IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF GEORGE SAND
LA CHÂTRE AND NOHANT
(1804-76), by Thomas Couture.
Picture: Internet Text Archive
bound direct from England to the scenery of central France may be
likened to the patriarch who served too long an apprenticeship
before securing the object of his aspirations. Monotonous and unsuggestive as is the stage between Calais and Paris, equally flat
and unpictorial is the area traversed between the capital and
Châteauroux on the Orleans railway. No sooner do we quit this
unattractive town than the plain comes to an end. Instead of tract
after tract of chess-board cultivation we see fields set round with
tall hedges, dimpled meadows intersected by limpid streams, glimpses
of glen and coppice on either side of the railway, above chestnut
woods rising violet hills crowned with feudal ruins. We have reached
the shores of old romance—a region glorified by genius.
The ancient province of the Berry breathes of the great woman writer
whose centenary has just been celebrated. She is its presiding
genius. To how many a spot has she accorded a local habitation and a
name! In our rambles hereabout how often do we encounter figures
that seem familiar peasant-folk as she portrayed, some aver,
idealised them in her inimitable pages! There may be some truth in
this charge. George Sand preferred to dwell on the engaging side of
rustic character. But her insight was unerring. She loved and
comprehended the good Berrichons among whom she lived and died.
Châteauroux, with the exception of some handsome modern churches,
possesses little attraction for the traveller. As I had made this
town my headquarters when studying peasant farming in the Indre many
years before, myself and companion next day took the train for La
Châtre on the line from Tours to Montluçon, a distance of
twenty-three miles. At first, the scenery reminded us of England,
but soon the aspect changed. Enclosed fields, farmhouses and
cottages having little gardens, now gave way to masses of oak and
chestnut wood, wide sweeps of furze and heather, and pastures
animated with grazing kine. The brilliant foliage and undulating
meadowland had the effect of vast parks. Mistletoe I noted in
abundance, and tall poplars, plane and service-berry trees made of
every high road a shady boulevard. Beneficent and graceful is this
planting of the public ways with umbrageous trees. What a boon are
these interminable alleys to the wayfarer!
The month of my second, as of my first, visit to La Châtre was
September; on the present occasion the weather being tropical with
twilights and sunsets of great beauty. There is a luminosity of
atmosphere here reminding me of certain seasons in Anjou and the
Gironde, afterglows almost as illuminating as moonlight, 'the coming
on of grateful evening mild,' of intense transparence and beauty.
La Châtre is a prettily placed, very noisy, not too clean little
town. High above the valley rise its antiquated houses, whilst
below, amid lofty poplars, and gardens, and meads, flows the Indre. 'Dear, cold, noiseless little Indre,' writes George Sand,
apologising to her river for being enamoured of its sister, the
sky-blue, sparkling Creuse and its 'mutinous little waves.'
On the occasion of my first visit, an old waiter at the hotel, or
rather commercial inn, of St. Germain chatted to me of George Sand.
'Ah! I knew her well, a very charming woman' (une bien charmante
femme), was the gallant old fellow's whimsical appreciation.
The lover of ancient domestic architecture will be happy here. Two
houses having elaborate timber dormers and decorations are in
perfect preservation, but La Châtre, like most French towns, is
trying to keep pace with progress and modern ideas. Since my first
visit handsome public buildings and suburban quarters had sprung up. Should I make a third pilgrimage to this literary shrine greater
changes still would certainly be in store for me. A broad, handsome
boulevard leads from the station to the newer town. In the midst of
a beautifully-laid-out garden, stands the noble statue of Aimé
Millet. The monument is entirely due to local generosity. Every
farthing of cost was defrayed by the townsfolk and residents of the
department, the inauguration taking place with great pomp. It is a
fine piece of work. Carved out of white Pyrenean marble, the figure
somewhat larger than life, George Sand sits in an easy,
contemplative attitude, pen in hand, and face uplifted. Her dress
is characterised by Greek statuesqueness and simplicity, large
unconventional folds suggesting no epoch. A scarf is loosely tied
round her throat under the plain linen collar, the hair falling in
waves from the powerful face. Intellectual force, a fearless spirit,
and powerful will are admirably rendered by the sculptor. She is
represented in her prime. On the pedestal are inscribed dates of
birth and death and titles of her chefs-d'œuvre.
Especially striking was the statue as we saw it in the evening
light, the white marble pencilled against the clear heavens, the
monument well set off by the dark foliage forming a background. How
the little town is thereby glorified! Tourists can now reach Nohant
by railway, but the three miles' drive from La Châtre is preferable,
since it takes us through the scenery of La petite Fadette,
'the corner of Berry that I live in and nowadays seldom quit,'
wrote George Sand in 1857, 'the ensemble of plain and valley
named by me la Vallée Noire.' We traverse the road followed
so often by the novelist and by how many illustrious guests—Balzac, Theophile Gautier, Dumas, Flaubert, a never-broken succession of
kindred spirits bidden to her hospitable walls.
For a while we follow the Indre, flowing quietly between
well-cultivated fields of rich loam. So rich indeed is the soil that
three or four crops of lucerne are raised in the year. Hedges are
few and far between, maize, potatoes, beetroot, buckwheat, and lucerne making brilliantly variegated patches. The beautiful
dun-coloured cows of Berry were breaking up the fallow, every
feature in the scene recalling pages from Le Meunier d'Angibault,
La petite Fadette, and other idylls. The humble
sparsely-scattered dwellings, often mere mud-built, whitewashed
cabins, and youthful herdsmen and little goose-girls recall George
Sand's childhood. Many years were spent under her grandmother's roof
by the lonely little Aurore Dupin, her only playmates and companions
being village children, the heroes and heroines of romances to come. Nothing delighted her so much as the veillées, story-telling
evenings, round rustic firesides when one after another would relate
horrifying encounters with ghosts, kobolds, and were-wolves. To no
purpose, she tells us, did she try to waylay apparitions and
enchanted animals; none appeared, but years afterwards such
narratives proved a source of happiest inspiration.
On our way we pass a country house connected with the deepest joys
and most poignant disillusions of George Sand. Here for some time
lived that passionately loved daughter Solange, wife of Max
Clésinger, the sculptor, who seems to have possessed her mother's
romantic temperament, almost indeed a touch of her genius, but
without her grand qualities. The correspondence of this strange pair
has just been given to the world, [p.147]
and reveals a dreary tale of alternating estrangement and
reconciliation. Nor was Mme. Clésinger happier as a wife than as a
daughter. When she settled within a walk of Nohant she was separated
from her husband, and although she had lost an only child, the
grandmother's idol, intercourse had been regulated beforehand. Solange could only be received at stipulated hours; she remained
indeed on the footing of a neighbour. Tragic is the story told by
these letters, many of them written at midnight, bedewed with tears,
each writer by turns wounding the other, attempting to heal each
other's wounds. Understanding, calm, placableness seemed impossible
Half an hour's drive brings us in sight of Nohant, the house peeping
from the trees. Close to the road stands an ivied summer-house, her
petit trianon, the novelist called it, in which she spent
On the occasion of my first visit George Sand's son with his Italian
wife and their two daughters occupied the maternal château. Here let
me note an interesting fact. In contradistinction to English law, no
one in France can change his or her name except by marriage, when
men occasionally tack on the wife's name to their own. But the Code
Civil bows before genius. Maurice Dudevant was allowed to assume the
pseudonym his mother had made so famous and become Maurice Sand.
Similarly, although French law strictly forbids the assumption of
masculine attire by women, unmolested Rosa Bonheur wore paletot
and pantalons, and another Frenchwoman, Mme. Dieulafoy, the
archaeologist, is even allowed to appear at the Élysee thus
Thinking that perhaps M. Maurice Sand would admit an English pilgrim
to this literary shrine, I sent in my card, asking the great favour
of a peep at George Sand's rooms. The petition was politely refused;
Monsieur was an invalid, the neat woman-servant said, but I was
quite welcome to stroll about the garden at my leisure. A
delightfully old-fashioned garden it is, for use rather than
ornament, wide walks bordered with flowers intersecting beds of
pot-herbs and vegetables. The house, which fronts this wide, open
space surrounded by park-like greenery and wood, is a square plain
building without any pretension to architectural elegance. Close to
her beloved home George Sand is buried. A few paces from the house a
bit of her own land was incorporated into the parish burial-ground,
church and village lying on the other side. A plain slab of grey
marble records the great writer's name, with date of birth and
When after an interval of some years I revisited garden and
cemetery, the name of Maurice Sand had been inscribed under that of
his mother. He was interred according to the Protestant rites. It is
said that only out of respect for the feelings of her humble
neighbours George Sand decided that her own interment should be
after the Roman ritual. She loved these good country folks so well
that she could not bear the thought of not being considered one of
themselves in the grave as she had been throughout life.
But, whilst loving and understanding the peasants as no other writer
has done, George Sand consorted with the most brilliant intellects
of the time. In her later years at Nohant she kept open house. From
one end of the year to the other between the modest residence called
chateau and La Châtre there was a perpetual going and coming of
visitors. Boon companions found it difficult to tear themselves
away. Little wonder that she confessed to a friend in 1869: 'I have
earned a million [£40,000] in the course of my life, and have never
saved a penny except twenty thousand francs [£800], which I have put
by so that I may not cost my children too much if I fall ill'—with
happy unconcern adding, 'And that little capital I am not sure of
keeping, for it may be needed by others in greater want than
Just upon forty years earlier Balzac had visited Nohant, finding his
hostess sitting alone by the fire, smoking a cigar after dinner, in
semi-oriental dress, and 'not having a single white hair in spite of
her terrible troubles.' He adds, 'When she reflects, her face has
but little expression. With her, the eye is the entire physiognomy. For a year she has lived here working desperately, and living after
my own plan turned topsy-turvy. That is to say, she goes to bed at
six in the morning, and rises at midday, whilst I retire at six in
the evening, and rise at midnight.'
'For three days consecutively,' he continues, 'we chatted from five
o'clock post meridiem until five o'clock in the morning, discussing
the grave questions of love and human liberty with the candour,
earnestness, and good faith befitting shepherds of the human flock. She is an excellent mother, and is adored by her children. She knows
my opinions about her work, and thinks as I do, namely, that she has
neither the gift of construction, nor pathos, nor reality, but
without a knowledge of the French language she has
I smile as I contrast George Sand's complacency with dear Sir
Walter's resentment of adverse criticism. How delicious is that
letter to James Ballantyne à propos of Blackwood's suggesting that
The Black Dwarf might be improved. He wrote, 'Tell him and his
coadjutor that I belong to the Black Hussars of Literature, who
neither give nor receive criticism. I'll be cursed but this is the
most impudent proposal that was ever made.—W.S.'
George Sand was not a brilliant talker, and her absence of
expansiveness sometimes hurt, even affronted, ardent admirers.
There is an amusing story of Théophile Gautier on this head. When
most reluctantly tearing himself from his beloved boulevards in
order to visit Nohant, the poet was so much affronted by his
hostess's undemonstrative, as he thought, cold manner, that he
re-packed his portmanteau. But for mediation on the part of a fellow
guest, he would have hastened home.
'You had not, then, told him that I was a simpleton?' (que
j'étais une bête) was George Sand's naïve reproach to the
Perhaps in 1873 Flaubert no less reluctantly tore himself from his
country retreat on the same errand. In company of Tourguéneff, the
author of Madame Bovary visited his friend for many years,
and was a constant correspondent at Nohant. 'The old troubadour who
always sings, and will ever sing, of perfect love,' he called her,
and she loved the name. For his opus magnum, the so-called
necessary romance, she entertained no great admiration. 'Salammbô
may be magnificent,' she said, 'but the creatures of that period
have no sort of interest for me.'
The literary souvenirs of Nohant would fill volumes.
On the occasion of my second visit, the chateau and grounds
presented a dismally neglected appearance. After vainly knocking and
ringing at the porter's lodge we strolled into the garden now
overgrown with weeds. A troop of gipsies hovered about the place,
some of the crones and veterans perhaps remembering the
châtelaine who loved their tribe. Very nice, fort gentils,
she called the Berrichon gipsies.
