3030. Robert Southey to John May, 13 October 1817

3030. Robert Southey to John May, 13 October 1817⁠* 

My dear friend

The notion of writing again that letter which the rascal Louis destroyed at Geneva, [1]  has I verily believe repeatedly prevented me from beginning one in the natural order of things. I can place myself at Thebes or at Athens in my vocation, – dive into Padalon [2]  or scale Mount Calasay, [3]  – but to remember what I then wrote, farther than the journal which you have seen might remind me of the facts, is beyond my power. Let us see however what can be done, with as little repetition as possible of what you have taken the trouble to decypher.

In speaking of Paris I probably might have remarked what an out-of-door life is led by the inhabitants, & how prodigiously busy those people are who have nothing to do. There is more stir & bustle than in London, & of a very different character; xx in London they bear the xxx stamp of business, – you see that the crowds who pass by you in Cheapside have some thing to do something to think of; – & in Paris you see as clearly that restlessness & dissipation bring people into the street, because they have nothing to do at home. Nothing is more frequent in the suburbs than inscriptions at public gardens & hotels to this purport Ici on fait des noces. [4]  This is as common as ‘funerals performed’ in England.

I should think France decidedly inferiour to England in beauty of country: yet I did not find the scenery altogether so uninteresting as I had been taught to expect. Picardy has much historical interest to an Englishman, & perhaps the recollection of great events sometimes made me enjoy scenes which might also have been insipid. For I thought of Commines, [5]  of the struggle between Burgundy & France, – & in tracts where there was little more than earth & sky to be seen I remembered that that same earth had been trodden by our countrymen before the battles of Cressy & Agincourt [6]  & that that same sky had seen their victory. The towns also have many interesting antiquities, where an antiquarian xxx artist would find enough to employ him. The rivers have a magnitude & majesty to be found in few English streams: on the other hand there is a want of wood, or of variety of wood; – poplars give a sameness to the scene & a sort of sickly colouring, very different from the deep foliage of our oaks & elms. – The very general custom of housing the cattle is unfavourable to the appearance of the country; you xxx xx there is a want of life & motion & sound. I believe also that there are fewer birds than in England – I scarcely remember to have seen a crow, or a bird of prey. The most beautiful part of France which we saw (except the Jura country which has a Swiss character) was French Flanders, – which is indeed exceedingly beautiful. The country from Lisle to St Omers may vie with the xx richest parts of England.

John Audry [7]  was much disappointed with the South of France, – perhaps this was because he entered it from Switzerland & Savoy, – but the features as he described them were naturally unfavourable. The country upon the Loire has been much extolled. – Landor told me it had the same fault which I had observed in other parts, a pale & monotonous colouring from the poplars, which was not relieved by vineyards, & in summer by the xxx sands which the river then left bare.

We came upon a fine country as we approached Besançon, – the air of the Jura mountains seemed congenial to my xxxx me, & if I did not look upon the people with some partiality because they were mountaineers, they were a better race in many respects than the xx natives of Burgundy & Champagne. Were I to visit Switzerland again I should wish to see more of the Jura. I do not think that a traveller can xx enter Switzerland in any better direction than by way of Pontarlier & Neuchatel. If the wine of this latter territory could reach England I should think it would have a great sale, for it has the flavour of Burgundy & the body of Port. [8]  If the duties are lowered (as I understand they are likely to be) it will find its way here by the Rhine.

We amused ourselves sometimes with talking of the great good to be effected by a Missionary Society for instructing the French & the other rational nations in certain acts & decencies of life with which they are unacquainted. As they would have much to learn even in cookery. Sir Wm Curtis [9]  was to be Patron of the proposed society. We should have something to learn from them in return, on this art, but it would be doing them a signal service to instruct them in roasting & boiling, – texts upon which the Missionary should be charged frequently to dwell, he should preach also upon pastry, & lecture upon Apple dumplins. He should convert them to the use of carpets, & expound water closets earnestly exhorting the unclean generation to profit by his discourse. If the general use of tea could be introduced also xxx it might prove a general benefit. A French breakfast has neither the comfort, nor the domestic character of an English one, – he gets it better at Restaurateurs or an hotel than at home. But domestic habits are what are wanting in France, & if it were the fashion to drink tea, they would be very much promoted by it. In Morocco tea is rapidly superseding the use of coffee, – I do not know why it xxx is so little liked upon the continent of Europe, when among us it has become one of the first necessaries of life. – We tried it sometimes, but scarcely ever with success, & it is curious enough that we never on any occasion met with cream, except at one Chalet in Switzerland which is famous for it: neither in France, Switzerland, Italy Germany or the Netherlands, rich in dairies as all these countries are, do the inhabitants appear ever to use it.

