A Motor-Flight Through France (Part I)

Edith Wharton reflects on her European travels in the first installment of a three-part series.

This is the first part of a three-part series.
Read part two here and part three here.

Boulogne to Amiens

The motor-car has restored the romance of travel.

Freeing us from the irritating compulsions and contacts of the railway, the bondage to fixed hours and the beaten track, the approach to each town through the area of ugliness and desolation created by the railway itself, it has given us back the wonder, the adventure and the novelty which enlivened the way of our posting grand-parents. Above all these recovered pleasures must be ranked the delight of taking a town unawares, stealing on it by back ways and unchronicled paths, and surprising in it some intimate aspect of past time, some silhouette hidden for half a century or more by the ugly mask of railway embankments and the glass and iron bulk of a huge station. Then the villages that we missed and yearned for from the windows of the train—the unseen villages have been given back to us!—and nowhere could the importance of the recovery be more delightfully exemplified than on a May afternoon in the Pas-de-Calais, as we climbed the long ascent beyond Boulogne on the road to Arras.

It is a delightful country, broken into wide waves of hill and valley, with hedgerows high and leafy enough to bear comparison with the Kentish hedges among which our motor had left us a day or two before; and the villages, the frequent, smiling, happily-placed villages, will also meet successfully the more serious challenge of their English rivals—meet it on other grounds and in other ways, with paved market-places and clipped lime-walks instead of gorse-fringed commons, with soaring belfries instead of square church towers, with less of verdure, but more, perhaps of outline—certainly of line.

The country itself—so green, so full and close in texture, so happily diversified by clumps of woodland in the hollows, and by streams threading the great fields with light—all this, too, has the English, or perhaps the Flemish quality—for the border is close by—with the added beauty of reach and amplitude, the deliberate gradual flow of level spaces into distant slopes, till the land breaks in a long blue crest against the seaward horizon.

There was much beauty of detail, also, in the smaller towns through which we passed: some of them high-perched on ridges that raked the open country, with old houses stumbling down at picturesque angles from the central market-place; others tucked in the hollows, among orchards and barns, with the pleasant country industries reaching almost to the doors of their churches. In the little villages the deep delicious thatch of Normandy overhangs the plastered walls of cottages espaliered with pear-trees, and ducks splash in ponds fringed with hawthorn and laburnum; and in the towns there is almost always some note of character, of distinction—the gateway of a seventeenth century hôtel, the triple arch of a church-front, the spring of an old mossy apse, the stucco and black cross-beams of an ancient guild-house—and always the straight lime-walk, square-clipped or trained en berceau, with its sharp green angles and sharp black shade acquiring a value positively architectural against the high lights of the paved or graveled place. Everything about this rich juicy land in blond light is characteristically Flemish, even to the slow-moving eyes of the peasants, the bursting red cheeks of the children, the drowsy grouping of the cattle in flat pastures; and at Hesdin we felt the architectural nearness of the Low Countries in the presence of a fine town-hall of the late Renaissance, with the peculiar “movement” of volutes and sculptured ornament—lime-stone against warm brick—that one associates with the civic architecture of Belgium: a fuller, less sensitive line than the French architect permits himself, with more massiveness and exuberance of detail.

This part of France, with its wide expanse of agricultural landscape, disciplined and cultivated to the last point of finish, shows how nature may be utilized to the utmost clod without losing its freshness and naturalness. In some regions of this supremely “administered” country, where space is more restricted, or the fortunate accidents of water and varying levels are lacking, the minute excessive culture, the endless ranges of potager wall, and the long lines of “useful” fruit-trees bordering straight interminable roads, may produce in the American traveler a reaction toward the unkempt, a momentary feeling that ragged road-sides and weedy fields have their artistic value. But here in northern France, where agriculture has mated with with poetry instead of banishing it, one understands the higher beauty of land developed, humanized, brought into relation to life and history, as compared with the raw material with which the greater part of our own hemisphere is still clothed. In France everything speaks of long familiar intercourse between the earth and its inhabitants; every field has a name, a history, a distinct place of its own in the village polity; every blade of grass is there by an old feudal right which has long since dispossessed the worthless aboriginal weed.

