The City and its Significant Other: Lived Urban Histories beyond the Comparative Mode

Sigrid de Jong

The eighteenth century saw an urge to draw comparisons between cities, most frequently between the two major European capitals, London and Paris. Their special relationship of rivalry, competition, and emulation found its vibrant expression in Louis Sébastien Mercier’s Parallèle de Paris et de Londres (ca. 1780):

London, neighbor and rival, is inevitable to consider when speaking of Paris; and the parallel comes of itself. They are so close and so different, though similar in many respects, that in order to complete the portrait of the one, it is not out of place, I think, to dwell a little on some features of the other.[1]

Mercier describes here how, in portraying the city of Paris, integrating comparisons with elements of the other metropolis is essential. The city of London is in his account Paris’s significant other. British writers in this period made similar comparisons, and analyzed or criticized their capital in relation to its French counterpart. Towards the end of the century, comparing two cities, or rather metropolises, had become a topos in travel writing, literature, and architectural as well as urban critique. The two main cultural centers of Western Europe, London and Paris, were especially placed in parallel, and inhabitants of and travelers to both cities wrote about how one capital related to and, most of all, competed with and rivaled the other (Figs. 1, 2).

Fig. 1. Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, The French Lady in London, ca. 1771. Gray wash black ink and gouache over graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper, 29.2 x 22.9 cm. New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, Prints and Drawings, B1977.14.6038. Image in the public domain.

This mode of comparing cities continued throughout the nineteenth century, and is today still common practice, in scholarly works and even more in contemporary urban and public debate, as the claim that “we are living in an age of comparisons” suggests.[2] This also leads to historical studies that take comparison as a methodological approach of analysis, simply placing cities next to each other without examining if there was an actual transfer of knowledge and ideas.[3] As sociological studies have demonstrated, when analyzing multiple cities or countries, it is much more fruitful to turn to approaches of cultural transfer or intertwining histories.[4] Even more, I would advocate here to study what actually happens on the ground in these cities: how are they experienced and lived, how are these experiences influenced by views from other cities, by travelling, by exchanging ideas, and how is knowledge produced from perception, networks, and the circulation of opinions? Comparison can also be part of these cultural transfers, as Michael Werner and Bénédicte Zimmermann have shown.[5]

Fig. 2. Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, The English Lady at Paris, 1771. Gray wash with black ink over graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper, 31.8 x 24.4 cm. New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, Prints and Drawings, B1977.14.6037. Image in the public domain.

This text aims to examine the urge to compare the two main metropolises of the eighteenth century in turning to the actual testimonies of people living in and travelling to these cities. As Michel de Certeau proposed, rather than viewing a city from above as a “ville-panorama” (panorama city), this presents us with the view “en bas” (on the ground), furthermore opposing the “voyeurs” to the “marcheurs.”[6] Rather than being a voyeur studying and comparing cities from above, the historian should try to enter the city and be a walker. Rather than taking the position of a historian making comparisons, I propose to connect cities through the people who wrote about them, while viewing them from ground level.[7] As such, we can incorporate the comparisons people made at the time as part of cultural transfers. Here I will focus on two writers, one French and one British, who acted as eyewitnesses of the two main European metropolises in a time of change, coming from one capital and observing the other: Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814) and Helen Maria Williams (1759-1827).

With such an approach, the “histoires croisées” leads to “regards croisés,” which are analyzed here. As the couple par excellence of the eighteenth century, the two main capitals Paris and London evidently also represent a rivalry and competition between two nations, played out in writings about both cities.[8] Observation of the other metropolis is particularly to be found in eighteenth-century travel literature, where descriptions of both London and Paris are lauded with comparisons, criticism, and praise. The two countries were rivals in economic, social, cultural, and artistic matters, and were constantly watching and influencing the other.[9] Apart from Mercier’s Parallèle, other writers had started drawing parallels between both metropolises or both nations, for example Béat-Louis de Muralt in Lettres sur les Anglais et les Français (1725); Abbé J.B. le Blanc in Lettres d’un Français (1745); and John Andrews in A Comparative View of the French and English Nations, in their Manners, Politics, and Literature (1785), who dedicated his first chapter to Paris and London.

