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Chapter 12

LETTER XII.

Sir Walter Scott in Paris.—Conversation with him.—Copyright in
America.—Miss Scott.—French Compliments.—Sir Walter Scott's Person
and Manners.—Ignorance as to America.—French Commerce.—French
Translations.—American Luxury.

To JAMES E. DE KAY, ESQUIRE.

We have not only had Mr. Canning in Paris, but Sir Walter Scott has suddenly appeared among us. The arrival of the Great Unknown, or, indeed, of any little Unknown from England, would be an event to throw all the reading clubs at home into a state of high moral and poetical excitement. We are true village lionizers. As the professors of the Catholic religion are notoriously more addicted to yielding faith to miraculous interventions, in the remoter dioceses, than in Rome itself; as loyalty is always more zealous in a colony than in a court; as fashions are more exaggerated in a province than in a capital, and men are more prodigious to every one else than their own valets,—so do we throw the haloes of a vast ocean around the honoured heads of the celebrated men of this eastern hemisphere. This, perhaps, is the natural course of things, and is as unavoidable as that the sun shall hold the earth within the influence of its attraction, until matters shall be reversed by the earth's becoming the larger and more glorious orb of the two. Not so in Paris. Here men of every gradation of celebrity, from Napoleon down to the Psalmanazar of the day, are so very common, that one scarcely turns round in the streets to look at them. Delicate and polite attentions, however, fall as much to the share of reputation here as in any other country, and perhaps more so as respects literary men, though there is so little wonder-mongering. It would be quite impossible that the presence of Sir Walter Scott should not excite a sensation. He was frequently named in the journals, received a good deal of private and some public notice, but, on the whole, much less of both, I think, than one would have a right to expect for him, in a place like Paris. I account for the fact, by the French distrusting the forthcoming work on Napoleon, and by a little dissatisfaction which prevails on the subject of the tone of "Paul's Letters to his Kinsfolk." This feeling may surprise you, as coming from a nation as old and as great as France; but, alas! we are all human.

The King spoke to him, in going to his chapel, Sir Walter being in waiting for that purpose; but, beyond this, I believe he met with no civilities from the court.

As for myself, circumstances that it is needless to recount had brought me, to a slight degree, within the notice of Sir Walter Scott, though we had never met, nor had I ever seen him, even in public, so as to know his person. Still I was not without hopes of being more fortunate now, while I felt a delicacy about obtruding myself any further on his time and attention. Several days after his arrival went by, however, without my good luck bringing me in his way, and I began to give the matter up, though the Princesse —— with whom I had the advantage of being on friendly terms, flattered me with an opportunity of seeing the great writer at her house, for she had a fixed resolution of making his acquaintance before he left Paris, coûte que coûte.

It might have been ten days after the arrival of Sir Walter Scott, that I had ordered a carriage, one morning, with an intention of driving over to the other side of the river, and had got as far as the lower flight of steps, on my way to enter it, when, by the tramping of horses in the court, I found that another coach was driving in. It was raining, and, as my own carriage drove from the door to make way for the newcomer, I stopped where I was, until it could return. The carriage-steps rattled, and presently a large, heavy-moulded man appeared in the door of the hotel. He was grey, and limped a little, walking with a cane. His carriage immediately drove round, and was succeeded by mine, again; so I descended. We passed each other on the stairs, bowing as a matter of course. I had got to the door, and was about to enter the carriage, when it flashed on my mind that the visit might be to myself. The two lower floors of the hotel were occupied as a girl's boarding-school; the reason of our dwelling in it, for our own daughters were in the establishment; au second, there was nothing but our own appartement, and above us, again, dwelt a family whose visitors never came in carriages. The door of the boarding-school was below, and men seldom came to it, at all. Strangers, moreover, sometimes did honour me with calls. Under these impressions I paused, to see if the visitor went as far as our flight of steps. All this time, I had not the slightest suspicion of who he was, though I fancied both the face and form were known to me.

The stranger got up the large stone steps slowly, leaning, with one hand, on the iron railing, and with the other, on his cane. He was on the first landing, as I stopped, and, turning towards the next flight, our eyes met. The idea that I might be the person he wanted, seemed then to strike him for the first time. "Est-ce Mons. —— que j'ai l'honneur de voir?" he asked, in French, and with but an indifferent accent. "Monsieur, je m'appelle ——. Eh bien, donc—je suis Walter Scott."

