The Paris Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

The Fêtes of July


PARIS, July 30th, 1839.

We have arrived here just in time for the fêtes of July. — You have read, no doubt, of that glorious revolution which took place here nine years ago, and which is now commemorated annually, in a pretty facetious manner, by gun-firing, student-processions, pole-climbing-for-silver-spoons, gold-watches and legs-of-mutton, monarchical orations, and what not, and sanctioned, moreover, by Chamber-of-Deputies, with a grant of a couple of hundred thousand francs to defray the expenses of all the crackers, gun-firings, and legs-of-mutton aforesaid. There is a new fountain in the Place Louis Quinze, otherwise called the Place Louis Seize, or else the Place de la Révolution, or else the Place de la Concorde (who can say why?)— which, I am told, is to run bad wine during certain hours tomorrow, and there WOULD have been a review of the National Guards and the Line — only, since the Fieschi business, reviews are no joke, and so this latter part of the festivity has been discontinued.

Do you not laugh, O Pharos of Bungay, at the continuance of a humbug such as this? — at the humbugging anniversary of a humbug? The King of the Barricades is, next to the Emperor Nicholas, the most absolute Sovereign in Europe; yet there is not in the whole of this fair kingdom of France a single man who cares sixpence about him, or his dynasty: except, mayhap, a few hangers-on at the Château, who eat his dinners, and put their hands in his purse. The feeling of loyalty is as dead as old Charles the Tenth; the Chambers have been laughed at, the country has been laughed at, all the successive ministries have been laughed at (and you know who is the wag that has amused himself with them all); and, behold, here come three days at the end of July, and cannons think it necessary to fire off, squibs and crackers to blaze and fizz, fountains to run wine, kings to make speeches, and subjects to crawl up greasy mâts-de-cocagne in token of gratitude and réjouissance publique! — My dear sir, in their aptitude to swallow, to utter, to enact humbugs, these French people, from Majesty downwards, beat all the other nations of this earth. In looking at these men, their manners, dresses, opinions, politics, actions, history, it is impossible to preserve a grave countenance; instead of having Carlyle to write a History of the French Revolution, I often think it should be handed over to Dickens or Theodore Hook: and oh! where is the Rabelais to be the faithful historian of the last phase of the Revolution — the last glorious nine years of which we are now commemorating the last glorious three days?

I had made a vow not to say a syllable on the subject, although I have seen, with my neighbors, all the gingerbread stalls down the Champs Elysées, and some of the “catafalques” erected to the memory of the heroes of July, where the students and others, not connected personally with the victims, and not having in the least profited by their deaths, come and weep; but the grief shown on the first day is quite as absurd and fictitious as the joy exhibited on the last. The subject is one which admits of much wholesome reflection and food for mirth; and, besides, is so richly treated by the French themselves, that it would be a sin and a shame to pass it over. Allow me to have the honor of translating, for your edification, an account of the first day’s proceedings — it is mighty amusing, to my thinking.


“To-day (Saturday), funeral ceremonies, in honor of the victims of July, were held in the various edifices consecrated to public worship.

“These edifices, with the exception of some churches (especially that of the Petits-Pères), were uniformly hung with black on the outside; the hangings bore only this inscription: 27, 28, 29 July, 1830 — surrounded by a wreath of oak-leaves.

“In the interior of the Catholic churches, it had only been thought proper to dress LITTLE CATAFALQUES, as for burials of the third and fourth class. Very few clergy attended; but a considerable number of the National Guard.

“The Synagogue of the Israelites was entirely hung with black; and a great concourse of people attended. The service was performed with the greatest pomp.

“In the Protestant temples there was likewise a very full attendance: APOLOGETICAL DISCOURSES on the Revolution of July were pronounced by the pastors.

“The absence of M. de Quélen (Archbishop of Paris), and of many members of the superior clergy, was remarked at Notre Dame.

“The civil authorities attended service in their several districts.

“The poles, ornamented with tri-colored flags, which formerly were placed on Notre Dame, were, it was remarked, suppressed. The flags on the Pont Neuf were, during the ceremony, only half-mast high, and covered with crape.”

