Changing Paris by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Paris is beginning to show signs of the coming “Exhibition of 1900,” and is in many ways going through a curious stage of transformation, socially as well as materially. The Palais De l’Industrie, familiar to all visitors here, as the home of the Salons, the Horse Shows, and a thousand gay fetes and merry-makings, is being torn down to make way for the new avenue leading, with the bridge Alexander III., from the Champs Elysees to the Esplanade des Invalides. This thoroughfare with the gilded dome of Napoleon’s tomb to close its perspective is intended to be the feature of the coming “show.”

Curious irony of things in this world! The Palais De l’Industrie was intended to be the one permanent building of the exhibition of 1854. An old “Journal” I often read tells how the writer saw the long line of gilded coaches (borrowed from Versailles for the occasion), eight horses apiece, led by footmen–horses and men blazing in embroidered trappings–leave the Tuileries and proceed at a walk to the great gateway of the now disappearing palace. Victoria and Albert who were on an official visit to the Emperor were the first to alight; then Eugenie in the radiance of her perfect beauty stepped from the coach (sad omen!) that fifty years before had taken Josephine in tears to Malmaison.

It may interest some ladies to know how an Empress was dressed on that spring morning forty-four years ago. She wore rose-colored silk with an over-dress (I think that is what it is called) of black lace flounces, immense hoops, and a black Chantilly lace shawl. Her hair, a brilliant golden auburn, was dressed low on the temples, covering the ears, and hung down her back in a gold net almost to her waist; at the extreme back of her head was placed a black and rose-colored bonnet; open “flowing” sleeves showed her bare arms, one-buttoned, straw-colored gloves, and ruby bracelets; she carried a tiny rose-colored parasol not a foot in diameter.

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How England’s great sovereign was dressed the writer of the journal does not so well remember, for in those days Eugenie was the cynosure of all eyes, and people rarely looked at anything else when they could get a glimpse of her lovely face.

It appears, however, that the Queen sported an India shawl, hoops, and a green bonnet, which was not particularly becoming to her red face. She and Napoleon entered the building first; the Empress (who was in delicate health) was carried in an open chair, with Prince Albert walking at her side, a marvellously handsome couple to follow the two dowdy little sovereigns who preceded them. The writer had by bribery succeeded in getting places in an entresol window under the archway, and was greatly impressed to see those four great ones laughing and joking together over Eugenie’s trouble in getting her hoops into the narrow chair!

What changes have come to that laughing group! Two are dead, one dying in exile and disgrace; and it would be hard to find in the two rheumatic old ladies whom one sees pottering about the Riviera now, any trace of those smiling wives. In France it is as if a tidal wave had swept over Napoleon’s court. Only the old palace stood severely back from the Champs Elysees, as if guarding its souvenirs. The pick of the mason has brought down the proud gateway which its imperial builder fondly imagined was to last for ages. The Tuileries preceded it into oblivion. The Alpha and Omega of that gorgeous pageant of the fifties vanished like a mirage!

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It is not here alone one finds Paris changing. A railway is being brought along the quais with its depot at the Invalides. Another is to find its terminus opposite the Louvre, where the picturesque ruin of the Cour des Comptes has stood half-hidden by the trees since 1870. A line of electric cars crosses the Rond Point, in spite of the opposition of all the neighborhood, anxious to keep, at least that fine perspective free from such desecration. And, last but not least, there is every prospect of an immense system of elevated railways being inaugurated in connection with the coming world’s fair. The direction of this kind of improvement is entirely in the hands of the Municipal Council, and that body has become (here in Paris) extremely radical, not to say communistic; and takes pleasure in annoying the inhabitants of the richer quarters of the city, under pretext of improvements and facilities of circulation.

It is easy to see how strong the feeling is against the aristocratic class. Nor is it much to be wondered at! The aristocracy seem to try to make themselves unpopular. They detest the republic, which has shorn them of their splendor, and do everything in their power (socially and diplomatically their power is still great) to interfere with and frustrate the plans of the government. Only last year they seized an opportunity at the funerals of the Duchesse d’Alencon and the Duc d’Aumale to make a royalist manifestation of the most pronounced character. The young Duchesse d’Orleans was publicly spoken of and treated as the “Queen of France;” at the private receptions given during her stay in Paris the same ceremonial was observed as if she had been really on the throne. The young Duke, her husband, was not present, being in exile as a pretender, but armorial bearings of the “reigning family,” as their followers insist on calling them, were hung around the Madeleine and on the funeral-cars of both the illustrious dead.

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The government is singularly lenient to the aristocrats. If a poor man cries “Long live the Commune!” in the street, he is arrested. The police, however, stood quietly by and let a group of the old nobility shout “Long live the Queen!” as the train containing the young Duchesse d’Orleans moved out of the station. The secret of this leniency toward the “pretenders” to the throne, is that they are very little feared. If it amuses a set of wealthy people to play at holding a court, the strong government of the republic cares not one jot. The Orleans family have never been popular in France, and the young pretender’s marriage to an Austrian Archduchess last year has not improved matters.

It is the fashion in the conservative Faubourg St. Germain, to ridicule the President, his wife and their bourgeois surroundings, as forty years ago the parents of these aristocrats affected to despise the imperial parvenus. The swells amused themselves during the official visit of the Emperor and Empress of Russia last year (which was gall and wormwood to them) by exaggerating and repeating all the small slips in etiquette that the President, an intelligent, but simple-mannered gentleman, was supposed to have made during the sojourn of his imperial guests.

Both M. and Mme. Faure are extremely popular with the people, and are heartily cheered whenever they are seen in public. The President is the despair of the lovers of routine and etiquette, walking in and out of his Palais of the Elysee, like a private individual, and breaking all rules and regulations. He is fond of riding, and jogs off to the Bois of a morning with no escort, and often of an evening drops in at the theatres in a casual way. The other night at the Francais he suddenly appeared in the foyer des artistes (a beautiful greenroom, hung with historical portraits of great actors and actresses, one of the prides of the theatre) in this informal manner. Mme. Bartet, who happened to be there alone at the time, was so impressed at such an unprecedented event that she fainted, and the President had to run for water and help revive her. The next day he sent the great actress a beautiful vase of Sevres china, full of water, in souvenir.

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To a lover of old things and old ways any changes in the Paris he has known and loved are a sad trial. Henri Drumont, in his delightful Mon Vieux Paris, deplores this modern mania for reform which has done such good work in the new quarters but should, he thinks, respect the historic streets and shady squares.

One naturally feels that the sights familiar in youth lose by being transformed and doubts the necessity of such improvements.

The Rome of my childhood is no more! Half of Cairo was ruthlessly transformed in sixty-five into a hideous caricature of modern Paris. Milan has been remodelled, each city losing in charm as it gained in convenience.

So far Paris has held her own. The spirit of the city has not been lost, as in the other capitals. The fair metropolis of France, in spite of many transformations, still holds her admirers with a dominating sway. She pours out for them a strong elixir that once tasted takes the flavor out of existence in other cities and makes her adorers, when in exile, thirst for another draught of the subtle nectar.

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