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Diary, 1856 August 20-September 2

 Item — Box: Vol. 4
Call Number: MSS 28

Scope and Contents

A continuation of Ellen Fenton’s holograph journal describing a family vacation at Boulogne-sur-Mer, 1857. Includes twenty pages of watercolor drawings of local people, scenery and landscapes to accompany journal descriptions. This volume contains three playbills, for: Une femme qui se jette par la fenetre, La Dame de St-Tropez, and Le Bonhomme Jadis. Also containing: a letter from Mr. Atkinson; a hand-drawn music score “From Memory” for “The Tantillerie [sic] Polka – 3rd September, 1856,” a tune Fenton recalls hearing at a ball described in this volume; a funeral announcement for Jean-Philippe Rigaut; four miscellaneous receipts.

Fenton receives a letter from her husband giving account of the unpleasant steamship voyage back to England, recounting that “nearly every lady was sick” and that one of the seats came away from its fastening in the middle of the voyage, tossing invalids about. Hearing that a new cathedral bell has just arrived at Boulogne, Fenton hurries to the train station hoping to catch a glimpse of a gigantic bell, but finds “amid a confusion of straw, hay and rubbish, stood a modest little brass bell, of about – at most, two feet high!” (81). Nevertheless, Fenton later enjoys watching the procession of the bell to the cathedral, conducted by four hundred “pelerins” (pilgrims) walking barefoot (104). She sketches many of the pilgrims who crowd the streets, including one “whom we supposed a great sinner.” The procession ends at the Cathedral, where all gather to hear a sermon and afterwards dine at the Table d’Hôtes, much to the proprieter’s chagrin. With her three eldest children on donkeys, Fenton visits Ostrohove to see Fanny Crawford. She describes Fanny’s house as “very unenglish” (82), and marvels at the arrangement of furniture, the French and German lithographs, and the “foreign way of dining” (83). In the company of her childhood friend, Fenton is reminded of “dear Mrs. Wolley in her way and manner,” perhaps a reference to Fanny’s mother (85). The next day Fenton visits an engraving shop on the Grande Rue, where she is surprised to find the shop woman remembers her. Notably, she omits the detail (included in the draft copy) in this journal version that “she knew me as John [Emmett’s] sister, and that “vous n’êtes plus amies!!! [you are no longer friends!!!]” She retains details about their discussion about the artist Millais.

Fenton takes any opportunity to discuss religion with the local population. She engages her hairdresser in a long conversation about Catholicism, reporting that “the Priests had disgusted him, altogether, with religion that a passion for rule and money, governed them” (86). She says he felt that the general population was deprived of education by the clergy. Likewise, Mme Florent of the Hotel du Rhin criticizes the priests for making people “so superstitious, that they would become nothing but fools” (87). Fenton takes this opportunity to preach the Bible: “I believed it my duty… to take my own interpretation of it – to stand or fall by it” (87). Suspicious of anyone remotely associated with the Catholic church, Fenton believes that an overly friendly mason working at the cathedral “was appointed by the Priests, to charm us ‘heretics’” (132).

With “Dick” and his friend Amor, Fenton embarks on an excursion to the Chateau d’Hardelot near Condette “because Charles Edward the Pretender was once secreted near there” (92). She is perturbed to find her donkey has an open wound and scolds the men who rented it to her for their cruelty. Hiring another donkey, they reach St. Etienne church, which, along with the panoramic views, make good sketching subjects. When it begins to rain, Fenton and the boys seek shelter at an auberge, thinking they might have to sleep there. Fenton derives great amusement from her jokes that Amor would have to sleep upstairs with the peasant household “numbered twelve” (93). The rain abates, and they continue on to the “garennes” ( sand hills), where the donkeys can go no farther. Fenton admires the “stretching-out hills, undulating gracefully, of sand, with the rushes, for verdure, and on one side the sea” (94). Fenton includes herself in a painted scene, along with her peasant guide and a child who took her parasol: “For a moment, I felt frightened, standing here alone in the wet, and under the darkening sky, when the thought arose these people might be a lawless set” (95). Taking a growing interest in Clara’s beauty, Fenton tends to embellish her entries about Clara in this fair copy. At the pier, she writes that three Englishmen are overheard exclaiming “Ah! Here’s the prettiest girl in Boulogne” and following her, joke “Let’s see if she twigs!” (99-100). One man “most perservering” has a room in the attic at the Hotel, overlooking Clara’s room so she has too keep her curtains drawn at all times. Fenton claims she overhears two maids in the hotel yard talking of Dall and Dada at the breakfast window, saying “Oui – elle est belle… mais ce n’est pas d’elle qu’on parle. Clest une plus grande” (Yes, she is beautiful… but it’s not her that is spoken of. It’s an older one). (103) A bit of a voyeur herself, Fenton is intent on spying on a gentleman through the window of a “luxurious room” (116). She only ever sees the back of his head, reading “continually until daybreak” and sketches him this way (see drawing, this volume). At the Tintilleries Ball on September 3rd, Fenton watches on as Clara and “Mr. Hamilton” dance the schottische, polka, quadrille, and varsovienne. She praises Clara’s dignified manner, noting she is “without a shadow of affectation of pretension. She wore her hat and veil down, and looked beautiful, through it.”(142). When Clara tears her dress while dancing, Fenton is delighted to see Mr. Hamilton offer little “housewife pins, to arrange the torn flounces.” (143) She revels in what she perceives as “jealous looks” of all the English gentlemen watching Mr. Hamilton save the day.

