Literary Rambles in France IV.

Home Up Reminiscences Victorian Memories Unfrequented France Home Life in France Snow-Flakes Little Bird Red Main Index Site Search


[Previous Page]





THERE is no more delightful little journey in France than a zigzag through the Morvan, that is to say from Auxerre to Avallon, from Avallon to Autun, thence making the excursion to Château Chinon.  Here indeed is still to be found the romance of travel, whilst every spot is historically interesting.

    Striking is the abbey church of Vézelay, from its mountain-top so majestically overlooking the two departments of the Yonne and the Nièvre.  I say mountain-top, for so indeed the pyramidally formed vine-clad hill appears by contrast with the vast panorama spread at its feet: the sombre Morvan, all wood and river and valley, the Yonne, country of vines and tillage.  Far and wide we see Vézelay, and whether we approach it from the Nièvre by Clamecy, or from the Yonne by Avallon, alike the distant and the nearer aspects are equally grandiose.  Almost fairy-like in the distance is the aspect of the two tall towers and long roof rising conspicuously above the ancient fortifications, and towering above the neighbouring hills and crags.  Most beautiful is this aspect of Vézelay, the old-world town with its mellow walls, green shuttered cottages, and festooned vines giving it an Italian look; the crowning glory of the place, its abbey church, stretching as it seems from one end of the broad platform to the other.  The hill seems made indeed for the church, as a pedestal for a statue, not the church for the hill.  But for its red tiles this look of Vézelay would remind us of St. Albans, the enormous length of the nave at first appearing almost unsymmetrical.  But here we have no sober greys, no cloudy heavens of our own Midlands; the rich red of the tiles, the glittering whiteness of the stone towers, the soft blue sky, the waxen green foliage of the vines beneath and around, the warm sunshine tingling through all, remind us that we are in France and not in England.  Rich as is Vézelay in outward effect, for its façade, in spite of mutilations, retains much of its former splendour, it is chiefly the interior which archaeologists come to see and to admire.  The general impression is one of coldness, arising from the absence of colour or any kind of relief in the way of decoration, and the extraordinary length of the building.  The church is only exceeded in length by two or three cathedrals of France; but here we have not a pane of coloured glass, not a column of Coloured marble, absolutely nothing to break the monotony.  The delicate grey of the stone, alternated with the white, and the exquisite proportions of the whole, in part atone for this monotony.  Nevertheless, the eye cannot rest long at a time on the interior without fatigue.

    The prominent feature of Vézelay is its famous narthex, on which all the imaginative wealth of the builders was lavished.  It is shut off from the nave, and the doors are only thrown wide open on occasions of solemn processions; but the sacristan admits strangers both within and to the lofty tribune above.  On the occasion of my visit all was confusion, owing to casts being made of the rich sculpture adorning the narthex for the museum of the Trocadéro, Paris; but enough was visible to give an idea of its magnificence.  I was led up the narrow stone staircase into the open gallery, whence is surveyed the whole interior—a vast and wonderful perspective, arch upon arch, column upon column, as if indeed it were one cathedral opening into another as vast as itself.  The amazing extent of Vézelay is here realised, and under a most beautiful aspect, the dazzling whiteness adding greatly to its beauty.  There is, however, no balustrade, and from the giddy height it is pleasant to turn and wander round the little museum, so called, at the back.  A great number of beautiful things, all more or less fragmentary, are collected here, many of which, as well as the sculptures of the portico and the narthex, may now be seen in plaster at the Trocadéro.  The entire building has undergone restoration under the supervision of the late Viollet-Le-Duc.  Poverty, if not neglect, has fallen upon the once puissant abbey of Vézelay.  It does not even possess an organ, the poor little tones of a harmonium alone being heard throughout its vast aisles.  On the other hand, a superabundance of wealth has not been the means of spoiling the interior by means of meretricious decorations.  A few bouquets of natural flowers and a statuette or two make up all the offerings of the pious here.