I ran up to the landing, shook him by the hand, which he stood holding out to me cordially, and expressed my sense of the honour he was conferring. He told me, in substance, that the Princesse —— had been as good as her word, and having succeeded herself in getting hold of him, she had good-naturedly given him my address. By way of cutting short all ceremony, he had driven from his hotel to my lodgings. All this time he was speaking French, while my answers and remarks were in English. Suddenly recollecting himself, he said—"Well, here have I been parlez-vousing to you, in a way to surprise you, no doubt; but these Frenchmen have got my tongue so set to their lingo, that I have half forgotten my own language." As we proceeded up the next flight of steps, he accepted my arm, and continued the conversation in English, walking with more difficulty than I had expected to see. You will excuse the vanity of my repeating the next observation he made, which I do in the hope that some of our own exquisites in literature may learn in what manner a man of true sentiment and sound feeling regards a trait that they have seen fit to stigmatize unbecoming, "I'll tell you what I most like," he added, abruptly; "and it is the manner in which you maintain the ascendency of your own country on all proper occasions, without descending to vulgar abuse of ours. You are obliged to bring the two nations in collision, and I respect your liberal hostility." This will probably be esteemed treason in our own self-constituted mentors of the press, one of whom, I observe, has quite lately had to apologize to his readers for exposing some of the sins of the English writers in reference to ourselves! But these people are not worth our attention, for they have neither the independence which belongs to masculine reason, nor manhood even to prize the quality in others. "I am afraid the mother has not always treated the daughter well," he continued, "feeling a little jealous of her growth, perhaps; for, though we hope England has not yet begun to descend on the evil side, we have a presentiment that she has got to the top of the ladder."

There were two entrances to our apartments; one, the principal, leading by an ante-chamber and salle à manger into the salon, and thence through other rooms to a terrace; and the other, by a private corridor, to the same spot. The door of my cabinet opened on this corridor, and though it was dark, crooked, and anything but savoury, as it led by the kitchen, I conducted Sir Walter through it, under an impression that he walked with pain; an idea of which I could not divest myself, in the hurry of the moment. But for this awkwardness on my part, I believe I should have been the witness of a singular interview. General Lafayette had been with me a few minutes before, and he had gone away by the salon, in order to speak to Mrs. ——. Having a note to write, I had left him there, and I think his carriage could not have quitted the court when that of Sir Walter Scott entered. If so, the General must have passed out by the ante-chamber about the time we came through the corridor.

There would be an impropriety in my relating all that passed in this interview; but we talked over a matter of business, and then the conversation was more general. You will remember that Sir Walter was still the Unknown[14] and that he was believed to be in Paris in search of facts for the Life of Napoleon. Notwithstanding the former circumstance, he spoke of his works with great frankness and simplicity, and without the parade of asking any promises of secrecy. In short, as he commenced in this style, his authorship was alluded to by us both just as if it had never been called in question. He asked me if I had a copy of the —— by me, and on my confessing I did not own a single volume of anything I had written, he laughed, and said he believed that most authors had the same feeling on the subject: as for himself, he cared not if he never saw a Waverley novel again, as long as he lived. Curious to know whether a writer as great and as practised as he felt the occasional despondency which invariably attends all my own little efforts of this nature, I remarked that I found the mere composition of a tale a source of pleasure, so much so, that I always invented twice as much as was committed to paper in my walks, or in bed, and in my own judgment much the best parts of the composition never saw the light; for what was written was usually written at set hours, and was a good deal a matter of chance, and that going over and over the same subject in proofs disgusted me so thoroughly with the book, that I supposed every one else would be disposed to view it with the same eyes. To this he answered that he was spared much of the labour of proofreading, Scotland, he presumed, being better off than America in this respect; but still be said he "would as soon see his dinner again after a hearty meal as to read one of his own tales when he was fairly rid of it."

[Footnote 14: He did not avow himself for several months afterwards.]

