“Honfleur is an evil-smelling place…”
Anna Bowman-Dodd was a travel writer and journalist born in 1855, in New York, and popular at the turn of the 20th century. In 1890 Anna published ‘In and out of three Normandy inns’.
Her book includes a rather startling visit to Honfleur.
A questionable invitation, to Honfleur
While staying in Villerville Anna came across old friend and artist John Renard. He offers to take Anna to see the picturesque local port of Honfleur. An invitation that includes a few worrying words…
“Have you been to Honfleur? Not yet? We’ll go to-morrow. I’ll call for you – wear heavy boots and old clothes. It’s jolly dirty.”
At first Anna enjoys the journey from Villerville so much she is moved to write:
“Wherever the eye roved, it was fed as on a banquet of light and colour. Nothing could be more exquisite, for depth of green swimming in a bath of shadow, than the meadows curled beneath the cliffs; nothing more tempting, to the painter’s brush, than the arabesque of blossoms netted across the sky”… There is lots more but you get the idea.
But all too soon the view changes, and not for the better. Over to Anna.
Excerpts from ‘In and out of three Normandy Inns’ by Anna Bowman-Dodd. 1890
Then, all at once, all too soon, the great picture seemed to shrink; the quivering pulsation of light and colour gave way to staid, commonplace gardens. Instead of hawthorn hedges there was the stench of river smells – we were driving over cobble-paved streets and beneath rows of crooked, crumbling houses.
A group of noisy street urchins greeted us in derision. And then we had no doubt whatsoever that we were already in Honfleur town!
Smells of antiquity
“Honfleur is an evil-smelling place,” I remarked.
“How can any town have such a stench with all this river and water and verdure to sweeten it?” I asked.
John’s warning of wickedness
“Wait till you see the inhabitants” said John “They’ll enlighten you – the hags and the nautical gentlemen along the basins and quays. They’ve discovered the secret that if cleanliness is next to godliness, dirt and the devil are likewise near neighbours. Awful set those Honfleur sailors. They are so unlike the rest of France and Frenchmen.”
“Why are they so unlike?”
“They’re so low down, so hideously wicked; they’re like the old houses, a rotten, worm-eaten set – you’ll see.”
Arrival and a bizarre belfry
We were in the midst of the Honfleur streets, streets that were running away from a wide open space, in all possible directions. In the centre of the square rose a curious, an altogether astonishing, structure.
It was a tower, a belfry doubtless, a house, a shop, and a warehouse, all in one; such a picturesque medley, in fact, as only modern irreverence, in its lawless disregard of original purpose and design, can produce.
The low-timbered sub-base of the structure was pierced by a lovely doorway with sculptured lintel, and also with two impertinent modern windows, flaunting muslin curtains, and coquettishly attired with rows of flowering carnations. Beneath these windows was a shop.
Above the whole rose, in beautiful symmetrical lines, a wooden belfry, tapering from a square tower into a delicately modelled spire. To complete and accentuate the note of the picturesque, the superstructure was held in its place by rude modern beams, propping the tower with a naive disregard of decorative embellishment. We knew it at once as the quaint and famous Belfry of St. Catherine.
Tattered, ragged, bare-footed, bare-legged
A turn down the street, and the famous Honfleur of the wharves and floating docks lay before us.
About us, all at once was the roar and hubbub of an extraordinary bustle and excitement; all the life of the town, apparently, was centred upon the quays. The latter were swarming with a tattered, ragged, bare-footed, bare-legged assemblage of old women, of gamins, and sailors. The collection, as a collection, was one gifted with the talent of making itself heard.
Cacophony of cries
Everyone appeared to be shrieking, or yelling, or crying aloud, if only to keep the others in voice.
Sailors lying on the flat parapets shouted hoarsely to their fellows in the rigging of the ships that lay tossing in the docks; fishermen’s families tossed their farewells above the hubbub to the captain-fathers launching their fishing-smacks; one shrieking infant was being passed, gayly, from the poop of a distant deck, across the closely lying shipping, to the quay’s steps, to be hushed by the generous opening of a peasant mother’s bodice.
One could hear the straining of cordage, the creak of masts, the flap of the sails, all the noises peculiar to shipping riding at anchor. The shriek of steam-whistles broke out, ever and anon, above all the din and uproar.
Robbed of hope
Along the quay steps and the wharves there were constantly forming and re-forming groups of wretched, tattered human beings; of men with bloated faces and a dull, sodden look, strikingly in contrast with the vivacity common among French people.
