Paris – The Grands Boulevards – The Madeleine To The Opera

THE Madeleine has had a curious history. The great Napoleon built it, on the site of a small eighteenth-century church, as a Temple of Glory, a gift to his soldiers, where every year on the anniversaries of Austerlitz and Jena a concert was to be held, odes read, and orations delivered on the duties and privileges of the warrior, any mention of the Emperor’s own name being expressly forbidden. That was in 1806. The building was still in progress when 1815 came, with an-other and more momentous battle in it, and Napoleon and his proposal disappeared. The building of the Temple of Glory was continued as a church, and a church it still is ; and the memory of Jena and Austerlitz is kept alive in Paris by other means (they have, for example, each a bridge), no official orations are delivered on the soldier’s calling, no official odes recited. It was a noble idea of the Emperor’s, and however perfunctorily carried out could not have left one with a less satisfied feeling than some of the present ceremonials in the Madeleine, which has become the most fashionable Paris church. Napoleon, however, is not wholly forgotten, for in the apse, I understand, is a fresco representing Christ reviewing the chief champions of Christianity and felicitating with them upon their services, the great Emperor being by no means absent. Herr Baedeker says that the fresco is there, but I have not succeeded in seeing it, for the church is lit only by three small cupolas and is dark with religious dusk.

Within, the Madeleine is a surprise, for it does not conform to its fine outward design. One expects a classic severity and simplicity, and instead it is paint and Italianate curves. The wisest course for the visitor is to avoid the steps and the importunate mendicants at the railings, and slip in by the little portal on the west side where the discreet closed carriages wait.

Louis XVIII., with his passion — a very natural one — to obliterate Napoleon and the revolutionaries and resume monarchical continuity, wished to complete the Madeleine as a monument to Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette; but he did not persevere with the idea. He built instead, on the site of the old cemetery of the Madeleine, where Louis XVI. and the Queen had been buried, the Chapelle Expiatoire. It is their memory only which is preserved here, for, after Waterloo, their bones were carried to St. Denis, where the other French kings lie. Their statues, however, are enshrined in the building (which is just off the Boulevard Haussmann, isolated solemnly and impressively among chestnut trees and playing children), the king being solaced by an angel who remarks to him in the words used by Father Edgeworth on the scaffold, “Fils de St. Louis, montez le ciel !” and the queen by religion, personified by her sister-in-law, Madame Elizabeth. The door-keeper, who conducted me as guide, was in raptures over Louis XVI.’s lace and the circumstance that he was hewn from a single block of marble. I liked his enthusiasm: these unfortunate monarchs deserve the utmost that sculptor and door-keeper can give them.

Paris has changed its mind more completely and frequently than any city in the world — and no illustration of that foible is better than this before us. Consider the sequence: first the king; then the prisoner; then the execution — the body and head being carried to the nearest cemetery, the Madeleine, where the guillotine’s victims were naturally flung, and carelessly buried. Ten months later the queen’s body and head follow. (It is said that the records of the Madeleine contain an entry by a sexton, which runs in English, “Paid seven francs for a coffin for the Widow Capet.”) That was in 1793. Not until 1815 do they find sepulture befitting them, and then this chapel rises in their honour and they become saints.

Among other bodies buried here was that of Charlotte Corday. Also the Swiss Guards, whom we saw meeting death at the Tuileries. A strange place, and to-day, in a Paris that cares nothing for Capets, a perfect example of what might paradoxically be called well-kept neglect.

To me the Madeleine has always a spurious air : nothing in it seems quite true. Externally, its Roman proportions carry no hint of the Christian religion ; within, there is a noticeable lack of reverence. Every-one walks about, and the Suisses are of the world peculiarly and offensively worldly. Standing before the altar with its representation of the Magdalen, who gives the church its name, being carried to Heaven, it is difficult to realise that only thirty-eight years ago this very spot was running red with the blood of massacred Communards.

