Letter X.

From: At Home and Abroad, or Things and Thoughts in Europe (1856)
Author: Margaret Fuller Ossoli
Published: and Company 1856 Boston


More of London.—The Model Prison at Pentonville.—Bathing Establishment for the Poor.—Also one for washing Clothes.—The Crèches of Paris, for Poor People’s Children.—Old Drury in London.—Sadler’s Wells.—English and French Acting compared.—Mademoiselle Rachel.—French Tragedy.—Rose Cheny.—Dumas.—Guizot.—The Presentation at Court of the young Duchess.—Ball at the Tuileries.—American and French Women.—Leverrier.—The Sorbonne.—Arago.—Discussions on Suicide and the Crusades.—Rémusat.—The Academy.—La Mennais.—Béranger.—Reflections.


  WHEN I wrote last I could not finish with London and there remain yet two or three things I wish to speak of before passing to my impressions of this wonder-full Paris.

  I visited a model-prison at Pentonville; but though in some respects an improvement upon others I have seen,—though there was the appearance of great neatness and order in the arrangements of life, kindness and good judgment in the discipline of the prisoners,—yet there was also an air of bleak forlornness about the place, and it fell far short of what my mind demands of such abodes considered as redemption schools. But as the subjects of prisons is now engaging the attention of many of the wisest and best, and the tendency is in what seems to me the true direction, I need not trouble myself to make crude and hasty suggestions; it is a subject to which persons who would be of use should give the earnest devotion of calm and leisurely thought.

  The same day I went to see an establishment which gave me unmixed pleasure; it is a bathing establishment put at a very low rate to enable the poor to avoid one of the worst miseries of their lot and yet which promises to pay. Joined with this is an establishment for washing clothes, where the poor can go and hire, for almost nothing, good tubs, water ready heated, the use of an apparatus for rinsing, drying, and ironing, all so admirably arranged that a poor woman can in three hours get through an amount of washing and ironing that would, under ordinary circumstances, occupy three or four days. Especially the drying closets I contemplated with great satisfaction, and hope to see in our own country the same arrangements throughout the cities, and even in the towns and villages. Hanging out the clothes is a great exposure for women, even when they have a good place for it; but when, as is so common in cities, they must dry them in the house, how much they suffer! In New York, I know, those poor women who take in washing endure a great deal of trouble and toil from this cause; I have suffered myself from being obliged to send back what had cost them so much toil, because it had been, perhaps inevitably, soiled in the drying or ironing, or filled with the smell of their miscellaneous cooking. In London it is much worse. An eminent physician told me he knew of two children whom he considered to have died because their mother, having but one room to live in, was obliged to wash and dry clothes close to their bed when they were ill. The poor people in London naturally do without washing all they can, and beneath that perpetual fall of soot the result may be guessed. All but the very poor in England put out their washing, and this custom ought to be universal in civilized countries, as it can be done much better and quicker by a few regular laundresses than by many families, and “the washing day” is so malignant a foe to the peace and joy of households that it ought to be effaced from the calendar. But as long as we are so miserable as to have any very poor people in this world, they cannot put out their washing, because they cannot earn enough money to pay for it, and, preliminary to something better, washing establishments like this of London are desirable.

  One arrangement that they have here in Paris will be a good one, even when we cease to have say very poor people, and, please Heaven, also to have say very rich. These are the Crêches,—houses where poor women leave their children to be nursed during the day while they are at work.

  I must mention that the superintendent of the washing establishment observed, with a legitimate triumph, that it had been built without giving a single dinner or printing a single puff,—an extraordinary thing, indeed, for England!

  To turn to something a little gayer,—the embroidery on this tattered coat of civilized life,—I went into only two theatres; one the Old Drury, once the scene of great glories, now of execrable music and more execrable acting. If anything can be invented more excruciating than an English Opera, such as was the fashion at the time I was in London, I am sure no sin of mine deserves the punishment of hearing it.

  At the Sadler’s Wells theatre I saw a play which I had much admired in reading it, but found still better in actual representation; indeed, it seems to me there can be no better acting play: this is “The Patrician’s Daughter,” by J.W. Marston. The movement is rapid, yet clear and free; the dialogue natural, dignified, and flowing; the characters marked with few, but distinct strokes. Where the tone of discourse rises with manly sentiment or passion, the audience applauded with bursts of generous feelling that gave me great pleasure, for this play is one that, in its scope and meaning, marks the new era in England; it is full of an experience which is inevitable to a man of talent there, and is harbinger of the day when the noblest commoner shall be the only noble possible in England.

