Journals 10.2 – Loiterings in Europe by John Corson (Part 2)

This is the second part of my article on Corson’s journal.  For the first part please see the entry posted on 4th January 2016.

The Château de Chenonceau, as pictured in 1851

The Château de Chenonceau, as pictured in 1851

Travelling around France involved the use of a ‘diligence’, a sturdy design of stagecoach, designed to carry about 15 or 16 people in varying degrees of comfort. The first class, so to speak, were three travellers who sat at the front under a projecting roof. The inside of the coach seated half a dozen people in comfort, and then the cattle class of the day were the six or seven people who were crammed onto the roof space along with the luggage.

A diligence is a remarkable species of the genus vehicle… Somewhere in the romantic region of toy-books, you may possibly have faint childish recollections of the picture of the traveling house of a great man set upon wheels. The French, in their refinement, have improved upon the idea, and divided the said building into apartments. It does not admit of seditious assemblages; and, while it leaves you to choose your rank, it goes upon the aristocratic and poetic principle, that

“Some are and must be greater than the rest.”

Arriving in Paris, Corson observed the ‘easy cheerfulness’ of the residents, which he compared favourably with the ‘pride’ and ‘melancholy’ of the British and the ‘money-fever’ of his own compatriots. He was impressed by the ‘exquisite taste’ and ‘delicate sense of the beautiful’ on display, particularly in the shop windows, which showed ‘artistic talent’ and ‘attention to perspective’. However, despite his determination to remain positive about everything, he could not help but complain a little about the narrow ‘badly paved and drained’ streets, and lack of ‘fresh air’. In other words, Paris was smelly. A feast for the eyes, but not for the nose. On a happier note, Corson was lucky enough to be in Paris for La Fête des Rois, a celebration of Epiphany (the three kings visiting baby Jesus). This was a time for public celebration.

In that part of the Champs Elysees nearest the river, in the open spots among the trees, there are several airy structures for pictorial exhibitions, cafes, and various diversions. This was the great centre of the excitement for most of the time. Here was erected a temporary theatre, and from the occasional reports of musketry within, I supposed there was some martial or tragic performance. Then there were stands for selling all kinds of refreshments and small wares, conveniences for innumerable games, flying horses, and swings suspended in air, monsters just caught, shows of various descriptions, with bands of tawdry-clad musicians, and persons in front of the tents, playing most ludicrous antics, and shouting at the top of their voices, to decoy those who passed — all forming the strangest scene imaginable.

Corson headed south to explore more of France, on the Paris-Orléans railroad. He was enjoying the beginnings of a new era of travel. The line had only been completed three years before his arrive in France, in 1843, and it was at the time the longest railway line in France, at over 70 miles. As Corson put it, he ‘flew on the wings of steam’ to ‘the sunny south’. At a village near the Château de Chenonceau, Corson was impressed with the hospitality of the local people.

Returning to the village, we strolled into the country discoursed with several of the peasantry, and visited their rustic, but comfortable dwellings to make inquiries. We were received in the most hospitable manner. One of their first questions was, whether we had eaten; and my friend, having accepted a draught of wine, which was voluntarily proffered us, the offer of remuneration was promptly refused. You find the characteristic national politeness prevailing even among the uneducated poor. Scarcely did we meet a single laborer in his blouse, who did not, as if it were a habit, give us a respectful salutation; and some of them made good-natured inquiries, as to whether we were pleased with the country, and other matters. One good old lady, apparently near eighty, whose faculties had evidently failed, and who had, probably, not seen the last edition of Malte-Brun, upon learning that we were Americans, quite innocently tried our patriotism by naively inquiring where America was situated.

The mention of the ‘last edition of Malte-Brun’ refers to the geographical work of Conrad Malte-Brun, a famous cartographer, geographer and journalist. Although he had died in 1826, his work continued to be popular after his death.

Returning to Paris, Corson visited the Hôtel des Invalides, which provided a retirement home and medical care for ex-servicemen. Founded in 1678, the complex now principally serves as a museum, but does still house facilities for around a hundred veterans. In Corson’s day, there were far more residents.

The number of inmates is at present about three thousand. It is really an interesting sight, some sunny day, to watch these veterans quietly hobbling about, or resting contentedly under the trees in the pleasure-ground, stretching down to the river, or going through the duty of mounting guard at their own hotel, or attending to some of the lighter martial exercises of their youth, as cheerfully as if they were flattered with the idea that they were still soldiers. As I found by experiment, their eyes still brighten at the mention of Marengo, Jena, or Austerlitz. Some of them amuse themselves in constructing models representing the ascent of St. Bernard, and of the battles and sieges in which they have been distinguished.

This was just one of several locations that made a strong emotional impression on Corson in Paris. He also visited the Père Lachaise Cemetery, where he saw a young girl in mourning, laying a wreath on her mother’s grave…

I kept quietly at a distance, and, to avoid disturbing her, pretended to be looking another way. Who that had ever lost such a friend could withhold a tear with that lone child by a mother’s grave!

…and at the Hospital of Salpétrière, he saw the good work being done to help the mentally disabled, which nowadays might be termed ‘music therapy’.

… they seem to have realized the idea that “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” by placing at the disposal of the inmates an organ and a piano, and regularly employing a music teacher. Those in this division seemed quite cheerful and happy. Light employment was furnished them, and they spent an hour a-day in gardening. Most of them saluted our company politely. One of them, with a certain officious air and benignant smile, graciously opened the door, and the lady attendant addressed her as the queen. The poor woman really fancied herself to bear the responsibilities of royalty, as also to be the wife of the deceased Duke of Orleans. In another section were the more unmanageable. As we entered, one of the number rushed toward us, wept and sobbed piteously, said that she knew not why they had put her there, and begged of me to assist her to escape. Doubtless there was not found the least suspicion of foul play in her case; but the circumstance reminded me of a fearful incident related of one, who, under false pretenses, was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, and who, in the wildness of despair, continually exclaimed, “I am not mad,”— only to prolong his captivity.

Next on the itinerary was a trip across to England. First impressions were that is was ’emphatically the land of fogs’, although Corson was enchanted with Kent as he travelled by rail ‘through a beautiful, undulating country, whose pretty country seats, quiet cottages, and fields lined with hedges and luxuriant shrubbery seemed floating by us like a passing vision of some terrestrial paradise.’ However, it was not long before he was ‘plunged into the smoke and din of busy, interminable London.’ This was only to be a relatively short stay, and Corson planned to return later on his tour.

The fatigue of a previous journey, and daily occupation in the discharge of the pleasing commission of my excellent friends, prevented me from doing justice to the sights in London; and leaving them, and my heavier baggage as probable subjects of future attentions, at the end of a fortnight I was flying off at a tangent for the Continent, through the beautiful scenery, and the miles of dark tunnels, of the Southeastern railway. The average rate of speed of the cars in England is perhaps greater than any where else, and whirling through the air at forty or fifty miles an hour is very apt to give the nervous some of the ticklish sensations of the celebrated John Gilpin.

John Gilpin was the subject of a comic poem by William Cowper, The Diverting History of John Gilpin (1782). The poem (which is still worth seeking out and reading) tells the tale of a draper who has never been on holiday with his wife, although they have been married for ten years. He hires a horse and cart and attempts to ride the horse himself, but he is unable to control the horse, who gallops all the way to his owner’s house with the helpless Gilpin on his back.

The third part of this article, in which Corson makes a dangerous excursion into the Alps, will follow next Monday.  In the meantime, there will be another “snippet” to enjoy.  You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the “follow” button on the right of the screen.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, England, History, Journals, London, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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