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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Aspects of France before the Revolution
By Arthur Young (1741–1820)
 
From ‘Travels in France’

THE ENVIRONS of Clermont are picturesque. The hills about Liancourt are pretty, and spread with a sort of cultivation I had never seen before,—a mixture of vineyards (for here the vines first appeared), gardens, and corn. A piece of wheat, a scrap of lucerne, a patch of clover or vetches, a bit of vine, with cherry and other fruit trees scattered among all, and the whole cultivated with the spade: it makes a pretty appearance, but must form a poor system of trifling.  1
  Chantilly.—Magnificence is its reigning character; it is never lost. There is not taste or beauty enough to soften it into milder features: all but the château is great, and there is something imposing in that; except the gallery of the great Condé’s battles and the cabinet of natural history, which is rich in very fine specimens, most advantageously arranged, it contains nothing that demands particular notice; nor is there one room which in England would be called large. The stable is truly great, and exceeds very much indeed anything of the kind I had ever seen. It is 580 feet long and 40 feet broad, and is sometimes filled with 240 English horses. I had been so accustomed to the imitation in water of the waving and irregular lines of nature, that I came to Chantilly prepossessed against the idea of a canal; but the view of one here is striking, and has the effect which magnificent scenes impress. It arises from extent, and from the right lines of the water uniting with the regularity of the objects in view. It is Lord Kames, I think, who says the part of the garden contiguous to the house should partake of the regularity of the building; with much magnificence about a place this is unavoidable. The effect here however is lessened by the parterre before the castle, in which the division and the diminutive jets d’eau are not of a size to correspond with the magnificence of the canal. The menagerie is very pretty, and exhibits a prodigious variety of domestic poultry from all parts of the world,—one of the best objects to which a menagerie can be applied; these and the Corsican stag had all my attention. The hameau contains an imitation of an English garden; the taste is but just introduced into France, so that it will not stand a critical examination. The most English idea I saw is the lawn in front of the stables; it is large, of a good verdure, and well kept,—proving clearly that they may have as fine lawns in the north of France as in England. The labyrinth is the only complete one I have seen, and I have no inclination to see another: it is in gardening what a rebus is in poetry. In the sylvæ are many very fine and scarce plants. I wish those persons who view Chantilly, and are fond of fine trees, would not forget to ask for the great beech; this is the finest I ever saw, straight as an arrow, and as I guess, not less than 80 or 90 feet high,—40 feet to the first branch, and 12 feet diameter at five from the ground. It is in all respects one of the finest trees that can anywhere be met with. Two others are near it, but not equal to this superb one. The forest around Chantilly, belonging to the Prince of Condé is immense, spreading far and wide; the Paris road crosses it for ten miles, which is its least extent. They say the capitainerie, or paramountship, is above 100 miles in circumference. This is to say, all the inhabitants for that extent are pestered with game, without permission to destroy it, in order to give one man diversion. Ought not these capitaineries to be extirpated?…  2
  On the breaking up of the party, went with Count Alexandre de la Rochefoucauld post to Versailles, to be present at the fête of the day following (Whitsunday); slept at the Duke de Liancourt’s hôtel.  3
  The 27th.—Breakfasted with him at his apartments in the palace, which are annexed to his office of grand master of the wardrobe, one of the principal in the court of France. Here I found the duke surrounded by a circle of noblemen, among whom was the Duke de la Rochefoucauld, well known for his attention to natural history; I was introduced to him, as he is going to Bagnères-de-Luchon in the Pyrenees, where I am to have the honor of being in his party.  4
  The ceremony of the day was the King’s investing the Duke of Berri, son of the Count d’Artois, with the cordon bleu. The Queen’s band was in the chapel where the ceremony was performed, but the musical effect was thin and weak. During the service the King was seated between his two brothers, and seemed by his carriage and inattention to wish himself a-hunting. He would certainly have been as well employed as in hearing afterwards from his throne a feudal oath of chivalry, I suppose, or some such nonsense, administered to a boy of ten years old. Seeing such pompous folly I imagined it was the dauphin, and asked a lady of fashion near me; at which she laughed in my face, as if I had been guilty of the most egregious idiotism: nothing could be done in a worse manner; for the stifling of her expression only marked it the more. I applied to M. de la Rochefoucauld to learn what gross absurdity I had been guilty of so unwittingly; when, forsooth, it was because the dauphin, as all the world knows in France, has the cordon bleu put around him as soon as he is born. So unpardonable was it for a foreigner to be ignorant of such an important part of French history, as that of giving a babe a blue slobbering-bib instead of a white one!…  5