Nohant is now in the possession of George Sand's youngest and sole
surviving grandchild, daughter of Maurice Sand and his Italian wife.
The following memorials from one who knew and loved George Sand, and
who more than once enjoyed the hospitality of Nohant, will fittingly
conclude this sketch:—
'George Sand possessed many characteristics of the bourgeoise. An admirable business woman, despite her generosities and lavish
expenditure, she left her affairs in perfect order, and not a single
penny of debt. From the very first her life was one of struggle and
pecuniary embarrassments. Married according to the régime de la
communauté, on being divorced she bought back Nohant from her
husband. Besides allowing her daughter, when in turn divorced, a
handsome income, she gave largely right and left. It was impossible
to her to say 'no' to necessitous fellow authors. In the time of
Mme. Dupin, her grandmother, Nohant had been kept up in seigneurial
style, and George Sand's housekeeping was on a very liberal scale,
with a good many domestics; Berrichon maidens from the
neighbourhood. There were always guests in the house, and her
theatre must have cost a good deal.
'There is one trait I should mention. At table or in general
conversation George Sand would never tolerate anything in the way of
an unpleasant double entente, or any transgression of the
strictest propriety. She kept severe watch over her little
Berrichonnes; and one visitor of the other sex, having taken a
verbal familiarity with a housemaid, was never invited again.
'An amiable defect in her character must also be mentioned. She was
often far too kind and encouraging to unpromising literary
aspirants. The dread of wounding would lead her to foster delusions,
and in the end inflict a worse blow.
'You ask me if I think she should have had her entire correspondence
with de Musset published posthumously. My reply is, yes. George Sand
had been so greatly maligned concerning this affair, such a step in
my opinion was a necessary piece of self-justification. The
originals of these letters are now in the National Library, Paris.'
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF GEORGE SAND
THE VALLEY OF THE CREUSE
AT Châteauroux we
quit the Indre for the Creuse. 'Dear little Indre, so cold, so
noiseless as you meander through our meadows,' wrote George Sand,
'you are our legitimate companion, but all of us who dwell by your
umbrageous banks are lovers of the Creuse and when we have three
days' liberty we forsake you to dip our fingers in the turbulent
little waves of the naïad of Châteaubrun and Crozant.'
We have almost always a river in sight on our French travels. The
even-flowing, quiet Indre left behind, we now see the Creuse at
hide-and-seek amid hill and dale, its curls looking like flakes of
sky dropped here and there.
Argenton is an ancient town pictorially terraced on the Creuse, its
old-fashioned inn looking most inviting. Unfortunately we had only a
day for Gargilesse and George Sand's favourite valley, a delightful
Being market day there was no little difficulty in obtaining a
vehicle. At last the master of the inn most obligingly undertook to
drive us, and off we started in high spirits. The August day if a
trifle hot was perfect, the scenery charming and the realisation of
a long-nurtured dream was at hand.
We soon discovered that our host's horse was a frisky young animal
only partially broken in, and but indeed for our host's
imperturbable collectedness we should have been uneasy indeed. To
add to our discomfort the road was encumbered with country folks
driving their cattle to market. It seemed as if the live stock of
the entire department was being brought to Argenton. Furiously as
John Gilpin, Monsieur le patron dashed along, oxen, pigs and sheep
scuttling to right and left, their owners shouting, gesticulating,
objurgating, himself paying no more attention to the uproar than Don
Quixote to Sancho Panza's remonstrances when attacking the flock of
Impassibility indeed was forced upon him; all his energies and
muscular powers were of necessity concentrated upon his animal. Away
we flew through the sweet and pastoral country, getting over the
ground like competents of the race-course, raising clouds of dust
and creating perpetual hubbub; strange to say, reaching our
destination without mishap. My companion and myself had enjoyed with
impunity what Victor Hugo would have described as a frisson nouveau
(a novel shudder). A grey feudal tower with massive walls, close by,
a Romanesque church and straggling village, below these a bright
little river bubbling over masses of rock and overshadowed with rich
foliage,—such is Gargilesse, George Sand's 'pretty, darling little
Switzerland,' the retreat in which she penned the fascinating
Promenades au-tour d'un Village.
It was in June 1857 that, accompanied by two friends, the novelist
took up her abode here, all three being accommodated in the humble
cottage still shown to strangers.
So enchanted was she with the spot, its sheltered position, pure air
and mild climate, that she dreamed of nothing less than a
transformation. 'An Italy exists here,' she wrote in the fervour of
patriotic enthusiasm, 'of that I am certain.' Hotels,
lodging-houses, improved channels of communication, were only
needed, she was sure, and the English would flock thither as they
did to the south, bringing prosperity in their wake. Alas! A few
French artists and literary pilgrims visit Gargilesse during the
autumn months, but the place can hardly be changed since George
Sand's utilitarian dream of half a century ago. Unfastidious
tourists could be
very happy here nevertheless, making the Hôtel Malesset their
headquarters, and rambling hither and thither on the track of the
romances. In every direction her genius seems to brood over the
place. We are perpetually reminded of scenes, described as only her
pen could describe them; the people also no less than the region
recall her chefs-d'œuvre, those idylls which will surely last as
long as the French language.
Myself and companion had not much time for the chateau, which was,
as George Sand tells us, repaired by the government of her time, its
restoration giving the place 'a seigneurial, comfortable aspect,'
nor for the tomb of Guillaume de Naillac, seigneur of Gargilesse,
and perhaps one of the few feudal lords who were ever venerated as a
saint. Our driver was to meet us at the head of the valley two or
three hours later; meantime, having brought provisions with us, we
picnicked in as delightful a spot as I can remember.
Just outside the village, and between us and the gorge, lay a small,
enclosed meadow. There, under wide-spreading elms, overhead a
cloudless sky, to the music of twittering birds and rippling water,
we feasted with the appetite of gipsies. Everything here
exhilarated, the brisk air, the pastoralness, the lovely
Fain were we to linger long in this enchanting spot, but the valley
had to be traversed on foot, and our conductor would await us at its
base. So, reluctantly enough we emerged from our cool recess into
the blazing sunshine. And here let future worshippers at George
Sand's shrine take a hint. On no account explore the valley of the Creuse under an early afternoon sun even in November.
No matter the season, this toilsome but well-repaid walk should be
undertaken much earlier or later in the day.
Hardly were we on our way when we found ourselves exposed to
tropical heat and glare. The valley, or rather gorge, at such times
becomes a veritable burning-glass, by its conformation and structure
absorbing every ray of sunshine, the parapet of micaschist on
either side assuming painful lustre and blinding whiteness. As at
every step forward the well-hemmed ravine opened, the almost
meridian fierceness became still more intense; yet with George Sand
and her companions we could say that despite the tremendous heat of
this meandering walk we could hardly regret having undertaken it.
Perhaps under no other circumstances would shining cliffs threaded
by silvery streams, emerald swards and pure deep blue sky have been
more striking by force of contrast. Neither early morning nor sunset
glow could have afforded a more brilliant picture. And all the more
blinding seemed white rocks, glittering cascades and sandy river-bed
after the Theocritean nook left behind. Hardly could our tired
eye-balls take in the beauty of the scene, for strangely beautiful
it was, a rare combination of pastoralness and sublimity.
Thankful were we indeed to rejoin the high road where our host
awaited us; his horse, or rather wild young colt, for it was nothing
else, somewhat sobered by his twelve miles' gallop and perhaps a
copious bait. Be that as it may, we drove back to Argenton sedately
enough, again encountering streams of market-folks but not
disturbing their homeward march.
The French peasant is often accused, and I fear not without reason,
of hardness to his animals. Here the rule seemed to be one of
excessive tenderness, farmers and farming women footing it in the
heat and dust, whilst their pigs, sheep, and calves lay comfortably
installed in their carts.
It was a memorable excursion. In George Sand's words we had spent
'an Arcadian day in the heart of France; as times go, who can expect
Much has changed in the Berry since the novelist rendered it so
famous, but the bucolic sites and character of the people have
undergone little change. From the volume devoted to Gargilesse and
the valley of the Creuse, I quote a few sentences applicable to-day,
as when she wrote, to the country folks she loved so well.
'What services does not this patient, laborious being, the peasant,
render society, his efforts undaunted by no matter what obstacles,
often pursued in solitudes disdained by his fellows! All he craves
for is a bit of land; be it a rocky hillside or by a devastating
torrent, there he will settle down, demanding neither roads, a handy
market, shops, or other conveniences. Accustomed to privations, he
lives and toils resignedly under conditions that would be repellent
to most men. In rocky or mountainous regions the spade must replace
plough and harrow, must solidify, and render fertile, unstable,
stony patches of soil found here and there. Alike in winter and
summer he combats obdurate stone and ever-encroaching torrent, his
life given up to perpetual damming and digging—life of a hermit,
task of a beaver. We might expect to find him a half savage; on the
contrary, he is gentle, gay, and hospitable to the traveller who
pauses in admiration of his labours. These remarks do not apply to
the banks of the Creuse only, but to entire populations scattered on
French mountain-sides, living isolated from the world, but equally
deserving our sympathy.'
Elsewhere she adds—
'These sons of the soil, are they better or worse than their
fellow-toilers of the town? I have never likened them to Theocritean
shepherds, inheritors and continuers of the golden age. What I see
and hear convinces me that in the country proper, in regions remote
from suburban districts, there are fewer sources of corruption,
hence a relative immunity from vice. These grown-up children among
whom I live, I love them all.'
Literary fashions and standards change, but as a great prose writer
George Sand holds an unassailable position. Among French classics
the châtelaine of Nohant may be classed with the belle Marquise
'sans cœur mais pleine d'esprit'—Mme. de Sévigné.
Tourists bound to Limoges from this point, soon come in sight of the
pale blue sierra-like range of which in her old age George Sand made
so sweet a fairy-tale for her grandchildren. Le Chateau de Pictordu
should be read by the way.
The bit of railway abounds in fine perspectives, heath-covered
sweeps alternating with chestnut woods and acacia groves, running
streams intersecting hedged-in pastures and many a grey tower
crowning rocky peak. Especially striking is the distant view of
A LAST WORD ABOUT GEORGE SAND
THE magnificent if somewhat sombre pile in the Rue Richelieu, Paris,
housing the oldest and, in certain respects, finest national library
of Europe, also now contains some of the most impassioned
love-letters ever penned.
'Posterity,' wrote the poet to the novelist, his senior by six
years, 'will recall our names with those of the immortal lovers who
have but one between them, with Romeo and Juliet, Héloïse and
Abélard, never named except in unison.'
If this prediction has not been precisely fulfilled, the tragedy
linking these most gifted, most strange, personalities imparts extra
interest to both. As we read their burning utterances we think less
of the magic pens to which we owe Mauprat and Les Nuits than of the
mere woman and mere man, lovers blindly courting, in the one case,
bitterest illusion, in the other, despair.
The history of the correspondence is as curious as the letters
themselves. Written during the years 1833-35, the entire collection
was confided to friends for posthumous publication by George Sand in
1864. 'After publication,' she wrote in her literary testament, 'I
desire that the letters be handed over to the Bibliothèque Impériale
(now the Bibliothèque Nationale) or to some other public library, so
that all persons who desire it can verify the faithfulness of the
Not only were the wild outpourings of passion to be given to the
world, two hearts for all time laid bare, but the blotted,
tear-stained, feverishly indited pages were to become public
property. The complete correspondence of George Sand and Alfred de
Musset was published in 1904, the centenary of the great novelist's
birth. And the National Library, founded by Charles V. in 1375, now
contains the unique deposit, no pencilled scrap being omitted.
ALFRED DE MUSSET
Picture: Internet Text Archive.
Admirers of George Sand may perhaps regret that she should have
regarded such a step in the light of obligatory self-justification. Might it not have been better for her own reputation and for her
descendants to let the unhappy episode fade from public memory? Events warranted her action. Calumniated during her life, one-sided
judgments have done her injustice down to the present time. She has
been regarded by some as the evil genius of a young poet's life, the
unhappy cause of his moral downfall and early death. But no one can
read these letters without coming to an opposite conclusion. Already, at twenty-three, de Musset's being was saturated with morbidness, and he was a prey to the self-indulgence that ruined his
career socially and shortened his days.
