French Life, by Elizabeth Gaskell


Paris, February, 1862.

We went to-day along the Boulevard Sévastopol, Rive Gauche, to pay a call. I knew the district well about six years ago, when it was a network of narrow tortuous streets; the houses high, irregular, picturesque, historical, dirty, and unhealthy. I used to have much difficulty in winding my way to certain points in the Quartier Latin from the Faubourg St. Germain, where I was staying. Now, the Hôtel Cluny is enclosed in a neat garden, the railings of which run alongside of the Boulevard Sévastopol; a little further, on the same side to the left, the Sorbonne Church is well exposed to view; and the broad artery of the new Boulevard runs up to the Luxembourg gardens, making a clear passage for air and light through the densely populated quartier. It is a great gain in all material points; a great loss to memory and to that kind of imagination which loves to repeople places. The street in which our friend lived was old and narrow; the trottoir was barely wide enough for one uncrinolined person to walk on; and it was impossible to help being splashed by the passing carriages, which indeed threw dirt upon the walls of the houses till there was a sort of dado of mud all along the street. In the grander streets of former days this narrowness did not signify; the houses were of the kind called entre cour et jardin (of which there are specimens in Piccadilly), with the porter’s lodge, the offices, and stables abutting on the street; the grand court intervening between the noise and bustle and the high dwelling-house of the family, which out-topped the low buildings in front. But in the humbler street to which we were bound there were few houses entre cour et jardin; and I could not help wondering how people bore to live in the perpetual noise, and heavy closeness of atmosphere.

The friend we were going to see, Madame A — had lived in this street for many years. Her rooms were lofty and tolerably large. The gloomy outlook of the long narrow windows was concealed by the closed muslin curtains, which were of an irreproachable whiteness. I knew the rooms of old. We had to pass through the salle-à-manger to the salon; and from thence we, being intimate friends, went on into her bedroom. The salle-à-manger had an inlaid floor, very slippery, and without a carpet; the requisite chairs and tables were the only furniture. The pile of clean dinner-plates was placed on the top of a china stove; a fire would be lighted in it, half-an-hour before dinner, which would warm the plates as well as the room. The salon was graced with the handsome furniture of thirty or forty years ago; but it was a room to be looked at rather than used. Indeed, the family only sit in it on Sunday evenings, when they receive. The floor was parqueté in this room, but here and there it was covered with small brilliantly-coloured Persian carpets: before the sofa, underneath the central table, and before the fire. There were the regular pieces of furniture which were de rigueur in a French household of respectability when Madame A— was married: the gilt vases of artificial flowers, each under a glass shade; the clock, with a figure of a naked hero, supposed to represent Achilles, leaning on his shield (the face of the clock); and the “guéridon” (round, marble-topped table), which was so long the one indispensable article in a French drawing-room.

But, altogether, Madame A—’s salon does not look very habitable; and we pass on into the bed-room, which has little enough of daylight coming through the high narrow windows, but is bright and home-like from the brilliant blaze and flicker of the wood-fire on the hearth. In the far corner is the bed: a grand four-post, with looped-up draperies of some warm colour, which I dare say would prove to be faded if one were to see them close, in full country daylight; but which look like a pictorial background to the rest of the room. On each side of the fire is a great arm-chair; in front is a really comfortable sofa: not elegant, nor hard, nor gilded like the sofas in the drawing-room, but broad, low, clean, fit to serve, as I dare say it has done before now, for a bed on occasion. Parallel to this, but further from the fire, is a table with Madame’s work-box; her two pots of flowers, looking as fresh as if the plants were growing in a country garden; the miniatures of her children, set up on little wooden easels; and her books of devotion.

But Madame reads more than books of devotion. She is up in the best modern literature of more than one country. To-day, we were exceedingly struck with her great powers of narration. She seizes the points of a story and reproduces them in the most effective simple language. She is certainly aided in this by her noble, expressive face, still bearing traces of remarkable beauty in the severe and classical style. Her gesticulation, too, is unlike what we commonly call French; there is no rapid action of the graceful hands and arms, but a gentle and slow movement from time to time, as if they sympathised with the varying expression of her face. She sat by her fire-side, dressed in black, her constant colour; which she wears as appropriate to her age rather than to her condition, for she is not a widow. Every now and then, she addressed a few tender words to an invalid of the family; showing that with all her lively interest in the histories she was telling us, her eye and ear were watchful for the slightest signs of discomfort in another . . . .

Our conversation drifted along to the old French custom of receiving in bed. It was so highly correct, that the newly-made wife of the Duc de St. Simon went to bed, after the early dinner of those days, in order to receive her wedding-visits. The Duchesse de Maine, of the same date, used to have a bed in the ball-room at Sceaux, and to lie (or half-sit) there, watching the dancers. I asked if there was not some difference in dress between the day- and the night-occupation of the bed. But Madame A— seemed to think there was very little. The custom was put an end to by the Revolution; but one or two great ladies preserved the habit until their death. Madame A— had often seen Madame de Villette receiving in bed; she always wore white gloves, which Madame A— imagined was the only difference between the toilette of day and night. Madame de Villette was the adopted daughter of Voltaire, and, as such, all the daring innovators upon the ancient modes of thought and behaviour came to see her, and pay her their respects. She was also the widow of the Marquis de Villette, and as such she received the homage of the ladies and gentlemen of the ancien régime.

Altogether her weekly receptions must have been very amusing, from Madame A—’s account. The old Marquise lay in bed; around her sat the company; and, as the climax of the visit, she would desire her femme de chambre to hand round the heart of Voltaire, which he had bequeathed to her, and which she preserved in a little golden case. Then she would begin and tell anecdotes about the great man; great to her, and with some justice. For he had been travelling in the South of France, and had stopped to pass the night in a friend’s house, where he was very much struck by the deep sadness on the face of a girl of seventeen, one of his friend’s daughters; and, on inquiring the cause, he found out that, in order to increase the portions of the others, this young woman was to be sent into a convent — a destination which she extremely disliked. Voltaire saved her from it by adopting her, and promising to give her a dot sufficient to insure her a respectable marriage. She had lived with him for some time at Ferney before she became Marquise de Villette. (You will remember the connexion existing between her husband’s family and Madame de Maintenon, as well as with Bolingbroke’s second wife.)

