The Paris Of Our Grandparents by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

We are apt to fall into the error of assuming that only American cities have displaced their centres and changed their appearance during the last half-century.

The “oldest inhabitant,” with his twice-told tales of transformations and changes, is to a certain extent responsible for this; by contrast, we imagine that the capitals of Europe have always been just as we see them. So strong is this impression that it requires a serious effort of the imagination to reconstruct the Paris that our grandparents knew and admired, few as the years are that separate their day from ours.

It is, for instance, difficult to conceive of a Paris that ended at the rue Royale, with only waste land and market gardens beyond the Madeleine, where to-day so many avenues open their stately perspectives; yet such was the case! The few fine residences that existed beyond that point faced the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, with gardens running back to an unkempt open country called the Champs Elysées, where an unfinished Arc de Triomphe stood alone in a wilderness that no one ever dreamed of traversing.

The fashionable ladies of that time drove in the afternoon along the boulevards from the Madeleine to the Ch�teau d’Eau, and stopped their ponderous yellow barouches at Tortoni’s, where ices were served to them in their carriages, while they chatted with immaculate dandies in skin-tight nankeen unmentionables, blue swallow-tailed coats, and furry ‘beaver” hats.

While looking over some books in the company of an old lady who from time to time opens her store of treasures and recalls her remote youth at my request, and whose spirituel and graphic language gives to her souvenirs the air of being stray chapters from some old-fashioned romance, I received a vivid impression of how the French capital must have looked fifty years ago.

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Emptying in her company a chest of books that had not seen the light for several decades, we came across a “Panorama of the Boulevards,” dated 1845, which proved when unfolded to be a colored lithograph, a couple of yards long by five or six inches high, representing the line of boulevards from the Madeleine to the Place de la Bastille. Each house, almost each tree, was faithfully depicted, together with the crowds on the sidewalks and the carriages in the street. The whole scene was as different from the effect made by that thoroughfare to-day as though five hundred and not fifty years had elapsed since the little book was printed. The picture breathed an atmosphere of calm and nameless quaintness that one finds now only in old provincial cities which have escaped the ravages of improvement.

My companion sat with the book unfolded before her, in a smiling trance. Her mind had turned back to the far-away days when she first trod those streets a bride, with all the pleasures and few of the cares of life to think about.

I watched her in silence (it seemed a sacrilege to break in on such a train of thought), until gradually her eyes lost their far-away expression, and, turning to me with a smile, she exclaimed: “How we ever had the courage to appear in the street dressed as we were is a mystery! Do you see that carriage?” pointing in the print to a high-swung family vehicle with a powdered coachman on the box, and two sky-blue lackeys standing behind. “I can remember, as if it were yesterday, going to drive with Lady B-, the British ambassadress, in just such a conveyance. She drove four horses with feathers on their heads, when she used to come to Meurice’s for me. I blush when I think that my frock was so scant that I had to raise the skirt almost to my knees in order to get into her carriage.

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“Why we didn’t all die of pneumonia is another marvel, for we wore low-necked dresses and the thinnest of slippers in the street, our heads being about the only part that was completely covered. I was particularly proud of a turban surmounted with a bird of paradise, but Lady B— affected poke bonnets, then just coming into fashion, so large and so deep that when one looked at her from the side nothing was visible except two curls, ‘as damp and as black as leeches.’ In other ways our toilets were absurdly unsuited for every-day wear; we wore light scarves over our necks, and rarely used furlined pelisses.”

Returning to an examination of the panorama, my companion pointed out to me that there was no break in the boulevards, where the opera-house, with its seven radiating avenues, now stands, but a long line of Hôtels, dozing behind high walls, and quaint two-storied buildings that undoubtedly dated from the razing of the city wall and the opening of the new thoroughfare under Louis XV.

A little farther on was the world-famous Maison Dorée, where one almost expected to see Alfred de Musset and le docteur Véron dining with Dumas and Eugene Sue.

“What in the name of goodness is that?” I exclaimed, pointing to a couple of black and yellow monstrosities on wheels, which looked like three carriages joined together with a “buggy” added on in front.