On the contrary, George Sand's nature was robust, practical by
comparison with de Musset's, and widely sympathetic. Life meant much
more to her than the passing capture of passionate love. The poet's
initiatory blunder lay in his belief that he could absorb such a
nature; and for the time being, perhaps, if she did not nurse, at
least she did not check the illusion. It were hard to say which
suffered more, although here, as in most cases, the axiom holds good—
'Oh! well for him whose will is strong,
He suffers, but he will not suffer long.'
De Musset died at the age of forty-seven, the victim of early
dissipation and melancholia; George Sand survived him by twenty
years, delighting the world with her exquisite prose to the last, in
her old age writing plays for the sake of dowering her little
It was after a very brief acquaintance that de Musset wrote to the
already famous author of Indiana and Lélia:—'My dear George, I have
something foolish and ridiculous to tell you. You will laugh in my
face, you will show me the door, and you will not believe that I am
speaking the truth. I am in love with you! I have been in love with
you from the first moment I crossed your threshold.'
Aurore Dudevant, née Dupin, whose nom-de-plume of George Sand has
attained world-wide fame, was now thirty. Married at sixteen to a
man with whom she had absolutely nothing in common, after the birth
of two children a separation was mutually agreed upon and literature
adopted as a career. Appended to the letters are several rough
sketches of her by de Musset. In one of these she is seated
pensively on a sofa, her strongly marked features in repose, her
hands crossed over an open book.
The beauty of George Sand's face was, however, the beauty of
character and intellect. De Musset, on the contrary, judging from
the portrait affixed to Arvêde Barine's volume (Hachette) was a
youthful Apollo; 'très dandy' had been George Sand's first
description of him. Already recognised as a poet, he was a victim to
the literary phase called 'le byronisme,' and from Byronism in its
worst sense he never freed himself.
That hint of awakening passion was soon followed by open
declaration, lovers' transports and lovers' quarrels. From the outset
George Sand combated her feelings. She evidently foresaw that only
harm could thereby come to both. But infatuation prevailed, and on
the 22nd of December the pair embarked from Marseilles for Italy
together. The very first days of foreign travel and romance were
marred by misunderstanding and recrimination, and in February of the
following year de Musset fell dangerously ill, owing his life to the
devotion of George Sand and of a young Italian doctor named Pagello.
A new element of discord was now introduced into this strange
romance. Pagello, to quote Arvêde Barine, had also succumbed to the
fascination of the novelist's 'grands yeux noirs.' But to Pagello,
de Musset felt that in great part he owed his restoration to health. What happened between the trio will never be quite known. If, as the
writer just quoted, de Musset sacrificed passion to the sentiment of
gratitude, it was not without bitter conflicts and stormy scenes, as
the following extracts will show.
'Adieu, my child,' he writes to her at Venice, himself on the point
of going to Milan. 'No matter what may be your hatred or your
indifference, if yesterday's kiss is the last I ever give you, know
that I quitted your dwelling with the thought of having lost you for
ever and of having merited such a fate.'
In motherly strain she writes to him at Milan. 'Be prudent, be wise,
be good, as you have promised. May heaven protect you and bring you
back safely to Venice if I am still here. In any case I shall see
you in the holidays. And with what joy! How dearly we shall love
each other! Adieu mon petit oiseau. Aime toujours ton pauvre vieux
From Paris he writes in April of the same year—
'Visit the Tyrol, Venice, Constantinople; follow your inclination;
weep, laugh as the humour takes you, but some day when you find
yourself sad and alone, remember that there exists one being in the
world whose first and last love you have been.'
The same note of reckless passion and despair runs throughout de
Musset's letters to the last. George Sand meanwhile was overwhelmed
with anxieties apart from those of wounded sensibilities and lover's
jealousy. It is small wonder that she sometimes talked of suicide. The following passage shows her cruel position.
'A week ago I received a notification from Buloz (proprietor of the
Revue des deux Mondes) that I should get 500 francs from Boucoiran;
he is either neglectful or in love, for nothing has come. Pagello
has pawned my poor belongings. I owe Rebizzo 200 francs and am
determined to borrow no more. Next week, unless the money comes, I
shall have to go short of food (économiser sur mon estomac), for I am
absolutely penniless and it is odious to have to depend upon
To this de Musset, still despairing but calmer, replies:—'I entreat
you, pocket your pride and borrow of Rebizzo. You are sure, whatever
happens, of being able to pay him, and should Buloz refuse to give
you a halfpenny, I have only to ask and I could get anything I like,
a thousand, two thousand francs, from my mother. My life belongs to
you, and to ask a service of me is to render one.' That reliance on
his mother's liberality seems to have been ill-founded, as we shall
In her next letter George Sand congratulates him on his chastened
mood. In language of great eloquence and beauty she urges him to
throw off the trammels of the past, to love another, to work, to
live indeed. 'Love is a temple built by him who loves in honour of
one more or less deserving such adoration. The idol is shattered,
the lovely shrine remains, a sublime retreat wherein the heart is
again steeped in the eternal flame, reimbued with the power of
loving, of recreating a divinity. Which is the fairer of the two
epochs of inner life, that of tearful hope or lyric rapture? Perhaps
the first. Take courage then. Before you is a rude, painful, upward
path, but it reaches lofty heights. You were born to realise your
destiny in this upper region, and to find your best happiness in the
noblest exercise of your intellectual faculties. Go on, hope that
your career will be as beautiful as your poetic ideals.'
But de Musset was utterly incapable of sprinkling cool patience on
the heat of his distemper. His next missive is frenzied in its
self-surrender and vehemence.
'Best beloved, sole beloved,' he writes, 'if the sacrifice of my
life could secure you a single year's happiness, I would joyfully
throw myself from a precipice to-morrow. Think what it is to be
alone without a friend, without a dog, without a sou, [p.170]
without a hope, during three months perpetually in tears, a prey to
constant ennui, a being empty as night. I love you, I will love only
you till I die!'
The following year George Sand returned to Paris, Pagello
accompanying her. The poet and his 'Georgette,' his 'grand George,'
met once more, with consequences easily foreseen. All de Musset's
infatuation, mixed with jealousy, again took possession of him. Unable to remain near her he quitted home, writing from Baden:—
'A week has passed since I left Paris and I have not yet written to
you, waiting for the calmer mood which has not come. Ah, George,
what love was that, our love! Never man loved as I love you still,
do you realise it? I am drowned in passion, overwhelmed, and know
not if I live, eat, sleep, walk, breathe, articulate, and only know
that I love. I love you, I am dying of love that is nameless,
eternal, insensate, fatal. No, no, I shall never be cured, I shall
not make an effort to live, I prefer to die, to die loving you is
better than to live. I know it well enough. I am dying, but I love,
I love, I love!'
The winter of 1834-35 brought the pair together again, and this
terrible history to a close. In her turn George Sand falls under the
former spell, allowed herself to be drawn into the vortex of
passion. Her letters at this period are no less fervid and
self-abandoned than his own. 'Can anything be harder to me than what
I endure now?' she writes. 'You hope you will come out of the
struggle victorious, you say, or perish utterly. But you are young,
a poet, in the full force of youth and beauty. Try, then. As for me,
I shall die. Adieu, adieu. I cannot give you up, I cannot accept
your love, I can do nothing but throw myself on the ground and weep.
My only love, my life, my second self, leave me, but not alive,' and
in a later note occurs the desperate sentence—'Shall we go to Franchart and there blow our brains out in company? That were an
easy matter enough.'
The marvel is that some such course was not taken or that they did
not both lose mental balance. Again and again George Sand implores
him to leave her, endeavours to convince him that happiness is
impossible, that his mad jealousy renders further intimacy a mutual
torture, and again and again, although convinced that it is so, he
hesitates. But the final rupture soon came. Unable any longer to
endure an existence, every moment of which was tempestuous, she fled
in March to Nohant, in the Indre, the maternal chateau which
afterwards became her home.
The generosity of her nature is evidenced in a letter written a week
later to her man of business, Boucoiran. 'My friend, do not speak
disparagingly to me of Alfred. To be brought to despise those we
have loved is more painful than to lose them.' The final pages of
the volume relate the return of letters, ending with the following
line from George Sand, of which we have a facsimile—
'Adieu, mon enfant, Dieu soft avec toi.—G.'
But the pair did not wholly lose sight of each other. Three years
later they occasionally met in Paris, and in 1848 they corresponded
at length as to the final destination of the letters now safely
housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale. Their last interview took
place in 1848. Ten years later, a wreck alike physically and
mentally, but rich in fame and honours, de Musset died at the age of
forty-seven. The following exquisite verses bespeaking a chastened
frame of mind, of which I have endeavoured to convey the spirit, are
almost hymn-like in their solemnity.
My life is wasted, strength is spent,
My friends have vanished one by one.
Light-heartedness and proud content,
The poet's faith in self is gone!
Truth once I looked on as a friend,
She smiled responsive for a day,
Cruel I found her in the end,
And turned my head another way.
Eternal all the same is Truth,
Let any that great fact ignore,
And witless as in cradled youth
They fall asleep to wake no more.
God speaks and we must make reply,
Though hearkening with reluctant ears.
The little left me till I die,
I owe unto a few sad tears!
His life's work as a poet did not in some senses belie his own idea
as touched upon in the Impromptu of which I also give a rendering—
Building verse to eternize
Wooing beauty, goodness, truth,
Never parting with his youth,
By haphazard, grave or gay,
Laughing, weeping, on his way,
Little nothings as he goes
All sufficing for his muse,
Into pearls transmuting tears,
Thus the poet spends his years.
Such the passion and the dream
That the poet best beseem.
And here is yet another attempt at a rendering.
O knight resplendent, off to wars afar,
Why must you roam,
Remote from home?
Note yon dark sky without a single star.
And snares o'erlay
The wanderer's way.
Could you believe the love you left behind
An hour ago
Was fickle too?
Vain seekers of renown, 'tis yours to find
That glories pass
As breath on glass.
O knight resplendent, why must you be gone,
With lance and shield
Whilst I, what can I do but weep alone,
Who charmed erewhile
With careless smile?
George Sand lived to see the consolidation of the Third Republic,
retaining her power of expression and wealth of imagination to the
last. When for the first time visiting Nohant twenty years ago, I
chatted with village folks about their 'bonne dame' whom they loved
so well. If she idealised the peasant in her matchless idylls, the
author of La petite Fadette understood them as no other French
novelist has done. And if it is the fashion to regard her novels
slightingly, as a trifle out of date, time will assuredly vindicate
her claims as one of the greatest prose-writers of
nineteenth-century France. In the unhappy story just outlined, it is
impossible to arrive at the conclusion that either of the lovers was
more sinned against than sinning. Both were in some measure enfants
du siècle, victims of an epoch; and, brave in the face of calumny
during her lifetime, George Sand has fearlessly challenged the
verdict of posterity.
ST. GEORGES DE DIDONNE, MICHELET'S
IT is strange how
some descriptions of places fascinate us, dwell in the memory, make
us long to visit them, till at last our dream is realised too often
Such a spell was cast upon me many years ago by the perusal
of Michelet's prose poem 'La Mer.' Towards the middle of the
last century the historian discovered a forest nook by the shore of
the Atlantic, St. Georges de Didonne. The mixed rural and
seafaring life, the sturdy, artless character of the inhabitants—a
handful of Protestants—the singular flora of the downs, the vast
stretches of forest and perpetual sights and sounds of the sea held
him captive. Enchanted by so much primitiveness and natural
beauty, here he remained six months, in his humble retreat penning
pages as exquisite as any in the French language.
'La Mer' had doubtless much to do with the material fortunes
of St. Georges de Didonne. Readers of the book and followers
in Michelet's footsteps nowadays will find a great difference
between his descriptions and the reality. The lapse of time
must also be taken into account. When Michelet settled in this
seaside nook it was a mere fishing village. To-day the
charming little bay is studded with villas, piecemeal the noble
forests overlooking the shore have disappeared, the bathing season
brings its visitors by the thousand, and a railway runs along the
once solitary coast. Already when I spent a summer holiday at
St. Georges some years since, the transformation had begun in good
earnest. On the smooth, velvety sands croquet was played by
day and quadrille parties were held by moonlight. Family
groups took their sea-baths or promenades en mer at low tide,
and the one or two villas, hotels, and boarding-houses were full.