    At the foot of the hill on which Vézelay stands, rising from a narrow, squalid village street, and evidently placed on low ground in order that its details might be seen to advantage, is another famous church, that of St. Père-sous-Vézelay.  This is of the thirteenth century, while Vézelay belongs to an earlier period.  In the abbey church we have the rounded arch, here the pointed, while in the interior of St. Père-sous-Vézelay we have studied simplicity and absence of detail, the exterior is of a richness, sumptuousness, and grace, all the more striking perhaps because so close to our eyes.  The church stands indeed by the wayside, and we come suddenly upon its tower, one story springing magically from the other, as in Antwerp Cathedral, the blue sky shining through its delicate apertures, an extraordinary lightness being obtained in combination with great splendour and solidity.  The architect seems to have begun his work without any precise notion of the ending, and the result is a gorgeous and fanciful whole, of which it is difficult to give any idea.  The façade, unhappily much defaced, is marvellously rich in sculpture and design, while above it, in much better condition, rises, wing-like, a kind of aerial porch as sumptuous in ornamentation.  High above this the pinnacles of the tower show figures, statuettes, and ornamentation in great lavishness, all in deep sober grey, not white and cold as is the exterior of Vézelay.  Enormous flying buttresses gird the church, giving it a look of wonderful strength, although not perhaps improving the general effect.  The surprise that this church is to us, as we come upon it so suddenly, and the contrast it presents to the poverty of its surroundings, will not easily be forgotten.  Fine as Vézelay is itself, planted fortress-like on its airy height, St. Père-sous-Vézelay is hardly less impressive—an architectural pearl flung upon a dung-heap.  The one strikes us by force of its glorious position, the other by inadequateness of site.  Yet doubtless in both cases the position had significance, and the architects of the later church lavished so much wealth upon it designedly.  Vézelay, rising proudly above the ancient Nivernais, signified that the church was for the puissant and the rich.  The exquisite church at its feet might well symbolise that the poorest had contributed to such splendour, many a peasant hardly emerged from serfdom contributing to such erections.

    From an especial point of view the history of Vézelay is very instructive.  In the twelfth century this village, for town it was not, enjoyed the prestige and prosperity of a miniature Lourdes, certain relics of Mary Magdalen attracting enormous crowds at the annual festival of the saint.  Vézelay had grown to be as important as a city, and the inhabitants, although serfs of the abbey, had contrived to amass wealth and shake off some shackles of servitude.  Whilst still compelled to grind their corn and bake their bread at the abbey mills and ovens, they enjoyed the privilege of bequeathing their prosperity to their children—a privilege indeed in those days!  The church and relics had been placed by their possessor, Gerard de Roussillon, three centuries earlier, under the jurisdiction of Rome, both thereby constituting an appendage of the holy see, and being quite independent of feudal suzerainty.  As was only to be expected, such accumulated wealth of spiritual lords aroused the jealousy of their temporal rivals, the counts of Nevers, and at the same time the people, with increased well-being, aspired to an extension of their personal liberties.  Hence arose a triple struggle, sacerdotal tyranny represented by the seigneur-abbé named Pons, seigneurial cupidity by Count Guillaume of Nevers, and popular ambition by Hugues de St. Pierre, a skilled mechanician or worker in iron, and possessed of considerable wealth.

    The contest was waged with excessive bitterness on all sides, the leading part being played by the great artisan, for great he was indeed, one of those industrial heroes whose names deserve to live in history.  Hugues de St. Pierre was moved to generous as well as individual ambition by his contrasted means and position, his state with that of his fellows being one of servitude.  Mingled with commiseration for others was a desire for personal aggrandisement.  He dreamed not only of civic rights for all, but of a commune of which he himself should be chief magistrate, a noble dream, and one which at one time seemed on the point of being realised.

    Partly, it must be believed, from generous motives also, Count Guillaume fostered this popular movement, and after a fruitless endeavour at compromise with his adversary the Abbé Pons, he thus harangued its leaders and participants:—

    'Courageous, dignified, and prudent men, who have laboriously accumulated goods and money whilst in reality being possessors of nothing, deprived of the natural liberties of man . . . my dear friends, form a league of deliverance among yourselves, and I promise to aid you to the utmost.'

    At a popular assembly summoned somewhat later, all allegiance to the seigneur-abbé was repudiated, a veritable commune was formed, the elected magistrates being called consuls, [p.242] and in a day the serfs of Vézelay had declared themselves free men and citizens endowed with full municipal rights.  As might be expected somewhat exaggerated confidence was raised by this bold initiative, a revolution in miniature.

    No sooner had the commune of Vézelay been proclaimed than the principal citizens set about building fortified dwellings after the manner of those in Provençal and Italian towns.  In 1226 Avignon possessed no fewer than three hundred houses having walls and a tower.

    The first to erect this symbol of defiance was one Simon, a rich money-changer, and next in importance to Hugues St. Pierre among the burghers.  But, alas! this gleam of better days, this realisation of manly hopes proved transitory.  The stout-hearted citizens of Vézelay were powerless against a tyrannic church and armed, autocratic power.  The king interfered.  Dastardly reprisals followed the breaking up of the commune and the suppression of civic rights.  St. Pierre's house, mills, and other buildings were pillaged and pulled down, and an armed troop was despatched by the seigneur-abbé Pons to demolish Simon's tower, 'finding the money-changer stolid as an ancient Roman seated by his fireside with wife and children.'  It was not until the 4th of August 1789 that Vézelay was freed from feudal servitude, its three years of municipal liberty fought for six centuries previously forming a memorable epoch in provincial history.  Augustin Thierry, the historian of the Norman Conquest, gives the story in his interesting Lettres sear l'Histoire de France, an excellent travelling companion in these regions.

