(Although I did not venture into the depths of
Padirac, I add a few
lines of description which may prove serviceable to others.)
Padirac are two huge accidents, the one an upheaval, the other a
fissure in one of those vast table-lands or plateaux of Central
France called Causses; a word derived from the Provençal, in its
turn derived from the Latin calx or calcinum, lime.
It is only within the last twenty-five years that this
strange region has been explored by men of science and tourists.
Padirac with its stalactite caves, river, and lakelets was only
discovered in 1889, when a Paris lawyer, accompanied by a friend
equally intrepid, ventured into the awful abyss, finding marvels
that recalled Kubla Khan's vision and the stately pleasure house,
'Alph the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man,
Down to a sunless sea.'
Aridity of soil, an arctic climate, solitude and desolation,
characterise the Causes, at their base lying fertile fields, verdant
valleys, meandering streams and silvery cascades. Above, not a
rill, not a beck refreshes the porous, stony soil, the showers of
summer and wintry snows filtering to a depth of thousands of feet
below. Another striking feature of the Caussien region is the
frequently occurring aven or yawning chasm, subject of
superstitious awe and terror among the country folk. These
mysterious openings are locally known as Trous d'enfer
(infernal holes). Alike fact and legend had increased the
popular dread of the aven. It was known that many an
unfortunate animal had fallen into some abyss never to be heard of
after. More than one seigneurial Bluebeard of these regions—so
ran local story—had thus widowed himself. And according to the
country folk of Padirac, the devil hurrying away with a captured
soul was here overtaken by St. Martin on horseback. A struggle
ensued, 'Accursed saint!' cried the evil one, 'thou wilt hardly leap
my ditch,' with a tap of his heel opening the rock before them,
splitting it in two. But St. Martin's steed leaped it at a
bound, the soul was rescued, and the prince of darkness, instead of
the saint, was sent below.
MOUTH OF THE CAVE OF PADIRAC
The descent and exploration of Padirac is the crowning
achievement of my friend, M. E. A. Martel, the Paris lawyer who has
won for himself the title of the Columbus of the nether world.
When in 1889 M. Martel, accompanied by a friend adventuresome
as himself, prepared for the expedition, the country folks were
aghast—'You will get down easily enough, gentlemen,' they said, 'but
you will never come up again.'
The curates of the neighbouring villages were equally
emphatic. Nor is the general stupefaction difficult to
understand, although to that day, the frightful maw, as M. Martel
aptly terms the crater, had never been fenced around or in any way
protected. So far, at least, familiarity had lessened
traditional horrors. From time immemorial the crater-like
opening, three hundred feet in circumference and a hundred feet
broad, had remained without a palisade, Brobdingnagian well
doubtless sucking in many a human and four-footed victim.
Accustomed to the sight of that gueule effroyable although
they were, not a single peasant could be prevailed upon to accompany
the explorers. Not to be dismayed, the pair went down one at a
time. When M. Martel had safely alighted on a half-way ledge
the swing was drawn up for his companion.
Exactly fourteen months to a day after the first descent, a
second was made, upwards of a thousand spectators looking on.
The explorers, now a party of five, had provided themselves with
thirty-five yards of rope ladder, three collapsible canoes, two
photographic apparatus, and electric lamp, with, of course,
provisions, and indeed everything of which they might stand in need.
Their experiences were breathlessly interesting. By eight
o'clock in the evening M. Martel and his companions found themselves
safe and sound at the bottom of the cavern. Several stages had
been first alighted at and visited, the final depth being 250 feet.
A gay and hearty supper was followed by an interval of rest,
and shortly after midnight the little illuminated flotilla set
forth, magnesian lights and electric lamps irradiating the colossal
walls of stalactite as they went. Winding in and out—now
obliged to land and carry their boats and baggage, now gently
gliding from lake to lake, the exhilaration of one moment making
them forget the fatigue of the rest—our explorers reached the limit
of the cavern, further progress being arrested by a solid mass of
rock, no outlet being visible.
It was now nearly seven o'clock in the morning, but three
hours elapsed before they reached the place of embarkation, three
and a half more before they could tear themselves away from their
photographic apparatus to luncheon. By four P.M.
the party had reached the surface, overcome with fatigue and
exposure but enraptured with their experiences. They had
navigated an underground river a mile and six furlongs in length,
its meanderings forming four little lakes separated by natural
weirs, all these set in a framework of glittering stalactites.
'Wonder,' writes M. Martel, 'seals our lips. One by one
the four lakelets are glided over, the rocky walls on either side
draped with stalactites glittering in the magnesian light like
sheets of diamonds, and all reflected in the smooth, transparent
water. Not a sound breaks the stillness of this hitherto
unknown world but the gentle plash of our oars and the trickling of
water from overhead, the hollow cavernous roof echoing the fall,
making soft, penetrating rhythm. Not a living soul had
preceded us on the weird voyage. We are wholly remote from the
living, sunlit, familiar world. We ask ourselves, "Do we not,
indeed, dream? Can the scenes around us be reality?"'
These marvels are now rendered accessible to all. After
nine years of unremitting labours aided by effective co-operation,
M. Martel's discovery, his region of 'antres vastes,' Tartarean
lakes, and marvellous coruscations have become common property.
With the aid of a few enthusiasts, a syndicate was lately formed
under the name of La Société anonyme du Puit de Padirac; the
subterranean region was acquired at a cost of fifty thousand francs,
the mouth of the chasm enclosed, and a safe and easy method of
descending arranged, of this an
illustration giving some idea.
A moderate fixed tariff, five francs, is charged, the
entrance fee including descent, guides, exploration of galleries and
cruise of lakelets and river, the entire excursion occupying a few
hours only. Return tickets combining both excursions, namely,
to Rocamadour and Padirac, may be obtained in Paris at the Agence
Officielle des Chemins de Fer, 1 Rue d'Échelle, opposite the
Tuileries Gardens. About the absolute safety of the
subterranean expedition as now arranged there seems little doubt.
Of course those subject to vertigo or afraid of sudden chills will
enjoy the undertaking vicariously. Rocamadour and Padirac can
be hurriedly visited from Limoges in a day.
'Ah, ladies,' cried a French fellow-traveller, as some days
after, myself and friend awaited the Angoulême train at Limoges,
'you little know what you have missed in not visiting Padirac.
It is grandiose, it is fairylike, it is unimaginable, indescribable.
And only four hundred and forty steps to descend and mount—a mere
Ladies do indeed patronise the four hundred and forty steps
and collapsible boats. A young Frenchwoman of my acquaintance,
who visited Padirac in the long vacation of last year, assured me
that the excursion was comparatively easy, and that fatigue was well
For a full account of M. Martel's subterranean explorations
in France, various parts of the Continent, Majorca, Ireland and
Yorkshire, I must refer readers to his works Les Cévennes,
1890; Les Abîmes, 1894; L'Irlande, 1896; also to his
periodical Spelunca, organ of the Société de Spéléologie.
BALZAC AT ANGOULEME
IT is a beautiful
bit of country between Limoges and Angoulême, not very productive,
but wooded, pastoral, and abounding in running water.
In Les Deux Poètes the background plays a much more
important part than in Le Curé du Village. Limoges was
peculiarly adapted to such a story, but it is the configuration of
Angoulême that seems to have suggested the tragic history of the
vain little provincial son of a poor chemist, devoured by the
ambition of figuring in aristocratic and literary circles; in other
words, of exchanging his native spot, the commercial quarters of the
river, for the upper town above. Every incident is derived
from this division of the city into upper and lower, and consequent
separation of classes.
In Balzac's description of the city we discern the genesis of
his novelette: 'Built on a sugar-loaf rock, Angoulême dominates the
meadowland watered by the Charente. The importance of this
city during the religious wars is attested by the ramparts, city
gates, and ruined fortresses. It was a position strategically
of equal value to both Catholics and Huguenots, but what constituted
a strength in the past is at the present day a source of weakness;
the city not being capable of extension on the banks of the river is
thus condemned to disastrous fixedness.'