As we neared Arras the road lost its pleasant windings and ran straight across a great plateau, with an occasional long dip and ascent that never deflected it from its purpose, and the village became rarer, as they always do on the high windswept plains of France. Arras, however, was full of compensations for the dullness of the approach: a charming old gray town, with a great air of faded seventeenth century opulence, in which one would have liked to linger, picking out details of gateway and courtyard, of sculptured masks and wrought-iron balconies—if only a brief peep into the hotel had not so promptly quenched the impulse to spend a night there.

To Amiens therefore we pressed on, passing again, toward sunset, into a more broken country, with lights just beginning to gleam through the windows of the charming duck-pond villages, and tall black crucifixes rising ghostly at the crossroads; and night was obliterating the mighty silhouette of the Cathedral as we came upon it at length by a long descent.

It is always a loss to arrive in a strange town after dark, and miss those preliminary stages of acquaintance that are so much more likely to be interesting in towns than in people; but the deprivation is partly atoned for by the sense of adventure with which, next morning, one casts one’s self upon the unknown. There is no conjectural first impression to be modified, perhaps got rid of: one’s mind presents a blank page for the town to write its name on.

At Amiens the autograph consists of one big word: the cathedral. Other, fainter writing may come out when one has leisure to seek for it; but the predominance of those mighty characters leaves, at first, no time to read between the lines. And here it may be noted that, out of Italy, it takes a town of exceptional strength of character to hold its own against a cathedral. In England, the chapter-house and the varied groupings of semi-ecclesiastical buildings constituting the close, which seem to form a connecting link between town and cathedral, do no more, in reality, than enlarge the skirts of the monument about which they are clustered; and even at Winchester, which has its college and hospital to oppose to the predominance of the central pile, there is, after all, very little dispersal of interest: so prodigious, so unparalleled, as mere feats of human will-power, are these vast achievements of the middle age. In northern France, where the great cathedrals were of lay foundation, and consequently sprang up alone, without the subordinate colony of monastic buildings of which the “close” is a survival—and where, as far as monuments of any importance are concerned, the architectural gap sometimes extends from Louis the Saint to Louis the Fourteenth—the ascendancy of the diocesan church is necessarily even more marked. Rouen alone, perhaps, opposes an effectual defense to this concentration of interest, will not for a moment let itself be elbowed out of the way by the great buttresses of its cathedral; and at Bourges—but Bourges and Rouen come later in this itinerary, and meanwhile here we are, standing, in a sharp shower, under a notaire’s doorway, and looking across the little square at the west front of Amiens.

Well! No wonder such a monument has silenced all competitors. It would take a mighty counter-blast to make itself heard against “the surge and thunder” of that cloud of witnesses choiring forth the glories of the Church Triumphant. Is the stage too crowded?  Is there a certain sameness in the overarching tiers of the stone hierarchy, each figure set in precise alignment with its neighbors, each drapery drawn down within the same perpendicular bounds? Yes, perhaps—if one remembers Reims and Bourges; but if, setting aside such kindred associations, one surrenders one’s self uncritically to the total impression produced, if one lets the fortunate accidents of time and weather count for their full value in that total—for Amiens remains mercifully unscrubbed, and its armies of saints have taken on the richest patina that northern stone can acquire—if one views the thing, in short, partly as a symbol and partly as a “work of nature” (which all ancient monuments by grace of time become), then the front of Amiens is surely one of the most splendid spectacles that Gothic art can show.

On the symbolic side especially it would be tempting to linger; so deeply does the contemplation of the great cathedrals fortify the conviction that their chief value, to this later age, is not so much aesthetic as moral. The world will doubtless always divide itself into two orders of mind: that which sees in past expressions of faith, political, religious or intellectual, only the bonds cast off by the struggle for “more light”; and that which, while moved by the spectacle of the struggle, cherishes also every sign of those past limitations that were, after all, each in its turn, symbols of the same effort toward a clearer vision. To the former kind of mind the great Gothic cathedral will be chiefly interesting as a work of art and a page of history; and it is perhaps proof of the advantage of cultivating the other—the more complex—point of view, in which enfranchisement of thought exists in harmony with atavism of feeling, that it permits one to appreciate these archæological values to the full, yet subordinates them to the more impressive facts of which they are the immense and moving expression. To such minds, the rousing of the sense of reverence is the supreme gifts of these mighty records of mediæval life: reverence for the persistent, slow-moving, far-reaching forces that brought them forth. A great Gothic cathedral sums up so much of history, it has cost so much in faith and toil, in blood and folly and saintly abnegation, it has sheltered such a long succession of lives, given collective voice to so many inarticulate and contradictory cravings, seen so much that was sublime and terrible, or foolish, pitiful and grotesque, that it is like some mysteriously preserved ancestor of the human race, some Wandering Jew grown sedentary and throned in stony contemplation, before whom the fleeting generations come and go.