    It is to Prosper Mérimée that France and the world owes the preservation of Vézelay.






CHÂTEAU CHINON may be reached by various post roads, but that from Autun is the most picturesque, a five hours' ascent through the very heart of the Morvan.  From the coupé of the cumbersome old diligence we get an excellent view of the country, at every turn coming upon wider and more magnificent prospects; on either side brilliant green pastures watered by little rivers clear as crystal, lofty alders fringing their banks, and the beautiful white cattle of these regions pasturing peacefully here and there; beyond these gracious scenes rise wooded hills or masses of rock—the Morvan is called 'le pays de granit' (country of granite)—while, higher up, are gained tremendous panoramas of the same scenery with a background of violet hills.  These hills are by local usage designated as mountains, and are nearly of equal height with the Cumberland range; the highest peak in the Morvan being about that of Skiddaw.  Far away the effect is of a mountainous country; and the famous Mont Beuvray, the Bibracte of Cæsar's Commentaries, which lies about half-way between Autun and Château Chinon, is a grand outline, to-day dark and frowning under a cold, grey sky.  There are wild crags to climb in plenty about the Morvan, and romantic sites approaching to sublimity, but its chief beauty lies in a quiet, caressing grace of smiling pastoralness.  Nothing in a quiet way can be more delightful than these rivers and rivulets, each bordered by the graceful alder; such alders I have never before seen in France, nor anywhere more beautiful pastures or winding lanes.  The dominating characteristic of the scenery is, however, forest; the department of La Nièvre being one of the most wooded in France, and so abundant in firewood that the poor never need buy any.  They can pick up enough and to spare.

    The country is wonderfully solitary; excepting little children keeping geese and goats here and there we hardly meet a creature.  Farther away on this September day are women getting in potatoes, but little else of farming work is going on.  The greater part of the country is given up to pasturage, and its wealth consists in cattle-rearing.  We pass one or two straggling villages of old-world appearance, but there is one sign of progress and animation.  We know without asking what mean the new or half-finished buildings here and there.  Throughout every nook and corner of France schools were being built as fast as masons and bricklayers could carry on the work, and ere long there will not be a single commune throughout the length and breadth of France without its new school.  Meantime driver and passengers alight while our steady horses climb one tremendous ascent after another; as we wind about them we catch sight of villages perched on airy crests, reminding us of that African Switzerland with its castellated hamlets, Kabylia; and after a five hours' climb, all accomplished by the same pair of horses, we at last come within sight of the ancient capital of the little Celtic Morvan.  Once an important stronghold, it is now the quietest, obscurest of country towns, with nothing attractive to the stranger but its position.  The whole Morvan lies at our feet; and although the weather is dull we have atmosphere enough to make out the chief features of the country as if we had it delineated before us on a map.  Alternating with pasture and cornland, glen and dale, mountain stream, tossing river, and glistening the sterner and grander features of Morvan landscape, dark forests stretching over vast spaces, bare granite peaks, wild sweeps of moorland.  Little villages and townlings are seen scattered about, while curling around the mountain-sides are splendid roads, mere threads in the distance.  The whole scene is strangely primitive and pastoral.  No railways, no chimneys of manufactories, no hideous steam-engines mar the naturalness and freshness of the Morvan.  All is quiet, rustic, and unspoiled as yet by civilisation.

    Château Chinon has a history.  Built on the site of a Gallo-Roman camp, it was strongly fortified in the Middle Ages, and has seen several sieges.  The warlike little capital, towering so royally over the country, now does a peaceful trade in hides and wine, and, excepting commercial travellers, seldom any one ever finds his way thither.  An English tourist has an outlandish look in the eye of the inhabitants, who wonder what in the world can have brought him so far.  These good Morvandais have a character of their own, and are said to be of pure Celtic type: you may still see a peasant with the short cloak or Gallic sagum thrown over his blue blouse; and their patois is unintelligible to strangers.  Life is exceedingly laborious here, and little is produced by the soil except buckwheat and potatoes, the latter being grown for the fattening of pigs.

    I think it must have been in the Morvan that Pierre Dupont wrote his famous song, 'Mes Bœufs.'  Beautiful as are French oxen generally, in the Burgundian Highlands they are especially endearing.  Sleek, creamy white, and gentle-eyed, they people sylvan scenes, or, one might fancy, with a sense of pride and fellowship, are seen crossing and re-crossing the fallow.

    As in my rendering of the equally famous 'Carcassonne' I have only endeavoured to give the spirit and meaning of its rival in popularity.



Two oxen have I in my shed,
    Milk-white with spots of ruddy hue.
'Tis by their toil the plough is sped,
    Thro' winter's slough and summer's dew.
'Tis thanks to them, with golden store
    My barns are piled from year to year,
In one week's time they gain me more
    Than what they first cost at the fair.

Dear is my good wife Jeanne, her death I should deplore,
But dearer are my beeves, their loss would grieve me more.