  The 31st.—On leaving it, enter soon the miserable province of Sologne, which the French writers call the triste Sologne. Through all this country they have had severe spring frosts, for the leaves of the walnuts are black and cut off. I should not have expected this unequivocal mark of a bad climate after passing the Loire. To La Ferté Lowendahl, a dead flat of hungry sandy gravel, with much heath. The poor people who cultivate the soil here are métayers,—that is, men who hire the land without ability to stock it; the proprietor is forced to provide cattle and seed, and he and his tenant divide the produce: a miserable system, that perpetuates poverty and excludes instruction. Meet a man employed on the roads who was prisoner at Falmouth four years; he does not seem to have any rancor against the English, nor yet was he very well pleased with his treatment. At La Ferté is a handsome château of the Marquis de Croix, with several canals and a great command of water. To Nonant-le-Fuzelier, a strange mixture of sand and water. Much inclosed: and the houses and cottages of wood filled between the studs with clay or bricks, and covered not with slate but tile, with some barns boarded like those in Suffolk, rows of pollards in some of the hedges, an excellent road of sand, the general features of a woodland country,—all combined to give a strong resemblance to many parts of England; but the husbandry is so little like that of England that the least attention to it destroyed every notion of similarity.—27 miles.  6
  June 1.—The same wretched country continues to La Loge; the fields are scenes of pitiable management, as the houses are of misery. Yet all this country highly improvable, if they knew what to do with it: the property, perhaps, of some of those glittering beings who figured in the procession the other day at Versailles. Heaven grant me patience while I see a country thus neglected, and forgive me the oaths I swear at the absence and ignorance of the possessors.—Enter the generality of Bourges, and soon after, a forest of oak belonging to the Count d’Artois; the trees are dying at top before they attain any size. There the miserable Sologne ends; the first view of Verson and its vicinity is fine. A noble vale spreads at your feet, through which the river Cher leads, seen in several places to the distance of some leagues; a bright sun burnished the water, like a string of lakes amidst the shade of a vast woodland….  7
  The 31st.—Cross a mountain by a miserable road, and reach Beg de Rieux, which shares, with Carcassonne, the fabric of Londrins for the Levant trade.—Cross much waste to Béziers.—I met to-day with an instance of ignorance in a well-dressed French merchant, that surprised me. He had plagued me with abundance of tiresome foolish questions, and then asked for the third or fourth time what country I was of. I told him I was a Chinese. How far off is that country?—I replied, 200 leagues. Deux cents lieus! Diable! c’est un grand chemin! The other day a Frenchman asked me, after telling him I was an Englishman, if we had trees in England? I replied that we had a few. Had we any rivers? Oh, none at all. Ah, ma foi, c’est bien triste! This incredible ignorance, when compared with the knowledge so universally disseminated in England, is to be attributed, like everything else, to government….  8
  The 16th.—Accompanied the Count de la Rochefoucauld to Liancourt.—38 miles.  9
  I went thither on a visit for three or four days; but the whole family contributed so generally to render the place in every respect agreeable, that I stayed more than three weeks. At about half a mile from the château is a range of hills that was chiefly a neglected waste: the Duke of Liancourt has lately converted this into a plantation, with winding walks, benches, and covered seats, in the English style of gardening. The situation is very fortunate. These ornamented paths follow the edge of the declivity to the extent of three or four miles. The views they command are everywhere pleasing, and in some places great. Nearer to the château the Duchess of Liancourt has built a menagerie and dairy in a pleasing taste. The cabinet and anteroom are very pretty, the saloon elegant, and the dairy entirely constructed of marble. At a village near Liancourt, the duke has established a manufacture of linen and stuffs mixed with thread and cotton, which promises to be of considerable utility; there are 25 looms employed, and preparations making for more. As the spinning for these looms is also