About the time the incidents in this story occurred (1802-30)
'the Government was making an effort to add to the existing town
grouped around the public buildings. But commerce has already
taken the initiative. Long before the suburb I'Houmeau had
sprung up like a bed of mushrooms alongside the river, this faubourg
became an industrial town, a second Angoulême, a lower town
emulating the upper with its prefecture, its bishopric, and
aristocracy. Angoulême proper housed the noblesse and
influence; I'Houmeau commerce and money; two social zones existed at
'It is easy to divine how the sentiment of caste divided the
two towns. Business is rich, noblesse is generally poor.
The one revenges itself on the other by mutual contempt. An
inhabitant of l'Houmeau, then, introduced to Madame de Bargeton of
the upper town was a revolution on a small scale.'
Lucien Chardon, who arrogated to himself the title of M. de
Rubempré, was that uninteresting being, a small Apollo Belvedère,
that is to say, handsome, shapely, and possessed of a gift of rhyme
and inordinate vanity. Adored alike by his mother, the
chemist's widow, who earned a living by midwifery, by his sister and
her fiancé, an excellent printer, the young man is enabled to
carry out his views. Owing to the most painful privations on
their part he obtains the necessary outfit for presentation to
Madame de Bargeton, the bel esprit and leading spirit of
Lucien's first evening in the charmed circle of the Ville
Haute is wonderfully described. The young fop's devoted sister
had bought for him with her earnings 'thin boots at the best
bootmaker's of the town and a new complete suit at the most
fashionable tailor's; his best shirt she had trimmed with a jabot or
laced front, which she washed and ironed herself. With what
joy she beheld him ready equipped for his visit! How proud she
felt of her brother!'
The habitués of Madame de Bargeton's salon form a
representative group. The provincial noblesse of the
Restoration is portrayed as Balzac alone could portray it. A
mortification in the midst of his triumph foreshadows Lucien's
future; but as Rousseau has truly declared, vanity is a quite
incurable foible. The unhappy young man, not content with
ruining his sister's husband, becomes a social wreck, his miserable
career ending self-murder. The conclusion of his story,
however, takes us away from Angoulême, and fills a volume and a half
of literary struggles under the title of Un Grand Homme de
Province à Paris.
Most curious and instructive are these pages, a picture of a
Parisian Grub Street, let us hope now non-existent.
The handsome capital of the department of the Charente is
greatly enlarged and beautified since Balzac described it, three
quarters of a century ago. On recently revisiting it, after an
interval of eighteen years, I found a great many new buildings and
improvements; but the essential features familiarised by a reading
of Les Deux Poètes remain intact, and whether we survey the
magnificent panorama that stretches before us on the heights of
Beaulieu or stroll down to the riverside below, we think less of
Coligny and the Duc d'Épernon, of another Balzac, the so-called
'restaurateur de la langue française,' of the Marguerite des
Marguerites, and other historic personages whose history is
interwoven with that of Angoulême, than of the poor vain poetaster,
Lucien Chardon, soi-disant de Rubempré, and his divinity, Louise de
Bargeton. So much more real seem the creations of genius than
the heroes and heroines of tradition!
In Eve et David, which is a pendant to Les Deux
Poètes, Balzac quits the topographical and social for the
industrial aspect of Angoulême. 'Balzac,' observes a French
writer, M. Rambaud, 'must have divined rather than observed men and
things when writing his great series. A comparatively short
lifetime and habits of seclusion did not admit of the close study
and accurate observation suggested by these marvellous
delineations.' The second story, the scene of which is laid in
Angoulême, affords a striking instance of Balzac's intuitive
faculty, or shall we say, deductive methods? The pathetic
history of the wretched Lucien's sister and brother-in-law reveals
an entire industrial phase. Not only do we realise the
struggles of a poor printer, but the conditions of the printing and
paper-making trade under the Restoration.
RAMPARTS OF ANGOULÊME
For generations Angoulême had been, as it is today, a seat of
paper-manufacture, and at the time of which Balzac wrote, the
fabrication of cheapened paper occupied many minds. After the
Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, newspapers, which had been all
but banished under the Empire, were multiplied, more books were
written and read. The excessive dearness of paper seriously
hampered commercial and literary initiative.
The subject naturally appealed to Balzac's commercial
instincts, and in reading Eve et David we might take it for a
bit of biography and suppose that the novelist had served his
apprenticeship in a printing office. Again, David's straitened
circumstances gave scope to true Balzacian visionariness.
Lucien had reduced his sister and her husband to beggary; only one
thing could save them, that one thing the traditional chimera, an
invention. Could the poor printer only find a substitute for
cotton in the manufacture of paper, his fortune was made. Now
from 1826 to 1836 a French inventor named Piette had first made
paper of bark, reeds, hay, and straw. At the time Balzac
wrote, experiment and discovery were in the air. It would be
interesting to know how far in David's history the novelist is
himself an inventor. Without possessing the psychological
interest of Les Deux Poètes, this story is well worth
reading, especially at Angoulême. As a study of the bourgeoise,
Eve is worthy to stand beside the noble Mme. Birotteau. David,
too, with his simple, sturdy heroism, is a fine character. The
population of this great city, like the bookworm, may be said to
fatten on paper. The local product is largely exported,
especially to America, whilst home consumption is enormous. An
age of universal education is naturally the zenith of paper-mills.
The bulk consumed in French schools a decade ago averaged two
hundred millions' pound weight, double that consumed in private
correspondence. Very likely the sum-total by this time has
doubled. The devastations of the phylloxera twenty and odd
years ago gave an immense impetus to this industry, turning their
attention to trade.
Angoulême is quite gloriously placed. It stands on a
veritable rock à pic—that is to say, the steep sides of the
rocky summit on which the ancient town and ramparts were built run
perpendicularly to the plain below. The city, with its noble
Romanesque cathedral, clustering spire, and gleaming roofs, rises
above hanging woods and gardens, a veritable coronal of greenery
smiling away all savageness. Lovely beyond description is the
vast plain below, the river Charente—'fairest river of my kingdom,'
said the Gascon king, Henri Quatre—winding its sinuous way amid
avenues of tall poplars and wide pastures, every object being
reflected in its clear waters. Countless green islets, mere
groves and gardens, are formed by the convolutions of the river,
whilst far off are seen white villages and distant church spires
dotting the vast landscape. Most beautiful is the play of
light and shadow on foliage and water when the sun breaks forth; the
yellow tints of autumn are not visible as yet on this September
visit, all the hues are of summer. A dozen subjects for an
artist meet the eye in a single stroll, whether made in the upper
town or the lower, two little worlds apart.
The great charm of the Charente is the unequalled clearness
and transparency of its waters; it is this feature that lends such
beauty and poetic aspect to the immediate surroundings of Angoulême
and the neighbouring country. The effect from a boat is said
to be magical. 'As you gently glide along,' writes one
familiar with the scene, 'amid water-lilies, and removed by a few
yards only from the river's bed, carpeted with dusty verdure, you
must fain believe yourself to be floating in mid-air. The
water disappears. You recognise its presence by the
undulations of the boat and the play of light and shadow round
about.' It is also said that the waters of the neighbouring
Touvre, in themselves bright and clear, look dull by comparison.
To realise the fine position and picturesqueness of Angoulême
the circuit must be made both above and below. The round of
the ramparts is easily accomplished on foot; that of the lower city
is best made in a carriage and continued for some distance on the
Bordeaux road, a drive of an hour or two. Alike from the
heights and the plains, the views are fine and varied.
Conspicuous on all sides, the noblest feature and crowning ornament
of the scene, rises the grand tower of the cathedral, compared by
some to the Tower of Pisa. The ancient fortifications have
been turned to admirable account as a recreation ground for the
people. In such matters French ingenuity and taste are always
equal to the occasion, and this city now affords its inhabitants
sunny, sheltered promenades in winter and delicious coolness in
summer. A fine view of the Charente valley is obtained from
the Promenade Beaulieu, a bit of Knowle Park in the heart of a
bustling, lively, prosperous city. You drive all at once into
a world of greenness and shadow, to emerge as suddenly on the rim of
a vast, open, sunny plain and meandering river; a dozen rivers there
seem to be in one, so numerous and capricious are its sinuosities.
Built in the Romanesque-Byzantine style, St. Pierre of
Angoulême recalls the cathedrals of Périgueux and Poitiers.
