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The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 105/An Englishman in Normandy

< The Atlantic Monthly‎ | Volume 18‎ | Number 105
 

AN ENGLISHMAN IN NORMANDY.


A tour in Normandy is a very commonplace thing; and mine was not even a tour in Normandy. In the six weeks which I spent there, I did not see as many sights as an ordinary English tourist sees in ten days, or an American, perhaps, in five. Going abroad in need of rest, I rambled slowly about, sojourning at each place as long as I found it agreeable, then moving on to another, avoiding the railroads, the tyranny of the timetable, the flurry of packing up every morning. My time was divided between some seven or eight places; and I stayed longest where there was least, according to the guide-books, to be seen.

Travelling in this way, you at all events see something of the people; that is, if you will live among them and fall in with their ways.

Normandy—at least the sequestered part of it in which most of my time was passed—is a good country for a traveller minded as I was. The scenery is not grand. It does not exact the highest admiration; but it is, perhaps, not on that account the less suitable for the purpose of those who seek repose. The country is very like the most rich and beautiful parts of England. Its lanes and hedge-rows are indeed so thoroughly English, as to suggest that it was laid out under influences similar to those which determined the aspect of the country in England, and unlike those which determined it in other parts of France. It is well wooded; and as the trees stand not in masses, but in lines along the hedge-rows, you see distinctly the form of each tree. This is one of its characteristic features. The number of poplars interspersed with the trees of rounder outline is another, and very grateful to the eye. The general greenness rivals that of England. The valleys are wide, and the views from the hill-tops very extensive. I am speaking chiefly of the western part of Normandy: the parts about Caen approach more nearly to the flatness, monotony, and dreary treelessness of ordinary French and German scenery. The air is pure and bracing,—especially in the little towns built on old castled heights. Why do we not always build our towns, when we can, on heights, in what Shakespeare calls nimble and sweet air?

The Norman towns are full of grand old churches, old castles, historic memories, shadows of the past. In these, where I spent most of my holiday, there are no garrisons, no Zouaves, no fanfares, no signs of the presence of the empire, except occasionally the abode of a sous-préfet. The province retains a good deal of its old character. In the great towns, such as Rouen and Caen, the people are French; but in the country they are Normans still. The French are sensible of the difference, and do the Normans the honor (as, if I were a Norman, I should think it) of acknowledging it by habitual flouts and sneers at the "heavy" race who inhabit "the land of cider."

If you do not mind outward appearances,—if you have the resolution to penetrate beyond a very dirty entrance, perhaps through the kitchen, into the rooms within,—you may make yourself extremely comfortable in a little Norman inn. You have only to behave to your landlord and landlady as a guest, not as a customer, and you will find yourself treated with the utmost civility and kindness. You will get a large, airy room, not so tidy as an English room, but with a better bed, and excellent fare, beginning with a delicious cup of café au lait in the early morning,—that is, if you choose to breakfast and dine at the table d'hôte; for, if, like many English travellers, you insist on living in English privacy, and taking your meals at English hours, all the resources of the little establishment being expended on the public meals, you will probably pay the penalty of your patriotic and stoical adherence to the customs of your country.

In my passage from Weymouth to Normandy, I landed at Jersey. The little, secluded bays of that island are the most perfect poetry of the sea. They are types of the spot in which Horace, in his poetic mood of imaginary misanthropy, wished to end his days.

"Oblitusque meorum obliviscendus et illis
Neptunum procul e terra spectare furentem."

I was told that the scenery of Guernsey was even more beautiful; but the rough passage between the two islands is rather a heavy price to pay for the enjoyment. The islands are curious from their old Norman character, laws, and customs; their Norman patois; their system of small proprietors, whose little holdings, divided from each other by high hedges, cut the island into a multitude of paddocks; and the miniature republicanism and universal suffrage which the inhabitants enjoy, though under the paternal eye of an English governor, who, if the insects grew too angry, would no doubt sprinkle a little dust. But all that is native and original is fast being overlaid by the influx of English residents,—unhappy victims of genteel pauperism flying from the heavy taxes of England, which the Channel Islands escape; or, in not a few cases, persons whose reputation has suffered some damage in their own country. There are also a few exiles of a more honorable kind,—French liberals, who have taken refuge from imperial tyranny under the shield of English law,—the most illustrious of whom is Victor Hugo. The Emperor would fain get hold of these men, and he is now trying to force upon us a modification of the extradition treaty for that purpose. But the sanctity of our asylum is a tradition dear to the English people, and one which they will not be induced to betray. An attempt to change the English law for the purposes of the French police was fatal to Palmerston, at the height of his popularity and power.

The French government employs agents to decoy the refugees into conspiracies, in order that it may obtain a pretext for criminal proceedings against them. The fact has fallen under my personal observation. To estimate the character of these practices, and of the present attempt to tamper with the extradition treaty, we must remember that Louis Napoleon himself long enjoyed, as a political refugee, the shelter of the asylum which he is now endeavoring to subvert.

Jersey is studded with fortifications. England and France frown at each other in arms from the neighboring coasts. I thought of poor Cobden, and of the day when his policy shall finally prevail, as it begins to prevail already, over these national divisions and jealousies; and when there shall be at once a better and a cheaper security for the peace of nations than fortresses bristling with the instruments of mutual destruction. The Norman islands are of no use to England, while they involve us in a large military expenditure. In a maritime war, we should find it very difficult to defend dependencies so far from our coast and so close to that of the enemy. But the people are loyal to England, and very unwilling to be annexed to France.

Granville, where I landed in Normandy, is a hideous seaport; but its hideousness was almost turned to beauty, on that golden afternoon, by the bright French atmosphere, which can do for bad scenery what French cookery does for bad meat. The royal and imperial roads of France are as despotically straight as those of the Roman Empire. But it was a pleasant evening drive to Avranches, through the rich champaign,—the active little Norman horses trotting the sixteen miles merrily to the jingling of their bells. The figure of the gendarme, in his cocked hat and imposing uniform, setting out upon his rounds, tells me that I am in France.

Avranches stands on the steep and towering extremity of a line of hills, commanding a most magnificent and varied view of land and sea, with Mont St. Michel in the distance. Its cathedral must have occupied a site as striking as the temple of Poseidon, on the headland of Sunium. But of that cathedral nothing is now left but a heap of fragments, and a stone, on which, fabling tradition says, Henry II. was reconciled to the Church after the murder of Becket. It was pulled down in consequence of the injuries it received at the time of the Revolution; and the bare area where it stood is typical of that devastating tornado which swept feudal and Catholic France out of existence. Where once the learned Huetius lived and wrote, the house of the sous-préfet now stands. The building of churches, however, is going on actively in Avranches, and attests the reviving influence of the priests. And one should be glad to see the revival of any form of religion, however different from one's own, in France, if it were not that this Church is so intensely political, and that it presents Christianity as the ally of atheist and sensualist despotism, and the enemy of morality, liberty, justice, and the hopes of man. The French Cæsars, Napoleon I. and Napoleon III., though themselves absolutely devoid of any faith but the self-idolatry which they call faith in their "star," find it politic, like the Roman Cæsars, to have their official creed and their augurs.

I went to the distribution of prizes at the school of the Christian Brothers. I had greatly admired the schools of the brotherhood in Ireland, and felt an interest in their system, notwithstanding their main object, like that of the famous Jesuit teachers of the sixteenth century, was rather to proselytize than to educate. The ceremony was thoroughly French, each boy being crowned with a tinsel wreath, and kissed by one of the company when he was presented with his prize. Everything, however, was arranged with the greatest taste and skill; and the recitations and dialogues, by which the endless distribution of prizes was relieved, were very cleverly and gracefully performed. Some of them were comic. The one which made us laugh most was a dialogue between a barber and a young gentleman who had come into his shop to be shaved. The barber pausing with the razor in his hand, the young gentleman asked him, angrily, why he did not begin. "I am waiting," replied the barber, "for your beard to grow." Specimens of writing were handed round, which were good; drawings, which, strange to say, were detestable. I praised the recitations and dialogues to the gentleman who sat next me. "Ah! oui," was his reply, "tout cela vient de Paris." So complete is the centralization of French intellect, even in such little matters as these! While I was in France, some leading politicians were attempting to set on foot a movement in favor of political decentralization. They must begin deeper, if they would hope to succeed.

In Ireland, the Christian Brothers maintain the most purely spiritual character, and the most complete independence of the state. But here, alas! a different tendency peeped out. The alliance of a Jesuit Church with the Empire, and the subserviency of education to their common objects, were typified by the presence of the sous-préfet and the maire in their gold-laced coats of office, who arrived escorted by a guard of soldiers with fixed bayonets. The harangue of the reverend head of the establishment was highly political, and amply merited by its recommendations of the duty of obedience to authority the eulogy of the sous-préfet on "the good direction" which the brotherhood were giving to the studies of youth. There is no garrison at Avranches. But all the soldiers in the place seemed to have been collected to give a military character to the scene. Other incentives of military aspiration were not wanting; and the boy who delivered the allocution told us, amidst loud applause, that he and his companions were being brought up to be, "not only good Christians, but, in case of need, good soldiers."

