Mark Twain at Versailles


Mark Twain in 1871

I have mixed feelings towards Mark Twain. This is, after all, the man who dared write of Jane Austen, “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Shocking.

Yes, I know, now some will tell us that he didn’t really mean it, that he was a “closet Janeite”… And why did he bother to reread Pride and Prejudice if every time it awakened his tomb-robbing instincts?

It remains that Mark Twain, whatever one thinks of his literary taste, was a well-traveled man and a remarkable journalist. And he visited France. There too his judgment was provincial, not to say puritanical, abrupt and dismissive: “France has neither winter nor summer nor morals–apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country.”

Gimme a break, Mr. Clemens! France has winter AND summer AND morals. And it’s not a “fine” country. It is maddening and beautiful. Maddeningly beautiful, you could say.

But at Versailles, Twain changed his tune. Suddenly he was awed, stupefied, mesmerized. Listen to him:

VERSAILLES! It is wonderfully beautiful! You gaze and stare and try to understand that it is real, that it is on the earth, that it is not the Garden of Eden–but your brain grows giddy, stupefied by the world of beauty around you, and you half believe you are the dupe of an exquisite dream.”

Read more at History Hoydens,where fellow writer Leslie Carroll has a great post on Twain’s impressions of Versailles. And thanks to Susan Holloway Scott for bringing this to my attention!


Versailles, panoramic view

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

13 Comments to “Mark Twain at Versailles”

  1. Kari, I cannot disagree more with you on Austen, but we are all entitled to our opinions of her merits.
    Regarding Polanski, it is the Swiss, not the French, who are declining to extradite him to California. French law prohibits the extradition of French citizens, and he is one.

  2. Kari says:

    I feel the same way about Jane Austen and her fluffy two dimensional fairytales. I would like to resurrect her just so I could put her in the ground myself. And Twain is a good writer so he knows excellent literature. As for morals, 18th century France had morals only when it suited them. Hell even today, who’s that child molester director they refuse to extradite to the U.S to be tried…

  3. Christy Somer says:


    Considering the ornery Mark Twain and his famous acerbic wit, his compliment only speaks more to the magnificence Versailles possesses; taking one beyond expectations, and exceedingly by surprise.

    It certainly is one of the places on earth I wish to see and feel; and it would seem, always, ever-amazing and inspiring no matter how many times one visits.

  4. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    Hi Catherine, I googled the subject after I posted. It is interesting in that the content of the relationship is mysterious. What is interesting are each person’s choices/ actions, beginning with her departure to America with him, rather than staying in France, his choices to keep her and their family with him when he could have gotten rid of them and the attendant speculation, the choice of the children’s names, the 4 decade long relationship, and the fact that he did not apparently avail himself of other women he had similar power over and impregnate them; he seemed focused on her.

  5. Penny, I don’t know Twain well enough to explain his attitudes. Both Gordon Reed and Wench are very good.
    Genevieve, this is a very complex issue, involving race, power (she was but 14!) and emotions of grief and love. Again I recommend reading Gordon Reed. I have long planned a post on what may have drawn Jefferson to Sally. You are quite right: some Americans are much more popular in France than back home…

  6. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    Do you think that Sally became Jefferson’s mistress because she was a half-sister to his deceased wife? Many times people who grieve someone turn to someone close in some manner to the one they lost. And I believe he vowed he would never therefore a household slave rather than a society-woman would be available as a mistress.
    I did not mean to imply that Franklin was not in Paris with a job to do, but it is interesting to know he enjoyed his associations so well and developed through the exchange of ideas. What I knew about him was his almost rock star fame in Paris. Sometimes France appreciates Americans in ways they are not perceived at home.

  7. Penny says:

    When I read A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court I had thought he just hated the idea of aristocratic class was he there during restoration of monarchy? I really am surprised at his attitude toward post revolution France.
    I am disgusted with Jefferson but I am expecting UPS to show up with Wench any hour now.
    maybe reading about other relatioships will explain his although I do have the Annette Reed Gordon books.
    but Twain, don’t understand his attitude toward Europe.
    I will have to ask someone I know who teaches American literature

  8. Genevieve, Franklin loved more than the ladies in Paris! He enjoyed the intellectual stimulation, the exchange of ideas with fellow scientists. It seemed he became a staunch abolitionist in Paris.

    Jefferson was of course a far more conventional character. He was fascinated by the architecture, the lifestyle and the glamor of pre-revolutionary Paris. He didn’t become an abolitionist, far from it. Sally Hemings was pregnant with their first child when they left Paris, which meant for her a return to slavery.

  9. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    “Versailles, Biography of a Palace,” is quite good. And it is a shame that such slices of life as the kitchens, were destroyed.

  10. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    This is a good reminder about the difference in perspective. When I have been at Versailles, I have felt that what is missing is the court. It feels lonely in a sense and even that I am touring a house formerly belonging to people who were taken away and murdered. The tour buses don’t help.. I feel because the court is missing it never seems quite real and we can never really witness the truth of it; it is truly a lost civilization, like the ancient Egyptians, yet not so long ago although it can seem so since the way of life was so utterly eclipsed.. From what I have heard, both men had a good time in Paris, although for different reasons; Franklin liking the women , and Jefferson liking the wine and architecture, etc.

  11. Evil indeed, Laura! But yes, Twain could be funny.

    Not off the top of my head, Genevieve, but both Franklin and Jefferson, as any visitor before the French Revolution, would have seen Versailles as a “working” palace, with throngs of servants and courtiers, and royalty on display all the time.
    Twain saw Versailles in the same fashion we do: as a museum. His admiration here is amusing in light of his atrocious francophobia.

  12. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    Hi Catherine, would you happen to know of Benjamin Franklin’s or Thomas Jefferson’s perceptions of Versailles?

  13. That was evil of Twain to say that about Jane Austen, but I love his humor.

Leave a Reply