When grown up is our Coralie,
    And likely suitors come to woo,
No niggard will I prove, pardie!
    Gold shall she have and farmstock too.
Should any ask my beeves beside,
    Straightforward would the answer be,
My daughter quits me as a bride,
    The oxen will remain with me.

Dear is my good wife Jeanne, her death I should deplore,
But dearer are my beeves, their loss would grieve me more.


Aye! eye them well, a goodly sight,
    As snorting loud they stand abreast,
Upon their horns the birds alight,
    Where'er they stop to drink or rest.
Each year when Mardi Gras falls due,
    The Paris butchers come to buy;
But see my beeves decked out for view,
    Then sold for slaughter?—no, not I!

Dear is my good wife Jeanne, her death I should deplore,
But dearer are my beeves, their loss would grieve me more.

    Good pedestrians should climb the magnificent foreland of Mont Beuvray, taking with them Mr. Hamerton's inspiring little book, The Mount.  'On the western side of the valley or basin of Autun,' wrote this exact yet enthusiastic devotee of Mont Beuvray, 'rises a massive hill 1,800 feet above the plain and 2,700 above the sea-level.  It plays a great part in all effects of sunset, being remote enough to take fine blue or purple colour in certain conditions of the atmosphere.'  And he adds: 'Mont Beuvray has not the grandeur of my old friend Ben Cruachan, and as for height its whole elevation is but the difference between Mont Blanc and the Aiguille Verte, yet the impression that Ben Cruachan leaves is evidently what you will receive after climbing several other Highland mountains, and the exploration of glaciers on Mont Blanc has just the same kind of interest as the exploration of glaciers in other regions of the Alps.  Every one who knows the Beuvray remembers it as one remembers some very original human beings, for there are not two Beuvrays either in France or elsewhere.'

    This charming little book contains amongst other good things the account of a most curious psychological experience.  I give it in the author's own words—

    'The Antiquary' [the French host of his bivouac on the Mount] 'had heard me speak of Rossetti's poems, a copy of which I happened to have with me, and he begged me one evening to translate one of them.  Now in ordinary circumstances I could not extemporise a French translation of an English poem that would be worth hearing, but something told me that night that a power of this kind was temporarily in my possession, so I opened the book and began.  The effect on myself and everybody present was remarkable.  I felt transported into the highest realm of poetry and became for that single hour a French poet endowed with Rossetti's genius, which passed through me as electricity passes through a conductor.  In this way I translated—if such spontaneous utterance is to be called translation—'The Blessed Damozel,' 'Sister Helen,' 'Stratton Water,' and both I and every one present were in a state of intense emotion the whole time—indeed, as for the audience, I never saw an audience so moved by poetry in my life, and the next day, when prosaic reason returned to us, we were all very much astonished at the enchanted evening we had spent together.  When I look over these poems to-day, they seem to me utterly untranslatable, and I cannot conceive through what medium of equivalents the power of them reached my hearers; yet it did reach them.'




THRICE happy that poet who has written one poem, no matter how short, that the world will not willingly let die!

    Such was the lot of Abbeville's poet.  Few readers of these pages have probably heard his name—a little lyric in itself—fewer still have read the score and odd lines without which no French anthology is complete.

    Millevoye's elegies, narrative pieces, Dizains et Huitains, ballads, romances, epigrams, translations, and imitations from Greek writers, are, clean forgotten; La Chute des Feuilles remains a classic.  The grace, tenderness, and harmony of that little poem have assured its author's fame.

    Sainte-Beuve, whose lynx-eyed vision discerned a grain of gold no matter how deeply embedded in ore, tells a curious story about Millevoye's one masterpiece.  In 1837 he wrote (see his Portraits Littéraires, vol. i.): 'I was lately informed that the Chute des Feuilles translated into Russian had been re-translated from that version into English by Sir John Bowring, and that the second rendering had been quoted in France and held up as a specimen of the dreamy, sombre northern muse.  The poor poem had travelled far and wide, Millevoye's name being lost on the way!'

    And the critic of critics adds: 'No matter how far his verses may travel, the name of Millevoye can never in reality be separated from them.  Their author unexpectedly and immediately attained the good fortune which lately made a less happy aspirant exclaim to me, "Oh, could I only write a little story, a little poem, a work of art no matter how trifling, that should be for ever remembered!  Could I only add the tiniest gold piece marked with my name, to the accumulated treasure of ages."  Then cried the ambitious poet—"Only a second Gray's Elegy, a Jeune Captive, a Chute des Feuilles."'