I remember the Madeleine most naturally as I saw it once at Mi-Carème, from an upper window at Durand’s, after lunch. It was a dull day and the Madeleine frowned on the human sea beneath it; for the Place before it and the Rue Royale were black with people. The portico is always impressive, but I had never before had so much time or such excellent opportunity to study it and its relief of the Last Judgment, an improbable contingency to which few of us were giving much thought just then. Not only were the steps crowded, but two men had climbed to the green roof and were sitting on the very apex of the building.

The Mi-Carème carnival in Paris, I may say at once, is not worth crossing the Channel for. It is tawdry and stupid; the life of the city is dislocated; the Grands Boulevards are quickly some inches deep in confetti, all of which has been discharged into faces and even eyes before reaching the ground; the air is full of dust; and the places of amusement are uncomfortably crowded. The Lutetian humours of the Latin Quarter students and of Montmartre are not without interest for a short time, but they become tedious with extraordinary swiftness and certainty as the morning grows grey.

Each side of the Madeleine has its flower markets, and they share the week between them. Round and about Christmas a forest of fir-trees springs up. At the back of the Madeleine omnibuses and trams con-verge as at the Elephant.

For a walk along the Grands Boulevards this temple is the best starting-point; but I do not suggest that the whole round shall be made. By the Grands Boulevards the precisian would mean the half circle from the Madeleine to the Place de la République and thence to the Place de la Bastille ; or even the whole circle, crossing the river by the Pont Sully to the Boulevard St. Antoine, which cuts right through the Surrey side and crosses the river by the Pont de la Concorde and so comes to the Rue Royale and the Madeleine again. Those are the Grands Boulevards; but when the term is conversationally used it means nothing whatever but the stretch of broad road and pavement, of vivid kiosques and green branches, between the Madeleine and the Rue Richelieu : that is the Grands Boulevards for the flâneur and the foreigner. All the best cafés to sit at, all the prettiest women to stare at, all the most entertaining shop windows, are found between these points.

The prettiest women to stare at ! here I touch on a weakness in the life of Paris which there is no doubt the Boulevards have fostered. Staring — more than -staring, a cool cynical appraisement — is one of the privileges which the Boulevardier most prizes. I have heard it said that he carries staring to a fine art; but it is not an art at all, and certainly not fine; it is just a coarse and disgusting liberty. It is nothing to him that the object of his interest is accompanied by a man; his code ignores that detail; he is out to see and to make an impression and nothing will stop him. One must not, however, let this ugly practice offend one’s sensibility too much. Foreigners need not necessarily do as the Romans do, but it is not their right to be too critical of Rome ; and liberty is the very air of the Boulevards. Live and let live. If one is going to be annoyed by Paris, one had better stay at home.

The Grands Boulevards might be called the show-rooms of Paris : it is here that one sees the Parisians. In London one may live for years and never see a Londoner; not because Londoners do not exist, but because London has no show-rooms for their display. There is no Boulevard in London; the only streets that have a pavement capable of accommodating both spectators and a real procession of types are deserted, such as Portland Place and Kingsway. The English, who conquer and administer the world, dislike space; the French, a people at whose alleged want of inches we used to mock, rejoice in space. Think of the Champs-Elysées and the Bois and then think of Constitution Hill and Hyde Park, and you realise the difference,’ Take a mental drive by any of the principal Boulevards — from the Madeleine eastward to the Place de la République and back to the Madeleine again by way of the Boulevards de Magenta and Clichy and down the Boulevard Malesherbes, and then take a mental drive from Hyde Park Corner by way of Piccadilly, the Strand, Fleet Street, Cannon Street, Lombard Street, Cheapside, Holborn, Oxford Street and Park Lane to Hyde Park Corner again and you realise the difference. In wet weather in Paris it is possible to walk all day and not be splashed. Think of our most fashionable thoroughfare, just by Long’s Hotel, when it is raining — our Rue de la Paix. The only street in London of which a Frenchman would not be ashamed is the Mile End Road.

