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Diary, 1854 August 23-September 14

 Item — Box: Vol. 1
Call Number: MSS 28

Scope and Contents

Holograph diary describing Ellen Fenton’s family vacation at Boulogne-sur-Mer, 1857. Includes nineteen pages of watercolor drawings of local people, scenery and landscapes, all of which illustrate journal descriptions. Inscribed on the verso of the front cover: “Mrs. Fenton / Haven Green House / Ealing / London”. Also includes playbill for the ‘opera comique’ Les Diamans de la Couronne, and a funeral announcement. A watercolor of “Kitty Kirby” in miniature style, as well as sketches of peasant women, represent Fenton’s best abilities as a watercolorist.

Fenton begins this volume with a description of the family’s steamship journey to Boulogne-sur-Mer, with their servants Alicia and Margaret. Her husband John and son “Viv” stay behind to rejoin the family in France in a couple of days. From the outset, Fenton exhibits an obstinate self-sufficiency, particularly apparent during an altercation with a porter who attempts to carry off a hamper of provisions that Fenton intended for her cabin. “Women should never interfere with men who knew their work” she reports the porter saying, so “giving up my last straw of courtesy, I assumed the ‘spoke up’ tone, and said, he should not touch another trunk till he gave it up.” (p. 3). Aboard the steamship, Fenton and her young son Dick spend the night admiring the view along the Thames.

As the steamer approaches Boulogne, Fenton notices the soldier’s camp – a “new feature since I was there” and the result of the Crimean War. Fenton leaves her party amidst the bustling custom house shed, including her awestruck maids “who seemed turned to stone… watching groups of knitting fisherwomen,” while she and Dick search for lodgings. She meets a Mrs. Eliza Jeremie who assists in finding lodging at the house of a Monsieur Lapet, near the Church of St. Nicolas. Fenton takes care to describe the house and all of its rooms: the living room with a large balcony, two back bedrooms used as nurseries, a dressing room in the front for Fenton and “Baby” (Henry), and rooms for each of Clara, “Appa”, and “the boys”. The attic room with single skylight, occupied by maid Alicia, is colorfully nicknamed “Blue Beard’s closet.” Dick delights in watching the soldiers at their guard house at the back of St. Nicolas Church. Eliza Jeremie takes Fenton to see Mons. Perrin’s Dancing Academy, and Fenton delights in the ballroom and variety of costumes, seeing fit that her eldest daughter Clara take lessons. Fenton also goes to see a performance by Auguste Desailly, a blind pianist whom Fenton learns about from a local newspaper. Fenton strikes up a friendship with Desailly, who provides piano lessons to Dick. In addition to dancing and music performances, Fenton includes numerous descriptions of the Theatre, producing not only plot synopses but also describing costume, set, and social atmosphere. In this volume, she reports attending performances of the Barber of Seville and Les Diamants de La Couronne. On September 24, 1854 (two days after the Fentons departed France), Boulogne’s new theatre, which had been erected by the architect of the Colonne de la Grande Armée, caught fire and was destroyed. Napoleon III was purportedly present in Boulogne in late September and watched as firemen attempted to quell the flames. Four years later, he was present to inaugurate the laying of the first brick for the new building (Splingard 22-23).

Numerous descriptions of soldiers through this volume provide a glimpse into civilian impressions of military life and activities at Boulogne during the outset of the Crimean conflict. There are several descriptions of the dress, and comportment of the cent gardes, who arrive in Boulogne, with “helmets and breastplates and polished steel” in anticipation of the Emperor’s official visit that summer. While impressed by the spectacle, Fenton much prefers “the old Imperial guard.” Fenton brings her family to the soldier’s camps, particularly the Honvault Camp, which provide ample opportunities for sketching. Seeking out “cartridge paper, little nails, that they call ‘punesse’… and drawing paper,” and obtaining permission from the Police, Fenton sets out to sketch the soldiers at their camp – eating, conducting drills, at mass – and notes their equal fascination with her work: “What was our amazement, when they… themselves in two long rows, several deep, shoulder to shoulder, to overlook my painting!” (30).

