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Diary, 1856 August 2-August 20

 Item — Box: Vol. 3
Call Number: MSS 28

Scope and Contents

Holograph diary describing Ellen Fenton’s family vacation at Boulogne-sur-Mer, 1857. Includes twenty-five pages of watercolor drawings of local people, scenery and landscapes to accompany journal descriptions. This volume includes a program for the “Procession Générale de l’Assomption et de la Station en l’honneur de N. – D. de Boulogne,” which Fenton also translates into English (with her own annotations), bound with the journal.

In her entry for Saturday August 2nd, 1856, Fenton reports the family’s bustling preparations for their upcoming trip to Boulogne. She has been working with a “Mme Leslie” and “Mrs. Macleod” on finishing her batch of needlework and reports the preparation of a vast provisions basket. She reports that “Lattoo Macleod” was to go with them on this trip. The voyage is very difficult; Fenton describes the bad smell, the stifling heat, the fidgety and sick children (particularly Dall), and her baby’s cries, which prevent her from enjoying the vessel’s approach at Boulogne. Fenton finds clean, airy lodgings over a bootmaker who used to work for her father thirty years prior.

Fenton hires a French ‘matelotte’ attendant, Louise, during the family’s stay at Boulogne. Louise is the subject of Fenton’s consternation and amusement. Fenton marvels at Louise’s strange cleaning habits. When Fenton requests that the carpets be lifted, she is awed by Louise’s odd way of washing the dust without sweeping first. Likewise, she remarks “Louise does her work so strangely – to avoid coming at night on Sunday, when she goes to dance.” Fenton is very pleased with a large-scale painting she completes of Louise, which she frames for her house (see vol. 2). The other servant Charlotte, whom Fenton brings to Boulogne for the first time, is also the subject of occasional ridicule. Fenton delights in her culture shock, noting her ‘ecstacies’ over the sandhills, and her ‘shock’ at seeing white flannelled nuns. In preparation to watch one of the processions, Fenton reports that “Good Charlotte was in terrible trouble & engrossment because her dress was not clean & her bonnet not an holiday one” (p. 57). To Clara’s “indignation”, Fenton bids her go home to put on one of her daughter’s cotton skirts, leaving Fenton alone to manage the children.

After a few days alone with the children, “Appa” joins them, looking pale from the sea voyage. Fenton complains that “as usual - the wet blanket” found fault with the house she had chosen. When they dine at the Hotel du Rhin, Fenton enjoys proving to the proprietress, Mme Florent, that she has a “live husband” but as an aside, prides herself on her un-chaperoned independence: “Appa always says, my travelling without a gentleman is wrong. However I prefer it” (31). She later reveals her thoughts on the sobering effect of her husband’s presence: “It is surprising how tame and conventional Appa makes us all, directly he comes. I own I lose interest in my travels… One feature is the orderly absence of the children and their dear uproar, which gives such spirit to all, through their being so full of interest & wonder in all about them” (35). When the family takes “Appa” to see Mont Lambert, Fenton regrets his reluctance to climb the plateau, for fear of becoming “giddy” (68). He misses the grand view from the top, which Fenton records in a sketch. She is self-conscious of her own capacity to record the surrounding landscape, remarking: “What a beautiful view we had of the Fôret de Boulogne! It was too extensive for my paper – too full of dreams, imagination and poetry for my pencil. The light and shade (so gently varied), so rich and mysterious, of deep dark woods, was not to be attempted by my sacrilegious hand” (69).

With “Dick,” Fenton sees the well-known actress Madame Ristori perform in Francesca da Rimini, producing a sketch of Ristori “before the curtain” receiving bouquets (33). At the theatre, she awkwardly runs into “Mayhew” whom she reveals as Rev’d Mr Hunt, a gentleman she traveled with in 1853 (other awkward encounters occur in the 1854 volumes). She also bumps into a woman she can’t recognize and, revealing her intended readership, announces: “She was a lady we knew through you, dear Mrs Ibotson, just before we left Notting Hill” (34).

The Venebles warn Fenton of an epidemic spreading around Boulogne. When “Tinny” (Frederick) comes down with throat and chest pain, Fenton worries it is the “scourge” (75). She seeks out a homeopathic chemist, administers her own “globules” and consults the Venebles’ homeopathic reference book. These bouts of illness do not prevent Fenton from venturing out, however, when she is compelled to witness prizes handed out at the College Communale, which she describes with great relish. She is drawn to other award ceremonies, such as the Abbé Haffringue’s, which feeds her desire for spectacle. Fred’s illness makes the Fentons discuss leaving Boulogne, but the little boy soon rallies.

The family watches the many processions and festivals of the season, including the celebration of Napoleon’s birthday, coinciding with the festival of the Virgin, which Fenton speculates is “perhaps to satisfy those who would not assist to keep Napoleon’s fête” (56). Fenton includes the order of procession, translated and hand-written from the French program with annotations. (The original French program is also included at the end of the volume). Fenton stands on a balcony watching the great “uproar” amidst a group of artillery men. She contrasts the loud assembly to the “calm dignity in our churches” (59). Fenton goes to great lengths to describe the costumes of the crowd, the groups of young ladies whom she calls “Houris”, the rows of nuns, and the “English converts,” or “perverts.”


  • 1856 August 2-August 20


Language of Materials

From the Collection: The diaries are in English, with some French.

Physical Description

1 volume (122 pages); 25 pages of watercolor drawings; 1 program

; 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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