    Millevoye was born at Abbeville on the eve of the French Revolution, and seems to have led an easy, uneventful life, dividing his time between Paris and his native town and by turns exchanging dissipation and the world for literary seclusion à la Balzac.   In 1813 he married, and three years later lost his life through one of those freaks to which he had ever been addicted.  Entertaining some friends to dinner in his country house at Épagnette near Abbeville, a discussion arose as to a certain steeple just visible in the distance.  Some of the party affirmed that the spire belonged to the village of Pont-Remy, others that it was that of its neighbour called Long.  Unable to resist a sudden impulse, he ordered his horse to be saddled, and quitting the company set out for the disputed steeple.  He could not rest without settling the matter in dispute.  But hardly was he on the high road than his animal, which he had not used for some time, reared and overthrew him, breaking a thigh-bone.  He died in Paris in August 1816, being just thirty-four.  'His memory,' writes Sainte-Beuve, 'remains dear and interesting; the brilliant train following in his wake has not effaced Millevoye's name.'

    Yet, or rather as might be looked for, making all French hearts kin is of the simplest, the touch of nature.  I give Sir John Bowring's translation.

(Specimens of Russian Poets, vol. ii. pp. 223-226, 1823).


Th' autumnal winds had stripp'd the field
Of all its foliage, all its green;
The winter's harbinger had still'd
That soul of song which cheer'd the scene.

With visage pale, and tottering gait,
As one who hears his parting knell,
I saw a youth disconsolate;
He came to breathe his last farewell.

'Thou grove! how dark thy gloom to me,
Thy glories riven by autumn's breath;
In every falling leaf I see
A threatening messenger of death.

'O Æsculapius! on my ear,
Thy melancholy warnings chime:
Fond youth! bethink thee, thou art here
A wanderer—for the last—last time.

'Thy spring will winter's gloom o'ershade
Ere yet the fields are white with snow
Ere yet the latest flowerets fade,
Thou in thy grave wilt sleep below.

'I hear a hollow murmuring,
The cold wind rolling o'er the plain—
Alas! the brightest days of spring
How swift, how sorrowful, how vain.

'O wave, ye dancing boughs, O wave!
Perchance to-morrow's dawn may see
My mother weeping on my grave—
Then consecrate my memory.

'I see, with loose, dishevell'd hair,
Covering her snowy bosom, come
The angel of my childhood there,
To dew with tears my early tomb.

'Then in the autumn's silent eve,
With fluttering wing, and gentlest tread,
My spirit its calm bed shall leave,
And hover o'er the mourner's head.'

Then he was silent—faint and slow
His steps retreated;—he came no more:
The last leaf trembled on the bough—
And his last pang of grief was o'er.

Beneath the agèd oaks he sleeps;—
The angel of his childhood there
No watch around his tombstone keeps;
But when the evening stars appear,

The woodman, to his cottage bound,
Close to that grave is wont to tread,
But his rude footsteps, echo'd round,
Break not the silence of the dead.

    Abbeville has named a street after its poet, but, strange to say, has raised no monument to his memory.  A simple statue or commemorative fountain might well replace the unsightly rococo monument defacing what would otherwise be a majestic scene.  Over against the grand cathedral, thus designated, although Abbeville is no bishopric, rises a mass of white marble, the florid sculptures being surmounted by the figure of Admiral Courtet.  Nothing could present a greater and more disconcerting contrast than this pile of tasteless, glaring white, and the grandiose edifice of sombre grey rising so stately above.  Seldom in France does taste receive such a shock.  How delightfully unprogressive are some regions of provincial France!  Could Arthur Young revisit Abbeville after the interval of a hundred and twenty years, he would find the principal hotel hardly changed.  On asking for tea he would be served with what tastes like nothing so much as a decoction of hay, and accompanied by boiling milk and tablespoons.  Rough, unkempt men now as then would make his bed and sweep his room, and the rest is of a piece, modernity slowly filtering in by drops.

    Scores of times had I myself passed through this delightful little town, without halting even for a night, and that Anglo-Saxons seldom make it their headquarters banking-houses as well as inns betoken.

    In Italy and Switzerland and also in many French towns, cheques on London banks are readily changed or received as payment.  Let no tourist flatter himself that even if furnished with a passport he will be able to pass his cheques at Abbeville, and on changing our Bank of England notes at a moneychanger's we were mulcted at the rate of a franc upon every five pounds.

    These are however the merest bagatelles.  French of the French, Abbeville is wholly delightful, a town rich in artistic resources and possessing a lovely environment.  Far and wide falls on our ears the majestic boom of its cathedral bell, by comparison that of Amiens is but a tinkle; here the deep, rich, resounding note striking the hours reminded me of the famous bourdon I had heard years before at Reims announcing President Faure's interment.  And as I think of the tremendous notes and the exquisite pleasure of drinking them in, I recall Wordsworth's picture of the gentle dalesman—

'From whom in early childhood was withdrawn
 The precious gift of hearing.   He grew up
 From year to year in loneliness of soul;
 And this deep mountain valley was to him
 Soundless with all its streams.
                                                              The bird of dawn
 Did never rouse this cottager from sleep
 With startling summons; not for his delight
 The vernal cuckoo shouted, not for him
 Murmured the labouring bee.   When stormy winds
 Were working the broad bosom of the lake
 Into a thousand thousand sparkling waves,
 Rocking the trees, or driving cloud on cloud
 Along the sharp edge of yon lofty crags,
 The agitated scene before his eyes
 Was silent as a picture.'