The original church dates from the beginning of the twelfth century,
but it was restored in the seventeenth and partially reconstructed
between 1866 and 1875. Thus, as is the case with St. Front at
Périgueux, this noble cathedral has a disconcertingly new
Both without and within we are reminded of the St. Sophia of
Périgord, but the resemblance is superficial. Here we have
only one dome visible from the outside, that of magnificent
proportions, the three domes of the interior being roofed in; the
general arrangement, too, is different. At Angoulême we do not
for a moment imagine ourselves in Constantinople, Venice, or
Cordova, nor are we overwhelmed as by the immensity of St. Front of
Périgueux. The façade is of great elaborateness and beauty.
Angoulême possesses some noteworthy specimens of modern
French architecture. The Hotel de Ville (1886), the romanesque
churches of St. Ausone and St. Martial (1854 and 1864), all these
designed by M. Abadie, do great credit alike to municipal enterprise
and taste. It is astounding how money is always forthcoming in
France for the embellishment of towns!
The historic heroine of Angoulême is Marguerite de Valois,
that gracious figure so worthily commemorated here in marble.
As 'shines a good deed in a naughty world' so does her gracious
personality irradiate an epoch of dark superstition and intolerance.
Poet, story-teller, patroness of art and letters, stylish, we love
best to think of the woman who 'disdained no one,' to quote an old
historian's noble eulogium, to whom every man was a brother, every
woman a sister, and whose voice was ever raised on behalf of the
down-trodden and unhappy. Mother of the great queen, Jeanne
d'Albret, grandmother of the greatest king who ever sat on the
French throne, Marguerite d'Angoulême vindicates the theory of
spiritual heredity. In spite of bigoted protests to the
contrary, the protectress of Marot and Bonaventure des Périers,
there is no doubt that she died, as she had lived, a Protestant.
How came it about, one may well ask, that so sensitive and
refined a lady could pen stories in the freest vein of Boccaccio?
The answer is simple. Libertinage was in the air; she but
caught, or rather unconsciously imbibed, the tone of the day.
Politeness and moral latitude went hand in hand. As M. Henri
Martin has remarked, the court of François Premier developed a new
society, hitherto without precedent, witty, learned, graceful and
licentious. Every one versified, courtiers, courtesans, grave
magistrates, the king following suit. And some versified to
good purpose. Marot called Marguerite d'Angoulême sa sœur
de poésie, and she shone equally in verse and in sisterly
devotion. When, having lost all but honour on the field of
Pavia, the king was detained a prisoner in Spain, he fell
dangerously ill. Epistolary literature shows nothing more
touching than the letters she despatched before hastening to his
side. Grave, gay, patriotic, devotional, domestic, in turn she
tried every note that might inspirit and console the prisoner.
The attitude of Marguerite towards reform made her many
enemies, some of whom have not hesitated to bespatter with mud a
name singularly endearing. Born at Angoulême in 1472, she died
in 1549, having been twice married, first to Charles, duc d'Alençon
becoming a widow in 1525, she married Henri d'Albret, King of
Navarre. The Heptameron is a classic, and some of her
verses are poetry, not those, to quote Herbert Spencer, 'of a victim
of the verse-making disorder.'
Lovers of architecture will find much to interest them in the
Charente, the round arch predominating. In museums and art
collections, Angoulême is exceptionally poor, indeed, it may be
said, undowered. An unrivalled position, a magnificent
cathedral, and abundant walks and drives make up for such
THE GENESIS OF EUGÉNIE GRANDET
IT is now many
years since I visited the home of Eugenie Grandet—can we think of
Saumur without recalling Balzac's famous novel? And if I returned
thither I should most likely endorse my first impressions. We may be
very well sure that this most ingratiating little place, so sprightily perched on the Loire, has advanced with its neighbours'
material progress and civic enterprise; then gradually changing its
Saumur, then, is an elegant, animated town with pretty, white,
slated villas, each standing in its own garden; magnolias,
oleanders, pomegranate-trees and other tropical plants here
flourishing as on the Riviera.
A couple of fine bridges span the Loire, and these, during the war
of 1870-1, the townsfolk intended to blow up at the first sight of
the Prussians. The enemy fortunately did not arrive, and the gay,
gracious little town was left intact.
Once as Protestant as Protestant could be; the principal commerce of
the place to-day is the manufacture of rosaries! Until the
revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Saumur numbered 25,000 souls, the
population is now just half that sum-total.
Life and bustle are afforded by the great Cavalry School, which is
perhaps answerable for the saying—'Fait-on toujours l'amour à
Saumur?' It looks essentially a love-making place, so smiling and
coquettish are its suburban-like streets, for the country has crept
in everywhere, and you can hardly lose yourself amid roofs and
walls, trees and gardens.
In the steep, narrow, ill-paved street leading to the chateau we
still find ourselves in Balzac's Saumur. Here little is changed
since the novelist penned that wonderful description, an
unforgettable picture in a few words. The cobble-stones only from
time to time resound with the clatter of footsteps. To-day, as three
quarters of a century ago, the inhabitants talk to each other of the
weather as they stand on their doorsteps, 'the barometer alternately
cheering, subduing, or rendering gloomy their countenances.' More
than one ancient dwelling recalls the home of Eugénie Grandet, but
the especial one associated with her name was pulled down some time
One feature of Saumur unconnected with romance the curious should
not miss. Until 1872 the sick and agèd poor of Saumur were housed in
caves and grottoes after the manner of Troglodytes. Saumurois
acquaintances kindly conducted me over these strange precincts,
surely the strangest ever consecrated to works of pious benevolence. How the old and infirm were ever hoisted up to the rocky eminence
turned into an hospital it is hard to conceive; of one thing we may
be certain: once up they never got down again. In the sides of the 'tuffeau'
or yellow chalky rock, doors and iron gates opened into
far-stretching cavernous passages and chambers only lighted and
ventilated by the door, these subterranean habitations forming the
wards of the hospital! On the terrace outside, a few flowers and
trees have been planted, and there the less feeble took the air on
sunny days, but in their beds the patients enjoyed less light and
air than prisoners of the bad old times. Under the Third Republic
the premises, if they can be so called, were shut up, and a large
airy hospital was erected. Most picturesque is the sight of this
ironically named 'Hospice de la Providence.' You look down on the
white, joyous-looking town with its flowers and greenery, and the
broad clear Loire flowing amid sunny banks and fertile reaches. And
beautiful is the drive of an hour and a half to Fontevrault. On one
side rise the green heights commanding Saumur, Dampierre, and Souzé,
crowned by their chateaux and encircled with villas, on the other
the river glides between verdant slopes and rushy, willowy banks.
The churches of Saumur are very interesting; the town possesses a
museum rich in Celtic and Gallo-Roman relics, a botanical garden,
theatre, and good public library, in fact the resources of a capital
Here was born and lived that skilled Hellenist, Madame Dacier. But
an unsophisticated heroine of romance has eclipsed the paragon of
learning. In our wanderings here we forget the translatress of Plato
and Sappho, we can only dwell upon poor little Eugénie Grandet, and
the good things she contrived to smuggle for faithless cousin
I have called Eugénie Grandet the heroine of romance, but is not the
very name an anachronism? Have not all heroines of romance really
breathed, moved, laughed, cried like ourselves?
Recent research would seem to show that such at least was the case
with one of the most pathetic figures in fictional portraiture. And
almost as much time, pains, and ingenuity have been bestowed upon
unravelling her origin as upon excavating Pharaoh's tomb or the
palace of Minos.
It is, as we should expect, to French writers that we are indebted
for the genesis of this famous little novel. In his delightful
flâneries or literary zigzags through France, M. André Hallays has
recently given us the story. [p.102]
Whilst visiting the fifteenth-century château of Montreuil-Bellay,
lying about half-way between Angers and Poitiers, M. Hallays was
struck by the perpetual reiteration of a name:—'Monsieur Niveleau,'
a former owner, 'did this, Monsieur Niveleau did that,' said his
'And who was Monsieur Niveleau?' at last asked the tourist.
'You don't know?'
'Indeed no, I never heard his name before.'