Elsewhere we found almost undisturbed solitude.
Grandiose is the site of this tiny port: the broad, bright
Gironde here flowing from Bordeaux to lose itself in the Atlantic;
towering loftily from mid-ocean, Cordouan, 'the oldest lighthouse in
Europe,' avers Michelet, and he adds, 'for six months our perpetual
subject of contemplation and our society.'
And how delicious were those inland rambles amid remnants of
ancient ilex forests and plantations of young pine, dark and waxen
green foliage sharply contrasted, overhead a warm, southern sky,
ever in our ears the sound of sea waves rippling with most musical
cadence! Large white and coloured butterflies sported about
the undergrowth, whilst every spot was fragrant with wild
carnations, thyme, and aromatic immortelles.
Along the shore, even in September, we found plenty of
flowers, the evening primrose scenting the air, the silvery green
sea-holly, the delicate heathlike sea-lavender, the handsome
sea-poppy, the limosiris vulgaris, with its mass of little
gold tufts, and many others. Turning our backs upon the bits
of pine-forest we would climb the downs, following a zigzag path,
between us and the sea rising lofty cliffs of yellow tufa,
fantastically hollowed and riddled, in which are found oysters in
all stages of growth. On the lee-side are tamarisks in rosy
bloom; contrasted with these, ilexes bordering tiny vineyards,
cornfields, or potato-beds growing high above the shore.
At the time of which I write, a vast expanse in patches
brought under cultivation stretched before us, whilst tall hedges
draped with luscious blackberries bordered our path. Every
shifting scene was full of quiet stately charm, wide flowery downs,
tamarisk and ilex groves on the edge of the cliffs; below, smooth
brown sands and placid sea; in the distance lying Royan with its
spires and bay and far-away river meeting ocean, the grand pyramidal
tower of Cordouan conspicuous in the scene as the sun in the
Leaving the white-washed walls of St. Georges with their
trellised vines and patriarchal fig-trees behind us, we find a cool
enchanting world of greenery. In and out we wander, now
following woodland paths, now losing ourselves in a fragment of
venerable forest, now crossing little glades through which purls a
crystal-clear rivulet, next we exchange such umbrageous seclusion
for sunny cornfields, vineyards, and beds of Indian corn. A
variety of trees—ilex, oak, chestnut, elm, beech, birch, alder,
acacia, and aspen—flourish side by side and in close proximity to
The ilexes and aspens are—or were—magnificent; I use the past
tense, for much I fear I should find few bits of forest left at St.
Georges to-day. Not only in the walks just described, but
farther afield we would come upon what looked like silvery clouds
dropped upon the dark masses of forest. It was the aspen,
mingling its pale yet resplendent tints with darker foliage.
Especially marked was the contrast afforded by the sombre,
motionless ilex and ever rippling, ever murmuring, whispering aspen,
summer and winter, hand in hand.
And if the silvery ripple of the tremble, as this tree
is poetically called in France, looks lovelier than ever under the
azure heavens, equally is the leafage of the ilex thereby
beautified. How much do trees, their changes, varied foliage,
and sounds contribute to our delight in the different seasons!
Poetic as St. Georges appeared in its early stage of
modernisation, the fishing village Michelet discovered must have
been romantic indeed. I will endeavour to give the spirit of
his opening page; the seduction of such French as his naturally
eludes the translator.
A storm of exceptional length and fierceness had raged along
the west coast of France during the close of October 1859.
'This storm was observed by me
from a spot where one might least have expected it, so peaceful and
caressing is the little port of St. Georges de Didonne, near Royan,
at the mouth of the Gironde. I had there spent five months in
great tranquillity, reviewing my ideas, interrogating my heart,
seeking an atmosphere for subject so delicate, so solemn. The
place, the book assimilated agreeably. Could I have written
this work elsewhere? I know not. Thus much I do know,
that the rustic fragrance of the district, its austere loveliness,
the stimulating aroma of the woodlands, the flora of the wastes and
of the shore count for much in my pages, of all they will always
'The population harmonised with nature. Here no
vulgarity, no grossness. Peasants of grave disposition and
sober lives, sailors whose business is pilotage, a little Protestant
race which has survived persecution.
'A primitive probity reigns (locks and bolts were not as yet
in vogue throughout the village). No turbulence. Among
these seafaring men existed tact and discretion not always found in
the most elevated ranks of society. Received as a friend,
regarding them as a friend, the solitude necessary for my work was
never intruded upon by my neighbours. All the more did I
interest myself in their daily perils. Silently my prayers
followed them in their heroic calling.
'Before the great storm I had felt uneasiness, as I observed
the dangerous conformation of the coast, wondering if this quiet and
beautiful sea had not cruel deceptions in store for us. The
scene so fraught with hazard is not at all sad.
'Every morning from my window I beheld the sails of countless
merchantmen just flushed with auroral rose awaiting a breeze to
raise anchor. The Gironde is here three leagues in breadth.
With the solemnity of great American rivers it has all the gaiety of
Royan is a pleasure resort, patronised by Gascons from far
and wide. From the shores of Royan and St. Georges, we can
enjoy a gratuitous spectacle, the sight of porpoises and their
frolics. In their playful leaps they will throw themselves
five or six feet above the water. Well enough they seem to
understand that no one dreams of disturbing them. The business
of pilotage leaves no leisure for catching porpoises.
To this gaiety of the sea add the unique and beautiful
harmony of the coasts. The luxuriant vineyards of the Médoc
face the harvests and varied crops of the Saintonge. The
heavens have not the fixed, at times monotonous, brilliance of the
Mediterranean. Here they are very variable. From the
mingled currents, salt and fresh, rise iridescent clouds reflecting
in their native mirror the strangest coloured clouds, bright green,
rose, and violet. Fantastic shapes people the piled-up
monuments of cloud formation, bold arcades, lofty bridges, triumphal
arches, the portals of ocean, for a moment visible then lost to
The two semi-circular shores of Royan and St. Georges with
their fine sands, offer a smooth promenade to the most fastidious
feet, the fragrance of young pines scenting the way. The
promontories separating the coasts and wastes emit health-giving
fragrance, medicinal is the honeyed odour of immortelles, in
their flowers being concentrated the warmth of sun and sands.
Inland flourish astringent plants, their odours stimulating
the brain and reviving the spirits—thyme, mint, sage, and above all,
the wild pink, odorous as the choicest oriental spices. It
always seemed to me that the birds sang better on these wastes than
elsewhere. Never did I hear a lark carol as did one in July on
the heights of Valliere. She rose from amid the flowers,
mounting, gilded by the setting sun. Her voice so high above,
perhaps a thousand feet from the soil, despite its sonorousness was
none the less sweet and artless. It was evidently to the nest,
the humble furrow, that she addressed her rustic yet sublime song,
thus interpreting the glory through which she modestly winged her
way, encouraging her young to follow, enticing them with the cry,
'Follow, my little ones, follow.'
For Michelet's fine description of the storm I refer readers
to the volume itself; I only note one very interesting remark.
Throughout the five days' turmoil, winds and waves working woful
devastation around, he tells us that his mind remained active;
mistress of itself, he observed, he wrote. 'But,' he adds,
'fatigue and sleeplessness robbed me of one faculty that I held, the
most delicate a writer can possess. I lost the sense of
rhythm. My sentences wanted harmony. This, the first
chord of my instrument, was broken.'
A lighthouse appeals strangely to the imaginative. For
several weeks Cordouan was my own daily contemplation also, and how
I longed to visit it as Scott had visited the Bell Rock almost a
century before! What a charming page in his yachting diary is
that devoted to the great northern beacon, its neat sleeping
chamber, saloon, parlour, and the entertainment enjoyed within its
No experience so unique was to be my own. The eight
miles' sail from Royan to Cordouan is at all times difficult, often
very risky, and only under exceptional circumstances are strangers
permitted to undertake it. Regretfully I quitted St. Georges
with no nearer acquaintance of 'the white phantom' of Michelet's
St. Georges is mainly a Protestant community. Touching
is the story of Le Pasteur du Désert, narrative of
eighteenth-century persecutions and endurance. Jarosseau, the
subject of those pages and the historic pastor of St. Georges, was
compelled to gather his flock together in forest depths, or with the
little congregation put out to sea, holding service in a boat.
At night his bedroom was a walled-up cupboard approached by a secret
stair. Unable to endure such a state of things, at last he set
off for Paris, and after many difficulties and rebuffs obtained an
interview with Louis XVI. On his knees he demanded permission
to celebrate Protestant worship in his village. The boon was
granted and a few years later the Revolution proclaimed liberty of
conscience throughout France, and Protestants obtained full civic
The little Sunday congregation is an interesting sight.
These matrons in the long black cloaks of their Huguenot
ancestresses, these sunburnt peasants and seafaring patriarchs
neatly dressed in black, have all strongly-marked, suggestive
features. We read on each countenance inherited convictions
and powers of endurance, a humble yet heroic pedigree!
St. Georges de Didonne is reached by way of Niort and Royan
(Orleans Railway) and is just upon three hundred and fifty-five
miles from Paris. During the summer months, steamers make the
journey from Royan to Bordeaux every other day, a pleasant two
CHANTILLY AND MME. DE SÉVIGNÉ
needed the Duke d'Aumale's magnificent legacy to become one of the
most attractive holiday resorts near Paris. The graceful
palace erected since the war of 1870-1 had already embellished the
place, but its art treasures were not as yet accessible to the
general public. To tourists, nevertheless, Chantilly offered
many charms. The clean, quiet, friendly little town in the
valley of the Nonette possesses individual engagingness. Folks
are sociable hereabouts. If you stand lost in admiration of
their long, beautifully-kept gardens, open to the road, they do not
frown you away. There are pretty walks by river and canal, and
no matter in which direction you go, no one says you nay, no board
marked 'Private; trespassers will be prosecuted' hinders advance.
Then there is the perpetual sight of that fairy-like
pleasure-house. Its stately gardens and park lie open, whilst beyond
you have between six and seven thousand acres of forest in which to
roam at will. During the hottest summer days delicious coolness is
to be had close to the town; when the weather is breezy, sunny
swards are equally within reach.
Here a little English colony of horse-trainers and jockeys
lives on the best possible terms with its French neighbours.
On Sunday mornings may be seen troops of our little country-people
flocking to the Wesleyan Sunday-school; here and there a
boy—presumably of Scotch parentage—proudly wearing kilt and bonnet,
a tiny dirk, of course, in his Rob Roy stocking.
'The explanation of horse-training as an English speciality,'
observed a French friend to me as we strolled together by the
exercise grounds, 'I take to be this: your compatriots are more
patient with their animals than my own and other men following the
What Chantilly may be like during the racing season I cannot
say. Certainly at other times, and I have often spent days and
even weeks here, I can give the town a very quiet, orderly
It was in 1875 that the Duke d'Aumale began to build a modern
chateau on the foundations of the old. The Chantilly of the
Montmorencys and the Condés, of Mme. de Sévigné—and Vatel the
cook!—disappeared during the Revolution. When, in 1789, the
Bourbon princes headed the general emigration, the populace became
incensed. In 1792 the château was used as a prison, and in
1794 it was rased by order of the Convention, on the ground of being
a fortress. The magnificent stables, with stabling for nearly
two hundred horses, remain intact.
The Duke, if not his own architect, entered into every
detail, both within and without, attempting a reconstruction of the
historic palace. No chef d'œuvre of light, graceful
architecture had more suitable surroundings. The chateau with
its pinnacles and turrets of the elegant Valois period stands
sideways on the canal watered by the Nonette, and on clear days are
obtained lovely effects of light and shadow, a reflected palace as
beautiful as the solid reality being given by the limpid waves.
In front as behind stretch the quaint old gardens laid out by the
famous Le Nôtre in the time of Louis XIV., marble terraces,
orangeries, fountains, and statuary harmonising with the gleaming
whiteness of the building.
