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Diary, 1854 September 14-22

 Item — Box: Vol. 2
Call Number: MSS 28

Scope and Contents

Continuation of Ellen Fenton’s holograph diary detailing her family vacation at Boulogne-sur-Mer, 1854. Includes fourteen pages of watercolor drawings of local people, scenery and landscapes, all of which illustrate journal descriptions. Also includes one receipt for “Lemoisson-Desille, Porcelaine, Cristaux, et Verrerie.” Inscribed on back cover: “Written by Ellen Fenton, Haven Green House, Ealing, London, 1854.”

Volume 2 picks up Fenton’s journal in mid-September of 1854, with a discussion of the cholera outbreak. She has “heard the four people died last night, of cholera, in one house, a few doors off” (p. 1). Fenton and her family witness several funeral processions, and there is steady activity at the nearby St. Nicolas church. Fenton takes her children on several visits to the church, where she is struck by the number of coffins. She remarks, “The whole was terrifying, and… when it burst over me, that as no one was there, no doubt they went on to the side altar, because it would be dangerous to stay so near the coffins” (4). Fenton takes great care in describing the priests, their dress, the altar decoration, and choir boys. The scene seems to capture Fenton’s active imagination, for soon after, she spends a sleepless night convinced that the sound of heavy knocking coming from the direction of the church is a cholera victim trapped alive in one of the coffins. “I resolved to take a blanket – but then – what should I do? If he had died of Cholera, who would open their Doors to him? Of course, I ought to bring him here, out on the drawing room sofa, until day, I ought to give him hot drinks” (6). She learns the next day that a soldier had been arrested and locked up in the vaults beneath the church because it was too late to bring him to the citadel to be imprisoned.

Despite the frequent funeral services opposite their house, Fenton does not dwell on gloomy subjects. She turns to more lighthearted matters, such as the purchase of music scores for Clara (“Les Noces de Jeannette” and “Cours mon Aiguille”) as well as light-hearted descriptions of her son, Dick, in his various sentinel costumes of ribband, giving salutations to passing officers (see accompanying drawing). She brings her family to hear the Guide band perform at the colonnade, including a colorful account and a sketch of the scene. Her reports of dress and costume range from rote description to witty derision. Upon her note of some “extravagantly fashionable dress, upon very ugly women,” she singles out one particular woman, “wonderfully ugly, and yet [who] dared to wear her hair à l’Imperatrice, with favorits” (12).

Fenton plays frequent host to Mrs. Newte and Mrs. Burton, both of whom, fallen on hard times, Fenton feels obliged to feed and entertain. The servant Mrs. Newte, called “Griffin,” particularly amuses Fenton, as he is dressed “as a nobleman,” (12) despite not having any income from his impoverished employers. A visit to Notre Dame basilica with Mrs. Burton and Mrs. Newte provides another opportunity for lighthearted observation and an accompanying sketch. When they are asked to pay one franc each to climb the narrow network of lathes and scaffolding to the dome, Fenton and the others are incredulous: “Poor blind Mr. [Frederick] Newte, his delicate wife, fat Mrs. Burton and Mrs Newte and her bellyache. Gradually they all saw how absurd it was.” Mrs. Newte’s young charge and servant, Kitty Kirby, captivates Fenton’s attention, and she ‘borrows’ her for a portrait (see Volume 1). Fenton waxes lyrical: “I felt just as if some being from a fairer world had come to me, when the influence of Kitty Kirby, beauty & sweet innocence came over me, as I painted her. The delicacy of her face, manner & whole look… I was affected to tears, & laid my head on my hands, crying, for also her tale is so sad” (23).

Fenton’s forwardness and fluency in French result in frequent, colourful encounters with local shopkeepers and venders. She remarks, “I have had many such chats, across counters, here, and have been astonished at the high moral tone these people seem to have generally” (31). After talking with one shopwoman, Fenton is invited to return to the shop after hours to dine. She and Dall head to the scullery, where she is greeted by a hearty Boulonnais meal: “the most tender of Jelly – like of Bouville, with a wonderful gravy, served in a cup, of all oddities. Potatoes, browned, and Harricots in a exquisite white sauce, which seemed to me made of Fowl bones & Ham, and sprinkled with parsley” (33). When at another shop, the woman behind the counter speaks of her admiration of English puddings, so Fenton feels compelled to provide a lengthy description of how to make boiled suet and boiled head pudding.

Fenton makes note that her eldest daughter, Clara, is beginning to attract attention. On a trip to the esplanade, the crowd of people turn to stare: “I found this was regarded as a debut of Care’s [Clara’s]… Her bloom was beautiful.” (39). During this time amongst the crowd, Clara accidently drops a bag of thirty francs, which Fenton laments is “no trifle these few days, I meant to wind up with such economy & caution” (41). Relying on her circle of English friends for loans, particularly Charles Venebles, Fenton is able to scrape by during the last few days of the family’s stay at Boulogne, until the bag is safely retrieved with the help of a town crier.

The Fenton family’s final Boulogne excursion of 1854 is to the Fort on Mont Lambert. Reading Monteith’s Guide to Boulogne, Fenton and her children are enticed by the romance of the fort, purported built by Henry VIII and restored by Napoleon Bonaparte but “now, a ruin” (46). With a large party of servants and children in tow, Fenton sets out on foot with her large cartridge paper and drawing materials, “finding excuses for climbing the steep almost perpendicular sides of the mont” and engaging in make-believe gun-fire like soldiers (50). Fenton insists that they spend overnight in the fort, but the darkening clouds and lightning prevents her from realizing her plan. Fenton takes the opportunity to observe the sublimity of the scene, descending into the dark moat alone where she finds a “change from the gay laughter of our little party, to the silence – the change from rich sunset to lowering dusk. How solemn the spot had become.” (53, see accompanying drawing).

Fenton talks very little about her husband. Though she never describes any wayward feelings for other men, she does delight in the occasional flirtatious encounter, and seems to note awkward run-ins with a “Mr. Mayhew.” On the steamship journey homeward, Fenton and her family spend the day with “Frank Stone, the artist”(62), who asks to see one of her views. Frank Stone may be the same English painter who led the attack against the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. The final pages of the volume are devoted to Fenton’s remembrances of Boulogne upon her return to Ealing. It also describes her gratitude to her brother, Maurice Emmett, whom she notes “forced upon me – as also last year – the extra money which enabled me to have indulgences and luxuries” (64). About one week after the family returns to England, Maurice takes Dick with him to Paris, stopping in Boulogne along the way.


  • 1854 September 14-22


Language of Materials

From the Collection:

The diaries are in English, with some French.

Physical Description

1 volume (102 pages); 14 pages of watercolor drawings; 1 receipt ; c. 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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