Discovering Paris in the 18th century

18th century Paris banks of the Seine

18th century Paris banks of the Seine

The year is 1787. In my first novel, Mistress of the Revolution, young provincial Gabrielle de Montserrat arrives in Paris, under the protection of her friend the Chevalier  des Huttes. Let us discover the city with her.

Parisians are fond of calling provincials culs-terreux, which literally translates as “dirty asses”, but what struck me in Paris was the filth of the southern districts we first crossed. We followed narrow streets, strewn with garbage and lined with soot-coloured houses, five or six stories high. I saw bands of half-naked children. Raggedy women yelled and shook their fists at each other. A man was relieving himself against a wall. The mere thought of male genitals still was enough to turn my stomach, though I had now been widowed for a few months. I looked away and glanced at the Chevalier, but, either of out delicacy or because he was used to that sight, he seemed to ignore the man.

Soon the streets became wider and took a more prosperous look. I thought I would go deaf from the rattling of the carriages, the swearing of the cart drivers and the cries of the street vendors peddling their wares. We had to stop more than once to give way to other carriages, for wooden stalls, piled high with produce, encroached on the street.

The Chevalier pointed to the monumental gilded gates that marked the entrance to the main courthouse. He said that we would cross the river by way of the Pont-au-Change, the Bridge of the Money Changers. I looked out, eager for my first glimpse of the Seine. My face fell when I saw only houses on either side of the street.

Paris Marais Hotel de Sully

“Houses have been built on almost all of the bridges of Paris,” said the Chevalier, smiling at my disappointment, “but they are soon to be demolished. They will no
longer block the view of river, and the city will be more airy and healthy.”

The Chevalier pointed to the medieval towers of the criminal court building, called the
Grand Châtelet.
“It houses some of the most squalid dungeons in the city,” he said. “It is also home to the
Morgue. The bodies found daily in the river or on the streets are kept there until identified or claimed.”

I put my hand to my face, dizzy with nausea. It was a relief to leave the Châtelet to reach at last the Marais district, where the Duchess d’Arpajon lived. Marais means “swamp” in French.

“What an odd name for such a beautiful district!” I said, marveling at the elegant mansions on each side of the street.

“True,” said the Chevalier. “It used to flood every spring, when the river overflowed after the melting of the snows. It was the aristocratic quarter of choice a century ago, but it has now lost that distinction to the Faubourg Saint-Germain, on the Left Bank.”

We passed the jail of La Force. Two hundred years earlier, explained the Chevalier, it had been one of the most magnificent dwellings in Paris, and now it was degraded to the rank of debtors’ prison. Little did I guess then the part it would play in my life only a few years later. The Duchess’s mansion was on the next street.

After the carriage stopped in the courtyard, I observed that the front of the house was elegantly decorated with columns and sculpted allegories of the four seasons. We alighted and were led up a wide stone staircase to a parlour on the second floor, a vast cheerful room, handsomely furnished.

Musee Nissim de Camondo grand salon

Musee Nissim de Camondo grand salon

Top picture: Paris, le port au blé © Philippe Royet


All posts in the Footsteps of Gabrielle series:

Return to Fontfreyde

Cottage life

Arriving in Paris

Fashions in Paris before the Revolution

Dressing for Court

Discovering Versailles

The presentation to Marie-Antoinette in the Salon of the Nobles

The Royal Chapel

The Queen’s Bedchamber

The sweetness of living

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8 Comments to “Discovering Paris in the 18th century”

  1. webdesigner says:

    wow..very impressive

  2. Catherine Delors says:

    Penny – Spoiler alert here! After the fall of the monarchy, the situation was becoming very volatile all over the country, not only Paris. It would say it would probably have been easier for Gabrielle to hide in a big city than in the countryside. True, at that time, long range planning did not figure high in her priorities. It was more a question of immediate survival.

  3. Penny Klein says:

    i was wondering, Gabrielle seems to need the protection of men. throughout the book she is reacting to things happening to her and around her as opposed to long range planning for herself. she does not leave France until her last possible male protector is dead, she could have left earlier. at least as soon as Villars is dead or maybe a little before once he starts acting so obsessively controlling. or if not leaving France, then settling in the countryside, was that still an option? what was the countryside like at the time? Just curious.

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  5. Catherine Delors says:

    Welcome back, Sibylle, and thank you.
    Agreed, the Marais remains one of the loveliest districts in Paris. Amazing that it escaped Haussmann’s demolitions.

  6. Sibylle says:

    Now that I’m back from hibernation I can finally catch up on the posts I missed !
    I love this description, dirt played for a while a major role in Paris. I’ve always lived here myself but some friends who came from Province told me what struck them in Paris the first time they saw it was the noise and the number of people in the street – so reminiscent of little vignettes de vie, of moments of life. You depicted this quite well ! And Le Marais is still one of the prettiest neighbourhoods of Paris.

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    True, way too pretty! The Grand Chatelet was destroyed on the orders of Napoleon, who thought the whole area was unsanitary (he was right on that one.)
    This gorgeous building is the Sully mansion, in the Marais district. The Duchess’s house would have looked like this.
    The interior is one of the salons of the Musee Nissim de Camondo, which is dedicated to the 18th century. Beautiful indeed.

  8. Danielle says:

    What a gorgeous interior! Is the third photo down the Grand Chatelet? It looks too pretty to have dungeons or a morgue!

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