    To have missed the boom of French cathedral bells is a deprivation indeed.  After visiting and revisiting that magnificent grey pile without a blemish, the traveller has his choice of two museums, that of the municipality and that called after its too generous donor, Boucher de Perthes.  I say 'its too generous donor,' because like many another collector this enricher of his native town forgot the admirable adage that the half is better than the whole.  Here, palatially housed in charmingly laid-out grounds, are collections as multifarious and bewildering as those almost crazing the Paris municipality some years since and now placed in the Petit Palais.  Just as the district museum has too much of everything, so the late collector of Abbeville spent a long life and an ample fortune in laying his hands upon everything not bought and sold for daily needs.

    Of the acres upon acres of crowded space I only remember one speciality, namely a most rare and curious set of paintings on Cordovan leather, the only thing of the kind I have ever seen.  The subjects represented are hunting scenes, alike drawing and colouring being crude but animated and highly pictorial.  Porcelain, pottery, enamels, pictures, engravings and historic portraits, old furniture, inlaid cabinets, engraved gems, medieval bindings, prehistoric implements.  All these could only be hastily and, I fear, unprofitably glanced at.  The town museum is still more magnificently housed, and contains amongst other treasures a good portrait of the lovely Madame Tallien and many beautiful engravings.  Both museums are under feminine control and a pleasing memory did I bring away from the last-named.

    Having broken my fast at seven o'clock, by eleven I felt in need of refreshment.  On asking our cicerone, a bright little maiden, for a slice of bread, she smilingly brought me a plateful of delicious bread and butter and a little glass jar of strawberry jam.  Both tasted better for the donor and for the fact of being degustated in the beautiful garden.

    The environs of Abbeville are very pretty, and in a drive of an hour or two we obtain highly characteristic views of French scenery, richly shaded walks by canal and river, here and there bits of old-world architecture peeping through the trees or vistas of varied crops, brilliantly contrasted crimsons, purples, and greens, amid these being rustic groups at work, figures recalling Millet.  The sudden sight of shipping comes as a surprise.  One is apt to forget that, as M. Lenthéric tells us, Abbeville was once a port of considerable importance, indeed at a remote period almost to be called a seaboard town.  The extensive quays show little animation at the present time, but fifty years ago they presented a bustling aspect, and double rows of vessels might be seen there at anchor.

    Abbeville must nevertheless be a very prosperous and thrifty place.  Not a sign of vagrancy, not a down-at-heel, out-at-elbow man, woman, or child do you meet in its clean, quiet streets and well-built suburbs.  The manufacture of carpets and other industries evidently more than compensate for maritime importance.

    And if the whimsical unprogressiveness I have alluded to hath charms, nowadays when in every little general shop throughout Brittany you see the New York Herald, when at out-of-the-way stations German house-porters meet you in smart uniform, when from June till October not only Brittany but Normandy and Touraine are crowded with English and American trippers, how refreshing to find a corner of France as exclusively French as in the days of our youth!

    Little discomforts are soon got over.  The old-world hotel, the courtyard set round with oleanders and pomegranates in tubs, the geraniums adorning the balcony, the buxom landlady with napkin swung across her shoulder, serving her guests, one and all evidently old acquaintances—all these things take us back to the France we first knew and charm a stay at Millevoye's birthplace.




THERE are many reasons why the author of Colomba should interest English readers perhaps more than any other nineteenth-century French man of letters.


Picture: Internet Text Archive.

    In the first place Prosper Mérimée loved England, and indeed adopted it as a second home.  Again he is one of the few French writers who have introduced English types into fiction without travesty or caricature, one of the fewer still whose masterpiece has become a text-book for our boys and girls preparing for local examinations.  In the zenith of his fame he frequently sojourned among us, honoured guest of foremost statesmen, and the devotion of English friends cheered his old age and declining health, and—surely English influences are discernible therein?—by a special codicil of his will, a Protestant pastor it was who officiated at his grave.

    Prosper Mérimée'e, the only child of artistic and highly honourable parents, was born in Paris in 1803.  Among the many fairy-gifts heaped upon him as he lay in his cradle, one had been withheld.  Personal beauty, even the ordinary measure of comeliness, were lacking.  A survivor of the brilliant circle in which he shone has described him to me as a witty, ingratiating Silenus.  We have only to glance at his portrait to convince ourselves that the comparison was not exaggerated.  But what mattered personal appearance to a Prosper Mérimée?  Doubtless in no single instance did such plainness affect either his happiness, worldly prospects, or peace of mind.  From beginning to end he enjoyed good fortune.

