Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The French lack of delicacy

‘The French people do not seem to think it wrong to cheat or lie, or the least disgraceful to be told they do.’ Such was the view of a precocious 14 year old called Mary Browne while in France in the summer of 1821. There is very little information about Mary, who died all too young 190 years ago today, but she is remembered because of a small diary she left behind and which was published a century or so after her birth.

Mary Browne was born at Tallentire Hall in Cumberland on 15 February 1807, descended on her father’s side from a family of yeoman and on her mother’s side from the Royal Stuarts and Plantagenets. As a child she was considered somewhat stupid and slow by her governess, but there was no evidence of this by the time she was 14 and being taken on a four-month tour to France. She developed into a keen naturalist and observer of nature, and seems to have had some talent for drawing. However, she died young, aged only 26, on 30 May 1833.

While in France with her family in 1821 Mary kept a diary. Somehow this survived until the early years of the 20th century and was published, in 1905, by John Murray. The diary - which is freely available online at Internet Archive - is notable partly because of the way Mary wrote so critically of the French, and partly because of her naive but charming sketches alongside the text.

25 April 1821
‘We arrived at London about eleven o’clock: all the hotels we enquired at being full, we drove to the British Hotel, Jermyn Street. We passed through Cavendish Square, which was very pretty, but I was rather disappointed at not seeing London till I was in it. After we had rested, we walked through Burlington Arcade: it was quite cool and pleasant, although the weather was as hot as the middle of summer. There were rows of shops along each side, which had many pretty things in them, particularly artificial flowers; not far from this is the Egyptian Temple, which has sphinxes, etc., carved on it: we saw the Opera House, which is a very fine building. Regent’s Street and Waterloo Place are built of white stone. Regent’s Street (when finished) is to extend a long way; at the bottom of it is Carlton House, which is very much blackened by the smoke: there is a great contrast between it and St. James’s Palace, the latter being built of red brick, and looks like a prison. In the evening we saw the lamps in Regent’s Street, which was lighter than any other street I saw; one house was illuminated. We saw Waterloo Bridge.’

26 April 1821
‘We went to see the panorama of Naples: it was a beautiful view, there were a number of vessels in the bay; after one had looked long at them, one could fancy they were moving: in one of the boats there were some ladies sitting under a crimson canopy; in another some fruit; in one place there were some men fishing for mullet in a kind of round net, with fishes jumping through it; there was a man swimming with a basket in one hand, and several other figures; the ships were painted very gay colours, the water and the sky were as clear as crystal, and the whole so natural that one could hardly persuade oneself that it was not reality. The next panorama we saw was the battle of Waterloo: it was not near so pretty as Naples, it seemed all confusion; the farmhouse, however, was very natural, also some of the black horses. We next went to the panorama of Lausanne: the Lake of Geneva was very like Keswick Lake, but the lower end not so pretty; the mountains did not look very high. There were a great number of trees; some of them had on kind of covers, which looked like tombstones; the white railings and the shadows of the trees were remarkably natural; there were several figures, the prettiest was a little child learning to walk.

We went to St. Paul’s, and just walked through it. I thought it very fine, but spoiled by the blackness. I had no idea of the height till I observed some people in the gallery, who looked no bigger than flies; the pillars were very thick. In our way to St. Paul’s we passed by Perry’s glass-shop; in the window there was a curtain of glass drops, with two tassels; it had a very pretty effect, and when the sun shone it appeared all colours, but when we entered the shop it was quite beautiful, there were such numbers of large glass lamps hanging from the ceiling, and chandeliers, etc., in all parts. We saw the jugs belonging to a dessert-set for a Spanish nobleman, which was to cost twelve hundred pounds. Also a picture of a lamp which the King had had made there: it was gilt dragons with lotuses in their mouths; in these the lamps were placed so as to be quite hid. I should think it would be more curious than pretty. We passed by Green Park, and saw Lord William Gordon’s house, which has a very nice garden. We drove through Hyde Park; the trees were very pretty, and the leaves far out; we passed very near the Serpentine. It was excessively hot weather.’