Madame de Villette must have been an exceedingly inconséquente person, to judge from Madame A—’s very amusing description of her conversation. Her sentences generally began with an assertion which was disproved by what followed. Such as, “It was wonderful with what ease Voltaire uttered witty impromptus. He would shut himself up in his library all the morning, and in the evening he would gracefully lead the conversation to the point he desired, and then bring out the verse or the epigram he had composed for the occasion, in the most unpremeditated and easy manner!” Or, “He was the most modest of men. When a stranger arrived at Ferney, his first care was to take him round the village, and to show him all the improvements he had made, the good he had done, the church he had built. And he was never easy until he had given the new-comer the opportunity of hearing his most recent compositions.” Then she would show an old grandfather’s high-backed, leather, arm-chair, in which she said he wrote his Henriade, forgetting that he was at that time quite a young man.

Madame A— said that Madame de Villette’s receptions were worth attending, because they conveyed an idea of the ways of society before the Revolution. There was one old French marquis, a contemporary of Madame de Villette’s, who regularly came with his chapeau-bras under his arm, to pay her his respects, and to talk over the good old times when both were young. Voltaire had called her “Belle et Bonne”, and by these epithets her friend the Marquis saluted her to her dying day.

Belle et bonne Marquise,” (and she had long ceased to be “belle;” even the other adjective was a matter of doubt,) “do you know why I preserve this old hat with so much care, — with reverence, I may say?” said this friend to her one day. “Years ago it had the privilege of saving your lovely cheek from being cut by the glass of your carriage-window, when by some mal-adroitness you were on the point of being overturned, ma belle et bonne Marquise.”

February. — We are staying with a French family of the middle class; and I cannot help noticing the ways of daily life here, so different from those of England. We are a party of seven; and we live on the fourth floor, which is extensive enough to comprise the two sitting-rooms, the bedrooms, the kitchen, and the chamber for the two maids. I do not dislike this plan of living in a flat, especially as it is managed in Paris. I have seen the same mode adopted in Edinburgh and Rome, besides other continental towns; but, as in these towns there is no concierge, I have never liked it so much as in Paris. Here it seems to me to save one servant’s work, at the least: and, besides this, there is the moral advantage of uniting mistresses and maids in a more complete family bond. I remember a very charming young married lady, who had been brought by her husband from the country to share his home in Ashley Buildings, Victoria Street, saying that she had two of her former Sunday scholars as servants, but that, if they had had to live in the depths of a London kitchen, she should not have tried bringing them out of their primitive country homes; as it was, she could have them under her own eye without any appearance of watching them; and, besides this, she could hear of their joys and sorrows and, by taking an interest in their interests, induce them to care for hers. French people appear to me to live in this pleasant kind of familiarity with their servants — a familiarity which does not breed contempt, in spite of proverbs.

The concierge here receives letters and parcels for the different families in the house, which he generally brings up himself, or sends by one of his family. Sometimes they are kept in the compartments appropriated to each family in the conciergerie; and any one of the inhabitants who may return to the house looks in, and seldom fails to have the complaisance to bring up letters, cards, or parcels for any family living below his étage. The concierge is paid by the landlord for these services, in which is included the carrying up or down of a moderate quantity of luggage. A certain portion of every load of wood or coal belongs to the concierge, as payment for carrying it up to the respective apartments for which it is destined. If he cleans the shoes and knives for any family, they pay him separately. He also expects an étrenne from each of the locataires on New Year’s day; say a napoleon from each family, and half that sum from any bachelors lodging in the house. Very often he knows how to wait at table, and his services are available for a consideration to any one living in the house. But he must always provide a deputy in case of absence from his post. As the concierges are, however, generally married, this does not press very hard upon him.

In the house where we are staying, the custom is for every one going out at night to lock up their apartment, desiring the servants to go to bed at the usual time; to hide the key in some well-known and customary place (under the door-mat for instance), and to take a bed-candle down to the conciergerie. When we return from our party, or whatever it may be, we ring the bell, and the concierge, — perhaps asleep in bed in his little cabinet, — “pulls the string, and the latch flies up,” as in the days of Little Red Ridinghood; we come in, shut the great porte-cochère, open the ever-unfastened door of the conciergerie, light our own particular bed-candles at the dim little lamp, pick out any letters, &c., belonging to us, which may have come in by the late post, and go quietly up stairs. This sounds unsafe to our English ears, as it would seem that any one might come in; but I believe there is a small window of inspection in all conciergeries which may be used in cases of suspicion. The French at any rate esteem it more safe than our self-contained houses; and French servants in a modest household, where no personal attendants are kept, would be very indignant if they had to sit up for their mistresses’ gaieties. For, as a rule, French servants are up earlier than English ones.

In this house is a salle-à-manger with a fire-place, and a parquetted floor without a carpet. The shape is an oblong, with the two corners near the door of entrance cut off to form cupboards. The walls are wainscoted with deal, that is afterwards painted oak. The window-curtains and portières are made of handsome dark Algerine stripe. As far as I can see, carpets are not considered a necessary article of furniture in France, but portières are. And, certainly, the rich folds of the latter, and the polished floors, off which every crumb or drop of grease is cleansed immediately, take my fancy very much. A door on one side of the windows opens into Madame’s room; on the opposite side, another leads into the drawing-room.