    His friends were legion, he travelled, lived at ease, loved, without 'loving unwisely or too well': if like many another genius he ofttimes plied the muckrake instead of accepting the golden crown, in other words, wilfully mistook his literary vocation, he nevertheless added two masterpieces to native literature.  Colomba and the incomparable Lettres à une Inconnue are classics.  Among the numerous volumes which occupied his so-called Tacitean pen throughout half a century, here and there one or two may be occasionally taken down from the student's bookshelf.  But the two chefs-d'œuvre written in early life alone constitute his title-deeds to fame.

    Just as twenty years separate Comus and Paradise Lost, so to compare the lesser with the greater, two decades divide the author of Colomba from his latest stories.  But whilst after such an interval our 'mighty orb of song' burst out with renewed and blinding splendour, when Mérimée the historian again reverted to romance he found that his wand was broken.  Vainly did he try to recall the old charm; Colomba remains alone.

    It would be tedious and unprofitable to follow this most versatile writer through the various stages of his literary career.  Critic, dramatist, historian, archæologist inter alia, had he never written that perfect little story, nor ever penned those delightful letters to 'an unknown one,' we might almost be disposed to apply Johnson's famous eulogium on Goldsmith.  But great as were his historic gifts, they were generally thrown away on unattractive subjects, and the very volume of his miscellaneous writings acts as a deterrent.  I will therefore say something of his life and his connection with Compiègne.

    It was in 1833 that he met the Comtesse de Montijo, mother of the future Empress, and of whom he wrote to his friend Stendhal—'In her I have found an excellent friend, but there has never been any question of any other feeling but friendship between us.'  Her daughter Eugénie, present ex-Empress, was at that time a child of four, and it was on Mérimée's knees that she learned her letters.  When seventeen years later he learned that his beautiful pupil, for so she had continued to be during the interval, was to become his sovereign, his initiative was highly characteristic.

    Straightway he offered her his life-long homage, promising that he would never under any circumstances ask her good offices on behalf of outsiders or seek to influence her opinion.  And he kept his word.

    Henceforth Mérimée's existence was changed, and in a certain sense to the end of his days [p.265-1] he remained a courtier.  If we regret that the romancer now forsook fiction for archæology and the semi-intellectual amusement of the most frivolous court in Europe, we must on one account regard the change as fortunate.  But for the Lettres à une Inconnue we should perhaps have no imperishable picture of society under the Third Empire. [p.265-2]  Other records exist in plenty, but no habitué of Compiègne wielded Mérimée's pen.

    The manners were of a piece with the morals of that period.  The paternally affectionate knight-errant, the senator, the fastidious man of letters, was not disposed to exaggerate matters.  I subjoin in a footnote a passage from the famous letters. [p.265-3]  If Prosper Mérimée wasted some of his best years in supplying and superintending court comediettas and charades, as archæologist in the pay of the State, he accomplished measures of lasting and immense value.  To his efforts is due the preservation of the abbey church of Vézelay, this instance being one of many in point.  One of the last acts of Mérimée's life did more credit to his heart than his head.

    When 'deep in ruin and in guilt' the Third Empire fell, an agèd, suffering, worn-out man, with indeed the hand of death upon him, he dragged himself to Paris for the sake of seeing M. Thiers, trying to induce that old man eloquent to throw patriotism to the winds and risk civil war on behalf of the beautiful but misguided woman who had been mainly instrumental in bringing about Sedan and its consequences.  But Thiers was immovable, and the ex-Empress's advocate returned to Cannes to die.  His death, occurring amid such a cataclysmal upheaval, created no noise, and, as has been already stated, to the astoundment, not to say scandal, of his Catholic friends, a minister of the Reformed faith performed the last religious rites.

    Mérimée, his biographer tells us, was fond of all animals, but passionately so of cats.  The sensitiveness, elegance, and disdain of cats attracted him.  He could not see a cat without wanting to make it happy, and upon one occasion, for several days running, he trudged several miles in order to feed a poor puss inhumanly left behind after its owners' removal.  For the matter of that, a love of cats is especially a French trait.  I well remember when inspecting a historic old church near Dijon, with M. Paul Sabatier, how he immediately took up and caressed the sacristan's pet who had come purring after us.

    Compiègne is a delightful little place to halt at when the thermometer does not mark ninety-nine Fahrenheit in the shade.  This was my experience on a recent visit, but of course, is wholly exceptional.

    The magnificent forest, so unlike those of Rambouillet, the fine old gardens, the château—an object-lesson in upholstery and decoration of the First Empire—the quiet beauty of the Oise, the rustic pictures to be gained farther afield, render this aristocratic townling a most agreeable villégiature.  For Compiègne is essentially aristocratic.  The population is divided into three classes, each holding as completely aloof from each other as French and Germans in Alsace and Lorraine.  Noblesse, here chiefly Imperialist, bourgeois, and the work-a-day world hold no kind of intercourse.  Apart they remain, as do their châteaux, villas, and modest cottages.  For it must never be forgotten that in democratic France there is much less fusion of classes than in aristocratic Albion.

