Paris at High Noon


THERE is in Paris a via sacra, a street of streets. It is the old Roman Road, which cleaves the island of the city and climbs the hill of the Latin Quarter, past the shabby Rue du Fouarre, where Dante may have studied, past the Collège de France and the Sorbonne, leaving the Panthéon on the left and the Odéon Theatre on the right, and receiving, as it nears the tower of the old Jacobite house, the name of the Rue St. Jacques. At 151 bis Rue St. Jacques, a dignified old-fashioned mansion of the age of Louis Quinze standing at the back of a slatternly courtyard and thus withdrawn from the noise and stir of the town, Monsieur and Madame Casaubon maintained a genteel pension. It was here that I alighted, in September 1889, to spend the first few months of my initiation into the ways of the University of France and its student quarter.

My host was a retired civil servant, handsome, empty-headed, and, since his working days were over, entitled to indolence, but stretching indolence to a point which must seldom be attained by hale and robust middle life. His lineage was good, — he boasted descent from the great Renaissance scholar, — his manners courtly, his chief pleasure every evening after dinner to take his cigarette into the street and sip coffee and cognac at a neighboring café with his old cronies. Yet he experienced at least one literary emotion. He remembered how his father, who had made the Russian campaign under Napoleon, would read

out to his children the successive installments of Thiers’s History of the Consulate and the Empire, and how, coming upon the famous description of the horrors of the Moscow retreat, he broke down in an irrepressible flood of tears. As the old fellow touched upon this episode of his boyhood a rare flash of eloquence came into his handsome brown eyes, and, shaken out of his habitual placidity, he became for the moment, or felt himself to be, a partner with his dead father in that distant and heroic tragedy.

The mainstay of the establishment was Alexandrine, his wife. If ever there was a heroine, it was this valiant, industrious, ever cheerful lady, in a golden wig, who regulated every detail of her large household, kept an infant school, and appeared every night at dinner fresh, amiable, full of sprightly conversation, and as if she had nothing else to do in life but amuse at table some twenty young men. I have never met anyone who did not admire this capable and most understanding representative of the cultured bourgeoisie of France. The inertia of the husband, the brilliant and enjoying activity of the wife, made a piquant contrast.

Among my fellow pensionnaires there was one whom the Casaubons held in peculiar and well-deserved regard. Charles Le Sage was a student at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques, and ambitious of entering the inspectorate of finance, when I first made his acquaintance at the friendly dinner table in the Rue St. Jacques. His conversation was brilliant, and his knowledge of English politics seemed to me astonishing. That a Frenchman junior to myself should know so much that was of vital importance to my own country of which I, despite all my Oxford education, was profoundly ignorant filled me with humiliation. Le Sage was as well versed in Hansard as I was in Aristotle. He had chapter and verse for every leading sentiment of our great political gladiators. He knew our Budgets by heart. Our diplomacy, the weakness and strength of our foreign ministers, the political and economic history of contemporary Europe, had been imparted to him on a methodical plan under a scheme of education which had been devised after the Franco-Prussian War to repair the deficiencies in French political knowledge. No better course of instruction for a public servant could be conceived. We had at that time nothing like it in England. Yet the conditions of public life in France were such that Le Sage, brilliant as an official and accomplished as a writer on economics, was never able to find his way into the Chamber. He stood twice and was twice defeated. After that he was sickened by the atmosphere of French elections. His adversaries bought up the local press and showered calumnies on his mother and sister, and, as the law provided no effective redress, Le Sage refused to face the electors again.

That was a lovely autumn, warm and still, with golden days and silvery nights, and, having allowed myself a month before the University opened to recover my use of the French tongue, I explored every nook and cranny of the Latin Quarter, drinking in the spirit of old Paris from mediæval books and buildings. It was the year of the Exhibition. Paris was full of foreign visitors, but of these we saw and heard little in the Latin Quarter. ‘You Englishmen,’ observed Renan on my first meeting him, ‘think of Paris as a great fair, a place of frivolity and amusement. I tell you it is nothing of the sort. It is the hardest-working place in the world.’ The more I saw of Paris, the more true I felt this observation to be. At Oxford work was moderate, broken by long spells of healthy exercise and social intercourse. The French standard, exacted by competition and self-imposed on all ambitious young men, was of an altogether different order of severity. Such ardor as that which prevailed among my fellow students in history was new to me. I had not known what work could be until I found myself among them.

My plan was to be desultory, to read here, there, and everywhere, to sample professors in the most widely divergent topics, to multiply my points of interest as rapidly as possible, to find out what the great discovering men were after, what historical ideas were creating excitement, what periods offered the most attractive and congenial fields of study. I went to the École des Chartes for paleography, to Longnon at the Collège de France for the geography of Gaul, to Charles Bémont at the École des Hautes Études for mediæval English chronicles, to Albert Sorel at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques for modern European history.

