Paris Sites And Travel: The Luxembourg

The Luxembourg is almost at the center of what is to me the most interesting of all the Paris quartiers. Here, with the Boulevard St. Michel its main thoroughfare, is the Quartier Latin of Henri Murger and romance. The famous Bal Bullier is not far away. Every street has its suggestion of the light-hear-ted student as well as of the achievements of the poet and the painter. But there is little of the Henri Murger glamour in the Quartier Latin nowadays. Bohemia crossed the river long ago to the hill of Montmartre, though a province of it, rather mannered and unattractive, may be found higher up the hill on the south side of the river, at Montparnasse and Montrouge, where, however, a great many of the quaintly garbed youths are the revolting sons and daughters of the Puritan Republic of the West whose zeal for personal freedom is more obvious than their knowledge of the language of France.

The Musee du Luxembourg is the home of modern art, and the adjoining Palais du Luxembourg is the meeting place of the Senators of the Third Republic, for the most part elderly and substantial gentlemen, whose habit it is to lunch admirably at the famous Restaurant Foyot that stands at the corner of the Rue de Tournon on the site of an ancient hotel where, in more picturesque times, kings and princes of France used to sup discreetly with more or less undesirable acquaintances.

The Luxembourg was built by Marie de Medicis during her brief period of power after the death of Henri IV., and one small part of the original building remains ; indeed this remnant may be part of an older hotel belonging to the Duc de Luxembourg from whom Marie de Medicis bought the site. Marie bequeathed the palace to her second son, Gaston d’Orleans, and until the Revolution it was generally the residence of Monsieur, the King’s eldest brother.

At the Revolution the Luxembourg became a prison, and it is sometimes related, with attractive inaccuracy, that when Josephine de Beauharnais took up her residence in the Palace after Napoleon had been proclaimed First Consul, she was returning to the prison that she had left five years before. But it was actually in the adjacent Carmelite monastery that de Beauharnais, with his wife and Hoche and a multitude of others, were imprisoned by the Terrorists. De Beauharnais was a handsome aristocrat and a prominent figure in the early days of the Revolution. It was he who was chosen to interrogate Louis XVI. after the futile flight to Varennes. Afterwards he fought with some distinction in the revolutionary armies, not forgetting to record his own prowess in his dispatches. He took his part in 1790 in the strange scene on the Champ de Mars, when soldiers and politicians and patriots all worked with pick and shovel to build the autel de la Patrie. But for all his shovelling and fighting de Beauharnais remained an aristocrat, and to prison he went and thence, after three months, to the guillotine. He seems to have borne himself with dignity and courage, but Josephine was no stoic. Her months in prison were months of trembling and tears, with hours spent in the endeavour to discover her fortune from the cards, and now and again, so scandal says, with episodes of love-making. Josephine had friends among the Terrorists and her charm and beauty were sufficient to conquer even their hearts. A fortnight after her husband’s execution she was at liberty again to face an interval of grinding poverty before, thanks to Madame Tallien, she attracted the fancy of Barras.

It was at the Luxembourg that Napoleon was received by the Directoire Government when he returned to Paris after the campaign in Italy. A temporary ” altar of the country,” surrounded by the statues of Liberty, Equality and Peace, was set up with a huge grand stand for the accommodation of the patriotic sightseers. Napoleon was embraced by Barras and eulogised by Talleyrand, and he replied in a flowery speech in which he declared : ” You have effected the organisation of the great nation the territory of which is only circumscribed because nature itself has fixed its limits.” But Napoleon was not yet the idol of the people and Paris was more curious than enthusiastic. Moreover, the occasion was marred by the falling of one of the Directoire clerks from the top of the stand during the patriotic orations.

After the reception Napoleon went to live quietly, awaiting his time, in a house in the recently renamed Rue de la Victoire, a street parallel with the Rue La Fayette, at the top of which most travellers from England make their entrance into Paris, and which is incidentally one of the longest, and one of the dullest, streets in Europe. With the three million francs collected during the Italian campaign, Napoleon was no longer the poverty-stricken unemployed soldier who, two years before, had waited in Barras’s anteroom, but in the Rue de la Victoire, thanks to the spying and whispering of his family, he had the first furious and not unreasonable jealous quarrels with his wife.

