M. Denon in England
“No!” said I, folding up Lord Boscobel’s card of invitation, “I will certainly enter it in my portfolio;—The Hermit of your London Chaussée-d’Antin has described drawing-rooms and promenades; my American friend’s delicate crayon sketched villages and rustic revelry in ‘bower and hall;’ but I shall describe what no tourist has ever mentioned,—an Englishman at first sight altogether agreeable to a stranger; and as your ugly poet said to the lovely Duchess of Hamilton, ‘with the greatest respect, the least ceremony, and the most zeal.’”
“Very well,” answered Monsieur Teapottus; “make due mention of his hounds, his park, his stud, and his cellar, all opened, for a reason no honest man can guess, to an acquaintance three weeks old;—but take care also to ask if
“Fate hath call’d
His father from the grave to second life?—
Hath Clodius on his hands return’d his wife?
Hath some bold creditor against his will
Brought in, and forced him to discharge, his bill?
Hath any rival gourmand got the start,
And beat him in his own luxurious art?
Bought cates for which Apicius could not pay
Or drest old cates a newer kind of way?
Hath his cook, worthy to be slain with rods,
Spoil’d a dish fit to entertain the gods
Or hath a varlet cross’d by cruel fate
Thrown down the price of empires in a plate?”
“I might have asked all this in the year 1764,” I answered, “for such vices and absurdities were the satirist’s subject then: and there is no reason to think the extravagance of to-day more ridiculous or criminal than our grand-fathers’.—To say the truth, I have been studying some old books, and I find the descriptions of taxes, grievances, and ladies, so suitable, that I have transcribed them, all into my note-book for present use.”
Teapottus took an enormous pinch of snuff, and stretched his leg to the same horizontal posture as his cane, making each occupy a chair like a coxcomb in a Parisian garden,—“That is impossible, Denon, even if you had your father’s genius for supposition. Taxes and women no worse now than in the last century—Sir, every thing is worse:—the coculus indicus they brew now in ale for you and I, was sold sixty years ago only to poison rats.”
“As to taxes,” said I, “two or three cyphers must be added to the numbers, but nothing to the bitter bewailings of the poor man who states them. I would advise you, M. Teapottus, to carry his pamphlet with you to your grumbling society,
Taxes in 1764.
— Glass and Spirituous Liquors.
— Sweets, Paper, and Coals.
— Beer-licences and Cards.
— Wine and Spirit Licences.
— Threepenny Malt-duty.
Public, or National Debt in 1764 — 129,586,789 10.4½
Annual Interest of Charges — 4,688,177 110
“Well!” interrupted my cynic, “and if that was all the National Debt then, how was a man richer than he is now?—How, I say, when he had a dozen brocade coats to buy, not to mention buckram and frogs;—forty or fifty pair of white gloves to play Chesterfield in, and all the abominable perukes which your artists sent us from Paris for every month in the year, your perukes en ailes de pigeon, (pigeon’s wings)—en paté de loupe garrete, (the corded wolf’s paw)—a la comette, a la choux-fleur,—a la dragone,—en dos de Sanglier, (the boar’s back)—en negligée—en rhinoceros,—en echelle; besides the cut bob, the long bob, the chain buckle, the corded buckle, the Jansenist bob, the drop wig, the artichoke bottom, the sheep’s head, and the dogs’ ears, both which I should have deserved to wear even to this day, if I had ever paid my wig-maker for his fooleries.”
“That is exactly what I think,”—then correcting my equivocal reply, I added—“My maxim is, that the world never grows worse, and therefore—”
“And,” continued M. Teapottus, in a fury of philosophical discontent—“it has always been at the worst. Then, M. Denon, if the State did not want so much from a man’s purse sixty years ago, there was the vile custom of treating pretty school-girls to cherries at a fruiterer’s, and with tickets to Carlisle House and Cornely’s.”
“You describe,” said I, “exactly what I find in my extract from an old beau’s journal—sailing to Vauxhall,—tea and burnt champagne at Ranelagh, and these items furnished for a dinner at the Green Dragon, Harrowgate:—
“Three dozen of chickens.
Two shoulders of mutton and cucumbers.
Goose and plumpudding.
Fried tripe and calves head.
Crawfish and pickled salmon.
Gravy and pea soup.
Two sucking pigs.
Breast of veal ragooed.
Pigeons and green pease.
Ice, cream, and pine apples.
Twelve red herrings, and 22 devils!”
“And after this,” interposed Teapottus. grasping his cane, and pushing his sandwich tray from his side, “will you say we do not retrograde?—Sir, there is not one of those good dishes to be found now, except on a bachelor’s side-table at Bow-wow Hall.”