Et caetera, et caetera, et caetera.

“The tombs of the Louvre were covered with black hangings, and adorned with tri-colored flags. In front and in the middle was erected an expiatory monument of a pyramidical shape, and surmounted by a funeral vase.

“These tombs were guarded by the MUNICIPAL GUARD, THE TROOPS OF THE LINE, THE SERGENS DE VILLE (town patrol), AND A BRIGADE OF AGENTS OF POLICE IN PLAIN CLOTHES, under the orders of peace-officer Vassal.

“Between eleven and twelve o’clock, some young men, to the number of 400 or 500, assembled on the Place de la Bourse, one of them bearing a tri-colored banner with an inscription, ‘TO THE MANES OF JULY:’ ranging themselves in order, they marched five abreast to the Marché des Innocens. On their arrival, the Municipal Guards of the Halle aux Draps, where the post had been doubled, issued out without arms, and the town-sergeants placed themselves before the market to prevent the entry of the procession. The young men passed in perfect order, and without saying a word — only lifting their hats as they defiled before the tombs. When they arrived at the Louvre they found the gates shut, and the garden evacuated. The troops were under arms, and formed in battalion.

“After the passage of the procession, the Garden was again open to the public.”

And the evening and the morning were the first day.

There’s nothing serious in mortality: is there, from the beginning of this account to the end thereof, aught but sheer, open, monstrous, undisguised humbug? I said, before, that you should have a history of these people by Dickens or Theodore Hook, but there is little need of professed wags; — do not the men write their own tale with an admirable Sancho-like gravity and naïveté, which one could not desire improved? How good is that touch of sly indignation about the LITTLE CATAFALQUES! how rich the contrast presented by the economy of the Catholics to the splendid disregard of expense exhibited by the devout Jews! and how touching the “APOLOGETICAL DISCOURSES on the Revolution,” delivered by the Protestant pastors! Fancy the profound affliction of the Gardes Municipaux, the Sergens de Ville, the police agents in plain clothes, and the troops with fixed bayonets, sobbing round the “expiatory monuments of a pyramidical shape, surmounted by funeral vases,” and compelled, by sad duty, to fire into the public who might wish to indulge in the same woe! O “manes of July!” (the phrase is pretty and grammatical) why did you with sharp bullets break those Louvre windows? Why did you bayonet red-coated Swiss behind that fair white façade, and, braving cannon, musket, sabre, perspective guillotine, burst yonder bronze gates, rush through that peaceful picture-gallery, and hurl royalty, loyalty, and a thousand years of Kings, head-over-heels out of yonder Tuileries’ windows?

It is, you will allow, a little difficult to say:— there is, however, ONE benefit that the country has gained (as for liberty of press, or person, diminished taxation, a juster representation, who ever thinks of them?)— ONE benefit they have gained, or nearly — abolition de la peine-de-mort pour délit politique: no more wicked guillotining for revolutions. A Frenchman must have his revolution — it is his nature to knock down omnibuses in the street, and across them to fire at troops of the line — it is a sin to balk it. Did not the King send off Revolutionary Prince Napoleon in a coach-and-four? Did not the jury, before the face of God and Justice, proclaim Revolutionary Colonel Vaudrey not guilty? — One may hope, soon, that if a man shows decent courage and energy in half a dozen émeutes, he will get promotion and a premium.

I do not (although, perhaps, partial to the subject,) want to talk more nonsense than the occasion warrants, and will pray you to cast your eyes over the following anecdote, that is now going the round of the papers, and respects the commutation of the punishment of that wretched, fool-hardy Barbés, who, on his trial, seemed to invite the penalty which has just been remitted to him. You recollect the braggart’s speech: “When the Indian falls into the power of the enemy, he knows the fate that awaits him, and submits his head to the knife:— I am the Indian!”