If we were French we should have a cup of café-au-lait and piece of bread brought into our bedrooms every morning; but, in deference to us as strangers, a tray (without a napkin) with sugar, a copper pan containing the boiling milk just taken off the kitchen fire, and the white covered jug of bright strong coffee, is put on the dining-room table. Also, in deference to our English luxury, there is a plate of butter; our French friends never take butter, and not always bread, at this early breakfast. But where is the bread? I look round, and at last see a basket, about a yard high, standing on the ground near the fireplace; it is of dimensions just sufficient to hold a roll of bread a yard long and more, and about as thick as a man’s wrist. It looks like a veritable staff of life. None of our French friends think of completing their toilette for this early breakfast, which indeed, as I have said, they would have taken in their bedrooms, if we had not been here. Nor, indeed, is it any family gathering. I sometimes see the old black skirts of our hostess quickly vanishing into her bedroom at the sound of my approach; and perhaps I find Nanette, the youngest daughter, in a coloured petticoat and white camisole, her thick black hair put neatly away under a cap which is on the full-dress side of a nightcap. She reddens a little as she wishes me Bon jour, as she knows that hers is not the finished morning-toilette of an English young lady. But, two hours hence, who so neat as Nanette in her clean print-gown of some delicate pattern, her black hair all brushed, and plaited, and waved, and crêpé? For now she has done her household work; perhaps she has helped Julie to make her own bed; she has certainly dusted her room, with all its knick-knacks and ornaments.

Madame, too, has been out to market; half across Paris, it may be, in her old black gown, to some shop she knows of, where she fancies such and such an article can be had better or cheaper. She has gone by the omnibus, taking advantage of the correspondance, by which, on payment of thirty centimes, and declaring her wish for a correspondance ticket to the conducteur of that which passes her door, she is conveyed in it to the general omnibus office, close to the Place des Victoires, where she may have to wait for a few minutes for an omnibus going in the direction for which her correspondance ticket is taken. If she has to return by any of the midway stations at which omnibuses stop, she has to purchase a ticket with a number upon it at the bureau, and await her turn, at busy times of the day — say at five o’clock, at the Place Palais-Royal. Her number may be eighty-seven, while the next Grenelle omnibus is filling with twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, and so on, as the conducteur calls the numbers. But in the morning they are not so crowded; and Madame is always at home, and dressed with delicate neatness, by eleven o’clock, the time of our “second déjeûner,” or what we should call lunch in England. This breakfast consists generally of cold meat, a rechauffé of some entrée or dressed vegetables of the day before, an omelette, bread, wine, and a pot of confitures. For us our kind hostess has tea; but I can see that this is not their ordinary custom. It is curious to see how little butter is eaten in a French family; they, however, make up for this by the much greater use of it in cookery; for vegetables form, a dish by themselves, always requiring either gravy, butter, or oil, in their preparation. After lunch is over, we all sit down to work; perhaps Nanette practises a little, and perhaps some of us go out for a walk, but always with some object, either of pleasure or business. A Frenchwoman never takes a walk in the English constitutional sense. There are books about in the salon, but not so many as in England. They have nothing equivalent to “Mudie” in Paris, and the books of their circulating libraries are of so very mixed a character, that no careful mother likes to have them lying about on the table, Indeed, “novels and romances” are under much the same ban as they were under in England seventy or eighty years ago. There is the last Revue des Deux Mondes, and a pamphlet or two besides, lying by Madame’s work-basket, and there are the standard French authors in the bookcase in the cupboard. Yet, somehow, my friends always know what is going on in the literary world of Paris. The newspapers here are so doctored that they are deprived of much of the interest which usually attaches to political news; but I generally see La Presse lying about.

Once a week, Madame “receives.” Then the covers are taken off the furniture in the salon; a fresh nosegay is put in the vase; Madame and Mademoiselle and Nanette put off their final dressing for the day till after the second breakfast, and then appear in the gowns they wear on jours de fêtes. Monsieur keeps out of the way, but nevertheless is much disappointed if, when we all meet together at dinner, we have not accumulated a little stock of news and gossip to amuse him with. Madame’s day of reception is well known to all her friends and acquaintances, who make a point of calling on her two or three times a season. But sometimes no one comes at all on the Thursdays, and it is rather flat to sit from two to five or thereabouts in our company dresses, with our company faces, all for no use. Then again, on other Thursdays, the room is quite full, and I sit and admire Madame’s tact. A new arrival comes up to her, and, without appearing to displace any one, the last comer invariably finds an empty chair by the lady of the house. The hostess also accompanies every departing guest to the room-door, and they part with pretty speeches of affection and good-will, sincere enough, I do not doubt, but expressive of just those feelings which the English usually keep in the background.

On Thursdays we have generally much the same sort of dinner that in England we associate with the idea of washing-days; for both Julie and Gabrielle have been busy admitting or letting out visitors; or at any rate Madame anticipated this probability when she ordered dinner.

The dinner-hour is six o’clock; real, sharp six. And here I may warn my English friends of the necessity of punctuality to the hour specified in a French dinner invitation. In England, a quarter of an hour beyond the time is considered as nothing, and half an hour’s grace is generally acceded. But it is not so in France; and it is considered very ill-bred to be behind the time. And this remark applies not merely to the middle-class life I have been describing, but to the highest circles. Indeed, the French have an idea that punctuality is a virtue unknown among the English; and numerous were the stories of annoyance from English unpunctuality which the French officers brought home from the Crimea. But, to return to our day at Madame —’s . We do not dress for dinner, as we should do in England; that ceremony, as they consider it — refreshment, as we should call it — is reserved for the days when we go into society, and then it takes place after dinner.

