In the early 19th century, a “Grand Tour” of Europe, especially of France and Italy, was considered an essential rite of passage for young adult members of the upper classes in Great Britain. Two Irish ladies of the time left relatively interesting accounts of their Grand Tour experiences on the European mainland, including their stays in Paris.
Katherine Wilmot’s (Drogheda, Co. Louth, 1773 – Paris, 1824) Grand Tour of 1801-1803 included a stay in and around Paris between December 1801 and September 1802, a period when a fragile peace held between Napoleonic France and Britain.
In one of her letters to her brother, Wilmot describes how she and Lady Mount Cashell (of Moore Park, near Cork) first drove into Paris with their eyes "flying out of their sockets". After being cheated at the Hotel de l’Europe at 109, rue de la Loi (now rue de Richelieu, 1st-2nd arrondissements) and being “obliged to have recourse to the commissary”, she and the Mount Cashells settled into the Hotel d’Espagne in the same street (which had seen an assassination attempt against Napoleon just a month before Wilmot’s arrival) “at 18 louis d’or a month”.
Wilmot’s travels around the city included excursions to the Palais Royal (1st arrondissement) although she understood that “(except at a particular hour) it is not look’d upon as right for ladies to go there. Indeed, I believe it is a haunt for great wickedness.” Another favourite haunt was the Tivoli gardens (which stood west of the rue Clichy in the modern-day 9th arrondissement), where “one may have baths prepared in imitation of every kind of water in the world and drink the factitious ones, with equal effect….”
She also met personalities such as Thomas Paine (“generally the most abominably dirty being upon the face of the earth”), Jacques Louis David and Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s wife. She saw Bonapart himself reviewing his troops and at a dinner party at the Tuileries palace (1st arrondissement).
She also became an astute observer of the French. They struck her “as eating like gourmands”, she writes. “A most odious custom which they have is spitting around the room, which they certainly do to such an excess that they look like a parcel of Tritons with eternal water sprouts playing from their lips”. Nor are the people who gave the world the French Revolution all they are cracked up to be, she writes. “’Tis nonsense to talk of the French being Republicans, I don’t think a spark exists amongst them. They are excessively fond of rank, honours, and every etiquette that can distinguish them from the multitude”.
Wilmot’s travelling companion, Lady Cashell, gave birth to a child in Paris on June 25, 1802 (Richard Francis Stanislaus Moore). Wilmot describes how they went along to the nearest town hall to register the child’s birth. “This ceremony is necessary with everyone born in France,” she writes, “and it may be an advantage in giving him constitutional rights as long as he lives, if the French have any such to impart, which seems to be much doubted.”
Wilmot was invited to stay with a family in Versailles in May 1802 and throughout the spring and summer of that year she visited places near Paris such as the castle of Meudon, the valley of Montmorency and the Basilica of Saint Denis, which had been completely wrecked by the revolutionaries. Despite her starry-eyed descriptions of some of these places, by the end of her sojourn in September 1802, Wilmot would seem to have had enough of Paris and Parisians. Writing to her brother Robert, she said she knew of his antipathy to the French nation, “and when contrasted with the sounder morals of the English, I do not wonder at your dislike.”
A false rumour that her father was actually the brother of Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont, a royalist icon and confessor of Louis XVI, almost resulted in the expulsion of Maria and her family from Paris in January 1803, but they were left alone when it emerged that the clergyman was actually a first cousin once removed of Maria’s father.
Among the many people Maria Edgeworth met during her five-month stay in Paris was the count Lally de Tolendal, of Wild Geese stock, and a Swedish diplomat called chevalier Edelcrantz, whose marriage proposal she refused. Like Wilmot before her, Edgeworth also managed to see Napoleon reviewing his troops at the place du Carrousel in the Louvre (1st arrondissement).
An Irish Peer on the Continent (1801-1803), Being a Narrative of the Tour of Stephen, Second Earl Mount Cashell Through France, Italy, etc.. (1920)
Catherine Wilmot, ed. Thomas U. Sadlier
The Grand Tours of Katherine Wilmot: France 1801-1803 and Russia 1805-1807 (1992)
Katherine Wilmot, compiled and edited by Elizabeth Mavor
Maria Edgeworth in France and Switzerland: Selections from the Edgeworth Family Letters (1979)
Ed. Christina Colvin
The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth (1894)
Maria Edgeworth, ed. By Augustus J. Hare
Maria Edgeworth and her Circle in the Days of Buonapart and Bourbon (1910)
Maria Edgeworth (1904)
Maria Edgeworth (1950)
Percy Howard Newby