Fenton is witness to the historic visit of Prince Albert and Emperor Louis Napoleon to Boulogne in early September, 1854, reported in contemporary British periodicals (see Illustrated London News). Meeting at Paris, Albert and Louis Napoleon III made an official visit to inspect the Northern French camps. The British had recently allied with France against Prussia, and the official meeting marked a turning point in diplomatic relations between the once-hostile powers. On the 5th of September, the family boards the Albion steamship to watch the Prince and Emperor’s arrival. Fenton, placed up on a high point, thinks she sees the Prince look in her direction as the local crowd cheers. Fenton judges the Emperor as “dreadfully, painfully cunning” in contrast to the Prince’s demure “flush, that made him look just like [Franz Xaver] Wintershalter’s picture, taken before his marriage” (47). In addition to military processions and official ceremony in connection with the war, Fenton also witnesses invalid soldiers carried in “Ambulances” (see drawing), “said to have cholera” (13). Infectious diseases, cholera principle among them, claimed more British, French, and Russian soldiers’ lives than fatal wounds during the 1854-1856 period of the Crimean war (Gill and Gill 1801).

Fear of the recent cholera outbreak seems to preoccupy Fenton’s discussions of her family’s illnesses. Her servant, Margaret, falls ill frequently, and among her children, Dick falls especially ill. “Everyone says the Cholera is raging, and I have a sense of constant responsibility, when I notice that the lower part of our house seems very badly drained” (84). Fenton treats her children and servants with homeopathic remedies in the form of “globules.” Despite her fears of cholera, Fenton doesn’t seem to fear venturing out of doors. With her familiarity of French idiom, Fenton is quite at ease making the acquaintance of Boulogne locals. She particularly admires independent spirit in certain Boulogne women, especially the spirited Marie Fournier. Market women and “porteuses” girls also seem to serve Fenton’s penchant for portrait sketches. She forms an attachment with a young porteuse, Josephine, as well as staff at a hotel she discovers during one of her daily wanderings. During Prince Albert’s visit, she also finds herself amongst a crowd of sailors: “matelots and matelottes… in full costume,” who crowd around her with questions.

Fenton and her family take frequent trips to the “sands” and to the “bains.” Boulogne was popular for its baths since the late eighteenth-century, when M. Clery de Becourt, following a voyage to Italy where he had visited many ‘établissements de bains de mer,’ resolved to create a similar warm-water bathing établissement (Splingard 10). On occasion, the Fentons hire a carriage to take them on country drives, which causes Fenton to reminisce about her childhood days in Boulogne. One long excursion to the Vallée du Nacre for the day results in a lengthy description of the outing, the farms they visit, the rustic scenery and picnic lunch. This outing also provides many sketching opportunities for Fenton, who draws not only the local peasant women but also the visiting bourgeois strollers (see drawings, this volume). Fenton demonstrates remarkable calm when the family is stranded for a few hours while waiting for a coach to bring them to Boulogne at day’s end.

A community of English sojourners in Boulogne are frequently mentioned as part of the family’s daily social calls: Mr. and Mrs. Newte, John and Caroline Emmett, Caroline and Charles Venables, and Mr. and Mrs. Burton. Particularly humorous incidences involve Mrs. Burton, who lands on the Fentons’ doorstep expecting lodging, and who can’t seem to escape Fenton’s sardonic characterizations.


  • 1854 August 23-September 14


Language of Materials

From the Collection:

The diaries are in English, with some French.

Physical Description

1 volume (128 pages); 19 pages of watercolor drawings; 1 funeral notice; 1 playbill; 32.5 x 20.5 cm.

Conditions Governing Access

From the Collection:

The materials are open for research.

Part of the Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts Repository

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