Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The news from Belgium

James Fenimore Cooper, an American 19th century author best known for The Last of the Mohicans, died 220 years ago today. He wasn’t much of a diarist but there are a few pages extant of a journal he kept while living among the aristocracy in Paris just after France’s July Revolution of 1830. From the evidence of these pages, Cooper was as interested in etiquette as he was in the news from Belgium.

Although no longer a household name, Cooper was a very famous author in his day. Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th edition) calls him ‘the first major American novelist’ and ‘the virtual inventor of the sea romance and the frontier adventure novel’. Born exactly two centuries and two decades ago, on 15 September 1789, he was brought up by a mother from a Quaker family and a father who served as a Federalist congressman. After private schooling in Albany, he attended Yale, but was expelled. He joined the Navy, until his father died, leaving him independently wealthy. In 1811, he married Susan De Lancy, and they had seven children of whom five survived to adulthood.

Cooper published his first book, Precaution, anonymously in 1820, but soon followed it with other novels, including The Pioneers, the first of a number of books together called the Leatherstocking series, featuring Natty Bumppo, a resourceful American woodsman, Judge Temple, who tends to oppose progress, and an Indian called Chingachgook. The series includes Cooper’s most famous novel, The Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826; it became one of the most widely read American novels of the century, and the inspiration for several 20th century films.

That same year, Cooper moved his family to Europe, to Italy and Germany, and then to Paris where he developed a close friendship with the French military officer, La Fayette, a general in the American Revolutionary War and a leader of the Garde Nationale during the French Revolution. Cooper’s novels at this time became increasingly political, tending to attack European anti-republicanism.

On returning to the US, he lived first in New York City, and then in Cooperstown (named after his father). But he found himself less popular than he had been, and was the subject of criticism in press. This led him to launch a series of libel suits. Later in his life, Cooper wrote a history of the US Navy, and he also returned to the Leatherstocking series. For more information try James Wallace’s Home as Found, Wikipedia, or the free online version of Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th edition).

While being a very literary man, Cooper was not a diarist by nature. He tried several times to start one, apparently, but always gave up after a month or two. However, fragments of one of these attempts survived for a while and was published by Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art in February 1868. The editor explained Cooper’s difficulty in keeping a diary as follows: ‘His pen was generally so active in other ways, that he soon grew weary of the regular daily jottings required to keep up the character of a personal journal.’

The following extracts are taken from Putnam’s Monthly Magazine thanks to Cornell University’s Making of America website. Cooper was in Dresden when the July Revolution of 1830 took place, but soon hastened to Paris, eager to watch the course of great events then occurring daily. His family joined him as soon as the city was safe and tranquil. It was while in lodgings in the Rue d’Aguesseau, that he began to write these diary notes. There is much concern about the news (especially in Belgium), but Cooper seems almost as concerned about the French aristocracy’s etiquette.

19 September 1830
‘. . . In the evening, at 7 o’clock, General La Fayette came for me, in his carriage. We drove to the Rue de Rivoli, and took up Mr MeLane and Mr Thorne. We then went to the Palais Royal to be presented. So little ceremony was used, that General La Fayette, who had previously made his arrangements with the other gentlemen, first proposed the presentation to me at 2 o’clock. In consequence of a remark of mine, however, he had written a note, directly to the King, to apprise him of our wish.

We found the ante-chamber crowded, chiefly with officers, but no ladies. Following La Fayette, we penetrated to an inner room, where most of the high dignitaries were assembled. I observed Marshals Soult, and Maison, Cuvier, the Due de Bassano, & c., among them. When the door opened, the King was seen directly before them; and the Queen, Mademoiselle d’Orleans, and the Princesses, with the younger children, stood in a group on the left. The King was dressed in the uniform of the National Guards, the duc d’Orleans as a Hussar, and the ladies with great simplicity the Queen and Mademoiselle d’Orleans in striped-silk dresses.