We have soup-always good. On Fridays we have fish; not from any religious feeling, but because that is the day when the best fish is brought into Paris, and it is not very fresh even then. Then we have a made-dish, or two or three times a week the bouilli from which the stock for the soup is made-a tender, substantial, little hunch of boiled beef of no known joint. Then come the vegetables, cooked with thick rich gravy, which raises them to the rank they hold in a French dinner, instead of being merely an accessory to the meat, as they are in England. The rôti and the salad follow. The mixing of the salad is too important an operation to be trusted to a servant. As we are here, Madame does not like to leave her visitors; but I see Gabrielle peep from behind the portiéres, and make a sign to Mademoiselle about five minutes before dinner; and Mademoiselle goes into the salle-à-manger, and Madame rather loses the thread of her discourse, and looks wistfully after her daughter; for, if Monsieur is particular about anything, it is about his salads. Strictly speaking, Madame tells me, the vegetables ought to be gathered while the soup is on the table, washed and cleansed while we are eating the bouilli, and sliced and dressed with the proper accompaniments while the rôti is being brought in. Madame’s mother always mixed it at the table, she says, and I have no doubt Madame follows the hereditary precedent herself, when she has no foreign visitors staying with her. After this, a chocolate custard, or a sweet omelette, a purée of apples, perhaps; and then dessert is put on the table — a bit of gruyére cheese under a glass, and the “Quatre Mendiants,” i.e., nuts, almonds, raisins, figs, called after the four begging Orders of friars, because these fruits are so cheap that any beggar can have them.

We have a little cup of black coffee all round, when we return to the salon; and, if we were not here, our friends would have nothing more that night; but out of compliment to us there is tea at nine o’clock, that is to say, there is hot water with a spoonful of tea soaked in it. They look upon this mixture in much the same light as we consider sal volatile — not quite as a dram, but as something that ought to be used medicinally, and not as a beverage.

March 10th. — Madame and I have had a long talk about prices, expenditure, &c. As far as I can make out, provisions are to the full as dear as in London; house-rent is dearer, servants’ wages are much the same. She pays her cook and housemaid four hundred and fifty and four hundred francs respectively. But the household work is differently arranged to what it is in England. The cook takes the entire charge of a certain portion of the apartment, bedrooms included; the housemaid attends to the rest, waits at table, helps one of the daughters of the house to get up the fine linen, and renders them any little services they may require in dressing. The cook is enabled to take part of the household-work, because it is the custom in Paris to prepare provisions in the shops where they are sold, so that the cook can buy a sweetbread, or small joint, or poultry, ready-larded, the spinach ready-boiled and pulped for a purée, vegetables all cut into shapes for her soup, and so on. The milk, which I had remarked upon as so remarkably good, is, it appears, subjected to the supervision of inspectors armed with lactomètres, delicately-weighted glass-tubes marked with degrees: this ought to sink up to a particular number in good unadulterated milk, and all that is brought into Paris is tested in this and other ways at the various barrières. It is very difficult, however, to obtain milk in the afternoons or evenings, even at the crêmeries, without ordering it beforehand. The Government regulates the price of bread, which is lower in Paris than in the neighbouring towns; the legal tariff is exposed in every baker’s shop, and false weights and measures are severely punished.

As to dress, from what I can gather, I think that good articles bear the same price as in England; but in our shops it is difficult to meet with an inferior article in even moderately good taste, while in France those who are obliged to consider expense can find cheap materials of the most elegant design. Then French ladies give up so much more thought and time to dress than the English do; I mean in such ways as changing a gown repeatedly in the course of a day if occasion requires, taking care never to wear a better dress when an inferior one will do — no! not even for five unnecessary minutes. And, when handsome articles are taken off, they are put by with as much care as if they were sleeping babies laid down in a cot. Silver paper is put between every fold of velvet or of silk; cushions of paper are placed so as to keep the right sit of any part; ribbons are rolled up; soiled spots are taken out immediately; and thus the freshness of dress which we so much admire in Frenchwomen is preserved; but, as I said, at a considerable expense of time and thought in the case of people of moderate means. Madame — declares that she knows many a young French couple who have reduced their table to the lowest degree of meagreness, in order that the wife (especially) might be well dressed. She says that dress is the only expenditure for which a Frenchwoman will go into debt.

I remember some years ago hearing a letter from the Prince de Ligne read at Lord E—’s . He gave an account in it of the then recent coronation at Moscow, and went on to speak of the French Emperor’s politics. As one of his engines of influence, the Prince gravely named le luxe de la toilette, as an acknowledged political means. At the time, I remember, I wondered in silence; but things have come to my knowledge since then which make me understand what was then meant. Six years ago a friend took me to call on Madame de —. It was a raw, splashy, February day; and, as we walked through the slushy streets, half-covered with melting snow, my friend told me something about the lady we were going to see. Madame de — was married to the eldest son of a Frenchman of rank; she herself belonged to an old family. Her husband was a distinguished member of one of the Academies, and held a high position among those who had devoted themselves to his particular branch of recondite knowledge. Madame de — was one of the lionnes of Paris, and as a specimen of her class we were now going to see her. She and her husband had somewhere about seven thousand a year; but for economy’s sake they lived in an apartment rather than a house. They had, I think, two or three children. I recollect feeling how out of place my substantial winter-dress and my splashed boots were, the moment I entered the little ball or anteroom of her apartment.

The floor was covered with delicate Indian matting, and round the walls ran a bordering of snowdrops, crocuses, violets, and primroses, as fresh and flowering as if they were growing in a wood, but all planted by some Paris gardener in boxes of soil, and renewed perpetually. Then we went into the lady’s own boudoir. She was about thirty, of a very peculiar style of beauty, which grew upon me every moment I looked. She had black hair, long black curling eyelashes, long soft grey eyes, a smooth olive skin, a dimple, and most beautiful teeth. She was in mourning; her thick hair fastened up with great pins of pearls and amethysts, her ear-rings, brooch, bracelets, all the same. Her gown was of black watered silk, lined with violet silk (wherever a lining could be seen), her boots black watered silk, her petticoat of stiff white silk, with a wreath of violet-coloured embroidery just above the hem. Her manners were soft and caressing to the last degree; and, when she was told that I had come to see her as a specimen of her class, she was prettily amused, and took pains to show me all her arrangements and coquetteries. In her boudoir there was not a speck of gilding; that would have been bad taste, she said. Around the mirrors, framed in white polished wood, creeping plants were trained so that the tropical flowers fell over and were reflected in the glass. There was a fire, fed with cedar-wood chips; and the crimson velvet curtains on each side of the grate had perfumes quilted within their white silk linings. The window-curtains were trimmed with point lace. We went through a little ante-chamber to Madame de —’s bed-room — an oblong room, with her bed filling up half the space on one side; the other all wardrobe, with six or seven doors covered with looking-glass, and opening into as many closets. After we had admired the rare Palissy ware, the lace draperies of the mirror, the ornaments on the toilette-table, and the pink silk curtains of the bed, she laughed her little soft laugh, and told me that now I should see how she amused herself as she lay in bed of a morning: and pulling something like a bell-rope which hung at the head of her bed, the closet doors flew open, and displayed gowns hung on wire frames (such as you may see at any milliner’s ): gowns for the evening, and gowns for the morning, with the appropriate head-dresses, chaussures, and gloves, lying by them.