Even the children and women had a depraved, shameless appearance, as if vice had robbed them of the last vestige of hope and ambition.
Along the parapet a half-dozen drunkards sprawled, asleep or dozing. At the legs of one a child was pulling, crying:
“Viens – mère t’battra, elle est soûle aussi.” “Come, mother will beat you, she’s drunk too.”
The sailors out yonder, busy in the rigging, and the men on the decks of the smart brigs and steamships, whistled and shouted and sang, as indifferent to this picture of human misery and degradation as if they had no kinship with it.
A frame of villa crowded hills
As a frame to the picture, Honfleur town lay beneath the crown of its hills; on the tops and sides of the latter, villa after villa shot through the trees, a curve of roof-line, with rows of daintily draped windows.
At the right, close to the wharves, below the wooded heights, there loomed out a quaint and curious gateway flanked by two watchtowers, grim reminders of the Honfleur of the great days. And above and about the whole, encompassing villa-crowded hills and closely packed streets, and the forest of masts trembling against the sky, there lay a heaven of spring and summer.
John had driven briskly up to a low, rambling facade parallel with the quays. It was the “Cheval Blanc”. A crowd assembled on the instant, as if appearing according to command.
“Allons, n’encombrez pas ces dames!” “Come on, do not clutter the ladies!” cried a very smart individual, in striking contrast to the down at-heel air of the hotel – a personage who took high-handed possession of us and our traps.
Outdoors better from inside the ‘rattle trap’ inn
When we entered the low dining-room, we found that the artist as well as the epicure has been in active conspiracy to make the dinner complete; the choice of the table proclaimed one accomplished in massing effects. The table was parallel with the low window, and through the latter was such a picture as one travels hundreds of miles to look upon, only to miss seeing it, as a rule.
There was a great breadth of sky through the windows; against the sky rose the mastheads; and some red and brown sails curtained the space, bringing into relief the grey line of the sad-faced old houses fringing the shoreline.
John is pleased with the view
“Couldn’t have chosen better if we’d tried, could we? It’s just the right hour, and just the right kind of light.” Said John. He continued:
“Those basins are unendurable – sinks of iniquitous ugliness, unless the tide’s in and there’s a sunset going on.”
“Just look now! Who cares whether Honfleur has been done to death by the tourist horde or not? And been painted until one’s art-stomach turns?”
“I can’t stand the abomination of modern repetitions; the hand-organ business in art, I call it. But at this hour, at this time of the year, before this rattle-trap of an inn is as packed with Baedeker attachments as a Siberian prison is with Nihilists – to run out here and look at these quays and basins, and old Honfleur lying here, beneath her green cliffs – well, short of Cairo, I don’t know any better bit of colour.”
Throw guidebooks in the river!
John talked on. “Guidebooks, what’s the use of guide-books? What guide-book ever really helped anyone to see?”
“Here, for instance, Murray or Baedeker would give you this sort of thing: ‘Honfleur, an ancient town, with pier, beaches, three floating docks, and a good deal of trade in timber, cod, etc.; exports large quantities of eggs to England.’ Good heavens! it makes one boil! Do sane, reasonable mortals travel three thousand miles to read ancient history done up in modern binding, served up a la Murray, a la Baedeker?”
“When you travel, really travel, mind, never make a plan – just go – go anywhere, whenever the impulse seizes you – and you may hope to get there, in the right way, possibly.”
We rose to take a glimpse of Honfleur and its famous old basin. The quays and the floating docks, in front of which we had been dining, are a part of the nineteenth century; the great ships ride in to them from the sea. But here, in this inner quadrangular dock, we found still reminders of the old life.
Bygone days of Honfleur’s pride
Here were the same old houses that, in the seventeenth century, upright and brave in their brand new carvings, saw the high-decked, picturesquely painted Spanish and Portuguese ships ride in to dip their flag to the French fleur-de-lis.
There are but few of the old streets left to crowd about the shipping life that still floats here, as in those bygone days of Honfleur pride; when Havre was but a yellow strip of sand; when the Honfleur merchants would have laughed to scorn any prophet’s cry of warning that one day that sand-bar opposite, despised, disregarded, boasting only a chapel and a tavern, would grow and grow, and would steal year by year and inch by inch bustling Honfleur’s traffic, till none was left.
Looking back to old adventurous days
In the old adventurous days, along with the Spanish ships came others; French trading and fishing vessels, with the salty crustations of long voyages on their hulls and masts.
The wharves were alive then with fish-wives, whom Evelyn will tell you wore “useful habits made of goats’ skin.”