“Well —”

“M. Hugo was at the Opera on the night the sentence of the Court of Peers, condemning Barbés to death, was published. The great poet composed the following verses:—

‘Par votre ange envolée, ainsi qu’une colombe,
Par le royal enfant, doux et frêle roseau,
Grace encore une fois! Grace au nom de la tombe!
Grace au nom du berçeau!’1

“M. Victor Hugo wrote the lines out instantly on a sheet of paper, which he folded, and simply despatched them to the King of the French by the penny-post.

“That truly is a noble voice, which can at all hours thus speak to the throne. Poetry, in old days, was called the language of the Gods — it is better named now — it is the language of the Kings.

“But the clemency of the King had anticipated the letter of the Poet. His Majesty had signed the commutation of Barbés, while the poet was still writing.

“Louis Philippe replied to the author of ‘Ruy Blas’ most graciously, that he had already subscribed to a wish so noble, and that the verses had only confirmed his previous disposition to mercy.”

1 Translated for the benefit of country gentlemen:—

“By your angel flown away just like a dove,
By the royal infant, that frail and tender reed,
Pardon yet once more! Pardon in the name of the tomb!
Pardon in the name of the cradle!”

Now in countries where fools most abound, did one ever read of more monstrous, palpable folly? In any country, save this, would a poet who chose to write four crack-brained verses, comparing an angel to a dove, and a little boy to a reed, and calling upon the chief magistrate, in the name of the angel, or dove (the Princess Mary), in her tomb, and the little infant in his cradle, to spare a criminal, have received a “gracious answer” to his nonsense? Would he have ever despatched the nonsense? and would any journalist have been silly enough to talk of “the noble voice that could thus speak to the throne,” and the noble throne that could return such a noble answer to the noble voice? You get nothing done here gravely and decently. Tawdry stage tricks are played, and braggadocio claptraps uttered, on every occasion, however sacred or solemn: in the face of death, as by Barbés with his hideous Indian metaphor; in the teeth of reason, as by M. Victor Hugo with his twopenny-post poetry; and of justice, as by the King’s absurd reply to this absurd demand! Suppose the Count of Paris to be twenty times a reed, and the Princess Mary a host of angels, is that any reason why the law should not have its course? Justice is the God of our lower world, our great omnipresent guardian: as such it moves, or should move on majestic, awful, irresistible, having no passions — like a God: but, in the very midst of the path across which it is to pass, lo! M. Victor Hugo trips forward, smirking, and says, O divine Justice! I will trouble you to listen to the following trifling effusion of mine:—

Par votre ange envolée, ainsi qu’une,” &c.

Awful Justice stops, and, bowing gravely, listens to M. Hugo’s verses, and, with true French politeness, says, “Mon cher Monsieur, these verses are charming, ravissans, délicieux, and, coming from such a célébrité littéraire as yourself, shall meet with every possible attention — in fact, had I required anything to confirm my own previous opinions, this charming poem would have done so. Bon jour, mon cher Monsieur Hugo, au revoir!”— and they part:— Justice taking off his hat and bowing, and the author of “Ruy Blas” quite convinced that he has been treating with him d’égal en égal. I can hardly bring my mind to fancy that anything is serious in France — it seems to be all rant, tinsel, and stage-play. Sham liberty, sham monarchy, sham glory, sham justice — où diable donc la vérité va-t-elle se nicher?

. . . . . .

The last rocket of the fête of July has just mounted, exploded, made a portentous bang, and emitted a gorgeous show of blue lights, and then (like many reputations) disappeared totally: the hundredth gun on the Invalid terrace has uttered its last roar — and a great comfort it is for eyes and ears that the festival is over. We shall be able to go about our everyday business again, and not be hustled by the gendarmes or the crowd.