We were introduced on entering, each receiving a few complimentary words. The ladies were polite, and, when we had passed them, they left their places to come and speak to us again. It struck me there was an evident desire to do honor to the American friends of the General. It was evident, however, that the presence of La Fayette gave uneasiness to a great many. The affectations and egotisms of rank are offended by his principles, and there is a pitiful desire manifested by the mere butterflies of society to turn his ideas and habits into ridicule. I am amazed to find how very few men are able to look beyond the glare of things.

After we had been presented, we would have retired, but our venerable friend insisted on our remaining. He retired with the King, and the room began to empty. An aid then came and requested us to approach a side-door. The King and La Fayette soon came out together, and we had a short conversation with the former. He spoke of his visit to America with pleasure, and used very courteous though unaffected language. We withdrew when he retired. In passing out of the room, a young officer said, ‘Adieu, l’Amerique!’ The fear of losing their butterfly distinctions and their tinsel, gives great uneasiness to many of these simpletons. The apprehension is quite natural to those who have no means of being known in any other manner, and it must be pardoned.’

20 September 1830
‘Another fine day. I met Lord H_ in the Tuileries this morning. As we had not met since April, when we used to talk politics together at Rome, we said a few words on the present state of things. I have always thought him a mild Tory, and no bad reflector of the hopes and fears of his caste. He is evidently uneasy, as every privileged Englishman must be, and expressed some apprehension about the turn things might take in France. I told him I was of opinion that there would be a struggle about the peerage. If the upper chamber should be made elective, I saw no fundamental principle to quarrel about. The suffrage would be extended, as a matter of course, and the minor interests would regulate themselves according to the necessities of the moment.

I was struck with one of his remarks. ‘If they have the substance, they had better have the form of a republic,’ he said. This is a thoroughly English idea. Whenever their radicals quote America, in Parliament or in the journals, there is one answer always resorted to: ‘America is a republic and England a monarchy’. This accidental difference in the form, serves, with the majority, as a sufficient answer for all differences of substance! Now, if France remains a monarchy in form, with a greater degree of civil rights than those possessed by England, France will become an example that the opposition may cite without danger of the pregnant reply. One is tempted to ask, why France has not the same right to conceal a republic under the mantle of a King, as England has to conceal an aristocracy beneath the same shallow disguise?

The news from Belgium is getting more serious. L_ H_ is running about with a silly story, that is all over, for the people have behaved so badly as to induce the better classes to accede to the King’s terms. Lord H_ had something of the same tale, but it smells too strongly of vulgar aristocratical cant to be believed.’

22 September 1830
‘This morning I got an invitation to dine at the Palais Royal to-morrow.

Lord H_ called, and sat with me half an hour. Still uneasy about Belgium and Germany. I observed, in order to sound him, that I did not think England had sufficient reason to go to war with France about the frontier of the Rhine. He partly assented. But it was easy to see he had arrière-penseés. In the evening I went to Mrs Rives. The reception was very genteel, and just what it ought to be, with the exception of a livery or two. As things trifling in themselves are misrepresented in Europe, they ought to be avoided.

. . . All our ladies are full of a reception which the Queen means to give them to-morrow night. La Fayette, who, in his day, has wrought greater marvels, has brought this about.’

23 September 1830.
‘The news from Belgium this morning still more serious. This contest will draw on the war which, in some shape or other, must grow out of the late revolution. The Dutchmen seem very obstinate, and the Belgians very spirited. The hatred of all elevations of the lower classes, among the European aristocracy, is so intense, that fight they must, to their own certain destruction.

At a little before 6, Thorne stopped for me, and we took up Mr McLane, on our way to the Palais Royal. We had little ceremony in the reception. Our names were taken, and checked off, on the list of the company, when we were shown to an ante-chamber. The King soon opened the folding-doors himself, and we entered. Not half the guests had yet come. All the royal family, with a few attendants, were there. General La Fayette and family soon arrived. Dinner was soon announced. The King led Madame La Fayette, and La Fayette the Queen. Mademoiselle d’Orleans was seated on the right of the King, Madame La Fayette on his left; La Fayette on the right of the Queen, and M Augustin Périer on her left. Here was an oversight in French courtesy. This seat should have been assigned to McLane. I am inclined to think the arrangement was not pre- meditated, for the French rarely fail in politeness.

