Madame de Genlis’s little book

January 23, 2008 at 8:26 pm (books, France, History, Travel)

Travel is one of the many aspects of life in the French countryside written about by Graham Robb in The Discovery of France. In a number of instances, the author refers to a singular little guidebook:

“One of the best short guides to the experience of travelling in post-Revolution France is a French-German phrase book published in 1799 by Caroline-Stephanie-Felicite Du Crest de Saint-Aubin, who is usually known as Mme de Genlis.” madame_stephanie_de_genlis.jpg

The full title of this little book is The Traveller’s Companion for Conversation, being a Collection of Such Expressions as Occur Most Frequently in Travelling and in the Different Situations in Life. Apparently at least four more editions of this book were published subsequent to the one referenced by Graham Robb. How do I know this? Here is a picture of the fifth edition, lying somewhat incongruously on our kitchen table! the-travellers-companion-2.jpg The publication date of this small volume is given as 1821. This version has been enlarged to include English, Italian, Spanish, and somewhat to my amazement, Russian.

How did I come by this artifact of another era? My mother was an inveterate traveler, particularly in Western Europe. She loved France, Italy, and the British Isles. (It is a love she bequeathed to me.) After her first trip to Italy, taken with my father when she was in her forties, she resolved to learn Italian. She accomplished this goal with remarkable speed and facility. She went back to Europe again and again, sometimes with my father, sometimes with tour groups, occasionally alone. At some point during her wanderings on the continent, she obtained Mme de Genlis’s book. It is one of the few possessions of hers that I have retained. I admit that I never examined it closely until I found it mentioned in Graham Robb’s book.

the-travellers-companion-1.jpg the-travellers-companion-3.jpg

The Traveller’s Companion does not much resemble contemporary phrasebooks. Rather its entries are miniature dialogues, or, in some cases, monologues. They serve as a timely reminder that the rigors of travel are not unique to the 21st century. Below are some sample entries.

Dialogue IV: Conversation on Board a Ship or Yacht:

“I am very sick.

Lay yourself flat upon your belly; shut your eyes; remain in that quiet posture, and your sickness will abate.”

But if it doesn’t…. “I suffer extremely; I am unwell, pray, hand me a bason [sic].”

Dialogue V: On Crossing the Water in a Ferry:

“Now take off the horses from the carriage. The horses ought not to be yoked to the carriage in a ferry.”

“Why so? Because nothing can be more dangerous. The indolence, which hinders us from unyoking the horses, has caused a thousand unhappy accidents.”

Dialogue VI: Enquiries in a journey which cannot be otherwise performed than in a Sedan Chair, or on Mules:

“Is the road very dreadful? Yes, it is very narrow and on the brink of precipices.”

Dialogue VIII: On the Accidents that might happen on the Road:

“My friends, could you assist us? We are in great distress, you shall be well paid for your trouble.

We are sticking in a hole. Lend us two of your horses to draw us forwards.

You will do us a great favour.”

Followed by this plaintive outbreak:

“Dear friends, I beg you!”

Alas, things appear to go from bad to worse:

“He has a hole in his head!

We must first wash out the wound well with fresh water, and afterwards apply a poultice to it of Cologne water mixed with fresh water.”

Then later:

“Take courage, my friend! your fall does not appear to be dangerous. Poor man! I sympathize greatly with your sufferings, I assure you.”

(At this point, I couldn’t help but think of Mercutio, mortally wounded by Tybalt.

“Romeo: Courage, man, the hurt cannot be much.

Mercutio: No, ’tis not so deep as a well nor as wide as a church door but ’tis enough, ’twill serve…” And so, sadly and with dire consequence, it did.)

3 Comments

  1. Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, by Andrea Di Robilant. « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] to mention that Lucia’s favorite author was none author than the prolific and redoubtable Madame de Genlis! Writing phrasebooks for travelers, it turns out, was just one of the versatile Mme de […]

  2. “Living in the Past” (song by Jethro Tull): Getting the research right « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Laurie King commented on how helpful she found the old Baedeker travel guides in her research on the early 20th century. This reminded me of my rather singular experience with Madame de Genlis’s little phrase book… […]

  3. Five favorite fiction titles of the new millennium (actually eighteen, with twelve nonfiction titles and some music thrown in for good measure) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] amazing was the discovery, in the pages of Robb’s chronicle, of a connection between one Madame de Genlis (1746-1830) and a small, very old,  overlooked volume on my own bookshelf:  […]

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