Oddly enough, as I gazed on Chantilly, my mind recalled a
pleasure-house on the Baltic, the famous Putbus palace in the island
of Rügen. Just as dainty a picture as that Italian structure
doubled in its lake is the Duke d'Aumale's Chantilly, to-day the
property of the French Academy. Such a comparison holds good
with regard to picturesqueness and artistic interest only.
Putbus is without historic interest, whilst Chantilly is connected
with dazzling pages of French story. To have its records at
the fingers' ends is to know more than one goodly chapter.
Most of us have read Mme. de Sévigné, and of the fabulous
entertainment given by the great Condé to the Sun King, when Vatel,
the cook, threw himself on his sword because the fish had not
arrived for dinner. But here a little court had been held by
the greatest of the Montmorencys a century and a half before.
A statue of the fierce old warrior, Anne de Montmorency,—never man
having a feminine name was more devoid of womanly softness—now
stands in front of the new chateau; as the creator of its precursor,
he deserves such a place. This pitiless foe of Protestantism
was not only a patron of the fine arts, but a connoisseur. To
him we are indebted for the treasures contained in the chapel,
exquisite stained glass, carved altar-piece, panels in carved wood,
and other gems.
Let us first visit the château. Wisely have its new
owners ordained that visitors may wander at will through these
sumptuous galleries. Here no cicerone drives us like a flock
of sheep from one place to another, barely allowing us time for the
most cursory inspection. Officials are at hand, but only to
keep order and answer inquiries. Emulating the generosity of
its donor, the Institute throws open the Musée Condé, as Chantilly
is called, on Thursdays and Sundays free of charge during six months
of the year. Large numbers of visitors, all country folks, and
during my last visit I noticed among the crowd several Breton women
wearing native costume.
In French art Chantilly is particularly rich. Fine
works by Greuze, Ingres, Decamps, Delacroix, Meissonier, Gérome,
and, coming down to our own time, Daubigny and De Neuville are kept
here. Among Italian masters figures the famous Raphael
purchased of the Earl of Dudley for £25,000, a bagatelle to an
Orleans prince. Da Vincis, Titians, Vandycks, and Rembrandts,
and interesting drawings by Ingres and other famous French artists
enrich these galleries. Beauvais and Gobelins tapestries,
enamels, engraved gems, antique jewellery and plate, faïence
in great variety form of themselves a rich museum, whilst the
library deserves the same name. The Duke was not only an
accomplished writer and art collector, but a bibliophile, adding
rare old editions in choicest bindings to his magnificent collection
of books. The arrangement of the library is very convenient
and elegant, upper shelves being reached by light galleries.
The Salle de la Smalah recalls an earlier and quite opposite
phase of the Duke's life. Here we see the glittering loot
taken from the tents of Abd-el-Kader, weapons having jewelled
handles, gorgeous stuffs and embroideries, rich horse-trappings, and
vessels. The Duke's portrait here represents him as the slim
young soldier of 1842, a striking contrast to the portly, infirm
septuagenarian some of us remember. As was only natural in
reconstructing Chantilly, the glory of the Condos was uppermost in
his mind. The chapel and Galerie de Monsieur le Prince
commemorate the head of the Montmorencys and the Grand Condé; in
these indeed two distinct phases are realised by portraiture and
artistic memorials. The chapel contains a series of portraits
in stained glass, those of the great Constable, Anne de Montmorency,
his spouse, Madeleine of Savoy, their four sons and four of their
daughters, with John the Baptist and Saint Agatha keeping them
company. The entire family of the pair numbered twelve.
By a freak of fortune the foremost figure was deprived of his head.
For the portrait substituted we are indebted to other likenesses,
notably, the medallion in wax at the Louvre, and the famous enamel
of Léonard Limousin. Anne de Montmorency also figures as the
god Mars in the enamel after Raphael by the same artist, 'Le Banquet
des Dieux,' which belonged to the Fountains collection and fetched
seven thousand guineas. The finish of these portraits on glass
is remarkable, and every detail of costume is given with minute
The altar-piece is an elaborate work of finely grained
marble, ornamented with bas-reliefs. Both stained glass and
altar-piece were formerly at Écouen, another appanage of the
Montmorencys. The Constable was a friend of the worthless
Henri II., and highly suggestive here are the bow, arrows, and
crescent recalling Diane de Poitiers. These emblems of the
king's mistress appear on the panels in stained wood adorning the
chapel. The panels are exquisitely carved; they remind us of
the perfection attained by the decorative arts during the Valois
régime, also of Schiller's remark. Truly has the German
poet declared that there is no connection between art and morality.
As a château, Chantilly possesses all the magnificence of a
royal residence, and here for a few years its owner held his state.
Here but for dynastic intrigues he might have remained. The
exile of the Pretenders twenty years ago could have surprised no one
acquainted with French affairs.
When, childless, a widower, and in failing health, the Duke
was invited to return by M. Carnot's government, all had changed.
The heir of the Condé's could read the writing on the wall, he knew
well enough that his house was doomed. Partly perhaps out of
gratitude, partly from a feeling that an amende honorable was
due, he bequeathed Chantilly to the Institute.
In the moment of their country's direst fortunes, immediately
after Sedan, the Orleanist princes claimed the millions that had
been confiscated by Napoleon III. In doing so, did they
realise that like Esau they sold their birthright for a mess of
pottage? Be this as it may, the Third Republic in at once
satisfying the claim might well congratulate itself on an excellent
bargain. From that moment the fate of the Bourbons was sealed.
Such considerations, however, do not in the least detract
from the Duke's act of magnanimity. It is gratifying to think
that he spent the last years of his life in the stately
pleasure-house he loved so well. But all this time we have
forgotten Mme. de Sévigné and Vatel the cook, two figures perhaps
more humanly interesting than any others memorialised at Chantilly.
MME. DE SÉVIGNÉ
(1626-96) by Claude Lefebvre (1665).
Picture: Internet Text Archive.
No one indeed must visit the place without a volume of the
immortal letters, or without a rereading of that dated April 26,
The 'belle marquise sans cœur mais aver beaucoup d'esprit,'
thus has she been described, had just returned from Chantilly, where
the king had been feted with extraordinary splendour.
'The King arrived on Thursday evening. The hunt,
illuminations, walks, collation on a bit of turf blooming with
jonquils, all went off well. Then came supper. Extra
tables had to be set and at these the roast joint was wanting.
Vatel was overcome. Again and again he said, "Honour is lost,
I shall never be able to endure this mortification." At four
o'clock next morning he rose and wandered about, all the household
being asleep. At last came a fishmonger with two loads of
fish. "Is that all?" asked Vatel. "Yes, Monsieur," was
the reply, the man not knowing that Vatel had sent for fish to all
the nearest seaports. Vatel waited a little while. No
fishmonger came. "Monsieur," he said to Gourville, "I shall
never survive this mortification. My honour, my reputation are
at stake." The other treated the matter as a jest, but Vatel
went straight to his bedchamber and threw himself on his sword.
He fell dead, and shortly afterwards supplies of fish arrived from
the different seaports. . . . The King reproached Monsieur le Prince
(le Grand Condé), telling him that he should only supply two
dinner-tables, but it was too late to save poor Vatel!' who,
however, has been immortalised, will live as long as the French
CARCASSONNE, ITS POET AND POETISER
'Mon Dieu! que je mourrais content,
Après avoir vu Carcassonne!'
ONE of the first
questions I have ever asked when reaching any unknown town or
village in France, has been what illustrious name is connected with
it, to what historic personage has it given birth? Persons are
so much more interesting than places! or to put the thesis less
positively, any human mind must have so much more in common with any
other mind than with natural accidents, or piled-up bricks and
mortar. Mountains, lakes, and waterfalls awaken perhaps a
deeper feeling than that of mere mortal fellowship. Stately
piles and other monuments raised by collective genius impress us
with a vague sense of personality. More nearly comes home to
us the inseparableness of a name and its surroundings, the eternal
impress of mind and character on inanimate scenes. Here nature
not seldom plays curious pranks. Some magnificent places are
absolutely wanting in a genius loci, others not so naturally
favoured, on the contrary, are veritable Walhallas, whilst others
have brought forth exactly the opposite of what might have been
Before relating how Carcassonne has fared in this respect,
let me describe the chef-lieu of the Aude or rather attempt
to give some faint idea of the indescribable. There is only
one way of realising the wonderful little city in the clouds, and
that is to follow the long Toulouse railway and so behold for
oneself what a vast, variegated bit of map is traversed between
Paris and the ancient Carcaso, how many regions, diverse as so many
kingdoms, are passed through before we catch a glimpse of the
Pyrenees! Cornland, vineyards, olive-groves, pine-forests,
mountains, rivers, valleys, each zone having its special climate,
from one transformation scene to another we are whirled through in
rapid succession, the last outshining all.
A far-off sight of Carcassonne recalls some magic city in
Arabian story. Enchanted, intangible, no edifice reared by
human hands seems that airy pile of pearl, opal, and amethyst,
lifted high above the common world, its battlements dimly outlined
against the golden heavens. Almost a vision can we fancy the
exquisite picture, and as we gaze we should hardly be surprised to
see it melt away, dissolving with cloud pageantry like Prospero's
airy palaces, leaving no wrack behind. France numbers many
walled-in towns, none are so perfect or so beautifully placed as
this little acropolis in mid-heaven. Above verdant plain,
winding river, and scattered villages, towers mediaeval Carcassonne,
its prosaic twin, the busy little Carcassonne of the work-a-day
world lying below.
Quitting the modern town which is given up to the pacific
manufacture of capsules and retorts, crossing two bridges, and
climbing steep, grass-grown streets and tumbling, deserted tenements
we reach the ramparts, here enclosing an oval, not a rectangular,
space as is the case at Aigues-Mortes.
Toy-like were the proportions of the ancient city compared
with its fortifications, Lilliputian capital hemmed round with
Brobdingnagian defences. The prodigious masonry before us
rests on foundations laid by the
Visigoths, and well had those fierce warriors chosen their site.
These limestone heights must have seemed to them arisen for the
purpose, sprung from the plain with the object of domination,
enthroned for ever and only awaiting a crown. The outworks
that successfully resisted that ruthless devastator of Languedoc,
the Black Prince, are now silent but for the occasional tread of
guide and tourists, and, elevated as we are above the plain, no
sound reaches us from the cheerful, bustling world at our feet.
Through the archers' loop-holes we obtain scenes of varying beauty,
each clear-cut, brilliant in hues as a mosaic or a bit of Palissy
ware. At a depth of several hundred feet below, the Aude
meanders by suburban villas and gardens, rich pastures, as far as we
can see, the vast southward expanse being broken by gleams of
shining water. Intersecting the landscape are white threads
bordered with greenery, those splendid roads or rather continuous
boulevards that run through every part of France. Sixty miles
of yonder expanse divide us from the Pyrenees and a wayfarer footing
it would have umbrageous shadow all the way.
I think the glorious little round of the citadel was
accomplished in twenty minutes or less, but the unimaginable and the
indescribable are not to be measured by inches or minutes, and no
traveller in France should miss Carcassonne.
GUSTAV NADUD (1820-93).
The name evokes that of two poets, but the poetiser of
Carcassonne, the author of a song which will live as long as the
French language, was no native. Gustave Nadaud belonged to the
north, lived and died amid the ceaseless hum of machinery and
never-extinguished smoke of factory chimneys. Did he ever find
his way hither from Roubaix? History does not say, and when in
1894 I visited the interesting but unidyllic town, Nadaud was on his
deathbed. Had I paid an earlier visit I might have been
privileged with an interview, and perhaps have learned the genesis
of his famous poem. As a book written for English readers
should be in English, I have attempted a rendering.
Never has the quintessential characteristic of the French
peasant been more subtly pressed into a ballad. Not the bent
and worn vintager of Limoux, but thousands of his compeers, we may
be sure, have similarly sighed for some little distraction to which
prudence has perpetually said 'No.'
I'm growing old, just threescore years,
In wet and dry, in dust and mire,
I've sweated, never getting near
Fulfilment of my heart's desire.
Ah, well I see that bliss below,
'Tis Heaven's will to grant to none,
Harvest and vintage come and go,
I've never got to Carcassonne!
