The borders on the latter part of the tapestry (part of which we have shewn in the illustration) consist of incidents connected with the battle, and add greatly to its interest. Some of the earlier scenes are very amusing, having evidently been suggested by the fables of AEsop and Phaedrus; there are griffins, dragons, serpents, dogs, elephants, lions, birds, and monsters that suggest a knowledge of pre-Adamite life (some biting their own tails, or putting their heads into their neighbours' mouths), interspersed with representations of ploughing, and hunting, and of killing birds with a sling and a stone.
The most striking thing about the tapestry is the charming freshness and naivete with which the scenes and characters are depicted. The artist who designed it did not draw figures particularly well, he was ignorant of perspective, and all principles of colouring; but he gave, in his own way, expression to his faces, and attitudes which tell their story even without the help of the latin inscriptions which accompany them. Shade is often represented by colour, and that not always strictly in accordance with nature; thus, a red horse will be represented with one leg worked in blue, and so on; the faces and naked limbs of the warriors being worked in green or yellow, or left white, apparently as was found most convenient by the ladies of the time.
Whether Queen Matilda, or the ladies of her court, ever really worked the tapestry (there is good reason to doubt that she designed the borders) is a question of so little importance, that it is wonderful so much discussion has been raised upon it; it is surely enough for us to know that it was worked soon after the Conquest. There is evidence of this, and also that Odo, Bishop of Bayeux (the Conqueror's half-brother), ordered and arranged the work to the exact length of the walls of the church, round which it was intended that it should have been placed.
ST. LO—COUTANCES—GRANVILLE. (CHERBOURG.)
On our way to ST. LO, COUTANCES, and GRANVILLE on the western coast of Normandy, we may do well—if we are interested in the appliances of modern warfare, and would obtain any idea of the completeness and magnificence of the French Imperial Marine—to see something of CHERBOURG, situated near the bold headland of Cap de la Hague.
If we look about us as we approach the town, we shall see that the railway is cut through an extraordinary natural fortification of rocks; and if we ascend the heights of Le Roule, we shall obtain, what a Frenchman calls, a vue feerique du Cherbourg. We shall look down upon the magnificent harbour with its breakwater and surrounding forts, and see a fleet of iron-clads at anchor, surrounded by smaller vessels of all nations; gun-boats, turret-ships and every modern invention in the art of maritime war, but scarcely any ships of commerce. The whole energy and interest of a busy population seem concentrated at Cherbourg, either in constructing works of defence or engines of destruction.
The rather slovenly-looking orderly that we have sketched—sauntering up and down upon the ramparts, and sniffing the fresh breezes that come to him with a booming sound from the rocks of Querqueville that guard the west side of the bay—is justly proud of the efficiency and completeness which everywhere surround him, and with a twinkle in his eye, asks if 'Monsieur' has visited the arsenals, or has ever seen a naval review at Cherbourg. The pride and boast even of the boys that play upon these heights (boys with 'La Gloire' upon their hats, and dressed in a naval costume rather different from our notions of sailors), is that 'Cherbourg is impregnable and France invincible,' and, if we stay here long, we shall begin to believe both the one and the other.
There is a little difficulty, not insurmountable to an Englishman, with the assistance of his consul, in obtaining permission to visit the government works in progress, and now fast approaching completion; for the Government is courteous, if cautious, in this matter. The French people cannot help being polite; there is an English yacht riding in the harbour this morning, and the ladies, who have just come ashore, have every politeness and attention shewn to them; and the little yacht will refit, as so many do here in the summer, and take refuge again and again in this roadstead, with great convenience and many pleasant recollections of their reception.
If we had been upon these heights in the summer of 1858, and later in 1865, we might have seen the combined fleets of England and France in the roadstead; and, in the spring of 1865, with a good telescope, we might have witnessed a miniature naval engagement between the famous Alabama and the Kearsage, which took place a few miles from the shore.
The Port Militaire and the Arsenal de Marine at Cherbourg (which are said to be five times as large as Portsmouth), and its basins, in which a hundred sail of the line can be accommodated at one time, are sights which we scarcely realize in description, but which almost overwhelm us with their magnitude and importance, when seen from this vantage ground.
In three hours after leaving Cherbourg we may find ourselves settled in the little old-fashioned inn, called the Hotel du Soleil Levant, at ST. LO, which we shall probably have entirely to ourselves.
St. Lo, although the chef-lieu of the department of La Manche, appears to the traveller a quiet, second-rate manufacturing town, well-situated and picturesquely built, but possessing no particular objects of interest excepting the cathedral; although visitors who have spent any time in this neighbourhood find it rich in antiquities, and a good centre from which to visit various places in the environs. In no part of this beautiful province do we see the country to better advantage, and nowhere than in the suburbs of St. Lo, shall we find better examples of buildings of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
But St. Lo is dull, and there is a gloom about it that communicates itself insensibly to the mind; that finds expression in the worship of graven images by little children, and in the burning of innumerable candles in the churches. There is an air of untidiness and neglect about the town that no trim military regulations can alter, and a repose that no amount of chattering of the old women, or even the rattle of regimental drums, seems able to disturb. They do strange things at St. Lo in their quiet, dull way; they paint the names of their streets on the cathedral walls, and they make a post-office of one of its buttresses; they paste the trees all over with advertisements in the principal squares, and erect images of the Virgin on their warehouses. The master at our hotel calls to a neighbour across the street to come and join us at table, and the people at the shops stand outside, listlessly contemplating their own wares. There are at least 10,000 inhabitants, but we see scarcely anyone; a carriage, or a cart, startles us with its unusual sound, and every footstep echoes on the rough pavement. The arrival of the train from Paris; the commercial travellers that it brings, and the red liveries of the government grooms, leading out their horses, impart the only appearance of life to the town.
Nowhere in France does the military element seem more out of place, never did 'fine soldiers' seem so much in the way as at St. Lo. There is a parade to-day, there was a parade yesterday, and to-morrow (Sunday) there will be a military mass for a regiment leaving on foreign duty. It is all very right, no doubt, and necessary for the peace of Europe, the 'balance of power,' the consumption of pipe-clay, and the breaking of hearts sometimes; but, in contrast to the natural quiet of this place, the dust and noise are tremendous, and the national air (so gaily played as the troops march through the town) has, as it seems to us, an uncertain tone, and does not catch the sympathy of the bystanders. They stand gazing upon the pageant like the Venetians listening to the Austrian band—they are a peace-loving community at St. Lo.
But let us look well at the cathedral, at the grandeur of its spires, at its towers with open galleries, at the rich 'flamboyant' decoration of the doorways; at its monuments, chapels, and stained glass, and above all at the exterior pulpit, abutting on the street at the north-east end, which is one of the few remaining in France.
If we ascend one of the towers, we shall be rewarded with a view over a varied and undulating landscape, stretching far away westward towards the sea, and southward towards Avranches and Vire; whilst here and there we may distinguish, dotted amongst the trees, those curious chateaux of the ancienne noblesse, which are disappearing rapidly in other parts of France; and the view of the town and cathedral together, as seen from the opposite hill, with the river winding through the meadows, and the women washing, on their knees on the bank, is also very picturesque.
We do not, however, make a long stay at St. Lo, for we are within sixteen miles of the city of COUTANCES, with its narrow and curiously modern-looking streets, its ecclesiastical associations, and its magnificent cathedral. As we approach it, by the road, we see before us a group of noble Gothic spires, and are prepared to meet (as we do in nearly every street) ecclesiastics and priests, and to find the 'Catholic Church' holding its head high in this remote part of France.
Everything gives way to the Cathedral in point of interest and importance. It is considered 'one of the most complete and beautiful in France, free from exuberant ornament, and captivating the eye by the elegance of proportion and arrangement. Its plan possesses several peculiar features, comprising a nave with two west towers, side aisles, and chapels, filling up what would in other cathedrals be intervals between buttresses; north and south transepts, with an octagonal tower at their intersection; a choir with a polygonal apse, double aisles, with radiating chapels, and a Lady chapel at the east end. The nave, which is 100 feet high, consists of six bays, with triforium and lofty clerestory. The effect is exceedingly grand, and is enhanced by the lateral chapels seeming to constitute a second aisle all round. The whole of this part of the building is worthy of the closest examination. The interior of the large chapel of the south transept is very curious, circular at both ends. The choir has three bays in its rectangle, and five bays in its apse, the latter being separated by coupled piers outside each other (not touching), of wonderful lightness and beauty. The double aisle of the choir has a central range of single columns running all round it, and the effect of the intersection of so many shafts, columns, and vaultings is perfectly marvellous. There is no triforium in the choir, but only a pierced parapet under the clerestory windows, which are filled with fine early glass. There is much good glass, indeed, throughout the cathedral, and several interesting tombs.'
