Friday, 12 February 2016

A Journey to Florence in 1817

Let me start this month's post with a few words for those of you who are reading this blog for the first time.

Originally I began the blog to support readers of my book The Door of Perarolo, a novel about a clandestine French operation to obtain masts from the forests of Cadore in Northern Italy, in order to rebuild 
A Journey to Florence in 1817  
[Geoffrey Bles, London, 1951]
Napoleon's navy.



Well, that at least is the nuts-and-bolts of the plot. In between the covers of the book the reader finds a love story intertwined with a true story of much danger, intrigue and adventure.

The novel's theme is the triumph of love and human spirit in hard, desperate times -desperate for the inhabitants of the region of Venetia, the part of NE Italy we now call Veneto.

As the novel concerns the French occupation of NE Italy, the research for The Door of Perarolo required more than just a knowledge of the region of Cadore (Northern Veneto in modern times) and the history and culture of its people. It was necessary also to research locations in France, Austria and Switzerland.

The main protagonist of the novel is a Frenchman, Xavier Fortin - a forester - sent to Cadore by the Napoleon's Ministry of Marine in Paris, in order  to supervise the obtaining and transporting of the masts from the forests of Cadore.  

The source of the Piave on Monte Peralba
[PAG 1998]
The history books tell us much about the famous naval engineers of the time - Tupinier, Salvini to name but two - but nothing at all about the 'ordinary' people, such as Xavier Fortin.  

I am much obliged to Nadia Rouis in Paris for help in deciding on his name.  Nadia told me that 'Fortin' in French means 'little fort'.

If you've been following this blog regularly you'll know that all the monthly blog posts in the last two years have related to my research trip to Italy in 1998.  In that year I took my folding bike to the source of the Piave River (the photo to the left), and followed its journey south to Venice.

For some time from now on the upcoming blog posts will cover the research trips I made in order to gain some better understanding of life in France, Switzerland and Italy at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

To do this I obtained a second-hand copy (the front of the book cover is shown above) of G.R. de Beer's book (more of him later)  A Journey to Florence in 1817, in which was published for the first time the diary of Harriet Charlotte Beaujolois Campbell, along with much erudite commentary by de Beer.  

The author of the journal  was a mere 14 years old when the various members (with the exception of her eldest sister, Eliza, who had married in 1815) of her family (she calls them 'our tribe') uprooted themselves from their London home on 25th July 1817 and set off for Florence - where the servants were cheaper to hire!
Portrait of the diary's author by Edward Francis Finden
[National Portrait Gallery]

There exists some confusion about the middle name of the author of the diary. De Beer is quite firm, however, about her name being Harriet Charlotte Beaujolois Campbell.  He states that:

Her unusual last Christian name, which was the one that she used, was due to her having had as godfather Louis Charles d'Orléans, Compte de Beaujolois, brother of Louis Phillipe.

Yet, time and time again in references  (for example, The Peerage ) she is referred to as 'Beaujolais'. This may be simply a mistake that has spread through these references, or alternatively it may have been that Beaujolais was her nickname within the family. Indeed, I chose to think of her as 'Beaujolais' as I tramped the old coach roads of Europe.

Despite the royal connections, her mother ('Mamma' in the journal), Lady Charlotte Campbell, was a great admirer of Napoleon, and had sent to Paris as a personal gift a bust of the English politician Charles James Fox, a strong supporter of the French Revolution. Those were strange times...

Above is a portrait of Beaujolois as a young woman.  They were a large family, though Beaujolois' father,Colonel John Campbell, had died in 1808. 
The Campbell Sisters Dancing a Waltz by Lorenzo Bartolini
[National Gallery Edinburgh, photo PAG]
Beaujolois had five sisters, and two of them, Emma and Julia, were the subject of the sculpture pictured left.  The patron was George Campbell,  the 6th Duke of Argyll, Mamma’s brother.  

In modern times and for many years the current Duke of Argyll loaned the sculpture to the National Gallery in Edinburgh (where, in 2000 and with permissionI photographed it), but recently the Duke decided to put it up for sale.  The National Gallery and the V&A Museum raised the money and are now the owners.

As well as her sisters she had two surviving brothers (a third died in infancy) Walter and John, who were already on the continent when they set off from London that Sunday. Along with Mamma the 'tribe' had accompanying them a governess (the formidable Mlle de la Chaux)  and a maid. Beaujolois refers to Mlle de la Chaux as ‘Tiranna’ in her journal.

