Chevaliers de St Louis, meagre Marquises, and ladies of the scarlet order of Babylon

Some early journey samples of William Beckford‘s account of his Grand Tour. Beckford – really only known for Vathek now – is most enjoyable (for me) in his carnivalesque collages of the towns he passes through.

I’m using an abridged edition put out by Penguin in the mid 80s (edited by Elizabeth Mavor) that is based on a 2 volume Travel-Diaries of William Beckford of Fonthill from 1928.

Of Haarlem:

Here we arrived just as day declined: hay was making in the fields, and perfumed the country far and wide with its reviving fragrance. I promised myself a sentimental saunter in the groves, took up Gesner, and began to have pretty pastoral ideas as I walked forward; but instead of nymphs dispersed over the meadows, I met a gang of waddling fishermen. Letting fall the garlands I had wreathed for the shepherdesses, I jumped into the carriage, and was driven off to the town. Every avenue to it swarmed with people, whose bustle and agitation seemed to announce that something extraordinary was going forward. Upon inquiry I found it was the great fair at Haerlem; and before we had advanced much farther, our carriage was surrounded by idlers and gingerbread-eaters of all denominations. Passing the gate, we came to a cluster of little illuminated booths beneath a grove, glittering with toys and looking-glasses. It was not without difficulty that we reached our inn, and then the plague was to procure chambers; at last we were accommodated, and the first moment I could call my own has been dedicated to you.

You will not be surprised at the nonsense I have written, since I tell you the scene of the riot and uproar from whence it bears date. At this very moment the confused murmur of voices and music stops all regular proceedings: old women and children tattling; apes, bears, and show-boxes under the windows; French rattling, English swearing, outrageous Italians, frisking minstrels; tambours de basque at every corner; myself distracted; a confounded squabble of cooks and haranguing German couriers just arrived, their masters following open-mouthed, nothing to eat, the steam of ham and flesh-pots all the while provoking their appetite; squeaking chamber-maids in the galleries above, and mine hostess below, half inclined to receive the golden solicitations of certain beauties for admittance, but positively refusing them the moment some creditable personage appears; eleven o’clock strikes; half the lights in the fair are extinguished; scruples grow faint; and mammon gains the victory.

And of Spa a few days later:

Next morning [July 6th] a zigzag road brought us, after many descents and rises, to Spa. The approach, through a rocky vale, is not totally devoid of picturesque merit; and, as I met not cabriolets or tituppings on the chausee, I concluded, that the waters were not as yet much visited; and, that I should have their romantic environs pretty much to myself. But, alas, how widely was I deceived! The moment we entered, up flew a dozen sashes. Chevaliers de St Louis, meagre Marquises, and ladies of the scarlet order of Babylon, all poked their heads out. In a few minutes, half the town was in motion; taylors, confectioners, and barbers, thrusting bills into our hands, with manifold grimaces and contortions. Then succeeded a grand entre of valets de place, who were hardly dismissed before the lodging-letters arrived, followed by somebody with a list of les seigneurs and dames, as long as a Welsh pedigree. Half an hour was wasted in speecehs and recommendations; another passed, before we could snatch a morsel of refreshment; they then finding I was neither inclined to go to the ball, nor enter the land where Pharoah reigneth, peace was restored, a few feeble bows were scraped, and I found myself in perfect solitude.

A note adds: ‘Pharoah’ was contemporary slong for strong ale or beer. ‘The land where Pharoah reigneth’ was most likely a tavern of some kind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s