Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Selected Letters: To her Sister
By Abigail Adams (1744–1818)
AUTEUIL, 5th September, 1784.    
My Dear Sister:
AUTEUIL is a village four miles distant from Paris, and one from Passy. The house we have taken is large, commodious, and agreeably situated near the woods of Boulogne, which belong to the King, and which Mr. Adams calls his park, for he walks an hour or two every day in them. The house is much larger than we have need of; upon occasion, forty beds may be made in it. I fancy it must be very cold in winter. There are few houses with the privilege which this enjoys, that of having the salon, as it is called, the apartment where we receive company, upon the first floor. This room is very elegant, and about a third larger than General Warren’s hall. The dining-room is upon the right hand, and the salon upon the left, of the entry, which has large glass doors opposite to each other, one opening into the court, as they call it, the other into a large and beautiful garden. Out of the dining-room you pass through an entry into the kitchen, which is rather small for so large a house. In this entry are stairs which you ascend, at the top of which is a long gallery fronting the street, with six windows, and opposite to each window you open into the chambers, which all look into the garden.
  But with an expense of thirty thousand livres in looking-glasses, there is no table in the house better than an oak board, nor a carpet belonging to the house. The floors I abhor, made of red tiles in the shape of Mrs. Quincy’s floor-cloth tiles. These floors will by no means bear water, so that the method of cleaning them is to have them waxed, and then a manservant with foot brushes drives round your room, dancing here and there like a Merry Andrew. This is calculated to take from your foot every atom of dirt, and leave the room in a few moments as he found it. The house must be exceedingly cold in winter. The dining-rooms, of which you make no other use, are laid with small stones, like the red tiles for shape and size. The servants’ apartments are generally upon the first floor, and the stairs which you commonly have to ascend to get into the family apartments are so dirty that I have been obliged to hold up my clothes as though I was passing through a cow-yard.  2
  I have been but little abroad. It is customary in this country for strangers to make the first visit. As I cannot speak the language, I think I should make rather an awkward figure. I have dined abroad several times with Mr. Adams’s particular friends, the Abbés, who are very polite and civil,—three sensible and worthy men. The Abbé de Mably has lately published a book, which he has dedicated to Mr. Adams. This gentleman is nearly eighty years old; the Abbé Chalut, seventy-five; and Arnoux about fifty, a fine sprightly man, who takes great pleasure in obliging his friends. Their apartments were really nice. I have dined once at Dr. Franklin’s, and once at Mr. Barclay’s, our consul, who has a very agreeable woman for his wife, and where I feel like being with a friend. Mrs. Barclay has assisted me in my purchases, gone with me to different shops, etc. To-morrow I am to dine at Monsieur Grand’s; but I have really felt so happy within doors, and am so pleasingly situated, that I have had little inclination to change the scene. I have not been to one public amusement as yet, not even the opera, though we have one very near us.  3
  You may easily suppose I have been fully employed, beginning housekeeping anew, and arranging my family to our no small expenses and trouble; for I have had bed-linen and table-linen to purchase and make, spoons and forks to get made of silver,—three dozen of each,—besides tea furniture, china for the table, servants to procure, etc. The expense of living abroad I always supposed to be high, but my ideas were nowise adequate to the thing. I could have furnished myself in the town of Boston with everything I have, twenty or thirty per cent. cheaper than I have been able to do it here. Everything which will bear the name of elegant is imported from England, and if you will have it, you must pay for it, duties and all. I cannot get a dozen handsome wineglasses under three guineas, nor a pair of small decanters for less than a guinea and a half. The only gauze fit to wear is English, at a crown a yard; so that really a guinea goes no further than a copper with us. For this house, garden, stables, etc., we give two hundred guineas a year. Wood is two guineas and a half per cord; coal, six livres the basket of about two bushels; this article of firing we calculate at one hundred guineas a year. The difference between coming upon this negotiation to France, and remaining at the Hague, where the house was already furnished at the expense of a thousand pounds sterling, will increase the expense here to six or seven hundred guineas; at a time, too, when Congress has cut off five hundred guineas from what they have heretofore given. For our coachman and horses alone (Mr. Adams purchased a coach in England) we give fifteen guineas a month. It is the policy of this country to oblige you to a certain number of servants, and one will not touch what belongs to the business of another, though he or she