My professors were all admirable, both for the solidity of their learning and for the technique of their exposition. More particularly am I indebted to my old master Charles Bémont, author of a first-rate life of Simon de Montfort, editor of the Gascon Rolls, and one of the editors for more years than I can recall of the Revue Historique. My first historical lecture in French (upon the Chronicles of Rishanger) was delivered at his instigation and with his encouragement. He was a great teacher, disinterested, laborious, and exacting. In France, where English history was not then a popular subject, he was long unrecognized, and only after many years of waiting was this magnificent savant admitted into the Institut de France.


Knowledge and experience poured in from many other quarters. The intellectual giants of the French world were at that time Taine and Renan. To both of these great men I was fortunate enough to have introductions. Each was a man of genius, who stamped himself upon the minds of the younger generation. Taine was a methodizing exponent of applied psychology, who combined in a singular degree poetic feeling with logical rigor. Renan was a religious historian of infinite delicacy and vast learning. Each was a rationalist in religion and a conservative in politics. In his erudite work on the Origins of Contemporary France, Taine explored the ideas of the French Revolution. Renan, traveling over wider ground, recounted the origins of Christianity. The general influence of these two powerful and different minds was, I think, at its height when I settled in Paris in the autumn of 1889. The Taines, who were well-to-do, lived at 23 Rue Cassette, a spacious house in an old-fashioned street near the Luxembourg Gardens, and here received their friends every Monday evening during the winter months. Here I would meet Leconte de Lisle, Gaston Boissier, James Darmesteter, the brilliant Zend scholar, and his beautiful and gifted English wife (née Mary Robinson), Gaston Paris, the master of French mediæval literature, and many other scholars and notabilities in the world of letters. The charm and brilliance of my gifted host and hostess and their intelligent daughter helped to bring the most out of every guest. The conversation was gay and intelligent, intellectual without pedantry, ardent without fanaticism. All enjoyed talking, and no one shrank from talking about difficult and important things.

At that time Paris was much excited by the remarkable results which Charcot, the great psychiatrist, had obtained at the Salpêtrière, through his experiments on hysterical patients. So striking were they that to some philosophers, notably to Binet, they seemed to provide the basis of a new psychology. Taine was much impressed by Charcot’s work, and, hearing that I was contemplating a historical career, urged me to embark upon a three years’ course of medicine under that great master. He pointed out that history was made by men, that men had bodies, that bodies were now healthy, now disordered, and that the state of the body inevitably affected the action of the mind. The study of the human body, then, was part of the historian’s duty, an important part, a much neglected part. The accidents of health had more to do with the march of great events than was ordinarily suspected. A background of psychological knowledge was therefore as necessary to a historian as an acquaintance with geography and economics. After three years at the Salpêtrière I should be in a position to view the past from a scientific angle and to make new and valuable contributions to knowledge.

I could not afford to spare three years to medicine, and doubt whether the time, had it been mine to give, would have been well expended on so elaborate a course. But my experience leads me to think that Taine was clearly justified in his contention that physical causes have been unduly neglected by historians and that they deserve in future to have more attention paid to them. How often during the war was it not clear that statesmen, generals, and admirals became suddenly less efficient through physical fatigue? The great Lord Cromer was wont to attribute the British conquest of the Sudan to a sore throat which rendered him so speechless during General Gordon’s visit to Cairo that he was unable to impress upon that officers’ mind the instructions of the Cabinet in London.

Of Renan, then a resident professor at the Collège de France, I retain two impressions. First I see him, a fat, squat, broad-shouldered old man, looking like a benevolent toad, who rolls into a crowded little lecture room, seats himself at the end of a table where he opens an old Hebrew Bible, and then, with a look round his audience of professors, students, and ladies of fashion, pours out a stream of vivid, malicious, melodious French to the accompaniment of intermittent chuckles of delight from his enthralled audience. ‘Mesdames et messieurs,' he begins, ‘nous abordons aujourd’hui le prophète Daniel’; or ‘Daniel était un vieux sage,’ and then, with a pause and a twinkle, 'un vieux sage apocryphe.’ I do not think that many of his audiences were in a state to profit by the old man’s learning. It was not zeal for the Hebrew Bible which packed the lecture room, but the fame of the lecturer. Le Père Renan was a Parisian mode, but a not altogether senseless one, for, though he spoke on abstruse themes, he spoke in a way which all might appreciate. His causeries, poured out from a full mind with an air of artless meditation, were of so subtle and exquisite a texture, and fell upon the ear with such seductive melody, that even the profane were compelled to enjoy and admire.