“I have not many gowns,” said she. “I do not like having too many, for I never wear them after they are a month old; I give them to my maid then, for I never wear anything that is old-fashioned.”

I was quite satisfied with my lionne. She was quite as much out of the way of anything I had ever seen before as I had expected. But, to go on with the bearing she had upon the Prince de Ligne’s letter, I must not forget to say that Madame de — expressed very strong political opinions, and all distinctly anti-Bonapartean. Among other things she mentioned was the fact that, when her husband went to pay his respects as a member of the Academy of — to the Emperor at the Tuileries, she would not allow him to use their carriage (nor indeed was he willing to do it, but went in a hackney coach), saying that the arms of the de — s should never be seen in the courts of a usurper. Two years afterwards I came to Paris, and I inquired after M. and Madame de —. To my infinite surprise, I heard that he had become a senator, one of that body who receive about a thousand pounds a year from Government, and who are admitted to that dignity by the express will of the Emperor. How in the world could it have come about? And Madame, too, at all the balls and receptions at the Tuileries! The arms of the de — were no longer invisible in the courts of a usurper. What was the reason of this change? Madame’s extravagance. Their income would not suffice for her luxe de toilette, and the senator’s salary was a very acceptable addition.

April 24th. — We were asked to go in some evening, pour dire le petit bon-soir, at a neighbour’s house. Accordingly we walked thither about eight o’clock. M. E—‘s house is one of the most magnificent in this quartier: it is on the newly-built Boulevard de Sévastopol. M. E— himself is a leading man in his particular branch of trade, which, in fact, he has made himself; and he is now a French millionaire, as different from an English one as francs are different from pounds. I remember, when I first knew monsieur and madame, they lived in an apartment over the shop; and this was situated in one of the narrow old streets of the Quartier Latin. I was asked there to dinner, and I had to make my way through bales of goods, that were piled as high as walls on each side of the narrow passage through the shop. I went through madame’s bed-room, furnished with purple velvet and amber satin, to the room where we assembled before dinner.

It was a weekly dinner, at which all M. E—’s family came, as a matter of course; and any one connected with him in business was also sure of finding a place there. The table was spread with every luxury, and there was almost an ostentatious evidence of wealth, which contrasted oddly and simply with the hard signs of business and trade down below. I fancy their way of living at that time must have been like that of the great old City families of the last century. And there was another resemblance. Two generations ago it was customary for our own London merchants to retain their married children under the paternal roof, for the first year at least; and so it was at M. E—’s . His own child, his wife’s children - for they had each been married before — lived in the same house as he did, both in winter and summer, in town and country. Yet the younger generation were all married, and had families. All the grandchildren, little and big, were assembled at these weekly dinners; if there was not room for them at the principal table, there were nurses and servants ready to attend upon them at side-tables. And now, when increasing and well-deserved prosperity has enabled M. E— to remove into the large hotel to which we have been to-night, to “say our little good-evening,” I find that his sons and his daughters, his maid-servants and his men-servants, have all migrated with him in truly patriarchal fashion.

We did not see them all to-night, for some have already gone into the country, whither the others are going to follow in a day or two. Out of compliment to us, tea was brought in — tea at a guinea the pound, as Madame E— informed us. I saw that the family did not like the drink well enough to wish to join us. There was a little telegraphing as to who was to be the victim, and keep us company; and the young lady singled out as the tea-drinker for the family took care to put in so much sugar that I doubt if she could recognise the flavour of anything else. The others excused themselves from taking tea by saying — one, that she had been so feverish all day; another, that he felt himself a good deal excited, and so on. Sugar is considered by the French as fitted to soothe the nerves, and to induce sleep. I really am becoming a convert to this idea, and can take my glass of eau sucrêe as well as any one before going to bed; indeed, we have a little tray in our bed-room, on which is a Bohemian glass caraffe of water, a goblet with a gold spoon, and a bowl of powdered sugar. But I think it is a drink for society, not for solitude. Inspirited by the example of others, I relish it; but I never tipple at it in private.

Somehow, to-night we began to talk upon the custom of different families of relations living together. I said it would never do in England. They asked me, why not? And, after some reflection, I was obliged to confess we all liked our own ways too much to be willing to give them up at the will of others — were too independent, too great lovers of our domestic privacy. I am afraid I gave the impression that we English were too ill-tempered and unaccommodating; for I drew down upon myself a vehement attack upon the difficulties thrown in the way of young people’s marrying in England.

“Even when there is a great large house, and a table well-spread enough to fill many additional mouths, they tell me that in England the parents will go on letting their sons and daughters waste the best years of their lives in long engagements,” said Madame E—. “That does not sound to me amiable.”

“It is not the custom in France,” put in her husband. “You English are apt to think us bad-tempered, because we talk loud, and use a good deal of gesticulation; but I believe we are one of the most good-tempered nations going, in spite of the noise we make.”