“My dear friend, be composed; I am opening a page in my note-book which must please you. Here is my author’s statement of grievances in 1764;—they will pass very well as new ones in my Book:”—
“What shall a man eat, drink, or live under in England? his bread is compounded of allum, his beer with treacle and water; his cyder gives him the colica pictonicæ; his port and sherry were never on the other side of the water. The encrease of fools encreases the demand for houses, and consequently for bricks;—and the price of bricks raises that of earth. The scavenger, imitating the land-owner, doubles the price of ashes, trebles that of cinders, and even charges tenfold for the mud of the streets. These are the materials that are to unite London with Highgate, Romford, Bromley, and Brentford, unless, which seems more possible, the bricklayers, carpenters, and masons, should be overwhelmed in their own ruins.”
“That paragraph will do,” said Teapottus, with a vinegar-smile—“and I could find you a few clever passages in Swift’s Art of Political Lying, and his ‘Modest Proposal to eat all Children under two years old,’ which any man would believe written to-day. For,” says he, “let no one talk of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound; of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury; of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women; of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders and the people of Topinamboo, and of putting a little honesty into our shopkeepers, who are ruined by striving to ruin their customers and competitors.”
“I have all that here in the two hundredth page of my minutes; and a brilliant quotation from your author’s letter to a young married lady, and a specimen of English table-talk.—I shewed my manuscript, sub rosa, yesterday to milord B. and he vowed the table-talk would do for Long’s, and the letter for his wife. He asked me whether this merry Jonathan could be found, as he wanted a chaplain, and would patronize him. I told milord my bookseller could certainly tell, for he took great pains to make me buy Dr. Jonathan’s seventeen volumes, edited by a great Scotch poet.”
M. Teapottus laughed, and we sat down to sup on a paté sent by milord’s French cook, and a few trifles from his pinery.
* * * * * * *
It was time to wait on milord at Boscobel House when the clock struck seven next day. My manual of “English manners” was, as usual, in my coat-pocket, and I referred myself to the 28th chapter and 347th page, where these directions presented themselves:—“You are never to obey the master of the house, but if he bids you sit by the fire, you go of course to the other side of the room: if he is well bred, he removes you by force. About an hour after dinner is on table, you may have settled where to sit, and the first glass may be decorously swallowed after the usual preface, ‘Mrs. Dilbury Diddle, here is the health of Mr. Dilbury, and all your cousins in the North Riding; —Master Diddle and Hal, and Jackey, and Billy and Bobby and Numps, and Miss Babby, Miss Fanny, and Mrs. Deborah Dilbury Diddle, of Diddle Hall.’”—Then opening one of the seventeen volumes recommended by my bookseller as the cream of wit and the richest colouring of English character, I found this instructive preparation for my meeting with the ladies of Boscobel House—“If men are discoursing upon any general subject, the ladies never think it their business to partake in what passes, but in a separate club entertain each other with the price and choice of lace and silk, and what dresses they liked or disliked at the church or the playhouse. As divines say some people take more pains to be condemned than it would cost them to be saved, so women employ more thought, memory, and application to be fools than would serve to make them wise and useful. When I reflect on this, I cannot conceive them to be human creatures, but a sort of species hardly a degree above a monkey, who has more diverting tricks than any of them, is an animal less mischievous and expensive, might in time be a tolerable critic in velvet and brocade, and, for ought I know, would equally become them.”
Teapottus did not accompany me to Boscobel House, and I thought the distinction shewn to superior complacency and gentilesse might be an useful lesson to him. The house reminded me of our King Charles the Fifth’s royal Hotel de St. Paul, built, as my note-book records, in 1364. For the huge panels and beams were loaded with tin flowers and mouldings gilt; the seats were stools and armed chairs of all shapes covered with red leather and silk fringes, and the couches so numerous, that one might have thought guests were kept all night, as in King Charles’s reign, to sleep in the same room with the master of the house. The inner courts were filled, not with poultry as in the Hotel de St. Paul, but with men who appeared to have been sent to fatten there, and do nothing else.—Our dinner would have done credit to Charles the Fifth’s cuisine, and happened about the time that wise king always supped and went to bed. The Ladies Emily and Joanna Boscobel sat at table, and an ancient lady who presided placed me at her right hand. These ladies’ robes were so embroidered and emblazoned, that I thought they had adopted the custom of our court in the fourteenth century, when women wore their husbands’ armorial devices wrought on the right side of their gowns, and their own on the left. They seemed mightily amused by my careful attention to the rules of English etiquette, and listened with great interest to my explanation of the costume worn by a doll, which, trusting to the learned Dean’s advice, I had brought for their amusement. And after dinner they took great pains to exhibit their jewels and laces, asking my opinion of each most graciously, and offering to furnish me with any trinket or article of the toilette. And on my enquiring the names of their aunts and cousins, that I might honour them properly in my next toast, Lady Emily had the goodness to say she had been in Paris, and quite forgotten such antique persons and ceremonies. Though she had not quite the indescribable ease of a Frenchwoman, she certainly had none of the mauvaise honte which gave Madame de Stael such a sensation of freezing:—and a few little mistakes in her geography and pronunciation were not wonderful, considering, as the learned Dean says, that Englishwomen never learn so much as a schoolboy, and seldom try to spell right in their whole lives.