  But how different all this acting to what I find in France! Here the theatre is living; you see something really good, and good throughout. Not one touch of that stage strut and vulgar bombast of tone, which the English actor fancies indispensable to scenic illusion, is tolerated here. For the first time in my life I saw something represented in a style uniformly good, and should have found sufficient proof, if I had needed any, that all men will prefer what is good to what is bad, if only a fair opportunity for choice be allowed. When I came here, my first thought was to go and see Mademoiselle Rachel. I was sure that in her I should find a true genius, absolutely the diamond, and so it proved. I went to see her seven or eight times, always in parts that required great force of soul and purity of taste even to conceive them, and only once had reason to find fault with her. On one single occasion I saw her violate the harmony of the character to produce effect at a particular moment; but at most invariably I found her a true artist, worthy Greece, and worthy at many moments to have her conceptions immortalized in marble.

  Her range even in high tragedy is limited. She can only express the darker passions, and grief in its most desolate aspects. Nature has not gifted her with those softer and more flowery attributes that lend to pathos its utmost tenderness. She does not melt to tears, or calm or elevate the heart by presence of that tragic beauty that needs all the assaults of Fate to make it show its immortal sweetness. Her noblest aspect is when sometimes she expresses truth in some severe shape, and rises, simple and austere, above the mixed elements around her. On the dark side, she is very great in hatred and revenge. I admired her more in Phedre than in any other part in which I saw her. The guilty love inspired by the hatred of a goddess was expressed in all its symptoms with a force and terrible naturalness that almost suffocated the beholder. After she had taken the poison, the exhaustion and paralysis of the system, the sad, cold, calm submission to Fate, were still more grand.

  I had heard so much about the power of her eye in one fixed look, and the expression she could concentrate in a single word, that the utmost results could only satisfy my expectations. It is, indeed, something magnificent to see the dark cloud give out such sparks, each one fit to deal a separate death; but it was not that I admired most in her; it was the grandeur, truth, and depth of her conception of each part, and the sustained purity with which she represented it.

  For the rest, I shall write somewhere a detailed critique upon the parts in which I saw her. It is she who has made me acquainted with the true way of viewing French tragedy. I had no idea of its powers and symmetry till now, and have received from the revelation high pleasure and a crowd of thoughts.

  The French language from her lips is a divine dialect; it is stripped of its national and personal peculiarities, and becomes what any language must, moulded by such a genius,—the pure music of the heart and soul. I never could remember her tone in speaking any word; it was too perfect; you had received the thought quite direct. Yet, had I never heard her speak a word, my mind would be filled by her attitudes. Nothing more graceful can be conceived, nor could the genius of sculpture surpass her management of the antique drapery.

  She has no beauty except in the intellectual severity of her outline, and bears marks of race that will grow stronger every year, and make her ugly before long. Still it will be a grandiose, gypsy, or rather Sibylline ugliness, well adapted to the expression of some tragic parts. Only it seems as if she could not live long; she expends force enough upon a part to furnish out a dozen common lives.

  Though the French tragedy is well acted throughout, yet unhappily there is no male actor now with a spark of fire, and these men seem the meanest pigmies by the side of Rachel;—so on the scene, beside the tragedy intended by the author, you see also that common tragedy, a woman of genius who throws away her precious heart, lives and dies for one unworthy of her. In parts this effect is productive of too much pain. I saw Rachel one night with her brother and sister. The sister imitated her so closely that you could not help seeing she had a manner, and an imitable manner. Her brother was in the play her lover,—a wretched automaton, and presenting the most unhappy family likeness to herself. Since then I have hardly cared to go and see her. We could wish with geniuses as with the Phœnix, to see only one of the family at a time.

  In the pathetic or sentimental drama Paris boasts another young actress, nearly as distinguished in that walk as Rachel in hers. This is Rose Cheny, whom we saw in her ninety-eighth persontation of Clarissa Harlowe, and afterward in Genevieve and the Protégé sans le Savoir,—a little piece written expressly for her by Scribe. The “Miss Clarisse” of the French drama is a feeble and partial reproduction of the heroine of Richardson; indeed, the original in all its force of intellect and character would have been too much for the charming Rose Cheny, but, to the purity and lovely tenderness of Clarissa she does full justice. In the other characters she was the true French girl, full of grace and a mixture of naïveté and cunning, sentiment and frivolity, that is winning and piquant, if not satisfying. Only grief seems very strange to those bright eyes; we do not find that they can weep much and bear the light of day, and the inhaling of charcoal seems near at hand to their brightest pleasures.