'Not heard of Monsieur Niveleau! Why, he was the père Grandet and no
other. It is even averred that Balzac wanted to marry his daughter,
that he was sent away with a flea in his ear, and revenged himself
by writing the novel. But, ask further particulars when you get to
Saumur—every one knows the history of the père Niveleau.'
M. Hallays followed this advice, with the result that we have an
authentic history of Balzac's old miser and usurer.
The real père Grandet—in other words, Jean Niveleau, began life at
Saumur as a rag-merchant, afterwards becoming a money-lender;
finally, having amassed an enormous fortune, he purchased the
château of Montreuil-Bellay, himself in threadbare garments acting
as cicerone and complacently pocketing visitors' tips! He married an
apothecary's daughter, who bore him two daughters and a son, one of
the former, the accredited Eugénie of romance, being locally
celebrated for her beauty. Here, however, the thread connecting fact
and fiction breaks off. 'La belle Niverdière,' as Mlle. Niveleau was
called after one of her father's estates, in 1830 married the Baron
de Grandmaison, uncle of the actual owner of Montreuil-Bellay.
In a postscript to his chapter, M. Hallays throws further light on
this curious problem. Dismissing as apocryphal the story of Balzac's
proposal, affront, and revenge, our author gives the following
facts, which he believes to be exact:—It happened that Balzac was
visiting his friend, M. de Margonne, at Sache near Azay-le-Rideau in
Touraine, when one evening another guest, M. de V—, related the
history of the père Niveleau. Balzac was so much struck with what he
had heard that he straightway started for Saumur, and revisited the
place upon several occasions, picking up all the stray information
he could get about the usurer and his family. One favourite method
of obtaining materials was to jaunt hither and thither by diligence,
and enter into conversation with the passengers, most of whom would
naturally belong to the neighbourhood.
And if the père Grandet may be considered a real personage, may not
the same be believed of his daughter? Might not Balzac have unearthed
some love story anterior to the heiress's marriage with M. de Bonfons, an aspirant to the peerage—and the condition of
widowhood—in other words, that he might enjoy his wife's fortune?
Be this as it may, no more moving story was ever penned than the
history of Eugénie Grandet, and never was any immortal fabric
fashioned out of simpler materials. An artless girl, capable,
despite her simplicity, of ardent passion, is parsimoniously brought
up by the wealthy parvenu, her father. In childhood and early youth,
maternal devotion and the tenderness of an old woman servant suffice
to fill a heart hungering for affection. But on the threshold of
womanhood a quite different and deeper feeling is awakened. The
arrival of her cousin Charles, a finished Parisian fop, 'who
imitates the expression of Lord Byron in Chantrey's bust,' is the
first, the only real, event of Eugénie's monotonous existence. For a
time the tragic death of his father affects Charles's shallow
nature. Maybe for a time he believed in himself, and that the secret
vows exchanged under the walnut-tree would end in marriage. 'As on a
moss-grown bench of the little garden they rested till sunset,
exchanging little nothings, or silent as the house itself, Charles
comprehended the sanctity of love,' whilst Eugénie, surrendering
herself to new delicious impressions, 'seized upon happiness as a
swimmer catches hold of a willow-branch in order to alight and rest
on the river's bank.'
Her lover sets sail for the Indies, and after being awaited fifteen
years in vain, marries a Marquis's daughter; Eugénie, for reasons
made to appear plausible, contracting a nominal marriage with a man
Not only is this acknowledged masterpiece a narrative of extremest
simplicity, but, with the rest of Balzac's stories, it has no
pretensions to style. 'Le style, c'est l'homme' does not indeed hold
good with Shakespearian novelists, for Balzac's great forerunner,
the glorious author of The Bride of Lammermoor, was equally careless
on this head. And the two chefs-d'œuvre have much in common: the
simplest, directest narration, nothing to be called plot, but
something, everything, that arrests, fascinates, and moves a reader,
touching the very roots of his nature.
GUÉRANDE AND 'BÉATRIX'
LONG ago also I
visited the scene of Béatrix. At the time, I wrote that
already local Haussmanns had been at work, and that modernity had
invaded its antique solitudes. But the Guérande described by
Balzac was there. On entering the town from Bourg de Batz, I
was at once carried back to the year 1836, 'when the Du Guénic
family was composed of M. and Mme. du Guénic, and of Mlle. du Guénic,
eldest sister of the Baron, and of the only son of the former,
Gaudebert Louis Calyste.'
A novel experience was that excursion to Guérande by way of
St. Nazaire, Le Pouliguen, and Bourg de Batz.
At six o'clock on a bright Sunday morning in September, I
started with friends from the little station of the Bourse, amid a
crowd of holidaymakers, reaching St. Nazaire at half-past eight.
No railway at that time reached Le Pouliguen, so we took a carriage,
breakfasting as we drove in an open vehicle drawn by a brisk little
Breton horse. Except for the calvaires or crucifixes
placed at frequent intervals by the roadside, we might have fancied
ourselves in Sussex, so home-like was the scenery. The autumn
air was keen and invigorating, but as we got farther on the clouds
grew lighter, and a brilliant sun accompanied us the greater part of
the way. Turning off at Le Pouliguen, we found ourselves in
scenery of wilder character, and, excepting for a solitary peasant
trudging to church here and there, all was deserted. Between
Le Pouliguen and Bourg de Batz lie the marais salants with
odd, indescribable effect. The neatly divided œillets,
or lakelets, of the vast salt marshes cut up the expanse into a
small Rob Roy pattern, each little square of salt water being fenced
in by a small path. On either side grow seaweeds, or
sea-plants, some in rich blossom as we passed by. No words can
give a just idea of this unique spectacle. To the right and to
the left were fields and fields of smooth, glistening, liquid salt
portioned out into myriads of tiny basins of equal size and
shallowness, all silvery white in the autumn sunshine. Far off
the imposing church-tower of Bourg de Batz rose high above the
plain, and behind it lay the sea—to-day calm and smooth as the mimic
seas around. As we slowly ascended the hill crowned by the
church a more curious spectacle still awaited us. The people
were returning from mass, and to behold them it was hard to believe
that we had left fashionable and cosmopolitan Nantes only a few
hours before. Imagination cannot picture a more fantastic or a
prettier sight than this stream of church-goers with prayer-books in
hand, who looked in their inimitable costume as if they had walked
straight out of the Middle Ages, instead of living in close
proximity to an ironed-out, uniform, nineteenth-century
civilisation. Picture to yourself, then, a crowd of village
folks thus dressed: the men in hats with brims as broad as a
banana-leaf gaily tasselled and braided, vests and under-vests
reaching to the hips, all gaily coloured and embroidered, and lastly
puffed breeches, knickerbocker trousers, pantaloons—call them what
you will; certainly, leg-coverings of more piquant pattern were
never invented than the balloon-like garments of creamy-white stuff,
tied under the knees with long white ribbons; white stockings and
white shoes completed the costume, every part of it being spick and
span, as of gentlemen masqueraders going to a ball. A
masquerade, indeed, this procession might have been but for the
prayer-books and staves. It is impossible to convey any idea
of the dignity of these tall, stalwart paludiers, returning
home from their devotions, all utterly ignoring the inquisitive
strangers who had made the journey from Nantes on purpose to stare
at them. The women were less imposing, less solemn, less
unreal. Their dress was nevertheless piquant and coquettish—a
transparent white lace cap or hood, worn over a black-and-white
under-cap, resembling nothing so much as a plume of guinea-fowl's
feathers on either side—a gay little shawl reaching to the waist,
large bright-coloured apron, kilted skirt, most often of black, and
having leg-of-mutton sleeves. The crowd was divided into
groups, who chatted cheerfully, but with a soberness befitting the
occasion. The look of manly independence in every face, the
neatness and elegance of their dress, their evident piety and
devotion, were touching to behold. The Brittany of Émile
Souvestre has all but disappeared, and I fear that twentieth-century
travellers will miss the dazzling spectacle I record.