has time enough to perform the whole. In the first place, there is a coachman who does not an individual thing but attend to the carriages and horses; then the gardener, who has business enough; then comes the cook; then the maître d’hotel,—his business is to purchase articles in the family, and oversee that nobody cheats but himself; a valet de chambre,—John serves in this capacity; a femme de chambre,—Esther serves for this, and is worth a dozen others; a coiffeuse,—for this place I have a French girl about nineteen, whom I have been upon the point of turning-away, because madam will not brush a chamber: “it is not de fashion, it is not her business.” I would not have kept her a day longer, but found, upon inquiry, that I could not better myself, and hair-dressing here is very expensive unless you keep such a madam in the house. She sews tolerably well, so I make her as useful as I can. She is more particularly devoted to mademoiselle. Esther diverted me yesterday evening by telling me that she heard her go muttering by her chamber door, after she had been assisting Abby in dressing. “Ah, mon Dieu, ’tis provoking”—(she talks a little English).—“Why, what is the matter, Pauline: what is provoking?”—“Why, Mademoiselle look so pretty, I so mauvais.” There is another indispensable servant, who is called a frotteur: his business is to rub the floors.  4
  We have a servant who acts as maître d’hotel, whom I like at present, and who is so very gracious as to act as footman too, to save the expense of another servant, upon condition that we give him a gentleman’s suit of clothes in lieu of a livery. Thus, with seven servants and hiring a charwoman upon occasion of company, we may possibly make out to keep house; with less, we should be hooted at as ridiculous, and could not entertain any company. To tell this in our own country would be considered as extravagance; but would they send a person here in a public character to be a public jest? At lodgings in Paris last year, during Mr. Adams’s negotiation for a peace, it was as expensive to him as it is now at housekeeping, without half the accommodations.  5
  Washing is another expensive article: the servants are all allowed theirs, besides their wages; our own costs us a guinea a week. I have become steward and bookkeeper, determined to know with accuracy what our expenses are, to prevail with Mr. Adams to return to America if he finds himself straitened, as I think he must be. Mr. Jay went home because he could not support his family here with the whole salary; what then can be done, curtailed as it now is, with the additional expense? Mr. Adams is determined to keep as little company as he possibly can; but some entertainments we must make, and it is no unusual thing for them to amount to fifty or sixty guineas at a time. More is to be performed by way of negotiation, many times, at one of these entertainments, than at twenty serious conversations; but the policy of our country has been, and still is, to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. We stand in sufficient need of economy, and in the curtailment of other salaries I suppose they thought it absolutely necessary to cut off their foreign ministers. But, my own interest apart, the system is bad; for that nation which degrades their own ministers by obliging them to live in narrow circumstances, cannot expect to be held in high estimation themselves. We spend no evenings abroad, make no suppers, attend very few public entertainments,—or spectacles, as they are called,—and avoid every expense that is not held indispensable. Yet I cannot but think it hard that a gentleman who has devoted so great a part of his life to the service of the public, who has been the means, in a great measure, of procuring such extensive territories to his country, who saved their fisheries, and who is still laboring to procure them further advantages, should find it necessary so cautiously to calculate his pence, for fear of overrunning them. I will add one more expense. There is now a court mourning, and every foreign minister, with his family, must go into mourning for a Prince of eight years old, whose father is an ally to the King of France. This mourning is ordered by the Court, and is to be worn eleven days only. Poor Mr. Jefferson had to hie away for a tailor to get a whole black-silk suit made up in two days; and at the end of eleven days, should another death happen, he will be obliged to have a new suit of mourning, of cloth, because that is the season when silk must be left off. We may groan and scold, but these are expenses which cannot be avoided; for fashion is the deity every one worships in this country, and from the highest to the lowest, you must submit. Even poor John and Esther had no comfort among the servants, being constantly the subjects of ridicule, until we were obliged to direct them to have their hair dressed. Esther had several crying fits upon the occasion, that she should be forced to be so much of a fool; but there was no way to keep them from being trampled upon but this, and now that they are à la mode de Paris, they are much respected. To be out of fashion is more criminal than to be seen in a state of nature, to which the Parisians are not averse.  6
AUTEUIL, NEAR PARIS, 10th May, 1785.    