We quote this description in detail because the cathedral at Coutances is a rare gem, and possesses so many points of interest to the architect and antiquary.
The history of Coutances is like a history of the Roman Catholic Church, and the relics of bishops and saints meet us at every turn. As early as the third century there are records of its conversion to Christianity; it has passed through every vicissitude of war, pillage, and revolution, until in these latter days it has earned the guide-book appellation of 'a semi-clerical, semi-manufacturing, quiet, clean, agreeable town.' There are about 9000 inhabitants, including a few English families, attracted here by its reputation for salubrity and cheapness of living.
The beauty of the situation of Coutances can scarcely be exaggerated; built upon the sides of a lofty hill commanding views over a vast extent of country, it is approached on both sides up steep hills, by broad smooth roads with avenues of trees and surrounding gardens, and is surmounted by its magnificent old cathedral, which is the last important building of the kind, that we shall see, until we reach Rouen; and one the traveller is never likely to forget, especially if he ascend the tower, as we did, one morning whilst service was being performed below.
It was our last morning at Coutances, the air was still and clear, and the panorama was superb; on every side of us were beautiful hills, rich with orchards laden with fruit, and fields of corn; and beyond them, far away westward, the sea and coast line, and the channel islands with their dangerous shores. The air was calm, and dreamy, but in the distance we could see white lines of foam—the 'wild horses' of the Atlantic in full career; beneath our feet was the open 'lantern dome,' and the sound of voices came distinctly up the fluted columns; we could hear the great organ under the western towers, the voices of the congregation in the nave, and the chanting of the priests before the altar,—
'Casting down their golden crowns, beside the glassy sea.'
The town of GRANVILLE, built on a rock by the sea, with its dark granite houses, its harbour and fishing-boats, presents a scene of bustle and activity in great contrast to Coutances and St. Lo. There is an upper and lower town—a town on the rocks, with its old church with five gilt statues, built almost out at sea—and another town, on the shore. The streets of the old town are narrow and badly paved; but there is great commercial activity, and a general sign of prosperity amongst its sea-faring population. The approach to the sea (on one side of the promontory, on which the town is built) is very striking; we emerge suddenly through a fissure in the cliffs on to the sea-shore, into the very heart and life of the place—into the midst of a bustling community of fishermen and women. There is fish everywhere, both in the sea and on the land, and the flavour of it is in the air; there are baskets, bales, and nets, and there is, it must be added, a familiar ring of Billingsgate in the loud voices that we hear around us. Granville is the great western sea port of France, from which Paris is constantly supplied; and, in spite of the deficiency of railway communication, it keeps up constant trade with the capital—a trade which is not an unmixed benefit to its inhabitants; for in the 'Messager de Granville' of August, 1869, we read that:—
'L'extreme chaleur de la temperature n'empeche pas nos marchands d'expedier a Paris des quantites considerables de poisson, au moment meme ou il est hors de prix sur notre marche. Nous ne comprenons rien a de semblables speculations, dont l'un des plus facheux resultats est d'ajouter—une affreuse odeur aux desagrements de nos voitures publiques!'
All through the fruitful land that we have passed, we cannot help being struck with the evident inadequate means of transport for goods and provisions; at Coutances, for instance, and at Granville (the great centre of the oyster fisheries of the west) they have only just thought about railways, and we may see long lines of carts and waggons, laden with perishable commodities, being carried no faster than in the days of the first Napoleon.
But we, who are in search of the picturesque should be the very last to lament the fact, and we may even join in the sentiment of the Maire of Granville, and be 'thankful' that the great highways of France are under the control of a careful Government; and that her valleys are not (as in England) strewn with the wrecks of abandoned railways—ruins which, by some strange fatality, never look picturesque.
Granville is a favourite place of residence, and a great resort for bathing in the summer; although the 'Etablissement' is second-rate, and the accommodation is not equal to that of many smaller watering-places of France. It is, however, a pleasant and favourable spot in which to study the manners and customs of a sea-faring people: and besides the active human creatures which surround us, we—who settle down for a season, and spend our time on the sands and on the dark rocks which guard this iron-bound coast—soon become conscious of the presence of another vast, active, striving, but more silent community on the sea-shore, digging and delving, sporting and swimming, preying upon themselves and each other, and enjoying intensely the luxury of living.
If we, nous autres, who dwell upon the land and prey upon each other according to our opportunities, will go down to the shore when the tide is out, and ramble about in the—
'Rosy gardens revealed by low tides,'
we may make acquaintance with a vast Lilliput community; we may learn some surprising lessons in natural history, and read sermons in shells. But, amidst this most interesting and curious congregation of fishes—a concourse of crabs, lobsters, eels in holes, limpets on the rocks, and a hundred other inhabitants of the sea, in every form of activity around us—we must not forget, in our enthusiasm for these things, the treacherous tides on this coast, and the great Atlantic waves, that will suddenly overwhelm the flat shore, and cut off retreat from those who are fishing on the rocks.
This happens so often, and is so full of danger to those unacquainted with the coast, that we may do good service by relating again, an adventure which happened to the late Campbell of Islay and a friend, who were nearly drowned near Granville. They had been absorbed in examining the rocks at some distance from the shore, and in collecting the numerous marine plants which abound in their crevices; when suddenly one of the party called out—
'Mercy on us! I forgot the tide, and here it comes.'
Turning towards the sea they saw a stream of water running at a rapid pace across the sands. They quickly began to descend the rocks, but before they could reach the ground 'the sand was in stripes, and the water in sheets.' They then ran for the shore, but before they had proceeded far, they were met by one of the fisher-girls, who had seen their danger from the shore, and hastened to turn them back, calling to them—
'The wave! the wave! it is coming—turn! turn and run—or we are lost!'
They did turn, and saw far out to sea a large wave rolling toward the shore. The girl passed them and led the way; the two friends strained every nerve to keep pace with her, for as they neared the rock, the wave still rolled towards them; the sand became gradually covered, and for the last ten steps they were up to their knees in water—but they were on the rock.
'Quick! quick!' said the girl; 'there is the passage to the Cross at the top; but if the second wave comes we shall be too late.'
She scrambled on for a hundred yards till she came to a crack in the rock, six or seven feet wide, along which the water was rushing like a mill-sluice. With some difficulty they reached the upper rocks, carrying the fisher-girl in their arms, and wading above their knees in water. Here they rest a moment—when a great wave rolls in, and the water runs along the little platform where they are sitting; they all rise, and mounting the rocky points (which the little Granvillaise assures them are never quite covered with water), cluster together for support. In a few moments the suspense is over, the girl points to the shore, where they can hear the distant sound of a cheer, and see people waving their handkerchiefs.
'They think the tide has turned,' says the girl, 'and they are shouting to cheer us.'
She was right, the tide had turned. Another wave came and wetted their feet, but when it had passed the water had fallen, and in five minutes the platform was again dry!
The fisherwomen of Granville are famed for their beauty, industry, and courage; we, certainly, have not seen such eyes, excepting at Cadiz, and never have we seen so many active hard-working old women. The women seem to do everything here—the 'boatmen' are women, and the fishermen young girls.
We may well admire some of these handsome Granvillaises, living their free life by the sea, earning less in the day, generally, than our Staffordshire pit girls, but living much more enviable lives. Here they are by hundreds, scattered over the beach in the early morning, and afterwards crowding into the market-place; driving hard bargains for the produce of their sea-farms, and—with rather shrill and unpronounceable ejaculations and many most winning smiles—handing over their shining wares. It is all for the Paris market they will tell you, and they may also tell you (if you win their confidence) that they, too, are one day for Paris.