“That’s the diligence just arrived from Calais; it has been two days en route, the passengers sleeping as best they could, side by side, and escaping from their confinement only when horses were changed or while stopping for meals. That high two-wheeled trap with the little ‘tiger’ standing up behind is a tilbury. We used to see the Count d’Orsay driving one like that almost every day. He wore butter-colored gloves, and the skirts of his coat were pleated full all around, and stood out like a ballet girl’s. It is a pity they have not included Louis Philippe and his family jogging off to Neuilly in the court ‘carryall,’-the ‘Citizen King,’ with his blue umbrella between his knees, trying to look like an honest bourgeois, and failing even in that attempt to please the Parisians.

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“We were in Paris in ’48; from my window at Meurice’s I saw poor old Juste Milieu read his abdication from the historic middle balcony of the Tuileries, and half an hour later we perceived the Duchesse d’Orléans leave the Tuileries on foot, leading her two sons by the hand, and walk through the gardens and across the Place de la Concorde to the Corps Législatif, in a last attempt to save the crown for her son. Futile effort! That evening the ‘Citizen King’ was hurried through those same gardens and into a passing cab, en route for a life exile.

“Our balcony at Meurice’s was a fine point of observation from which to watch a revolution. With an opera-glass we could see the mob surging to the sack of the palace, the priceless furniture and bric-à-brac flung into the street, court dresses waved on pikes from the tall windows, and finally the throne brought out, and carried off to be burned. There was no keeping the men of our party in after that. They rushed off to have a nearer glimpse of the fighting, and we saw no more of them until daybreak the following morning when, just as we were preparing to send for the police, two dilapidated, ragged, black-faced mortals appeared, in whom we barely recognized our husbands. They had been impressed into service and passed their night building barricades. My better half, however, had succeeded in snatching a handful of the gold fringe from the throne as it was carried by, an act of prowess that repaid him for all his troubles and fatigue.

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“I passed the greater part of forty-eight hours on our balcony, watching the mob marching by, singing La Marseillaise, and camping at night in the streets. It was all I could do to tear myself away from the window long enough to eat and write in my journal.

“There was no Avenue de l’Opéra then. The trip from the boulevards to the Palais-Royal had to be made by a long detour across the Place Vendôme (where, by the bye, a cattle market was held) or through a labyrinth of narrow, bad-smelling little streets, where strangers easily lost their way. Next to the boulevards, the Palais-Royal was the centre of the elegant and dissipated life in the capital. It was there we met of an afternoon to drink chocolate at the ‘Rotonde,’ or to dine at ‘Les Trois Frères Proven�aux,’ and let our husbands have a try at the gambling tables in the Passage d’Orléans.

“No one thought of buying jewelry anywhere else. It was from the windows of its shops that the fashions started on their way around the world. When Victoria as a bride was visiting Louis Philippe, she was so fascinated by the aspect of the place that the gallant French king ordered a miniature copy of the scene, made in papier-m�ché, as a present for his guest, a sort of gigantic dolls’ house in which not only the palace and its long colonnades were reproduced, but every tiny shop and the myriad articles for sale were copied with Chinese fidelity. Unfortunately the pear-headed old king became England’s uninvited guest before this clumsy toy was finished, so it never crossed the Channel, but can be seen to-day by any one curious enough to examine it, in the Musée Carnavalet.

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“Few of us realize that the Paris of Charles X. and Louis Philippe would seem to us now a small, ill-paved, and worse-lighted provincial town, with few theatres or hotels, communicating with the outer world only by means of a horse-drawn ‘post,’ and practically farther from London than Constantinople is to-day. One feels this isolation in the literature of the time; brilliant as the epoch was, the horizon of its writers was bounded by the boulevards and the Faubourg Saint-Germain.”

Dumas says laughingly, in a letter to a friend: “I have never ventured into the unexplored country beyond the Bastille, but am convinced that it shelters wild animals and savages.” The wit and brains of the period were concentrated into a small space. Money-making had no more part in the programme of a writer then than an introduction into “society.” Catering to a foreign market and snobbishness were undreamed-of degradations. Paris had not yet been turned into the Foire du Monde that she has since become, with whole quarters given over to the use of foreigners,-theatres, restaurants, and hotels created only for the use of a polyglot population that could give lessons to the people around Babel’s famous “tower.”

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