The sight which I have just come away from is as brilliant, happy, and beautiful as can be conceived; and if you want to see French people to the greatest advantage, you should go to a festival like this, where their manners, and innocent gayety, show a very pleasing contrast to the coarse and vulgar hilarity which the same class would exhibit in our own country — at Epsom racecourse, for instance, or Greenwich Fair. The greatest noise that I heard was that of a company of jolly villagers from a place in the neighborhood of Paris, who, as soon as the fireworks were over, formed themselves into a line, three or four abreast, and so marched singing home. As for the fireworks, squibs and crackers are very hard to describe, and very little was to be seen of them: to me, the prettiest sight was the vast, orderly, happy crowd, the number of children, and the extraordinary care and kindness of the parents towards these little creatures. It does one good to see honest, heavy épiciers, fathers of families, playing with them in the Tuileries, or, as to-night, bearing them stoutly on their shoulders, through many long hours, in order that the little ones too may have their share of the fun. John Bull, I fear, is more selfish: he does not take Mrs. Bull to the public-house; but leaves her, for the most part, to take care of the children at home.

The fête, then, is over; the pompous black pyramid at the Louvre is only a skeleton now; all the flags have been miraculously whisked away during the night, and the fine chandeliers which glittered down the Champs Elysées for full half a mile, have been consigned to their dens and darkness. Will they ever be reproduced for other celebrations of the glorious 29th of July? — I think not; the Government which vowed that there should be no more persecutions of the press, was, on that very 29th, seizing a Legitimist paper, for some real or fancied offence against it: it had seized, and was seizing daily, numbers of persons merely suspected of being disaffected (and you may fancy how liberty is understood, when some of these prisoners, the other day, on coming to trial, were found guilty and sentenced to ONE day’s imprisonment, after THIRTY-SIX DAYS’ DETENTION ON SUSPICION). I think the Government which follows such a system, cannot be very anxious about any farther revolutionary fêtes, and that the Chamber may reasonably refuse to vote more money for them. Why should men be so mighty proud of having, on a certain day, cut a certain number of their fellow-countrymen’s throats? The Guards and the Line employed this time nine years did no more than those who cannonaded the starving Lyonnese, or bayoneted the luckless inhabitants of the Rue Transnounain:— they did but fulfil the soldier’s honorable duty:— his superiors bid him kill and he killeth:— perhaps, had he gone to his work with a little more heart, the result would have been different, and then — would the conquering party have been justified in annually rejoicing over the conquered? Would we have thought Charles X. justified in causing fireworks to be blazed, and concerts to be sung, and speeches to be spouted, in commemoration of his victory over his slaughtered countrymen? — I wish for my part they would allow the people to go about their business as on the other 362 days of the year, and leave the Champs Elysées free for the omnibuses to run, and the Tuileries’ in quiet, so that the nurse-maids might come as usual, and the newspapers be read for a halfpenny apiece.

Shall I trouble you with an account of the speculations of these latter, and the state of the parties which they represent? The complication is not a little curious, and may form, perhaps, a subject of graver disquisition. The July fêtes occupy, as you may imagine, a considerable part of their columns just now, and it is amusing to follow them one by one; to read Tweedledum’s praise, and Tweedledee’s indignation — to read, in the Débats how the King was received with shouts and loyal vivats — in the Nation, how not a tongue was wagged in his praise, but, on the instant of his departure, how the people called for the “Marseillaise” and applauded THAT. — But best say no more about the fête. The Legitimists were always indignant at it. The high Philippist party sneers at and despises it; the Republicans hate it: it seems a joke against THEM. Why continue it? — If there be anything sacred in the name and idea of loyalty, why renew this fête? It only shows how a rightful monarch was hurled from his throne, and a dexterous usurper stole his precious diadem. If there be anything noble in the memory of a day, when citizens, unused to war, rose against practised veterans, and, armed with the strength of their cause, overthrew them, why speak of it now? or renew the bitter recollections of the bootless struggle and victory? O Lafayette! O hero of two worlds! O accomplished Cromwell Grandison! you have to answer for more than any mortal man who has played a part in history: two republics and one monarchy does the world owe to you; and especially grateful should your country be to you. Did you not, in ‘90, make clear the path for honest Robespierre, and in ‘30, prepare the way for —

. . . . . .

[The Editor of the Bungay Beacon would insert no more of this letter, which is, therefore, for ever lost to the public.]

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00