Let us leave the old women to do the best bargaining, and picture to the reader a bright figure that we once saw upon this shining shore, a Norman maiden, about eighteen years of age, without shoes or stockings; a picture of health and beauty bronzed by the sun. This young creature who had spent her life by the sea and amongst her own people, was literally overflowing with happiness, she could not contain the half of it, she imparted it to everyone about her (unconsciously, and that was its sweetness); she could not strictly be called handsome, and she might be considered very ignorant; but she bloomed with freshness, she knew neither ill health nor ennui, and happiness was a part of her nature.
This charming 'aphrodite piscatrix' is stalwart and strong (she can swim a mile with ease), she has carried her basket and nets since sunrise, and now at eight o'clock on this summer's morning sits down on the rocks, makes a quick breakfast of potage, plumes herself a little, and commences knitting. She does not stay long on the beach, but before leaving, makes a slight acquaintance with the strangers, and evinces a curious desire to hear anything they may have to tell her about the great world.
It is too bright a picture to last; she too, it would seem, has day-dreams of cities; she would give up her freedom, she would join the crowd and enter the 'great city,' she would have a stall at 'les halles,' and see the world. Day-dreams, but too often fulfilled—the old story of centralization doing its work; look at the map of Normandy, and see how the 'chemin de fer de l'Ouest' is putting forth its arms, which—like the devil-fish, in Victor Hugo's 'Travailleurs de la Mer'—will one day draw irresistibly to itself, our fair 'Toiler of the sea.'
'What does Monsieur think?' (for we are favoured with a little confidence from our young friend), and what can we say? Could we draw a tempting picture of life in cities—could we, if we had the heart, draw a favourable contrast between her life, as we see it, and the lives of girls of her own age, who live in towns—who never see the breaking of a spring morning, or know the beauty of a summer's night? Could we picture to her (if we would) the gloom that shrouds the dwellings of many of her northern sisters; and could she but see the veil that hangs over London, in such streets as Harley, or Welbeck Street, on the brightest morning that ever dawned on their sleeping inhabitants, she might well be reconciled to her present life!
'Is it nothing,' we are inclined to ask her, 'to feel the first rays of the sun at his rising, to be fanned with fresh breezes, to rejoice in the wind, to brave the storm; to have learned from childhood to welcome as familiar friends, the changes of the elements, and, in short, to have realised, in a natural life the 'mens sana in corpore sano'? Would she be willing to repeat the follies of her ancestors in the days of the Trianon and Louis XIV.? Would she complete the fall which began when knights and nobles turned courtiers—and roues? Let us read history to her and remind her what centralization did for old France; let us whisper to her, whilst there is time, what Paris is like in our own day.
Do we exaggerate the evils of over-centralization? We only at present, half know them; but the next generation may discover the full meaning of the word. There is exaggeration, no doubt; some men have lived so long in the country that they speak of towns as a 'seething mass of corruption,' pregnant of evil; and of villages as of an almost divine Arcadia, whence nothing but good can spring; but the evils of centralization can scarcely be overrated in any community. The social system even in France, cannot revolve for ever round one sun.
AVRANCHES—MONT ST. MICHAEL.
There are some places in Europe which English people seem, with one consent, to have made their own; they take possession of them, peacefully enough it is true, but with a determination that the inhabitants find it impossible to resist. Thus it is that Avranches—owing principally, it may be, to its healthiness and cheapness of living, and to the extreme beauty of its situation—has become an English country town, with many of its peculiarities, and a few, it must be added, of its rather unenviable characteristics.
The buildings at Avranches are not very remarkable. The cathedral has been destroyed, and the houses are of the familiar French pattern; some charmingly situated in pleasant gardens commanding the view over the bay. The situation seems perfect. Built upon the extreme western promontory of the long line of hills which extend from Domfront and the forest of Audaine, with a view unsurpassed in extent towards the sea, with environs of undulating hills and fruitful landscape; with woods and streams (such as the traveller who has only passed through central France could hardly imagine) we can scarcely picture to ourselves a more favoured spot.
No district in Normandy (a resident assures us) affords a more agreeable resting place than the hills of Avranches, excepting, perhaps, the smiling environs of Mortain and Vire. Mortain is within easy distance, as well as Mont St. Michael (which we have sketched from the terrace at Avranches, at the beginning of this chapter), and Granville, also, on the western shore of the Norman archipelago; to the extreme south is seen the Bay of Cancale in Brittany, and the promontory of St. Malo; to the north, the variegated landscape of the Cotentin—hills, valleys, woods, villages, churches, and chateaux smiling in the sunshine,—the air melodious with the song of the lark and innumerable nightingales.'
True as is this picture of the natural beauty of the position of Avranches, we will add one or two facts (gathered lately on the spot) which may be useful to intending emigrants from our shores. Within the last few years house rent, though still cheap, has greatly increased; and the prices of provisions, which used to be so abundant from Granville and St. Malo, have risen, as they have, indeed, all over France. The railway from Granville to Paris will only make matters worse, and the resident will soon see the butter, eggs, and fowls, which used to throng the market of Avranches, packed away in baskets for Paris and London. The salmon and trout in the rivers, are already netted and sold by the pound; and the larks sing no longer in the sky. Thus, like Dinan, Tours and Pau, Avranches feels the weight of centralisation and the effects of rapid communication with the capital; and will in a few years be anything but a cheap place of residence.
However, from information gathered only yesterday, we learn that 'house rent bears favourable comparison with many English provincial towns; that servants' wages are not high, and that provisions are comparatively cheap;' also that the climate is 'very cold sometimes in winter, but more inclined to be damp; and that there is no good inn.'
Again,—'if any quiet family demands fine air, a lovely position, cheap house-rent and servants, easy and cheerful society, regular church services, and, above all, first-class education for boys, and good governesses and masters for girls, it cannot do better than settle down here.'
And again (from another point of view) that, 'after a year's residence in Normandy, I can see but little economy in it compared with England, and believe that sensible people would find far greater comfort, and but little more expense, if resident in Wales, Ireland, or some of the distant parts of our own country; if they would but make up their minds to live with as few servants, and to see as little society as is the custom abroad.'
These varying opinions are worth having, coming as they do from residents, and giving us the latest information on the subject; but our friend whom we have quoted last seems to put the case most fairly, when he says, in so many words, 'English people had better live in their own country, if they can.'
Life at Avranches is a strange contrast to Granville. In a few hours we pass from the contemplation of fishermen's lives to a curious kind of civilization—an exotic plant, which some might think was hardly worth the transplanting. A little colony of English people have taken possession of one of the finest and healthiest spots in Europe, and upon this vantage ground have deposited, or reproduced as in a magic mirror, much of the littleness and pettiness that is peculiar to an English country town: they have brought insular prejudices and peculiarities, and unpacked several of them at Avranches.
Do we overdraw the picture? Hear one more resident, who thus tersely, and rather pathetically, puts his grievances to us, viva voce:—
'We quiet English people,' he says, 'generally dine early, because it is considered economical—which it is not!
'We live exclusively and stiffly, because it is considered proper and necessary—which it is not!
'We go to the expense and trouble of bringing out our families, because living is supposed to be cheaper than in England—which practically it is not!
'We believe that our children will be well educated, and pick up French for nothing—which they do not!'—&c, &c.
An amusing book might be written about English society in French towns; no one indeed knows who has not tried it, with what little society-props such coteries as those at Avranches, Pau, &c., are kept up. It varies, of course, every year, and in each place every year; but when we were last at Avranches, 'society' was the watchword, we might almost say the war cry; and we had to declare our colours as if we lived in the days of the Wars of the Roses.
The old inhabitants are, of course, 'rather particular,' and, to tell the truth, are sometimes rather afraid of each other. They are apt to eye with considerable caution any new arrival; the 'new arrival' is disposed to be equally select, and so they live together and apart, after the true English model; and indulging sometimes, it must be added, in considerable speculation about their new neighbours' business.
'Why were they proud—because red-lined accounts Were richer than the songs of Grecian years? Why were they proud—again we ask, aloud, Why in the name of glory were they proud?'
And so on; but what we might say of Avranches would apply to nearly every little English colony abroad. There are two sides to the picture, and there is a good, pleasant side to the English society at Avranches; there is also great necessity to be 'particular,' however much we may laugh. English people who come to reside abroad are not, as a rule, very good representatives of their nation; neither they nor their children seem to flourish on a foreign soil, they differ in their character as much as transplanted trees; they have more affinity with the poplars and elms of France than with the sturdy oaks of England.