In France under the Empire a military character is studiously given to every act of public, and almost of social life. There you see everywhere the pomp of war in the midst of peace, as in America you saw everywhere peace in the midst of civil war. The images of war and conquest are constantly kept before the eyes of a people naturally full of military vanity, and now, by the decay alike of religious and political faith, almost entirely bereft of all other aspirations. There is at the same time a vast standing army, which is not occupied, as the army of the Roman Empire was, in defending the frontiers, nor, as the Austrian army is, in holding down disaffected provinces, and which is full of the memory of the Napoleonic conquests, and longs again to overrun and pillage Europe in the name of "glory." There is no restraining influence either of morality or of religion to keep the war spirit in check. The French priesthood are as ready as any priests of Jupiter or Baal to bless national aggression, if by so doing they can gain political power. In what can all this end? In what but a European war? The children in the schools of the Christian Brothers are no doubt faithfully taught the precepts of a religion of peace; but there is a teaching of a different kind before their eyes, which, it is to be feared, they more easily imbibe and less easily forget.

It was amusing, on this and other occasions, to see the state which surrounds the subordinate officials of the Empire. I had found the head of the American Republic and all its armaments without any insignia of dignity, without a guard or attendants, in a common office room. And here was a sous-préfet parading the streets in solemn state, in a gilded coat, and with a line of bayonets glittering on either hand.

From Avranches it is a pleasant walk (by the country road) to the village of Ducie, where there is good fishing, a nice little village inn, and a deserted chateau in the Louis Quatorze style, and of sumptuous dimensions, which, if it was ever completely finished, is now in a state of great dilapidation. No doubt it shared the fate of its fellows, when the Revolution proclaimed "peace to the cottage, war to the castle." The peasantry almost everywhere rose, like galley-slaves whose chains had been suddenly struck off, and gutted the chateaux, the strongholds of feudal extortion and injustice. How violent and sweeping have been the revolutions of this people compared with those of the stronger and more self-controlled race! In England, the Tudor mansions, and not unfrequently even the feudal castles, are still tenanted by the heirs, or by those who have peacefully purchased from the heirs, of their ancient lords; and the insensible gradations by which the feudal guard-room has softened down into the modern drawing-room, and the feudal moat into the flower-garden, are emblematic of the continuous and comparatively tranquil progress of English history. In France, how different! Scarcely eighty years have passed since the Chateau de Montgomeri was proud and gay; since the village idlers gathered here to see its lord, and his little provincial court, assemble along those mouldering balustrades, and ride through the now deserted gates. But to the grandchildren of those villagers the chateau is a strange, mysterious relic of the times before the flood. A group of peasants tried in vain, when I asked them, to recollect the name of its former proprietors. One of them said that it had been inhabited by a great lord, who shod his horses with shoes of gold,—much the sort of tale that an Irish peasant tells you about the primeval monuments of his country. The mansions of France before the Revolution belong as completely to the past as the tombs of the Pharaohs. The old aristocracy and the old dynasty are no longer hated or regretted. Their names excite no emotion whatever in the French peasant's heart. They are wiped out of the memory of the nation, and their place knows them no more. In the midst of their shows and their pleasures and their shallow philosophies, they could not read the handwriting on the wall, and therefore they are blotted out of existence. They went on marrying and giving in marriage; this chateau, perhaps, was still being enlarged and embellished, when the flood came upon them and destroyed them all. The science of politics is the science of regulating progress and avoiding revolutions.

The hostess of the Lion d'Or is about to transfer her establishment to an inn of greater pretensions, to which, aware that the old chateau is an object of interest to visitors, she means to give the name of the Hotel de Montgomeri. On the wall of her café is a coarse medallion bust taken from a room in the chateau. She did not know whom it represented; and I dare say it was only my fancy that made me think I recognized a rude effigy of the once adored features of Marie Antoinette.

The plates at the Lion d'Or were adorned with humorous devices. On one was a satire on the hypocritical rapacity of perfidious Albion. Two English soldiers were standing with their swords hidden behind their backs, and trying to coax back to them some Indians who were running away in the distance. "Come to us, dear little Indians; you know we are your best friends!" Suppose "Arabs" or "Mexicans" had been substituted for "Indians." To a Frenchman, our conquests in India are rapine; his own conquests in Algeria or Mexico are the extension of civilization by the "holy bayonets" (I forget whether the phrase is Michelet's or Quinet's) of the chosen people. Justice gives the same name (no matter which) to both.

At Ducie a handsome new church had just been built,—mainly, I was told, by the munificence of two maiden ladies. The congregation at vespers was large and apparently devout; and here the number of the men was in fair proportion to that of the women. In the churches of the cities, though the power of the clergy has everywhere increased of late, you see scarcely one man to a hundred women.