While these publications focus most of all on the French and English population, institutions, and politics, others concentrate more on comparing architecture or the urban fabric, such as P.J. Grosley in Londres (Lausanne, 1770), Monsieur de La Coste in Voyage philosophique d’Angleterre fait en 1783 et 1784 (London, 1786), and Henri Decremps in Le Parisien à Londres (Amsterdam, 1789).[10] Treating both cities equally and in parallel in a single publication really takes off in the nineteenth century, with Chanoine Humblet’s Tableau problématique de Londres et de Paris mis en parallèle (London, 1812), Marquis de Vermont and Charles Darnley Bart’s London and Paris, or Comparative Sketches (London, 1823), and Amédée de Tissot’s Paris et Londres comparés (Paris, 1830). While writers navigated between presenting a model and giving a counterexample, the comparative mode also permitted them to reveal the meaning, characteristics, qualities, shortcomings, and values of cities.

Fig. 3. Pierre-Antoine Demachy, La Place du Palais-Royal, au clair de lune, ca. 1765. Oil on canvas mounted on panel, 39.5 cm x 34 cm. Paris, Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris, P93. © Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet-Histoire de Paris

Among these comparisons and parallels, Mercier’s writings offer an extraordinary and passionate source for understanding the lived experience of the metropolis on the eve of the French Revolution (Fig. 3).[11] Mercier’s work is specifically pertinent for examining the social life of Parisians in the last decades of the eighteenth century, and gives us privileged access to what happened inside the metropolis, with the author wandering around the city on foot and documenting for his readers everything he sees, feels, smells, and hears. A French writer, playwright, and politician, Mercier travelled to Britain in 1780. In his manuscript Parallèle de Paris et de Londres, he compared the cities of Paris and London in 64 chapters in a number of particularly heterogeneous ways, including urban fabrics, buildings, customs, women, children and education, food and eating habits. Although the Parallèle was not published at the time, many of Mercier’s thoughts and passages on both cities appeared in print in his twelve-volume publication, Tableau de Paris (Amsterdam, 1782-88).

Mercier entitled the first chapter of his Parallèle “Paris comparé à Londres,” and begins by comparing the position and shape of both cities, in which the river that runs through them plays a central role. In an act of giving life to the city, Mercier turns to the often used tool of personification, relating both the Seine and the Thames to characteristics of female inhabitants of these cities: “The Seine is a pretty woman who is lazily occupied and adorned; the Thames is a hard-working mother of a large number of children; she is rough, often restless, and always in the disorders of the household.”[12] His text reveals how Mercier thinks the character of the inhabitants also shapes the character of the city, while he is further influenced by common stereotypes or caricatures of women and nations. Such caricaturist personifications are followed by comparisons of the bridges and the banks of both rivers being analyzed, with Paris winning on the aesthetics of its buildings and London on transport and commerce.[13]

Despite these aesthetic deficiencies, London’s streets are exceptionally well laid out and clean, compared to the dirty and muddy roads outside the urban layout of the Paris boulevards.[14] And again, the reputed cleanliness of London extends even to its inhabitants, while Mercier uses this to criticize Paris.[15] Of course, an urge for change is, in the end, the motive behind these parallels. In Mercier’s text, his principal aim of critique is to identify the deficits of Paris and to propose ameliorations while using the other European metropolis to strengthen his point. One of his recommendations for Paris, in which we immediately sense the element of rivalry informed by his own in situ experiences, is to “Widen the streets at any cost, or London will always shame Paris.”[16]

The same holds true for the bridges of London: in a chapter on “Ponts de Paris et ponts de Londres,” Mercier forcefully criticizes, just like many of his contemporaries did, the inhabited bridges of Paris, and in one go presents the bare bridges of the other metropolis as a positive example.[17] He offers several reasons for presenting the London bridges as a model for the Parisian ones, as they are much more spacious, offering unobstructed views of the city, and most of all are much safer for pedestrians and people driving in carriages.[18] Urban life is also strictly regulated in London, with speed restrictions and interdictions on disorder. On top of that, these bridges also provide aesthetic pleasure: “the spectacle of the views one enjoys is one of the most exciting that any city can offer.”[19] Traffic flows, as well as the safety and comfort of city dwellers and pedestrians, are clearly Mercier’s concern.[20] Furthermore, his observations are informed by what we could call site thinking: reflection on what he actually witnessed while traversing the city.