Let us not be thought to disparage Avranches; if it is our lot to live here we may enjoy life well; and if we are not deterred by the dull and 'weedy' aspect of some of the old chateaux, we may also make some pleasant friends amongst the French families in the neighbourhood.
In summer time we may almost live out of doors, and ramble about in the fields and sketch, as we should do in England; the air is fresh and bracing, and the sea breeze comes gratefully on the west wind. We may stroll through shady lanes and between hedgerows, and we shall hear the familiar sound of bells, and see through the trees a church tower, such as the following (which is indeed the common type throughout Normandy); but here the similarity to England ceases, for we may enter the building at any hour, and find peasant women at prayers.
And we may see sometimes a party of English girls from a French school, with their drawing master; sketching from nature and making minute studies of the brandies of trees. They are seated on a hill-side, and there is a charming pastoral scene before them,—wood and water, pasture-land and cattle grazing,—women with white caps, and little white houses peeping through the trees.
But the trees that they are studying are small and characterless compared with our own, they are scattered about the landscape, or set in trim lines along the roads: our fair artists had better be in England for this work. There is none of the mass and grandeur here that we see in our forest trees, none of the suggestive groups with which we are so familiar, even in the parks of London, planted 'by accident' (as we are apt to call it), but standing together with clear purpose of protection and support,—the strong-limbed facing the north and stretching out their protecting arms, the weaker towering above them in the centre of the square; whilst those to the south spread a deep shade almost to the ground. French trees are under an Imperial necessity to form into line; the groves at Fontainbleau are as straight as the Fifth Avenue at New York. There are no studies of trees in all Normandy like the royal oaks of Windsor, there is nothing to compare in grandeur with the stems of the Burnham beeches, set in a carpet of ferns; and nothing equal in effect to the massing of the blue pines—with their bronzed stems against an evening sky—in Woburn Park in Bedfordshire. We may bring some pretty studies from Avranches and from the country round, but we should not come to France to draw trees.
But there are studies which we may make near Avranches, and of scenes that we shall not meet with in England. If we descend the hill and walk a few miles in the direction of Granville, we may see by the roadside the remnants of several wayside 'stations' of very early date. Let us sit down by the roadside to sketch one of these (A.D. 1066), and depict for the reader, almost with the accuracy of a photograph, its grotesque proportions. It stands on a bank, in a prominent position, by the roadside; a rude contrast to the surrounding scenery. Presently there comes up an old cantonnier in a blouse and heavy sabots, who has just returned from mending the roads; he takes off his cap, crosses himself devoutly, and kneels down to pray. The sun shines upon the cross and upon the kneeling figure; the soft wind plays about them, the bank is lovely with wild flowers; there are purple hills beyond, and a company of white clouds careering through space. But the old man sees nothing but the cross, he has no eyes for the beauty of landscape, no ear for the music of the birds or the voices of nature; he sees nothing but the image of his Saviour, he kneels as he knelt in childhood before the cross, he clasps his worn hands, and prays, with many repetitions, words which evidently bring comfort to his soul. In a few minutes the old man rises and puts on his cap, with a brass plate on it with the number of his canton, produces a little can of soup and bread and sits down on the bank to breakfast; ending by unrolling a morsel of tobacco from a crumpled paper, putting it into his mouth and going fast asleep.
Many more such scenes we could record, but they are more fitted for the pencil than the pen; the artist can easily fill his sketch-book without going far from Avranches.
But as autumn advances our thoughts are naturally turned more towards 'le sport;' and if we are fortunate enough to be on visiting terms with the owners of the neighbouring chateaux, we may be present at some interesting scenes that will remind us of pictures in the galleries at Versailles.
'With good books, a good rod, and a double gun, one could never weary of a residence at Avranches,' says an enthusiastic settler who has found out the right corners in the trout-streams, and, possibly, the denizens of the neighbouring woods. The truth, however, is that in spite of the beautifully wooded country round, and the rivers that wind so picturesquely beneath us; in spite of its unexampled situation and its glorious view, Avranches is scarcely the spot for a sportsman to select for a residence.
In the season there are numerous sportsmen, both English and French, and occasionally a very fair bag may be made; but game not being preserved systematically, the supply is variable, and accounts of sport naturally differ very widely. We can only say that it is poor work after our English covers, and that we know some residents at Avranches who prefer making excursions into Brittany for a week's shooting. Trout may be caught in tolerable abundance, and salmon of good weight are still to be found in the rivers, but they are diminishing fast, being, as we said, netted at night for the Paris market.
It was in the shooting season of the year, when game had been unusually scarce for the sportsman and provokingly plentiful to behold in the market-place at Granville—when the last accounts we had of the success of a party (who had been out for a week) was that they had bagged 'only a few woodcocks, three partridges, and a hare or two'—that the following clever sketch appeared in the newspapers. It was great fun, especially amongst some of our French friends who were very fond of the phrase 'chasse magnifique,' and resented the story as a terrible libel.
An enthusiastic French marquis offered one of our countrymen, whom he met in Paris, a few days' shooting, in short, a 'chasse magnifique.' He accepted and went the next day; 'the journey was seven hours by railway, but to the true sportsman this was nothing.' The morning after his arrival he was attended by the marquis's keeper, who, in answer to X.'s enquiries, thus mapped out the day's sport:—
'Pour commencer, monsieur, nous chasserons dans les vignes de M. le Marquis, ou a cette saison nous trouverons certainement des grives (thrushes).' 'Et apres?' says X. 'Eh bien! apres, nous passerons une petite heure sur la grande plaine, ou, sans doute, nous trouverons une masse d'alouettes (larks). En suite je montrerai a monsieur certaines poules d'eau (moorhens) que je connais; fichtre! nous les attraperons. Il y a la-bas aussi, dans le marais, un petit lac ou, l'annee passee, j'ai vu un canard, mais un canard sauvage! Nous le chercherons; peut-etre il y sera.'
'But have you no partridges?' 'Des perdreaux! mais oui! je le crois bien! (il demande si nous avons des perdreaux!) Il y en a, mais ils sont difficiles. Nous en avions quatre, mais, le mois passe, M. le Marquis en a tue un et serieusement blesse un second. La pauvre bete n'est pas encore guerie. Cela ne nous laisse que deux. Nous les chasserons sans doute si monsieur le veut; mais que feronsnous l'annee prochaine? Si monsieur veut bien achever cette pauvre bete blessee, ca peut s'arranger.'
'Well, but have you no covert shooting—no hares?'
'Les lievres? mais certainement, nous avons des lievres. Nous irons dans la foret, je prendrai mes chiens, et je vous montrerai de belles lievres. J'en ai trois—Josephine, Alphonse, et le vieux Adolphe. Pour le moment Josephine est sacree—elle est mere. Le petit Alphonse s'est marie avec elle, comme ca il est un peu pere de famille; nous l'epargnerons, n'est-ce-pas, monsieur? Mais le vieux Adolphe, nous le tuerons; c'est deja temps; voila cinq ans que je le chasse!'
MONT ST. MICHAEL.
From the terrace of the Jardin des Plantes, where we are never tired of the view (although some residents complain that it becomes monotonous, because they are too far from the sea to enjoy its variety), the grey mount of St. Michael is ever before us, gleaming in the sunshine or looming through the storm. In our little sketch we have given as accurately as possible its appearance from Avranches on a summer's day after rain; but it should be seen when a storm passes over it, when the same clouds that we have watched so often on summer nights, casting deep shadows on the intervening plain—some silver-lined that may have expressed hope, some black as midnight that might mean despair—come over to us like messengers from the great rock, and take our little promontory by storm. They come silently one by one, and gather round and fold over us; then suddenly clap their hands and burst with such a deluge of rain that it seems a matter for wonder that any little creeping human things could survive the flood. And it does us good; we are thoroughly drenched, our houses and gardens do not recover their fair presence for weeks; our little prejudices and foibles are well nigh washed out of us, and we are reminded of the dread reality of the lives of our neighbours on the island, who form a much larger colony than ourselves.