Perhaps I described the Lakes of Neuchatel & Geneva in my lost letter, & the abominable odour of the great city of Calvinism: [10]  but this you have seen in my journal. Your god daughter is making the extracts from it, & I shall find means of sen conveying them in a frank. Since my return we have had much company, & in consequence I have been led into much idleness. Winter is now setting in, altho the weather continues fine; the days are shortening fast, long evenings will confine me to my desk, & the retirement which this place affords during the dark season is such that I am in no danger of being disturbed.

At present I am finishing a paper upon Lope de Vega for the next Quarterly, [11]  & preparing the first chapter of the Peninsular war for the press. [12]  An influenza has gone thro the house, I had it slightly, the children with more or less violence. at present, thank God, all are well. The season cannot be finer, tho the cold is a little premature. – The sale of the property [13]  is stopped by an injunction from the Chancellor, & I have been plagued in various ways about the rent, & certain annuities which are charged upon the estate. After much consideration & conciliation I have paid the former to the mortgagee, & I have since been distrained upon for annuities in advance of the next half year. When the business will be settled nobody knows. – I have heard nothing of my books from abroad: [14]  but hope that Bedford will learn something concerning them, on his return to town.

Remember us to Mrs May & your daughters [15]  & believe me

Yrs most affectionately

Robert Southey.

Keswick. 13 Oct. 1817


* Address: To/ John May Esqre/ Richmond/ Surrey
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmarks: E/ 16 OC 16/ 1817; [partial ]o’Clock/ OC/16/ 1817 F.N.n
Watermark: B. E. & S. Bath 1814
Endorsement: No. 196 1817/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 13th October/ recd. 16th do./ ansd. 20th Nov.
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Ramos (ed.), The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 159–162; Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 278–282 [in part]. BACK

[1] Southey suspected the letter that he had written to John May from Geneva on 4 June 1817 had been destroyed by his guide, Louis Clerc, to whom he it gave it to post, so that Clerc could keep the postage money. BACK

[2] Padalon is the world of the dead in Southey’s The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[3] The residence of Seeva in The Curse of Kehama. BACK

[4] ‘Weddings performed here’. BACK

[5] Philippe de Commines (1447–1511), a diplomat in the courts of Burgundy and France. His Mémoires, first published in 1524, detailed the major historical events in which he had played a part. Southey possessed an English translation of 1674 (no. 701 in the sale catalogue of his library). BACK

[6] At the battles of Crécy (26 August 1346) and Agincourt (25 October 1415) the English won notable victories over the French. BACK

[7] John Awdry (1766–1844), solicitor in Reybridge and husband of Jane, née Bigg-Wither (1770–1845), sister of Herbert Hill’s wife, Catherine. BACK

[8] The quality of Neuchatel’s red wines (grown from the pinot noir grape, as are many wines from Burgundy) were much commented on by travellers in the early nineteenth century. Wine duties were not reduced until 1825. BACK

[9] Sir William Curtis (1752–1829; DNB), MP for the City of London 1790–1818 and 1820–1826, where he was a prominent figure as an Alderman 1785–1829. His large girth and reputed appetite at City functions made him the subject of many cartoons. BACK

[10] The established church in Geneva, the Protestant Church of Geneva, followed the doctrines of the French theologian, Jean Calvin (1509–1564), who was long resident in the city. BACK

[11] In the Quarterly Review, 18 (October 1817), 1–46, Southey reviewed Lord Holland, Some Account of the Lives and Writings of Lope Felix de Vega Carpio, and Guillen de Castro (1817). BACK

[12] Southey’s History of the Peninsular War, 3 vols (1823–1832). BACK

[13] Greta Hall, of which Southey was the tenant, was sold in June 1817 to Isaac Fisher (c. 1773–1819), a member of a Borrowdale farming family and a gold and silversmith in Cockspur Street, London. However, legal complications arising from the previous landlord’s debts had halted the purchase. The injunction halting the sale had been granted by John Scott, 1st Earl of Eldon (1751-1838; DNB), Lord Chancellor 1801-1806, 1807-1827. BACK

[14] Books purchased during Southey’s visit to the continent in May–August 1817. BACK

[15] Mary Charlotte (b. 1804), Susanna Louisa (1805–1885) and Charlotte Livius (b. 1812). BACK

Places mentioned

Greta Hall/ Greeta Hall (mentioned 1 time)
Keswick (mentioned 1 time)