Banks Of The Seine – Part 2

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Le Sage, the author of Gil Blas, lived on the Quai de l’Horloge, hard by the Palais de Justice. Le Sage is an important person in the history of European literature. He stayed for a time at the French Embassy in Madrid and was well acquainted with Spanish romances which he used as the basis of his own writing. Gil Blas belongs to the same order of novel as Don Quixote, and with his picaresque and peripatetic novel-to use Major Hume’s phrase-Le Sage had a strong influence on English writers. He, with Cervantes, was Fielding’s master, and there is a direct connection between Gil Blas and Tom )’ones. Le Sage was the most important French writer in the period between the great writers of the seventeenth century and the philosophers of the eighteenth. He was a retiring, independent man of letters, caring nothing for the patronage of the great. He was once invited to read one of his plays at the house of a duchess. He arrived late, and the duchess was rude, and Le Sage at once put his manuscript in his pocket and went home. The Theatre Francais refused his dramas, so he wrote scores of pieces for the Theatre de la Foire, the booth playhouses that went from fair to fair. But though he wrote assiduously for the theatre, Le Sage can have had no great love for it, for when one of his sons went on the stage, his father disowned him. There was compensation, however, in the fact that another son was a Canon at Boulogne, and it was with him that the creator of Gil Blas passed the last days of his life.

Returning to the rive gauche and still going westward, one passes the Institut de France, built in 1663 as the College des Quatre Nations and endowed by Mazarin for the education of sixty poor scholars. The Bibliotheque Mazarine is still in the Institut, though most of the Cardinal’s books are in the Bibliotheque Nationale in the Rue Richelieu, which stands on the site of the palace that Mazarin built when he had become powerful and wealthy. At an earlier part of his career Mazarin lived near the Institut on the Quai Malaquais. Three times in its history has France been governed by an Italian-by the Sicilian, Giulio Mazarini, and by the Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte, and by the Genoese, Gambetta. There was none of the tremendous awesome dignity of Richelieu in the smooth Cardinal, but he must have been a man of infinite charm. ” I have never approached the Cardinal,” said Father Tixier, ” without being persuaded I was going to talk to the greatest impostor in the world, and I never left his presence without being charmed by him.” ” He played his cards so well,” said Cardinal de Retz, who hated him, ” that he had his foot on everybody’s head while everybody thought that he was still standing beside them.” Mazarin died in 1661, leaving an enormous fortune. Towards the end of his life ” the councils were held in his chamber while he was being shaved or dressed, and often he would play with his bird or his pet monkey while people were talking business to him.”

In 1793 the College was used for the meetings of the Committee of Public Safety which, with Danton as its leader, saved the young Republic. Generals with royalist sympathies had turned traitor, nine nations were allied together for the destruction of the Revolution, there was civil war in the provinces and incompetence and indecision in Paris when this Committee of six determined men with a leader of magnificent courage and patriotic zeal came into being to organise the nation for its defence and to extirpate its enemies. There is something fine in the decree, ” All France and whatsoever it contains of men or resources is to be under requisition.”

Napoleon created the Institut de France in 1806, making it the home of the five academies-the Academic Francaise, the famous society of forty literary immortals ; the Academie des Sciences; the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres ; the Academic des Beaux Arts and the Academie des Sciences Morales et Politiques. Many of the immortals who have worn the famous green uniform since the Academie Francaise was founded by Richelieu in 1635, have been very mortal and are now hardly names, while many of the greatest French writers whose immortality is assured were never among the immortels. Le Sage, Rousseau, Beaumarchais, Diderot, Stendhal, Balzac, Gautier, Flaubert, Zola, Daudet, de Goncourt, de Maupassant, were all rejected, though some of them tried hard for election, and Victor Hugo was ten years a candidate before he was elected. The Academie has always been conservative in its sympathies, and when it elected M. Clemenceau, the old man’s instinctive Radicalism revolted. He was, so the story runs, sitting in his room in the Ministere de la Guerre when M. Paul Cambon came to announce his election. ” F’ai l’honneur, M. le President du Conseil, a vous annoncer qzee vous etes elu a l’Academie Francaise.” The old man looked up and growled, ” C’est ridicule.” ” Mais M. le .President du Conseil,” protested the diplomat, ” maintenant vous etes parmi les immortels.” To which the comment was, ” C’est grotesque.”