'On no account omit a visit to Mont St. Michael,' say the guide-books, and accordingly we charter a carriage on a summer's morning and are driven in a few hours along a bad road, to the edge of the sands about a mile from the mount—the same sands that we saw depicted in the Bayeux tapestry, when William and Harold marched on Dinan. We choose a favourable time of the tide, and approach the gates at the foot of the mount dryshod.
For a thousand years pilgrims have crossed these treacherous sands to lay their offerings at the feet of the Archangel Michael; Norman dukes and monks of the middle ages have paid their devotion at his shrine, and troops of pilgrims in all ages, even to this day, when a party of English school-girls come tripping across the bay, provided with a passport and a fee, bent upon having the terrors of the prison-house shewn to them as easily as the 'chamber of horrors' at Madame Tussaud's.
Before us, as we walk the last mile, the granite rock gradually becomes a mountain surrounded by a wide plain of sand, covered with clustering houses, towers, turrets, and fortifications, and surmounted by a Gothic church nearly 400 feet above the sea. There is a little town upon the rock, old, tumble-down, irregular, and picturesque, like Bastia in Corsica—constructed by a hardy sea-faring people, who have built their dwellings in the sides of this conical rock, like the sea-birds; and there is a little inn called the Lion d'or, with windows built out over the ramparts, from which we can see the shore.
On arriving at the island we pass under two ancient towers, and into 'the court of the Lion;' then to a third gate, with its towers and battlements, and frowning portcullis; and we see, as we pass, the lion (the insignia of the knights of Mont St. Michael) carved in stone, and set into the wall. We are received in the ancient guard-room by a 'young brother,' who has (shall it be repeated?) 'turned the guard-room into a cheerful bazaar for the sale of photographs, ivory carvings and the like.' We are on the threshold of the sanctuary, at the end of our pilgrimage; we offer up no prayers, as of old, for safe deliverance from peril, but we set to work at once, and 'invest in a pocketful of little presents, which another brother (on business thoughts intent) packs for us neatly in a pasteboard box.' We are shewn the apartments in the 'Tour des Corbins,' with its grand staircase, called 'l'escalier des exils,' and the crypt one hundred feet long, built by the monks in the eleventh century; we see the great Gothic hall of the Knights of Mont St. Michael, with its carved stone-work and lofty roof, supported by three rows of pillars, beautiful in proportion, and grand in effect, although the Revolution, as usual, has left us little but the bare walls; but, as we look down upon it from a gallery, it is easy to picture the splendour of a banquet of knights in the twelfth century, with the banners and insignia of chivalry ranged upon the walls. But it is now a silent gloomy chamber, and the atmosphere is so close and the moral atmosphere so heavy withal, that we are glad to leave it, and to ascend to another story of this wonderful pile; through the beautiful Gothic cloisters, and out upon the cathedral roof, where we suddenly emerge upon a view more wonderful in its extent and flatness than anything, save that from the cathedral tower of Chartres; before us an horizon of sea, behind us the coast line, and the hills of Avranches; all around, a wide plain of sand, and northward, in the far distance, the low dark lines of the channel islands.
That 'Saint Michael's Mount has become a popular lion, and can only be seen under the vexatious companionship of a guide and a party' is true enough; nevertheless, we can stay at the inn on the island, and thus be enabled to examine and make drawings of some of the most beautiful thirteenth-century work in the cloisters that we shall meet with in Normandy. These cloisters and open arcades (supported by upwards of two hundred slender pillars) are carved and decorated with grotesque and delicate ornament, the capitals to the pillars are richly foliated, and the fringe that surrounds them has been well described as a 'wilderness of vines and roses, and dragons, winged and crowned.'
Like the churches in Normandy, the architecture of these monastic buildings is in nearly every style, from the simple romanesque of the eleventh century to the rich flamboyant of the fifteenth; and, like many of the churches, its history dates from the time when the Druids took possession of the island to the days when the storm of the Revolution broke upon its shores.
The ordinary time for visiting the rock is when the tide is out, but we have not seen Mont St. Michael to advantage until it is completely surrounded by water, as it is during the spring tides; it is then that, approached from the west, we may see it half-obscured by sea-foam, with its turrets shining through the clouds, and the heavy Atlantic waves booming against its foundations.
The little fishing population of Mont St. Michael, and the stories they tell of the dangers of the quicksands, will while away the time in the evening and reward us for staying; and we shall see such an exhibition of hopeless ennui on the part of the French officers in garrison as will not soon be forgotten.
It would require a separate work to describe in detail all the buildings on the rock; (it takes a day to examine the fortifications and dungeons alone); we have therefore only attempted to give the reader an idea of its general aspect; of what M. Nodier, in his 'Annales Romantiques,' describes as 'l'effet poetique et religieux de la fleche du Mont St. Michael;' and indeed we have hardly dared to picture to ourselves the complete magnificence of the basilica of the Archangel, as mariners who approached these shores must have seen it three hundred years ago, with its lofty towers of sculptured stone; and the image of its patron saint, turning towards the western sun a fiery cross of gold.
We now turn our faces towards the east, and starting again from Avranches on our homeward journey, go very leisurely by diligence, through Mortain and Vire to Falaise.
The distance from Avranches to Mortain is not more than twenty miles, and takes nearly five hours; but the country is so beautiful, and the air is so fresh and bracing, that a seat in the banquette of the diligence is one of the most enviable in life. The roof is over-loaded with goods and passengers, which gives a pleasant swaying motion to the vehicle; but the road is so smooth and even that 'nobody cares'—the rocking to and fro is soothing, and sends the driver to sleep, the pieces of string that keep the harness together will hold for another hour or two, and the crazy machine will last our journey at least.
We halt continually on the journey—once, for half-an-hour, literally 'under the lindens'—they are not yet in bloom, but they give out a pleasant perfume into the dreamy air; we are again in the open country, in the atmosphere of old historic Normandy, and bound, slowly it is true, for the birthplace of William the Conqueror; and we can read or sleep at pleasure, as our crazy diligence crawls up and creeps down every hill, and stops at every cottage by the way.
On this beautiful winding road, which is carried along and between, the ridge of hills on which Avranches stands, and commands views westward over the bay to Mont St. Michael and eastward towards Alencon and the plains of Orne, we only meet one or two solitary pedestrians. We are nearly as much alone as in a Swiss pass; the scenery might be part of the Tete Noire, and the Hotel de la Poste, at Mortain, which is built on the side of a hill over a ravine, and at which our diligence makes a dead stop, might, for many reasons, be a posada on the Italian Alps.
If we stroll out at once, before the evening closes, we shall have time to visit the cemetery on the rocks, to see the remains of a castle of the Norman dukes, and above all, the superb panorama from the heights; and we may wander afterwards into the valleys to see the cascades, the ivy-covered rocks, and the masses of ferns; scenes so exquisite and varied that we are lost in wonder that all these things are to be seen in France at small trouble and cost, and that French artists have hardly ever told us of them.
That 'the country round Mortain is not known as well as it deserves,' is a remark that cannot be too often repeated; we cannot, indeed, imagine a more delightful district for an English artist in which to spend a summer, and we promise him that he shall find subjects that will look as well on the walls of the Academy as the Welsh hills, or the valleys of Switzerland.
We are at a loss to express in words the romantic beauty of the situation of Mortain, where we may pitch our tent, and make studies of rocks, which will tell us more in practice, than written volumes about these wondrous geological formations; and the clusters of ivy in the niches, the moss and lichen, the rich colour of the boulders, the trees in the valleys below us, the clear sky, and the sweet air that comes across the bay, make us linger here for the beauty of the scene alone; regardless almost of the ancient history of Mortain, of the story of its Pagan temples, of its thirteenth-century church, and almost unmindful of the 'Abbaye de Savigny,' eight miles off, a building which is worthy of a special visit.
And we come away, perforce, in the evening-time from all this lovely landscape, from the pure air, from the cascades, the rocks, and the ferns, from everything agreeable to the senses, to the most literal, shameful, wallowing in the mire. We have spoken, so far, only of the scene; let add a word in very truth, about 'man and his dwelling-place.' How shall we describe it? We are at the Hotel de la Poste, and we are housed like pigs; we (some of us) eat like them, and live even as the lower animals. We—'Messieurs et Mesdames,' lords and ladies of the creation—hide our heads in a kennel; our dirty rooms 'give' on to the odorous court-yard; we turn our backs upon the valley which the building almost overhangs; we can neither breathe pure air nor see the bright landscape. Any details of the domestic arrangements and surroundings of the Hotel de la Poste at Mortain would be unfit for these pages; suffice it that, we are in one of the second-rate old-fashioned inns of France, the style of which our travelled forefathers may well remember.