The town I've glanced at many a day,
You see it from yon mountain chain
But five long leagues it lies away,
That's ten leagues there and back again.
Ah, if the vintage promised fair
But grapes won't ripen without sun,
Without soft showers to make them swell,
I shall not get to Carcassonne!
You'd think 'twas always Sunday there,
So fine, they say, are folks bedight,
Silk hats, frock coats, the bourgeois wear,
Their demoiselles walk out in white.
Two generals with their stars you see,
And towers outdoing Babylon,
A bishop too—ah me! ah me!
I've never got to Carcassonne!
Yes, truly did our curé call
Pride, the besetting sin of man,
Ambition brought on Adam's fall,
And soaring wishes are my bane.
Yet could I only steal away
Before the winter has begun,
I'd die contented any day,
If once I'd been to Carcassonne!
Mon Dieu, men Dieu, forgive my prayer
I'm but a poor presumptuous fool,
We build fine castles in the air,
When old, as when we went to school.
My wife, with our first-born Aighan,
Has made the journey to Narbonne,
My godson has seen Perpignan
I've never been to Carcassonne.
So sighed a peasant of Limoux,
A worthy neighbour bent and worn,
He, friend, quoth I, I'll go with you,
We'll sally forth to-morrow morn!
And true enough away we hied
But when our goal was almost won,
God rest his soul, the good man died,
He never got to Carcassonne!
It is astonishing to find not only the idiosyncrasy but the
life history of the French peasant hit off by a citizen, a
Roubaisien above all others.
And strange to say Nadaud wrote that poem without having seen
Carcassonne, like Balzac being in ignorance of one of the most
perfect things to be found throughout France. Carcassonne
meant to him what any other third-rate town or little bishopric
might have meant to the untravelled peasant of former days.
Such are the paradoxes of literary history!
As strange is the contradiction afforded by Carcassonne's
poet. I have shown elsewhere that the Revolution was
pre-eminently a lyric period, in no other epoch of French history is
seen so general and spontaneous an outburst of song.
'I can never hear, Il pleut, bergère, il pleut,
without emotion,' wrote Renan in his old age, and doubtless many a
Frenchman could say the same. That naive little song familiar
to every man, woman, and child in France, with Nadaud's
Carcassonne incorporated into French literature, was the
improvisation of a whimsical revolutionary known to the world by a
flowery pseudonym only. Philippe-François-Nazaire Fabre,
otherwise Fabre d'Églantine, first saw the light at Carcassonne on
December the 28th, 1755. When a mere boy he carried off the
so-called Prix d'églantine in the famous poetic contests of
Toulouse, and from that time adopted his title of honour.
Comedian and playwright, his early years were one unbroken series of
successes. Play quickly followed play, each being
enthusiastically received, one and all as completely forgotten now
as if they had never been written. Revolution interrupted this
dazzling career. The popular caterer for the stage threw
himself heart and soul into the great upheaval. He became
Danton's secretary, sat as deputy for Paris in the Convention, and
ranged himself on the side of the Montague. With his great
leader and their friends, he mounted the fatal tumbril in April
Fabre d'Églantine's innumerable comedies, like so many other
works popular in their day, are buried in oblivion. But at
some time or other he had improvised an artless song which, having a
heart in it and reaching all French hearts, has become imperishable,
will no more slip out of the language than the verb aimer, to
love. For, just as the poetiser of Carcassonne had
crystallised peasant psychology in a ballad, so Carcassonne's poet
put into a few simple verses all that makes peasant life what it is,
an existence, laborious, circumscribed, unprogressive, it may be,
but beautified, elevated by domestic ties and love of home.
Here indeed and for once and for all is falsified Zola's indictment
of the French peasant in La Terre. And the picture
presented by the poet is one we may meet with on French soil any
day. As when Fabre d'Églantine wrote, so under the Third
Republic, family life and family honour are held sacred by the
The little idyll is of the simplest. A youth overtakes
a maiden keeping her little flock and surprised by a thunderstorm.
Urging upon her the necessity of seeking shelter, and taking care to
remove any scruples she might feel at following a stranger, he
points out his mother's farm—she is evidently a widow—in the
distance. Helping her to keep her sheep together amid deluging
rain, thunder and lightning, they reach the rustic homestead where
she is confided to maternal and sisterly care. The tempest
over, she is persuaded to remain, her lover, for lover he has
become, folding her sheep and betaking himself to his shake-down in
neat-house or stable, [p.203]
there like the maiden dreaming happy dreams till morning comes, when
with his mother he will conduct their guest home, asking her hand in
marriage. Here is the best rendering I can give of this truly
IL PLEUT, BERGÈRE, IL PLEUT
('It rains, shepherdess, it rains')
The rain is falling, shepherd maid,
A storm is coming fast,
Let's hasten to some friendly shade
And shelter till 'tis past.
Hark how the big drops patter down,
The water runs in streams,
Whilst from yon clouds that darkly
Fiercely the lightning gleams.
The thunder growls, my shepherd maid,
Delay not, take my arm,
Gather your sheep, be not afraid,
We 're near my mother's farm.
Ah! there she stands, the housewife dear
And with her, sister Anne,
See both, a visitor is here,
Beguile her as you can.
With sister Anne, sit down, ma mie,
The peat shall soon burn bright,
Your little flock shall cared for be,
And folded for the night.
Good night, good night, my shepherd
The storm has passed away,
But sister makes your little bed,
There sweetly dream till day.
To-morrow, with my mother, I,
—May fortune us betide—
Unto your father we will hie,
And ask you for my bride.
Another highly poetic creation of Fabre d'Églantine was the
floral calendar which the late Mr. Hamerton, with, may be, some
others, greatly regretted. Certainly the calendar adopted in
1792 and abolished by Napoleon in 1805 had much to recommend it,
alike on the score of novelty, taste, and accurate delineation, each
name nicely indicating the month for which it stands, each
poetically recalling nature's shifting scenes. Germinal and
Floréal at once bring before us 'the sight of vernal bloom and
summer's rose,' whilst Pluviôse and Ventôse as unmistakably remind
us of February Filldyke and the month that comes in like a lion.
But these ingenious and beautiful names, like everything else
connected with the first short-lived Republic, stunk in the nostrils
of the Corsican liberticide. Fabre d'Églantine's charming
invention has only survived a historic curiosity, and is seldom
mentioned in connection with its author. And, indeed, but for
his song of the shepherd-maiden and her humble but chivalrous lover,
the winner of the wild-rose crown would be forgotten, even at the
place which gave him birth. An ardent revolutionary and
champion of freedom, in noble company he fell a victim to his
aspirations. His short political career was not, alas! one of
those sure sooner or later to be commemorated in marble.
Danton's statue adorns his native town on the banks of the silvery
Aube. No such honour has been paid to his secretary and
companion on the scaffold.
A volume might well be devoted to the numerous little
walled-in towns of France, Carcassonne holding the supreme place.
Each is unlike the other, each has some peculiar charm of its own—Guérande,
scene of Balzac's Béatrix is one, Saumur in upper Burgundy is
another. With its walls, watchtowers, and donjons intact this
little town of the Auxois must look much as it did in the days of
Charles the Bold. Provins, capital and court of the Counts of
Champagne, is a third. Here Thibault VI., song-writer and
art-patron, held his state, and here in the days of the Crusaders
was introduced the rich red rose erroneously by ourselves styled the
Provence rose. Many others I could name, but as far as my own
experience goes none equal that constellated oval towering so
regally yet with such poetic charm over plain and river, moss-green,
limitless level through which winds a stream of mazarine blue.
THE BRITTANY OF ÉMILE SOUVESTRE
TO visit Brittany
unissued with the spirit of Émile Souvestre is to travel in Scotland
without the literature of Scott and Burns or to traverse Spain
without having read Don Quixote. For the author of Les
derniers Bretons was himself the last of the Bretons; in his
person was embodied the genius of 'that ancient Druidess baptized by
St. Paul,' which he found fast disappearing three quarters of a
century ago, and which his magic pen has resuscitated for all time.
Not only did Émile discover a world of fable, poetry, and romance
awaiting a chronicler, but one and all touched a secret and hitherto
silent chord, as he tells us, awakening his real self and true
vocation. Having unsuccessfully tried his fortunes in Paris he
retraced his steps, Brittany henceforth proving alike his
inspiration and his theme.
Others had as assiduously wooed the same muse. It was
reserved for Émile Souvestre to discover the talking bird, the
singing tree, and the golden water. What does not charm is
dead, wrote Goethe, and who but the most patriotic Breton nowadays
reads Brizeux's interminable idylls? The sentiment, the poetic
feeling is there, but not the spell. Another great German has
written—'a genius is known by what he leaves out.'
Unfortunately Brizeux did not leave out enough. Hence, whilst
his Marie and the rest are only turned to by the curious,
Le Foyer Breton is not only a popular book but a classic.
Émile Souvestre indeed was a true artist and a master of easy,
The Brittany of the past lives in his pages, a Brittany
little resembling that of preconceived notions. With
austereness, profound religious belief, we here find charming
bonhomie, humour in no small degree and imaginativeness of a high
We must indeed go to the fountain head of fairytale, to the
Arabian Nights and to the Norse tales collected by Mr. Dasent,
for narratives as full of charm, character, and piquancy as those
related to Émile Souvestre during his wanderings. In order
that the letter as well as the spirit of the originals should be
preserved, each story was first put to paper in Breton, afterwards
being translated. The original stamp was thus preserved, the
naive, simple, and picturesque language adding greatly to the charm
of the stories.
Travellers must hardly look for so much as a vestige of our
author's Brittany in the much frequented holiday ground of to-day.
The grand coast scenery remains, but the face of the country has
been gradually modified, picturesqueness yielding to material
improvement. Railways now intersect the various departments in
every direction. Costume has all but disappeared. The
time-honoured Pardon is replaced by enormous pilgrimages to Lourdes,
and, as if to complete the disenchantment, instead of inspiring
idyllic episodes, Breton scenes and character are studied à la
One of the most popular novelists of the day, M. René Bazin,
has lately given us a novel of Breton life with a purpose, the
sordid history of a young matron who goes to Paris as a wet-nurse,
there ending her career in degradation and ruin. Certainly the
Breton wet-nurse was unknown in Émile Souvestre's days.
It is now over a quarter of a century since I spent twelve
months in Brittany, a few years back revisiting familiar scenes.
Many regions, when I first knew them, had to be traversed by
carriage or diligence. On the occasion of my second visit
railways had been laid down in all directions.
Take Quiberon for instance. Never shall I forget that
solitary ride from Auray to Quiberon during my first visit.
I was travelling alone. How matters may be now, I know
not; a generation ago a young Englishwoman wearing watch, chain, and
carrying money, could safely traverse lonely wastes unaccompanied,
her vehicle an old-fashioned calèche, or cart without springs, her
driver a Breton peasant, his bare feet thrust in sabots. The
age of these drivers might vary. Neither young, old, nor
middle-aged would vouchsafe an unnecessary word to their fare.
Sometimes one of these would offer a wayfarer a lift beside him,
chatting with the new-comer. Never through the score and odd
lonely drives of many miles that I thus made had I the least
complaint to make of my conductors. This especial drive I
remember as unusually lonely. Through poor villages we passed,
before every hovel standing a heap of manure and pool of liquid;
ragged, gipsyish children running after the carriage vociferating in
broken French: 'A sou, a sou, if you please,' here and there
wild-looking women looking up from their little flocks of
burnt-sienna-coloured sheep, and before, behind, and around lying
stretches of brown moor ribbed by the action of the sea and tinged
with the gold of gorse and moss. Gloomy knots of pine broke
the steppe-like monotony, and as we approached Fort Penthièvre,
greyish blue sea hemmed us in on either side. At the fort I
alighted and, not encountering a soul, wandered on the cliffs,
perfumed with wild carnations and gorgeous with purple and orange
On the way home all was silent and solitary as the desert,
and the deepening shades of autumn twilight added new mysteriousness
and poetry to the wintered waste, sombre pine-groves, and purpling
sea and sky.