Near the Quai de Conti, Athos, musketeer and preux chevalier, lived, at a ” respectable inn ” called Au Grand Roi Charlemagne. Fouche, Napoleon’s Minister of Police, lived on the Quai Malaquais, originally known as the Quai de la Reine Marguerite, and then Quai Mal Acquis, because Marguerite of Valois stole a large part of the Petit Preaux-Clercs on which to build her mansion. Fouche is a typical figure of the Revolution. The precocious, sickly son of a sailor, he began life as a schoolmaster and met Robespierre while he was still a lawyer at Arras. He made his first entry on the revolutionary stage when he was elected to the National Convention in 1792, and he soon became conspicuous for his atheistic zeal. Fouche was a great phrase-maker. Over the gates of cemeteries he wrote, ” Death is an eternal sleep,” and on returning to Paris after an orgy of guillotining in Lyons, he declared : ” The blood of criminals fertilises the soil of liberty.” He was skilful enough to avoid sharing the fate of Robespierre, and when the Terror came to an end and during the Directory, after having made a fortune as a dishonest army contractor, he began his career as Police Minister which he continued under Napoleon as Consul and Emperor, and after the Restoration, under Louis XVIII. Fouche was a cunning fellow, a political Vicar of Bray, ” a coarser Talleyrand.” He was a master plotter, a most efficient bureaucrat, incapable of loyalty, and yet, like Talleyrand, he showed over and over again that he cared at least a little for his country, and he was bold enough to oppose Napoleon on many occasions. He died at Trieste, the Duke of Otranto and a very rich man.

It is said, by the way, and the story is curious, that it was the Duke of Wellington who persuaded Louis XVIII. to send Fouche back to his old post at the Prefecture de Police. The qualities of the old Jacobin could hardly have commended him to the Iron Duke.

Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, mistress of Charles II. and ancestress of the Duke of Richmond, died in a house on the Quai Voltaire. According to Saint Simon, her family plotted to secure for her the favours of Louis XIV., but the plot failed and she came to England in 1670 with Charles’s sister, Henriette, Duchess of Orleans, apparently with instructions to capture the susceptible English King. She was the French agent in the negotiations that bound England to Louis XIV. She was indeed a very astute lady whose rapacity was remarkable even among royal mistresses. Evelyn writes in his diary in November 1670 : ” I now also saw that famous beauty, but in my opinion of a childish simple and baby face Mademoiselle Keroualle, lately Maid of Honour to Madame, and now to be so to the Queen.” But there was nothing very childish or simple about Louise, and at a later date Evelyn expresses his horror of her extravagance :

” Following His Majesty this morning through the gallery I went with the few who attended him, into the Duchess of Portsmouth’s dressing-room within her bed chamber, where she was in her morning loose garment, her maids combing her, newly out of her bed, his Majesty and the gallants standing about her ; but that which engaged my curiosity was the rich and splendid furniture of this woman’s apartment, now twice or thrice pulled down and rebuilt to satisfy her prodigal and expensive pleasures, whilst her Majesty’s does not exceed some gentlemen’s ladies in furniture and accommodation. Here I saw the new fabric of French tapestry, for design, tenderness of work, and incomparable imitation of the best paintings, beyond anything I had ever beheld. Some pieces had Versailles, St. Germain, and other palaces of the French King, with huntings, figures, and landscapes, exotic fowls, and all to the life rarely done. Then for Japan cabinets, screens, pendule clocks, great vases of wrought plate, tables, stands, chimney-furniture, sconces, branches, braseras, etc., all of massy silver and out of number, besides some of her Majesty’s best paintings.

” Surfeiting of this I dined at Sir Stephen Fox’s and went contented home to my poor, but quiet villa. What contentment can there be in the riches and splendour of this world, purchased with vice and dishonour ? ”

It is with Voltaire himself that the Quai that bears his name is most closely associated, for he died there in 1778 at the age of eighty-six. He reached Paris after a long exile of twenty-eight years on February 5, and was received with the homage of the Court, society and the world of letters. Carlyle says of his welcome home :

” With face shrivelled to nothing ; with huge peruke a la Louis Quatorze, which leaves only two eyes visible, glittering like carbuncles, the old man is here. What an outburst ! Sneering Paris has suddenly grown reverent ; devotional with Hero-worship. Nobles have disguised themselves as tavern-waiters to obtain sight of him : the loveliest of France would lay their hair beneath his feet. ` His chariot is the nucleus of a Comet ; whose train fills the whole streets ‘ : they crown him in the theatre, with immortal vivats ; finally ` stifle him under roses,’-for old Richelieu recommended opium in such state of the nerves, and the excessive Patriarch took too much.”

In March he attended a performance of his play Irene and was crowned with laurel in his box, and he died on the 30th of May. The legends concerning his death are all entirely apocryphal. The facts are that he was too ill to listen to the priests who came to his sick-room and that he died without being shriven. Professor Saintsbury suggests that it is ” singular and unfortunate that he who had more than once gone out of his way to conform ostentatiously and with his tongue in his cheek should have neglected or missed this last opportunity.” In his old age Voltaire had an amazing appearance. He was so extremely thin that Arthur Young once described him as ” Satan, death, and sin.” His nose was very long and his eyes very brilliant, and he was as much addicted to coffee drinking as Dr. Johnson was to tea. Writing of Voltaire as a literary artist, Mr. A. B. Walkley has said : ” He discovered the short sentence. Ease, simplicity, lucidity, were his cardinal virtues. Never was there a lighter touch, a slyer wit, a more mordant irony. With ostensible innocence he unexpectedly stings.” Witty mockery is the note of Voltaire’s writing and in this he was the master of Anatole France. Voltaire’s body was hurriedly buried in a graveyard in Champagne, but the Revolution, recognising what it owed to the philosopher, brought it back in great state to the Pantheon in 1791.