Guérande is superbly situated, and is a most picturesque, ancient,
dead-alive town. It stands on high ground, commanding a wide view,
and is still fortified, having imposing gateways on either side and
walls all round. Outside the fortifications is a charming walk
bordered by trees, and the glimpses of the quaint old streets
through the gateways, the reflection of the foliage in the moat, the
open country beyond, the grey walls festooned with flowers and ivy,
make up a charming picture. It is so tiny a town that you can walk
round it in a quarter of an hour or thereabouts. According to
Balzac, the circular avenue of poplars is due to the municipal
authorities of 1820, who at the time were much taken to task for
such an innovation. Conservative of the conservative, alike in small
things and in great, has ever been Brittany. As good luck would have
it, the town council persisted in its tree-planting, thus deserving
the thanks of successive generations.
Balzac asserts that Guérande, Vitré, and Avignon are the only French
towns preserving their feudal appearance intact. He had apparently
never heard of Montreuil-sur-Mer, Saumur, Provins, and Carcassonne,
these by no means exhausting the list of completely walled-in towns. This, however, by the way. Balzac was not writing a treatise on
French geography, but painting the background of a picture, a
background almost as informed with vitality and suggestion as the
characters animating his canvas.
Victor Hugo lends sympathy and intelligence to winds, waves, rocks,
and trees—Balzac does not ostensibly go so far, but in his elaborate
delineations of dwellings, interiors, furniture, and decoration
makes us realise how surroundings seem part of an individual. Page
after page is devoted to the home of the old Breton family, 'who
were nothing to anybody throughout France, a subject of pleasantry
in Paris, but who represented all Brittany at Guérande. At Guérande,
the Baron du Guénic was a great baron of France; higher stood only
one man, the king himself.'
The minutest details are given about the various members of the
household, the baron, an old Vendean who, excepting his breviary,
had never read three books in his life, and who on the Restoration
had received the grade of Colonel and a pension of two thousand
francs yearly. Fanny, née O'Brien, the young Irish wife
married in exile, 'one of those adorable types that only exist in
England, Scotland, and Ireland.' Mlle. Zéphyrine, the baron's blind
agèd sister, who would not be operated upon for cataract, affecting
timidity, but in reality aghast at the notion of twenty-five louis
being spent upon the operation! A louis, be it remembered, at that
time represented twenty francs, so that the sum was considerable,
just twenty pounds of our own money, and Mlle. Zéphyrine seems to
have had nothing of her own.
Madame la baronne, it must be confessed, had little of the
Irishwoman about her except that she wore her hair in ringlets
hanging on either cheek à l'Anglaise.
Just as Dickens penned lamentable caricatures when drawing a French
lady's maid, so in a single sentence Balzac here paints the typical
In contemplating her son's marriage, we are told that the very last
thing entering into Fanny's calculations was the question of love. Calyste's marriage was to be essentially a French marriage, in other
words a partnership based upon material consideration and the
general fitness of things. The young man, spoiled darling of the
household, remains a pale, uninteresting creature throughout the
volume. Not so it is with Gasselin, majordomo and man of all
work, and Mariott, cook and femme de chambre. Balzac is never
happier than in his delineations of such faithful dependants,
forming members of a family, living and dying under an employer's
We are next introduced to the little society daily meeting in 'this
small Faubourg St. Germain of the department.' Inimitable,
Shakespearian, are these portraits, one and all etched with the
strength and sureness of Rembrandt. First we have M. Grimont, the
curé of Guérande, a man of fifty, 'in whom as he paced the streets
the most sceptical would have recognised the sovereign of the
Catholic town, but a sovereign whose spiritual supremacy yielded to
the feudal sway of the Du Guénics; in their drawing-room he was as a
chaplain in the company of his seigneur.'
Next to arrive for the nightly game of mistigri, [p.113]
or mouche, her servant lad lighting her with a lantern, is Mlle. de
Pen-Hoël, an elderly lady belonging to the first Breton nobility. She was rich, but her penuriousness was the wonder and at the same
time the admiration of folks living ten leagues off. She kept a
maid-of-all-work, a thousand francs sufficing for her yearly
expenditure exclusive of taxes. She used the crook stick of court
ladies of Marie Antoinette's time, as she walked; her keys, money,
silver snuffbox, thimble, knitting-needles and other sonorous
objects rattling in her capacious underpockets.
The Chevalier du Halga, another old Vendean warrior and pensioner of
the Restoration, made up the quartette. A loud military knock always
announces the Chevalier, who had once been of lionlike valour, was
honoured with the esteem of the famous bailli de Suffren and with
the friendship of the Comte de Portenduère. Of poor health, always
wearing a black silk cap and a woollen spencer, or outer vest, to
protect him against the sudden winds, no one would have recognised
the intrepid Breton sailor of former days. Never smoking or giving
way to an oath, gentle and quiet as a girl, his chief preoccupation
was his pet dog Thisbe.
For upwards of fifteen years this little company had played
mistigri together, one and all taking their departure on the
stroke of nine.
Béatrix is no simple, direct narrative, no poignant little
drama after the manner of Eugénie Grandet. Under fictitious
names Balzac gives us portraits of George Sand, Liszt, and minor
personages of his day. But these portraits hardly accord with what
we have elsewhere learned of the involuntary sisters. Nor does the
history of Béatrix and Calyste hold our attention or retain a place
in our memories. It is for its opening pages, for its immortal
reproduction of bygone types and characteristics that we take up the
volume again and again. As Sainte-Beuve has written:—'Balzac lived
through three epochs, and his work taken as a whole up to a certain
point is a mirror of each. Who better than he has described the
veterans and beauties of the Empire? Who has more delightfully
sketched the duchesses and viscountesses of the Restoration? And who
has given with more truthfulness the triumphant bourgeoisie
of the July Monarchy?'
I note without surprise that in a small volume of Balzacian
selections, occur two scenes from Les deux Poètes, one from
Eugénie Grandet, and the opening pages of Béatrix.
BRANTÔME, THE HOME OF THE 'CHRONIQUE SCANDALEUSE'
'THERE is nothing
to see in France,' wrote Shelley three quarters of a century ago,
and apparently most folks are of the same opinion to-day. Such
at least is the impression conveyed by newspaper columns headed,
'Pleasure trips and conducted tours.' France does not figure
among the countries now brought within reach of the most hurried
travellers and most moderate purses—that is to say, France outside
Normandy, Brittany, and Touraine. But this prevailing
indifference accounts for the paramount charm of unfrequented French
provinces. We find region after region absolutely free from
cosmopolitan invasions; many 'a sweet recess' no less exempt from a
foreign element than in pre-railway times.
Such a spot is the island-town of Brantôme, in the valley of
the Dronne—none more idyllic to be found throughout Perigord.
Here pastoral charm and historic associations are combined.
Where, indeed, is historic interest absent from a French site?
The hotels at Périgueux, chief town of the department of the
Dordogne, are not engaging. My travelling companion and myself
were enamoured of the old city, its picturesque quays, its sweet
limpid river, its Byzantine cathedral, its noble statues of that
contrasted pair, Montaigne and Fénelon, its tempting bookstalls and
pretty promenades. But we could not, like Falstaff, take our
ease at our inn, so we steamed by tramway to Brantôme.
Very slowly and jerkily we plodded through varied tracts, now
in what looked like the remnant of a primeval forest, now across
barren wastes, now finding ourselves quite suddenly amid Theocritean
The sense of solitude and space was hardly interrupted.
Enormous must be the area of uncultivated land throughout France.
Thousands of hectares, as yet untouched by the plough, we must have
passed on our way hither from Limoges. And during this two
hours' slow journey we passed hundreds, even more. How often
we longed to alight! For, relieving the aridity of steppe-like
tracts and gloomy woods, we got glimpses of little sunlit dales,
velvety swards, and purling streams, not all abandoned to Oreads and
Dryads. Here and there amid patches of hemp, lucerne, and
Indian corn, stood a cottage, herds grazing near, children's voices
coming as a surprise in such solitudes. The variety of foliage
was a thing to remember, that most graceful and uncommon tree, dear
to Alfred de Musset, the weeping-willow, being here seen to
The approach to Brantôme recalls oriental stories, the
ghoul-like and fairy element being here closely associated.
The limpid waters of the Dronne now reflect not only richest
greenery and verdant banks, but between these lie strange dwellings,
caverns hewn into habitable shape. No monsters, however, live
in them; instead, the quietest, most affable peasant folk imaginable
tenant these maisons troglodytes, fantastic suburb of a
fantastic little city.