Yes—reverence is the most precious emotion that such a building inspires: reverence for the accumulated experiences of the past, readiness to puzzle out their meaning, unwillingness to disturb rashly results so powerfully willed, so laboriously arrived at—the desire, in short, to keep intact as many links as possible between yesterday and to-morrow, to lose, in the ardor of new experiment, the least that may be of the long rich heritage of human experience. This, at any rate, might seem to be the cathedral’s word to the traveler from a land which has undertaken to get on without the past, or to regard it only as a “feature” of æsthetic interest, a sight to which one travels rather than a light by which one lives.

The west front of Amiens says this word with a quite peculiar emphasis, its grand unity of structure and composition witnessing as much to constancy of purpose as to persistence of effort. So steadily, so clearly, was this great thing willed and foreseen, that it holds the mind too deeply subject to its general conception to be immediately free for the delighted investigation of detail. But within the building detail asserts itself triumphantly: detail within detail, worked out and multiplied with a prodigality of enrichment for which a counterpart must be sought beyond the Alps. The interiors of the great French cathedrals are as a rule somewhat gaunt and unfurnished, baring their structural nakedness sublimely but rather monotonously to eyes accustomed to the Italian churches “all glorious within.” Here at Amiens, however, the inner decking of the shrine has been piously continued from generation to generation, and a quite extraordinary wealth of adornment bestowed on the choir and its ambulatory. The great sculptured and painted frieze encircling the outer side of the choir is especially surprising in a French church, so seldom were the stone histories lavished on the exterior continued within the building; and it is a farther surprise to find the same tales in bas-relief animating and enriching the west walls of the transepts. They are full of crowded expressive incidents, these stories of local saints and Scriptural parsonages; with a Burgundian richness and elaborateness of costume, and a quite charming, childish insistence on irrelevant episode and detail—the reiterated “And so,” “And then” of the fairy-tale calling off one’s attention into innumerable little side-issues, down which the fancy of fifteenth century worshippers must have strayed, with oh! what blessedness of relief; from the unintelligible rites before the altar.

Of “composition” there is none: it is necessarily sacrificed to the desire to stop and tell everything; to show, for instance, in an interesting parenthesis, exactly what Herod’s white woolly dog was about while Salome was dancing away the Baptist’s head. And thus one is brought back to the perpetually recurring fact that all northern art is anecdotic, and has always been so; and that, for instance, all the elaborate theories of dramatic construction worked out to explain why Shakespeare crowded his stage with subordinate figures and unnecessary incidents, and would certainly, in relating the story of Saint John, have included Herod’s “Tray and Sweetheart” among the dramatis personæ—that such theories are but an unprofitable evasion of the ancient ethnological fact that the Goth has always told his story in that way.

Beauvais and Rouen

The same wonderful white road, flinging itself in great coils and arrow flights across the same spacious landscape, swept us on the next day to Beauvais. If there seemed to be fewer memorable incidents by the way—if the villages had less individual character, over and above their general charm of Norman thrift and cosiness—it was perhaps because the first impression had lost its edge; but we caught fine distant reaches of field and orchard and wooded hillside, giving a general sense that it would be a good land to live in—till all these minor sensations were swallowed up and lost in the overwhelming “experience” of Beauvais.