Chateaubriand was living on the Quai Voltaire soon after the publication of his Genie du Christianisme which, by a happy accident, appeared immediately before Napoleon’s re-establishment of the Church in France. Chateaubriand may be roughly regarded as the father of the romantic movement in French literature. He stood for the revolt against the cold detachment of eighteenth-century philosophy and the brutal realism of the Revolution and the Empire. His religion was romantic. It was the beauty of ceremonial, the poetry of symbolism, the wonder of great cathedrals, that appealed to him. When the young romantics, the chief of whom were Victor Hugo and Alfred de Vigny, began to publish their verse in the Muse Francaise, Chateaubriand was their patron saint. In gratitude, he declared that Hugo, a boy poet of twenty-two, was an enfant sublime.

After the Restoration, Chateaubriand held various diplomatic positions, and was at one time or the other both Minister for the Interior and Minister for Foreign Affairs. He was as romantic as a politician as he was as a poet. He was insistent that France should fight Spain in order to restore a most pernicious tyrant, and he was equally insistent that France should fight Turkey to liberate Greece. He was indeed eager that French armies should again be triumphant in the field in order, as Mme. Duclaux has said, ” to hide out of sight the disgrace of 1814, the dismay of 1815, the degradation and inferiority that no mere riches can efface from a vanquished people.” It is easy indeed to understand the revolt of a man of his temperament against the dull, vulgar, intriguing Paris described by Dumas in Monte Cristo.

Chateaubriand lived to be eighty, but his old age was a time of discontent, disillusion and envy. He was essentially an egoist with a sterile heart, and he seems to have had little real affection for any one except for the beautiful Mme. Recamier, who tended him in his last years. Un happiness is often the lot of the literary genius. I think of Chateaubriand, disgruntled and disappointed, and then I think of Alfred de Vigny, whose poems Sir Edmund Gosse has described as unflawed amethysts and sapphires, forsaking the world when he was thirty-eight to live for another twenty-eight years in retirement, without ambition, the martyr of a pessimism that resulted from the discovery of the faithlessness of his mistress !

The joy of the Quais of the rive gauche, particularly on a sunny day, is the famous bookstalls where collectors search for bargains and rarely find them. In his memoirs, Alexandre Dumas pere has the following description of a Seine-side bibliomaniac :

” Bibliomaniac, evolved from book and mania, is a variety of the species man-species bipes et genus homo. This animal has two feet and is without features, and usually wanders about the quais and boulevards, stopping in front of every stall and fingering all the books. He is generally dressed in a coat which is too long and trousers which are too short, his shoes are always down at heel, and on his head is an illshapen hat. One of the signs by which he may be recognised is shown by the fact that he never washes his hands.”

The longest of the Quais on the south side is the Quai d’Orsay and its most famous building is the Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres. There, during the Paris Conference, the Foreign Minister received the Press correspondents in his room hung with Gobelin tapestry, regularly to fence with questions put to him, generally in execrable French, and there in the Salle de 1’Horloge were held the two public meetings of the Conference which the Press demanded and at which nothing happened except set speeches from President Wilson, Mr. Lloyd George and M. Clemenceau. I have a lively recollection of the angry protests from Mr. Hughes, the Australian Prime Minister, when Clemenceau declared that the sitting was over before he had had the opportunity of delivering an important pronouncement which he had carefully prepared.

Infinitely more interesting than the Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres is the Hotel des Invalides, where in its magnificent tomb lies the body of the great Emperor. ” Fe desire,” he wrote in his will, ” que mes cendres reposent sur les bords de la Seine au milieu de ce peuple que j’ai tant aime.” Napoleon at St. Helena is the most pathetic figure in history, and the petty persecution to which he was subjected is one of the most shameful incidents in the history of England. The great prisoner never lost his dignity in his misfortune. He found, indeed, a greatness entirely different to the restless egoism that had characterised the days of prosperity. In St. Helena, as Mr. Philip Guedalla has suggested, Bonaparte invented Bonapartism, and he was its first martyr. Las Cases records his rather highflown statement :

” We remain the martyrs of an immortal cause : millions of men weep for us, the fatherland sighs, and Glory is in mourning. We struggle here against the oppression of the gods, and the longings of the nations are for us. . . . Adversity was wanting to my career. If I had died on the throne amidst the clouds of my omnipotence, I should have remained a problem for many men : today, thanks to misfortune, they can judge of me naked as I am.”