On the road, a shower drove me for refuge into the house of a peasant, who received me with the usual kindliness of the French peasantry, and, when the shower was over, walked two or three miles with me on my way. The condition of these present proprietors is a subject of great interest to English economists, especially as we are evidently on the eve of a great controversy—perhaps a great struggle—respecting the law of succession to landed property in our own country. Not that any English economist would go so far as to advocate the French system of compulsory subdivision, which owes its existence in great measure to the policy of the first Napoleon,—who took care, with the instinct of a true despot, to secure the solitary power of the throne against the growth of an independent class of wealthy proprietors. All that English economists contemplate is the abolition of primogeniture and entail. I must not found any conclusion on observations so partial and cursory as those which I was able to make; but I suspect that the French peasant is better off than the English laborer. He is not better housed, clothed, or fed; perhaps not so well housed, clothed, or fed. He eats black bread, which the English peasant would reject, and clumps about in wooden shoes, which the English laborer would regard with horror; but this, according to statements which I have heard, and am inclined to trust, arises, generally speaking, not so much from indigence as from self-denying frugality, pushed to an extreme. The French peasant is the possessor of property, and has a passion, almost a mania, for acquisition. He saves money and subscribes to government loans, which are judiciously brought out in very small shares, so as to draw forth his little hoard, and thus bind him as a creditor to the interest of the Empire. The cottage of the peasant which I entered on my way to Ducie was very mean and comfortless, and the food which his hospitality offered me was of the coarsest kind. But he had a valuable mare and foal; his yard was full of poultry; and his orchard showed, for a bad season, a fair crop of apples. There are some large estates, the result frequently of great fortunes made in trade. Not far from the place where the high-born lords of the Chateau de Montgomeri once reigned, a chocolate-merchant had bought broad lands, and built himself a princely mansion. I should have thought that the great proprietors would have crushed the small; but I was assured that the two systems went on very well side by side. But this is a matter for exact inquiry, not for casual remark. The population in France is stationary, or nearly so, while that of England increases rapidly; and this is an important element in the question, and itself raises questions of a difficult, perhaps of a disagreeable kind.

The cares of proprietorship must necessarily interfere with the lightness of heart once proverbially characteristic of the French peasant. Still, he appears to a stranger cheerful, ready to chat, and at least as inquisitive as to the stranger's history and objects as Americans are commonly believed to be. It would be a happy thing if the Irish peasant's lightness of heart, pleasant as it often is, could be interfered with in the same way. There is a certain gayety which springs from mere recklessness, and is sister to despair.

They are hard economical problems that we have to solve in this Old World, and terribly complicated by social and political entanglements; and there is no boundless West, with bread for all who want it, to assist us in the solution.

From Avranches you visit Mont St. Michel,—not without difficulty, for you have to drive along over sands which are never dry, and over which the tide—its advance can be seen even from the distant height of Avranches—rushes in with the speed of a race-horse. But you are well repaid. Mont St. Michel is one of the most astonishing and beautiful monuments of the Catholic and feudal age. Its fortifications, and the halls, church, and cloisters of the chivalrous and monastic fraternities of which it was the seat, rise like an efflorescence from the solitary cone of granite, surrounded at low tide by the vast flat of sand, at high tide by the sea. Gothic architecture, to which we are apt to attach the notion of a sort of infantine unconsciousness, here seems consciously to revel and disport itself in its power, and to exult in investing the sea-girt rock with the playful elegance of a Cellini vase. It is a real jeu d'esprit of mediæval art. The cloisters are a model of airy grace, enhanced by contrast with the massiveness of the fortress and the wildness of the scene. A strange life the monks must have led in their narrow boundaries. But they had the visits of the knights to relieve their dulness; and probably they were rude natures, not liable to the unhappiness which such seclusion would produce in men of cultivated sensibilities and active minds. Both monks and knights are gone long ago. But there are still six priests on the rock. I asked what they did. "Ils prient le bon Dieu."

In feudal times this sea-girt fortress was almost impregnable. Two ancient cannon lying at its gate show that the conqueror of Agincourt thundered against it in vain. Its weak point was want of water: it had none but the rain-water collected in a great cistern. In these days it could not hold out an hour against a single gun-boat.

It is a pleasant drive from Avranches to Vire; and Vire itself is a pleasant place,—a quiet little town, placed high, in bracing air, and with beautiful walks round it. The comfortable, though unpretending, little Hôtel de St. Pierre stands outside the town, and commands a fine view. While I was at Vire, the fête day of the Emperor was celebrated—with profound apathy. Not a dozen houses responded to the préfet's invitation to illuminate. There being no troops in the town, and a military show being indispensable, there was a review of the firemen in military uniforms; a single brass cannon pestered us with its noise all the morning; the "veterans" of the Napoleonic army (every surviving drummer-boy of the army of 1815 goes by that name) were dismally paraded about, and the firemen practised with their muskets, very awkwardly, at a mark which was so placed among the trees that they could hardly see it.

Why has not the government the sense to let these people alone? After all their revolutions and convulsions, they have sunk into perfect political indifference, and literally care not a straw whether they are governed by Napoleon, Nero, or Nebuchadnezzar. To be always appealing to them with Bonapartist demonstrations and manifestoes, is to awaken political sentiments, in them, and so to create a danger which does not exist.