By-and-by, some one began to speak of Les Misérables; and M. E — like a prosperous merchant as he is, objected to the socialist tendency of the book. From that we went on talking about a grève (or strike) which had lately taken place among the builders in Paris. They had obtained their point, whatever it was, because it was the supreme aim of the Government to keep the “blouses” — the Faubourg St. Antoine — in good-humour; and “Government,” in fact, has the regulation of everything in France. M. E— said that the carpenters were now about to strike, encouraged by the success of the builders, and that he heard from his own carpenter that the object they were going to aim at was that skilled and unskilled labour should be paid at the same rate — viz., five francs a-day. He added that the carpenter, his informant, looked upon this project with disfavour, saying it might be all very well as long as there was enough of work for all; but, when it grew scarce, none but the best workmen would have any employment, as no one would send for an inferior craftsman, when he could have a first-rate one for the same money.

May 4th. — It is becoming intolerably hot in Paris. I almost wish the builders would strike, for my part, for the carriages scarcely cease rambling past my open windows before two; and at five the men are clapping and hammering at the buildings of the new boulevard opposite. I have had to go into the narrow streets of the older parts of Paris lately; and the smells there are insufferable — a mixture of drains and cookery, which makes one loathe one’s food. Yet how interesting these old streets are! and the people inhabiting them are quite different to those of the more fashionable quarters: they have so much more originality of character about them; and yet one sees that they are the descendants of the Dames de la Halle, who went out to Versailles on the memorable fifth of October.

I see curious little customs too in these more primitive parts of the town. Every morning a certain number of Sisters of Charity put themselves at the disposal of the Mairie of the Arrondissements. There were formerly only twelve arrondissements; but now, owing to the extension of the city of Paris, there are twenty. In the former days, before the annexation of the suburbs to the city in 1859, by which the number of the arrondissements was increased to twenty, it was “slang” to speak of any disreputable person as belonging to the treizième — an arrondissement not recognised by any law. Every such division has a maire and two adjoints, who are responsible for the well-doing and well-being of the district in their charge. I see the “Sisters” leaving the Mairie on their errands of mercy early every morning. About the same time the chiffonier comes his rounds, eagerly raking out the heaps of dust and rubbish before the doors. Then, by-and-by — generally, however, after eleven, that universal meal-hour — I meet an old woman busily trotting along towards the Luxembourg Gardens, surrounded by fifteen or twenty little children, aged from two or three years to seven or eight. Their parents pay the old lady about ten centimes an hour to take their children out, and give them a walk or a game of play in the gardens.

It is pretty to see her convoy her little regiment over a crossing; it reminds me of the old puzzle of the fox, the goose, and the bag of corn. The elder children are left in charge on one side, while the very little ones are carried over; then one of the oldest is beckoned across and lectured on her care of them, while the old woman trots back for the rest; and I notice she is much more despotic during her short reign of power than the old woman herself. At length they are past all dangers, and safe in the gardens, where they may make dirt-pies to their hearts’ content, while their chaperon takes out her knitting and seats herself on a bench in their midst. Say she has fifteen children, and keeps them out for two hours, it makes her a little income of half-a-crown a day; and many a busy mother is glad that her child should have happy play and exercise, while she goes a-shopping, or does some other piece of house-keeping work, which would prevent her from attending properly to her child. Each mairie has its salle d’asile (or infant-school) and its crêche (or public nursery), under the superintendence of the “Sisters;” but perhaps these are for a lower class than my little Luxembourg friends. Their mothers are, for the most part, tolerably well off, only not rich enough to keep a servant expressly for the children.

Then the shop-placards in these old-fashioned parts of the town are often amusing enough. For instance the other day I saw a crowd in a by-street, near the Rue l’École de Médecine, all intent upon a great piece of written paper put out of the window of a shop, where almost every article of woman’s dress was to be sold. It was headed, in letters almost a quarter of a yard long:


A person, of whom I asked the meaning, laughed a little as he said —

“Oh! it is only a contrivance for attracting custom. He goes on to state, lower down in the paper, that his wife, being mad, offered certain gown-pieces for sale yesterday at a ruinous price (they are really only about half a franc lower than what you can get them for at any other shop) that he is miserable in the conflict he is undergoing between his honour and the prospect of the sacrifice he will have to make, if he sells them at the price his wife offered them for; but, ‘Honour above all,’ they shall be sold at that price, and therefore every one had better rush in and buy.”

May 7th. — Seeing an apartment to let in the Place Royale, we went over it yesterday. I have always liked the looks of this stately old place; so full of historical associations too. Then, again, the quietness of it charms me; it is almost like a cloister, for no carriages can come in; and the sheltered walks under the arcades must be very pleasant to the inhabitants on rainy days. The houses are built of very handsome red bricks with stone-facings, and all after the same plan, designed by an architect of the time of Henry IV. — about our Queen Elizabeth’s reign; but, if the Place Royale were in England, we should date it, judging from the style of the architecture, a century later at least. It is more like the later additions to Hampton Court. There is a pleasant square in the centre, with a fountain, shady chestnut trees, and gay flower-beds, and a statue of Louis XIII. in the midst. Tradition says, that it was either on this piece of ground, or very near it, that the famous masque took place in the old Palace des Tournelles, when, the dresses of the masquers catching fire, King Charles VI., who was one of them, became mad in consequence of the fright and, it was to soothe his madness, that our present playing-cards were invented.

When first the present place was built, all the fashionable world rushed to secure houses in it. This was the old hotel of the De Rohans; that was Cardinal de Richelieu’s before his Palais Cardinal — the present Palais Royal — was completed; in this house Madame de Sévigné was born — and so on, Now, the ground floor, which was formerly occupied by the offices of the great houses above, is turned into shops, ware-houses, and cafés of a modest and substantial kind; and the upper floors are inhabited by respectable and well-to-do people, who do not make the least pretension to fashion. The apartment we went over consisted of five handsome and very lofty reception-rooms, opening out of one another and lighted by many high narrow windows, opening on to a wide balcony at the top of the arcade. One or two of these rooms were panelled with looking-glass, but old-fashioned, in many pieces, not like our modern plates in size. Possibly it was Venetian, and dated from the times of the early proprietors.