DID you ever, my dear Betsey, see a person in real life such as your imagination formed of Sir Charles Grandison? The Baron de Staël, the Swedish Ambassador, comes nearest to that character, in his manners and personal appearance, of any gentleman I ever saw. The first time I saw him I was prejudiced in his favor, for his countenance commands your good opinion: it is animated, intelligent, sensible, affable, and without being perfectly beautiful, is most perfectly agreeable; add to this a fine figure, and who can fail in being charmed with the Baron de Staël? He lives in a grand hotel, and his suite of apartments, his furniture, and his table, are the most elegant of anything I have seen. Although you dine upon plate in every noble house in France, I cannot say that you may see your face in it; but here the whole furniture of the table was burnished, and shone with regal splendor. Seventy thousand livres in plate will make no small figure; and that is what his Majesty gave him. The dessert was served on the richest china, with knives, forks, and spoons of gold. As you enter his apartments, you pass through files of servants into his ante-chamber, in which is a throne covered with green velvet, upon which is a chair of state, over which hangs the picture of his royal master. These thrones are common to all ambassadors of the first order, as they are immediate representatives of the king. Through this ante-chamber you pass into the grand salon, which is elegantly adorned with architecture, a beautiful lustre hanging from the middle. Settees, chairs, and hangings of the richest silk, embroidered with gold; marble slabs upon fluted pillars, round which wreaths of artificial flowers in gold entwine. It is usual to find in all houses of fashion, as in this, several dozens of chairs, all of which have stuffed backs and cushions, standing in double rows round the rooms. The dining-room was equally beautiful, being hung with Gobelin tapestry, the colors and figures of which resemble the most elegant painting. In this room were hair-bottom mahogany-backed chairs, and the first I have seen since I came to France. Two small statues of a Venus de Medicis, and a Venus de —— (ask Miss Paine for the other name), were upon the mantelpiece. The latter, however, was the most modest of the kind, having something like a loose robe thrown partly over her. From the Swedish Ambassador’s we went to visit the Duchess d’Enville, who is mother to the Duke de Rochefoucault. We found the old lady sitting in an easy-chair; around her sat a circle of Academicians, and by her side a young lady. Your uncle presented us, and the old lady rose, and, as usual, gave us a salute. As she had no paint, I could put up with it; but when she approached your cousin I could think of nothing but Death taking hold of Hebe. The duchess is near eighty, very tall and lean. She was dressed in a silk chemise, with very large sleeves, coming half-way down her arm, a large cape, no stays, a black-velvet girdle round her waist, some very rich lace in her chemise, round her neck, and in her sleeves; but the lace was not sufficient to cover the upper part of her neck, which old Time had harrowed; she had no cap on, but a little gauze bonnet, which did not reach her ears, and tied under her chin, her venerable white hairs in full view. The dress of old women and young girls in this country is detestable, to speak in the French style; the latter at the age of seven being clothed exactly like a woman of twenty, and the former have such a fantastical appearance that I cannot endure it. The old lady has all the vivacity of a young one. She is the most learned woman in France; her house is the resort of all men of literature, with whom she converses upon the most abstruse subjects. She is of one of the most ancient, as well as the richest families in the kingdom. She asked very archly when Dr. Franklin was going to America. Upon being told, says she, “I have heard that he is a prophet there;” alluding to that text of Scripture, “A prophet is not without honor,” etc. It was her husband who commanded the fleet which once spread such terror in our country.
LONDON, Friday, 24th July 1784.    
