When Albert Millaud boarded the ferry in Dieppe bound for Newhaven he found that: sur le bateau où je me suis embarqué, tout le monde était anglaise. [everyone on my boat was English.]
Millaud was writing in September 1873, so things have not changed much. The crossing was choppy. Millaud was not impressed by the behaviour of his British companions:
Au depart… nos frères d’Albion se montrent remuants, bruyants; ils dérangent tout le monde, apportent des pliants, installent des tables, consomment le porter et le pale-ale à pleines bouteilles, dévorent des biscuits de Reading. On sent qu’ils se croient déjà en Angleterre … [From the outset … our brothers of Albion proved themselves to be fidgety and noisy; they disturbed everyone, set out deckchairs, opened up tables, drank stout and pale-ale by the bottle and gobbled up Reading biscuits. You felt that they believed themselves to be in England already.]
Huntley and Palmers of Reading would have been most grateful for the publicity.
Why do so many English people put themselves through the agony of a sea trip? Millaud has the answer:
L’Angleterre suinte par elle-même un tel ennui, un tel brouillard moral que ses habitants eux-mêmes aiment mieux risquer un jour de souffrances plutôt que de subir leur patrie. [England itself exudes such boredom, such a moral fog that its inhabitants choose, of their own accord, to risk a day of suffering rather than to endure their homeland.]
This seems to have set in train Millaud’s prejudice against the fair town of Brighton. Admittedly he starts by flattering us:
Brighton est certes une des plus adorables bains de mer des côtes d’Angleterre; la plage est fort étendue, les rues sont propres et luxueuses ; le confort anglais et les richesses de la nature, sans oublier la vue d’une mer splendide, entourée de falaises escarpées, font de Brighton un séjour qui devrait être délicieux. [Brighton is indeed one of the most charming seaside resorts in England; the beach is extensive and the streets are clean and opulent, not forgetting the view of a splendid sea, fringed with steep cliffs, all this makes Brighton a place of sojourn which should be a delight.]
And there is the sting in the tail: “which should be a delight” … but for Monsieur Millaud it was not.
According to Millaud, who feels that everything about Brighton makes you want to get on the first train out of the place, the hotels are handsome but gloomy, the waiters in them look like undertakers (croque-morts). These waiters watch you in case you commit the slightest sin against propriety such as eating a prawn with your fingers or making a noise with your cutlery.
English eating habits are, of course, absurd: the English eat with their gloves on, they peel a pear with knife and fork and eat their meat … en y ajoutant de la compote de pommes ou de la confiture de groseilles […putting apple puree or redcurrant jam on it].
The silence of diners in English hotel restaurants was legendary. However, two other notable facts also struck Millaud. Diners were known to read at table after a meal (clearly in preference to talking to each other) and something we English have not spotted:
J’ai fait une autre remarque, non moins cruelle pour les Anglaises, c’est qu’à partir de vingt-deux ans, elles avaient le nez rouge après diner. [I noticed another detail, which was none less cruel for English ladies, and that is that, once past the age of twenty-two, they all have a red nose after dinner.]
Another barb appears in the very next paragraph: Donc, Brighton est beau mais assommant. [So, Brighton is beautiful but deadly dull]. Millaud then goes on to tell us why. Bathers do not speak to each other; there is no Casino; the 500 families of the upper class keep very much to themselves, even the musicians on the pier lack any life:
ils jouent avec cette éternelle solennité que nous avons si fort malmenée plus haut ; leurs bras sont en bois comme leurs instruments, et ils ressemblent à des poupées qui jouerait au moyen d’une mécanique. Leur musique n’a gout ni harmonie, ni expression, et ils font des fausses notes avec une telle rectitude, une telle raideur, une telle conviction, qu’on se demande si elles ne sont pas écrites dans la partition. [they play with that perennial solemnity which we took to task earlier; their arms are as wooden as their instruments and they look like puppets made to move as if by clockwork. Their music lacks taste, lacks melody, lacks expression and they play wrong notes with such righteousness, such rigidity, such conviction that you ask yourself whether they are in the score.]
Sartorially, the men of Brighton did meet with Millaud’s approval (apart from their loud ties) but the women of Brighton failed the test: they are ill-shod, do not avail themselves of corsets, are chubby and they wear their long hair loose – almost like madwomen.
Thank heavens Millaud ends on a more positive note.
Cependant rendons justice quand il le faut. Je ne sais si c’est la bière ou le roast-beef, mais les Anglaises ont un teint merveilleux, quand on les compare à nos Parisiennes, jaunes ou vertes le jour, – et colorées au pastel le soir. Ce qu’on voit de « Rubens » sur la plage de Brighton est inouï ; jolies têtes, mais vilaines tournures. [However, let us do justice where we must. I do not know if it is the beer or the roast beef, but English women have marvellous complexions, when you compare them to our Parisian women, who are yellow or green in daylight, – and coloured with face paint in the evening. I can’t tell you how many Rubenesque figures can be seen on the beach at Brighton, but so badly turned out.]
So the journalist could not resist a final dig at the ladies of Brighton. He did not endear himself to his colleagues of the British press. Four year earlier, the Southwark and Bermondsey Record newspaper had published a short item which stated that “In justice to M. Millaud, however, be it said that his improprieties are neatly wrapped up, and that he keeps his literary garbage in a scent-bottle.”
The Daily News for 12 September 1873 ends a brief outline of the Figaro article on Brighton with the words: “M. Millaud, having no friends in Brighton found the place dull; but it does not occur to him that he brought with him at least of portion of the dullness that troubled him.”
Strangely I have found, as yet, no riposte in any of the Brighton newspapers. Let’s hope they thought it was beneath the dignity of Brighton’s journalists even to refer to the article.