France soon grew weary of the Bourbons. The romantic poets were plus royalistes que le roi in so far as they yearned for glory and splendour and resented middle-class drabness, and they had an immense influence on their age. Napoleon died in 1821, and his death stimulated the Bonapartist cult. Mr. Guedalla says that Louis-Philippe, fearing the new spirit and in the endeavour to bolster up his dynasty, became the most enthusiastic Bonapartist in France. The Arc de Triomphe was completed, the figure of Napoleon was once more set on its pillar in the Place Vendome, and in 1840 a frigate commanded by the King’s son went to St. Helena to fetch back the ashes of the Emperor. There is, however, another story. It is said that O’Connell told Palrnerston that he intended to suggest the restoration of Napoleon’s remains to France in the House of Commons. Palmerston pointed out that such action might seriously inconvenience the existing French Government. But O’Connell cared nothing for the convenience of Louis Philippe. Whereupon Palmerston hinted to the French Ambassador that the King had better ask the English Government for the remains and gain the credit for what might appear an act of magnanimity. Thackeray has written a description of Napoleon’s return, of which he was an eye-witness, and I agree with Mr. E. V. Lucas in detesting its unsympathetic flippancy. The body was brought up the Seine to Courbevoie from whence it was carried by road to Paris, through the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs Elysees, across the Place de la Concorde to the Invalides. That was on December 15, 1840, a bitterly cold day with the temperature eight degrees below freezingpoint, and yet there were, it is estimated, a million people in the streets keeping themselves as warm as they could with hand-warmers and foot-stoves and other devices, and chanting a song to the Premier Capitaine du Monde, one verse of which ran :

Du Nil au bord de la Tamise

Devant lui l’ennemi fuyait ;

Avant de combattre il tremblait :

Voyons sa redingote grise.

The coffin was received at the Invalides by the King, who stood with a little group of Napoleon’s Marshals. A requiem was sung, and for days the body lay in state guarded by veterans of the Imperial Army. Duroc and Bertrand, two of the most faithful of the Emperor’s servants lie now on either side of the entrance to the tomb, and near by are the bodies of Joseph and Jerome, the elder a man of capacity, over-tried by conditions, the younger a man who, from youth to extreme old age, rightly earned the contempt of all his acquaintance, a contempt which his great brother most certainly shared.

Close by the Invalides is the Ecole Militaire to which Napoleon came in 1784, receiving his commission as junior lieutenant in a regiment of artillery a year later when he was sixteen.

The Champ de Mars may well bring the Seine -side wander to an end. Beyond it and until the city boundaries are passed is little of interest or adventure. It was on the Champ de Mars in 1790 that the great autel de la patrie was set up, patriots shovelling and digging in preparation for the fete de la Federation, a great crowd gathered from all parts of France to celebrate the beginning of the new regime of liberty. The King, not a little bewildered, was there; Lafayette, on a white horse, still a popular hero, but soon to pass from the scene, was one of the central figures. Talleyrand was there in cope and mitre, wearing a tricolour belt, to say his last mass, three hundred thousand people watching, while the pitiless rain pelted down upon them. Sainte-Beuve relates that the Bishop, as he still was, whispered mocking words to Lafayette as he mounted the altar steps.

A few months later crowds were again on the Champ de Mars at a national funeral service for the patriots killed at Nancy, forty thousand Parisians marching from St. Antoine, the presage of what was to happen in the next two years. A year passed, and again a great assembly came together to sign the petition, drawn up by Danton, which lay on the Fatherland’s altar, praying for the deposition of the King, to be dispersed towards the evening with some loss of life, not, as Carlyle says, to be forgotten or forgiven. Mme. de Stael was present on the Champ de Mars at the second fete of the Federation when Louis was compelled to swear the national oath, wearing a quilted cuirass under his waistcoat lest some patriot should become too enthusiastic.

And the last of the revolutionary scenes on the Champ de Mars, and the finest ! Verdun was lost, the Fatherland was in danger. All France was to be mobilised, and Paris hurried to the Champ de Mars to have itself enrolled ” unarmed and undrilled, but desperate in the strength of frenzy.” It was on that same day that Danton, in the greatest moment of his life, entered the Legislative, and referring to the enemies of the Republic, made his immortal challenge, ” To conquer them to hold them back what do we require ? Il nous faut de l’audace, et encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace.”

Since the Revolution the Champ de Mars has become the home of one international exhibition after the other, and has been disfigured by the Tour Eiffel. It is comfort ing that the invention of wireless telegraphy has provided some excuse for the existence of its monstrous ugliness.

So the Seine flows on through the city with perhaps more history stored on its banks than on the banks of any other river in the world.