Next, a perspective of Italian aspect bursts upon the eye.
To our right rises the wide façade of the ancient Benedictine'
abbey, above it towering a lofty and ornate clock-tower; to our left
a promenade, bordered by a balustrade and flanked by two picturesque
old gateways, overlooks the river, thrice-bridged silvery stream
winding between old-world streets and luxuriant gardens; whilst
before us lies the scattered toweling with its one family hotel,
framing-in the whole, wooded heights and purple hills, the glorious
September sky heightening every charm.
Brantôme may be examined as a picture or a map, so compact is
this island-town and its sweet environment, so closely and
symmetrically does one feature neighbour its fellow. A perfect
picture it is, restful to the eye in colour and outline, yet
provoking curiosity and striking the imagination with a sense of
absolute novelty. Externally, Brantôme may be indeed
pronounced unique. Unwillingly travellers will quit the
sunshine for the purpose of archaeological exploration, here
antiquities yielding in attractiveness to a general view, the
harmonious grouping of contrasted objects, nature and art together
forming a chef-d'œuvre. Like Souvigny in the Allier and
La Charité-sur-Loire in the Nièvre, the town has grown round an
abbatial foundation, the origin of its importance and wealth being
purely ecclesiastical. The monks of the olden time lived after
the manner of feudal lords within their own walls and city gates,
and well did they know how to choose a site. The island-town
of Brantôme gave them all they wanted, a fertile soil, sheltered
aspect, water in abundance, and seclusion from the world.
The grand old campanile said to date from Charlemagne's time,
the abbey church and wide façade of the ancient monastery, form the
principal objects in the scene before us, every other feature being
subsidiary. Herein, indeed, is the history of Brantôme
symbolised, in itself nothing, its ecclesiastical foundation all in
High above church and abbey towers the lofty and ornate
clock-tower, Brantôme's crowning glory. It is separated from
the church by a deep cleft in the rock or precipice, whilst the
church itself appears to form part of the rock on to which it is
Singularity ever allied with charm characterises every
feature of this strange little island-town. Thus the lofty
campanile may be described as an anomaly; like the enchanted prince
of the Black Isles, half stone, half man, this tower is half tower
and half rock, its highly decorated stages of a hundred feet resting
on a rocky base of the same height, the upper portion only being
'Consummate art,' writes M. Viollet-Leduc, 'is shown in the
proportions and construction of this tower.' In 1373 it was
admirably repaired by an architect before-mentioned, M. Abadie.
The fine eleventh-century abbey church adjoins the wide
handsome facade of the ancient Benedictine monastery now used as a
mairie and museum. Both have been restored, but without
destroying the original stamp, and with the campanile form a most
imposing group or centre-piece to Brantôme regarded as a picture.
In that light we cannot help regarding it.
Flanking all three and stretching beyond are lofty parapets
of rock, bristling with brushwood and tapestried with green; the
lower portions have been caverned and adorned with quaint bas-relief
As I always object to making a toil of pleasure and am the
most incurious traveller alive, I left these grottoes and galleries
unvisited. Some future wayfarer in the Périgord will doubtless
repair the omission.
Half a century ago the cloisters of the abbey existed,
although fast crumbling to decay. In 1859 a French writer
described this portion of the abbey as 'sombre, mysterious as death
itself.' On passing within we are seized with involuntary
trembling, an emotion partaking neither of fear nor horror but of
secret misgiving. Alone here on a dusky evening we seem to be
in a cemetery; the hoarse cries of night-birds, the mournful
dripping of water from the roof add to the horror. The
darkness, shadows, and wind-sounds seem to announce something
supernatural. It seems as if any moment, from the depths
around, ghosts might arise from their graves. So awful indeed
was the gloom of those dark galleries that they are said to have
suggested the operatic scenery of Robert le Diable, a
Parisian stage manager having come hither in search of suggestions
for the first representation.
Following the promenade with the palatial stone balustrade,
we reach the twin gateways, worthy porticoes of this dainty little
realm. Most elegant are both, but the one is so massive and
sober in detail, the other so graceful, lightsome, and ornate as to
suggest a sex in architecture, an idea of janitor and janitrix in
the builder's mind. Just below these remains of the ancient
fortification, we reach an old stone bridge, which seems suddenly to
have changed its mind, out of sheer caprice darting off at a
tangent. This is the pont coudé, or elbowed bridge,
aptly so called, its configuration resembling that of a bent arm.
The elbowed bridge, restored in 1775, was built by the monks in
order to get at their vegetable gardens on a lower level; market
gardens covering the area are still called les jardins des Pères.
From this part we make the circuit of the little town which
at every point is suburban and at every point recalls its
insularity. Here the mellow leafage of vegetables, the soft
tints of blue sky and rippling stream make charming, Italian-like
pictures. Indeed, from every side Brantôme reminds us of
ancient little Italian towns. No trace is there here of
commonplaceness or vulgarity; and the ineffable sense of repose!—the
little steam tramway, running through the town twice a day, speaks
of the outer world and of the universal modernisation going on
elsewhere. For in these captivating nooks and corners of
provincial France we seldom anathematise the speculative builder.
At Brantôme several mediæval houses offer tempting subjects to the
artist, whilst their romantic position sets them off to the best
possible advantage. Perhaps, indeed, a little more enterprise
in the matter of bricks and mortar would be welcomed by the most
fervent æsthete. Here, for instance, the fine old parish
church has been turned into a market-hall; used for the purposes of
public worship until the restoration of the abbey church in 1875, it
was then desecrated. One church, therefore, suffices for a
population of two thousand five hundred souls, but it seems a
thousand pities that marketers could not have been accommodated
elsewhere, and that a building of real architectural value and
interest should not be put in the category of public monuments.
If here we may fleet it carelessly as in the golden age, so
here like Falstaff' we may take our ease at our inn. There is
only one hostelry in the place, the Grand Hotel, or Hôtel Chabrol of
provincial celebrity. As far as passing travellers could
judge, a most comfortable house is this big, airy, spick and span
inn, its doors thrown invitingly open, its landlady buxom, blithe,
and debonair, ever ready for a chat, its exquisitely clean bedrooms
and aldermanic table to be had for five francs a day. Natural
products of all kinds—fish, flesh, fowl, and fruit—are superabundant
in this little El Dorado. For two francs per head we fared
upon trout, partridge—the month was September—and had the offer of
too many dishes to remember, our hostess and her daughter seeing to
our comfort in every particular.
A hundred yards from this hotel is a lovely walk by the
Dronne. Under the splendid avenue of lime-trees one might
spend whole summer days, so soothing the gentle ripple, so exquisite
the reflection of the pellucid waves. It is wonderful how much
the beauty of French scenery depends upon these small rivers.
Varied in hue, each winding through a different landscape, each
embellishing a little world of its own, tutelar genius of some
pastoral region, these streams and their affluents lend no less
charm than the great historic waterways, the 'chemins qui
marchent,' as Michelet calls them. And sweet as any are
the Dronne and the Corrèze that so caressingly encircle Brantôme.
But the numerous rambles and excursions within easy reach
offer very varied interest. While some spots are ideally
pastoral, others are wild and even savage. Ten minutes' walk
from the starting-point of the tram brings you to a dolmen, one of
those strange pierres-levées so-called, or table of rock
resting upon columns, by no means confined to Brittany, 'the land of
the Druid.' In another direction you come upon a natural
parapet, lofty cliffs recalling the sublime scenery of Fontainebleau
forest. Yet again, and you find yourself under the shadow of
serried alder-trees, at your feet the river set with tiny wooded
islets, a sylvan scene of flawless peace and beauty.
That great authority Joanne, indeed, pronounces the valley of
the Dronne to be not only the prettiest in the department, but
perhaps in all western France.
Brantôme, like all French towns, has historic interest, and
like many is linked with the history of national literature. Returning to the promenade facing the abbey church, standing on its
western point we are on the site of the vanished château in which
the titular abbot of Brantôme, Pierre de Bourdeilles, penned his
Brantôme, or Branthôme as some authorities [p.124]
call him, was, as one might well suppose, a Gascon, endowed with all
the traditionary loquaciousness and proneness to talk of himself. What we know about his life and character inspires liking not
unmixed with respect. Prosper Mérimée has happily hit off his
portrait in a sentence: 'Brantôme was a gentleman (un homme comme
il faut), or what was understood by the term in his own age.