Later he received me in his study with all the urbanity of one who had been a Roman priest. We talked of Charcot and of his experiments in telepathy, at that time a popular topic of conversation. Renan warned me to be skeptical. ‘You must remember,’ he said, ‘that hysterical patients have a strong tendency to deceive.’ Then we drifted away to discourse of foreign travel. Renan admired the mediæval pilgrimages and wished the custom could be revived. Throwing himself back in his chair and closing his eyes, he allowed himself to float away into a kind of soothing dreamland, seeing in a succession of little pictures the pilgrimages which he would like to make and communicating to his visitor something of his own enjoyment of them. As an entertainment for a shy young foreigner, nothing could have been better. At the end of it the great man came to the door and helped me on with my coat.

Many years afterwards I had a long talk about Renan with Sabatier, the famous authority on Saint Francis. So fanatical was Sabatier’s mother in her Protestantism that, she would draw down the blinds rather than have any inmate of her household set eyes upon a Catholic procession passing along the street. As a very small boy, Sabatier was distressed by the thought of these Catholics, creatures so wicked that it was pollution to gaze upon them. Very secretly he determined to make those wicked Catholics better, to convert them, but first to know all about them. So he would steal into Catholic churches, listen to Catholic music, study Catholic ritual. Very soon he became so learned in matters of ritual that priests came to consult him. Then he sought a deeper kind of learning. He became a university student in Paris, and one day, since his subject was theology, found himself standing right at the back of Renan’s lecture room, as I had done. Something in his appearance, perhaps his rare personal beauty and flaming dark eyes, attracted the old man’s attention. 'Avez vous compris?’ he asked. ‘Pas un mot, monsieur ,’ was the reply. Thereupon, to his intense astonishment and delight, this raw young provincial student was taken up into the great man’s study and treated to such a lecture on theology as he would never have thought possible.

At the end, Sabatier started to take his leave. It was raining hard. He had no greatcoat, no umbrella, and his poor garret was at the other side of Paris. Renan escorted him home, holding his umbrella over the young student all the way, and all the time talking like a god. At the end of their journey Sabatier was too shy to interrupt the talk, and so back they walked to the Collège de France and back again across Paris to the student’s lodgings, the famous old man steadily holding up the umbrella and steadily talking, the enraptured young student trotting by his side. As may be imagined, from that time onwards Sabatier was Renan’s slave. It was to Renan that he owed the chief inspiration of his life. ‘You wish,’ said the great savant, ‘to reconcile the Catholic and Protestant Churches. Study Saint Francis. He is what Catholics and Protestants have in common.’


The École des Chartes, then presided over by Paul Meyer, the great Romance scholar, is — or rather was — primarily a vocational school for the training of French archivists. The spirit of the great Benedictine scholars pervaded this austere seminary of all the scholarly virtues. ‘Remember, gentlemen,’ said Leon Gautier, that ardent and delightful editor of the Chanson de Roland, when he wished to spur on our flagging energies, ‘ that the great Ducange worked for fourteen hours on his wedding day.’ The ceremony at the Soutenance des Thèses, when the young men were called upon to defend the final exercise upon which their title to be called Archiviste Paléographe depended, was enough to strike awe into the beholder. The three venerable judges, with the Olympian figure of Leconte do Lisle, Librarian of the Bibliothèque Nationale, presiding, sat on the dais, discharging a formidable battery of questions at their victim below, while professors and students and friends crowded round to hear the battle of wits. Little quarter was given or expected on these occasions. Woe to the student who failed to interpret an abbreviation, to give a date, to identify a quotation, or to master all the relevant sources. The tribunal had been over his work with a microscope. The smallest sign of slipshod scholarship caught its eye and provoked a censure.

Since, however, it was no part of my plan to qualify as an archivist, this intensive discipline in French mediæval history was allowed to absorb only a small part of my time. The Fcole des Chartes supplied one side only of my historical training. Nor was it the most important side. The past cannot be reconstructed by men whose knowledge of life is solely derived from documents. Old papers do not tell the whole story; they may not tell the most important part of the story. The historian who contents himself with presenting to his readers a cento of texts, and packs his pages with information not because it is significant but because it is available, does not truly fulfill his office. His books will doubtless be learned; but they will lack the perspective and the insight into reality which make the past instructive to living men. Historical scholarship has its own special function to perform, but a fine historical scholar may nevertheless be a poor historian. Not without warrant did my wise friend Taine advise me against excessive devotion to the École des Chartes.