The fascination for the British metropolis, and putting London forward as an example for improvement, also has to be situated in relation to the French aristocracy’s Anglomania.[21] Moreover, there was a fruitful exchange between intellectuals and artists of both cities, which forces us to study these cities together rather than as separate entities functioning in isolation. Publications often appeared in both cities, for example Mercier’s L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante (1771), published in Paris and London in the same year. As Anglomania increased in French aristocratic circles, Britain developed a similar fascination for France.[22]

Novelist Helen Maria Williams was one of the British writers who expressed an enchantment for the French Revolution. A very popular writer of poetry and prose at the time, she was also one of the politically active women of the period who came from dissenting backgrounds. She travelled to Paris on her own in 1790, became a salonnière and part of the Parisian intellectual milieu, and subsequently spent most of her time in France, becoming a French citizen in 1818 and effectively working as an agent of French ideas for the British.[23] Her Letters from France treat Paris and London in comparison, first analyzing these cities on an aesthetic level before turning to reasons much more political:

We have been driving at a furious rate, for several days past, through the city of Paris, which I think bears the same resemblance to London (if you will allow me the indulgence of a simile) that the grand natural objects in a rude and barren country bear to the tame but regular beauties of a scene rich with cultivation. The streets of Paris are narrow, dark, and dirty; but we are repaid for this by noble edifices, which powerfully interest the attention. The streets of London are broad, airy, light, and elegant; but I need not tell you that they lead scarcely to any edifices at which foreigners do not look with contempt. London has, therefore, most of the beautiful, and Paris of the sublime, according to Mr. Burke’s definition of these qualities.[24]

Her observations, made while moving through the city, extend to the people of Paris, compared to those in London.[25] Williams mostly compares French manners and eloquence favorably to British ones, and additionally criticizes the English in political matters, for example when she admires a French member of the National Assembly for wanting to abolish slavery, which presents her with an important model for Britain.[26] In addition to the more progressive views of some of the French assembly members on slavery, Williams hails the French Revolution as sublime. She was among many British visitors to travel to Paris in order to witness the sublime spectacle of the Revolution, but certainly one of the few to add her sensibility to her writings on her experiences.[27] Her descriptions of being present at the Fête de la Fédération, which celebrated both the French Revolution and the French national unity in 1790, are especially enthusiastic and poignant (Fig. 4). She particularly welcomes the overthrow of patriarchal models of absolute monarchy, and then acknowledges that she could be accused of “describing with too much enthusiasm the public rejoicings of France, and prophesy that I shall return to my own country a fierce republican.”[28]

Fig. 4. Anonymous, Vue de la fête donnée sur le plan de la Bastille, between 1785 and 1795. Engraving, 16.3 x 22.3 cm. Paris, Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris, G.21881. © Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet-Histoire de Paris

As Williams indicates in her Letters, the problem of such a comparative approach is, of course (and Mercier also alludes to this), that it presents a focused or reduced image of at least one city, and possibly of both. In the last chapter, expressing “Remarks for the end of this parallel,” Mercier also acknowledges the overly positive and selective image he has likely sketched of London, and explains: “I want to take the best they have and put it in front of your eyes, so that we will not be poorer and will take advantage of it.”[29] In sum, he says: “You only keep what you can use: that’s what I did.”[30]

In both Mercier’s and Williams’s writings, the contrast between the capitals is driven by an agenda for change. This makes it historically interesting because it tells us about the ideas and ideologies of the time, informed by situated writing. Significantly, it is in the situated comparison that the cities’ actual physical and material characteristics come to the fore, as well as their social life and functioning. Confronted with such in situ comparisons between nations, cities and people, rivers and women, houses and inhabitants, we are prompted to examine urban centers and urban life from the point of view of the users of the city: the urban dwellers, travellers, and critics. We are seduced to look into the act of comparing at the time, observing parallels and exchange from the point of view of the human beings making the city their own. This tells us about comparison as self-consciousness, as positioning oneself against the other, and as (self)-critique. Thus the idea of the significant other makes sense and gives sense to the study of cities.

As Mercier and Williams demonstrate, it is through the actual in situ practices of writing about both cities that the characteristics of the metropolises manifest themselves, and, most of all, become palpable. They also function to sustain a need for change, in one’s own or in the other city. Mercier’s sociological critique is expressed in his observations on the filth, dangers, noise, and unwelcome density of the city, while Williams’s political convictions are enforced by witnessing the overthrow of the patriarchal system and the arguments expressed in parliament for the abolition of slavery. We are helped here by introducing Jane Rendell’s and Donna Haraway’s approaches to writing urban histories from street level: in focusing on the historical “site writing” of the people “on the ground,” the historian gains “situated knowledge” about two cities in competition.[31] This situated knowledge tells us about how, in Mercier’s case, admiration for London was constructed while criticizing Paris, while, in Williams’s case, an admiration for Paris emerged from a critique of London.