Owing to birth, position, and character,' he adds, 'he was thrown
among the most noteworthy personages of his time, and his wit, high
spirits, and loyalty made him a general favourite. Hence his
unrivalled opportunities, and hence his authority in the manners and
customs of the sixteenth century.' The term un homme comme il
faut of course could apply in those days to the Cyrano de
Bergerac, D'Artagnan, swash-buckler type as to men of a quieter
order. The author of the so-called Chroinque Scandaleuse
never got adventure enough; his career, until stricken down by
infirmity, was one perpetual running to and fro in search of blood
The substitution of Brantôme for his patronymic illustrates the
feudal nature of the French Church at that period. Pierre de Bourdeilles was sixteen when, on the death of his brother at the
siege of Hesdin, Henri II. named him abbé commendataire, or
titular abbot, 3,000 livres [p.125]
being attached to the fief.
Henceforth we hear of him at various courts and serving under chief
after chief. Strange as it may seem, even in those days of civil and
European wars his entire career as a free lance proved a
disillusion. Ill luck dogged his footsteps. He was invariably a
little too soon or a little too late for some brilliant enterprise
or famous encounter. There is something more than serio-comic, there
is a touch of pathos in such a story; it recalls that immortal
home-coming which should have been performed on a chariot drawn in
mid-air by gryphons, but which was instead a jolting over rough and
familiar roads in an ox-wagon.
In 1559 the seigneur abbot of Brantôme, now a dashing soldier,
figured in the brilliant Neapolitan court and was a frequenter of a
no less brilliant salon than that of Marie d'Aragon, Marquise
del Vasto, celebrated in her time alike for her wit and her beauty. A year or two later we find him in the suite of Mary Queen of Scots;
he accompanied her on her ill-fated journey to Leith, and afterwards
travelled to London, where he was enchanted by the beauty and lofty
bearing of Elizabeth. He next attached himself to the Duke of Guise,
and being an orthodox, but by no means bigoted Catholic, joined the
League, distinguishing himself at the sieges of Bourges, Blois, and
Rouen, and at the battle of Dreux. After the assassination of his
patron he entered the service of Henri d'Orléans, later Henri III. As a gentilhomme du roi, or lord in waiting, of that
unworthiest of unworthy Valois kings, he received wages amounting to
600 livres yearly. In those days the pay alike of courtiers and
civil magnates were called gages, or wages, as distinct from
the solde, or pay, of soldiers. The highest as well as the
humblest functionary received wages.
Later, Brantôme was despatched to Madrid where the French wife of
Philip II. received him with effusion, overjoyed to chat with a
countryman. Always agog for war, the seigneur abbot during the next
few years eagerly caught at every opportunity of losing an arm, a
leg, or his life. So insatiable indeed was his passion for hazard
and excitement, that, finding himself in middle life sound of limb
and without any military position, as he thought, commensurate with
his deserts or any likelihood of being thus rewarded in the future,
he meditated a perilous leap, in other words, the sacrifice of
honour and nationality.
The word patriot had not as yet been invented; in its actual
acceptation being first used by Voltaire. [p.127] With the fortunes of war, soldiers frequently changed not only their
chiefs but their colours. To Brantôme as to many another of his
time, provided he sniffed powder and found himself in good company,
the matter of flag was quite secondary. So embittered was his proud
spirit by what he considered neglect and ingratitude, that he seems
to have decided upon no less a step than that of offering secret
services to the King of Spain. Fate intervened. The generous
harum-scarum was saved from dishonour and literature was enriched by
an accident. Whilst still in the prime of life, he had just seen his
fifty-fourth birthday, he mounted a piebald, that is to say, an
ill-omened horse—we are assured that even in these days the
superstition remains—and was overthrown. The animal fell heavily
upon him, breaking both thigh-bones. For four years he lay in bed,
and to the end of his days remained a cripple and a suffering
invalid, the tedium of inactivity being relieved by his pen and a
succession of lawsuits. In litigation he seems to have taken as keen
a delight as in battles and sieges. One feature of this long and
painful confinement to his island-town throws pleasant light on
family life. He is said to have been tenderly cared for by his
sister-in-law, a widow of that brother killed at Hesdin just upon
thirty years before. On the other hand, Prosper Mérimée
mischievously insinuates that if Madame de Bourdeilles watched over
her infirm relation, the seigneur abbot as keenly guarded her
affairs, preventing her from contracting a second marriage and
thereby keeping the property together. The two positions are not,
Brantôme lived to be eighty; long before his death having been
forgotten by his contemporaries and the world. The celebrated
memoirs were not published till almost half a century later, and
then in a fragmentary condition only. Full of originality, wit,
charm, also of coarseness, these chronicles faithfully mirror the
times in which the writer lived. Modern research, moreover, has
greatly enhanced the historic value of Brantôme's works. It has been
shown by research that he relied on authentic French, Spanish, and
Italian sources for his statements of facts lying outside personal
experience, and despite his unblushing gauloiseries no
student of French history can afford to pass him by.
Here are one or two extracts, rendered into English. He is
describing Marguerite de Valois as she appeared in full splendour at
Blois, and the peroration may almost be set beside Burke's immortal
sentence on Marie
Antoinette. The future Queen of Navarre had proceeded to church on
the occasion of Easter—
'At sight of this procession we forgot our devotions, delighting
more in the contemplation of this divine princess than of holy
things, and deeming that thereby we committed no sin, since the
adorer of heavenly beauty on earth cannot surely offend the
Celestial Power, its Creator.'
A high compliment is here paid to the royal ladies of his time—
'A point I have noticed, with many great personages, both men and
ladies of the Court, that generally speaking, the daughters of the
house of France have always excelled and still excel either in
goodness, wit, grace, or generosity, and have been in all things
very accomplished, and in confirmation of this, not instancing those
of ancient or former times, but of those we have known or heard of
from our parents or grandparents.'
In a sentence he gives the key to his own character and success as a
writer of memoirs—
'I was often with him [Montluc] for he loved me greatly, and was
much pleased when I put him in the humour to be questioned; I was
never so young but that I had the utmost anxiety to learn. He,
seeing me in that
disposition, responded willingly and in choice language, for he was
very eloquent' (il avait une fort belle éloquence).
Nor can I refrain from citing this eulogium of the great Chancellor,
Michel de l'Hôpital, that anticipator of moral ideas to come, whose
whole life was a struggle for religious liberty, and who, although a
Catholic living in a time of fiercest theological conflicts,
promulgated the first edict of tolerance known in the western world.
'De l'Hôpital,' writes Brantôme, 'has been the greatest, most
learned, most dignified, and most large-minded (universal)
Chancellor, France ever had. In his person lived another Cato the
Censor, one who knew well how to censure and correct a corrupt
society. With his long white beard, his pale visage, his austere
expression, he might have sat for a portrait of St. Jerome. Thus
indeed some folks called him at court. To sum up; on his death his
enemies could not dispute this praise, that he was the greatest man
ever holding, or who will ever hold, the same position; so I have
heard them say, always all the same maligning him as a Huguenot'—which indeed Catherine de Medicis' great Chancellor was not. But he
was the author of the edict of Romorantin, he countenanced the
Protestantism of his wife and daughter, and he had uttered the
memorable speech: 'Away with those diabolical names, watchwords of
partisanship and sedition, Huguenots, Lutherans, Papists; let us
only keep the name of Christians!' The massacre of Saint Bartholomew
broke his heart.
The island-town figured in the religious wars, and one episode in
its history redounds to the honour of Coligny and also of the seigneur abbot. Although a partisan of the Guises, Brantôme was on
friendly terms with the great Huguenot Admiral. At the approach of
Coligny's forces in 1569, the population trembled not only for their
possessions but for their lives. Cruel reprisals and unspeakable
privations on both sides had rendered the soldiers ferocious. It
seemed as if the hour of doom was at hand. But Coligny enforced a
truce upon his followers, who were received rather as friends than
foes. Alike abbey and town were respected, and the raggèd troops
passed out of the place, poor as they had come. Not a loaf of bread
had been taken by force. Henry of Navarre, then a lad of sixteen,
was on this occasion lodged in the château.