  At the other little theatres you see excellent acting, and a sparkle of wit unknown to the world out of France. The little pieces in which all the leading topics of the day are reviewed are full of drolleries that make you laugh at each instant. Poudre-Coton is the only one of these I have seen; in this, among other jokes, Dumas, in the character of Monte-Christo and in costume half Oriental, half juggler, is made to pass the other theatres in review while seeking candidates for his new one.

  Dumas appeared in court yesterday and defended his own cause against the editors who sue him for evading some of his engagements. I was very desirous to hear him speak, and went there in what I was assured would be very good season; but a French audience, who knew the ground better, had slipped in before me, and I returned, as has been too often the case with me in Paris, having seen nothing but endless staircases, dreary vestibules, and gens d’armes. The hospitality of le grande nation to the stranger is, in many respects, admirable. Galleries, libraries, cabinets of coins, museums, are opened in the most liberal manner to the stranger, warmed, lighted, ay, and guarded, for him almost all days in the week; treasures of the past are at his service; but when anything is happening in the present, the French run quicker, glide in more adroitly, and get possession of the ground. I find it not the most easy manner to get to places even when there is nothing going on, there is so much tiresome fuss of getting billets from one and another to be gone through; but when something is happening it is still worse. I missed hearing M. Guizot in his speech on the Montpensier marriage, which would have given a very good idea of his manner, and which, like this defence of M. Dumas, was a skilful piece of work as regards evasion of the truth. The good feeling toward England which had been fostered with so much care and toil seems to have been entirely dissipated by the mutual recriminations about this marriage, and the old dislike flames up more fiercely for having been hid awhile beneath the ashes. I saw the little Duchess, the innocent or ignorant topic of all this disturbance, when presented at court. She went round the circle on the arm of the Queen. Though only fourteen, she looks twenty, but has something fresh, engaging, and girlish about her. I fancy it will soon be rubbed out under the drill of the royal household.

  I attended not only at the presentation but at the ball given at the Tuileries directly after. These are fine shows, as the suite of apartments is very handsome, brilliantly lighted, and the French ladies surpass all others in the art of dress; indeed, it gave me much pleasure to see them. Certainly there are many ugly ones, but they are so well dressed and have such an air of graceful vivacity, that the general effect was of a flower-garden. As often happens, several American women were among the most distinguished for positive beauty; one from Philadelphia, who is by many persons considered the prettiest ornament of the dress circle at the Italian Opera, was especially marked by the attention of the king. However, these ladies, even if here a long time, do not attain the air and manner of French women; the magnetic fluid that envelops them is less brilliant and exhilarating in its attractions.

  It was pleasant to my eye, which has always been so wearied in our country by the sombre masses of men that overcloud our public assemblies, to see them now in so great a variety of costume, color and decoration.

  Among the crowd wandered Leverrier in the costume of Academician, looking as if he had lost, not found, his planet. French savants are more generally men of the world, and even men of fashion than those of other climates; but, in his case, he seemed not to find it easy to exchange the music of the spheres for the music of fiddles.

  Speaking of Leverrier leads to another of my disappointments. I went to the Sorbonne to hear him lecture, nothing dreaming that the old pedantic and theological character of those halls was strictly kept up in these days of light. An old guardian of the inner temple, seeing me approach had his speech all ready, and, manning the entrance, said with a disdainful air, before we had time to utter a word, “Monsieur may enter if he pleases, but Madame must remain here,” (i.e. in the court-yard). After some exclamations of surprise, I found an alternative in the Hotel de Clugny, where I passed an hour very delightfully while waiting for my companion. The rich remains of other centuries are there so arranged that they can be seen to the best advantage; many of the works in ivory, china and carved wood are truly spending or exquisite. I saw a dagger with jeweled hilt which talked whole poems to my mind. In the various “Adorations of the Magi,” I found constantly one of the wise men black, and with the marked African lineaments. Before I had half finished, my companion came and wished me at least to visit the lecture-rooms of the Sorbonne now that the talk, too good for female ears, was over. But the guardian again interfered to deny me entrance. “You can go, Madame,” said he “to the College of France; you can go to this and t’other place, but you cannot enter here.” “What, sir,” said I, “is it your institution alone that remains in a state of barbarism?” “Que voulez vous, Madame,” he replied, and, as he spoke, his little dog began to bark at me,—“Que voulez vous, Madame, c’est la regle,”—“What would you have, Madame? IT IS THE RULE,”—a reply which makes me laugh even now, as I think how the satirical wits of former days might have used it against the bulwarks of learned dulness.