We have more than once been censured for saying that the French people have little natural love for scenery, and a stilted, not to say morbid, theory of landscape; but whilst we stay in this inn, from which we might have had such splendid views, we become confirmed in the opinion (formed in the Pyrenees), that the French people do not care, and that they think nothing of defiling Nature's purest places. At this hotel we are in the position of the prisoners confined aloft in the tower at Florence; the hills and valleys are before and around us, but we are not allowed to see them.
On our road to VIRE, twenty-three miles distant, it is tempting to make a digression to the town of Domfront (which the reader will see on the map, a few miles to the south-east); we should do so, to see its picturesque position, with the ancient castle on the heights, and the town, as at Falaise, growing round its feet; also an old church at the foot of the hill, which is considered 'one of the best and purest specimens of Norman work to be found anywhere.'
But the route we have chosen for description, now turns northward, passing through a still beautiful land, studded with thatched cottages, and lighted up with the dazzling white helmets of the women who are busy in the fields, and in the farms and homesteads. As we approach the town of Vire, the population has evidently been absorbed into the cloth and paper mills, for, excepting in the morning and the evening, there are very few people abroad; we see scarcely any one, save, at regular intervals on the road, the old cantonniers occupied in their business of making stone-pies, or a village cure at work in his garden; but we notice that the houses are neater and better built than those near Mortain, where grass grows luxuriantly upon them, and the roofs are covered with coloured mosses.
The situation of Vire is one of extreme beauty (reminding us again of Switzerland), with hills and valleys richly wooded, the trees being larger than any we have yet seen on our route. If we had approached Vire from the west, by way of Villedieu and St. Sever, we should have had even finer views than by way of Mortain; but Villedieu is at present more deplorable than Mortain in its domestic arrangements, and the inn is to be avoided by all cleanly people; however, with the completion of the railway from Vire to Granville, we are promised much better things.
The chief architectural object of interest at Vire is the old clock-tower of the thirteenth century, over the Rue de Calvados, with its high gateway, formerly called 'the gate of the Champ de Vire.' Over this gateway (which we cannot see from the position where we have sketched the belfry) there is a statue of the Virgin, with the inscription, 'Marie protege la ville.' This tower has been altered and repaired at several periods, and, like two others near it, is too much built up against and crowded by, what the French call 'maisons vulgaires,' to be well seen.
We have not spoken of the castle first, because there is little of it left besides the keep; and the part that remains seems no longer old. The bold promontory on which it stood is now neatly kept and 'tidied' with smooth slopes, straight walks, and double rows of trees, pleasant to walk upon, but more suggestive of the Bois de Boulogne than the approach to a ruin.
It is from this promontory, or rather from what Murray calls 'this dusty pleasure ground,' that we obtain our best view of the country westward, towards Avranches; and from whence we can see the bold granite formation of the rocks in the neighbourhood. We may see where the manufacturers of cloth and paper have established their mills; and also where, in some cases, they have had to widen out the valleys, and to cut roads through the rocks to their works. All the streams turn waterwheels, and many of the surrounding rocks are disfigured with cloth 'tenters.'
There are some curious half-timbered houses at Vire, and some old streets tempting to sketch; including the house of Basselin, the famous originator of 'vaux de Vire'—or, as they are now called, vaudevilles.
The inhabitants number about 9000, they are for the most part engaged in the manufactories of the place, too busy apparently to modernise either their costume or their dwellings; but the railway is now bringing others to the town who will work these changes for them. Happily for them and for us, the hills are of granite and their sides most precipitous, and the innovators make slow progress in modernisation. At the hotels everyone drinks cider, rather than vin ordinaire; and at night we are awoke with the clatter of sabots and the voice of the watchman.
The ancient town of FALAISE, to which so many Englishmen make a pilgrimage, as being the reputed birthplace of William the Conqueror, can now be reached, either from Caen, Vire, or Paris, by railway; but we who come from the west, will do well to keep to the old road; and (if we wish to preserve within us any of the associations connected with the place) should not have the sound of 'Falaise' first rung in our ears by railway porters. Both the town and castle of Falaise are situated on high ground; and the latter, being on the side of a precipitous eminence, may be seen for a long distance before we approach it by the road. At Falaise, as at Lisieux, the traveller who arrives in the town by railway, is generally surprised and disappointed, at first sight, with its modern aspect.
'The castle of Falaise,' says M. Leduc, 'consists of a large square Norman keep of the tenth and eleventh centuries, standing at the steepest and highest part of a rocky eminence, with a lofty and exceedingly fine circular tower, connected with it on the south-west by a passage; and round the whole, a long irregular line of outer wall following the sinuosities of the hill, fortified by circular towers and enclosing various detached buildings used by the garrison. This line of outer wall and the circular tower is of much later date than the keep, and the greater portion of them is not older than the fourteenth or fifteenth century, when the castle had to withstand attacks from the English. In the keep (it is said) William the Conqueror was born, and they pretend to show the remains of the very room where this event took place, as well as the identical window from which his father "Duke Robert the Magnificent," first saw Arlette, the daughter of the Falaise tanner.'
Here, under the shadow of 'Talbot's tower,' we might prefer to muse historically, and gather up our memories of facts connected with the place; but we are treading again upon 'the footsteps of the Conqueror,' and must pay for our indiscretion. From the moment we approach the precincts of the castle, we are pounced upon by the inevitable spider (in this instance, in the shape of a very rough and ignorant custodian) who is in hiding to receive his prey. Before we have time for remonstrance, we have paid our money, we have ascended the smooth round tower (one hundred feet high, with walls fifteen feet thick) by a winding staircase, we have been taken out on to the modern zinc-covered roof, and shown the view therefrom; and the spots where the various sieges and battles took place, including the breach made by Henry IV. after seven days' cannonade, a breach that two or three shots from an Armstrong gun would have effected in these days.
We are shewn, of course, 'the room where William the Conqueror was born,' and from the windows of the castle keep we have just time to make a sketch of the beautiful Val d'Ante, and of the women, with their curiously-shaped baskets, washing in the stream; and to listen to the thrice-told tale of the tanner's daughter, and to the deeds of valour wrought on these heights—when the performance is declared to be over, and we find ourselves once more on the ramparts outside the castle.
We are so full of historical associations at Falaise—every nook and corner of the castle telling of its nine sieges—that we are glad to be able to examine the building thoroughly from without, and to remind ourselves of the method of defensive warfare in the fifteenth century. The whole of the precincts of the castle, the walls, ramparts, and the principal towers, are (at the time we write, August, 1869) strewn with mason's work, as if a new castle of Falaise were being built; everything looks fresh and new, it is only here and there we discover anything old, the remnants of a carved window, and the like. But, as a Frenchman observed to us, if it had not been for all this nineteenth-century work, the present generation would never have seen the castle of Falaise. The work of restoration appears to be carried on in rather a different spirit from the ecclesiastical restorations at Caen and Bayeux; here the prevailing idea seems to be, 'prop up your antique any how' (with timber beams, and a zinc roof to Talbot's tower, such as we might put over a cistern), so long as devotees will come and worship, with francs, at the shrine; whilst at Bayeux, as we have seen, the old work is handled with reverence and fear, and the nineteenth-century mason puts out all his power to imitate, if not to excel, the work of the twelfth.
The churches at Falaise should not pass unnoticed; but we will not weary the reader with any detailed description. Artists will especially delight in the view of a fourteenth-century church close to the castle, with its chancel with creepers growing over it, and peeping out between the stones; and historians will be interested in the laconic inscription on its walls, 'rebuilt in 1438, a year of war, death, plague, and famine.' If such artists as Brewer, or Burgess, would only come here and give us drawings of these streets (of one especially, taking in the cathedral at the end, with its stone walls built over by shops, as at Pont Audemer), they would be very interesting to Englishmen. Antiquaries will regret to learn that in the year 1869, the west end of a church is obliterated, as in the next illustration; that the shop of one 'M. Guille, peruquier,' reposes against the window, and that two other, quite modern, buildings lean against its walls. An old Norman arch is carved immediately above the window we have sketched, and completes the picture.