If Louis Napoleon is in any peril, it is not from the republican or constitutional party, but from his own lavish expenditure, which begins to irritate the people. They are careless of their rights as freemen, but they are fond, and growing daily fonder, of money; and they do not like to be heavily taxed, and to hear at the same time that the Emperor is wasting on his personal expenses and those of his relatives and courtiers some six millions of dollars a year. Regard for economy is the only profession which distinguishes the addresses of the so-called opposition candidates from those of their competitors. I asked a good many people what they thought of the Mexican expedition. Not one of them objected to its injustice, but they all objected to its cost, "Cela mangera beaucoup d'argent," was the invariable reply. And in this point of view the government has committed what it would think much worse than any crime,—a very damaging blunder.

It does not appear that the Orleans family have any hold on the mind of the French people. When I mentioned their name, it seemed to produce no emotion, one way or the other. But if the marshals and grandees, who have hold of the wires of administration at the point where they are centralized, chose to make Napoleon III abdicate, (as they made Napoleon I. abdicate at Fontainebleau,) and to set up a king of the House of Orleans in his place, they could probably do it; and they might choose to do it, if, by such blunders as the Mexican expedition, he seemed to be placing their personal interests in jeopardy.

Stopping to breakfast at Condé, on the way from Vire to Falaise, I fell in with the only Frenchman, with a single exception, who showed any interest in the affairs of America. Generally speaking, I was told, and found by experience, that profound apathy prevailed upon the subject. This gentleman, on learning that I had recently been in America, entered eagerly into conversation on the subject. But his inquiries were only about the prospects of cotton; and all I could tell him on that point was, that, if the growth of cotton was profitable, the Yankee would certainly make it grow.

The castle of Falaise is the reputed birthplace of the Conqueror. They even pretend to show you the room in which he was born. The existing castle, however, is of considerably later date. It is even doubtful, according to the best antiquaries, whether there were any stone castles at the date of his birth, or only earthworks with palisades. There is, however, one genuine monument of that time. You look down from the castle on the tanneries in the glen below, and see the women washing their clothes in the stream, as in the days when Robert the Devil wooed the tanner's daughter. Robert, however, must have had diabolically good eyes to choose a mistress at such a distance.

Annexed to the castle is Talbot's Tower,—a beautiful piece of feudal architecture, and a monument of a later episode in that long train of miserable wars between England and France, of which the Conqueror's cruel rapacity may be regarded as the spring; for the English conquests were an inverted copy and counterpart of his. But the Conqueror's crimes, like those of Napoleon I., were on the grandiose scale, and therefore they impose, like those of Napoleon, on the slavishness of mankind; while the petty bandit, though endowed perhaps with the same powers of destruction and only lacking the ampler sphere, is buried under the gallows. The equestrian statue of William in the public place at Falaise prances, it has been remarked, close to the spot where rest the ashes of Walter and Biona, Count and Countess of Pontoise, poisoned, if contemporary accounts are true, by the same ambition which launched havoc and misery on a whole nation. They and the Conqueror were rival claimants to the sovereignty of Maine. They supped with the Conqueror one evening at Falaise, and next morning William was the sole claimant. The Norman, like the Corsican, was an assassin as well as a conqueror.

I must leave it to architects to describe the architectural glories of Caen. But I had no idea that the Norman style, in England grand only from its massiveness, could soar to such a height of beauty as it has attained in the Church of St. Stephen and the Abbaye aux Dames. I afterwards did homage again to its powers when standing before the august ruin of Jumièges. There is something peculiarly delightful in the freshness of early art, whether Greek or mediæval, and whether in architecture or in poetry,—when you see the mind first beginning to feel its power over the material, and to make it the vehicle of thought. There is something, too, in all human works, which makes the early hope more charming than the fulfilment.

St. Stephen is the church of the Conqueror, as the Abbaye aux Dames is that of his Queen. There he lies buried. Every one knows the story of Ascelin demanding the price of the ground in which William was going to be buried, and which the tyrant had taken from him by force; and how, at last, the corpse of the Conqueror was thrust, amidst a scene of horror and loathing, into its grave. But Rex Invictissimus is the inscription on his tomb.

The spire of St. Pierre is very graceful; the body of the church, in the latest and most debased style of Gothic architecture, stands signally contrasted with St. Stephen,—St. Stephen the simple vigor of the prime, St. Pierre the florid weakness of the decay.