The dinner-service was plate, the table large, and the servants very numerous. Beyond this, with the décorations of the guests, and the liveries, one might have fancied himself at a Washington dinner. There was a little order in the entrances and exits of the courses, but no proclaiming of the service of the King, as before. Both the King and Queen helped more than is common at good French tables. I saw no embarrassment, or pretension of any sort, during dinner. When the Queen rose, the ladies turned, and the finger-bowls were handed them by servants, the gentlemen using them at the side-tables. We then withdrew into the wing of the Palace, opposite the Théâtre Francais. Here coffee was served. Mrs and Miss T_ soon entered, and were presented by La Fayette. The Queen then went into an inner drawing-room, which was very large and magnificent, with a billiard-room communicating. Here the ladies seated themselves round a large table, a lady of the family working, rather premeditatedly, at another. I presume this lady, who had the air of a governess, was so placed to give the reception an informal character.

In a few minutes, Mrs R_ entered, followed by Mrs M_ and a dozen more of our ladies. They were met by the Queen, who advanced some little distance, and Mrs R_ presented them all, in succession. Two or three more parties arrived, and were presented in the same manner, the whole seating themselves, by invitation. In about twenty minutes, the Queen arose and made the tour of the circle; afterwards the ladies retired, followed by most of the gentlemen. Mr Rives, Mr Middleton, and eight or ten gentlemen, came in with the ladies. The whole passed off very well, and without the least gaucherie, and our women, though with two or three exceptions no longer in the bud, looked uncommonly well. I scarcely remember to have seen so many women in a set, that looked so uniformly genteel and pretty. I suspect but one of being rouged. Two or three were really beautiful. This little exhibition convinces me of what I have often thought, that we only want Parisian mantua-makers and milliners, to carry off the palm in female grace and beauty; for it will be remembered that the effect was produced in a strong theatrical light, without the aid of rouge.

I was surprised to see the uniform grace of their courtesies, which were simple, easy, and dignified.

I wish I could say as much for all the men; though the gentlemen behaved, as such, with modesty, aplomb, and quiet.

I thought the French looked a little surprised.

All the children were present, the little Duc de Montpensier racing round the rooms, though not in a noisy manner, with great gouût. The others were more tranquil, though thoroughly at their ease. It struck me there was a little too much affectation of simplicity for a reception that was necessarily short and formal; and on the part of our women, a little too much dress. After all, it is difficult to hit the true medium in a case of this sort. The court sacrificed a little too much to republicanism, and we, a little too much to royalty. If there was to be a mistake, both erred on the right side.’

25/26 September 1830
‘The weather is getting better, after the most detestable September I have ever known. The news from Brussels is getting to be of the highest interest. Reports differ, but I do not see how a civil war can be avoided. I am of opinion that an European war can scarcely be avoided. Unless the Governments give this direction to their people, in an age like this, they will give themselves employment at home. The ultras have recourse to all sorts of devices to create dissensions in France, but they will hardly succeed. On Sunday, the King reviewed about six thousand men of the garrison, at the Champs-de-Mars. He was well received by the troops and people.’

27 September 1830
‘The news is more favorable this morning, from Brussels. The Dutch defeated, with loss. . .’

29 September 1830
‘The news from Brussels, this morning, still more ominous. There is a strong desire in one party to confine this question to one of territorial separation; but the Bruxellois begin to denounce the dynasty. Germany very uneasy, and only to be appeased by the concession of civil rights. Sooner or later, this bitter pill must be swallowed by the selfish party of monopolists. The Belgians begin to talk of a confederated republic. Too small for that, surrounded by enemies.’

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