Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter lvii.

Remarks on Paris — reflections on staring and grinning — character of the French people — criticism on statues in the gardens of Versailles — the gardens compared with the royal gardens of England.

To Mr P.

I HAVE been running about Paris at a strange rate with my sister, and strange sights have we seen. They are, at least, strange sights to me; for, after having been accustomed to the gravity of Turks, I can scarce look with an easy and familiar aspect at the levity and agility of the airy phantoms that are dancing about me here; and I often think that I am at a puppet-shew, amidst the representations of real life. I stare prodigiously, but nobody remarks it, for every body stares here, staring is a-la-mode — there is a stare of attention and interet, a stare of curiosity, a stare of expectation, a stare of surprise; and it will greatly amuse you to see what trifling objects excite all this staring. This staring would have rather a solemn kind of air, were it not alleviated by grinning; for at the end of a stare, there comes always a grin; and very commonly, the entrance of a gentleman or lady into a room is accompanied with a grin, which is designed to express complacence and social pleasure, but really shews nothing more than a certain contortion of muscles, that must make a stranger laugh really, as they laugh artificially. The French grin is equally remote from the cheerful serenity of a smile, and the cordial mirth of an honest English horse-laugh. I shall not perhaps stay here long enough to form a just idea of French manners and characters, though this I believe would require but little study, as there is no great depth in either. It appears, on a superficial view, to be a frivolous, restless, and agreeable people. The abbot is my guide, and I could not easily light upon a better; he tells me, that here the women form the character of the men, and I am convinced in the persuasion of this, by every company into which I enter. There seems here to be no intermediate state between infancy and manhood; for as soon as the boy has quit his leading-strings, he is set agog in the world; the ladies are his tutors, they make the first impressions, which, generally remain, and they render the men ridiculous, by the imitation of their humours and graces; so that dignity in manners, is a rare thing here before the age of sixty. Does not king David say somewhere, that Man walketh in a vain shew? I think he does; and I am sure this is peculiarly true of the Frenchman — but he walks merrily, and seems to enjoy the vision; and may he not therefore be esteemed more happy than many of our solid thinkers, whose brows are furrowed by deep reflection, and whose wisdom is so often clothed with a misty mantle of spleen and vapours?

WHAT delights me most here, is a view of the magnificence, often accompanied with taste, that reigns in the king’s palaces and gardens; for tho’ I don’t admire much the architecture, in which there is great irregularity and want of proportion, yet the statues, paintings, and other decorations, afford me high entertainment. One of the pieces of antiquity that struck me most in the gardens of Versailles, was the famous Colossean statue of Jupiter, the workmanship of Myron, which Mark Anthony carried away from Samos, and Augustus ordered to be placed in the capitol. It is of Parian marble; and though it has suffered in the ruin of time, it still preserves striking lines of majesty. But surely, if marble could feel, the god would frown with a generous indignation, to see himself transported from the capitol into a French garden; and, after having received the homage of the Roman emperors, who laid their laurels at his feet when they returned from their conquests, to behold now nothing but frizzled beaus passing by him with indifference.

I PROPOSE setting out soon from this place, so that you are to expect no more letters from this side of the water; besides, I am hurried to death, and my head swims with that vast variety of objects which I am obliged to view with such rapidity, the shortness of my time not allowing me to examine them at my leisure. There is here an excessive prodigality of ornaments and decorations, that is just the opposite extreme to what appears in our royal gardens; this prodigality is owing to the levity and inconstancy of the French taste, which always pants after something new, and thus heaps ornament upon ornament, without end or measure. It is time, however, that I should put an end to my letter; so I wish you good night,

And am, &c.


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