This week our guest blogger is Donald G. Mitchell who adds a personal view of Rouen to some rather lovely etchings and drawings by Charles Pinet. Donald was an American traveler, essayist and novelist who usually wrote under the pen name Lk Marvel.
Donald’s wonderful descriptive article about Rouen in the 19th century first appeared in the book ‘Fresh Gleanings; or, A New Sheaf from the Old Fields of Continental Europe’ published by Charles Schribner, in New York, 1851.
Donald is clearly enamoured with the city, although he cannot help but hanker a little for Paris…
by guest blogger Donald G Mitchell, Rouen 1851
Shall we set a foot down for a moment in the queer, interesting, busy old Norman town of Rouen, where everybody goes who goes to Paris, but where few stop for a look at what in many respects is most curious to see in all France?
The broad, active quays, and the elegant modern buildings upon them, and the bridges, and the river with its barges and steamers, are, it is true, worth the seeing, and exposed to the eye of every passer, and give one the idea of a new and enterprising city. But back from this is another city—the old city—infinitely more worthy of attention.
Out of its midst rises the corkscrew iron tower of the Cathedral, under which sleeps Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy.
If one have the courage to mount to the dizzy summit of that corkscrew winding tower of iron, he will see such a labyrinth of ways, shut in by such confusion of gables, and such steep, sharp roofs, glittering with so many coloured tiles, as that he will seem to dream a dream of the olden time.
And if he has an agricultural eye, it will wander delightedly over the broad, rich plains that there border the Seine, rich in all manner of corn-land and in orchards. And if he have an historic eye, it will single out an old castle or two that show themselves upon the neighbouring hills; and the ruins, and the Seine, and the valley, and the town will group together in his imagination.
Heroes of the old wars
He will bear away the picture in his mind to his Western home in the wilderness, and it shall serve him as an illustration – a living illustration – to the old chronicles of wars, whether of Monstrelet, or Turner, or Anquetil, or Michelet, down through all the time of his thinking life.
So, when he readeth of Norman plains blasted with battle, and knightly helmets glittering in the crash of war, he shall have a scene, a scene lying clear as mid-day under the eye of steady memory, in the which he may plant his visions of Joan of Arc, or of stout Henry V., or of drivelling Charles VI., or of Jean sans peur; for these – all of them, he knows – have trodden the valley of Rouen.
Whoever may have seen English Worcester or Gloucester will have a foretaste of what comes under the eye at Rouen; but to one fresh from the new, straight thoroughfares of America nothing surely can seem stranger than the dark, crowded ways of the capital of Normandy.
How narrow, how dirty, how cool! Even in summer the sun cannot come down in them, for the projecting balconies and the tallness of the houses. Between the fountains in the occasional open places and the incessant washings, it is never dry. There is no pavement for the foot-goer but the sharp, round stones sticking up from side to side, and sloping down to the sluice-way in the middle.
Donkeys with loads of cabbages, that nearly fill up the way, women with baskets on their heads, and staring strangers, and gendarmerie in their cocked hats, marching two by two, and soldiers, and school-boys (not common in France), and anxious-faced merchants (still rarer out of the North), all troop together under gables, that would seem to totter were they not of huge oak beams, whose blackened heads peep out from the brick walls like faces of an age gone by.
What quaint carving! What heavy old tiles, when you catch a glimpse of the peaked roofs! What windings and twists! There are well-filled and sometimes elegant shops below, with story on story reeling above them.
Joan of Arc remembered
Away through an opening, that is only a streak of light at the end, appears the ugly brown statue of the Maid of Orleans. There she was burned, poor girl! The valet, if you have the little English boy of the Hôtel de Rouen, will tell you how, and when, and why they burned her. Then he will ring the bell at the gate of a strange, old house close by, and beckon you into the court, where you will see around the walls the bas-reliefs of the Cloth of Gold.
St. Ouens, which, after Strasburg Cathedral, is the noblest Gothic church in France, is in some corner of the never-ending curious streets. On a fête day, what store of costume on its pavement! What big, white muslin caps flaring to left and right! What show of red petticoats, and steeple-crowned hats, and clumping sabots, and short-waisted boys, and little, sun browned men of Brittany!
But there is style in Rouen: now and then in the narrowest ways you must jump aside to give room to some dashing equipage. There are cafes brilliant with gas and mirrors, and there are Paris restaurants where one may initiate himself in the forms of the Capital.
Kindness to customers
There is a middle aged lady at the office of the Hotel de Rouen – and what a charming specimen of French urbanity is that woman! You ask for a room and she will give you a room and salon to boot. You want lunch, she will give you a dinner; you want your bill, she will give you as good as two…
Rouen is favourably situated for all the innocent extortions of porters and innkeeper ; it catches the stranger fresh in the country, – nine in ten English – and in consulting in some degree the measure of English comforts, the landlord consults yet more scrupulously the measure of English pockets.
There is such an array of parlours and smoking-rooms, and reading-rooms, as belong to New York hotels. Your bed is served with fresh linen and clean, and you may look out from your window, over the busy Quay, and its fleet of flat-boats lying along its side, and the bridges from stone to chain…
Charms of the old law courts
But as I said, the charms of the place rest in the old town. Step back into the Palais de Justice, which comes as near the extravagantly rich Gothic of Belgic Louvain, as reality can come to dreams. Listen to the pleasantly modulated voice of the Norman magistrate floating under the black oaken, gold embossed ceiling. See the groups of strange dressed scribes and advocates, and the people listening.
Never mind being jostled by some dirty fellows in blouses; never mind the short, stout woman with two babies; never mind the long, greasy-haired man with a drooping eye that elbows you one side; nor the close smells of the chamber, until at least you can carry away some definite idea of the noble old hall, and the motley groupings of a Provincial court- room.
Rouen wears no symptoms of decay, except such as are seen in the gables of five or six centuries ago. It is among the few interior cities of France which is upon the increase, which wears the American air of progress, which is alive with the bustle of business, which has devotees enough to fill its proud old churches, and which has successful commerce enough to keep them in repair.
It has its fashions and fashionable people, and though Paris ranks with them as the sun in the firmament, still their nearness and wealth enable them to look down on most other Provincials.
Indeed there is more of the air of Parisians about the shop-keepers, and shop-girls, and the street loungers, than can be seen in most cities of the kingdom. It has its little suburban residences – in this, coming nearer an English town – than even Paris itself. It has its public walks and alone, of French cities (excepting Pau in the South), has its environs.
Dreams of Paris, in Rouen
One might pass months at Rouen not unpleasantly, provided he could forget Paris. Here, as everywhere else in France, the French Capital with its amusements, is the absorbent of all the ambitious designs in life.
The manufacturer contents himself with Normandy, only in the hope of acquiring means that will enable him to establish his roof-tree in the Faubourg St. Germain. Or if he dies in the height of his employ the wealth that his industry has amassed is transferred to an atmosphere more congenial to the widow and her children. The shop-boy of Rouen is hoping always for an occasion upon the Boulevard or Rue Richelieu. The cartman sighs for St Antoine; the Grisette – for Rouen nurtures a branch of the family – dreams of the Chaumiere and Mabil. Ever the barber would willingly shave for two sous less at Paris, than in the Norman city of his birth.
Donald G Mitchell, Rouen, 1851
The original article on Archive.org
Oh so that’s what it means!
Equipage – horse and carriage
Grisette – a working girl, in all meanings of the phrase