C’est magnifique!: Fanny Explores France

This blog series details Fanny’s journey at the age of 18, on her family’s two year Grand Tour of Europe. The main sources of information are the six daily journals that she kept, as well as her sketchbooks, which are now part of the collections at the Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historical Site. The journey starts here.

After landing on French soil in the chilly afternoon of December 9th, the Appleton traveling party made their way to the Hotel de la grand Admiraulte. Nathan had previously arranged their lodging via a letter to a friend, Mr. Greene, who ensured that the wealthy Americans were comfortable. Fanny was pleased with the apartments, describing a “fine salon, with 3 enormous mirrors, the walls wainscoted to the ceiling, the uncarpeted floor of massive oak and brobdingnag[1] cast-iron fire place with quaint bas-reliefs upon it.” She was not, however, pleased with the “few dwarfish sticks” burning in the fireplace, which did nothing to warm the massive salon. Indeed, the chilly weather would prove to be a consistent complaint of this young traveler, “nearly frozen as we were with the damp, penetrating atmosphere of this most frigid weather.” Then again, a transatlantic trip in December promises to be cold.

Regardless of the chill, the Appletons immediately set to enjoying the pleasure France had to offer. That night, they dined on a delicious dinner, praising the culinary tradition of the French.

Truly did we enjoy the pleasures of gourmanderie to a most unfeminine extent, excusable if ever after ship-fare. –But the fried sole, the omelette souflee [sic], the bread and the butter…! We are in danger of becoming veritable gourmands!

The coffee, though, was not appealing to Fanny. She declared that in the future she would pass up “this milk-less, black, strong liquid” and instead demand tea. It seems that while Fanny was willing to try new things, this urge had its limits!

At the close of her first day in a foreign land, Fanny was happy to sink into her bed in the quiet of her apartments, appreciating the luxury – “no small one!” – of a night without the “lullabies of creaking masts and dashing waves. Of the extasy [sic] of silence and movelessness once more!”

The next day, they breakfasted on croissants paired with cunningly stamped butter, and finished off their first letters home, to be sent by packet ship. After, they commenced sightseeing, which Fanny and her sister referred to as “killing lions.” Fanny saw this France with the eyes of a new, curious, if at times idealistic, traveler:

The grisettes[2] their clear, bright, brunette cheeks, neat, jaunty figures, snowy caps and clattering sabots, the children talking such good French…! Everything is picturesque – houses, men, women, children, carts, horses, dogs –and donkeys, above all…. This is the great loss of America! Picturesqueness.

The early entries of Fanny’s travel journals are filled with these sweeping comments about French people. She praises everything she sees, as if it were a picture perfectly painted just for her pleasure, but generalizes in the way that new travelers are apt to do.

The traveling companions traipsed around Le Havre, through thick mud, in search of vistas. They climb to the top of a hill and are awarded with a view of the Seine and the “smoke-canopied city.” They also window shop, admiring “real French bonnets in the windows that we said would have been thought magnifique in Boston!” They only stayed in Le Havre for a day and a half before hiring two carriages to carrying them further into the countryside, to their ultimate destination of Paris.

Crack, crack crack rings forth the shrill whip of the postilion and off we rumble at a very easy rapid rate, dashing by the Cathedral of Notre Dame [in Le Havre] which is strange and old-looking and the Market… with the piles of oranges, flowers etc. And the living square of scarlet petticoats, and rainbow hues of the old women’s garniture all in the open-air.

Along the way, they spent the evenings in the hotels of various towns – Lillebonne, Rouen, Mantes – taking in the sites as they went. On the night of December 11th, they rolled into the city of Rouen, a Roman-era port town on the Seine. Its skyline was dominated by the spires of Gothic cathedrals and its streets were lined with cobblestones and half-timbered houses. While the “gents” of the party spent the morning investigating the factories of the city, and returned to the ladies by noon. From there, they made their rounds to the churches of the city and Fanny was awestruck by the “awfulness and grandeur” of the “conquering stone.”

The Rouen Cathedral was Fanny’s first up-close view of a Gothic cathedral. She compared it to the grandest thing she had seen up to that point in her young life – Niagara Falls.

We entered and I felt a creature of the dust…. There is indeed a religion in mere matter…! Never before did I comprehend in the least degree the wondrous art of Gothic architecture.

Facade de l'Eglise metropolitaine de Rouen

LONG 20300 Rouen Cathedral

Fanny was impressed that Rouen boasted not one, but two Gothic cathedrals “when one is worth making a pilgrimage to form distant lands….” The Appletons also visited the town hall, comparing it to Boston’s Athenaeum, and went to the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Fanny lamented the martyr’s fate, declaring her:

…the heroine of the world! Here was the funeral pile of that almost inspired maid, whose wonderful courage and noble patriotism coming from a woman, were thought nothing better than witchcraft and sorcery. She has proved, however, that even a weak woman can do something….

She stood in the place where she imagined that the artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner stood while sketching his watercolors of the Seine. These various paintings were made into engravings and published in a book, Rivers of France in 1833 and 1834, which she must have seen before her trip and she longed to have a copy of the book. She could spot the “high mountain of chalk in the distance and the picturesque boats on the river making one of Turner’s prettiest.”

The next day, December 13th, the traveling group set out for Mantes, through the Seine valley, which reminded Fanny of the Connecticut River valley. They lodge at the “Hotel du Cheval Blanc,” where Fanny spent her last night in the French countryside musing over their first week of foreign travel and on the differences between France and America:

They must give us supremacy in fireplaces, locks of doors, and shoeing of horses!! So much has our travelling experience taught us.

Next stop, Paris!

To explore Paris with Fanny, stay tuned for our next installment!

Citation: Frances Elizabeth Appleton Longfellow Papers, Journal LONG 21487, 16 November 1835 – 31 January 1836, pp. 59-72.

[1] A fictional land in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, occupied by giants. Fanny uses this term to describe objects of large proportions.

[2] French working class women.


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