Studying the inhabitants and visitors of those cities and their views and ideas written in situ means extending our attention beyond the obvious sources, and beyond the male writers giving their opinions on city life, to include the much less studied female accounts of cities. This attention necessarily broadens our corpus of sources when tracing architectural and urban thought. Understanding the lived experience and the social life of the city implies incorporating female movements within the metropolis, and thus including female writers and opinions. Contrary to most male writers at the time, Mercier indicated the need to listen to female voices in his chapter on “Femmes-auteurs,” explaining how difficult it was for women to make themselves heard in French society and publish their ideas—though it is Williams’s voice, and those of her female contemporaries telling us to study women’s contributions to political, philosophical, and artistic thought, that is the more powerful.[32]

Women authors such as Williams, who pairs independent thought with sensibility in writing informed by her position in society, show that the sharpest writing about architecture and the city is concerned as much with the contexts and uses of buildings and the urban fabric as with aesthetic issues of the built environment. With a political and social position different from that of their male counterparts, and thus outside of the traditional debate, they are in a way freer to express their opinions, as Germaine de Staël would claim.[33] And, as Williams herself argues:

The women have certainly had a considerable share in the French revolution: for, whatever the imperious lords of the creation may fancy, the most important events which take place in this world depend a little on our influence; and we often act in human affairs like those secret springs in mechanism, by which, though invisible, great movements are regulated.[34]

Entering the city through the eyes, movements, and lives of the people using, transforming, and appropriating it also allows us to see another significant other: the female authors and women making the city their own.

Sigrid de Jong is a senior researcher and lecturer in Architectural History and Theory at the gta Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture, ETH Zurich

[1] Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Parallèle de Paris et de Londres, introduction Claude Bruneteau and Bernard Cottret (Paris: Didier Érudition, 1982) 53: “Londres, voisine et rivale, est inévitable à considérer en parlant de Paris; et le parallèle vient s’offrir de lui-même. Elles sont si proches et si différentes, quoique se ressemblant à bien des égards, que pour achever le portrait de l’une, il n’est pas je pense hors de place, d’arrêter un peu les yeux sur quelques traits de l’autre.”

[2] Hartmut Von Sass claims “we are living in an age of comparisons” in A Philosophy of Comparisons: Theory, Practice and the Limits of Ethics (London: Bloomsbury, 2022). See also Claire Hancock, Paris et Londres au XIXe siècle: Représentations dans les guides et récits de voyage (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2003); and Paul Gerbod, Voyages au pays des mangeurs de grenouilles: La France vue par les Britanniques du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours (Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 1993).

[3] Historians comparing both capitals for the early modern period are, for instance, Mike Rapport, Rebel Cities: Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution (London: Little, Brown, 2019); Helen Rosenau, Social Purpose in Architecture: Paris and London Compared 1760-1780 (London: Studio Vista, 1970); and Sophie Descat, “Fabriquer la grande ville: le rôle des architectes municipaux à Paris et à Londres dans la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle,” in Paris-Londres, ed. Dana Arnold and Jean-Louis Cohen (Gollion: InFolio, 2016), 87-130.

[4] Michael Werner and Bénédicte Zimmerman, “Vergleich, Transfer, Verflechtung. Der Ansatz der Histoire croisée und die Herausforderung des Transnationalen,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 28 (2002), 4, 607-636; Werner and Zimmerman, “Beyond Comparison: Histoire Croisée and the Challenge of Reflexivity,” History and Theory 45 (February 2006), 30-50; Michel Espagne, “Sur les limites du comparatisme en histoire culturelle,” Genèses. Sciences sociales et histoire 17 (1994), 112-121. For the eighteenth century, see Ann Thomson, Simon Burrows, and Edmond Dziembowski, eds., Cultural Transfers: France and Britain in the long Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2010); Claire Gantet and Markus Meumann, eds., Les échanges savants franco-allemands au XVIIIe siècle: Transfert, circulation et réseaux (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2019). For nineteenth-century cultural transfers and intertwining histories, see Patrick Leitner, “Un ménage urbain à trois, ou l’ambition mondiale de New York,” in Arnold and Cohen, Paris-Londres, 387-436. An attempt to combine comparison and transnationalism is Nicolas Kenny and Rebecca Madgin, Cities Beyond Borders: Comparative and Transnational Approaches to Urban History (London and New York: Routledge, 2016).