He sat with me nearly an hour, and he manifested, during the time the conversation was not tied down to business, a strong propensity to humour. Having occasion to mention our common publisher in Paris, he quaintly termed him, with a sort of malicious fun, "our Gosling;"[15] adding, that he hoped he, at least, "laid golden eggs."

[Footnote 15: His name was Gosselin.]

I hoped that he had found the facilities he desired, in obtaining facts for the forthcoming history. He rather hesitated about admitting this. "One can hear as much as he pleases, as a gentleman, he is not always sure how much of it he can, with propriety, relate in a book; besides"—throwing all his latent humour into the expression of his small grey eyes—"one may even doubt how much of what he hears is fit for history on another account." He paused, and his face assumed an exquisite air of confiding simplicity, as he continued, with perfect bonne foi and strong Scottish feeling, "I have been to see my countryman M'Donald, and I rather think that will be about as much as I can do here, now." This was uttered with so much naïveté that I could hardly believe it was the same man who, a moment before, had shown so much shrewd distrust of oral relations of facts.

I inquired when we might expect the work "Some time in the course of the winter," he replied, "though it is likely to prove larger than I at first intended. We have got several volumes printed, but I find I must add to the matter considerably, in order to dispose of the subject. I thought I should get rid of it in seven volumes, which are already written, but it will reach, I think, to nine." "If you have two still to write, I shall not expect to see the book before spring." "You may: let me once get back to Abbotsford, and I'll soon knock off those two fellows." To this I had nothing to say, although I thought such a tour de force in writing might better suit invention than history.

When he rose to go, I begged him to step into the salon, that I might have the gratification of introducing my wife to him. To this he very good-naturedly assented, and entering the room, after presenting Mrs. —— and my nephew W——. he took a seat. He sat some little time, and his fit of pleasantry returned, for he illustrated his discourse by one or two apt anecdotes, related with a slightly Scottish accent, that he seemed to drop and assume at will. Mrs. —— observed to him that the bergère in which he was seated had been twice honoured that morning, for General Lafayette had not left it more than half an hour. Sir Walter Scott looked surprised at this, and said inquiringly, "I thought he had gone to America, to pass the rest of his days." On my explaining the true state of the case, he merely observed, "He is a great man;" and yet I thought the remark was made coldly, or in complaisance to us.

When Sir Walter left us, it was settled that I was to breakfast with him the following day but one. I was punctual, of course, and found him in a new silk douillette that he had just purchased, trying "as hard as he could," as he pleasantly observed, to make a Frenchman of himself—an undertaking as little likely to be successful, I should think, in the case of his Scottish exterior, and Scottish interior too, as any experiment well could be. There were two or three visitors, besides Miss Ann Scott, his daughter, who was his companion in the journey. He was just answering an invitation from the Princesse ——, to an evening party, as I entered. "Here," said he, "you are a friend of the lady, and parlez-vous so much better than I; can you tell me whether this is for Jeudi, or Lundi, or Mardi, or whether it means no day at all?" I told him the day of the week intended. "You get notes occasionally from the lady, or you could not read her scrawl so readily?" "She is very kind to us, and we often have occasion to read her writing." "Well, it is worth a very good dinner to get through a page of it." "I take my revenge in kind, and I fancy she has the worst of it." "I don't know, after all that she will get much the better of me with this plume d'auberge." He was quite right, for, although Sir Walter writes a smooth even hand, and one that appears rather well than otherwise on a page, it is one of the most difficult to decipher I have ever met with; the i's, u's, m's, n's, a's, e's, t's, etc., etc., for want of dots, crossings, and being fully rounded, looking all alike, and rendering the reading slow and difficult, without great familiarity with his mode of handling the pen: at least, I have found it so.

He had sealed the note, and was about writing the direction, when he seemed at a loss. "How do you address this lady—as Her Highness?" I was much surprised at this question from him, for it denoted a want of familiarity with the world, that one would not have expected in a man who had been so very much and so long courted by the great. But, after all, his life has been provincial, though, as his daughter remarked in the course of the morning, they had no occasion to quit Scotland to see the world, all the world coming to see Scotland.