The captains’ daughters were in quaint Normandy costumes; and the high-peaked coifs and the stiff woollen skirts, as well as the goat-skin coats, trembled as the women darted hither and thither among the sailors, whose high cries filled the air as they picked out mother and wife.
Then were bronzed beards buried in the deeply-wrinkled old mères’ faces, and young, strong arms clasped about maidens’ waists. The whole town rang with gayety and with the mad joy of reunion.
Giving thanks for safe return at Notre Dame Grâce
On the morrow, coiling its way up the steep hillsides, wound the long lines of the grateful company, one composed chiefly of the crews of these vessels happily come to port.
The procession would mount up to the little church of Notre Dame de Grâce perched on the hill overlooking the harbour. Some even – so deep was their joy at deliverance from shipwreck and so fervent their piety – crawled up, bare-footed, with bared head, wives and children following, weeping for joy, as the rude ex-votos were laid by the sailors’ trembling hands at the feet of the Virgin Lady.
What is left of that old life?
As reminders of this old life, what is left? Within the stone quadrangle we found clustered a motley fleet of wrecks and fishing-vessels; the nets, flung out to dry in the night air, hung like shrouds from the mastheads; here and there a figure bestrode a deck, a rough shape, that seemed endowed with a double gift of life, so still and noiseless was the town.
Around the silent dock, grouped in mysterious medley and confusion, were tottering roof lines, projecting eaves, narrow windows, all crazily tortured and out of shape.
Here and there, beneath the broad beams of support, a little interior, dimly lighted, showed a knot of sailors gathered, drinking or lounging. Up high beneath a chimney perilously overlooking a rude facade, a quaint shape emerged, one as decrepit and forlorn of life and hope as the decaying houses it overlooked.
Human misery and decay
Silence, poverty, wretchedness, the dregs of life, to this has Honfleur fallen. These old houses, in their slow decay, hiding in their dark bosom the gaunt secrets of this poverty and human misery, seemed to be dancing a dance of drunken indifference.
Someday the dance will end in a fall, and then the Honfleur of the past will not even boast of a ghost, as reminder of its days of splendour.
The artist’s eye view
John refused to see anything but beauty in the decay about us; for him the houses were at just the right drooping angle; the roof lines were delightful in their irregularity; and the fluttering tremor of the nets, along the rigging, was the very poetry of motion.
“We’ll finish the evening on the pier,” he exclaimed, suddenly; “the moon will soon be up – we can sit it out there and see it begin to colour things.”
Dusk of the young night
The pier was more popular than the quaint old dock. It was crowded with promenaders, who, doubtless, were taking a bite of the sea-air. Through the dusk the tripping figures of gentlemen in white flannels and jaunty caps brushed the provincial Honfleur swells.
Some gentle English voices told us some of the villa residents had come down to the pier, moved by the beauty of the night. Groups of sailors, with tanned faces and punctured ears hooped with gold rings, sat on the broad stone parapets, talking unintelligible Breton patois.
The pier ran far out, almost to the Havre cliffs, it seemed to us, as we walked along in the dusk of the young night. The sky was slowly losing its soft flame.
A tender, mellow half light was stealing over the waters, making the town a rich mass of shade. Over the top of the low hills the moon shot out, a large, globular mass of beaten gold. At first it was only a part and portion of the universal lighting, of the still flushed sky, of the red and crimson harbour lights, of the dim twinkling of lamps and candles in the rude interiors along the shore.
A sad song by moonlight
But slowly, triumphantly, the great lamp swung up; it rose higher and higher into the soft summer sky, and as it mounted, sky and earth began to pale and fade. Soon there was only a silver world to look out upon – a wealth of quivering silver over the breast of the waters, and a deeper, richer grey on cliffs and roof tops.
Out of this silver world came the sound of waters, lapping in soft cadence against the pier; the rise and fall of sails, stirring in the night wind; the tread of human footsteps moving in slow, measured beat, in unison with the rhythm of the waters. Just when the stars were scattering their gold on the bosom of the sea-river, a voice rang out, a rich, full baritone.
Quite near, two sailors were seated, with their arms about each other’s shoulders. They also were looking at the moonlight, and one of them was singing to it:
“Te souviens-tu, Marie, De notre enfance aux champs? Te souviens-tu? Le temps que je regrette C’est le temps qui n’est plus.”
“Do you remember Marie, our childhood in the fields? Do you remember? The time I regret, is the time that is no more.”
Read Anna’s book on Project Gutenberg
Our review of Honfleur, 2015