My Dear Sister:
I AM not a little surprised to find dress, unless upon public occasions, so little regarded here. The gentlemen are very plainly dressed, and the ladies much more so than with us. ’Tis true, you must put a hoop on and have your hair dressed; but a common straw hat, no cap, with only a ribbon upon the crown, is thought dress sufficient to go into company. Muslins are much in taste; no silks but lutestrings worn; but send not to London for any article you want: you may purchase anything you can name much lower in Boston. I went yesterday into Cheapside to purchase a few articles, but found everything higher than in Boston. Silks are in a particular manner so; they say, when they are exported, there is a drawback upon them, which makes them lower with us. Our country, alas, our country! they are extravagant to astonishment in entertainments compared with what Mr. Smith and Mr. Storer tell me of this. You will not find at a gentleman’s table more than two dishes of meat, though invited several days beforehand. Mrs. Atkinson went out with me yesterday, and Mrs. Hay, to the shops. I returned and dined with Mrs. Atkinson, by her invitation the evening before, in company with Mr. Smith, Mrs. Hay, Mr. Appleton. We had a turbot, a soup, and a roast leg of lamb, with a cherry pie….
  The wind has prevented the arrival of the post. The city of London is pleasanter than I expected; the buildings more regular, the streets much wider, and more sunshine than I thought to have found: but this, they tell me, is the pleasantest season to be in the city. At my lodgings I am as quiet as at any place in Boston; nor do I feel as if it could be any other place than Boston. Dr. Clark visits us every day; says he cannot feel at home anywhere else: declares he has not seen a handsome woman since he came into the city; that every old woman looks like Mrs. H——, and every young one like—like the D—l. They paint here nearly as much as in France, but with more art. The head-dress disfigures them in the eyes of an American. I have seen many ladies, but not one elegant one since I came; there is not to me that neatness in their appearance which you see in our ladies.  9
  The American ladies are much admired here by the gentlemen, I am told, and in truth I wonder not at it. Oh, my country, my country! preserve, preserve the little purity and simplicity of manners you yet possess. Believe me, they are jewels of inestimable value; the softness, peculiarly characteristic of our sex, and which is so pleasing to the gentlemen, is wholly laid aside here for the masculine attire and manners of Amazonians.  10
My Dear Sister:
I HAVE been here a month without writing a single line to my American friends. On or about the twenty-eighth of May we reached London, and expected to have gone into our old quiet lodgings at the Adelphi; but we found every hotel full. The sitting of Parliament, the birthday of the King, and the famous celebration of the music of Handel, at Westminster Abbey, had drawn together such a concourse of people that we were glad to get into lodgings at the moderate price of a guinea per day, for two rooms and two chambers, at the Bath Hotel, Westminster, Piccadilly, where we yet are. This being the Court end of the city, it is the resort of a vast concourse of carriages. It is too public and noisy for pleasure, but necessity is without law. The ceremony of presentation, upon one week to the King, and the next to the Queen, was to take place, after which I was to prepare for mine. It is customary, upon presentation, to receive visits from all the foreign ministers; so that we could not exchange our lodgings for more private ones, as we might and should, had we been only in a private character. The foreign ministers and several English lords and earls have paid their compliments here, and all hitherto is civil and polite. I was a fortnight, all the time I could get, looking at different houses, but could not find any one fit to inhabit under £200, beside the taxes, which mount up to £50 or £60. At last my good genius carried me to one in Grosvenor Square, which was not let, because the person who had the care of it could let it only for the remaining lease, which was one year and three-quarters. The price, which is not quite two hundred pounds, the situation, and all together, induced us to close the bargain, and I have prevailed upon the person who lets it to paint two rooms, which will put it into decent order; so that, as soon as our furniture comes, I shall again commence housekeeping. Living at a hotel is, I think, more expensive than housekeeping, in proportion to what one has for his money. We have never had more than two dishes at a time upon our table, and have not pretended to ask any company, and yet we live at a greater expense than twenty-five guineas per week. The wages of servants, horse hire, house rent, and provisions are much dearer here than in France. Servants of various sorts, and for different departments, are to be procured; their characters are to be inquired into, and this I take upon me, even to the coachman. You can hardly form an idea how much I miss my son on this, as well as on many other accounts; but I cannot bear to trouble Mr. Adams with anything of a domestic kind, who, from morning until evening, has sufficient to occupy all his time. You can have no idea of the petitions, letters, and private applications for assistance, which crowd our doors. Every person represents his case as dismal. Some may really be objects of compassion, and some we assist; but one must have an inexhaustible purse to supply them all. Besides, there are so many gross impositions practiced, as we have found in more instances than one, that it would take the whole of a person’s time to trace all their stories. Many pretend to have been American soldiers, some have served as officers. A most glaring instance of falsehood, however, Colonel Smith detected in a man of these pretensions, who sent to Mr. Adams from the King’s Bench prison, and modestly desired five guineas; a qualified cheat, but evidently a man of letters and abilities: but if it is to continue in this way, a galley slave would have an easier task.
