Paris in the Summer of 1820

Feel like being transported to Paris in the summer of 1820? Louis XVIII was the King of France, Napoleon Bonaparte was in exile on St. Helena, and a plot to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy (in which Napoleon in America character Charles Fabvier was implicated) had just been uncovered. Here is a letter written by a visitor to Paris on August 25, 1820.

View of the Market and Fontaine des Innocents, Paris, by John James Chalon, 1822

View of the Market and Fontaine des Innocents, Paris, by John James Chalon, 1822

It is the fête of St. Louis, and the white flag flutters with grotesque simplicity from St. Denis to Bellevue, amidst troops of whiskered guards and gay crowds of Paris, hurried out on the boulevards and into the Champs Élysées, to partake of the bounties of their monarch, lavished with a bountiful hand and not decreased by the discovered conspiracy. You pass through streets sufficiently broad for nearly four carriages to go abreast, and clean to a degree that is cheerful and surprising; for nothing can be more perversely false than the assertion that they are dark, narrow, and filthy. … [T]he unclouded clear blue sky that overhangs this beautiful city forbids any part of it to wear the aspect of gloom for a moment; for even when rain descends, it is not preceded by looming clouds, nor are the nerves distracted by the variations of climate – now light, now dense; the shower descends in heavy drops when it comes, but is forgot the moment it is over. The [drainage] channel is in the middle of the street – so that the trouble of a second gutter is saved to the pedestrian; and as to the danger of walking the streets, it is an idle assertion. There is a rule for driving in France as well as in England, and it is simply this – to keep to the right side of the way, leaving the left to those encountering you. …

From the marshal to the mendicant, good manners distinguish every individual you see – the drivers politely salute each other en passant, holding their whip and reins in one hand, while courtesy doffs the chapeau with the other. Here are little flower-girls enforcing your purchase of bouquets at a sous each, with a grace that art has not given – and there behold two stately sable personages which at first sight you may take for Othellos in mourning; tall, gaunt, and serious, they shake their heads most significantly under broad-brimmed Spanish hats, and you are not a little amused by the gold ear-rings that so relievingly scintillate amidst so much shade. They are simply charcoal men; but their gravity and demeanor would do honour to the Hidalgos of Madrid – so it is throughout – the poorest people in Paris are clean, with the exception of such personages as those I have mentioned, whose ‘occupation’ is to be attired ‘in a solemn garb of woe.’ So much for appearance. As to intelligence, they absolutely astonish you: I care not what class you address. They learn the arts, and have the names of masters of painting and sculpture at their fingers’ ends. …

But to the fête of St. Louis. Along the Champs Élysées…are erected spacious wooden booths for the distribution of provisions to the good people of Paris. Imagine the road from the Phoenix Park-gate thronged with thousands of pedestrians, looking right and left to the stage where the play is exhibited, and alone forgot when the hundreds of fowls and loaves are flung from the booths I have mentioned, while hog-heads of wine flow even more freely than in the most prosperous times has run the malt of the successful M.P. in gratitude to his electors. Fire works are also prepared along this road to heighten the effect of this combination of a hundred fonts of Camacho [a wealthy character in Don Quixote]; and the song and the dance give a spirit and gaiety to the entire, which is most enlivening.

Everywhere, however, you see the Gendarmerie on the watch, wearing the eye not fearful, nor secure: active and silent, nothing escapes their glance. Their appearance even adds to the cheerfulness of the scene, as they are in general very fine young men, in a becoming uniform of blue and white. In fact, if Frederick the Great rendered Prussia a huge barrack, assuredly the Ex-Emperor has made France a military college: everywhere the spectator marks the skill of the scholar – and from the Caserne to the Carrousel, every thing is classic. But war is their idol. It is evident wherever you move – even the games of children are little lessons in military evolution. A fellow today, with a scarlet tunic and plumed hat, attracted universal admiration by the steady discipline evinced by four little boys, gaudily dressed like himself, each carrying a stick shaped like a caliver, or little gun, and mounted on stilts! The General of this division himself shouldered his caliver, raised about two feet from the ground by his wooden props, and gave the word of command to his little Braves, the oldest about eleven, and the youngest about five, marching in quick time, and facing to the right about with a dexterity that would have done them credit on terra firma, and not airborne, exalted above common boys. From ‘rifles light as air’ like these, to the substantial bon-bons of the passive Louis, and the out-heroding Herod performances of the Champs Élysées-Corps-Dramatique, this extraordinary people derive incessant entertainment. …

Directing then our servant to return by the Barriere de l’Étoile (the Barrier of the Star) we order our coach by the Place Vendôme, towards the Rue de Richelieu, and thence to the Palais Royale. At the Barrier I have mentioned, you see the unfinished triumphal arch, begun to the glory of the French army in 1805; as yet it is but 60 feet high, but when completed it will be 135. It is the finest entrance into Paris, and even the massive beginning of this arch of victory, huge and ponderous as it is already, conveys an excellent idea of the grasping mind of the French; and is beheld with admiration, even in the uncouth appearance it now wears. Passing on, therefore, with tempered speed, for a trot is the fastest pace allowed in the streets of Paris, we approach the Place Vendôme…[where I] pause in homage to the column of Austerlitz. …

I have seen this column by the day; I have seen it illuminated for the fête of St. Louis, and coldly indeed waved the white flag of the lily over this record of France’s triumphs. I never saw such a combination of beautiful colouring in any public building as the column of Austerlitz then afforded me. The lamps entwined around it dispensed a mild and tranquil light, and brought out the sappy green of the pillar with admirable effect, while above, the fair banner fluttered to the night breeze, relieved by a sky of clear deep blue, set with stars twinkling with the most brilliant lustre. The time, the place, and the occasion – the standard of Louis surmounting the column of Napoleon – the eye resting on circle after circle of his victories, while the silence was broke by the burden of Henri Quatre, warbled by some reveller at the Champs Élysées Feast, all this contributed to form a mental picture of no common cast, but which the moralist will ever delight to record. This is out of its place, for I intended to introduce you to Very’s [a restaurant] and then the Italian Opera to see Agnese; that, however, I may defer for the present; that I anticipate no common entertainment from the French state, a material object of my attention, you will readily believe, when I tell you that already I have bought Macbeth turned into a pantomime, and that the charms of the Weird Sisters are acted on the stage in a right new reading way…. (1)

Napoleon died the following spring, on May 5, 1821. Louis XVIII died on September 16, 1824. He was succeeded by his brother, the Count of Artois, who became Charles X of France.

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  1. “Letters from Paris, and Other Parts of France, in the Summer of 1820, to a Friend in Dublin,” The Morning Post (London, England), September 28, 1820.

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Everywhere, however, you see the Gendarmerie on the watch, wearing the eye not fearful, nor secure: active and silent, nothing escapes their glance.

The Morning Post (London)