The great height of the rooms, as compared to their area, struck me much. Only two or three of the rooms had fireplaces, and these were vast and cavernous. Besides the doors of communication between the rooms, there was, in each, one papered like the walls, opening into a passage which ran the whole length of the apartment. On the opposite side of this passage there were doors opening into the kitchens, store-rooms, servants’ bed-rooms, &c. — so small, so close, so unhealthy. Yet in those days there were many servants and splendid dinners. Perhaps, however, some of the lacqueys slept on the upper floor, to which there is now no access from the apartments au premier. At the end of the passage was the bed-room of the late proprietress, with a closet opening out of it for her maid. The bed-room was spacious and grand enough; but the closet-well, I suppose she could lie full length in it, if she was not tall. The only provision for light and air was a window opening on to the passage. We inquired the rent of this apartment: 3000 francs — £120. But perhaps Monsieur le propriétaire might reduce it to 2500 francs — £100. The front-rooms were charming in their old-fashioned stateliness; but, if I lived there, I should be sorely perplexed as to where my servants were to sleep.

May 10th. — Utterly weary of the noise and heat of Paris, we went out to St. Germain yesterday. I had never been there before; and now, once having been, I want to go again. It is only half-an-hour from Paris by railroad. We could just see Malmaison as we went along, past pretty villas with small gardens brilliant with flowers, as French gardens always are. All the plants seem to ‘go into flower; the mass of bloom almost over-balances the leaves. I believe this is done by skilful pruning and cutting-in. For instance, they take up their rose-trees at the beginning of February, and cut off the coarse red suckers and the superfluous growth of root. The hedges to these little suburban gardens are principally made of acacia, and pollard trees of the same species border nearly all the roads near Paris. In the far distance, on the left, almost against the horizon, we saw the famous Aqueduct de Marly, formerly used to conduct a part of the water to Versailles. I do not know what it is in the long line of aqueducts and viaducts which charms one. Is it the vanishing perspective which seems to lead the eye, and through it the mind, to some distant invisible country? or is it merely the association with other aqueducts, with the broken arches of the Claudian aqueduct, stretching across the Campagna, with Nismes, &c.? By means of some skilfully-adjusted atmospheric power, the trains have of late years been conducted up to nearly the level of the terrace at St. Germain’s by a pretty steep inclined plane. We went up a few steps on leaving the station, and then we were on the plateau, the castle on our left, and a Place at the entrance to the town on the right.

Nothing could be more desolate-looking than the chateau; the dull-red bricks of which it is built are painted dark-lead colour round the many tiers of windows, the glass in which is broken in numerous places, its place being here and there supplied by iron bars. Somehow, the epithet that rose to our lips on first seeing the colouring of the whole place, was “livid.” Nor is the present occupation of the grim old château one to suggest cheerful thoughts. After being a palace, it was degraded to a caserne, or barracks, and from that it has come down to be a penitentiary. All round the building there is a deep dry area, railed round; and now I have said all I can against St. Germain and recorded a faithful impression at first sight. But, two minutes afterwards, there came a lovely slant of sun-light; the sun had been behind a fine thunderous cloud, and emerged just at the right moment, causing all the projections in the chateau to throw deep shadows, brightening the tints in all the other parts, calling out the vivid colours in the flower-beds that surround the railing on the park side of the chateau, and half-compelling us with its hot brilliancy, half luring us by the full fresh green it gave to the foliage, to seek the shelter of the woods not two hundred yards beyond the entrance to the park.

We did not know where we were going to, we only knew that it was shadowed ground; while the “English garden” we passed over was all one blaze of sunlight and scarlet geraniums, and intensely blue lobelias, yellow calceolarias, and other hot-looking flowers. The space below the ancient mighty oaks and chestnut-trees was gravelled over, and given up to nursery-maids and children, with here and there an invalid sitting on the benches. Mary and Irene were bent upon sketching; so we wandered on to find the impossible point of view which is to combine all the excellences desired by two eager sketchers. So we loitered over another hundred yards in the cool shade of the trees. And suddenly we were on the terrace, looking down over a plain steeped in sunlight, and extending for twenty miles and more. We all exclaimed with delight at its unexpectedness; and yet we had heard of the terrace at St. Germain, and associated it with James II. and Maria d’Este all our lives. The terrace is a walk as broad as a street, on the edge of the bluff overhanging the silver tortuous Seine. It is bounded by a wall. just the right height for one to lean upon and gaze and muse upon the landscape below. The mellow mist of a lovely day enveloped the more distant objects then; but we came again in the evening, when all the gay world of St. Germain was out and abroad on the terrace listening to the music of the band; and we could then distinguish the aqueduct of Many on our right, before us the old woods of Vesinet — that ill-omened relic of the ancient forest that covered the Ile de France; and here in the very centre is the star-shaped space called La Table de la Trahison; here it was that Ganelan de Hauteville planned to betray Roland the Brave and the twelve peers of France, at Roncevaux; and on the very spot the traitors were burnt to death by the order of Charlemagne.

Beyond Vesinet rise the fortified heights of Mont Valérien and Montmartre; so we know that the great city of Paris, with its perpetual noise and bustle, must be the cause of that thickening of the golden air just beyond the rising ground in the mid-distance. And some one found out — far away again — as far as eye could see, the spire of the Cathedral of St. Denis, and Irene fell to moralising and comparing. The palace, she said, was ever present — an every-day fact to the great old kings who had inhabited it — and fertile life and busy pomp were the golden interspace which all but concealed from them the inevitable grave at St. Denis. But sermons always make me hungry; and Irene’s moralising seemed to have the same effect on herself as well as on us, or else it was the “nimble” air — for that epithet of Shakespeare’s exactly fits the clear brisk air of St. Germain. They sat down to sketch, and I was sent in search of provender.