One day that autumn the newspapers announced the death of one of those rare beings who are at once, and in the most complete sense, a scholar and a historian. Fustel do Coulanges was a name already well known to me, for most Oxford men reading for greats had been recommended to profit from the brilliant lucidity, the bold outlines, and the vast learning of La Cité Antique, but of Fustel’s all-important mediæval work there was at that time little knowledge in England outside a narrow circle of specialists who, like Maitland, were working in the field of early social and legal history. Imagine, then, my delight on receiving from Mandell Creighton an invitation (prompted by Maitland) to celebrate Fustel in the pages of the English Historical Review. Fustel had traveled on the highroad which leads from the ancient to the modern world. It was exactly the route which I proposed to follow. Hastily devouring the noble volumes in which that wonderful scholar traces the continuity of Latin influence in Gaul, I made, in January 1890, my first experiment in authorship.

The Hôtel de France et de Lorraine, once much frequented by quiet country gentry of the Royalist persuasion, and standing almost at the angle of the Rue de Beaune and the Quai Voltaire, has now, like many another pleasant oldfashioned building, been improved off the face of the map. Yet in 1889 this modest inn enjoyed a certain renown among visitors of a studious taste and temperament. George Eliot used to stay here. So too did James Russell Lowell, that witty American littérateur, on whose recommendation I was drawn to exchange my distant quarters for this central yet secluded hostelry.

Here I found myself in a nest of artists. Among my fellow lodgers were A. H. Studd (known as Peter) and William Rothenstein and Kenneth Frazier, a gifted young American artist. Peter, an Eton and Cambridge friend of my cousin George Duckworth, was already known to me. He was the most diffident and delightful of men. The conventions of Eton and Cambridge, where, like his brothers, he was distinguished as a cricketer, had not dimmed the poetry of his simple and ardent nature. That he was gifted beyond the ordinary was made evident when he tried his hand at an original composition in oils. In the management of tongue and pen he had little skill. His thoughts could not express themselves in words, and examinations must have presented an almost insuperable horror. But by degrees he discovered a vocation in which the most inarticulate might excel. Far later than most men, he made painting a profession. When I ran across him in Paris he was in the first flush of enthusiasm for his newfound art. His enjoyment of it was infectious, and, had his executive power been equal to his sense of poetic inspiration, he would have taken a high rank among the painters of his time.

Will Rothenstein, when I first met him in Studd’s company, was a tiny lad of seventeen, already wearing large horn spectacles, and a marvel of precocious virtuosity. He moved with incredible ease and nimbleness in every medium. He perorated, he wrote, he drew, he painted. By the cosmopolitan crowd who toiled away in the noisy, crowded studios of the Académie Julian he was regarded as the infant prodigy, the coming man. Again and again he won competitions against artists many years his senior. His enthusiastic vitality, quick wit, and droll imagination made him a universal favorite. ‘C’est un artiste au bout des ongles,’ said Rodin. Perhaps if he had had less all-round facility he would have accomplished more as a painter. Yet his achievement has been considerable, alike as artist and author. Few of the notabilities of his age have contrived to escape his assiduous and skillful pencil. Even town councilors have been swayed by his eloquence. In later life he made a reputation as a capable and inspiring Director of the Royal College of Art and as the author of delightful volumes of autobiography, wherein may be found a faithful and engaging picture of that artistic circle in Paris into which he was plunged as a raw provincial from Bradford, and from which he emerged having tasted many forms of enjoyment and learned much about the ways, both good and evil, of mankind.

A very different character and a most valuable element in our group was Ludwig von Hofmann. This handsome, grave, aristocratic Bavarian was older and riper than most of the art students who gathered in the evening to perorate de omni scibili in Studd’s salon. Of the fine technical qualities which were afterwards destined to win for von Hofmann renown in his native country, I could form no estimate. His enthusiasm, however, for the most recent developments of French art was genuine and unmistakable, his nature wholesome and magnanimous. I could see that the military humiliation of France, the hospitable metropolis of the painter’s art, caused in him a certain malaise. Like Byron, he was impressed by the deep melancholy of history.

It is an education to be inducted by artist friends into their earthly paradise of light and shadow and soft gradations of shifting and delicate tints. For my companions a plain wall of plaster in a dirty malodorous street might be a source of positive delight. Let a mauve or pearl-gray shadow be thrown on the drab white superficies, and the object for them was transfigured. In my walks abroad in Paris my attention was continually directed to the miracles wrought by sun and shade. My painting friends lived for color and found nothing so dull or so ugly but that a change of light might invest it with loveliness. They would proclaim the beauty of factory chimneys, gasometers, and dustbins. If I was not equal to their raptures, they brought new ranges of pleasure within my reach.