Caen is a large city, and, of course, full of soldiers, who are as completely the dominant caste in France now, as the old noblesse were before the Revolution. To this the French have come after their long train of sanguinary revolutions,—after all their visions of a perfect social state,—after all their promises of a new era of happiness to mankind. "A light and cruel people," Coleridge calls them. And how lightly they turned from regenerating to pillaging and oppressing the world! They have great intellectual gifts, and still greater social graces; but, in the political sphere, they have no real regard for freedom, and will gladly lay their liberties at the feet of any master who will enable them to domineer over other nations. Napoleon I. is more than their hero: he is their God. Many of them, the soldiery especially, have no other object of worship. I saw in a shop-window a print of Napoleon I., Napoleon II., and the Prince Imperial, all in military uniform and surrounded by the emblems of war. It was entitled, "The Past, the Present, and the Future of France." Military ambition has been the Past of France, is her Present, and seems too likely to be her Future. In some directions, she has promoted civilization; but, politically speaking, she has done, and probably will long continue to do, more harm than good to mankind.

I may say with truth, that, having seen America, and brought away an assured faith in human liberty and progress, I looked with far more serenity than I should otherwise have done on the Zouaves, swaggering, in the insolence of triumphant force, over the neglected ashes of Turgot and Mirabeau. I felt as though, strong as the yoke of these janizaries and their master looked, I had the death-warrant of imperialism in my pocket. There is a Power which made the world for other ends than these, and which will not suffer its ends to give way even to those of the Bonapartes. But to all appearances there will be a terrible struggle in Europe,—a struggle to which the old "wars of the mercenaries" were a trifling affair,—before the nations can be redeemed from subjection to these armed hordes and the masters whom they obey.

From Caen I visited Bayeux,—a sleepy, ecclesiastical town with a glorious cathedral, which, however, shows by a huge crack in the tower that even such edifices know decay. Gems of the Norman style are scattered all round Caen and Bayeux; and one of the finest is the little church of St. Loup, in the environs of Bayeux.

I found that the old French office-book had been completely banished from the French churches by the Jesuit and Ultramontane party, and the Roman (though much inferior, Roman Catholics tell me, as a composition) everywhere thrust into its place. The people in some places recalcitrated violently; but the Jesuits and Ultramontanes triumphed. The old Gallican spirit of independence is extinct in the French Church, and its extinction is not greatly to be deplored; for it tended not to a real independence, but to the substitution of a royal for an ecclesiastical Pope. Louis XIV. was quite as great a spiritual tyrant as any Hildebrand or Innocent, and his tyranny was, if anything, more degrading to the soul. In fact, the Ultramontane French Church, resting for support on Rome, may be regarded by the friends of liberty, with a qualified complacency, as a check, though a miserable one, on the absolute dominion of physical force embodied in the Emperor.

The Bayeux tapestry, representing the expedition of William the Conqueror, is curious and valuable as an historical monument, though it cannot be proved to be contemporary. As a work of art it is singularly spiritless, and devoid of merit of any kind. One of the fancy figures on the border reveals the indelicacy of the ladies (a queen, perhaps, and her handmaidens) who wrought it in a way which would be startling to any one who had taken the manners and morals of the age of chivalry on trust.

The heat drove me from Caen before I had "done" all the antiquities and curiosities prescribed by the guidebook. Migrating to Lisieux, I found myself in such pleasant quarters that I was tempted to settle there for some days. The town is almost an unbroken assemblage of the quaintest and most picturesque old houses. There are whole streets without any taint of modern architecture to disturb the perfect image of the past. Two magnificent churches, one of them formerly a cathedral, rise over the whole; and there is a very pretty public garden, with its terraces, pastures, and green alleys. A public garden is the invariable appendage of a city in France, as it ought to be everywhere. We do not do half enough in England for the innocent amusement of the people.

At Lisieux we had a public fête. It is evidently a part of the business of the sous-préfets to get up these things as antidotes to political aspiration. Panem et circenses is the policy of the French, as it was of the Roman Cæsars. For two or three days beforehand, the people were engaged in planting little fir-trees in the street before their doors, and decorating them and the houses, with little tricolor flags. Larger flags (of which this little quiet town produced a truly formidable number) were hung out from all the houses. As the weather was very dry, the population was at work keeping the fir-trees alive with squirts. The fête consisted of a horse and cattle show, in which the Norman horses made a very good display; the inevitable military review, which, Lisieux being as happily free from soldiery as Vire, was here, too, performed by the firemen; the band of a regiment of the line, which had been announced as a magnificent addition to the festivities, by a special proclamation of the sous-préfet; balloons not of the common shape, but in the shape of dogs, pigs, and grotesque human figures, a gentleman and lady waltzing, etc., which must have rather puzzled any scientific observer whose telescope was at that moment directed to the sky; and, to crown all, fireworks (the noise of which, a French gentleman remarked to me, the people loved, as reminding them of musketry) and an illumination. The illumination—all the little trees before the houses, as well as the houses themselves and the green arches thrown across the streets, being covered with lamps—was an extremely pretty sight. The outline of the old houses, and the windings and declivities of the old streets, wonderfully favored the effect. But the French are peerless in these things. The childish delight of the people was pleasant to see. Why cannot they be satisfied with their fêtes, and with the undisputed empire of cookery and dress, instead of making themselves a scourge to the world, and keeping all Europe in disquietude and under arms?