The rump of Beaujolois’ ‘tribe’ (Walter and John were already on the continent) travelled in  two coaches.  There were five sisters including Beaujolois in the party.  The others were Eleanora, the eldest unmarried daughter, and Beaujolois' younger sisters Adelaide, Emma and Julia.

En Route for France they passed the first night at Sittingbourne, and a second at Dover before taking passage the next morning on the King George, arriving after a rough crossing into port at Calais around midday on the 27th.  On the quayside Beaujolois observed her sister Eleanora (Beaujolois calls her Eleanor for short, so we will too from now on) was met by a familiar figure.  (Quotes from Beaujolois' diary in these blog posts are in set black type.  Any small errors in her English, place names, etc. have been left unaltered -  after all, she was only fourteen!)  

Hotel Meurice in 2016 [Google street view]

Whilst I was standing a most forlorn figure almost blown away by the violence of the wind and hair hanging over my face Eleanor had been joined unperceived by Lord Uxbridge and the first thing I perceived as we proceeded to leave the port was the two walking arm in arm.  This pleased me as it had every appearance of fidelity.


Unperceived that is by Mamma!  The romance she observes between the two develops as the journey through the continent continues, to cause Beaujolois some difficulties later with her mother...

We walked from the port to Meurices Hotel.

It is still going strong!  The original building, dating from 1771, was wrecked during WW2 and rebuilt in its present form in 1954.  My daughter Jenny and I had dinner together there when we stayed overnight in Calais in 2010.  Beaujolois continues:

As all were hungry we asked... (here she starts a fresh page in the journal - see below)

A page from the diary written in Beaujolois' own hand
[Geoffrey Bles, London, 1951]
...for dinner.  The waiter proposed table d’Hote as it would be ready the first and be the least expensive, a great point with us at present and  indeed I believe with every body else as money is scarce every where.  At one we were summoned in to a good sized room in the middle of which was placed a long table with 16 places at it.  Our party was 7 in number and the rest consisted of seven English and two foreigners.  The English were most vulgar.  Impossible to guess of what rank but their manners could only be those of the very under class.  They were perfectly civil but eating off their knife leaning back upon their chair...

Above is a page from the original diary, alongside the text as printed in the book.  From their rooms in the hotel they all wrote wrote letters (see also the foot of this post) in French to  the Italian poet and writer Ugo Foscolo.  Foscolo had moved to Switzerland  after the fall of Milan  to the Austrians. Later he moved to London. He was a great friend of the Campbell family.  They proposed to meet with him when they reached Lausanne.
Map showing the old coach routes taken in the region M. Lauwers 2004]
Monday 28th

The parting this morning from Calais was as calm as could be expected. There was an evident restraint in Eleanor's manners which she endeavoured to conceal... As she stepped into the carriage there was a private promise to write and accordingly a letter was sent from Montreuil.  (The 'private promise' mentioned was, of course, from Eleanor to Uxbridge.)



The route (red) from Calais to Montreuil via Boulogne
[CARTOGUIDE SHELL-BERRE FRANCE: Nord, 1969 edition]
The route taken was close to that of the old National Route 1 (N.1, red, on the map to the left.)

I shall not describe the country through which we passed as I have already done so on previous journeys.  The whole scene is entertaining as the very sound of foreign language and the general appearance of the towns and villages is to me entertaining.

It is a pity that she doesn't say more, as her earlier writings have not survived.

A high wind continued all day, and from the occasional glimpses we had of the sea on the road to Boulogne I could distinguish the foaming of the waves.

She continues:

At Montreuil we were too late for the table d'hote and therefore dined alone. We were detained three hours and a half for want of horses and accordingly only reached Bernet...

They stayed the night at Bernay (Bernay-en-Ponthieu) - the French pronunciations 'Bernet' and 'Bernay' being much the same accounts for her small error here.


The route (red) from Montreuil to Abbeville via Bernay
[CARTOGUIDE SHELL-BERRE FRANCE: Nord, 1969 edition]

Bernay is situated halfway between Montreuil and Abbeville.  

The way the post system worked was this: when a carriage arrived at a post the horses were uncoupled and a man was paid to walk them back to the previous post.  

So if, for example, the next post was Bernay and the return of the horses belonging to the Monteuil post wasn't attended to punctually, then the travellers waiting at Montreuil (the Campbell party in this case) would be delayed in their journey for lack of horses.

...where we have already been obliged to sleep twice from ill management.