  The Tory venom has begun to spit itself forth in the public papers, as I expected, bursting with envy that an American minister should be received here with the same marks of attention, politeness, and civility, which are shown to the ministers of any other power. When a minister delivers his credentials to the King, it is always in his private closet, attended only by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, which is called a private audience, and the minister presented makes some little address to his Majesty, and the same ceremony to the Queen, whose reply was in these words: “Sir, I thank you for your civility to me and my family, and I am glad to see you in this country;” then she very politely inquired whether he had got a house yet. The answer of his Majesty was much longer; but I am not at liberty to say more respecting it, than that it was civil and polite, and that his Majesty said he was glad the choice of his country had fallen upon him. The news-liars know nothing of the matter; they represent it just to answer their purpose. Last Thursday, Colonel Smith was presented at Court, and to-morrow, at the Queen’s circle, my ladyship and your niece make our compliments. There is no other presentation in Europe in which I should feel as much as in this. Your own reflections will easily suggest the reasons.  12
  I have received a very friendly and polite visit from the Countess of Effingham. She called, and not finding me at home, left a card. I returned her visit, but was obliged to do it by leaving my card too, as she was gone out of town; but when her ladyship returned, she sent her compliments and word that if agreeable she would take a dish of tea with me, and named her day. She accordingly came, and appeared a very polite, sensible woman. She is about forty, a good person, though a little masculine, elegant in her appearance, very easy and social. The Earl of Effingham is too well remembered by America to need any particular recital of his character. His mother is first lady to the Queen. When her ladyship took leave, she desired I would let her know the day I would favor her with a visit, as she should be loath to be absent. She resides, in summer, a little distance from town. The Earl is a member of Parliament, which obliges him now to be in town, and she usually comes with him, and resides at a hotel a little distance from this.  13
  I find a good many ladies belonging to the Southern States here, many of whom have visited me; I have exchanged visits with several, yet neither of us have met. The custom is, however, here much more agreeable than in France, for it is as with us: the stranger is first visited.  14
  The ceremony of presentation here is considered as indispensable. There are four minister-plenipotentiaries’ ladies here; but one ambassador, and he has no lady. In France, the ladies of ambassadors only are presented. One is obliged here to attend the circles of the Queen, which are held in summer once a fortnight, but once a week the rest of the year; and what renders it exceedingly expensive is, that you cannot go twice the same season in the same dress, and a Court dress you cannot make use of anywhere else. I directed my mantuamaker to let my dress be elegant, but plain as I could possibly appear, with decency; accordingly, it is white lutestring, covered and full trimmed with white crape, festooned with lilac ribbon and mock point lace, over a hoop of enormous extent; there is only a narrow train of about three yards in length to the gown waist, which is put into a ribbon upon the left side, the Queen only having her train borne. Ruffle cuffs for married ladies, treble lace lappets, two white plumes, and a blond lace handkerchief. This is my rigging, I should have mentioned two pearl pins in my hair, earrings and necklace of the same kind.  15
  My head is dressed for St. James’s, and in my opinion looks very tasty. While my daughter’s is undergoing the same operation, I set myself down composedly to write you a few lines. “Well,” methinks I hear Betsey and Lucy say, “what is cousin’s dress?” White, my dear girls, like your aunt’s, only differently trimmed and ornamented: her train being wholly of white crape, and trimmed with white ribbon; the petticoat, which is the most showy part of the dress, covered and drawn up in what are called festoons, with light wreaths of beautiful flowers; the sleeves white crape, drawn over the silk, with a row of lace round the sleeve near the shoulder, another half-way down the arm, and a third upon the top of the ruffle, a little flower stuck between; a kind of hat-cap, with three large feathers and a bunch of flowers; a wreath of flowers upon the hair. Thus equipped, we go in our own carriage, and Mr. Adams and Colonel Smith in his. But I must quit my pen to put myself in order for the ceremony, which begins at two o’clock. When I return, I will relate to you my reception; but do not let it circulate, as there may be persons eager to catch at everything, and as much given to misrepresentation as here. I would gladly be excused the ceremony.