The Emperor is trying to inoculate his subjects with a taste for English sports, but with rather doubtful success. He tries to make them play at cricket, but they do not much like the swift bowling. There was a caricature in the Charivari of a Frenchman standing up to his wicket with an implement which the artist intended for a bat, but which was more like a pavior's rammer, in his hand. A friend was asking him whether he had a wife, children, any tie to life. "None." "Then you may begin." In a window at Lisieux there was a print of a fox-hunt, with the master of the hounds dismounting to despatch the fox with a gun! At Vire there was a print of a horse-race, with the horses in a cantering attitude, and a large dog running and barking by their side. I have seen something equally funny of the same kind in America, but I need not say what or where. I never witnessed a French horse-race, but I am told that they enjoy it moult tristement, as they say we English enjoy all our amusements.

Close to Lisieux is the fashionable watering-place of Trouville, a place without any charms that I could see, puffed into celebrity by Alexander Dumas. The Duke de Morny invested in building there a good deal of the money which he made by the coup d'état. Life at a French watering-place seems to be as close an imitation of life at Paris as French ingenuity can produce under the adverse circumstances of the case. Nothing but the religion of fashion can compel these people periodically to leave the capital for the sea. The mode of bathing is rather singular. I found that the Americans did not, as is commonly believed in England, put trousers on the legs of their pianos, but I believe you are more particular than we are; and therefore, perhaps, you would be still more surprised than we are at seeing a gentleman wrapped in a sheet stalk before the eyes of all the promenaders over the sands to the sea, and there throw off the sheet, and at his leisure get into the water. At the risk of exposing my English prudishness, I ventured to remark to a French acquaintance that the fashion was un peu libre. I found, rather to my astonishment, that he thought so too.

At Val Richer, near Lisieux, is the pleasant country-house of M. Guizot. There, surrounded by his children and his grandchildren, a pretty patriarchal picture, the veteran statesman and historian reposes after the prodigious labors and tragic vicissitudes of his life. I say he reposes; but his pen is as active as ever, only that he has turned from politics and history to the more enduring and consoling topic of religion. He has just given us a volume on Christianity; he is about to give us one on the state of religion in France. It will be deeply interesting. In the revival of religion lies the only hope of regeneration for the French nation. And whence is that revival to come? From the official priesthood, and the jesuitical influences depicted in Le Maudit? Or from the Protestant Church of France, itself full of dissensions and turmoils, in which M. Guizot himself has been recently involved? Or from the school of Natural Theologians represented by Jules Simon? We shall see, when M. Guizot's work appears. It is from his religious character as well as from his attachment to constitutional liberty, I imagine, that M. Guizot has, unlike the mass of his countrymen, watched the American struggle with ardent interest, and cordially rejoiced in the triumph of the Union and of freedom.

There are of course very different opinions as to this eminent man's career; and there are parts of his conduct of which no Liberal can approve. But I have always thought that a tranquil and happy old age is a proof, as well as a reward, of a good life; and if this be the case, M. Guizot's life, though not free from faults, must on the whole have been good.

His resistance to reform is commonly regarded as having led to the fall of the constitutional monarchy. I should attribute that catastrophe much more to the prevalence of the military spirit, which the peaceful policy of Louis Philippe disappointed, and to which even the conquest of Algeria failed (as its authors deserved) to give a sufficient vent. The reign of Louis Philippe was essentially an attempt to found a civil in place of a military government in France, which was foiled by the passions excited by the presence of a large standing army and the recent memory of the Napoleonic wars. The translation of the body of Napoleon from St. Helena to Paris was the greatest mistake committed by the king and his advisers. It was the self-humiliation of the government of peace before the Genius of War.

At Lisieux, as at Caen, and afterwards at Rouen, I saw on the Sunday a great church full of women, with scarcely a score of men. And what wonder? Close to where I sat was the altar of Our Lady of La Salette, offering to the adoration of the people the most coarse and revolting of impostures. And in the course of the service, an image of the Virgin, from which the taste of a Greek Pagan would have recoiled, was borne round the aisles in procession, manifestly the favorite object of worship in a church nominally devoted to the worship of God. An educated man in France, even one of the best character and naturally religious, would almost as soon think of entering a temple of Jupiter as a church. Religion in Roman Catholic countries being thus left, so far as the educated classes are concerned, to the priests and women, its recent developments have been inspired exclusively by priestly ambition and female imagination. The infallibility of the Pope and the worship of the Virgin have made, and are still making, tremendous strides. The Romanizing party in the Episcopal Church of England are left panting behind, in their vain efforts to keep up with the superstitions of Rome.