established, it gives employment to great numbers of hands who were idle; for they have no sort of manufacture in the country, though it is populous. Such efforts merit great praise. Connected with this is the execution of an excellent plan of the duke’s for establishing habits of industry in the rising generation. The daughters of the poor people are received into an institution to be educated to useful industry: they are instructed in their religion, taught to write and read, and to spin cotton; are kept till marriageable, and then a regulated proportion of their earnings given them as a marriage portion. There is another establishment of which I am not so good a judge: it is for training the orphans of soldiers to be soldiers themselves. The Duke of Liancourt has raised some considerable buildings for their accommodation, well adapted to the purpose. The whole is under the superintendence of a worthy and intelligent officer, M. le Roux, captain of dragoons and croix de St. Louis, who sees to everything himself. There are at present 120 boys, all dressed in uniform.—My ideas have all taken a turn which I am too old to change: I should have been better pleased to see 120 lads educated to the plow, in habits of culture superior to the present; but certainly the establishment is humane, and the conduct of it excellent.  10
  The ideas I had formed before I came to France, of a country residence in that kingdom, I found at Liancourt to be far from correct. I expected to find it a mere transfer of Paris to the country, and that all the burthensome forms of a city were preserved, without its pleasures; but I was deceived,—the mode of living, and the pursuits, approach much nearer to the habits of a great nobleman’s house in England than would commonly be conceived. A breakfast of tea for those who chose to repair to it; riding, sporting, planting, gardening, till dinner, and that not till half-after two o’clock, instead of their old-fashioned hour of twelve; music, chess, and the other common amusements of a rendezvous-room, with an excellent library of seven or eight thousand volumes, were well calculated to make the time pass agreeably, and to prove that there is a great approximation in the modes of living at present in the different countries of Europe. Amusements, in truth, ought to be numerous within doors: for in such a climate none are to be depended on without; the rain that has fallen here is hardly credible. I have for five-and-twenty years past remarked in England that I never was prevented by rain from taking a walk every day without going out while it actually rains; it may fall heavily for many hours, but a person who watches an opportunity gets a walk or a ride. Since I have been at Liancourt, we have had three days in succession of such incessantly heavy rain, that I could not go a hundred yards from the house to the duke’s pavilion without danger of being quite wet. For ten days, more rain fell here, I am confident, had there been a gauge to measure it, than ever fell in England in thirty. The present fashion in France, of passing some time in the country, is new: at this time of the year, and for many weeks past, Paris is, comparatively speaking, empty. Everybody that have country-seats are at them; and those who have none visit others who have. This remarkable revolution in the French manners is certainly one of the best customs they have taken from England; and its introduction was effected the easier, being assisted by the magic of Rousseau’s writings. Mankind are much indebted to that splendid genius, who, when living, was hunted from country to country—to seek an asylum—with as much venom as if he had been a mad dog; thanks to the vile spirit of bigotry, which has not yet received its death’s wound. Women of the first fashion in France are now ashamed of not nursing their own children; and stays are universally proscribed from the bodies of the poor infants, which were for so many ages tortured in them, as they are still in Spain. The country residence may not have effects equally obvious; but they will be no less sure in the end, and in all respects beneficial to every class in the State.  11
  The Duke of Liancourt, being president of the provincial assembly of the election of Clermont, and passing several days there in business, asked me to dine with the assembly, as he said there were to be some considerable farmers present. These assemblies, which had been proposed many years past by the French patriots, and especially by the Marquis de Mirabeau, the celebrated l’ami des hommes; which had been treated by M. Necker, and which were viewed with eyes of jealousy by certain persons who wished for no better government than one whose abuses were the chief foundation of their fortunes,—these assemblies were to me interesting to see. I accepted the invitation with pleasure. Three considerable farmers—renters, not proprietors, of land—were members, and present. I watched their carriage narrowly to see their behavior in the presence of a great lord of the first rank, considerable property, and