Impressionism was in the first flush of its fame. The god whom we were taught to worship was Monet, of whom Clemenceau, a great friend, tells the story that the artist, standing by the bedside of his dying mistress, could see nothing but the beautiful violet shadow on her temple. There was a picture of a pine tree by this gifted painter in Goupil’s window, in which the separate tints were so brilliantly distinguished that they could be seen on the other side of the Boulevard. To this we made a pious pilgrimage, as also to the frescoes of Besnard in the École de Pharmacie and to those of Puvis de Chavannes in the Panthéon. The fashionable painters of the day were loaded with our denunciation. To have a picture hanging in the Salon was regarded as a patent humiliation. I was not myself equipped to join in the nocturnal denunciations of my friends, but I agreed with them in thinking the Salon disappointing. ‘My compatriots,’ Rodin observed to me once in explanation, ‘have lost the art of admiration.’ But if that faculty was lost by Frenchmen it was very marked in my artist friends from England, America, and Germany. Indifferent as the Salon may have been, the artistic influence of Paris was to an amazing extent predominant through Europe. Save in England and Spain, the art schools of Paris dictated the fashion.


Two stormy petrels were scudding over the political waters. One was Boulanger, the other Déroulède. I was out among the excited crowed during the critical night when the French electorate voted down the showy but ineffectual general who proposed to revise the Constitution, and was thought to be the harbinger of war. The wide and menacing popularity of this incompetent politician — a popularity which he fomented by pandering to the lowest anti-Semite prejudices of the mob — was an indication of the continuing malaise of France under a régime which was thought to be overtimid and tolerant of defeat.

The loss of Alsace-Lorraine rankled in all minds. Every politician and every measure was judged in the light of the German question. The winning of a new Colonial Empire in the Far East was used as a stick to beat Jules Ferry. There were many who thought it folly to squander blood and treasure in distant waters when the all-important prize of French policy was near at hand. The fiery Déroulède, who had fought in 1870, was an active propagandist for the policy which ultimately led through the Franco-Russian Alliance to the Great War. When he came to ask Renan to subscribe to the Ligue des Patriotes, founded to keep alive the idea of the war of revenge, the old sage replied, ‘Young man, France is dying; do not trouble her agony.’ Such pessimism was common. The faith in the national intellect was as high as the confidence in the political destiny of France was low. ‘ Tous les députés sont vendus’ was the common opinion of the students. The Chamber had not recovered from the shock of the Panama scandal.

It was not, indeed, until I immersed myself in the atmosphere of Paris that I began to realize the perils which were still in store for civilization. In England we had been brought up in the idea of a stable peace, an expanding commerce, a progressive and steady advance in well-being and right reason throughout the world. Our political struggles were keen, but about matters of secondary importance. Most of us believed with Herbert Spencer that the world was passing from a military into an industrial state of existence. In France there was none of that island security. Revolution and war were present possibilities. At a political meeting in one faubourg, which I attended from curiosity, the speaker was forced by the clamor of his audience to apologize to the Republicans for his use of the word Monsieur and to the atheists for his exclamation Mon Dieu. Beneath the polished surface of French life the tradition of the Jacobin was still alive and ready to burst into flame.

My hosts had begun to take notice of England. Everyone was talking of a book with an arresting title, Àquoi tient la supériorité des Anglo-Saxons? Taine’s remarkable study of English literature and Boutmy’s brilliant sketch of English constitutional development answered a general demand for more knowledge about the neighboring island across the Channel. Albion remained perfidious. We were not popular; but we had become respected. Of the foreign pictures displayed that year at the Exhibition, the English alone occasioned the surprise and admiration of the crowd.

Meanwhile the intellectual currents ran strongly against romance. The young men had deserted Alexandre Dumas and Georges Sand for the masters of realism. Balzac was a demigod. The praise of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was on all lips. Here was that serious documentation of life which should be the end of all literature, and in Flaubert the sublime instrument of the French language wielded with a scholar’s scruple. My contemporaries were proud of the novelist whose happiness was said to have been poisoned by the two dependent genitives, une couronne des fleurs d’orange, which had found their way into a sentence of his masterpiece. The older men, who liked flowing, easy, romantic French, were unconverted. ‘Madame Sand,’ said Renan, ‘will be read three hundred years hence,’ but the prevailing tone was that of the melancholy Edmond de Goncourt, himself trained in the École des Chartes, whose journal based upon the experience of a lifetime presents a faithful picture of the literary and artistic society of Paris (on its less learned and serious side) which I was privileged in my early manhood for a brief period to enjoy.