[5] Michael Werner and Bénédicte Zimmerman, “Vergleich, Transfer, Verflechtung. Der Ansatz der Histoire croisée und die Herausforderung des Transnationalen,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 28 (2002), 4, 607-636.

[6] Michel de Certeau, L’invention du quotidien, vol. 1, Arts de faire (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1990). See, for such an approach, Laurent Turcot, Le promeneur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Gallimard – Le Promeneur, 2007); Turcot, L’ordinaire parisien des Lumières (Paris: Hermann, 2013).

[7] As is my approach in my publications on the topic: “La ville in situ : De Londres à Paris, entre spectateur et concepteur,” in Fabrice Moulin, Elise Pavy-Guilbert, and Pierre Wachenheim, eds., “Les Lieux de l’Art,” XVIIIe siècle 50 (2017), 2018, 71-84; “L’enseignement de l’effet de l’architecture chez Blondel et ses collègues anglais,” in Aurélien Davrius, ed., Jacques-François Blondel: La dernière leçon de l’architecture « à la française » (Brussels: Mardaga 2022), 119-135. I am also currently finishing a book manuscript entitled The Emergence of Architectural Experience in Paris and London, 1750-1815.

[8] Elizabeth McKellar, “‘Tales of two cities’: architecture, print and early guidebooks to Paris and London,” Humanities 2/3 (2013) 328-350; Elizabeth McKellar, “Writing the New Urbanism: Architecture and Guidebooks to London and Paris, c. 1650-1750,” in Paris-Londres, ed. Dana Arnold and Jean-Louis Cohen (Gollion: InFolio, 2016), 15-69; See also the Introduction to Mercier, Parallèle, 9-50.

[9] Guillaume Daudin, Commerce et prospérité, la France au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Presses de l’Université Paris Sorbonne, 2005); François Crouzet, La Guerre économique franco-anglaise au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Fayard, 2008); François Crouzet, De la supériorité de L’Angleterre sur la France: l’économique et l’imaginaire XVIIe-XXe siècle (Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 1985).

[10] Voyage philosophique d’Angleterre, fait en 1783 et 1784 par monsieur de La Coste, éd. Isabelle Bour (Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2011); Henri Decremps in Le Parisien à Londres, ou Avis aux Français qui vont en Angleterre, contenant le parallele des deux plus grandes villes de l’Europe, 2e partie (Paris: chez Maradan, 1789).

[11] Geneviève Boucher, Écrire le temps: Les tableaux urbains de Louis Sébastien Mercier (Montréal: Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2014).

[12] “if she has any ornaments at all they are […] necessary and whose goodness, sturdiness, and commodity show her true opulence; always in the embarrassments and hassles, of all that is necessary for the needs and pleasures of her many children.” “La Seine est une jolie femme qui s’occupe mollement et est parée; la Tamise est une mère laborieuse d’un grand nombre d’enfans; elle est rude, souvent agitée, et toujours dans les embarras du ménage; si elle a quelqu’ornement ce sont de […] nécessaires et dont la bonté, la solidité et la commodité font voir sa vraie opulence; toujours dans les embarras et les tracas, de tout ce qu’il faut pour les besoins et les plaisirs de ses nombreux enfans.” Mercier, Parallèle de Paris et de Londres, chapter 2 (“Position et forme de Paris et de Londres”), 56. 

[13] Mercier, Parallèle de Paris et de Londres, 57: “Le grand déffaut de Londres, pour sa beauté du côté de la Tamise, est de n’avoir aucun quai, aucun grand monument ni place, de ce côté, qui fasse jouir de l’aspect de cette rivière, excepté de dessus les ponts; il est vrai que ses bords sont rudes et fangeux, pas sains comme ceux de la Seine; et tout est occupé pour le commerce, le port et les magasins. Les vapeurs & la fumée de charbon, donnent à ses bords un ton grisâtre, nullement brillant; et que l’absence du soleil rend souvent privés de lumière, coloris et effet.” This passage appears in the second chapter, on the position and shape of both cities.