high in royal favor: and it was with pleasure that I found them behaving with becoming ease and freedom; and though modest, and without anything like flippancy, yet without any obsequiousness offensive to English ideas. They started their opinions freely, and adhered to them with becoming confidence. A most singular spectacle was to see two ladies present at a dinner of this sort, with five or six and twenty gentlemen: such a thing could not happen in England. To say that the French manners in this respect are better than our own, is the assertion of an obvious truth. If the ladies are not present at meetings where the conversation has the greatest probability of turning on subjects of more importance than the frivolous topics of common discourse, the sex must either remain on one hand in ignorance, or on the other filled with the foppery of over-education,—learned, affected, and forbidding. The conversation of men not engaged in trifling pursuits is the best school for the education of a woman….  12
  The 14th.—To the Benedictine abbey of St. Germain, to see pillars of African marble, etc. It is the richest abbey in France: the abbot has 300,000 liv. a year (£13,125). I lost my patience at such revenues being thus bestowed: consistent with the spirit of the tenth century, but not with that of the eighteenth. What a noble farm would the fourth of this income establish! what turnips, what cabbages, what potatoes, what clover, what sheep, what wool! Are not these things better than a fat ecclesiastic? If an active English farmer was mounted behind this abbot, I think he would do more good to France with half the income than half the abbots of the kingdom with the whole of theirs. Pass the Bastile: another pleasant object to make agreeable emotions vibrate in a man’s bosom. I search for good farmers, and run my head at every turn against monks and State prisoners….  13
  In the evening to M. Lomond, a very ingenious and inventive mechanic, who has made an improvement of the jenny for spinning cotton. Common machines are said to make too hard a thread for certain fabrics, but this forms it loose and spongy. In electricity he has made a remarkable discovery: you write two or three words on a paper; he takes it with him into a room, and turns a machine inclosed in a cylindrical case, at the top of which is an electrometer, a small fine pith-ball; a wire connects with a similar cylinder and electrometer in a distant apartment; and his wife, by remarking the corresponding motions of the ball, writes down the words they indicate: from which it appears he has formed an alphabet of motions. As the length of the wire makes no difference in the effect, a correspondence might be carried on at any distance: within and without a besieged town, for instance; or for a purpose much more worthy, and a thousand times more harmless,—between two lovers prohibited or prevented from any better connection. Whatever the use may be, the invention is beautiful. M. Lomond has many other curious machines, all the entire work of his own hands: mechanical invention seems to be in him a natural propensity….  14
  The 5th.—To Montauban. The poor people seem poor indeed; the children terribly ragged, if possible worse clad than if with no clothes at all; as to shoes and stockings, they are luxuries. A beautiful girl of six or seven years playing with a stick, and smiling under such a bundle of rags as made my heart ache to see her: they did not beg, and when I gave them anything seemed more surprised than obliged. One third of what I have seen of this province seems uncultivated, and nearly all of it in misery. What have kings, and ministers, and parliaments, and States, to answer for their prejudices, seeing millions of hands that would be industrious, idle and starving through the execrable maxims of despotism, or the equally detestable prejudices of a feudal nobility! Sleep at the Lion d’Or, at Montauban, an abominable hole.—20 miles.  15
  The 6th.—The same inclosed country to Brooms; but near that town, improves to the eye, from being more hilly. At the little town of Lamballe, there are above fifty families of noblesse that live in winter, who reside on their estates in the summer. There is probably as much foppery and nonsense in their circles, and for what I know as much happiness, as in those of Paris. Both would be better employed in cultivating their lands, and rendering the poor industrious.—30 miles.  16