It was to the Luxembourg again that Napoleon went as First Consul, occupying a suite of rooms on the ground floor to the right of the entrance from the Rue de Vaugirard. This was the beginning of one of the most interesting episodes in the most bewildering of all careers. Napoleon knew nothing about the business of government. He knew very little of the quality of the men from whom he had to select his ministers and administrators. If Bourrienne, his scheming secretary, is to be believed-and he rarely is-Napoleon was at this time genuinely anxious for peace, and particularly for peace with England, but the Courts of Europe would have no dealings with the upstart from Corsica, and it was not until after the victory at Marengo that the Peace of Amiens became a possibility. If the British Government had been wiser in 1799 it might have saved Europe from sixteen years of war, and the history of Europe would certainly have been vastly different.

During the first months at the Luxembourg, Napoleon learned to appreciate the great qualities of Talleyrand, the cynic who was always a patriot, the politician who was always changing his coat, and at the same time always contriving to serve his country. No man knew Napoleon better than Talleyrand. No man had a truer appreciation of his qualities and his deficiencies, and whatever else may be said of him he remained faithful to his master until it was quite certain that he could no longer be faithful to him if he remained faithful to France.

In the Luxembourg Murat was privately married to Caroline Bonaparte. The marriage took place at a time when Napoleon was almost penniless, and he gave his sister as a wedding present a pearl necklace belonging to his wife. In view of the relations existing between Josephine and her sister-in-law, this did not add to his domestic bliss.

The Court of the Consulate, for four months at the Luxembourg and afterwards at the Tuileries, was a very different thing to the Court of the Directoire. Napoleon insisted on order and decency and dignity, and Josephine with her lovely voice and exquisite grace, which made men forget that her teeth were bad and that she was not strictly beautiful, accepted the new conditions and played her new part with complete success.

After the establishment of the Empire the Luxembourg began its period of respectable dullness. It housed the Imperial Senate, afterwards renamed the Chamber of Peers, to become during the Second Empire the Imperial Senate again, and now the Senate of the Republic. As I think of these years I recall the great scene which Dumas has imagined, when the beautiful Greek Haydee denounced the rascality of Fernand Mondego, who was unanimously condemned by his colleagues.

The Musee du Luxembourg might well be called the Palais de Rodin. It contains his Pensde, his Fohn the Baptist, and the heads of Hugo and Rochefort, George Wyndham and Bernard Shaw, with the great Age of Bronze. It has been finely said of Rodin’s work: ” Tnese are no graveyard figures, but living men, moving and breathing in the air that surrounds them.” ” Everything,” he himself once said, ” is contained in nature, and when the artist follows nature, he gets everything.”

Rodin had the habit of living and working in historic houses. For some time he had a studio on the Boulevard Auguste Blaniqui, on the hills at the south of the city, in an eighteenth-century house that had once been used by Napoleon as a hunting-lodge, and was afterwards a hospital laundry. From there he went to the Boulevard des Invalides, to a house which had been the Paris home of the Ducs de Biron, who in their time played many parts in the history of France. One Duc commanded the Royalist forces at the siege of Rochelle. Another was concerned with the intrigues of the League and the wars of religion, finally to be convicted of high treason and beheaded in the Bastille during the reign of Henri IV. A third fought with Lafayette in the American War of Independence and afterwards did notable service with the French armies in Europe. He received the usual reward of the aristocrat soldier and was guillotined in 1793,

I return to the Luxembourg if only to pay tribute to the joy of the gardens, which remain much as they were laid out when the palace was built, and which, on Sunday afternoons, show bourgeois Paris at its very best-corpulent fathers of families vigorously playing games with their offspring and manufacturing their own rules.

