Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Bretons and Britons

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2727676Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX — Bretons and Britons
1863Harry Jones


Alike in origin, for they share the blood of the earliest recorded inhabitants of our land; alike in ancient tongue, for the “Vrai Bretagne Brettonnante,” as Froissart calls it, is allied to our Welsh and Cornish; alike in name to the present day, these distant cousins live upon the same sea, but almost in another world. Perhaps no Europeans are more unlike each other than they. They differ more widely than plain French and English, for the Breton exhibits in caricature those habits and customs which mark the contrast most strongly between our neighbours and ourselves. He is far more bigoted, dirty, and ignorant than the average of his countrymen.

During a recent visit to Brittany I noted down on a sheet of paper some of those peculiarities which always strike John Bull most; and now, on looking over my list, I find it so long that I am tempted to serve it up in such a shape as may give information to some, and perhaps recall a few pleasant whiffs of continental recollections to those who are acquainted with France. Of course, in using the materials which are before me, some will be found—indeed, I see already that they are—common to the whole country. Perhaps not many are really peculiar to Brittany, but they struck me as being exaggerated in that province. For instance, I think that the Breton breakfast-cups are heavier and have thicker lips than those anywhere else—a sip from one is a mouthful; their dinner-plates are colder and congeal the gravy quicker than others; their carriages are dustier and more tinkered; their mixture of meats is more surprising to an English stomach than any in Gaul. The other day we had for breakfast, at a good inn, these principal viands: tripe, raw artichokes, and cider—not that there were no other dishes, the meal was abundant and good, but these were more distinctly and unhesitatingly consumed, along with slices from huge coarse country loaves—no petit pain, or crisp white rolls, so sweet and common in Paris. Yet we were in a good hotel, at Dinan, a town which contains 8500 inhabitants, and is much visited in the summer. It is a striking place, with rain-worn granite walls and towers which redden in the sunset over rows of green young trees; dark little gateways which look quite impassable to the lumbering diligence, with its three straggling white horses abreast, and luggage like a load of hay; quaint old houses which have been peeping round corners and nodding their heads at one another across the street any time these last three hundred years; houses with projecting first-floors standing on stone pillars; streets, narrow, tortuous, interlacing, paved up to the walls with cruel stones, and each with a trickling black drain in the middle, where the ducks rummage; shops which nobody seems to enter, with small windows of bad glass—blue cotton, wood, and tobacco being the commonest merchandise; old women (and you can have no idea of the unpleasantness which may be associated with one till you visit France), little creeping mummies, who beg with voices of unalterable misery; dark, shaven priests in shovel-hats, cassocks, and black bands, who glide about with thumbed gilt-edged books under their arms; gorgeous gendarmes, with quantities of white rigging about their coats, who saunter down the middle of the street, in perpetual contrast with the squalor around them; little bevies of nuns, with their hands folded, baskets on their arms, and a low gust of small-talk as they patter by; bullet-headed children, with tight nightcaps tied under their chins; men in straw hats and blue blouses lounging at the cafe doors; and some small-faced soldiers in red trousers, sitting on a low wall under the shade.

Not that we saw many soldiers in Brittany. There were next to none at Dinan. But there was, what struck me often, a great scarcity of youths; the male population consisted of old or middle-aged men and boys. Three or four lads of eighteen or nineteen years of age, whom I noticed as exceptions, were lame, badly cross-eyed, or crippled in some way. The youth of the place was with the army. This gap in the ages of the populace became more evident as I observed and reflected. There is hardly an able-bodied man in France who is not, at one time or another, connected with the camp.

I have said that almost every street in Dinan has its central drain. This made the ordinary stenches numerous and powerful. But one day, when I walked down to the river bank, and happened to pass the spot where their united contributions flowed into the stream, I met with an odour which, for pungent liveliness and original piquancy of flavour, excelled any I ever smelt, and yet there was a woman with a beautifully clean white cap on, sitting alive and ruddy on a door-step in the very thick of the stench.

By the way, these Breton caps are considered curious. The women generally wear sabots (or wooden shoes) not over clean, but their head-dresses are scrupulously spotless. As to shape, they are so varied that they really seem to have no idea in common. Perhaps, though, I can convey a better notion of these finials by comparing them to dinner napkins, starched, and folded on the head according to the wearer’s fancy, but always with great flaps or wings; these last being sometimes turned up or back, sometimes cast loose and left to float on either side, like the banks of oars depicted in ancient galleys.