I could not find a confectioner’s, nor, indeed, would it have been of much use, for French confectioners only sell sugary or creamy nothings, extremely unsatisfactory to hungry people. So I went boldly into the restaurant to the right of the station — the Café Galle, I think it was called, — and told the Dame du Comptoir my errand. I was in hopes that she would have allowed one of the garçons to accompany me with a basket of provisions, and some plates, and knives and forks; perhaps some glasses, and a bottle of wine. But it seemed that this was against the rules; and all I could do was, to have the loan of a basket for a short time. Madame split up some oval rolls of delicious bread, buttered them, and placed some slices of raw ham between the pieces; and with these, and some fresh strawberries, I returned to my merry, hungry sketchers, who were beginning to find that a seat on the hard gravel was not quite so agreeable as sitting on (comparatively) soft English turf. Yet the benches were too high for their purpose. After eating their lunch, they relapsed into silence and hard work.

It was rather dull for me; so I rambled about, struck up an acquaintanceship with one of the gardeners, and with a hackney-coachman, who tried to tempt me into engaging him for a course to Versailles by Marly-le-Roi — the Marly, the famous Marly of Louis XIV., of which the faint vestiges alone remain in the marks of the old garden plots. I was tempted. I remembered what St. Simon says; how the king, weary of noise and grandeur, found out a little narrow valley within a few miles of his magnificent and sumptuous Versailles; there was a village near this hollow for it really was nothing more — and this village was called Marly, whence the name of the palace or hermitage which the king chose to have built. He thought that he went there to lead a simple and primitive life, away from the flattery of his courtiers. But it is not so easy for a king to avoid flattery. His architect built one great pavilion, which was to represent the sun; in it dwelt Louis XIV. There were twelve smaller pavilions surrounding this large one; in them dwelt the planets, that is to say, the favourite courtiers of the time being. Every morning the king set out to visit his satellites; there were six on one side of the parterre, six on the other; and their pavilions communicated with each other by means of close avenues of lime-trees. It was etiquette for these courtiers to salute the king, who had taken the sun for his device, by placing their right hand so as to shade their eyes from his brilliancy; hence, some people say, our own military salute. Each courtier, as he was visited, followed the king in his round. At first, the king came to Many only two or three times a year, staying from Wednesday to Saturday; he only brought a comparatively moderate train; but in time he grew weary of his so-called simplicity, and the surrounding hills were scooped out to make gardens, and woods, and waterworks; and statues and courtiers thronged the place. Still, as no one could come here without express invitation from the king, to be of the parties to Marly was an object to be longed for, and asked for, and intrigued for. Indeed, it was the highest favour that could be obtained from royalty. At the last moment of awful suspense as to who was to go, the king’s valet de chambre, Bontemps, went round with the invitations. There was no need of preparation, for in each pavilion there was a store of all things needed for masculine and feminine toilettes. Only two could inhabit a pavilion; and, if a married lady was asked, her husband was included in the invitation, though not in the compliment.

But, to the end of his reign, the days for Marly were invariable. Sunday the King spent, as became the eldest son of the Church, at his parish of Versailles; Monday and Tuesday he allowed himself to be worshipped by the whole court at Versailles; on Wednesday he went to Marly with the selected few. The amusements at Marly were high play, or, as it might be called, gambling; and a kind of bazaar, where the ladies dressed themselves up as Syrians; Japanese, Greeks, what not, and played at keeping shop; the king furnishing the infinite variety of things sold. Louis XV. and his unfortunate successor went to Marly occasionally; but the great days of Marly were over when Louis XIV. died. After that, the Governor of St. Germain kept the keys of Marly, and occasionally lent the use of the pavilions to his private friends. But the Convention did not approve of this appropriation of national property; and the old statues, the remains of magnificent furniture, the marbles, and the mirrors, were sold for the good of the people. Some one bought the buildings and turned them into a spinning-mill; but it was not a profitable speculation, and by-and-by the whole place was pulled down; but I believe you may yet trace out the foundations of the Palace of the Sun. So that was why I wanted to see Marly — a place once so famous and so populous gone to ruin, nay, the very ruins themselves covered up by nature with her soft harmony of grass and flowers.

How much would it cost, how long would it take, I asked the hackney-coachman, to go by Marly to Versailles in time to catch the last train thence to Paris? It would take an hour, not including any stopping at Marly, and it would cost fifteen francs, also not including any stoppage at Marly. I was vexed at the man for thinking I could be so grossly imposed upon. Why, two francs an hour, with a decent pourboire, was on the tariff of every carriage; so I turned. away in silent indignation, heedless of his cries of “Dix francs’, madame. Tenez! huit — cinq — ce — que vous voulez, madame!

And immediately afterwards I was glad I had not planned to leave St. Germain an hour earlier than was necessary — the place looked so bright and cheerful, with all the gaily-dressed people streaming over the Place du Château, to go to the terrace and hear the band. I went into the restaurant, and ordered coffee to be ready at six, and had a little more gossip with the Dame du Comptoir. She told me that no one was admitted to see the interior of the castle, although it was no longer a penitentiary; that the air at St. Germain was better and purer than at any other place within twenty miles of Paris; and that I ought to come and see the forest of St. Germain at the time of the Fête des Loges — a sort of open-air festival held in the forest on the 30th of August; and all the waiters at liberty came forward to make a chorus in praise of the merry-go-rounds, mountebanks, wine, stoves cooking viands, spits turning joints, and general merriment which seemed to go on at this fair, which took its rise in the pilgrimages made to a certain hermitage built by a devout seigneur of the time of Louis XIII.

Then I went back to Mary and Irene, and told them my adventures; and we all, attracted by the good music of the military band, went on to the crowded terrace and leant over the wall, and saw the view I have described, and gazed down into the green depths of the far-stretching forest, and wondered if we should not have done wiser to have gone thither and spent our day there. And so to our excellent coffee and bread, and then back to Paris.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55