  The 12th.—Walking up a long hill, to ease my mare, I was joined by a poor woman, who complained of the times, and that it was a sad country: demanding her reasons, she said her husband had but a morsel of land, one cow, and a poor little horse; yet they had a franchar (42 lb.) of wheat, and three chickens, to pay as a quit-rent to one Seigneur; and four franchar of oats, one chicken and 1 f. to pay to another, besides very heavy tailles and other taxes. She had seven children, and the cow’s milk helped to make the soup. But why, instead of a horse, do not you keep another cow? Oh, her husband could not carry his produce so well without a horse; and asses are little used in the country. It was said, at present, that something was to be done by some great folks for such poor ones, but she did not know who nor how, but God send us better, car les tailles & les droits nous écrasent.—This woman, at no great distance, might have been taken for sixty or seventy, her figure was so bent, and her face so furrowed and hardened by labor,—but she said she was only twenty-eight. An Englishman who has not traveled, cannot imagine the figure made by infinitely the greater part of the countrywomen in France: it speaks, at the first sight, hard and severe labor; I am inclined to think that they work harder than the men, and this, united with the more miserable labor of bringing a new race of slaves into the world, destroys absolutely all symmetry of person and every feminine appearance. To what are we to attribute this difference in the manners of the lower people in the two kingdoms? To GOVERNMENT….  17
  The 26th.—For twenty miles to Lisle sur Daube, the country nearly as before; but after that, to Baume les Dames, it is all mountainous and rock, much wood, and many pleasing scenes of the river flowing beneath. The whole country is in the greatest agitation; at one of the little towns I passed, I was questioned for not having a cockade of the tiers état. They said it was ordained by the tiers; and if I was not a seigneur, I ought to obey. But suppose I am a seigneur, what then, my friends? What then? they replied sternly: why, be hanged; for that most likely is what you deserve. It was plain this was no moment for joking; the boys and girls began to gather, whose assembling has everywhere been the preliminaries of mischief; and if I had not declared myself an Englishman, and ignorant of the ordinance, I had not escaped very well. I immediately bought a cockade; but the hussy pinned it into my hat so loosely that before I got to Lisle it blew into the river, and I was again in the same danger. My assertion of being English would not do. I was a seigneur, perhaps in disguise, and without doubt a great rogue. At this moment a priest came into the street with a letter in his hand: the people immediately collected around him, and he then read aloud a detail from Befort, giving an account of M. Necker’s passing, with some general features of news from Paris, and assurances that the condition of the people would be improved. When he had finished, he exhorted them to abstain from all violence: and assured them they must not indulge themselves with any ideas of impositions being abolished; which he touched on as if he knew that they had got such notions. When he retired, they again surrounded me, who had attended to the letter like others; were very menacing in their manner; and expressed many suspicions: I did not like my situation at all, especially on hearing one of them say that I ought to be secured till somebody would give an account of me. I was on the steps of the inn, and begged they would permit me a few words; I assured them that I was an English traveler, and to prove it, I desired to explain to them a circumstance in English taxation, which would be a satisfactory comment on what M. l’Abbé had told them, to the purport of which I could not agree. He had asserted that the impositions must be paid as heretofore: that the impositions must be paid was certain, but not as heretofore, as they might be paid as they were in England. Gentlemen, we have a great number of taxes in England, which you know nothing of in France; but the tiers état, the poor, do not pay them, they are laid on the rich: every window in a man’s house pays, but if he has no more than six windows he pays nothing; a seigneur with a great estate pays the vingtiémes and tallies, but the little proprietor of a garden pays nothing; the rich for their horses, their voitures, and their servants, and even for the liberty to kill their own partridges, but the poor farmer nothing of all this; and what is more, we have in England a tax paid by the rich for the relief of the poor: hence the assertion of M. l’Abbé that because taxes existed before, they must exist again, did not at all prove that they must be levied in the same manner; our English method seemed much better. There was not a word of this discourse they did not approve of; they seemed to think that I might be an honest fellow, which I confirmed by crying, vive le tiers, sans impositions, when they gave me a bit of a huzza, and I had no more interruption from them. My miserable French was pretty much on a par with their own patois. I got however another cockade, which I took care to have so fastened as to lose it no more. I did not half like traveling in such an unquiet and fermenting moment: one is not secure for an hour beforehand.—35 miles.  18
