Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XLI

Boulogne, June 13, 1765.

DEAR SIR — I am at last in a situation to indulge my view with a sight of Britain, after an absence of two years; and indeed you cannot imagine what pleasure I feel while I survey the white cliffs of Dover, at this distance. Not that I am at all affected by the nescia qua dulcedine natalis soli, of Horace. That seems to be a kind of fanaticism founded on the prejudices of education, which induces a Laplander to place the terrestrial paradise among the snows of Norway, and a Swiss to prefer the barren mountains of Solleure to the fruitful plains of Lombardy. I am attached to my country, because it is the land of liberty, cleanliness, and convenience: but I love it still more tenderly, as the scene of all my interesting connexions; as the habitation of my friends, for whose conversation, correspondence, and esteem, I wish alone to live.

Our journey hither from Lyons produced neither accident nor adventure worth notice; but abundance of little vexations, which may be termed the Plagues of Posting. At Lyons, where we stayed only a few days, I found a return-coach, which I hired to Paris for six loui’dores. It was a fine roomy carriage, elegantly furnished, and made for travelling; so strong and solid in all its parts, that there was no danger of its being shaken to pieces by the roughness of the road: but its weight and solidity occasioned so much friction between the wheels and the axle-tree, that we ran the risque of being set on fire three or four times a day. Upon a just comparison of all circumstances posting is much more easy, convenient, and reasonable in England than in France. The English carriages, horses, harness, and roads are much better; and the postilions more obliging and alert. The reason is plain and obvious. If I am ill-used at the post-house in England, I can be accommodated elsewhere. The publicans on the road are sensible of this, and therefore they vie with each other in giving satisfaction to travellers. But in France, where the post is monopolized, the post-masters and postilions, knowing that the traveller depends intirely upon them, are the more negligent and remiss in their duty, as well as the more encouraged to insolence and imposition. Indeed the stranger seems to be left intirely at the mercy of those fellows, except in large towns, where he may have recourse to the magistrate or commanding officer. The post stands very often by itself in a lone country situation, or in a paultry village, where the post-master is the principal inhabitant; and in such a case, if you should be ill-treated, by being supplied with bad horses; if you should be delayed on frivolous pretences, in order to extort money; if the postilions should drive at a waggon pace, with a view to provoke your impatience; or should you in any shape be insulted by them or their masters; and I know not any redress you can have, except by a formal complaint to the comptroller of the posts, who is generally one of the ministers of state, and pays little or no regard to any such representations. I know an English gentleman, the brother of an earl, who wrote a letter of complaint to the Duc de Villars, governor of Provence, against the post-master of Antibes, who had insulted and imposed upon him. The duke answered his letter, promising to take order that the grievance should be redressed; and never thought of it after. Another great inconvenience which attends posting in France, is that if you are retarded by any accident, you cannot in many parts of the kingdom find a lodging, without perhaps travelling two or three posts farther than you would choose to go, to the prejudice of your health, and even the hazard of your life; whereas on any part of the post-road in England, you will meet with tolerable accommodation at every stage. Through the whole south of France, except in large cities, the inns are cold, damp, dark, dismal, and dirty; the landlords equally disobliging and rapacious; the servants aukward, sluttish, and slothful; and the postilions lazy, lounging, greedy, and impertinent. If you chide them for lingering, they will continue to delay you the longer: if you chastise them with sword, cane, cudgel, or horse-whip, they will either disappear entirely, and leave you without resource; or they will find means to take vengeance by overturning your carriage. The best method I know of travelling with any degree of comfort, is to allow yourself to become the dupe of imposition, and stimulate their endeavours by extraordinary gratifications. I laid down a resolution (and kept it) to give no more than four and twenty sols per post between the two postilions; but I am now persuaded that for three-pence a post more, I should have been much better served, and should have performed the journey with much greater pleasure. We met with no adventures upon the road worth reciting. The first day we were retarded about two hours by the dutchess D— lle, and her son the duc de R— f — t, who by virtue of an order from the minister, had anticipated all the horses at the post. They accosted my servant, and asked if his master was a lord? He thought proper to answer in the affirmative, upon which the duke declared that he must certainly be of French extraction, inasmuch as he observed the lilies of France in his arms on the coach. This young nobleman spoke a little English. He asked whence we had come; and understanding we had been in Italy, desired to know whether the man liked France or Italy best? Upon his giving France the preference, he clapped him on the shoulder, and said he was a lad of good taste. The dutchess asked if her son spoke English well, and seemed mightily pleased when my man assured her he did. They were much more free and condescending with my servant than with myself; for, though we saluted them in passing, and were even supposed to be persons of quality, they did not open their lips, while we stood close by them at the inn-door, till their horses were changed. They were going to Geneva; and their equipage consisted of three coaches and six, with five domestics a-horseback. The dutchess was a tall, thin, raw-boned woman, with her head close shaved. This delay obliged us to lie two posts short of Macon, at a solitary auberge called Maison Blanche, which had nothing white about it, but the name. The Lionnois is one of the most agreeable and best-cultivated countries I ever beheld, diversified with hill, dale, wood, and water, laid out in extensive corn-fields and rich meadows, well stocked with black cattle, and adorned with a surprising number of towns, villages, villas, and convents, generally situated on the brows of gently swelling hills, so that they appear to the greatest advantage. What contributes in a great measure to the beauty of this, and the Maconnois, is the charming pastoral Soame, which from the city of Chalons winds its silent course so smooth and gentle, that one can scarce discern which way its current flows. It is this placid appearance that tempts so many people to bathe in it at Lions, where a good number of individuals are drowned every summer: whereas there is no instance of any persons thus perishing in the Rhone, the rapidity of it deterring every body from bathing in its stream. Next night we passed at Beaune where we found nothing good but the wine, for which we paid forty sols the bottle. At Chalons our axle-tree took fire; an accident which detained us so long, that it was ten before we arrived at Auxerre, where we lay. In all probability we must have lodged in the coach, had not we been content to take four horses, and pay for six, two posts successively. The alternative was, either to proceed with four on those terms, or stay till the other horses should come in and be refreshed. In such an emergency, I would advise the traveller to put up with the four, and he will find the postilions so much upon their mettle, that those stages will be performed sooner than the others in which you have the full complement.

