Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xlix.

From Paris. — Miserable condition of the French peasants — palace of Fontainbleau — fair of St Lawrence — opera house — general character of the French actors — comparison between the French and English ladies.

To the Lady R——.

Paris, Oct. 10. O. S. 1718.

I CANNOT give my dear Lady R——a better proof of the pleasure I have in writing to her, than chusing to do it in this seat of various amusements, where I am accableed with visits, and those so full of vivacity and compliments, that ’tis full employment enough to hearken, whether one answers or not. The French ambassadress at Constantinople has a very considerable and numerous family here, who all come to see me, and are never weary of making inquiries. The air of Paris has already had a good effect on me; for I was never in better health, though I have been extremely ill all the road from Lyons to this place. You may judge how agreeable the journey has been to me; which did not want that addition to make me dislike it. I think nothing so terrible as objects of misery, except one had the God-like attribute of being capable to redress them; and all the country villages of France shew nothing else. While the post horses are changed, the whole town comes out to beg, with such miserable starved faces, and thin tattered cloths, they need no other eloquence, to persuade one of the wretchedness of their condition. This is all the French magnificence, till you come to Fountainbleau, when you are shewed one thousand five hundred rooms in the king’s hunting palace. The apartments of the royal family are very large, and richly gilt; but I saw nothing in the architecture or painting worth remembering. The long gallery, built by Henry IV. has prospects of all the king’s houses. Its walls are designed after the taste of those times, but appear now very mean. The park is, indeed, finely wooded and watered, the trees well grown and planted, and in the fish-ponds are kept tame carp, said to be, some of them, eighty years of age. The late king passed some months every year at this seat; and all the rocks round it, by the pious sentences inscribed on them, shew the devotion in fashion at his court, which I believe died with him; at least, I see no exterior marks of it at Paris, where all peoples thoughts seem to be on present diversion.

THE fair of St Lawrence is now in season. You may be sure I have been carried thither, and think it much better disposed than ours of Bartholomew. The shops being all set in rows so regularly and well lighted, they made up a very agreeable spectacle. But I was not at all satisfied with the grossierte of their harlequin, no more than with their music at the opera, which was abominably grating, after being used to that of Italy. Their house is a booth, compared to that of the Hay-market, and the play-house not so neat as that of Lincoln’s-Inn-fields; but then it must be owned, to their praise, their tragedians are much beyond any of ours. I should hardly allow Mrs O——d a better place than to be confidante to La ——. I have seen the tragedy of Bajazet so well represented, that I think our best actors can be only said to speak, but these to feel; and ’tis certainly infinitely more moving to see a man appear unhappy, than to hear him say that he is so, with a jolly face, and a stupid smirk in his countenance. —A propos of countenances, I must tell you something of the French ladies; I have seen all the beauties, and such —(I can’t help making use of the coarse word) nauseous creatures! so fantastically absurd in their dress! so monstrously unnatural in their paints! their hair cut short, and curled round their faces, and so loaded with powder, that it makes it look like white wool! and on their cheeks to their chins, unmercifully laid on a shining red japan, that glistens in a most flaming manner, so that they seem to have no resemblance to human faces. I am apt to believe, that they took the first hint of their dress from a fair sheep newly ruddled. ’Tis with pleasure I recollect my dear pretty country-women: and if I was writing to any body else, I should say, that these grotesque daubers give me still a higher esteem of the natural charms of dear Lady R——‘s auburne hair, and the lively colours of her unsullied complexion.

I am, &c. &c.

P. S. I have met the Abbe here, who desires me to make his compliments to you.


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