However, the hospitality of milord Boscobel and his sisters was altogether unlike any thing my countrymen usually find in England; and as every body knows what kind of romances ladies love in all countries, it was needful to inform myself whether the ancestry of milord was pure enough to mingle with the race of a French chevalier and Member of the National Institute. I went to the church where the family monument stands, and asked Teapottus to explain the pile of symbols which adorned it. “The sculptor,” he replied, “would tell you, these things meant Justice, Fortitude, the Fine Arts, and the conjugal and social Loves.—One of the country people would say, those scales signified that Lord Boscobel’s grandmother sold tea; those pencils, that his cousin was a glazier and painter; the plump lamb intimates his father’s skill as a grazier; and that cornucopia full of apples and eggs, his mother’s success in carrying a basket to market.”
“I shall describe this monument particularly in my note-book,” said I, “without forgetting your commentary, which says a thousand things in proof of English liberality and good sense. This, more than any thing you have told me, shews how nobly and how soon merit attains rank, and how soon rank gives the graces of manner.”
Teapottus screwed his mouth into the shape of a triangle, which his teeth crossed like the bar of a great A. “Then,” he answered, “I advise you to add the scrawl you see on this flat stone graced by a tall railing,
“Somebody here has put a rail for
Somebody else, not Nick the taylor.”
and the inscription on the next stone—
“John Gudgeon here lies under ground,
Who left Joan Mumps a thousand pound:
May every lass find twenty such,
Who die as soon, and give as much.”
The first distich shews you the national contempt for a taylor, who seems by some unlucky accident to lie too near this consecrated railing; and the others will afford your readers a fine idea of the calculating talent which now prevails among Englishwomen.”
“M. Teapottus,” I replied, “your known intimacy with Blue Dev—, with gentlemen of a certain unpronounceable name, may warrant many specimens of the tub, or cynical, style of manners. But I cannot admit any ungentlemanly construction of the civilities shewn me by the sisters of milord Boscobel. If, as they graciously hinted, their charming taste and agrémens proceed from their visit to France, I have double reason to be proud of my country; if they are only like other Englishwomen, you ought to be ashamed of having said they are no better than they were a hundred years ago.”
Teapottus laughed again, for ill-natured men shew their ill-nature most by their way of laughing. We parted,—he to growl over a new tragedy, I to keep my appointment with the Graces of Boscobel. What would Dr. Jonathan have said if he had heard Lady Emily sweep the lute, thunder on the piano-forte, and recite ten pages of “Ida of Athens” without missing one hard word!—Or if he had seen Lady Joanna make a pirouette over the music-waggon, gesticulate a passeul with her sister’s shawl, and waltz three times with me, he would have recanted his profane libel, or wished the whole world full of such marmosetts.
I flatter myself my part in the evening’s amusement was equal to their hopes. I told them the glories of our theatre, and the thefts of Bickerstaff and Garrick from our amiable Dancourt’s petites pieces. Seizing a rich Indian screen and one of the gauze curtains, la belle Joanne proposed to rehearse Calderone’s whimsical “Dream.” I must tell my readers how astonishing it is, that the most pleasant of all this witty Spaniard’s plays has never been known in England. I had the merit, after diverting the ladies by balancing myself on a quart-bottle, which a Scotch Review informed me was highly fashionable at an evening party at least in the North, of detailing it to milord; and he agreed that it had every possible requisite for fine dramatic effect. The story is of a young cavalier who arrives with his servant at midnight in a lonely place,—they hear dismal howlings, and a man scarce human in face or attire bursts from a cavern-door, and complains of his long and cruel imprisonment. He is struck,—marvellously struck by the charming voice and smile of the younger cavalier; and while his ferocity is melting into grief, the Count, his gaoler, enters with his sentinels, seizes the cavalier, and orders the wild man again into captivity. At the sight of the young cavalier’s sword, the Count recognizes his son’s, finds the wearer is a woman flying from persecution, and resolves to spare her life, forfeited by entering that forbidden place, till he has consulted the king. This monarch tells him he had once a Dream, which threatened that he should be reduced to beg his life of his first-born son. Therefore he had imprisoned him twenty years, but now repenting his cruelty, resolved to bring the young prince to court. The savage comes splendidly dressed, and is assured his imprisonment has been but a dream. But his first exercise is to toss the grandee who had been his gaoler over a balcony, and his next to insist on marrying the fair creature whom he had once seen in a cavalier’s attire, and now finds in a court lady’s. The father, rather alarmed at these freaks, orders him to be stupified with opiate-drugs, and carried back to his prison where they tell him his glimpse of royalty was but a dream. Presently the doors and walls are beaten down by a rebel mob resolved to have the injured heir apparent for their master, and they bring the old king in chains to beg his life of his son. The prince smiles, and answers, “Life is but a dream, but the sweetest part of it is to restore my father.”