The next morning he was with me again, for near an hour and we completed our little affair. After this we had a conversation on the law of copyrights in the two countries, which as we possess a common language, is a subject of great national interest. I understood him to say that he had a double right in England to his works; one under a statute, and the other growing out of common law. Any one publishing a book, let it be written by whom it might, in England, duly complying with the law, can secure the right, whereas none but a citizen can do the same in America. I regret to say that I misled him on the subject of our copyright law, which, after all, is not so much more illiberal than that of England as I had thought it.

I told Sir Walter Scott, that, in order to secure a copyright in America, it was necessary the book should never have been published anywhere else. This was said under the popular notion of the matter; or that which is entertained among the booksellers. Reflection and examination have since convinced me of my error: the publication alluded to in the law can only mean publication in America; for, as the object of doing certain acts previously to publication is merely to forewarn the American public that the right is reserved, there can be no motive for having reference to any other publication. It is, moreover, in conformity with the spirit of all laws to limit the meaning of their phrases by their proper jurisdiction. Let us suppose a case. An American writes a book, he sends a copy to England, where it is published in March complying with the terms of our own copyright law, as to the entries and notices, the same work is published here in April. Now will it be pretended that his right is lost, always providing that his own is the first American publication? I do not see how it can be so by either the letter or the spirit of the law. The intention is to encourage the citizen to write, and to give him a just property in the fruits of his labour; and the precautionary provisions of the law are merely to prevent others from being injured for want of proper information. It is of no moment to either of these objects that the author of a work has already reaped emolument in a foreign country: the principle is to encourage literature by giving it all the advantages it can obtain.

If these views are correct, why may not an English writer secure a right in this country, by selling it in season, to a citizen here? An equitable trust might not, probably would not be sufficient; but a bona fide transfer for a valuable consideration, I begin to think, would. It seems to me that all the misconception which has existed on this point has arisen from supposing that the term publication refers to other than a publication in the country. But, when one remembers how rare it is to get lawyers to agree on a question like this, it becomes a layman to advance his opinion with great humility. I suppose, after all a good way of getting an accurate notion of the meaning of the law, would be to toss a dollar into the air, and cry "heads," or "tails." Sir Walter Scott seemed fully aware of the great circulation of his books in America, as well as how much he lost by not being able to secure a copyright. Still he admitted they produced him something. Our conversation on this subject terminated by a frank offer, on his part, of aiding me with the publishers of his own country;[16] but, although grateful for the kindness, I was not so circumstanced as to be able to profit by it.

[Footnote 16: An offer that was twice renewed, after intervals of several years.]

He did not appear to me to be pleased with Paris. His notions of the French were pretty accurate, though clearly not free from the old fashioned prejudices. "After all," he remarked, "I am a true Scot, never, except on this occasion, and the short visit I made to Paris in 1815, having been out of my own country, unless to visit England, and I have even done very little of the latter." I understood him to say he had never been in Ireland, at all.

I met him once more, in the evening, at the hotel of the Princesse ——. The party had been got together in a hurry, and was not large. Our hostess contrived to assemble some exceedingly clever people, however, among whom were one or two women, who are already historical, and whom I had fancied long since dead. All the female part of the company, with the silent delicacy that the French so well understand, appeared with ribbons, hats, or ornaments of some sort or other, of a Scottish stamp. Indeed, almost the only woman in the room, that did not appear to be a Caledonian was Miss Scott. She was in half-mourning, and, with her black eyes and jet-black hair, might very well have passed for a French woman, but for a slight peculiarity about the cheek-bones. She looked exceedingly well, and was much admired. Having two or three more places to go to, they stayed but an hour. As a matter of course, all the French women were exceedingly empressées in their manner towards the Great Unknown; and as there were three or four that were very exaggerated on the score of romance, he was quite lucky if he escaped some absurdities. Nothing could be more patient than his manner, under it all; but as soon as he very well could, he got into a corner, where I went to speak to him. He said, laughingly, that he spoke French with so much difficulty, he was embarrassed to answer the compliments. "I am as good a lion as needs be, allowing my mane to be stroked as familiarly as they please, but I can't growl for them, in French. How is it with you?" Disclaiming the necessity of being either a good or a bad lion, being very little troubled in that way, for his amusement I related to him an anecdote. Pointing out to him a Comtesse de ——, who was present, I told him, I had met this lady once a week for several months, and at every soirée she invariably sailed up to me to say—"Oh, Monsieur ——, quelles livres!—vos charmans livres—que vos livres sont charmans!" and I had just made up my mind that she was, at least, a woman of taste, when she approached me with the utmost sang-froid, and cried— "Bon soir, Monsieur ——; je viens d'acheter tous vos livres, et je compte profiter de la première occasion pour les lire!"