  I was more fortunate in hearing Arago, and he justified all my expectations. Clear, rapid, full and equal, his discourse is worthy its celebrity, and I felt repaid for the four hours one is obliged to spend in going, in waiting, and in hearing, for the lecture begins at half past one and you must be there before twelve to get a seat, so constant and animated is his popularity.

  I have attended, with some interest, two discussions at the Athenée,—one on Suicide, the other on The Crusades. They are amateur affairs, where, as always at such times, one hears much nonsense and vanity, much making of phrases and sentimental mental grimace; but there was one excellent speaker, adroit and rapid as only a Frenchman could be. With admirable readiness, skill, and rhetorical polish, he examined the arguments of all the others, and built upon their failures a triumph for himself. His management of the language, too, was masterly, and French is the best of languages for such a purpose,—clear, flexible, full of sparkling points and quick, picturesque turns, with a subtile blandness that makes the dart tickle while it wounds. Truly he pleased the fancy, filled the ear, and carried us pleasantly along over the smooth, swift waters; but then came from the crowd a gentleman, not one of the appointed orators of the evening, but who had really something in his heart to say,—a grave, dark man, with Spanish eyes, and the simple dignity of honor and earnestness in all his gesture and manner. He said in few and unadorned words his say, and the sense of a real presence filled the room, and those charms of rhetoric faded, as vanish the beauties of soap-bubbles from the eyes of astonished childhood.

  I was present on one good occasion at the Academy the day that M. Rémusat was received there in the place of Royer-Collard. I looked down from one of the tribunes upon the flower of the celebrities of France, that is to say, of the celebrities which are authentic, comme il faut. Among them were many marked faces, many fine heads; but, in reading the works of poets we always fancy them about the age of Apollo himself, and I found with pain some of my favorites quite old, and very unlike the company on Parnassus as represented by Raphael. Some, however, were venerable, even noble, to behold. Indeed the literary dynasty of France is growing old, and here, as in England and Germany, there seems likely to occur a serious gap before the inauguration of another, if indeed another is coming.

  However, it was an imposing sight; there are men of real distinction now in the Academy, and Molière would have a fair chance if he were proposed to-day. Among the audience I saw many ladies of fine expression and manner as well as one or two precieuses ridicules, a race which is never quite extinct.

  M. Rémusat, as is the custom on these occasions, painted the portrait of his predecessor; the discourse was brilliant and discriminating in the details, but the orator seemed to me to neglect drawing some obvious inferences which would have given a better point of view for his subject.

  A séance to me mush more impressive and interesting was one which borrowed nothing from dress, decorations, or the presence of titled pomp. I went to call on La Mennais, to whom I had a letter. I found him in a little study; his secretary was writing in a larger room through which I passed. With him was a somewhat citizen-looking, but vivacious, elderly man, whom I was at first sorry to see, having wished for half an hour’s undisturbed visit to the apostle of Democracy. But how quickly were those feelings displaces by joy when he named to me the great national lyrist of France, the unequaled Bèranger. I had not expected to see him at all, for he is not one to be seen in any show place; he lives in the hearts of the people, and needs no homage from their eyes. I was very happy in that little study in presence of these two men, whose influence has been so great, so real. To me Béranger has been much; his wit, his pathos, his exquisite lyric grace, have made the most delicate strings vibrate, and I can feel, as well as see, what he is in his nation and his place. I have not personally received anything from La Mennais, as, born under other circumstances, mental facts to which he, once the pupil of Rome, has passed through severe ordeals, are at the basis of all my thoughts. But I see well what he has been and is to Europe, and of what great force of nature and spirit. He seems suffering and pale, but in his eyes is the light of the future.

  These are men who need no flourish of trumpets to announce their coming,—no band of martial music upon their steps,—no obsequious nobles in their train. They are the true kings, the theocratic kings, the judges in Israel. The hearts of men make music at their approach; the mind of the age is the historian of their passage; and only men of destiny like themselves shall be permitted to write their eulogies, or fill their vacant seat.

  Wherever there is a genius like his own, a germ of the finest fruit still hidden beneath the soil, the “Chante pauvre petit” of Béranger shall strike, like a sunbeam, and give it force to emerge, and wherever there is the true Crusade,—for the spirit, not the tomb of Christ,—shall be felt an echo of the “Que tes armes soient bénis jeune soldat” of La Mennais.

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