Twenty years later, making the same journey by rail, I found
the waste in many places brought under cultivation and on all sides
signs of material progress. Instead of an unspeakably wild and
poetic drive I jogged along pleasantly, but after humdrum fashion by
railway. And pleasant it was on this Sunday afternoon to see
artisans and peasants with their families taking advantage of the
cheap return tickets.
The approach to Quiberon—tomb of the Vendean War—is
exquisitely beautiful, not less so the bay of smoothest, finest
silvery sand hemming a turquoise sea.
Until the construction of the railway a few years ago,
Quiberon was a mere fishing village, occasionally visited by
tourists on account of its historic interest. Here the
ancien régime may be said to have yielded up the ghost, and its
most determined opponents cannot resist the pathos of such a
tragedy. The place itself is no longer in keeping with
associations so dreary. A lively, fashionable little resort
has sprung up with mushroom swiftness. At the station you are
beset by clamouring representatives of the big new hotels now
grouped around the shore; villa and cottage orné keep them
company; a casino is not wanting; for two or three months in the
year Quiberon is a miniature Étretat!
The 'lazy Laurence' of travel, not seldom the wisest, will
leave the gimcrack of a town behind him and dream away delicious
hours on the shore—a shore most gracefully curved, coast, sea, and
sky lovely as any that inspired Shelley's Italian poems.
Towards the close of the bathing season, that is to say, after the
second week in September, we may have Quiberon and most French
watering-places wholly to ourselves.
During those early travels I still seemed within reach of
Émile Souvestre's Brittany. The figures I encountered on my
long drives across country, in rustic inns or by the seashore, were
every whit as picturesque as those of his story-tellers, chance-met
hosts to whom he owed his store of fairy-tale and legend. But
it was not only native taciturnity and reserve that now sealed their
lips. A generation ago, as Jules Simon has shown, village
schools were all but non-existent in Brittany. These peasants
and seafaring folks could not carry on even an ordinary chat in
Costume as well as physiognomy would often recall the figures
familiar to us in Le Foyer Breton.
Here is an incident that remains fresh in my memory as if it
had happened yesterday. I had driven from Brest to Plougastel,
a mile of winding road bringing us from the ferry to the dingy,
unattractive little town. It was market day and the narrow
ill-paved streets were so encumbered with cattle and their drovers
that it was very difficult to make one's way. The women here
all wore high coifs, and the men looked picturesque enough in their
Spanish-like dress, but on a sudden my guide exclaimed—
'See yonder lad, let us ask him whence he comes.'
The boy, wearing scarlet trousers, green jacket, and broad
hat with coloured streamers, proved to be no Merry Andrew, but a
wedding guest, and his mother, who was also very gaily dressed,
informed us that a double wedding had just taken place and offered
to introduce me to the brides. My guide, the driver hired at
Brest, acted as interpreter, the good people knowing no French
beyond a word or two.
We followed the pair to a very dirty and crowded little inn,
myself waiting outside whilst toasts were being drunk.
Then, all on a sudden out they trooped, brides, bridegrooms,
and wedding guests, and surely no ceremonies in the olden time, no
court pageantries or carnival, ever made up a stranger, more
gorgeous spectacle! The dingy little street blazed with the
dazzling colours, which, whilst bright as dyes could make them and
belonging to garments of fancifullest pattern, were without a touch
of vulgarity or grotesqueness.
The two brides, who were young, fresh-complexioned, and
pretty, were dressed precisely alike. They wore, what from
time immemorial has been the head-dress of the Plougastel matron, a
high cap with lappets, recalling that of Egyptian priestesses,
to-day these caps being of finest cambric. Coquettish little
jackets of soft, gold-green cloth showed undervests of dark blue
cloth, with white muslin sleeves and chemisette. Skirts and
petticoats were numerous, and so worn as to show different hems and
rims of colours, red, yellow, and violet predominating.
Scarlet and gold morocco slippers were worn inside the wooden
sabots. Sleeves, vests, and skirts were elaborately and
tastefully trimmed with silk and gold braid. The dress of the
elder women was soberer, vest and petticoat being of dark violet
cloth with orange and crimson border, dark green vest, open sleeves,
and large white collar covering the chest like a cuirass.
The men wore broad-brimmed felt hats, perhaps three quarters
of a yard in circumference, and trimmed with braids and tassels of
different colours, green cloth jackets embroidered in red, yellow,
or blue, crimson waist-sashes, and full black trousers.
I add that the bridal party insisted upon the English lady
re-entering the unsavoury little hostelry with them and drinking
their health. Indeed one agreeable feature of those early
Breton wanderings was the prevailing cordiality with which I was
received. Not only, as I say, did I undertake long drives and
difficult—even perilous—expeditions in the utmost safety and
comfort, but upon no single occasion was I subjected to extortion or
incivility, but was instead the object of attention.
Here is another remembrance of Brittany as I first knew it.
I was staying at St. Pol de Léon, a place at that time strangely
somnolent, melancholy, unpeopled. Those grass-grown, solitary
streets indeed recalled the enchanted city of Arabian story; one
almost hesitated to enter the cathedral lest the sacristan should be
found turned to stone like the Prince of the Black Isles. I
shall never forget the eerie sound of my own footsteps on the
St. Pol de Léon fascinates all the same, and I was very happy
in the ramshackle old inn despite the rats gambolling about and the
primitiveness of the arrangements. The time was November, but
we were enjoying a temperature of summer. From my windows I
looked upon a garden still full of chrysanthemums and lilies; far
beyond, a group of sea-pines breaking the outlines of sea and
At Roscoff I had a friend's friend, a learnèd Breton doctor.
'You should cross over to the Île de Batz tomorrow in time
for vespers and see the Druidesses,' he said to me one Saturday
afternoon. 'These people are quite unlike any other in
Brittany; they go to mass and are called Catholics, but their real
religion is still the purest Druidism.'
So to see the Druidesses I went.
Next day was soft, bright, and beautiful, the very day for a
little cruise. As I drove to Roscoff we met numbers of
pedestrians trudging to St. Pol in time for mass, all saluting us
with grave politeness. My driver, who could speak very little
French, carried his Sunday clothes with him, which he put on when
arriving, presenting as smart an appearance at church as any.
Before putting to, in the afternoon he again entered the church for
a prayer. What perfect type of the Léonnais was this
peasant—taciturn, dignified, courteous. The crossing to the
Île de Batz on a calm, sunny day is a trifle, but at low tide when
you have to wade for a quarter of a mile across the wet sands it is
not easy. To be on the sea to-day was delicious, and the
unclouded blue sky, deep purple waves, and burnt-sienna-coloured
rocks made up a glowing picture. In the little mail-boat were
about a dozen passengers, all talking Breton as fast as they could.
Among them was one of the so-called 'Druidesses,' or women of the
Île de Batz, a very young woman—though she wore a wedding-ring—who
now very modestly put on the shoes and stockings she had wisely
taken off to get down to the boat. She was a pretty brunette,
and her look of physical strength and animal spirits was delightful
to see. Her dress was severely simple and dignified: skirt of
the softest, finest black French merino made with a plain skirt,
scrupulously white linen habit-shirt with embroidered collar and
sleeves, and a hood of creamy white cashmere, so spotless, soft, and
graceful that a duchess might have put it on to go to the opera.
Arrived at the island, we saw crowds of women and children in this
costume, and men, whose looks betokened their seafaring life—all are
sailors here, whilst the women cultivate the soil—hastening to
vespers, the former loitering outside the church till the last
moment, as is the fashion in English country places. Inside,
the congregation presented so strange an appearance that it was
difficult to believe we were not assisting at some solemn ceremony
instead of an ordinary Sunday service. There was not a bit of
colour in the church except a gay baby's hood, the assemblage of
black-robed, white-hooded women looking more like a concourse of
nuns than ordinary country folks; and the black dress of the men
when they entered did not relieve the monotony.
When Émile Souvestre traversed the country in search of
folklore it was on horseback, by-roads being few and far between.
Twenty-five years ago the solitude and silence of Breton travel
formed a crowning charm. If in these days of added railways,
cosmopolitan hotels, and other innovations travellers fare better
with regard to creature comforts, they lose much, above all the
coming in direct contact with the people.
Here is another experience of the Brittany I first knew.
I dare say if I returned to Pont l'Abbé I should find a smart hotel,
German house-porters in livery, and a service of motor cars to
After a breakfast at the little auberge, which would have
satisfied a Roman epicure, and for which was charged the modest sum
of two francs, I started for Penmarck. The sky, which had
clouded over for a time, brightened, and for the rest of the day we
had a warm west wind, driving light rain-clouds across a pale blue
sky, with breaks of sunshine and occasional rainbows, and rain
drifting down on the distant fields. As we went on, the
scenery grew wilder and wilder; hills and woods were left behind,
and we were now in a wide, dreary, monotonous plain, only broken by
occasional farmsteads, some solitary dolmen or menhir rising with
weird effect from amid brown waste or rudely-tilled fields.
As we drew near, the stately church of the once flourishing
city of Penmarck loomed in the distance. More like a château
than a church, with its fantastic congeries of towers and turrets,
this and the neighbouring ruin of St. Guenole, with a scattered
population of two thousand inhabitants, are all that now remain of
what, in the sixteenth century was a large and busy maritime town,
rivalling in importance Nantes itself, able to send three thousand
archers to the fight, and possessing seven hundred fishing-vessels!
The dukes of Brittany held it to be one of the richest communities
in their duchy, and it was not till the discovery of the great
cod-fisheries of America that its prosperity declined. Now,
nothing can be drearier or more dead-alive than these village
streets, where you meet no one but wild-looking, shaggy peasants,
with broad-brimmed hats slouched over their heads, carting away
seaweed for manure, and unkempt, gipsylike children, who gaze at the
stranger in amazement. When we approach the sea, which for
miles before had glinted and gleamed above the dips in the sombre
marsh around, we heard the roar of the waves beating furiously
against the rock. Three wild little natives take charge of the
horse whilst we alight, and my guide leads me to the edge of the
steep, storm-beaten promontory, along which we wander, now climbing,
now descending the masses of rock heaped together, with many a
fault, as geologists would say; now piled one on the top of the
other as carelessly as the dolmens; now forming shelves and
staircases only to be reached on hands and knees; now a rocky
rampart, steep and unapproachable, against which the blue waves dash
almost tempestuously even on this mild autumn day. The distant
sea was calm almost as a lake, yet columns of spray were sent up
from the purple depths below us with a deep continuous murmur.
What a spectacle must be here on a wild wintry day!
Penmarck is the scene of one of Émile Souvestre's most
striking episodes. Here is yet another sketch of former
experiences, the account of a drive from the sweet little town of
Lannion to Ploumanach:—
'The November day was exquisite—I should say November is the
most charming month for Breton travel—light clouds floated across
the azure sky, and lovely lights and shadows played about the
mellowing woods and hedges. As we drove on, the smiling
landscape was gradually exchanged for wild scenery. The
fishing village of Ploumanach is a collection of hovels, built
pêle-mêle among the masses of rich granite flung about the
shore, as if Titans had here been playing ninepins and suddenly left
off the game. The view from the hill overlooking the village
and sea is magnificent—intense blue waves smooth as a lake, pale
purple islands beyond; and nearer, lying under our feet, houses and
rocks huddled confusedly together; huge fragments, here piled one on
the top of the other, like a child's tower of bricks, there so
closely wedged together as if even an earthquake could not separate
them. Sometimes an enormous slab would be perched,
dolmen-like, on the narrowest point of columnar supports, looking as
if a child's finger could tip it over; at others you might see a
grand monolith, standing alone like some solitary menhir, whilst all
around, near and far, the ground was covered with blocks, cones,
pyramids, every fantastic form that granite can take, making up an
indescribably strange and fantastic scene. The village—if
village it can be called—is very dirty, and to reach the coast you
have to go through a succession of little alleys, wading ankle-deep
through pools of liquid manure. These fisher-folks might,
without any trouble worth mentioning and no expense, have the best
thresholds and stepping-stones in the world, not to speak of
pavements; but they do not so much as lay down a few blocks in front
of their habitations so as to bridge over the invariable black
stream through which they must wade whenever going out or coming in.
