Gaskell House Blogs

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Continental Travels, Part 2 France

15th August 2023
in blog, blogsNnews, other, People

Paris 1853

After Elizabeth’s first Continental trip to Heidelberg in 1841, she didn’t travel abroad again until 1853, when she visited Paris with William and their eldest daughter, Marianne. They stayed with their Manchester friends the Schwabes, who had a house in Paris. Her short story My French Master was written after this visit. Despite the difficulties of travelling at the time Elizabeth returned to Paris many times, including again in 1854 with Marianne.

Paris 1855

‘We went to a magnificent party on Tuesday for grandeurs, titles & dresses; but except for eyes it was very dull…’ Elizabeth writing to Marianne from Paris in February 1855.

By the time Elizabeth took Meta, her second daughter, to Paris in 1855 she had become friendly with Mary Clarke Mohl who was English, married to a German, and lived in Paris most of the year. Her apartment in Rue de Bac became Elizabeth’s base for most of her subsequent trips and she sent the Gaskells a kitten named Cranford.

Mme Mohl was known for her eccentricity, untidiness, unconventiality and sharp wit. She ran a famous Paris “salon” from her apartment which was frequented by scholars, scientists, writers, artists and politicians. She was acquainted with the Trollopes, the Brownings, George Eliot and Thackeray among many others. Emelyn Story, whom Elizabeth stayed with on her later visit to Rome in 1857, wrote,

‘Mme Mohl used to drop out of an omnibus, often into a mud-puddle at our door, and delight us with her originality and freshness…She was always at home on Friday evenings, which were occasions we so liked, that we never, when in Paris omitted one… She knew how to manage her clever people – it was what she was most remarkable for, putting them always on their strong points.’

The politician and historian Guizot remarked that she went to the same “coiffeur” as his poodle!

On hearing of Elizabeth’s death in 1865, Mary wrote that she had lost one of her closest friends.

Mary Clarke Mohl
(1793 to 1883)

During their stay in 1855, Mary Mohl organised sessions at an atelier (art studio) for Meta which Elizabeth complained took up a lot of time. She also complained that,

‘She [Meta] is perpetually hungry. We hardly ever have more than twice to eat in the day’.

Another, regular complaint about Paris was that Elizabeth found the atmosphere stuffy, close and smelly. Using a very Northern English expression she wrote,

‘It is so puthery here, I can hardly walk’.

“Puthery” was generally referring to smoke and smog caused by fires and chimneys causing “a puther.” This was something common and very familiar to residents of Manchester.

Despite the lack of food, bad smells and “puther” Elizabeth and Meta managed to enjoy invitations to parties, dances, at-homes, and all kinds of cultural and social gatherings. Elizabeth relished the social whirl, she loved socialising, was a great people-watcher and loved gossiping. She wrote to Marianne,

‘Saturday Atelier then a short walk…then to dinner at the Scheffers’ (such a good dinner!) Thence to the Jardin des Plantes, a great soiree got up in my honour (no kissing) but cups of rich chocolate and cream cakes…’

The Scheffers were the artist Ari Scheffer, a Dutch-French Romantic painter, and his wife. Many of Scheffer’s paintings were based on literature and he also painted portraits of famous and influential people of the time including Chopin, Liszt, and Charles Dickens. One of his portrait sitters was a Mrs Hollond who was returning to England at the time of Elizabeth’s 1855 visit and agreed to carry the revised manuscript of North and South back with her. Ari Scheffer’s house in Paris is now The Museum of Romantic Life.