At the Taverne Olympia — just past the old houses standing back from the pavement, on the left, which are built on the wall of the old moat, when this Boulevard really was a bulwark or fortification — at the Taverne Olympia, upstairs, is one of the few billiard saloons in Paris in which exhibition games are continually in progress, and in which one can fill many amusing half-hours and perhaps win a few louis. Years ago I used to frequent the saloon in a basement under the Grand Café, a few doors east of the Olympia, but it has lost some of its prestige. The best play now is at Olympia and at Cure’s place in the Rue Vivienne. Every day of the year, for ever and ever, a billiard match is in progress. So you may say is, in the winter, the case in London at Burroughs and Watts’, or Thurston’s, but these are very different. In London the match is for a large number of points and it may last a week or a fort-night. Here there are scores of matches every afternoon and evening and the price of admission is a consommation. By virtue of one glass of coffee you may sit for hours and watch champion of France after champion of France lose and win, win and lose.

The usual game is played by three champions of France and is for ten cannons off the red. The names of the players, on cards, are first flung on the table, and the amateur of sport advances from his seat and stakes five francs on that champion of France whom he favours. Five francs is the unit. On my first visit, years ago, the champion whom I, very unsoundly but not perhaps unnaturally, supported, was one Lucas. Poor fellow, on that afternoon he did his best, but he never got home. The great Marius was too much for him. Marius in those days was a very fine player and the hero of the saloon at the Grand Café. A Southerner I should guess ; for I have seen his doubles by the score in the cafés of Avignon and Nimes. He was short and thick, with a bald head and a large sagacious nose and a saturnine smile and a heavy moustache. Winning and losing were all one to him, although it is understood that fifty centimes are contributed by each of his backers to a champion of France when he brings it off. Marius looked down his nose in the same way whatever happened. He was no Roberts ; he had none of the Caesarian masterfulness, none of the Napoleonic decision, of that king of men. The French game does not lend itself to such commanding excellence, such Alpine distinction. The cannon is all: there is none of the quiet and magical disappearance of the ball into a pocket which makes the English game so fascinating.

Such was Marius when I first saw him, and quite lately I descended to his cellar again and found him unaltered, except that he was no longer a master except very occasionally, and that he had grown more sardonic. I do not wonder at it. It may not be, in Paris, “a lonely thing to be champion,” as Cashel Byron says, but it must be a melancholy thing to be no longer the champion that you were. A home of rest for ex-champions would draw my guinea at once.

The ten or eight cannons off the red, I might add, are varied now and then. Sometimes there is a match between two players for a hundred points. Sometimes three players will see ‘which can first make eight cannons, each involving three cushions (trois bandes). This is a very interesting game to watch, although it may be a concession to decadence.

We come next to the Rue Scribe, and crossing it, are at ” Old England,” a shop where the homesick may buy such a peculiarly English delicacy as marmalade, beneath the shadow of the gigantic Grand Hotel, notable not only for its million bedrooms but for marking the position of one of the few post offices of Paris and also the only shop in the centre of the city which keeps a large and civilised stock of Havana cigars. One can live without Havana cigars, but post offices are a necessity, and in Paris they conceal themselves with great success; while, as for letter-boxes, it has been described as a city without one. To a Londoner accustomed to the frequent and vivid occurrence at street corners of our scar et obelisks, it is so. Quite recently I heard of a young Englishman, shy and incorrigibly one-languaged, who, during a week in Paris, entrusted all his correspondence to a fire alarm. But, as a matter of fact, Paris has letter-boxes in great number, only for the most part they are so concealed as to be solely for the initiated. Directly one learns that every tobacconist also sells stamps and either secretes a letter-box somewhere beneath his window, or marks the propinquity of one, life becomes simple.

Although normally one never has, in France, even in the official receptacle of one of the chief of the Bureaux des Postes, any of that confidence that one reposes in the smallest wall-box in England ; yet one must perforce overcome this distrust or use only pneumatiques. The French do not carry ordinary letters very well, but if you register them nothing can keep the postman from you. A knock like thunder crashes into your dreams, and behold he is at your bedside, alert and important, beribboned with red tape, tendering for your signature a pen dipped in an inkstand concealed about his person. Everyone who goes to France for amusement should arrange to receive one registered letter.

