Lady Travellers

September 5, 2010 at 11:08 am (books, fashion, people, places) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

With so much information, I sometimes find myself flitting from one decade to another; Mark’s diary sent me back to 1798, the early days of marriage, and the victories of Nelson; Angela’s letter catapulted me to Rome in the 1820s, yet sent me looking for information on Rossini’s visit to London in 1824. (Young Augusta writes of his being invited to a party; a most amusing section of this delightful letter!) I have shelves of books; some read long ago, others purchased because their content interested me at one time or they were a fortuitous find. One book I recall breezing through (evidently in August/September 2005; the Alibris packing slip is still in the book) is The Grand Tours of Katherine Wilmot: France 1801-3 and Russia 1805-7, edited by Elizabeth Mavor — author of the only biography of the Ladies of Llangollen; her name on the cover was the reason for this purchase!

Although the Russian journal was interesting, Katherine (c1773-1824) was journalizing for a different reason with the earlier, French, journal: Her brother was the ultimate recipient. In France, she was also a traveller, rather than a house guest (of the formidable Princess Dashkov). Mavor calls the French journals ‘remarkably uninhibited,’ and indeed Katherine speaks with a remarkably modern voice! Makes me a bit more determined to get more written by the women of this family – although I already have the published journals/letters of her sister Martha (1775-1873), for Martha lived in one of my favorite capitals (about which so little is EVER written): Vienna.

Luck was against me when I looked at — but with me when I looked at my preferred site (I love that you can read online or download page the page images of a genuine book) Internet Archive: there is the 1920 publication of these same French journals, under the somewhat misleading title of An Irish Peer on the Continent as Related by Catherine Wilmot (yes, please note that you will find her name spelled both with a ‘C’ as well as with a ‘K’).

Must confess: Funny to see the publisher’s address — Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. Jane Austen’s brother Henry resided for a time in Henrietta Street! Small world. [BTW, Le Faye’s Austen Letters designates Henry’s abode as No. 10, and claims the upper facade to be as it would have looked when Jane stayed there.]

At 227 pages, this earlier publication gives even more of the journals, although (given the title) obviously the focus is supposedly less on Katherine herself and more on her travel-companions, Lord and Lady Mount Cashell. And yet, Katherine, as author, is never far away of course!

So let me share with you some of Katherine’s bon mots, but first let’s set the scene —-

“At this time there were special reasons to draw the world to France. The War of 1793-1801, the first phase of the Napoleonic campaigns, had precluded travelling in that country, and, taking into consideration the disturbances there since 1789, it may be said to have been closed to tourist for almost a decade” [Thomas Sadleir, in his introduction].

It is “An 10” — Year 10, of the new French Calendar.

Paris 24 Nov. 1801 — whoever follows my directions will infallibly find himself precisely where I am this moment, dazzled, delighted, and bewildered by everything I behold. But not to anticipate, I must take you back with me to London every step of the ways, that you may cross from Dover to Calais with all due formality….

The 29th Novr. at 3 o’clock in the morning, we got on board the ‘Countess of Elgin,’ commanded by Captain Sampson, and Lady Mount Cashell smuggled in her suite, Monsieur Amoulin, a young Frenchman, who couldn’t get a passport…. After a desperately rough passage of 5 hours, and a cruel delay before we were permitted to land, occasion’d by our names being written down and reported to the municipality….[W]e were taken to the Custom House, transferr’d from thence to the municipal officers, and then to the examination of the commissaires. They were the most shocking sharks I ever saw altogether; even after trunks, Pocket Books, Writing Cases, Green baize bags, &c., were quietly deliver’d in, they put their hands into our pockets and then felt down our sides, even to our ankles, for contraband commodities….

Monday 30th Novr. …you will laugh at me when I confess to you the flash of transport I experienced in saying to myself ‘I absolutely then am in France,’ and in drawing aside the Curtain of my Bed to prove it to myself, by contemplating the Painted ceiling, the white marble Tables, the looking-glass panels, the polish’d oak floor, and all the little circumstances of difference in the Apartment… I lost my balance — and down I flump’d upon the floor to the utter destruction of all my glorious visions and abhorring those prodigious looking glasses…

Sunday, Dec. 13th, or (as they call it here) le dimanche ce 12me Frimaire, An 10.…a family of the name of Rose walk’d into the room as if they had suddenly step’d off of Pedestals. They were the first French ladies I had seen and such was the dress of the three demoiselles that I thought some of the Statues out of the Louvre had suddenly caught animation, and were come to return the compliments we had paid them in the morning. Nothing could look more like a little ‘Diana’ than Victoire, in light (almost transparent) drapery, no sleeves to her gown but gold chain twisted round the upper part of her Arm, into the form of a bracelet and her neck entirely seen. She was remarkably pretty and wore her hair with a crescent like a goddess. Her two sisters were in the same style, but had their hair twisted into long snaky curls, form their foreheads down to their chins, and greas’d with (what is call’d) Antique oil. Madame, their Mother, was too much en bon point to have such a sylphlike appearance as her daughters. But she did not add to her size by too much covering.

Ah, time for another cup of tea, and maybe a few Licorice All-Sorts (a treat found at TJ Maxx), and a serious read of my new “find”. I’m in the mood to be in France, awaiting a glimpse of Napoleon — though the Mount Cashell party travelled extensively these two years: including to Italy and even to my beloved Vienna.

Oh, before I forget — links to the online books! An Irish Peer and the Wilmot memoirs of Princess Dashkov, vol. 1 and vol. 2. These memoirs had to be smuggled out of Russia as the Wilmots made a hasty leave-taking; a great tale on its own!

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