A number of English visitors enliven the Fentons’s stay in Boulogne. Mr. Sharpe spends an evening at Boulogne, and Fenton is happy to see him dancing with Clara at the Tintilleries ball. She is equally happy to report that Mr. and Mrs. Tarleton (nicknamed ‘Roly Poly’ by Fred) will arrive at Boulogne, and Mrs. Tarleton’s letter is pasted into this volume. Fenton resolves to stay an additional week in Boulogne to prolong their time with the Tarletons, at young Fred’s urges. Amor is also a delight to Fenton. When Dick goes to see a lecture by Mr. Lewis about “mesmerism and biology,” Amor refuses to accompany him, because the last time he and others were “paraded, as susceptibles on Mr. Lewis’ platform, and did all manner of nonsense” (120). “Mr. Lewis told him he was Prince Albert, and his troops waited to be surveyed, and Amor walked forward, as if with a telescope and strutted about, and after a long pause, muttered A fine body of men!’” (127). Fenton is amused that Amor is frequently in petty fights with boys his own age around town. One particular boy is hated by Amor for being Clara’s admirer and follower, and Fenton’s footnote reveals that he was “Douglas Willans, the “Julian of my Boulogne 1857 journal” (See Volume 6) (139). He and Dick spend their time roaming around, looking for crabs, which get loose and “make the cook scream” (141).

Setting out solo towards the Notre Dame basilica, Fenton expresses her annoyance at being chaperoned by two strangers: “I own I felt rather staggered to be thus in their charge, and had much rather have gone alone” (125). At the side of the old church, Fenton describes the remnants of war with English – ruins of broken pillars, square cells, and cannon balls from English ships. She makes another trip with Dick to visit the cathedral, and they climb the rickety scaffolding towards the dome. Both frightened by the height, they are only able to take in the view of the sea from the arched windows before turning back, trembling.

On outdoor excursions, Fenton has a heightened awareness of the limitations of art in capturing fleeting nature, as evidenced in her comments about sketching excursions. When she seats herself near the Napoleon monument to execute a “large sketch,” she muses: “then I had one of those few but most happy episodes in my life, when I forget all but the joyful present…. Wonderful it was to watch the play of shadows, from the clouds, on the wide waters. Ever changing, and each change seeming more lovely than the other. What hues of violet and green there were, and the gold lights from the sun! and yet my picture is tame and cold, and grieves me, as a painting. I closed my eyes to say ‘all is now gone – a dream” (134).

Fenton is intent on going home to England via an alternate route – first stopping at Rouen to see a play, and then by steamship from Le Havre – but her husband writes, “begging me to give up this journey” (145). Abandoning the idea, the family board the usual steamer back to London, and Fenton is thrilled by the chance to spend two hours on deck, “in shawl, and blankets… I laid upon a Bench near the steersman. It was such perfect luxury to see thus, the starlit heavens and lie in sweet repose. I rejoiced in all – the rushing air – the very bounding of the steamer – the sound of the paddle wheels” (151). In a watercolor drawing, she depicts the unusual scene. She finishes her journal by enumerating the paintings that she has framed “lightly, in that new way, with paper” for her home as a remembrance of the trip (not included in these journals). She also ends with an apology of sorts, to her reader: “and now I must beg indulgence, if my journal has failed to amuse. What subject could be more commonplace – what journey so poor a bit of travelling, as a mere excursion to Boulogne! (154)”


  • 1856 August 20-September 2


Language of Materials

From the Collection:

The diaries are in English, with some French.

Physical Description

1 volume (100 pages), 20 pages of watercolor drawings; 4 receipts; 3 playbills; 1 letter; 1 musical score

; 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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