It is, of course, not very easy to sketch undisturbed in the streets of Falaise; and both in the churches and in the castle the showman is perpetually treading on the traveller's heels. Everywhere we turn, in the neighbourhood of the castle, we are reminded of historic deeds of valour, and of deadly fights in the middle ages; and every day that we remain in the town, we are reminded (by the crowds of farmers, horsedealers, and others, who are busy at the great fair held here twice a year) of our own, by comparison, very trifling business at Falaise. We are making a drawing of the great rocks near the castle, and of the valley below, every step of which is made famous by the memory of the Conqueror; when our studies are disturbed, not by tourists but by natives of the town; once by a farmer to see his good horses, which indeed he had, at the stables at the 'hotel of the beautiful Star,' where there were at least fifty standing for sale; and once, by a small boy, who carries a tray full of little yellow books called 'La Lanterne de Falaise,' with a picture on the cover of the castle tower, and a huge lantern slung from the battlements! We purchase a copy, to get rid of the last intruder, and find it to be a 'Revue, satirique et humouristique,' treating of divers matters, including 'faits atroces et chiens perdus'!
Now without being accused of misanthropy, we may remark that there are times and places when an Englishman would rather be 'let alone,' and that the precincts of Falaise are certainly of them. These century-wide contrasts and concussions, jar so terribly sometimes, that we are half-inclined to ask with M. de Tocqueville, whether we do not seem to be on the eve of a new Byzantine era, in which 'little men shall discuss and ape the deeds which great men did in their forefathers' days.' The refrain in this nineteenth century is, 'still the showman, still the spectator,' until we become almost tired of the song. 'Here some noble act was achieved—there some valiant man perished.' Every nook and corner of the place tells the same story; until we are tempted to enquire 'What are we doing (or are fit and capable of doing personally, on an emergency, in the matter of fighting,) to compare with the achievements of these Norman men of all ranks of life?'
But not only in Normandy, it is the same wherever we go: as far as our own personal part in heroic actions is concerned, we live in an atmosphere of unreality; we read of great deeds rather than achieve them, we make shows of the works of our ancestors, we take pence (readily) over the graves of our kinsmen, and live, as it seems to us, rather unworthily, in the past.
With our nineteenth-century inventions, we could, it is true, mow down these castle heights in half an hour, and we might well be proud of the achievement as a nation; but our warfare is at best but poor mercenary work, the heart of the nation—the life and courage of its people—are not in it. We civilians, are too much protected, and most of us do not know how to fight. Like the Athenians, we are supposed to be cultivating the arts of peace, but, as we endeavoured to show at Caen, if judged by our monuments, we are making no great mark in our generation. Perhaps this is a question rather wide of our subject, but let us at least contend for one thing, viz.:—that if the mission of the present generation is not to wield battle-axes, but rather to fight social battles, say for the amelioration of the unhappy part of the population; and if it is our fortune to be protected the while, by a staff of policemen, and by strong laws against crime—that we should not neglect, at the same time, to cultivate and preserve the personal valour that is in us, by the use of arms. It may be that the day is shortly coming (our engineers predict that we shall soon have hand-to-hand fighting again), when every individual amongst us will have to put his courage to the proof; and if this should ever happen, it will certainly not diminish our interest in the construction and arrangement of these mediaeval castles, or in the battles that have been fought beneath their walls.
At a corner of the market-place at Rouen, there stood, but a few years ago, one of the most picturesque houses in all Normandy, and with a story (if we are to believe the old chroniclers) as pathetic as any in history.
It was from a door in this house that, in the year 1431, the unfortunate Joan of Arc was led out to be 'burned as a sorceress' before the people of Rouen. We need not dwell upon the story of the 'fair maid of Orleans,' which every child has by heart, but (mindful of our picturesque mission) we should like to carry the reader in imagination to the same spot just four hundred years later, when an English artist, heedless of the crowd that collects around him, sits down in the street to sketch the lines of the old building, already tottering to ruin. Faithfully and patiently does the artist draw the old gables, the unused doorway, the heavy awnings, the piles of wood, the market-women, and the grey perspective of the side street with its pointed roofs, curious archways and oil lantern swinging from house to house; and as faithfully (even to the mis-spelling of the word 'liquer,' on a board over the doorway) almost indeed, with the touch of the artist's pencil, has the engraver reproduced, by means of photography, the late Samuel Prout's drawing on the frontispiece of this volume.
Few artists have succeeded, as Prout succeeded, in giving the character of the old buildings in Normandy, and certainly no other drawings with which we are acquainted, admit of being photographed as his do, without losing effect. It is scarcely too much to say that in this engraving we can distinguish the different washes of colour, the greys and warmer tints, the broad touches of his pencil on the white caps of the women, and the very work of his hand in the bold, decisive shadows.
It is pleasant to dwell for a moment on Prout's work, for he has become identified with Normandy through numerous sketches of buildings now pulled down; and they have an antiquarian as well as an artistic interest. They are 'mannered,' as we all know, but they have more couleur locale than any of the drawings of Pugin; and are valued (we speak of money value) at the present time, above the works of most water-colour painters of his time.
But we must not dream about old Rouen, we must rather tell the reader what it is like to-day, and how modern and prosaic is its aspect; how we arrive by express train, and are rattled through wide paved streets in an 'omnibus du Chemin de Fer,' and are set down at a 'grand' hotel, where we find an Englishman seated in the doorway reading 'Bell's Life.'
Rouen is busy and thriving, and has a fixed population of not less than 150,000; situated about half-way between Paris and the port of Havre, there is a constant flow of traffic passing and repassing, and its quays are lined with goods for exportation. In front of our window at the Hotel d'Angleterre, from which we have a view for miles on both sides of the Seine, the noise and bustle are almost as great as at Lyons or Marseilles. The Rouen of to-day is given up to commerce, to the swinging of cranes, and to the screeching of locomotives on the quays; whilst the fine broad streets and lines of newly erected houses, shut out from our view the old city of which we have heard so much, and which many of us have come so far to see. As we approach Rouen by the river, or even by railway, it is true that we see cathedral towers, but they are interspersed with smoking factory chimneys and suspension bridges; and although on our first drive through the town, we pass the magnificent portal of the cathedral and the old clock-tower in the 'rue de la Grosse Horloge,' we observe that the cathedral has a cast-iron spire, and that the frescoes and carving round the clock-tower are built up against and pasted over with bills of concerts and theatres.
The streets are full of busy merchants, trim shopkeepers, and the usual crowd of blouses that we see in every city in France. There are wide boulevards and trees round Rouen; and if we look down upon the city from the heights of Mont St. Catherine (perhaps the best view that we can obtain anywhere) it may remind us, with its broad river laden with ships and its cathedral towers, of the superb view of Lyons that we obtain from the heights near the cemetery: the view so well known to visitors to that city. The people of Rouen who have spread out into the enormous suburb of St. Sever, on the left bank of the Seine, are busy by thousands in the manufactories,—the sound of the loom and the anvil comes up to us even here; and down by the banks of the river, away westward, as far as the eye can see, up spring clean bright houses of the wealthy manufacturers and traders of Rouen,—rich, sleek, and portly gentlemen with the thinnest boots, who never even pass down the old streets if they can help it, but whom we shall find very pleasant and hospitable; and with whom we may sit down at a cafe under the trees and play at dominoes in the open street, in the middle of the day, without creating a scandal.
But if Rouen will not compare with Lyons in size, or commercial importance, it surpasses it in antiquarian interest; and we have chosen our illustrations to depict it rather as it was, than as it is. We give a drawing of Joan of Arc's house rather than of a building in the 'rue Imperiale;' and a view of the old market-place in front of the cathedral rather than of the trim toy-garden at the west end of the church of St. Ouen; and we do this, not only because it is more picturesque, but because the modern aspect of Rouen is familiar to the majority of our readers.
But we must examine the old buildings whilst there is time, for (as in other towns of Normandy) the work of demolition grows fast and furious; and the churches, the Palais de Justice, the courts of law, and the tower of the Grosse Horloge will soon be all that is left to us. The narrow winding streets of gable-ended houses, with their strange histories, will soon be forgotten by all but the antiquary; for there is a ruthless law that no more half-timbered houses shall be built, and another that everything shall be in line.