I took leave of him in the ante-chamber, as he went away, for he was to quit Paris the following evening.

Sir Walter Scott's person and manner have been so often described, that you will not ask much of me in this way, especially as I saw so little of him. His frame is large and muscular, his walk difficult, in appearance, though be boasted himself a vigorous mountaineer, and his action, in general, measured and heavy. His features and countenance were very Scottish, with the short thick nose, heavy lips, and massive cheeks. The superior or intellectual part of his head was neither deep nor broad, but perhaps the reverse, though singularly high. Indeed, it is quite uncommon to see a scull so round and tower-like in the formation, though I have met with them in individuals not at all distinguished for talents. I do not think a casual observer would find anything unusual in the exterior of Sir Walter Scott, beyond his physical force, which is great, without being at all extraordinary. His eye, however, is certainly remarkable. Grey, small, and without lustre, in his graver moments it appears to look inward, instead of regarding external objects, in a way, though the expression, more or less, belongs to abstraction, that I have never seen equalled. His smile is good-natured and social; and when he is in the mood, as happened to be the fact so often in our brief intercourse as to lead me to think it characteristic of the man, his eye would lighten with a great deal of latent fun. He spoke more freely of his private affairs than I had reason to expect, though our business introduced the subject naturally; and, at such times, I thought the expression changed to a sort of melancholy resolution, that was not wanting in sublimity.

The manner of Sir Walter Scott is that of a man accustomed to see much of the world without being exactly a man of the world himself. He has evidently great social tact, perfect self-possession, is quiet, and absolutely without pretension, and has much dignity; and yet it struck me that he wanted the ease and aplomb of one accustomed to live with his equals. The fact of his being a lion may produce some such effect; but I am mistaken if it be not more the influence of early habits and opinions than of anything else.

Scott has been so much the mark of society, that it has evidently changed his natural manner, which is far less restrained than it is his habit to be in the world. I do not mean by this, the mere restraint of decorum, but a drilled simplicity or demureness, like that of girls who are curbed in their tendency to fun and light-heartedness, by the dread of observation. I have seldom known a man of his years, whose manner was so different in a tête-à-tête, and in the presence of a third person. In Edinburgh the circle must be small, and he probably knows every one. If strangers do go there, they do not go all at once, and of course the old faces form the great majority; so that he finds himself always on familiar ground. I can readily imagine that in Auld Reekie, and among the proper set, warmed perhaps by a glass of mountain-dew, Sir Walter Scott, in his peculiar way, is one of the pleasantest companions the world holds.

There was a certain M. de —— at the soirée of the Princesse ——, who has obtained some notoriety as the writer of novels. I had, the honour of being introduced to this person, and was much amused with one of his questions. You are to understand that the vaguest possible notions exist in France on the subject of the United States. Empires, states, continents, and islands are blended in inextricable confusion, in the minds of a large majority of even the intelligent classes, and we sometimes hear the oddest ideas imaginable. This ignorance, quite pardonable in part, is not confined to France by any means, but exists even in England, a country that ought to know us better. It would seem that M. de ——, either because I was a shade or two whiter than himself, or because he did not conceive it possible that an American could write a book (for in this quarter of the world there is a strong tendency to believe that every man whose name crosses the ocean from America is merely some European who has gone there), or from some cause that to me is inexplicable, took it into his head that I was an Englishman who had amused a leisure year or two in the Western Hemisphere. After asking me a few questions concerning the country, he very coolly continued—"Et combien de temps avez-vous passé en Amérique, monsieur?" Comprehending his mistake, for a little practice here makes one quick in such matters, I answered, "Monsieur, nous y sommes depuis deux siècles." I question if M. de —— has yet recovered from his surprise!