27 April 1821
‘We saw the Western Exchange [on Bond Street], which is something like a large room full of shops; from that we went to Miss Linwoods Exhibition. The pictures were exactly like paintings; there was a railing before them, so that one could not see very near them; some of the prettiest were Jephtha’s Daughter, a nymph turning into a fountain, a little girl and a kitten, some children on an ass, a girl and a bird, a woodman and a lobster; in a smaller room were several pictures of our Saviour, the finest was a head; there was no railing before them, and when one looked near and could see the stitches, they looked quite rough; we went along a passage and looked through a kind of grating in which there was a head of Buonaparte, in another a lion’s den; but the most amusing thing was some children in a cottage; underneath a shelf lay a little black-and-white dog, which we were afraid to go near thinking it was alive; Catherine said she saw its eyes moving. The streets in London were a great deal prettier than I imagined, such numbers of shops, carriages, etc. - indeed the whole far exceeded my expectation. There were a great many carriages in Bond Street driving backwards and forwards.’

28 April 1821
‘We left London about half-past nine o’clock; we passed close by Westminster Abbey, which is prettier than St. Pauls; we had a beautiful view of London from Westminster Bridge, where I think it looks best, all the ships look so lively on the river, and London appears so large. Somerset House is one side of the Thames; we had another view after we were out of the city, where we saw London much better than when we were coming in; we saw the Monument and the Tower at a distance: it was delightful weather, the leaves were quite out; we saw a great number of butterflies, one kind of a bright yellow (that I had never seen before). The country looked very pretty, but the cottages were not so nice as those in Hertfordshire; we had several views of the Thames; we slept at Canterbury.’

20 May 1821
‘We all now began to feel very uncomfortable; everything was so very different to the things in an English house. From the drawing-room to the kitchen all was uncomfortable, and the habits of the people were so dirty and untidy that our three English servants begged that they might do the work themselves instead of having a foreigner to assist them. Stephens our courier was gone, so that we had often to go with Carruthers (our cook) to the market to speak for her. [. . .] Notwithstanding all our care we frequently were cheated; they will try every possible means sometimes when the market-people set down what we had bought, they would write down a few more pence than they had before charged, or contrive some other way for getting money. The provisions at Versailles were fully dearer than in England. One of the best shops in the market was Madame Segan’s, although she, as well as the rest, would cheat if she could. The butter was very bad in France. Madame Segan’s was the best, but as there was no salt in it, and they only got it once a week, it did not keep good. The butcher’s meat (except the pork and veal) is not good: they have a curious custom of blowing it up so as to look very large. The French bread being made of leaven is very sour; we got English bread from a baker at Versailles. Another good shop for eggs, etc., is The Black Hen.

Madame Vernier, the woman whom we took the house from, was a restaurateur next door, so we often got some dishes from her. Her chef de cuisine used sometimes also to come to our house to make dishes. It was very curious to see his proceedings; the beginning of all his dishes was the same, a large piece of batter and a little flour; to this he often added some bouillon. [. . .] The French can make a dish out of almost anything. One day he began to tell us a long story about a place where he used to dip the children, and to show us what he meant he took little Caroline in his arms and pretended to bathe her. This cook was a true French figure; he used to come in with his white nightcap and apron on, and a sharp pointed knife hung by his side. After scraping up the charcoal with his fingers he used to dip two of them into the pan, and putting them to his mouth he used to say, “Trés bon, trés bon.” He was, however, a civil enough old man in his way.

Another curious figure was our water-woman. She was a remarkably ugly, vulgar-looking old woman, and like all the old French women, an immense size. She used to wear a brown petticoat, a tattered apron, and a knitted woollen body. Notwithstanding her uncouth appearance, however, she was by far the most polite old woman I saw in France. Though upwards of seventy, she one day sang us some songs very well. When she came she used to make a curtsy and enquire after us all in the civilest manner possible. Indeed she was nearly the only person whose manner was at all like what I expected. Although one hears so much of French politeness, I do not think that the French are near so polite as the English. The men make better bows, etc., but in other things there is a kind of forwardness in the manners of the people that I cannot admire. If you are walking in the street and a person happens to run against you or hit you with his stick (which frequently happens), he never thinks of saying anything except calling out “eh!” laughing, and then walking on.’