From Lisieux my road lay by Pont-Audemer in its beautiful valley to Caudebec on the Seine; then along the Seine,—here most pleasant,—by the towers of Jumièges, the masterpiece, even in its ruins, of the grand Norman style, and the great Norman Church of St. George de Boscherville, to Rouen.

Everybody knows Rouen and its sights,—the Cathedral, the Church of St. Ouen, the magnificent view of the city from St. Catherine's Hill,—magnificent still, though much marred by the tall chimneys and their smoke. St. Ouen is undoubtedly the perfection of Gothic art. Unlike most of the cathedrals, it is built all in the same style and on one plan, complete in every part, admirable in all its proportions, and faultless in its details. But there is something disappointing in perfection. The less perfect cathedrals suggest more to the imagination than is realized in St. Ouen.

In the Museum is a portion of the heart of Richard Cœur-de-Lion. The Crusader king loved the Normans, and bequeathed his heart to them. He did not bequeath it to Imperial France. With all his faults, he was an illustrious soldier of Christendom; and he deserves to rest, not within the pale of this sensualist and atheist Empire, but in some land where the spirit of religious enterprise is not yet dead.

In the outskirts is St. Gervais, the church of the monastery to which William the Conqueror was carried, out of the noise and the feverish air of the great city, to die, and which witnessed the strange struggle, in his last moments, between his rapacious passions and his late-awakened remorse. So insecure was the state of society, that, when he whose iron hand had preserved order among his feudal nobles had expired, those about him fled to their strongholds in expectation of a general anarchy. Government was still only personal: law had not yet been enthroned in the minds of men. Even the personal attendants of the Conqueror abandoned his corpse,—a singular illustration of the theory, cherished by lovers of the past, that the relations of master and servant were more affectionate, and of a higher kind, in the days of chivalry than they are in ours.

Among the workingmen of Rouen, there probably lurks a good deal of republicanism, akin to that which exists among the workingmen of Paris. Unfortunately it is of a kind which, though capable of spasmodic attempts to revolutionize society by force, is little capable of sustained constitutional effect, and which alarms and arrays against it, not only despots, but moderate friends of liberty and progress. The outward appearances, however, at Rouen are all in favor of the Zouave and the Priest; and of the dominion of these two powers in France, if they can abstain from quarrelling with each other, it is difficult to foresee the end.

I have spoken bitterly of the French Empire. It has not only crushed the liberties of France, but it is the keystone and the focus of the system of military despotism in Europe. Bismarck, O'Donnell, and all the rest who rule by sabre-sway, are its pupils. It is intensely propagandist,—feeling, like slavery, that it cannot endure the contagious neighborhood of freedom. It has to a terrible extent corrupted even English politics, and inspired our oligarchical party with ideas of violence quite foreign to the temper of English Tories in former days. It is killing not only all moral aspirations, but almost all moral culture in France, and leaving nothing but the passion for military glory, the thirst of money, and the love of pleasure. It is reducing all education to a centralized machine, the wires of which are moved by a bureau at Paris; and we shall see the effects of this on French intellect in the next generation, "Ils ont tué la jeunesse," were the bitter words of an eminent and chivalrous Frenchman to the author of this article. Commerce is no doubt flourishing, and money is being made by the commercial classes, at present, under the Empire; but the highest industry is intimately connected with the moral and intellectual energies of a nation; and if these perish, it will in time perish too.

I have no means of knowing whether the morality of the court and the upper classes at Paris is what it is commonly reported to be; though, assuredly, if the performances of Thérèse are truly described to us, strange things must go on in the highest circles. Historical experience would be at fault, if a military despotism, with a political religion, did not produce moral effects in Paris somewhat analogous to those which it produced in Rome. The fashionable literature of the Empire, which can scarcely fail to reflect pretty accurately the moral state of the fashionable world, is not merely loose in principle, (as literature might possibly be in a period of transition between a narrower and an ampler moral code,) but utterly vile and loathsome; it seeks the materials of sensation novels from the charnel-house as well as from the brothel.

At Dieppe, my last point, I visited that very picturesque as well as memorable ruin, the Chateau d'Arques. It is a monument of the great victory gained near it by the Huguenots under Henri IV. over the League. This and the other Huguenot victories, alas! proved bootless; and it is melancholy to visit the fields where they were won. By a series of calamities, the party was in the end erased from history; and scarcely a trace of its existence remains in the religious or political condition of Roman Catholic and Imperial France. It has left some noble names, and the memory of some noble deeds, which no doubt work upon national character to a certain extent; but this is all.

There was nothing in the fashionable watering-place of Dieppe to tempt my stay; and I turned from the Chateau d'Arques to embark for the land where, in spite of our political reaction and the efforts of the priest-party in our Church, the principles for which the field of Arques was fought and won have still a home.

 

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.