The French, when their general cleverness is considered, are singularly ignorant of the habits, institutions, and civilization of other countries. This is in part owing to their being little addicted to travelling. Their commercial enterprise is not great; for though we occasionally see a Frenchman carrying with him into pursuits of this nature the comprehensive views, and one might almost say, the philosophy, that distinguish the real intelligence of the country, such instances are rare, the prevailing character of their commerce being caution and close dealing. Like the people of all great nations, their attention is drawn more to themselves than to others; and then the want of a knowledge of foreign languages has greatly contributed to their ignorance. This want of knowledge of foreign languages, in a nation that has traversed Europe as conquerors, is owing to the fact that they have either carried their own language with them, or met it everywhere. It is a want, moreover, that belongs rather to the last generation than to the present; the returned emigrants having brought back with them a taste for English, German, Italian, and Spanish, which has communicated itself to all, or nearly all, the educated people of the country. English, in particular, is now very generally studied; and perhaps, relatively, more French, under thirty years of age, are to be found in Paris who speak English, than Americans, of the same age, are to be found in New York who speak French.

I think the limited powers of the language, and the rigid laws to which it has been subjected, contribute to render the French less acquainted with foreign nations than they would otherwise be. In all their translations there is an effort to render the word, however peculiar may be its meaning, into the French tongue. Thus, "township" and "city," met with in an American book, would probably be rendered by "canton" or "commune" or "ville;" neither of which conveys an accurate idea of the thing intended. In an English or American book we should introduce the French word at once, which would induce the reader to inquire into the differences that exist between the minor territorial divisions, of his own country, and those of the country of which he is reading. In this manner is the door open for further information, until both writers and readers come to find it easier and more agreeable to borrow words from others, than to curtail their ideas by their national vocabularies. The French, however, are beginning to feel their poverty in this respect, and some are already bold enough to resort to the natural cure.

The habit of thinking of other nations through their own customs, betrays the people of this country into many ridiculous mistakes. One hears here the queerest questions imaginable every day; all of which, veiled by the good breeding and delicacy that characterize the nation, betray an innocent sense of superiority that may be smiled at, and which creates no feeling of resentment. A savant lately named to me the coasting tonnage of France, evidently with the expectation of exciting my admiration; and on my receiving the information coolly, he inquired, with a little sarcasm of manner—"Without doubt, you have some coasting tonnage also in America?" "The coasting tonnage of the United Slates, Monsieur, is greater than the entire tonnage of France." The man looked astonished, and I was covered with questions as to the nature of the trade that required so much shipping among a population numerically so small. It could not possibly be the consumption of a country—he did not say it, but he evidently thought it—so insignificant and poor? I told him, that bread, wine, and every other article of the first necessity excepted, the other consumption of America, especially in luxuries, did not fall so much short of that of France as he imagined, owing to the great abundance in which the middling and lower classes lived. Unlike Europe, articles that were imported were mere necessaries of life, in America, such as tea, coffee, sugar, etc. etc., the lowest labourer usually indulging in them. He left me evidently impressed with new notions, for there is a desire to learn mingled with all their vanity.

But I will relate a laughable blunder of a translator, by way of giving you a familiar example of the manner in which the French fall into error concerning the condition of other nations, and to illustrate my meaning. In one of the recent American novels that have been circulated here, a character is made to betray confusion, by tracing lines on the table, after dinner, with some wine that had been spilt; a sort of idle occupation sufficiently common to allow the allusion to be understood by every American. The sentence was faithfully rendered; but, not satisfied with giving his original, the translator annexes a note, in which he says, "One sees by this little trait, that the use of table-cloths, at the time of the American Revolution, was unknown in America!" You will understand the train of reasoning that led him to this conclusion. In France the cover is laid, perhaps, on a coarse table of oak, or even of pine, and the cloth is never drawn; the men leaving the table with the women. In America, the table is of highly polished mahogany, the cloth is removed, and the men sit, as in England. Now the French custom was supposed to be the custom of mankind, and wine could not be traced on the wood had there been a cloth; America was a young and semi-civilized nation, and, ergo, in 1779, there could have been no table-cloths known in America!—When men even visit a people of whom they have been accustomed to think in this way, they use their eyes through the medium of the imagination. I lately met a French traveller who affirmed that the use of carpets was hardly known among us.

James Fenimore Cooper

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