Paris, Brittany and Normandy 1862

In May 1862 Elizabeth spent a week in Paris with Meta and her friend Isabel Thompson, followed by 10 days in Brittany and Normandy. Writing to her Manchester friend and neighbour, Catherine Winkworth, Elizabeth says ‘Paris was altogether abominable; noisy, hot close, smelling of drains…’ so they spent a day at St Germain where Meta and Isabel sketched. Meta and Isabel did a lot of sketching on this trip so it’s possible some of Meta’s watercolours we have in Elizabeth Gaskell’s House’s Drawing Room may have been done at this time. En route to Brittany and Normandy they visited Les Rochers, Vitre, Rouen and other small towns. One of their stops was in Caen where Elizabeth was amused by the Englishness of their hotel kept by, ‘a very cockney ci-devant London butler by the name of Humby – (‘Umby’s ‘Otel)…’

Elizabeth later wrote French Life an account of their trip referring to Meta and Isabel as “Mary and Irene.”

Watercolour by Meta Gaskell

Paris and Italy 1863

In January 1863 Elizabeth sent the final manuscript of Sylvia’s Lovers to George Smith, her publisher, and the following month set off for Paris and Italy with Julia, her youngest daughter. They stayed with Mme Mohl in Paris and were to be joined by Meta, and Florence her third daughter, to travel to Italy all together.

While in Paris, Elizabeth was surprised to learn that Florence had ‘engaged herself’ to Charles Crompton in London en route to Paris. Elizabeth considered abandoning the trip to Italy but after consultation with William decided to carry on with her plans. From Paris, Elizabeth and her three daughters travelled to Rome, Perugia, Venice and Florence and returned to Paris in early June to shop for Florence’s wedding trousseau.

Charles Crompton had escorted Marianne to Paris to join Elizabeth, Meta, Florence and Julia. For the trousseau, Elizabeth chose a very expensive dressmaker – Madame Lamy of 12 Rue de la Paix who had the Queen of Greece as one of her clients! She commented on the fact that her own wardrobe was suffering in consequence. To economise on accommodation, they chose to stay outside of Paris in Versailles.

Once the trousseau was finished, the party all set off for London to stay for two weeks with Charles’s family in Hyde Park Square. After the initial shock of Florence’s engagement and a few letters expressing her reservations, Elizabeth soon came to like Charles very much.

Paris 1865

Elizabeth’s last trip to Paris was in Spring 1865 while she was writing Wives and Daughters and she stayed with Mme Mohl for a month so she could work on her novel. During her first two weeks there she wrote during the morning, went out for walks in the afternoon and spent most evenings in the social whirl of dinner parties, theatre visits, concerts and recitals and house calls,

‘We jigget to some very smart houses, (all Mme Mohl’s friends are very smart people).’

During this time Elizabeth was posting to George Smith A Column of Gossip from Paris – two articles of witticisms and gossip about Parisian society which were published in the Pall Mall Gazette at the end of March 1865.

By 1865 Elizabeth’s health had started to deteriorate and she became ill during her last two weeks in Paris. When she returned to London, she stayed with Florence to recuperate and wrote to George Smith,

‘I broke down in Paris, & for the last fortnight could not leave the house till the day I came here. I am not strong and not able to see anyone.’

Dieppe and Boulogne 1865

Later, in October of 1865, Elizabeth travelled to Dieppe on an impulse. She had been ill for a few weeks and was staying in Newhaven (which she disliked) for some sea air with Meta and Julia, when she heard of a good place to stay in Dieppe. The recommendation was good, and they stayed for three weeks. Elizabeth enjoyed the food; they were close to the sea, and she described the house as smelling ‘as sweet as a nut.’ In the meantime, Marianne was having problems with the drains at home in Plymouth Grove and Elizabeth wrote a long, detailed explanation of what she thought the problem was saying, ‘However, one does not expect to write about drains from Dieppe, does one?’

After spending a few days in Boulogne, they returned to Elizabeth’s newly acquired house in Hampshire, “The Lawns” at the end of October where Elizabeth died suddenly on 12 November. You can read more about this in Diane Duffy’s blogs Elizabeth Gaskell’s Home in Hampshire Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

In part 1 of Elizabeth’s Travels we visited Heidelberg, Brussels and Switzerland and in part 3 we are going to visit Italy, which had a significant impact on Elizabeth’s and some of her daughters’ lives.

Jane Baxter, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

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