Pleasant was a vacation holiday in this delightful spot, summer
hours dreamed away amid 'places of nestling green for poets made,'
no sound breaking the stillness but the notes of birds and the
purling of quiet streams. Farther afield, wild, romantic sites await
the hardy pedestrian, umbrageous solitudes, rocky defiles, silvery
cascades. And everywhere is felt that hardly attained, enchanting
sense of aloofness from everyday things, an escape from daily
repetition and a world without surprises!
PÉRIGUEUX, THE SAINT SOPHIA OF CENTRAL FRANCE
AS Brantôme is
reached by way of Périgueux and as this city of itself is worth the
journey from Paris, I add these descriptive pages. The capital of Périgord and chef-lieu of the Dordogne lies within a few hours of
Limoges and Angoulême on the Orleans railway.
We rub our eyes as we get the first view of its grand cathedral,
cupolas, and minarets towering above the ancient town and verdant
environments. East and west suddenly brought into juxtaposition, a
Saint Sophia rising in central France!
When, having quitted the railway, we stand under the shadow of that
mighty dome, we almost expect to hear the Muezzin's call, 'Allah is
great, praise be to Allah!' We seem to be in a second
How came it about that such a structure should have been raised
here. By what caprice were French builders moved to raise a mosque
for Catholic worshippers?
If however at first sight the St. Front recalls the church of the
Holy Wisdom, on closer examination we discern more resemblance to
St. Mark's of Venice. A nearer inspection shows that this
second similarity is much slighter than we at first supposed.
Some authorities indeed consider the Périgourdin cathedral to be the
older of the two.
The general arrangement of both suggests an unmistakable Byzantine
origin. It seems moreover that St. Front and St. Mark were
constructed on the plan of the church of the Holy Apostles erected
by Justinian at Constantinople, and afterwards replaced by a mosque. A full description is found in Procopius and, according to
authorities, the Byzantine historians, at Venice and Périgueux we
have edifices raised upon a similar plan.
A French writer has pointed out that whilst in design St. Front
recalls St. Mark, in construction great essential differences are
found. The masonry of the latter recalls Roman methods as seen in
the baths of Caracalla, walls and domes being built of rubble and
cement and the outer surface surmounted with marble, gold, and
mosaic. St. Front, on the contrary, is built of stone, blocks being
superimposed, one on the other, with great technical skill and the
undecorated surface remaining austerely simple. The two buildings
differ in other respects. Following Roman tradition St. Mark has
round arches and spherical cupolas; St. Front, on the contrary, has
ogive arches and ovoid domes. The exact dates are of little moment. The interesting point to note is that of Byzantine origin as
suggested by the arrangement of pendentives and cupolas. [p.135]
St. Front occupies the site of a Latin basilica of the sixth or
seventh century, parts of which remain. The lofty clock-tower or
minaret is said to be the only one of its kind, i.e. pure Byzantine,
in existence. Externally the cathedral looks as if quite recently
built, the whole having been re-surfaced for the sake of uniformity. Within, an almost total absence of decoration immensely heightens
the grandiose effect.
The influence of this cathedral in Périgord, the neighbouring
province of the Angouois, and indeed throughout France was
considerable; round arches and domes being followed by great church
Périgueux may be described as tripartite, even quadripartite. It
possesses three distinct aspects, the Roman, the mediaeval, and the
modern, with traces of the Gallic.
Following a suburban road that winds leftward from the cathedral we
exchange Oriental and Venetian for classic associations, thus taking
a backward leap of many ages.
Before us, from the flat landscape, suddenly rises a lofty stone
rotunda recalling the Tomb of Cecilia Metella. But the name of this
monument commemorates an epoch anterior to the Roman occupation of
Gaul. Vesuna was the ancient capital of a Gallic tribe, the
Petrocorii or Petrogorici, hence Périgord. And in Celtic times Vesuna was a busy commercial city much frequented by Phoenician
traders from Marseilles, thus forcibly and constantly are we
re-reminded of the immense antiquity, the palimpsest upon palimpsest
of French civilisation!
This tour de Véone stands on what was the centre of the
Gallo-Roman city. Several theories concerning it have been
propounded. According to some authorities the massive circular tower
was a tomb, according to others, the principal part or cella
of a temple.
This superb monument has been rudely shattered, doubtless during the
religious wars that devastated Périgueux in the sixteenth century. The walls, six feet thick, are a wonderful specimen of Roman
masonry. A little farther on we reach a small beautifully kept
public garden. Here amid flower-beds and shrubberies stands another
Gallo-Roman ruin, the imposing remains of an amphitheatre.
Further still, we come upon a ruined sixteenth-century chateau which
was built upon a Roman basement, the modern portions being
incorporated into Roman brickwork, the most singular travesty
The Petrocorii were a valiant patriotic people, and had every other
Gallic tribe displayed a similar spirit, Cæsar's campaign might have
ended very differently. When shut up in Alesia the noble chief
Vercingetorix made a final appeal to his countrymen, and the
Petrocorii despatched five thousand men to his succour.
'It was a great misfortune for France and also for humanity in
general,' writes a French historian, [p.138]
'that Gallic civilisation, naturally incomplete but so curious and
original, should have thus been destroyed. Caesar's conquest imposed
upon us Latin civilisation, our ancestors being prevented from
showing what they could have effected by native genius stimulated
Mediaeval Périgueux, the Périgueux of Montaigne, is fully realised
when, having turned our back upon the ancient Vesuna, we stroll
towards the river, none sweeter in these many-river'd regions, none
surely with so whimsical a name! So at least l'Isle, the
island, sounds in our ears.
'I would rather at a venture find myself second, or third, at
Périgueux,' wrote the illustrious Périgourdin, 'than first in
Paris,' and Montaigne showed no lack of taste. The merchant princes
of this city had mansions hardly less sumptuous than that of Jacques
Coeur at Bourges, and from their windows enjoyed a much fairer
prospect. These mediaeval burghers wisely chose the quays as a place
of residence, having before their eyes the wide, clear-flowing
river, alongside sunny banks, gardens, and summer-houses; beyond
these, richly-cultivated open champaign, framing-in all, gentle
rises, and distant hills.
This promenade is enchanting: on one side we have the ancient city
walls, cathedral, and ornate dwellings of the olden time; on the
other, limpid water reflecting a lovely environment, the mellow
tones and delicate gradations of colour recalling Venetian scenes.
Many of the splendid old houses bordering the quays have fallen into
decay, but one remains which it is hoped will ere too late be
classified under the head of monument historique, and in
consequence protected. It is a sumptuous building with lofty pointed
roof having richly ornamented dormer windows and, under those of the
second story, a massive coping supporting a balcony. Looking like a
separate dwelling but in reality a wing of the same, is a second
façade with similar roof, having in front the daintiest little
piazza imaginable, two-storied, with slender columns and elegant
balustrade, both now tapestried with creeping plants. Who held his
state in this most fascinating dwelling? History is mute. The place
is simply known as 'the house by the river.' From this sunny
promenade, steep, gloomy little streets or rather stairs lead to the
ancient quarters grouped around the cathedral and more circuitously
to the modern town. Wide, airy boulevards adorned with statues,
handsome public buildings and well set out shop-fronts attest the
prosperity of modern Périgueux.
Neither Montaigne nor Fénelon, the gentle author of Télémaque,
was born in the capital of Périgord, but each has his statue here. And, of course, a military hero is commemorated also—what French
town is without its martial monument?—Marshal Bugeaud (1784-1849), a
provincial celebrity. It would indeed be hard, perhaps impossible,
to find a statueless town, no matter how insignificant. Until the
Revolution such a monument remained a royal prerogative. No wonder
that a veritable forest of statues has sprung up under the Third
Apparently few English tourists find their way to Périgueux. The
hotel accommodation, at least such as a friend and myself found it a
few years ago, sufficiently makes this fact clear. Modernisation,
however, I learn, is finding this charming old town out, and future
travellers will doubtless fare better than ourselves. The department
of the Dordogne abounds in historic and romantic sites and is
watered by three beautiful rivers, the Dordogne, the Corrèze, and