21 May 1821
‘The French people do not seem to think it wrong to cheat or lie, or the least disgraceful to be told they do. Sometimes when we thought anything we were buying dear, and told the shopkeeper that we had bought the same thing cheaper in another shop, she answered, “O madame, vous ne pouvez pas; c’est impossible.” ’

1 June 1821
‘There were a great many people in the gardens, and the variety of colours resem- bled a bed of tulips. Some of the people were very oddly dressed. One woman had on a most extraordinary cap composed of pink satin and very pretty lace; she had a gold chain round her neck, a white gown, and pink cotton apron. (Her cap was not at all common.) The French are very fond of colours, and put them on with very bad taste. We saw some people with perhaps a pink handkerchief, a blue sash, a coarse cotton gown, a yellow bonnet, and green shoes. We saw one lady in church with a yellow bonnet spotted with every colour; and another lady with one side of her bonnet one colour, and the other another colour. The ladies are in general very plain. We were told that a lady having tried to persuade an English gentleman that the French ladies were pretty, he took her to one of the great waterworks, where she could see ten thousand people, and told her that he would give her a gown worth five hundred francs if she could find three handsome women. The lady tried, but was obliged to acknowledge that she could not. The French women have not good figures: the old women are very fat, and the others are as flat as two boards. [. . .]

The French children are old-fashioned, dull, grave, and ugly: like little old women in their appearance. The babies are wrapt up in swaddling-clothes like mummies, and they wear queer little cotton hats. The nurses carry them very carefully hanging on their arms; they say that nursing them, or tossing them about, makes them mad. Some of the children have long hair hanging down their backs and little hats stuck on the tops of their heads and little ridicules in their hands.’

28 June 1821
‘Carruthers saw our bread-baker standing at the street door talking to some women, with nothing on him but a small apron. The French do not seem to have any idea what delicacy is.’

24 August 1821
‘We set off five minutes before seven. It was very foggy. There is a pretty hill and a good deal of wood going out of Arundel. After the fog cleared away it was excessively hot; every person looked half roasted. There were a number of pretty cottages; most of which, and even some of the sheds, were covered with vines, roses, and jessamines; there were also many remarkably fine hollyoaks before the doors. Every person looked clean and neat; there seemed to be no poverty: we did not meet with a single beggar. It was delightful to see the green fields full of sheep and cows, all looking so happy. There were several boats full of ladies on the Thames. We saw London some time before we were in it; it only appeared like a great deal of smoke. We scarcely saw any soldiers in London - very different to Paris! We arrived at the New Hummums, Russell Street, at half-past four.

In the evening we went to Drury Lane and saw the Coronation. The first play was very ugly. The first scene of the coronation was a distant view of Westminster Abbey. There were a number of soldiers and people painted at a distance. The procession was very long and beautiful. The herb-women walked first, strewing the way with flowers; they were dressed in white, and pink roses on their heads, and the first had on a scarlet mantle. The king had on a crimson velvet robe with an immense long train covered with gold stars, and borne by seven pages. The second scene was the inside of Westminster Abbey: the ceiling was covered with scarlet drapery; there were a great many chandeliers, and one could not imagine anything more magnificent. There were painted people in the galleries, and real people at one end. There was a great deal of music and a large harmonica. The king went up to the altar, and they put on him a purple crown. In the third scene there came in a sailor who sang a curious song about the coronation. The fourth scene was the banquet. There were gold plates and such a number of lights that they made my eyes quite sore. The champion came in on horseback and threw down the glove: two other men on horseback followed him: the horses reared and plunged: a man in armour made of rings stood on each side of him. It was altogether beautiful. It was very hot.’

25 August 1821
‘Before we set off we went to Covent Garden market, and saw some beautiful fruit in the shop windows; we had not time to go through it, but what we saw was not to be compared to the flower-markets in Paris. We did not see anything here very pretty. It was excessively hot when we set off. We passed several pretty houses, and we stopped at Hampstead Heath to see Mr. and Mrs. Spedding. We dined at Welwin, not a very good inn. There were several nice little girls dancing along with bundles of corn on their heads. We slept at Antonbury Hill. It was a nice inn, and the people were civil.’

29 August 1821
‘We set off at seven, happy to think we were near the end of our journey. No person in the inn was ready. It was a dull morning. We passed Windermere and breakfasted at Ambleside. After this we passed some beautiful mountains very much wooded, and Rydal Water, a pretty little lake, and also Grasmere. As soon as we passed the boundary wall and entered Cumberland the sun came out and shone brightly for a little while. We saw the blue mountains peeping up behind, and the clear mountain streams. We passed Thirlmere, which is more like a river, and Helvellyn, an ugly mountain. We saw Keswick Lake; arrived at Keswick by one o’clock, and stayed there till three. After we had left this, a flock of sheep ran on before the carriage for above a mile with a man and his dog after them. The sun shone as we went up Whinlatter; and we saw the end of Bassenthwaite; the sixth lake we saw to-day. The time seemed very short till we reached Cockermouth, where we saw the new bridge they were building. At last we arrived in safety at Tallantire.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 30 May 2013.

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