There was an English gentleman laid up at Auxerre with a broken arm, to whom I sent my compliments, with offers of service; but his servant told my man that he did not choose to see any company, and had no occasion for my service. This sort of reserve seems peculiar to the English disposition. When two natives of any other country chance to meet abroad, they run into each other’s embrace like old friends, even though they have never heard of one another till that moment; whereas two Englishmen in the same situation maintain a mutual reserve and diffidence, and keep without the sphere of each other’s attraction, like two bodies endowed with a repulsive power. We only stopped to change horses at Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, which is a venerable old city; but we passed part of a day at Sens, and visited a manufacture of that stuff we call Manchester velvet, which is here made and dyed to great perfection, under the direction of English workmen, who have been seduced from their own country. At Fontainebleau. we went to see the palace, or as it is called, the castle, which though an irregular pile of building, affords a great deal of lodging, and contains some very noble apartments, particularly the hall of audience, with the king’s and queen’s chambers, upon which the ornaments of carving and gilding are lavished with profusion rather than propriety. Here are some rich parterres of flower-garden, and a noble orangerie, which, however, we did not greatly admire, after having lived among the natural orange groves of Italy. Hitherto we had enjoyed fine summer weather, and I found myself so well, that I imagined my health was intirely restored: but betwixt Fontainebleau and Paris, we were overtaken by a black storm of rain, sleet, and hail, which seemed to reinstate winter in all its rigour; for the cold weather continues to this day. There was no resisting this attack. I caught cold immediately; and this was reinforced at Paris, where I stayed but three days. The same man, (Pascal Sellier, rue Guenegaud, fauxbourg St. Germain) who owned the coach that brought us from Lyons, supplied me with a returned berline to Boulogne, for six loui’dores, and we came hither by easy journeys. The first night we lodged at Breteuil, where we found an elegant inn, and very good accommodation. But the next we were forced to take up our quarters, at the house where we had formerly passed a very disagreeable night at Abbeville. I am now in tolerable lodging, where I shall remain a few weeks, merely for the sake of a little repose; then I shall gladly tempt that invidious straight which still divides you from — Yours, &c.

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