraordinary to observe of the French auberges, which seems to be a remarkable deviation from the general character of the nation. The landlords, hostesses, and servants of the inns upon the road, have not the least dash of complaisance in their behaviour to strangers. Instead of coming to the door, to receive you as in England, they take no manner of notice of you; but leave you to find or enquire your way into the kitchen, and there you must ask several times for a chamber, before they seem willing to conduct you up stairs. In general, you are served with the appearance of the most mortifying indifference, at the very time they are laying schemes for fleecing you of your money. It is a very odd contrast between France and England; in the former all the people are complaisant but the publicans; in the latter there is hardly any complaisance but among the publicans. When I said all the people in France, I ought also to except those vermin who examine the baggage of travellers in different parts of the kingdom. Although our portmanteaus were sealed with lead, and we were provided with a passe-avant from the douane, our coach was searched at the gate of Paris by which we entered; and the women were obliged to get out, and stand in the open street, till this operation was performed.

I had desired a friend to provide lodgings for me at Paris, in the Fauxbourg St. Germain; and accordingly we found ourselves accommodated at the Hotel de Montmorency, with a first floor, which costs me ten livres a day. I should have put up with it had it been less polite; but as I have only a few days to stay in this place, and some visits to receive, I am not sorry that my friend has exceeded his commission. I have been guilty of another piece of extravagance in hiring a carosse de remise, for which I pay twelve livres a day. Besides the article of visiting, I could not leave Paris, without carrying my wife and the girls to see the most remarkable places in and about this capital, such as the Luxemburg, the Palais-Royal, the Thuilleries, the Louvre, the Invalids, the Gobelins, &c. together with Versailles, Trianon, Marli, Meudon, and Choissi; and therefore, I thought the difference in point of expence would not be great, between a carosse de remise and a hackney coach. The first are extremely elegant, if not too much ornamented, the last are very shabby and disagreeable. Nothing gives me such chagrin, as the necessity I am under to hire a valet de place, as my own servant does not speak the language. You cannot conceive with what eagerness and dexterity those rascally valets exert themselves in pillaging strangers. There is always one ready in waiting on your arrival, who begins by assisting your own servant to unload your baggage, and interests himself in your affairs with such artful officiousness, that you will find it difficult to shake him off, even though you are determined beforehand against hiring any such domestic. He produces recommendations from his former masters, and the people of the house vouch for his honesty.

The truth is, those fellows are very handy, useful, and obliging; and so far honest, that they will not steal in the usual way. You may safely trust one of them to bring you a hundred loui’dores from your banker; but they fleece you without mercy in every other article of expence. They lay all your tradesmen under contribution; your taylor, barber, mantua-maker, milliner, perfumer, shoe-maker, mercer, jeweller, hatter, traiteur, and wine-merchant: even the bourgeois who owns your coach pays him twenty sols per day. His wages amount to twice as much, so that I imagine the fellow that serves me, makes above ten shillings a day, besides his victuals, which, by the bye, he has no right to demand. Living at Paris, to the best of my recollection, is very near twice as dear as it was fifteen years ago; and, indeed, this is the case in London; a circumstance that must be undoubtedly owing to an increase of taxes; for I don’t find that in the articles of eating and drinking, the French people are more luxurious than they were heretofore. I am told the entrees, or duties, payed upon provision imported into Paris, are very heavy. All manner of butcher’s meat and poultry are extremely good in this place. The beef is excellent. The wine, which is generally drank, is a very thin kind of Burgundy. I can by no means relish their cookery; but one breakfasts deliciously upon their petit pains and their pales of butter, which last is exquisite.

The common people, and even the bourgeois of Paris live, at this season, chiefly on bread and grapes, which is undoubtedly very wholsome fare. If the same simplicity of diet prevailed in England, we should certainly undersell the French at all foreign markets for they are very slothful with all their vivacity and the great number of their holidays not only encourages this lazy disposition, but actually robs them of one half of what their labour would otherwise produce; so that, if our common people were not so expensive in their living, that is, in their eating and drinking, labour might be afforded cheaper in England than in France. There are three young lusty hussies, nieces or daughters of a blacksmith, that lives just opposite to my windows, who do nothing from morning till night. They eat grapes and bread from seven till nine, from nine till twelve they dress their hair, and are all the afternoon gaping at the window to view passengers. I don’t perceive that they give themselves the trouble either to make their beds, or clean their apartment. The same spirit of idleness and dissipation I have observed in every part of France, and among every class of people.

Every object seems to have shrunk in its dimensions since I was last in Paris. The Louvre, the Palais-Royal, the bridges, and the river Seine, by no means answer the ideas I had formed of them from my former observation. When the memory is not very correct, the imagination always betrays her into such extravagances. When I first revisited my own country, after an absence of fifteen years, I found every thing diminished in the same manner, and I could scarce believe my own eyes.