We are surrounded by old houses, but cannot easily find them, and when discovered they almost crumble at the touch—they fade away as if by magic; and there is a halo of mystery, we might almost say of sanctity, about them which is indescribable; it is as if the blossoms of an early age still clung to the old walls and garlanded with time-wreaths their tottering ruins.
Rouen is disappearing like a dissolving view—a few more slides in the magic lantern, a few more windows of plate-glass, a few more 'grandes rues' and the picture of old Rouen fades away.
Let us hasten to the Place de la Pucelle, and examine the carving on the houses, and on the Hotel Bourgtheroude, before the great Parisian conjuror waves his wand once more. But, hey presto! down they come, in a street hard by—even whilst we write, a great panel totters to the ground—heraldic shields, with a border of flowers and pomegranates, carved in oak; clusters of grapes and diaper patterns of rich design, emblems of old nobility—all in the dust; a hatchment half defaced, a dragon with the gold still about his collar, a bit of an eagle's wing, a halberd snapped in twain—all piled together in a heap of ruin!
A few weeks only, and we pass the place again—all is in order, the 'improvement' has taken place; there is a pleasant wide pave, and a manufactory for 'eau gazeuse.'
The cathedral church of Notre Dame (the west front of which we have seen in the illustration), and the church of St. Ouen, the two most magnificent monuments in Rouen, are so familiar to most readers that we can say little that is new respecting them. When we have given a short description, taken from the best authorities on the subject, and have pointed out to artistic readers that this west front with its surrounding houses, and the view of the towers of St. Ouen from the garden, at the east end, are two of the grandest architectural pictures to be found in Normandy, we shall have nearly accomplished our task.
'The cathedral of Notre Dame occupies with its west front one side of a square, formerly a fruit and flower market. The vast proportions of this grand Gothic facade, its elaborate and profuse decorations, and its stone screens of open tracery, impress one at first with wonder and admiration, diminished however but not destroyed, by a closer examination; which shows a confusion of ornament and a certain corruption of taste.
'The projecting central porch, and the whole of the upper part, is of the sixteenth century, the lateral ones being of an earlier period and chaster in style. Above the central door is carved the genealogy of Jesse; over the north-west door is the death of John the Baptist, with the daughter of Herodias dancing before Herod; and above them, figures of Virgin and Saints.
'The north tower, called St. Romain (the one on the left in our illustration), is older in date, part of it being of the twelfth century; the right-hand tower, which is more florid, being of the sixteenth.' The central spire in the background is really of cast iron, and stands out, it is fair to say, much more sharply and painfully against the sky, than in our illustration. We must not omit to mention the beautiful north door, called the 'Portail des Libraires,' which in Prout's time was completely blocked up with old houses and wooden erections.
'On entering the doorway of the north porch (says Cassell), the visitor will be struck with the size, loftiness, and rich colour of the interior, 435 feet long and 89 feet high. The 'clerestory' of the sixteenth century is full of painted glass. On each side of the nave there is a series of chapels, constructed in the fourteenth century, between the buttresses of the main walls; they are full of very fine stained glass, and contain good pictures and monuments. The transepts are remarkable for their magnificent rose-windows, and in the north transept there is a staircase of open-tracery work of exquisite workmanship.
'The choir, separated from the nave by a modern Grecian screen, was built in the thirteenth century, the carving of the stalls is extremely curious. The elaborately carved screen in front of the sacristy was executed in the latter part of the fifteenth century, and its wrought-iron door must not be passed unnoticed.'
The Church of St. Ouen 'surpasses the cathedral in size, purity of style, masterly execution, and splendid, but judicious decoration, and is inferior only in its historic monuments. It is one of the noblest and most perfect Gothic edifices in the world.' Thus it has been described again and again; suffice it for us to mention a few details of its construction. It is said that the abbey of St. Ouen was orginally built in 533, in the reign of Clothaire I., and then dedicated to St. Peter. Through various changes of construction and destruction, it holds a prominent part in the history of the time of the Conqueror and the Dukes of Normandy; and it was not for a thousand years after its foundation that the present building was completed. 'During the troubles of the times of the Huguenots in the sixteenth century, it suffered greatly, especially in 1562, when the fanatics lighted bonfires inside, and burnt the organ, stalls, pulpit, and vestments.' Again at the end of the eighteenth century, 'the building was exposed to the fury of the Revolutionists, when it was used as a manufactory of arms; a forge being erected within it and the painted windows so blackened as to become indecipherable; and later still, 'in the time of Napoleon I., a project was laid before him, by the municipality of Rouen, for destroying the church altogether!'
Perhaps there is no monument that we could point to in Europe which has a more eventful history, or which, after a lapse of thirteen hundred years, presents to the spectator, in the year 1869, a grander spectacle. If we walk in the public gardens that surround it, and see its towers, from different points, through the trees, or, better still, ascend one of the towers and look down on its pinnacles, we shall never lose the memory of St. Ouen. The beautiful proportions of its octagon tower, terminating with a crown of fleurs de lis, has well been called a 'model of grace and beauty;' whilst its interior, 443 feet long and 83 feet wide, unobstructed from one end to the other, with its light, graceful pillars, and the coloured light shed through the painted windows, have as fine an effect as that of any church in France; not excepting the cathedrals of Amiens and Chartres.
We should not omit to mention the beautiful church of St. Maclou at Rouen, and several others that are being preserved and restored with the utmost care. The great delights of this city are its ecclesiastical monuments; for if Rouen has become of late years (as in fact it has) a busy, modern town; if its old houses and streets are being swept away, its churches and monuments remain. And if, as we have said, the inhabitants are prone to imitate many English habits and customs, there is one custom of ours that they do not imitate—they do not 'religiously' close nearly every church in the land for six days out of the seven; their places of worship are not shut up like dungeons, they are open to the breath of life, and partake of the atmosphere of the 'work-a-day' world. In England we dust out our earthy little chapels on Saturdays, and we complete the process with silken trains on Sundays; we worship in an atmosphere more fit for the dead than the living, and in a few hours shut up the buildings again to the spiders and the flies!
We have little more to say to the reader about the churches in Normandy, and we should like to leave him best at the south-west corner of the square in front of the Cathedral (close to the spot from which M. Clerget has made his drawing), where he may take away with him an impression of the wealth and grandeur of the architecture of Normandy, pleasant to dwell upon.
If we do not examine too closely into 'principles,' or trouble our minds too much with 'styles' of architecture, the effect that we obtain here will be completely and artistically beautiful, and satisfying to the eye. It is not easy to point out any modern building that fulfils these conditions; where, for instance, can we see anything like the work that was bestowed on the lower portion of this facade? We may spend more money and effort, but we do not achieve anything which seems to the spectator more spontaneously beautiful (if we use the word aright); anything displaying more wealth of decoration, combined with grandeur of effect. Severe, we might say austere, critics speak of the 'confusion of ornament,' and tell us that the over-elaboration of carving on the exterior of this cathedral is a sign of decadence, and that the principles on which the architects of Caen and Bayeux worked were more noble and worthy; whilst architects will tell us that Gothic art was generally 'debased' at Rouen,—debased from the time when people gave themselves up to the luxury of the Renaissance, and 'pride took the place of enthusiasm and faith, in art.'
We might, indeed, if we chose to make the comparison for a moment between Christian and Mahommedan art, see a higher principle at work in the construction of the mosques and palaces of the Moors, where simplicity, refinement, and truth are noticeable in every line; we might see it in mauresque work, in the absence of grotesque images, or the imitation of living things in ornament; but, above all, in the severe simplicity and grandeur of their exteriors, and in the decoration, colour, and gilding of their interior courts alone,—carrying out, in short, the true meaning of the words that, the king's daughter should be—'all glorious within, her clothing of wrought gold.'
* * * * *
On one Sunday morning at Rouen we go with 'all the world' to be present at a musical mass at the cathedral, and to hear another great preacher from Paris. It was a grander performance than the one we attended at Caen; but the sermon was less eloquent, less refined, and was remarkable in quite a different way. It was a discourse, holding up to his hearers, as far as we could follow the rapid flow of his eloquence, the delight and glory of 'doing battle for Right'—of fighting (to use the common phrase) the 'fight of Faith.'