Nowhere do the streets of Paris give the opportunity for meeting so noble a company of ghosts as here between the Seine and. the Boulevard du Montparnasse, with the Boulevard St. NTichel on the east and the Rue des Saints Peres and the Rue de Sevres on the west. In the Rue de Tournon Balzac set up the printing press which ruined him. Near by, in the Rue Visconti, lived Gambetta, Daudet and, long before, St. Francis de Sales, held in high veneration by me, since he is the patron saint of my craft. It was in 1618 that St. Francis paid his third visit to Paris where he had spent many years of his youth and where he was already regarded as a saint. His constant companion was St. Vincent de Paul, that priest of many good deeds, chosen by Louis XIII. as Royal Almoner of the Galleys, who was a Royal Almoner indeed. And among his penitents was the famous Mere Angelique Arnaud. Few saints have ever been more honoured in their lifetime than St. Francis de Sales, who has been officially described in a Vatican pronouncement-and this is perhaps why he was selected as the patron-saint of journalists-as being ” all things to all men.” It is pleasant to remember that the quartier, not famous for its saintliness, once harboured so notable a saint.

Balzac lived in the Rue de Tournon from 1827 to 1830. His whole life was one furious struggle to pay his debts, and his printing business landed him with liabilities which were a drag on him until he died. There is a particularly delightful story of Balzac in the de Goncourt Fournal. The Marquis of Hertford, who spent most of his life in Paris and whose son, Sir Richard Wallace, bequeathed the Wallace collection to London, was extremely anxious to meet Balzac. He was told that the novelist was difficult and shy. But Hertford was a millionaire and not easily discouraged, and eventually an interview was arranged. Balzac, however, did not keep the appointment, and it was explained to Hertford that he was threatened with imprisonment for debt, and that he dare only go out in the evenings, since arrest was illegal after dark. ” How much does he owe ? ” asked Hertford. ” A large sum,” was the reply, ” perhaps forty thousand francs, perhaps fifty thousand francs, perhaps more.” ” Well, tell him to come here and I will pay his debts.”

Balzac worked prodigiously hard and lived frugally, but still he never had any money, and one of his intimates has explained why. ” He embarked on the most harum scarum speculations without the slightest particular knowledge ; as for instance when he drew the plans for his country house and insisted on the builder carrying them out in every respect while he was away. When the place was finished there was not a single staircase. Of course they had to put them outside, and he maintained that it was part of the original plan.”

George Sand, who at one time lived in the Rue d’Assas and towards the end of her life in the Rue Racine, admired Balzac, but found him too outspoken for her taste. ” You are a lewd fellow,” she said to him once. ” You are a beast,” was the rejoinder, to which she replied, ” I am well aware of it.” The de Goncourts have a striking picture of George Sand as an old woman when they visited her in the Rue Racine in 1862 :

” Mme. Sand looks like an automaton. She talks in a monotonous and mechanical voice, which neither rises nor falls and never gets animated. Her attitude has something of the gravity, the placidity, the somnolence of a ruminant. Her movements are slow, very slow, almost like a somnambulist’s, and they always lead to the same thing-always with the same methodical actions-to the lighting of a wax match and to a cigarette at her mouth.

” Mme. Sand has been very kind to us, and has praised us a good deal, but with a childishness of ideas, a flatness of expression, and a sombre good-nature which have made us feel as chilly as if we were in an unfurnished room.”

To return to the Rue de Tournon. It was in 1917 that Mr. Charles Whibley introduced me to what was its then most notable inhabitant, M. Tussieu, the barber whose proud boast it was that he had cut the hair of Hugo, Daudet and half the great French writers and painters of the last fifty years. Outside the shop was the inscription :

Ici Monsieur Tussieu barbier

Rase le Senat,

Accommode la Sorbonne,

Frise 1’Academie.

During the War M. Tussieu added :

Bulgares de malheur

Turques, Austro-Hongrois, Boches,

Ne comptez sur Tussieu

Pour tondre vos caboches.

I particularly remember the morning when I met M. Tussieu, for afterwards Mr. Whibley and I went to the Taverne du Pantheon for an aperitif, and there we gossiped with an elderly French bourgeois who-as all Frenchmen did during the War and as most Frenchmen do nowhotly denounced the politicians of his country, adding how much luckier we were to possess politicians who were both capable and honest. When the caustic author of Blackwood’s Musings without Method assured him that the English politicians were even worse than the French variety, it was with the greatest difficulty that we prevented our French acquaintance from embracing us both.