Discovering Paris in the 18th century
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.
“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.
Top picture: Paris, le port au blé © Philippe Royet http://www.royet.org/nea1789-1794)
All posts in the Footsteps of Gabrielle series: