Researching old journals, one finds no shortage of great writers who have now been largely forgotten. However, occasionally a writer comes to light whose work is so entertaining, and who was so incredibly popular in his lifetime, that is it almost inconceivable that he is not still a household name. One such author is Max O’Rell.
The best comparison that comes to mind is to describe O’Rell as the Bill Bryson of the 19th Century. His books are every bit as funny and enjoyable, and his popularity was comparable. His first book, John Bull and his Island, sold hundreds of thousands of copies on both sides of the Atlantic, and was translated into 17 different languages. He went on tours around the world, entertaining sell-out crowds with his lectures (not all that far removed from modern-day stand-up comedy). He was a celebrity in today’s terms, recognised wherever he went, and even invited to meet the President during the course of the journal we will be looking at. And it was not even the first President he had visited.
One wonders if in a hundred years the name Bill Bryson will mean nothing to 99% of people. The fact that the name Max O’Rell means nothing to the majority is comparable, and unfathomable.
Max O’Rell was born Léon Pierre Blouet, but chose a pen name to avoid any embarrassment in his role as a teacher at St Paul’s School in London. He had worked there since 1874, and the same year married his English wife. Such was the success of his writing that he resigned in 1885 to tour, lecture and write full time.
O’Rell wrote more than a dozen books, which fall broadly into two categories: characteristics of different nationalities, and characteristics of women. The book we will be looking at has aspects of both, but with O’Rell’s opinions framed in the format of a travel journal, covering his lecture tour around America in 1890. A Frenchman in America was published by Cassell Publishing Company, New York in 1891.
Packed full of amusing anecdotes, A Frenchman in America is quite a different proposition to most 19th Century journals, only loosely following the format of diary entries, with only small passages of description, interrupted by frequent opinions on places, local people and their characteristics.
By the end of the 19th Century, sailing across the Atlantic was not quite such a daunting proposition. The crossing had taken a solid month at the beginning of the century, but now took less than a week. However, O’Rell felt that the crossing was still an unpleasant and ‘monotonous’ prospect with a ‘sulky, angry’ ocean and the wind ‘invariably against you’. He noted that ‘when you go to America, it blows from the west; when you come back to Europe, it blows from the east’.
Under such conditions, the mental state of the boarders may easily be imagined. They smoke, they play cards, they pace the deck like bruin pacing a cage; or else they read, and forget at the second chapter all they have read in the first. A few presumptuous ones try to think, but without success. The ladies, the American ones more especially, lie on their deck chairs swathed in rugs and shawls like Egyptian mummies in their sarcophagi, and there they pass from ten to twelve hours a day motionless, hopeless, helpless, speechless. Some few incurables keep to their cabins altogether, and only show their wasted faces when it is time to debark. Up they come, with cross, stupefied, pallid, yellow-green-looking physiognomies, and seeming to say: “Speak to me, if you like, but don’t expect me to open my eyes or answer you, and above all, don’t shake me.”
O’Rell observed a general ‘state of demoralization’ on board, and a dulling of the brains of the passengers. They often passed their time with elaborate systems of betting, and found themselves in such a state of boredom that they would ‘bet on anything and everything’.
They bet that the sun will or will not appear next day at eleven precisely, or that rain will fall at noon. They bet that the number of miles made by the boat at twelve o’clock next day will terminate with 0, 1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9. Each draws one of these numbers and pays his shilling, half-crown, or even sovereign. Then these numbers are put up at auction. An improvised auctioneer, with the gift of the gab, puts his talent at the service of his fellow-passengers. It is really very funny to see him swaying about the smoking-room table, and using all his eloquence over each number in turn for sale. A good auctioneer will run the bidding so smartly that the winner of the pool next day often pockets as much as thirty and forty pounds.