[14] Mercier, Parallèle de Paris et de Londres, 57: “Paris a des Boulevards, garnis de rangées d’arbres, qui lui font un ornement qui n’est point à Londres. Tout le tour de Londres est environné de routes, très proprement entretenus, avec des trotoirs; de sorte que de toutes parts on sort de la Ville, sans être dans des embarras de boues, comme dans les fauxbourgs, barrières & villages de Paris.”

[15] Mercier, Parallèle de Paris et de Londres, 57: “Quantité de corps de bâtimens, rangés en lignes, avec des jardins devant et derrière, forment les fauxbourgs et environs de Londres; des prairies, d’une verdure admirable et richement chargées de troupeaux, s’offrent de toutes parts. Les guinguettes des environs de Paris sont dégoutantes; et la pluparts des villages mal entretenus et sales; les gens & leurs enfans y croupissent dans la vilenie. Tous les environs de Londres et Guinguettes, ont un air de propreté, tant les maisons que les personnes; et les villages y sont mieux entretenus généralement.”

[16] Mercier, Parallèle de Paris et de Londres, 60: “Elargir les rues à quel prix que ce soit, ou Londres fera toujours honte à Paris.”

[17] Mercier, Parallèle de Paris et de Londres, 154: “Ces maisons des ponts empoisonnent le milieu de la rivière et font honte à la ville et à ceux qui la gouvernent. Il n’est pas possible de voir rien de mieux construit ni de plus commode que les ponts de Londres.”

[18] Mercier, Parallèle de Paris et de Londres, 154-156: “Leur espace est large, des colonnes de chaque côté, sans en boucher la vue, empêchent qu’aucun accident n’arrive par les chevaux ou voitures qui s’élanceroient par dessus; de chaque côté un trotoir spacieux, des arches très très larges pour la navigation, et les deux côtés très vastes pour les débouchés et éviter les embarras. Il y a sur ces ponts des espèces de demi-lunes, où, à l’abri de la pluie, il y a des bancs de bois pour reposer quiconque veut s’asseoir.”

[19] Mercier, Parallèle de Paris et de Londres, 156: “Il est déffendu de courir sur ces ponts à cheval et en voiture, et de faire des embarras. En général l’ordre et la propreté règne sur tous; et le spectacle des points de vue dont on y jouit est un des plus piquant qu’aucune ville puisse offrir.”

[20] Mercier, Parallèle de Paris et de Londres, chap. 31 (“De l’exécution des projets à Paris et à Londres”), 117: “The City of London, not too long ago, had neither pavements nor high streets; all this was done, as well as several superb bridges, in the midst of the expenses of an expensive war.” (“La Ville de Londres, il n’y a pas déjà trop longtems, n’avoit ni trotoirs, ni grandes rues; tout cela a été fait, de même que plusieurs ponts superbes, au milieu même des dépenses d’une guerre dispendieuse.”) See also Anthony Vidler, “Mercier urbaniste: l’Utopie du réel,” in Jean-Claude Bonnet, ed., Louis Sébastien Mercier, un hérétique en littérature (Paris: Mercure de France, 1995).

[21] See, for example, the Introduction to Mercier, Parallèle de Paris et de Londres, 25-28; P. Reboul, Le mythe anglais dans la littérature française sous la Restauration (Lille: Bibliothèque universitaire, 1962).

[22] Claire Hancock, Paris et Londres au XIXe siècle: Représentations dans les guides et récits de voyage (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2003); and Paul Gerbod, Voyages au pays des mangeurs de grenouilles: La France vue par les Britanniques du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours (Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 1993).

[23] Other books by Williams include: Poem on the Bill lately passed for regulating the Slave Trade (London: T. Cadell, 1788); Julia, a novel interspersed with poetical pieces (London, T. Cadell, 1790); Letters containing a Sketch of the Politics of France, 4 vols. (London: G.G. and J. Robinson, 1795-96).

[24] Williams, Letters written in France, in the summer 1790, to a friend in England; containing various anecdotes relative to the French Revolution; and memoirs of Mons. and Madame du F-. (London, T. Cadell, 1790), 73-74. See, for Williams: Lionel-D. Woodward, Une Anglaise amie de la Révolution Française: Hélène-Maria Williams et ses amis (Paris: Librairie ancienne Honoré Champion, 1930); Karen Green, A History of Women’s Political Thought in Europe, 1700-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 172-202; Angela Keane, Revolutionary women writers: Charlotte Smith & Helen Maria Williams (Tavistock: British Council, 2013).