Notwithstanding the gay disposition of the French, their houses are all gloomy. In spite of all the ornaments that have been lavished on Versailles, it is a dismal habitation. The apartments are dark, ill-furnished, dirty, and unprincely. Take the castle, chapel, and garden all together, they make a most fantastic composition of magnificence and littleness, taste, and foppery. After all, it is in England only, where we must look for cheerful apartments, gay furniture, neatness, and convenience. There is a strange incongruity in the French genius. With all their volatility, prattle, and fondness for bons mots, they delight in a species of drawling, melancholy, church music. Their most favourite dramatic pieces are almost without incident; and the dialogue of their comedies consists of moral, insipid apophthegms, intirely destitute of wit or repartee. I know what I hazard by this opinion among the implicit admirers of Lully, Racine, and Moliere.

I don’t talk of the busts, the statues, and pictures which abound at Versailles, and other places in and about Paris, particularly the great collection of capital pieces in the Palais-royal, belonging to the duke of Orleans. I have neither capacity, nor inclination, to give a critique on these chef d’oeuvres, which indeed would take up a whole volume. I have seen this great magazine of painting three times, with astonishment; but I should have been better pleased, if there had not been half the number: one is bewildered in such a profusion, as not to know where to begin, and hurried away before there is time to consider one piece with any sort of deliberation. Besides, the rooms are all dark, and a great many of the pictures hang in a bad light. As for Trianon, Marli, and Choissi, they are no more than pigeon-houses, in respect to palaces; and, notwithstanding the extravagant eulogiums which you have heard of the French king’s houses, I will venture to affirm that the king of England is better, I mean more comfortably, lodged. I ought, however, to except Fontainebleau, which I have not seen.

The city of Paris is said to be five leagues, or fifteen miles, in circumference; and if it is really so, it must be much more populous than London; for the streets are very narrow, and the houses very high, with a different family on every floor. But I have measured the best plans of these two royal cities, and am certain that Paris does not take up near so much ground as London and Westminster occupy; and I suspect the number of its inhabitants is also exaggerated by those who say it amounts to eight hundred thousand, that is two hundred thousand more than are contained in the bills of mortality. The hotels of the French noblesse, at Paris, take up a great deal of room, with their courtyards and gardens; and so do their convents and churches. It must be owned, indeed, that their streets are wonderfully crouded with people and carriages.

The French begin to imitate the English, but only in such particulars as render them worthy of imitation. When I was last at Paris, no person of any condition, male or female, appeared, but in full dress, even when obliged to come out early in the morning, and there was not such a thing to be seen as a perruque ronde; but at present I see a number of frocks and scratches in a morning, in the streets of this metropolis. They have set up a petite poste, on the plan of our penny-post, with some improvements; and I am told there is a scheme on foot for supplying every house with water, by leaden pipes, from the river Seine. They have even adopted our practice of the cold bath, which is taken very conveniently, in wooden houses, erected on the side of the river, the water of which is let in and out occasionally, by cocks fixed in the sides of the bath. There are different rooms for the different sexes: the accommodations are good, and the expence is a trifle. The tapestry of the Gobelins is brought to an amazing degree of perfection; and I am surprised that this furniture is not more in fashion among the great, who alone are able to purchase it. It would be a most elegant and magnificent ornament, which would always nobly distinguish their apartments from those, of an inferior rank; and in this they would run no risk of being rivalled by the bourgeois. At the village of Chaillot, in the neighbourhood of Paris, they make beautiful carpets and screen-work; and this is the more extraordinary, as there are hardly any carpets used in this kingdom. In almost all the lodging-houses, the floors are of brick, and have no other kind of cleaning, than that of being sprinkled with water, and swept once a day. These brick floors, the stone stairs, the want of wainscotting in the rooms, and the thick party-walls of stone, are, however, good preservatives against fire, which seldom does any damage in this city. Instead of wainscotting, the walls are covered with tapestry or damask. The beds in general are very good, and well ornamented, with testers and curtains.

Twenty years ago the river Seine, within a mile of Paris, was as solitary as if it had run through a desert. At present the banks of it are adorned with a number of elegant houses and plantations, as far as Marli. I need not mention the machine at this place for raising water, because I know you are well acquainted with its construction; nor shall I say any thing more of the city of Paris, but that there is a new square, built upon an elegant plan, at the end of the garden of the Thuilleries: it is called Place de Louis XV. and, in the middle of it, there is a good equestrian statue of the reigning king.

You have often heard that Louis XIV. frequently regretted, that his country did not afford gravel for the walks of his gardens, which are covered with a white, loose sand, very disagreeable both to the eyes and feet of those who walk upon it; but this is a vulgar mistake. There is plenty of gravel on the road between Paris and Versailles, as well as in many other parts of this kingdom; but the French, who are all for glare and glitter, think the other is more gay and agreeable: one would imagine they did not feel the burning reflexion from the white sand, which in summer is almost intolerable.