But what matters all this? We are soon far too
enraptured at the prospect before us to think of the slough of
despond through which we have passed in order to reach it. A
little way off lay the seven islands or islet rocks, now amethystine
between a turquoise sky and lapis lazuli sea. Not a breath is
stirring this soft summer day—it is the 3rd of November! Yet
the waves here are never at rest, and dash with perpetual murmur
against the glowing sea-walls. As we wandered along the edge
of the cliffs the full splendour and weirdness of the scene became
apparent, the scattered fishing village looking like a collection of
pigmy dwellings amid the gigantic rocks scattered about; turning
seaward, the piled-up masses of fiery red granite forming ramparts,
chasms, precipices innumerable against the purple, white-crested
waves breaking below. Wild geese, sea-ducks, and seagulls were
flying overhead, a few fishing boats were out at sea, whilst
landward the only living things in sight were odd little black
sheep, mere tufts of wool, as it seemed, browsing on the brown hills
above Ploumanach. Which of those lovely little islands is
Avalon, 'where falls not rain, nor hail, nor any snow, nor ever wind
blows loudly,' my guide does not know, but thinks it is Tomé; and
the old keeper of the lighthouse, when I made him understand what I
wanted, for he was very deaf, shook his head, and said, 'Le roi
Arthur? Il n'est pas de ce pays.'
Should I revisit these spots with Le Foyer Breton in
my pocket, I fear the journey would be a succession of
disenchantments. Better, perhaps, to live over again such
experiences in fancy, and to feel thankful—at a distance—that
material well-being has changed the face of the Brittany of my
youth. And if the Brittany of poetry and legend has
disappeared also, it lives again in the pages of Émile Souvestre and
of his great compatriot, Ernest Renan. Like the Breton fabled
city, the Ville d'Is is lying at the bottom of the sea, whose church
bells fishermen hear in still weather; the voice of the ancient
Armorica reaches us; its music is audible in the hum of these busier
AMIENS AND 'VERT-VERT'
HOW many happy
hours have I spent in that delightfullest of French hotels at Amiens
with the umbrageous garden and the storks! The storks, alas!
perished during a severe winter some years ago, but pretty foreign
ducks sport in the basin, and the hotel is still a very haven of
rest with the thermometer at ninety degrees, a breathable, almost
During the heat wave of the present year (August 1906) I
betook myself with a friend to the capital of the Somme, not bent
upon again revelling in its treasures, revisiting its matchless
cathedral with Ruskin for guide, not minded even to stroll through
its magnificent museums, historic collections, and art schools.
My errand was to visit the tomb of its one, its unique poet.
For Vert-Vert stands absolutely alone in French
literature. Nothing like it, or approaching to it, is to be
found throughout the successive stages of that vast treasure-house.
The history of the parrot, every line of which produces our
unreluctant smile, has secured for its author an imperishable niche
in the national Valhalla, and, for the bustling, prosperous,
industrial city of his birth and residence, poetic lustre.
That quiet, shady hotel garden was not to be quitted last
August during the day, but as the sun declined we exchanged its
comparative refreshingness and shadow for the cathedral. Here
all was greyness and a temperature requiring discarded wraps.
The tropical climate of the streets was left completely behind!
Only two or three worshippers knelt here and there in the
vast space; but, as is always the case, a priest with breviary in
hand slowly paced backwards and forwards, keeping, I presume, an eye
upon intruders. When I ventured to ask him the local of
Gresset's tomb, to my surprise he replied in very good English.
'Yonder,' he said with an affable smile as he pointed to a
tablet on one of the side pillars, 'is the monument; the Latin
inscription is short, but very'—hesitating, he finished with a
French word—'very spirituel.'
'Very witty,' I added, giving the first synonym that entered
my head. 'Elegant,' I think, were the better word. The
inscription is to the effect that Gresset, a son of Amiens and
splendid follower of the Muses, born in 1709, died on the 16th June
1777, was interred elsewhere, and re-interred here on the 16th of
August 1811. A verse from the 118th Psalm followed the
Poor Gresset! How happy would he have been could he
have known that his memory would be thus gloriously perpetuated,
generation after generation of the devout having this tribute before
their eyes, the commemorative tablet forming part of the cathedral
And of perverse necessity the poet would have prided himself
more on the monument than the works to which he owed it. Like
Pascal, Gresset could not overcome the dogmatic teachings of early
youth. In his later years he repudiated all claims to literary
fame. His story shows how persistently and how remorselessly
theological narrowness here waged war against intellectual
originality. There is not a line in Vert-Vert, nor even
in the little jeu d'esprit, Le Lutrin Vivant (The Live
Lectern), that can be twisted into real disrespect to religion or
the Church. But unfortunately Gresset had exercised wit and
pleasantry in dealing with ecclesiastical objects and formulas, and
but for tardy recantation he would doubtless have died under
When only twenty-four, Jean Baptiste Louis Gresset, at that
time a student of the Jesuit College of Louis le Grand, Paris,
composed Vert-Vert. The poem, handed about in
manuscript, took the public by storm; the clerical world was
scandalised, and the young author was sent in disgrace to the Jesuit
College of La Flèche in the Sarthe. Soon after, he threw up
alike theology and seminarist's garb, cast in his lot with letters,
established himself in Paris, and wrote play after play, a series of
successes culminating in that of Le Méchant, a piece that to
this day holds its own in the repertory of the Comédie Française.
Gresset, then in the prime of life, returned to Amiens in
1749, there, with the royal permission, founding a literary academy.
Unfortunately for his peace of mind, he was of a vacillating nature,
and falling under the influence of Lamotte, Bishop of Amiens, was
induced to burn all his unpublished manuscripts, and publicly
repudiate his entire works.
But the bishop's action only damaged himself and his
unfortunate pupil. Gresset died a morbid, deluded,
self-deluding devotee. Vert-Vert will delight the world
as long as the tongue survives in which it is penned. Did
leisure permit, and did the task look at all feasible, how
delightful were it to translate into English the serio-comic story
of the immortal parrot who travelled from Nevers to Nantes, falling
into bad company on the way, and, as will happen to mortals, thereby
losing all the good habits acquired in early youth.
Vert-Vert, then, was a parrot, young,
splendid to behold, vivacious, and the most insatiable picker-up of
unconsidered trifles; in other words, imitating every syllable that
fell upon his ears. But as he was the cherished darling of a
convent, that of the Visitandines, he could of course learn only
what was good and seemly; hence his reputation. Indeed, so far
did his fame spread that the abbess of a sister-convent at Nantes
insisted upon having a visit from him. So, amid tears and
kisses of his friends, and heaps of bonbons being supplied
for his journey, Vert-Vert was put on board a barge bound for
the city on the Loire, among the passengers being three dragoons,
two Gascons, with others not likely to be choice in their topics or
words. So, when poor Vert-Vert reached his destination,
what was the horror of the pious sisters when, instead of
deferentially repeating the Benedicite, the Oremus,
and canticles, he broke forth into terrible oaths and expletives
never before profaning such walls. The novices, as they well
might, thought the bird was speaking Greek! Bundled back to
Nevers with a flea in his ear, Vert-Vert underwent a term of
seclusion and bread and water, and when it came to an end, overjoy
and an overdose of sugar-plums causing his death, all his faults
were straightway forgiven. He was buried with every mark of
grief, and an epitaph was composed by the nuns, ending thus--
'Here lies Vert-Vert; here lie all our
There is a lilt, an irresistible engagingness, about
Vert-Vert that impels the reader to go on from start to finish
without a halt. And every line has a frolicsome turn.
The only kind of frolicsomeness worth having, spontaneity and
sparkle, characterises the poem, as they do the twin jeu d'esprit,
The Live Lectern.
Le Méchant is an admirable play, and, amid
many good things, in a single line focusses French idiosyncrasy.
The excellent Géronte has been told by his niece's maid Lisette that
he is a good man.
'I a good man? I am no such thing. What folly!'
he exclaimed with an air of positive affront.
A sermon on French character might be preached from this
text. The dread of appearing hypocritical is a perfect
nightmare to our neighbours.
Gresset as a stylist is well worth attention. As one of
his own critics has written: 'The great merit of Le Méchant
consists in its style and versification. The piece abounds in
verses so well turned, so witty, so concise, so perfect that as we
read we cannot imagine them being expressed in any other way.
So easy are these verses that the ear retains them without an
effort; so concise are they that, like the best sayings of Boileau,
they became minted, proverbial from the first.'
In his satire, Le Pauvre Diable, Voltaire pretty
severely castigates Gresset for his self-pillorying, and also hits
upon the cardinal fault of Le Méchant, namely, its want of
action. Nevertheless a representation at the Français would be
a treat of the first water.
There are bits of French scenery that take hold of the memory
we hardly know why, coming back to us again and again, when
grandiose sites and natural marvels are only recalled by an effort.
And thus it happened with an afternoon drive I took from Amiens upon
another occasion and a little later in the year. That familiar
city so richly dowered in other respects is unblessed in the matter
of climate. Rain falls at Amiens in the maximum proportion,
and the enormous number of factory chimneys render the atmosphere
smoky. Despite its cathedral and noble art collections, the
capital of the Somme can only be fitly enjoyed in fine weather.
Fine weather is also needed for the little excursion I am about to
The great manufacturing city has a double girdle of verdure,
first its handsome boulevards, next its market-gardens, wide belt of
variegated greenery reaching far into the country. Beyond
these, stretch vast sweeps of picturesque but unprofitable country,
meres and marshland, reminding us that at a remote period in
cosmical history Amiens was almost a seaport. Within
comparatively recent times the region now forming the two
departments of the Pas de Calais and the Somme have undergone great
changes owing to the retrogression of the sea, or rather the
encroachment of the land. For a most interesting account of
these transformations, see the papers of M. Charles Lartherie,
Revue des deux Mondes, 1902.
Silent, desolate, without a vestige of cultivation, without a
dwelling in sight, the scenery possesses a weird fascination.
On this brilliant afternoon the succession of watercourses and
lakelets set round with sallows lost all dreariness and gained an
ethereal, fairy-like aspect. Every tiny stream, every mere
caught the tints of burning blue sky, silvery cumuli, and sea-green
willows. And it was hard to say which picture was the
lovelier, the real or its double, as we passed stage after stage of
amphibious landscape, haunt surely of will-o'-the-wisps and water
fays! An hour and a half bring us to the trim little town of
Boves, where a ruined chateau recalls the siege of Amiens in 1597
and the sojourn of Henri Quatre, accompanied of course in war as in
peace by the Belle Gabrielle. A little further and my
destination is reached.
The school is reached by way of a lovely little gorge or
ravine, a clear rivulet gleaming through the thick fringes of poplar
and acacia. Here, on the site of an ancient monastery, waste
lands and reedy marsh have been cleared, and within the last few
years rendered cultivable and productive. In the absence of
the Director, his representative most courteously shows us over the
premises, explaining everything. The school accommodates fifty
students, the cost of board and instruction being adapted to the
purse of the small peasant owner, namely, four hundred francs
yearly. Nine professors constitute the teaching staff, each
school of this kind costing the State at least twenty thousand
francs yearly. The curriculum extends over three years.
Our informant explained to us that the chief difficulty to contend
with is that of obtaining pupils. It is not so much the money
that the peasant farmer grudges but the time, three years of his
son's labour lost to him, added to the three years of military
service. But little by little the minds of the more
intelligent are being opened to the ultimate gain of such loss.
The teaching is both practical and scientific. Farming
generally, stock-breeding, dairying, bee-keeping, fish-rearing,
market-gardening, are all taught by the most approved methods and
with the aid, regardless of cost, of the most approved machinery.
In the class-rooms the pupils acquire the theoretic training
necessary for a farmer—chemistry, land-surveying, geometry, etc.
Students belonging to different classes of society share precisely
the same accommodation. Four ample meals a day are allowed,
the diet being liberal and indeed luxurious compared with that of
the recruit going through his military service. The school is
well worth a visit.
Most picturesque is the homeward drive through this
amphibious region on a September afternoon, at first the little
lake-like mere, flooded with ruddy gold,—wood, water, and sky a
blaze of crimson and in amber,—gradually every feature of the scene
subdued to quiet tints, in keeping with the silvery sallows and soft