'Ill management' almost certainly refers to the lack of horses at Montreuil.  Is it cynical to wonder if there was perhaps some arrangement between the two post houses that a fourteen-year-old did not contemplate?


Hitherto however the beds have always been good.  However dirty the rooms may be when there is clean linen put on them I am always perfectly contented.  Perhaps that may originate from fatigue.  But no matter.

The imposing yellow building of the post house, seen as it was in the 1852 depiction below, dates from the sixteenth century and stands close by the main the road that connects Monteuil to Abbeville in the south.

The post house (left) opposite l’église Saint-Gengoult where the Campbells stayed in 1817, as it appeared in 1852
[Bibliothèque Municipale d'Abbeville]

The same view depicted on a 20th C black-and-white postcard

In Beaujolois' time, convoys regularly passed through the town on their way to Paris with fish and other 'fruits de mer'. They changed horses at the Bernay post, snatched a meal and rested a little before continuing south along the "fish road". 

Years later, on the 6th of August 1840, Napoleon III chartered the Edinburgh Castle and sailed with 60 armed men from England for Boulogne in an attempted coup; he was arrested and held to Bernay by the authorities before being tried and imprisoned at the fortress of Ham. 

In its heyday the post inn at Bernay seems to have been a popular place.  Louis XIV had lunch there and Victor Hugo stayed overnight - though not at the same time!  But with the development of railways, large posts with stables gradually became neglected (we will see this again and again in future posts of this blog). In modern times the old post inn is a farmhouse and the current owner, Hervé Decrept, is a mine of information about past times there.  His great-grandfather was the last to manage the old post inn.

Before closing this post I would like to acknowledge my debt to the late G.R. de Beer, and supply a little information about this remarkable man.

Sir Gavin Rylands de Beer FRS rose, during an illustrious career, to become Director of the British Museum (Natural History) and received the Royal Society's Darwin Medal for his studies on evolution. 

© National Portrait Gallery, London
He was a British evolutionary embryologist and one wonders how he found the time to research Beaujolois diary, which he came across one day in a shop in the vicinity of the Charing Cross Road, possibly the bookshop featured in the book and film 84 Charing Cross Road.  

Here are de Beer's actual words: 

... a small handwritten notebook which I found on the floor of a shop near the Charring Cross Road.  On its first page is written "Harriet Charlotte Beaujolois" which did not reveal the identity of the author until I found references in the text to "where the princess of Wales lived when mamma was with her two years ago" at Milan.  It was clear then that the author of the journal was the third daughter of Lady Charlotte Campbell.'

Clear was it?  As a fellow scientist and an amateur historian, I chance to say that none of my peers would have made that deduction!  De Beer was a remarkable man, and clearly one of great humility.  He spent much effort in researching all aspects of the diary, and included a full dozen pages of in the Introduction section of the book.  

After the journal pages de Beer added an Epilogue covering the rest of Beaujolois' life (well, you do want to know what happened to her, don't you?!!) and finally a reference section which gave further details about things either left unclear or glossed over by Beaujolois.  For example, he produces the text of all the letters written to Ugo Foscolo that evening in Calais by Beaujolois' 'tribe'.  Here for example is Beaujolois' own letter:


Cher Mr Foscolo, comme nous vous l'avons toutes promis nous allons toutes vous ecrire pour vous annoncer notre arrive ici saines et saufs.  À present cher Monsieur j’ai tenu ma parole souvenez vous de la votre de nous joindre à Lausanne.  Vous m’avez dit que vous ne promettiez jamais rien sans le faire.  Croyez moi votre affectionée (nous vous attendrons au Lion d’Or)

Beaujolois Campbell

(When I was in Lausanne finding the Lion d'Or  wasn't easy - but after many inquiries I finally tracked down and photographed that ancient building, which today is used a pizza takeaway!)

There is no doubt in my mind that had de Beer not found Beaujolois' diary on the floor of that shop, it would have suffered the same fate as her earlier diaries, and consequently we would be the poorer for it.  

Next month's post finds Beaujolois' 'tribe' approaching the gates of Paris, where she suffers a great disappointment...

Note: This blog supports readers of The Door of Perarolo, a historical novel set in Cadore, Italy in the early nineteenth century.  You can examine feedback from readers in the UK here and in the US here.  The Door of Perarolo is a Kindle ebook comprising 140 chapters.  It can be downloaded from Amazon sites worldwide. The launch post of this blog gives further details.  The second post provides links to maps, etc.


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