  Congratulate me, my dear sister: it is over. I was too much fatigued to write a line last evening. At two o’clock we went to the circle, which is in the drawing-room of the Queen. We passed through several apartments, lined as usual with spectators upon these occasions. Upon entering the ante-chamber, the Baron de Lynden, the Dutch Minister, who has been often here, came and spoke with me. A Count Sarsfield, a French nobleman, with whom I was acquainted, paid his compliments. As I passed into the drawing-room, Lord Carmarthen and Sir Clement Cotterel Dormer were presented to me. Though they had been several times here, I had never seen them before. The Swedish and the Polish Ministers made their compliments, and several other gentlemen; but not a single lady did I know until the Countess of Effingham came, who was very civil. There were three young ladies, daughters of the Marquis of Lothian, who were to be presented at the same time, and two brides. We were placed in a circle round the drawing-room, which was very full; I believe two hundred persons present. Only think of the task! The royal family have to go round to every person and find small talk enough to speak to them all, though they very prudently speak in a whisper, so that only the person who stands next to you can hear what is said. The King enters the room and goes round to the right; the Queen and Princesses to the left. The lord-in-waiting presents you to the King; and the lady-in-waiting does the same to her Majesty. The King is a personable man; but, my dear sister, he has a certain countenance, which you and I have often remarked: a red face and white eyebrows. The Queen has a similar countenance, and the numerous royal family confirm the observation. Persons are not placed according to their rank in the drawing-room, but promiscuously; and when the King comes in, he takes persons as they stand. When he came to me, Lord Onslow said, “Mrs. Adams;” upon which I drew off my right-hand glove, and his Majesty saluted my left cheek; then asked me if I had taken a walk to-day. I could have told his Majesty that I had been all the morning preparing to wait upon him; but I replied, “No, Sire.” “Why, don’t you love walking?” says he. I answered that I was rather indolent in that respect. He then bowed, and passed on. It was more than two hours after this before it came to my turn to be presented to the Queen. The circle was so large that the company were four hours standing. The Queen was evidently embarrassed when I was presented to her. I had disagreeable feelings, too. She, however, said, “Mrs. Adams, have you got into your house? Pray, how do you like the situation of it?” While the Princess Royal looked compassionate, and asked me if I was not much fatigued; and observed, that it was a very full drawing-room. Her sister, who came next, Princess Augusta, after having asked your niece if she was ever in England before, and her answering “Yes,” inquired of me how long ago, and supposed it was when she was very young. All this is said with much affability, and the ease and freedom of old acquaintance. The manner in which they make their tour round the room is, first, the Queen, the lady-in-waiting behind her, holding up her train; next to her, the Princess Royal; after her, Princess Augusta, and their lady-in-waiting behind them. They are pretty, rather than beautiful; well-shaped, fair complexions, and a tincture of the King’s countenance. The two sisters look much alike; they were both dressed in black and silver silk, with silver netting upon the coat, and their heads full of diamond pins. The Queen was in purple and silver. She is not well shaped nor handsome. As to the ladies of the Court, rank and title may compensate for want of personal charms; but they are, in general, very plain, ill-shaped, and ugly; but don’t you tell anybody that I say so. If one wants to see beauty, one must go to Ranelagh; there it is collected, in one bright constellation. There were two ladies very elegant, at Court,—Lady Salisbury and Lady Talbot; but the observation did not in general hold good that fine feathers make fine birds. I saw many who were vastly richer dressed than your friends, but I will venture to say that I saw none neater or more elegant: which praise I ascribe to the taste of Mrs. Temple and my mantuamaker; for, after having declared that I would not have any foil or tinsel about me, they fixed upon the dress I have described.

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