In the character of the French, considered as a people, there are undoubtedly many circumstances truly ridiculous. You know the fashionable people, who go a hunting, are equipped with their jack boots, bag wigs, swords and pistols: but I saw the other day a scene still more grotesque. On the road to Choissi, a fiacre, or hackney-coach, stopped, and out came five or six men, armed with musquets, who took post, each behind a separate tree. I asked our servant who they were imagining they might be archers, or footpads of justice, in pursuit of some malefactor. But guess my surprise, when the fellow told me, they were gentlemen a la chasse. They were in fact come out from Paris, in this equipage, to take the diversion of hare-hunting; that is, of shooting from behind a tree at the hares that chanced to pass. Indeed, if they had nothing more in view, but to destroy the game, this was a very effectual method; for the hares are in such plenty in this neighbourhood, that I have seen a dozen together, in the same field. I think this way of hunting, in a coach or chariot, might be properly adopted at London, in favour of those aldermen of the city, who are too unwieldy to follow the hounds a horseback.

The French, however, with all their absurdities, preserve a certain ascendancy over us, which is very disgraceful to our nation; and this appears in nothing more than in the article of dress. We are contented to be thought their apes in fashion; but, in fact, we are slaves to their taylors, mantua-makers, barbers, and other tradesmen. One would be apt to imagine that our own tradesmen had joined them in a combination against us. When the natives of France come to London, they appear in all public places, with cloaths made according to the fashion of their own country, and this fashion is generally admired by the English. Why, therefore, don’t we follow it implicitly? No, we pique ourselves upon a most ridiculous deviation from the very modes we admire, and please ourselves with thinking this deviation is a mark of our spirit and liberty. But, we have not spirit enough to persist in this deviation, when we visit their country: otherwise, perhaps, they would come to admire and follow our example: for, certainly, in point of true taste, the fashions of both countries are equally absurd. At present, the skirts of the English descend from the fifth rib to the calf of the leg, and give the coat the form of a Jewish gaberdine; and our hats seem to be modelled after that which Pistol wears upon the stage. In France, the haunch buttons and pocketholes are within half a foot of the coat’s extremity: their hats look as if they had been pared round the brims, and the crown is covered with a kind of cordage, which, in my opinion, produces a very beggarly effect. In every other circumstance of dress, male and female, the contrast between the two nations, appears equally glaring. What is the consequence? when an Englishman comes to Paris, he cannot appear until he has undergone a total metamorphosis. At his first arrival he finds it necessary to send for the taylor, perruquier, hatter, shoemaker, and every other tradesman concerned in the equipment of the human body. He must even change his buckles, and the form of his ruffles; and, though at the risque of his life, suit his cloaths to the mode of the season. For example, though the weather should be never so cold, he must wear his habit d’ete, or demi-saison. without presuming to put on a warm dress before the day which fashion has fixed for that purpose; and neither old age nor infirmity will excuse a man for wearing his hat upon his head, either at home or abroad. Females are (if possible) still more subject to the caprices of fashion; and as the articles of their dress are more manifold, it is enough to make a man’s heart ake to see his wife surrounded by a multitude of cotturieres, milliners, and tire-women. All her sacks and negligees must be altered and new trimmed. She must have new caps, new laces, new shoes, and her hair new cut. She must have her taffaties for the summer, her flowered silks for the spring and autumn, her sattins and damasks for winter. The good man, who used to wear the beau drop d’Angleterre, quite plain all the year round, with a long bob, or tye perriwig, must here provide himself with a camblet suit trimmed with silver for spring and autumn, with silk cloaths for summer, and cloth laced with gold, or velvet for winter; and he must wear his bag-wig a la pigeon. This variety of dress is absolutely indispensible for all those who pretend to any rank above the meer bourgeois. On his return to his own country, all this frippery is useless. He cannot appear in London until he has undergone another thorough metamorphosis; so that he will have some reason to think, that the tradesmen of Paris and London have combined to lay him under contribution: and they, no doubt, are the directors who regulate the fashions in both capitals; the English, however, in a subordinate capacity: for the puppets of their making will not pass at Paris, nor indeed in any other part of Europe; whereas a French petit maitre is reckoned a complete figure every where, London not excepted. Since it is so much the humour of the English at present to run abroad, I wish they had anti-gallican spirit enough to produce themselves in their own genuine English dress, and treat the French modes with the same philosophical contempt, which was shewn by an honest gentleman, distinguished by the name of Wig-Middleton. That unshaken patriot still appears in the same kind of scratch perriwig, skimming-dish hat, and slit sleeve, which were worn five-and-twenty years ago, and has invariably persisted in this garb, in defiance of all the revolutions of the mode. I remember a student in the temple, who, after a long and learned investigation of the to kalon, or beautiful, had resolution enough to let his beard grow, and wore it in all public places, until his heir at law applied for a commission of lunacy against him; then he submitted to the razor, rather than run any risque of being found non compos.

Before I conclude, I must tell you, that the most reputable shop-keepers and tradesmen of Paris think it no disgrace to practise the most shameful imposition. I myself know an instance of one of the most creditable marchands in this capital, who demanded six francs an ell for some lutestring, laying his hand upon his breast at the same time, and declaring en conscience, that it had cost him within three sols of the money. Yet in less than three minutes, he sold it for four and a half, and when the buyer upbraided him with his former declaration, he shrugged up his shoulders, saying, il faut marchander. I don’t mention this as a particular instance. The same mean disingenuity is universal all over France, as I have been informed by several persons of veracity.

The next letter you have from me will probably be dated at Nismes, or Montpellier. Mean-while, I am ever — Yours.

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