On board O’Rell found his first opportunity to comment on the characteristics of the American people in his journal. He found their conversations could be intrusive and likely to offend, but was at pains to point out that this was never intentional, and that a line of questioning such as that which follows was indicative of good fellowship and taking an interest, rather than impertinence:
We have on board the Celtic an American who is not a very shrewd person, for it has actually taken him five days to discover that English is not my native tongue. This morning (December 30) he found it out, and, being seated near me in the smoke-room, has just had the following bit of conversation with me:
“Foreigner?” said he.
“Foreigner,” said I, replying in American.
“German, I guess.”
“Going to America?”
“On business, yes.”
“What’s your line?”
“H’m — French goods.”
“Ah! what class of goods?”
“L’article de Paris.”
“The ar-ti-cle de Pa-ris.”
“Oh! yes, the arnticle of Pahrriss.”
“Exactly so. Excuse my pronunciation.”
This floored him.
Arriving at the harbour in New York, the ship had to wait overnight until the next day to be inspected by customs officials. This would set the tone for the whole journal, as O’Rell had arrived in a country where ‘everything is in subjection to the paid servant’. The customs officers would not be disturbed after sunset. Frustrations with officials of all types is a running theme of A Frenchman in America. On the positive side, one of the customs officers the next day remembered O’Rell from his visit two years before, addressed him by name and asked after his wife.
It is extraordinary the memory of many of these Americans! This one had seen me for a few minutes two years before, and probably had had to deal with two or three hundred thousand people since.
Customs officials in 19th Century America were notoriously corrupt, working in a lucrative job in which it was in their best interests to be as thorough and officious as possible. The convenience of the tourists was irrelevant.
All the passengers came to the saloon and made their declarations one after another, after which they swore in the usual form that they had told the truth, and signed a paper to that effect. This done, many a poor pilgrim innocently imagines that he has finished with the Custom House, and he renders thanks to Heaven that he is going to set foot on a soil where a man’s word is not doubted. He reckons without his host. In spite of his declaration, sworn and signed, his trunks are opened and searched with all the dogged zeal of a policeman who believes he is on the track of a criminal, and who will only give up after perfectly convincing himself that the trunks do not contain the slightest dutiable article. Everything is taken out and examined. If there are any objects of apparel that appear like new ones to that scrutinizing eye, look out for squalls.
Later in his travels, O’Rell had another run-in with customers officials, crossing back into the US after a tour around Canada. He was in the unenviable position of being the only passenger in the parlour car of a train crossing back into the States, so the official, ‘a surly-looking, ill-mannered creature’, had only one traveller to persecute, and he ‘meant business’. He proceeded to open O’Rell’s cases and distribute the contents across the dirty floor.
“Have these shirts all been worn?”
“Well, I guess they have. But how is it that you, an official of the government, seem to ignore the law of your own country? Don’t you know that if all these articles are for my own private use, they are not dutiable, whether new or not?”
The man did not answer. He took out more linen, which he put on the floor, and spreading open a pair of unmentionables, he asked again:
“Have you worn this? It looks quite new.” I nodded affirmatively. He then took out a pair of socks.
“Have you worn these?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Have a sniff at them.”
He continued his examination, and was about to throw my evening suit on the floor. I had up to now been almost amused at the proceedings, but I felt my good-humor was going, and the lion began to wag its tail. I took the man by the arm, and looking at him sternly, I said:
“Now, you put this carefully on the top of some other clothes.”
He looked at me and complied. By this time all the contents of my large trunk were spread on the floor. He got up on his feet and said:
“Have I looked everywhere?”
“No” I said, “you haven’t. Do you know how the famous Regent diamond, worn by the last kings of France on their crowns, was smuggled into French territory?” The creature looked at me with an air of impudence.
“No, I don’t,” he replied.
I explained to him, and added: “You have not looked there.”
The lion, that lies dormant at the bottom of the quietest man, was fairly roused in me, and on the least provocation, I would have given this man a first-class hiding. He went away, wondering whether I had insulted him or not, and left me in the van to repack my trunk as best I could, an operation which, I understand, it was his duty to perform himself.
Part 2 will follow in a few days. In the meantime, don’t forget to check back regularly for the ongoing series of ‘snippets’.