History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

21 July 2010

Mark Twain Visits Versailles

France has neither winter nor summer nor morals--apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country.
- Mark Twain's Notebook

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as the irrepressible American humorist Mark Twain, is on record for despising the French. Although I have not been able to locate the quote verbatim, he is said to have remarked that ever since the expulsion from Eden mankind has been sinking lower and lower: "right now he is a little lower than the French."

Tart words, indeed.

Mark Twain in 1871, two years after his European grand tour and Innocents Abroad

In 1869 Twain toured Europe, sharing his mostly negative views of the lands across the pond in Innocents Abroad. But one location legendary for its opulence, surprisingly, impressed the
literary curmudgeon:

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.

The scene thrills one like military music! A noble palace, stretching its ornamented front, block upon block away, till it seemed that it would never end; a grand promenade before it, whereon the armies of an empire might parade; all about it rainbows of flowers, and colossal statues that were almost numberless and yet seemed only scattered over the ample space; broad flights of stone steps leading down from the promenade to lower grounds of the park--stairways that whole regiments might stand to arms upon and have room to spare; vast fountains whose great bronze effigies discharged rivers of sparkling water into the air and mingled a hundred curving jets together in forms of matchless beauty; wide grass-carpeted avenues that branched hither and thither in every direction and wandered to seemingly interminable distances, walled all the way on either side with compact ranks of leafy trees whose branches met above and formed arches as faultless and as symmetrical as ever were carved in stone; and here and there were glimpses of sylvan lakes with miniature ships glassed in their surfaces.
And every where--on the palace steps, and the great promenade, around the fountains, among the trees, and far under the arches of the endless avenues--hundreds and hundreds of people in gay costumes walked or ran or danced, and gave to the fairy picture the life and animation which was all of perfection it could have lacked.

It was worth a pilgrimage to see. Everything is on so gigantic a scale. Nothing is small--nothing is cheap. The statues are all large; the palace is grand; the park covers a fair-sized county; the avenues are interminable. All the distances and all the dimensions about Versailles are vast. I used to think the pictures exaggerated these distances and these dimensions beyond all reason, and that they made Versailles more beautiful than it was possible for any place in the world to be. I know now that the pictures never came up to the subject in any respect, and that no painter could represent Versailles on canvas as beautiful as it is in reality. I used to abuse Louis XIV for spending two hundred millions of dollars in creating this marvelous park, when bread was so scarce with some of his subjects; but I have forgiven him now. He took a tract of land sixty miles in circumference and set to work to make this park and build this palace and a road to it from Paris. He kept 36,000 men employed daily on it, and the labor was so unhealthy that they used to die and be hauled off by cartloads every night. The wife of a nobleman of the time speaks of this as an "inconvenience," but naively remarks that "it does not seem worthy of attention in the happy state of tranquillity we now enjoy."

I always thought ill of people at home who trimmed their shrubbery into pyramids and squares and spires and all manner of unnatural shapes, and when I saw the same thing being practiced in this great park I began to feel dissatisfied. But I soon saw the idea of the thing and the wisdom of it. They seek the general effect. We distort a dozen sickly trees into unaccustomed shapes in a little yard no bigger than a dining room, and then surely they look absurd enough. But here they take two hundred thousand tall forest trees and set them in a double row; allow no sign of leaf or branch to grow on the trunk lower down than six feet above the ground; from that point the boughs begin to project, and very gradually they extend outward further and further till they meet overhead, and a faultless tunnel of foliage is formed. The arch is mathematically precise.

The effect is then very fine. They make trees take fifty different shapes, and so these quaint effects are infinitely varied and picturesque. The trees in no two avenues are shaped alike, and consequently the eye is not fatigued with anything in the nature of monotonous uniformity. I will drop this subject now, leaving it to others to determine how these people manage to make endless ranks of lofty forest trees grow to just a certain thickness of trunk (say a foot and two-thirds); how they make them spring to precisely the same height for miles; how they make them grow so close together; how they compel one huge limb to spring from the same identical spot on each tree and form the main sweep of the arch; and how all these things are kept exactly in the same condition and in the same exquisite shapeliness and symmetry month after month and year after year--for I have tried to reason out the problem and have failed.

We walked through the great hall of sculpture and the one hundred and fifty galleries of paintings in the palace of Versailles, and felt that to be in such a place was useless unless one had a whole year at his disposal. These pictures are all battle scenes, and only one solitary little canvas among them all treats of anything but great French victories. We wandered, also, through the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon, those monuments of royal prodigality, and with histories so mournful--filled, as it is, with souvenirs of Napoleon the First, and three dead kings and as many queens. In one sumptuous bed they had all slept in succession, but no one occupies it now.

In a large dining room stood the table at which Louis XIV and his mistress Madame Maintenon, and after them Louis XV, and Pompadour, had sat at their meals naked and unattended--for the table stood upon a trapdoor, which descended with it to regions below when it was necessary to replenish its dishes. In a room of the Petit Trianon stood the furniture, just as poor Marie Antoinette left it when the mob came and dragged her and the King to Paris, never to return. Near at hand, in the stables, were prodigious carriages that showed no color but gold--carriages used by former kings of France on state occasions, and never used now save when a kingly head is to be crowned or an imperial infant christened. And with them were some curious sleighs, whose bodies were shaped like lions, swans, tigers, etc. --vehicles that had once been handsome with pictured designs and fine workmanship, but were dusty and decaying now. They had their history.