Here was every thing to delight an amateur party of actors. Love, raving, a court-gala, a young lady weeping by moonlight, and a handsome young prince very ill treated. Lady Emily put on one of her brother’s suits of regimentals, and her younger sister borrowed his morning coat to act the groom’s part. Milord himself took the hearth-rug and half a saddle-cloth to equip him for the business of the savage. Teapottus was summoned, and persuaded to be the prime-minister, or gaoler. But I was rather surprised when all the peer’s family insisted on my performance of the fair lady’s part. I had privately chosen the king’s, having a superb scarlet cloak and Montero cap; however, la belle Joanne would accept no refusal: she promised me one of her own dresses when female array was needful, and the play began. No doubt they expected to see the perfection of a cavalier’s grace in my first entrée, and I did my best to satisfy them. Milord Boscobel raged and raved a la Talma, and tossed Teapottus over the balcony with a grace and adroitness that made me laugh heartily. But he had no sooner performed this feat than he seized me also, without any respect to the robe of tulle and silver lama which his sister had lent for my adornment, and I made but one leap into the conservatory. “You are,” said he, “a most impertinent and audacious impostor. You have persuaded that poor bilious growler to believe you are the Princess of O——come to renew the survey of manufactories and manners she began with her brother the Emperor. And you had the still greater effrontery to suppose I should believe you, when you called yourself Monsieur Denon, a member of the National Institute, and a son of the cleverest traveller ever patronized by an emperor. Did you suppose an English peer would have allowed you to play tricks in his sisters’ presence, if he had not known you to be a mercer of the Palais-Royal, well-stocked with cheap contraband lace?” And between every word he put such a heavy accompamiment of blows, that Teapottus, who heard my cries, declared he thought it was only a rehearsal of a recitative, with a kettledrum obligato. I leaped over flower-vases and shrubs, and burst the window of the conservatory, pursued by milord Boscobel, crying thieves, and demanding his sister’s lace gown. I took refuge under the hedge of Bosworth-field, but a knave in office, set there to watch turnips, seeing a thing so covered with fluttering shreds and plumage, assailed me in the true English fistic style, and we waltzed about the field till he left me almost dead with dizziness and bruises. Teapottus came to my assistance, and found means to convey me to an inn at a safe distance. When he heard my disaster, he only said—“Well; it is very true that I have given half a dozen people the pleasure of thinking they saw a Russian Grand Duchess in disguise; and no English peer has had the pleasure of beating you, for the gentleman and ladies who did the honours of the late Lord Boscobel’s funeral and his heir’s house, were only his valet and his sisters’ maids.”
This was no great consolation to me, but the matter was a secret, and I had only a few days to stay in England. On one of them I went to court, introduced by a nobleman of high literary attainments. The Monarch, with a grace well worthy our own Henri le Grand, deigned to pause in the circle, and congratulated me on the progress of my travels. Then doubling the charm of his smile by a benign whisper, he added, “Bosworth-field is happy in having M. Denon for its historian,—No doubt the world will be favoured with some new particulars of that interesting battle.”—“Ah, Sire! your royal ear has been misinformed: it was no battle, but a mere accidental skirmish.”—The King’s politeness could hardly prevent him from echoing my last words—“I cannot dispute,” said he, “your means of gaining the most correct information, and your willingness to diffuse it; but permit me to say, I hope you will do justice to both combatants.”—“Your most gracious Majesty extends your recollection to an unworthy subject, —the matter cannot be called a combat, it was only a squabble in a turnip-field about a scarecrow.”—“What, M. Denon, the celebrated battle of Bosworth-field, which every body has heard of!”—“Ah! your Majesty overwhelms your humble servant;—it is happiness enough to be beaten in Bosworth-field, if the affair is thus spoken of by your Majesty.”—The sovereign smiled most graciously on the nobleman who had presented me, and I receded from the circle, penetrated by the condescending interest expressed by him in my private affairs, but still more by thus discovering how quickly the enemies of an eminent person magnify an event to his disadvantage. Nevertheless, I know how much candour gives dignity to a frailty or a misfortune; and I shall be the first to inform my countrymen by what accident I received my bruises. And for their consolation I shall also add, that those bruises were received in a field no less renowned than Bosworth, by
V. Denon, Junior.
* * Monsieur T. threatens to publish the Register found under the ruins of St. Kentegern, with editorial notes, unless I distinguish it in the appendix to my tour.