Its letter-boxes may be a trifle farcical, but in its facilities given to purchasers of stamps France makes England look an uncivilised country. Why it should be illegal for anyone but a postal official to supply stamps in my own land, I have never been informed, nor have any of the objections to the system ever been explained away. In France you may get your stamps anywhere — from tobacconists for certain; from waiters ‘ for certain; from the newspaper kiosques for certain; and from all tradespeople almost for certain : hence one is relieved of the tiresome delays in post offices that are incident to English life. But I am inclined to think that when it comes to the post office proper, England has the advantage. The French post office (when you have found it) is always crowded and always overheated ; and you remember what I told the men in the Mint.

To return to the Grand Hotel, I am minded to ex-press the wish that something could be done to rid its pavement of the sly leering detrimental with an umbrella who comes up to the foreigner and offers his services as a guide to the night side of Paris. Not until an English-man has killed one of these pests will this part of Paris be endurable. But from what I have observed I should say that few murders are less likely to occur. . .

And so we come to the Café de la Paix, and turning to the left, the Opera is before us. The Opera is one of the buildings of Paris that are taken for granted. We do not look at it much : we think of it as occupying the central position, adjacent to Cook’s, useful as a place of meeting; we buy a seat there occasionally, and that is all. And yet it is the largest theatre in the world (the work of that Charles Garnier whose statue is just outside), and although it is not exactly beautiful, its proportions are agreeable; it does not obtrude its size (and yet it covers three acres) ; it sits very comfortably on the ground, and an incredible amount of patient labour and thought went to its achievement, as anyone may see by walking round it and studying the ornamentation and the statuary, among which is Carpeaux’s famous lively group “La Danse.” One very pleasant characteristic of the Opera is the modesty with which it announces its performances: nothing but a minute poster in a frame, three or four times repeated, giving the information to the passer-by. Larger posters would impair its superb reserve.

The Opera has a little museum, the entrance to which is in the Rue Auber corner, by the statue of the architect (with his plan of the building traced in bronze below his bust). This museum is a model of its kind — small but very pertinent and personal in character. Here are one of Paganini’s bows and his rosin box; souvenirs of Malibran presented to her by some Venetian admirers in 1835; Berlioz’s season ticket for the Opera in 1838, and a page of one of his scores; Rossini in a marble statuette, asleep on his sofa, wearing that variety of whisker which we call a Newgate fringe; Rossini on his death-bed, drawn by L. Roux, and a page of a score and a cup and saucer used by him; a match-box of Gounod’s, a page of a score, and his marble bust; Meyerbeer on his death-bed, drawn by Mousseaux, a decoration worn by that composer, and a page of his score; two of Cherubini’s tobacco boxes and a page of his score; Danton’s clay caricature of Lizst — all hair and legs — at the piano, and a caricature of Lizst playing the piano while Lablache sings and Habeneck con-ducts; a bust of Fanny Cerrito, danseuse, in 1821 — with a mischievous pretty face — that Cerrito of whom Thomas Ingoldsby rhymed ; and a bust of Emma Livry, a danseuse of a later day, who died aged twenty-three from injuries received from fire during the répétition génerale of the “Muette de Portici” on November 15th, 186e. In a little coffer near by are the remains of the clothes the poor creature was wearing at the time. What else is there ? Many busts, among them Délibes the composer of ” Coppélia,” whose grave we shall see in the Cimetière de Montmartre : here bearded and immortal ; autograph scores by Verdi, Donizetti, Victor Massé, Auber, Spontini (whose very early piano also is here), and Hérold; a caricature by Isabey of young Vestris bounding in mid air, models of scenes of famous operas, and a host of other things all displayed easily in a small but sufficient room. If all museums were as compact and single-minded !