When Louis XIV had finished the Grand Trianon, he told Maintenon he had created a Paradise for her, and asked if she could think of anything now to wish for. He said he wished the Trianon to be perfection--nothing less. She said she could think of but one thing--it was summer, and it was balmy France--yet she would like well to sleigh ride in the leafy avenues of Versailles! The next morning found miles and miles of grassy avenues spread thick with snowy salt and sugar, and a procession of those quaint sleighs waiting to receive the chief concubine of the gaiest and most unprincipled court that France has ever seen!

From sumptuous Versailles, with its palaces, its statues, its gardens, and its fountains, we journeyed back to Paris.

Have you visited Versailles? What were your impressions? Can you separate your aesthetic impressions from whatever your political views may be regarding the ancien régime and the events of the Revolution?

For additional Twain quotes about the French, visit http://www.twainquotes.com/French.html


Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

Oh man, Leslie, how I would love to go. I THINK my parents took me there when I was in elementary school, but I can't say I had the interest then I should have...even for a 12 year old. ;-)

Reading this makes me sigh. What I wouldn't give to time travel and visit the court of Louis XIV for a day (as a noble woman of course!)...oh what the heck, I'd settle for chambermaid just to get a glimpse of what that fairyland must have been like.

8:10 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Kathrynn, it's breathtaking. Especially for its scope. It's vast.

One reason I did this post is because Mark Twain was legendary for his derision of the overblown and pompous. Yet Versailles genuinely blew him away and he forgot his cynical, humorous persona and became like any other open-mouthed tourist.

As Twain writes, and I agree, it's hard to believe such opulence exists, though if you visit some of the Hapsburg palaces, like Schonbrunn and the Hofburg, it's not unique. Royal residences = wretched excess that we can only ogle. There's something sad about Versailles, though, particularly the Petit Trianon and the Hameau, or little peasant village, that Marie Antoinette had built. People point to it as an example of a woman out of touch with the world beyond palaces, someone who wanted to "play" at being a peasant, while the real peasants of France starved. What needs to be subtracted from that is the fact that Marie Antoinette's Hameau was a copy of one she saw at the chateau of one of her Bourbon in-laws, the Prince de Conde; the queen was no different from the rest of the aristocracy, but as the quintessential outsider, being an Austrian, she bore the brunt of national hatred.

5:23 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I haven't been to Versailles! I hope to go and this post certainly increased my interest. It's fascinating reading an historical figures response to an older historical building and events. There's a fascinating contrast between the sheer beauty of such opulent palaces and the historical reality of the stark inequality of income. But I do think one can simultaneously be aware of the inequality and still appreciate the beauty.

12:18 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Tracy, I agree; it's impossible for us to separate the experience of enjoying a place like Versailles without being aware of the rest of the historical facts, and I knew the hoydens would be fascinated by all the facets.

That got me thinking. All palaces are lavish and opulent. Royalty always had more than everyone else did. But people have always derided the French for their pleasure palaces. People starved in Austria, too yet historians don't take the Hapsburgs to task in the same way. Ditto even for the Hanovers -- or the Windsors, for that matter -- apart from the current rumblings that the British royal family continues to sap the milk of the public teat while people are hungry, or unemployed, in Brixton. No one is calling for their heads or brandishing pitchforks and pikes outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. Nothing approaches the magnitude of more than 200 years of people being appalled at the grandeur of Versailles versus the the condition of the French subjects at the time.

Another thought I'd like to throw out here ... even in a democratic society we have certain expectations about the official homes of those who govern us. We expect our president to live in a glamorous residence that reflects the glorious history (omitting the less glorious aspects) of our nation. The governors' mansions in each state don't resemble rent-controlled apartments in lower income neighborhoods.

5:39 AM  
Anonymous Karen H said...

I visited Versailles as part of a trip to London and Paris for my 50th birthday. I really didn't think about the politics at all but just appreciated the beauty. Of course, I was aware that it was over the top, and in some cases, did not really appeal to me, but there were some truly wonderful things there. I especially loved the paintings as I'm very fond of old European baroque-type works with the lushness of the bodies and the background. And, of course, I just love history so knowing that people had walked those floors for centuries, as I was doing, was also a heady feeling. It's so big I didn't get to see nearly enough but I am very happy I went. I don't think I would have wanted to live then, however, as I do appreciate my modern creature comforts.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Just another open-mouthed tourist"? I think your irony-meter is broken. When he talks about all the people who died to bring this marvel of topiary and vistas to fruition, I don't think the author of Huckleberry Finn seriously means it was worth sacrificing their lives for. (I also wonder what kind of shape Versailles was in when Twain visited in the 19th century. When I visited in the 1970's, the parquet floors were pretty scuffed-up, and the Hall of Mirrors was not nearly as well-maintained as the tribute version at Schloss Linderhof.)

The President of the United States is arguably way more powerful than Louis XIV ever was. And the White House surely ain't no rent-controlled apartment. It ain't no Versailles, either -- and that's a good thing.

2:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple of things: (1) George IV, as Prince Regent, was roundly critized in his day for his architectural extravagances -- including, IIRC, Buckingham Palace. (2) Louis XIV built (or expanded) Versailles in large part to achieve political goals, not aesthetic ones -- to keep French aristocrats occupied at a grand palace under his eye, to express his wealth and power in an unmistakable physical form. If Le Notre and others managed to make it beautiful, that's a nice bonus for those of us who are privileged to visit as tourists from an immensely richer world than that of the 17th century, but that wasn't principally what it was all about. I remember the professor in my "Cultural and Intellectual History of the 17th Century" course reading an excerpt from some aristocrat's memoir about a very elegant nobleman at Versaille pissing into a fireplace there. That's always served as kind of a corrective for me when I've been tempted to romanticize the past. (But man I enjoyed those Angelique books. Anyone else remember them?)

2:48 AM  

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