  The 27th.—To Besançon: the country, mountain, rock, and wood, above the river; some scenes are fine. I had not arrived an hour before I saw a peasant pass the inn on horseback, followed by an officer of the guard bourgeois, of which there are 1,200 here and 200 under arms, and his party-colored attachment, and these by some infantry and cavalry. I asked why the militia took the pas of the King’s troops? For a very good reason, they replied: the troops would be attacked and knocked on the head, but the populace will not resist the milice. This peasant, who is a rich proprietor, applied for a guard to protect his house, in a village where there is much plundering and burning. The mischiefs which have been perpetrated in the country, towards the mountains and Vesoul, are numerous and shocking. Many châteaus have been burnt, others plundered, the seigneurs hunted down like wild beasts, their wives and daughters ravished, their papers and titles burnt, and all their property destroyed: and these abominations not inflicted on marked persons, who were odious for their former conduct or principles, but an indiscriminating blind rage for the love of plunder. Robbers, galley-slaves, and villains of all denominations, have collected and instigated the peasants to commit all sorts of outrages. Some gentlemen at the table d’hôte informed me that letters were received from the Maconois, the Lyonois, Auvergne, Dauphiné, etc., and that similar commotions and mischiefs were perpetrating everywhere; and that it was expected they would pervade the whole kingdom. The backwardness of France is beyond credibility in everything that pertains to intelligence. From Strasbourg hither, I have not been able to see a newspaper. Here I asked for the Cabinet Littéraire? None. The gazettes? At the coffee-house. Very easily replied; but not so easily found. Nothing but the Gazette de France; for which, at this period, a man of common-sense would not give one sol. To four other coffee-houses: at some no paper at all, not even the Mercure; at the Caffé Militaire, the Courier de l’Europe a fortnight old; and well-dressed people are now talking of the news of two or three weeks past, and plainly by their discourse know nothing of what is passing. The whole town of Besançon has not been able to afford me a sight of the Journal de Paris, nor of any paper that gives a detail of the transactions of the States; yet it is the capital of a province large as half a dozen English counties, and containing 1 25,000 souls,—with, strange to say! the post coming in but three times a week. At this eventful moment, with no license, nor even the least restraint on the press, not one paper established at Paris for circulation in the provinces, with the necessary steps taken by affiche, or placard, to inform the people in all the towns of its establishment. For what the country knows to the contrary, their deputies are in the Bastile, instead of the Bastile being razed; so the mob plunder, burn, and destroy, in complete ignorance: and yet with all these shades of darkness, these clouds of tenebrity, this universal mass of ignorance, there are men every day in the States who are puffing themselves off for the FIRST NATION IN EUROPE! the GREATEST PEOPLE IN THE UNIVERSE! as if the political juntos, or literary circles of a capital, constituted a people; instead of the universal illumination of knowledge, acting by rapid intelligence on minds prepared by habitual energy of reasoning to receive, combine, and comprehend it. That this dreadful ignorance of the mass of the people, of the events that most intimately concern them, is owing to the old government, no one can doubt; it is however curious to remark, that if the nobility of other provinces are hunted like those of Franche Comté, of which there is little reason to doubt, that whole order of men undergo a proscription, suffer like sheep, without making the least effort to resist the attack. This appears marvelous, with a body that have an army of 150,000 men in their hands; for though a part of those troops would certainly disobey their leaders, yet let it be remembered that out of the 40,000 or possibly 100,000 noblesse of France, they might, if they had intelligence and union amongst themselves, fill half the ranks of more than half the regiments of the kingdom with men who have fellow-feelings and fellow-sufferings with themselves: but no meetings, no associations among them; no union with military men; no taking refuge in the ranks of regiments to defend or avenge their cause: fortunately for France they fall without a struggle, and die without a blow. That universal circulation of intelligence which in England transmits the least vibration of feeling or alarm, with electric sensibility, from one end of the kingdom to another, and which unites in bands of connection men of similar interests and situations, has no existence in France. Thus it may be said, perhaps with truth, that the fall of the King, court, lords, nobles, army, church, and parliaments, is owing to a want of intelligence being quickly circulated, consequently is owing to the very effects of that thraldom in which they held the people: it is therefore a retribution rather than a punishment.  19
 
Note 1. That is, the town, not the province. [back]
 
 
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