[25] Williams, Letters written in France, 78: “Indeed, what is most striking to a stranger at Paris, is that general appearance of gaiety, which it is easy to perceive is not assumed for the moment, but is the habit of the mind, and which is, therefore, so exhilarating to a spectator of any benevolence. It is this which gives such a charm to every public place and walk in Paris. Kensington Gardens can boast as fine verdure, as majestic trees, as noble walks, and perhaps more beautiful women than the gardens of the Tuilleries; but we shall look in vain for that sprightly animation, that everlasting chearfulness, which render the Tuilleries so enchanting.”

[26] Williams, Letters written in France, 49: “the French will have the glory of setting us an example, which it will then be our humble employment to follow. But I trust the period will never come, when England will submit to be taught by another nation the lesson of humanity. I trust an English House of Commons will never persist in thinking, that what is morally wrong, can be politically right; that the virtue and the prosperity of a people are things at variance with each other; and that a country which abounds with so many sources of wealth, cannot afford to close one polluted channel, which is stained with the blood of our fellow-creatures.”

[27] Woodward, Une Anglaise amie de la Révolution Française.

[28] Williams, Letters written in France, 69.

[29] Mercier, Parallèle de Paris et de Londres, chap. 64 (“Remarques pour la fin de ce parallèle”), 182: “moi, je veux prendre ce qu’ils ont de meilleur et vous le mettre devant les yeux, afin qu’on ne soit pas plus pauvre et qu’on en fasse son profit.”

[30] Mercier, Parallèle de Paris et de Londres, 182: “On ne conserve que ce qui peut servir: Voilà ce que j’ai fait.”

[31] Jane Rendell, “Sites, Situations and other kinds of Situatedness,” in Bryony Roberts, ed., Expanded Modes of Practice, special issue of Log vol. 48 (2020), 27-38; Rendell, Site-Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism (London: IB Tauris, 2006). See also Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14:3 (Autumn, 1988), 575-99.

[32] Karen Green, A History of Women’s Political Thought in Europe, 1700-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Mercier, Les femmes de Paris, à l’époque des Lumières, introduction Sabine Melchior-Bonnet (Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2012), 96. As an advocate of women’s writing (Mercier was also an editor of the Journal des Dames, which appeared in 1759-1778), he urged his readers to turn to the myriad merits of studying their works. As he argues, “what happier and more pleasant luxury than the works of a gender, where we like to go to seek the ideas and the feelings which are posed in the bottom of their soul, and which develop perhaps with more frankness in their writings than in their glances and their words.” Mercier, Tableau de Paris, vol. 10, chap. DCCCXLV, also cited in Mercier, Les femmes de Paris, 98. Mercier names 34 women authors famous in his time, from various centuries. Another eighteenth-century publication catalogues more than one hundred women: Joseph de Laporte, Jean François de Lacroix, Histoire littéraire des femmes françoises, ou Lettres historiques et critiques, contenant un précis de la vie & une analyse raisonnée des ouvrages des femmes qui se sont distinguées dans la littérature françoise, 5 vols. (Paris: Lacombe, 1769). Mercier writes: “quel luxe plus heureux et plus agréable que les ouvrages d’un sexe, où nous aimons d’aller chercher les idées et les sentiments qui se posent au fond de leur âme, et qui se développent peut-être avec plus de franchise dans leurs écrits que dans leurs regards et dans leurs paroles.” For Le Journal des Dames, see chapter two of Siobhan McIlvanny, Figurations of the Feminine in the Early French Women’s Press, 1758-1848 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019), 57-98. Several of Mercier’s articles in the Journal des Dames subsequently appeared in the Tableau de Paris.

[33] Jean Goldzink and Gérard Gengembre, Madame de Staël, la femme qui osait penser (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2017).

[34] Williams, Letters written in France, 38-39, where she admires the festivities in the French capital. She and her sister were arrested and imprisoned, but released later, as recounted in her Letters containing a Sketch of the Politics of France. On the Revolution and the role of women as citizens, see Annie K. Smart, Citoyennes: Women and the Ideal of Citizenship in Eighteenth-Century France (Plymouth: University of Delaware Press, 2011).

Cite this article as: Sigrid de Jong, “The City and its Significant Other: Lived Urban Histories beyond the Comparative Mode,” Journal18, Issue 15 Cities (Spring 2023),

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