    But the general impression of Compiègne is one of urbanity, not too ostentatious wealth, whether inherited or parvenu, and universal well-being.  Cheerfullest of the cheerful, of Compiègne it may also be said that there we can take our ease at our inn.

    It is not Jeanne d'Arc or the Corsican Cæsar and his pinchbeck imitator that the English flâneur will have uppermost in his mind here.  Instead he will think of the brilliant Frenchman whose heart in early life went out to England, who remained a half-Englishman to the end, who, moreover, unique among French writers, has given in his flawless little romance true and dignified portraiture of English character, and who, when his long, prosperous, and honourable career was drawing to a close, found support and solace in English friendship and devotion.




In 1848 the great painter Fromentin, at that time aged twenty-eight, wrote to a friend from the paternal home: 'Je mène, on me fait mener, une vie propre à tuer l'esprit le plus solide.  Vivre ici n'est pas vivre.  Mon père oublie qu'il a on mon âge, ma mère oublie qu'elle n'a pas toujours passé sa vie entre l'aiguille et le confessional.'  Fromentin's father being alive, the young man depended upon him for every penny.  Here Flaubert was more fortunate, but the restraint was the same.


Gustave Flaubert, Lettres à sa nièce Caroline.  Paris, Charpentier, 1906.


Precursor of the piano.


This happened twice to the charming author of Trilby and other classic pieces.  By the way, did Du Maurier here find the name for his once famous novel?


Histoire de la Civilisation Française, vol. iii, latest issue.


A travers la France en flânant, Paris, 1903.


Jeu de cartes où le valet de trefles entre deux cartes de même valeur l'emporte sur les autres cartes.—Hatzfeld and Darmesteter.


See Prosper Mérimée's Portraits, Historiques et Littéraires, 1874, to which the following pages are much indebted.


The livre Tournois was equivalent to a franc, the livre Parisis to a franc and five sous.  In Brantôme's day the livre Tournois represented a purchasing power of nearly three francs in our time.  See D'Avenel's La Fortune Privée à travers sept siècles.


See Hatzfeld and Darmesteter.


A French friend has kindly drawn this plan for me showing the arrangement of the naves.

The form of St. Front is a Greek cross with two naves, each having three transepts of similar proportions, one of these being common to the two and each surmounted by a cupola or dome.  These cupolas rest on pendentives supported by arcades resting on enormous pillars and internally forming lofty slender arches.  The exterior walls are of moderate thickness and have round arched windows, the hemicycle forming the primitive apse having been replaced by one of larger proportions.


A. Rambaud: Histoire de la Civilisation Française.


See La Revue des deux Mondes, 1905.


That affirmation of his mother's liberality was evidently unfounded.


On rich farmeries in France to-day the stockman sleeps on a shakedown of straw adjoining his animals.


A good deal of commercial intercourse existed between Vézelay and the maritime cities of the South, in which the heads of municipalities were thus called.


I am, of course, much indebted here to M. Filon's admirable monograph. (Hachette.)


See Histoire du Second Empire, par H. Magen; Mémoires d'un bourgeois de Paris, de Véron; Memoires secrets du xixme siècle, de Beaumont-Vassy.


'Nous avons ici Mlle. X――, qui est un beau brio de jeune fille, de cinq pieds quatre pouces. On paraissait craindre que la seconde partie d'une charade ne répondît pas au commencement.  Cela ira bien, dit-elle, nous montrerons nos jambes dans le ballet et ils seront contents.'  Elsewhere he writes: 'A la Cour on y était décolleté dune manière outrageuse, par en haut et par en bas aussi: une demoiselle était en nymphe Dryade aver une robe qui aurait laissé toute la gorge à découvert si on n'y eût remédié par un maillot, ce qui semblait aussi vif que le décolletage de la maman, dont on pénétrait tout l'estomac d'un coup d'œil.'

That matters were worse still before the Emperor's marriage the following extract from another writer shows—

'When blind-man's buff was over, the ladies gathered round the Emperor, who, from a baize bag, at a signal, scattered on the floor all kinds of trinkets to be scrambled for: brooches, necklets, earrings, glittering with pearls and diamonds. The pleasure of the Imperial donor consisted in watching the indecorous scrambles of the ladies as they disputed the spoil on hands and knees.'

This pastime was called, 'La curée des dames.'


 [Home] [Up] [Reminiscences] [Victorian Memories] [Unfrequented France] [Home Life in France] [Snow-Flakes] [Little Bird Red] [Main Index] [Site Search]

Correspondence should be addressed to....