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Diary, 1857 August 22-September 14

 Item — Box: Vol. 6
Call Number: MSS 28

Scope and Contents

Holograph diary describing Ellen Fenton’s family vacation at Boulogne-sur-Mer, 1857. Includes seventeen pages of watercolor drawings and pen & ink sketches of local people, scenery and landscapes to accompany journal descriptions. This volume contains one drawing by Fenton’s daughter ‘Deeny’ of a “Boulogne Procession,” and the unfinished and varying quality of this volume’s sketches suggests that some of the other Fenton children may have made contributions. A funeral notice for “Mme Boisselot” is included, as well as a playbill for the theatrical performances Manche à Manche, Marivaudage, and Le Bénéficaire.

On Saturday the 22nd of August, Ellen Fenton reports that she and her family made arrangements to depart once more for Boulogne. Fenton laments the absence of Viv and Dick, the latter studying at a “Mr Scheibs School” in Frankfurt. As in 1854, Fenton quarrels with the steamship porters over the placement of her hamper of provisions, insisting it remain with the family in their cabin.

With Dick away, Fenton’s motherly affections are very much directed towards her youngest, Hal (Henry), who supplies her with endless amusement with his observations and his ability to attract attention from strangers. Fenton is also increasingly preoccupied with Clara, and attends numerous balls and entertainments with her daughter, whom she guards very closely. She takes frequent jabs at Clara’s potential suitors, giving them all nicknames such as “Fergus” and “Firebrand.” Though Clara seems indifferent, Fenton seems to take a particular liking to one young “elegant” man, whom she fondly calls “Julian.” Fenton calls Julian’s chaperones and companions (possibly elder brothers) “the Romans” for their Roman noses, and her footnote indicates these young men are “the Mr. Douglas-Willans of Twyford Abbey” (which had just a few months prior been leased through an Act of Parliament by the widow Isabella Maria Douglas Willan upon--see the London Gazette, July 3, 1857, page 2353) (77). As Fenton increasingly takes interest in Julian, ‘Appa,’ who joins the family at Boulogne, “pretends to be quite angry because we talk of [him]” (80). While her husband rebuffs the young men who talk to Clara, Fenton acts as Clara’s proxy by engaging with young men on her behalf.

This year, the Fentons take up temporary lodging on the Rue Percée, across from the Communale College gates, which gives them ample opportunity to observe the Catholic worshippers, priests, and nuns enter and exit the grounds opposite. Fenton makes no attempts to disguise her anti-Catholic fear and prejudice: “I have so imbued my children with the idea the Catholics watch the Protestants, that Dada came from a window at breakfast time, sideline, with a look of terror, and whispered, ‘The Priest peept again!!'”

The position of their lodgings also gives the Fentons full view of the processions of pilgrims passing through Boulogne, some with offerings for the Cathedral and the “Fete” that unfolds over the course of several days (the Fete Napoleon and the Virgin’s birthday occur during their stay). Fenton reports that the landlord's servant, Mary, is fearful that the Catholics mean to convert her daughter, who attends a school run by the local nuns. Fenton uses Mary as a means of explicating the merits of Protestantism in contrast to Catholic practices, plying the servant with arguments “that it had internal evidence that became more and more convincing... Christ was the ‘only Mediator’ but as God only is omnipresent… how could these Saints hear our prayers, from people at all quarters of the world, at the same period?” (33). Though Fenton remonstrates Catholic ritual, she takes pleasure in describing the customs and dress of the procession participants, down to the smallest detail. The image of a friar in bare feet, shaven head, bearing a “painful sight of willing misery and want,” causes Fenton to reflect on the supposed paradox that “he and the richly dressed luxurious Cardinal were representing the same religion” (32). Emotionally conflicted about her own participation in the throng, Fenton nevertheless persists in watching the spectacle. When the Archbishop of Dublin comes to bless members of the crowd, Clara refuses to kneel: “His grand face looked at her, with such a tremendously commanding air, many would have quailed. I almost shook for her. I think we erred in taking such prominent places. The Protestants should, in better taste, be at the windows” (44).

This volume is punctuated by frequent social calls with Fenton’s sister, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Russel and family. The Fentons and the Russel girls--Minnie, Ada, and Janie--attend Balls together. General Russel, Lizzie’s husband, particularly gets along with “Appa” (John Fenton), as they are united by their dislike of Boulogne: “Both my tiresome ‘Appa’ and the General rail against Boulogne, and wonder what we find to like here! I tell them I am thankful for every hour” (99).

Some of the volume’s most amusing incidents involve Fenton’s descriptions of French visitors and locals. Fenton describes two funny young Parisians riding the omnibus, one of whom she calls “fat Albert” and two “rotten handsome moustached beaux” (55). She draws an amusing portrait of the latter pair: “one perched on the shoulders of the other, who was smoking, while he, aloft, was eating tarts!” (55). Another incident described at length is the loss of Clara’s hairpin. Fenton hires a town crier to announce the lost pin, and within an hour it is brought back, “smashed to pieces” by a group of "fishpeople" (78). When they demand 3 francs for the pin, Fenton cannot tolerate such a request: “Vous pensez me tromper, vous! Vous me pensez une pauvre anglaise, qui ne connait rien? N’essayez pas ca, car je vous dit, que je suis Boulounaise!! Si vous ne voulez pas ces dix sous, prenez l’epingle, et jettez le dans la mer, et notre affaire est finie. Allez!” [“You think to wrong me! You think me a poor Englishwoman who knows nothing? You [would] not try that were I Boulonaise!! If you do not want the ten sous, take the pin and throw it into the sea, and our business is finished. Go!”]. The expressions of astonishment on their faces after this outburst prompts Fenton to recall this as “one of the best scenes I have had here” (78).


  • 1857 August 22-September 14


Language of Materials

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

Physical Description

1 volume (112 pages); 17 pages of watercolor and pen & ink drawings; 2 receipts; 1 funeral notice; 1 playbill

; 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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