There are no street lamps in Dinan. Strange as it may seem, the town is not lit with gas or oil. There is no pretence made of lighting it. If you want to see your way you must take a lantern or wait for the moon—nay, better still, for the sun. Other towns in these parts have, it is true, some lamps hung in the middle of the streets with cord at rare intervals, but Dinan is left at night as dark as an old coal-mine, or London in the time of the Saxons. There are a good many beggars in the place; they look wretched enough, and have not the professional power of their class in London. Indeed, the beggars here are frequently very destitute, and a few sous may be charitably bestowed upon them. There is no poor-law in France. A lone and needy man, past his work, must beg or die. It is true that he is most generally provided for by the “brethren” or the “sisters” — some religious orders being devoted to the support of the aged and helpless. But when he receives their help he is a recipient of charity. There is no parish to which he can apply as a right. There is no law for him but (thank God for that!) the codeless law of love. He is utterly dependent on the charitable. Thus there is much more excuse to be made for beggars here; and I confess that an old crippled body past its work generally gets one of my coppers. “Bad thing!” I hear Mr. Squaretoes say. “Bad advice!” But, sir, I don’t give to children, at least, only to those in their second childhood; and, should you ever come to that, and want a penny, if you would not ask for it from your fellow Christians, for the love of God, you would show a worse opinion of your brethren in the faith than you give yourself credit for now. Ah, me! there must be some genuine beggars, I suppose, and their state here is not such an enviable one that we should be very angry at it, as if they were getting all the good things to themselves. Look at these foreign paupers, at their faces, their clothes. Don’t you think they would gladly earn money if they could? Don’t you suppose it possible that many of them are so stupid, so ignorant, so awkward, that they never could master a handicraft, and have come to what they are after spending the prime of their lives in the lowest brute-like toil?

London beggars, and the like, as I have hinted, are generally bad. You must have noticed that they are very seldom old or thin, but lusty tramps, no doubt with a capital pulse in their veins, and a kettle of rich stew on the hob at home. These rob the poor more than the rich, and I am sure that the habitual copper-giver, who buys selfish blessings from their profane lips, does thereby far more harm than good to his race.

The Bretons have the character of being very impulsive, though they are rather a stolid looking race, for French. But they swear horribly, using oaths which are as curious as they are incessant. They also drink to excess. Cider is the beverage of the country, but brandy is abundant and strong. Wine they seldom touch. The cider is drunk out of very large teacups, like common blue slop-basons with handles. Passing the common cafés or public-houses you may often see three or four rough men in sabots sitting round a table and clicking these basons together before their draught, in good fellowship, as if they were carousing in coffee or tea.

The Breton works hard, and, I should fancy, produces the least possible result with the greatest amount of labour. He tries to get antagonistic crops out of the soil at the same time, planting his wheat-land thick with apple-trees, and therefore injuring both. The fields are very small, and the holdings also. I have seen two people tilling their land together, like Adam and Eve, or getting up their harvest with one rickety cart drawn by a donkey, the farmer and his wife “loading and leading.” Then, too, Darby and Joan often thresh their crop themselves on the bare earth outside the door, winnowing the result by pouring it out of a basin in the wind. As they stand opposite one another, flail in hand, and lay on thick, the effect, a little way off, is that of a “matrimonial difference”—you hear the blows distinctly.

What they do with the grit and dirt the corn picks up, I don’t know: grind their teeth down, I suppose. Of course these poor people employ no labour and lay no capital out on the land. They do their own work and get food enough to carry life on, at a snail’s pace, throughout the monotonous years.

The face of Brittany is seamed and wrinkled with a thousand narrow lanes which waste the soil and bewilder the traveller. The country has been compared to a “rabbit warren” with the turf flayed off, and all the burrows laid bare.

The highways are excellent, and skirted by an electric telegraph. They are as unlike the ordinary roads of the country as the Great Northern is to a cow-path; but will, I suppose, in time be superseded by the rail.

You never see what we understand by a gentleman’s carriage anywhere in these parts. There are vehicles which cost more than the others, and are driven by their owners in good clothes, or coachmen in laced hats; but there is a varnished second-hand look about the best of them, which spoils the effect they are evidently intended to produce.

Inns are tolerably good, and the fare is sufficient. The two meals of the day are a table-d’hôte breakfast at ten, and dinner at six. Great decanters of cider are placed on the board at both, the French generally taking neither coffee nor tea then. Many have a cup at six or seven, and breakfast after a few hours, heavily.

One speciality of the country is its cattle. The horses are mostly grey, and hard as nails. The cows are becoming familiar to us in England, being just now the fashion for gentlemen’s parks. They are very small. There was a cow-market at Dinan while I was there, and I found that very many of the animals were no higher than the bottom of my waistcoat. Women came in from the country dragging full-grown cows no bigger than our calves. There were about 200 horses for sale at the same time,—strong serviceable beasts, with great heads and long tails. A good animal fetched about 30l. I looked in vain among the farmers and drovers who attended the market for men of a superior class. They were apparently all dirty, close-fisted, and profane. Sacr-r-r-r-r-ing away at one another, at themselves, and at nothing, all the day.

The patois of the Bretons is horrible. In some districts they have, I am told, still a peculiar language, preserving their Celtic tongue, and being, intelligible to genuine Welshmen.

Those who visit this country for scenery ought to be fond of apple-trees, for they fill a great part of the land. Some views, such as that from Avranches over the bay of St. Michel, are very striking; most, however, are praised, not because they are good, but because the others are bad. A squinting hillock is a mountain among flats.

The charm of the province is its number of quaint towns and occasional coast scenery. The former are very picturesque and offensive. But if you have been living in the bustle of the nineteenth century, and fussing yourself with schemes of progress or the like, you cannot get a greater change than by putting the clock of your observation back some hundred years or so among the lesser towns of the Bretons. You will return not only refreshed by the bodily recreation, but ready to appreciate still better the state of civilisation which Britons have reached.

Harry Jones.