The town itself—almost purposely, as we felt afterward—failed to put itself forward, to arrest us by any of the minor arts which Arras, for instance, had so seductively exerted. It maintained an attitude of blank aloofness, of affected ignorance of the traveller’s object in visiting it—suffering its little shuttered noncommittal streets to lead us up, torturously, to the drowsiest little provincial place, with the usual lime-arcades, and the usual low houses across the way; where suddenly there soared before us the great mad broken dream of Beauvais choir—the cathedral without a nave—the Kubla Khan of architecture. …

It seems in truth like some climax of mystic vision, miraculously caught in visible form, and arrested, broken off, by the intrusion of the inevitable Person from Porlock—in this case, no doubt, the panic-stricken mason, crying out to the entranced creator, “We simply can’t keep it up!” And because it literally couldn’t be kept up—as one or two alarming collapses soon attested—it had to check there its great wave of stone, hold itself forever back from breaking into the long ridge of the nave and the flying crests of buttress, spire and finial. It is easy for the critic to point out its structural defects, and to cite them in illustration of the fact that your true artist never seeks to wrest from their proper uses the materials in which he works—does not, for instance, try to render metaphysical abstractions in stone and glass and lead; yet Beauvais has at least none of the ungainliness of failure: it is like a great hymn interrupted, not one in which the voices have flagged; and to the desultory mind such attempts seem to deserve a place among the fragmentary glories of great art. It is, at any rate, an example of what the Gothic spirit, pushed to its logical conclusion, strove for: the utterance of the unutterable; and he who condemns Beauvais has tacitly condemned the whole theory of art from which it issued. But shall we not have gained greatly in our enjoyment of beauty, as well as in serenity of spirit, if, instead of saying “this is good art,” or “this is bad art,” we say “this is classic” and “that is Gothic”—this transcendental, that rational—using neither term as an epithet of opprobrium or restriction, but content, when we have performed the act of discrimination, to note what forms of expression each tendency has worked out for itself?

Beyond Beauvais the landscape becomes so deeply Norman that one seemed, by contracts, not to have been in Normandy before—though, as far as the noting of detail went, we did not really get beyond Beauvais at all, but travelled on imprisoned in that tremendous memory till abruptly, from the crest of a tedious hill, we looked down a long green valley to Rouen shining on its river—all its belfries and spires and great arched bridges drenched with a golden sunset that seemed to shoot skyward from the long illuminated reaches of the Seine. I recall only two such magic descents on famous towns: that on Orvieto, from the Viterbo road, and the other—pitched in a minor key, but full of a small ancient majesty—the view of Wells in its calm valley, as the Bath road gains the summit of the Mendip Hills.

The poetry of the descent to Rouen is, unhappily, dispelled by the long approach through sordid and interminable outskirts. Orvieto and Wells, being less prosperous, do not subject the traveler to this descent into prose, which leaves one reflecting mournfully on the incompatibility, under our present social system, between prosperity and beauty. As for Rouen itself, as one passes down its crowded tram-lined quays, between the noisy unloading of ships and the clatter of innumerable cafés, one feels that the old Gothic town one used to know cannot really exist any more, must have been elbowed out of place by these spreading commercial activities; but it turns out to be there, after all, holding almost intact, behind the dull mask of modern streets, the surprise of its rich mediævalism.

Here indeed the traveler finds himself in no mere “Cathedral town:” with one street leading to Saint Ouen, another to Saint Maclou, a third to the beautiful Hôtel de Ville, the Cathedral itself has put forth the appeal of all its accumulated treasures to make one take, first of all, the turn to its doors. There are few completer impressions in Europe than that to be received as one enters the Lady Chapel of Rouen, where an almost Italian profusion of color and ornament have been suffered to accumulate slowly about its central ornament—the typically northern monument of the Cardinal of Amboise. There could hardly be a better example of the æsthetic wisdom of “living and letting live” than is manifested by the happy way in which supposedly incompatible artistic ideals have managed to make bon ménage in this delicious corner. It is a miracle that they have been allowed to pursue their happy experiment till now, for there must have been moments when, to the purist of the Renaissance, the Gothic tomb of the Cardinal seemed unworthy to keep company with the Commandant de Bréze’s monument, in which the delicate note of classicalism reveals a France so profoundly modified by Italy; just as, later, the great Berniniesque altar-piece, with its twisted columns and exuberance of golden rays, must have narrowly escaped the axe of the Gothic reactionary. But there they all are, blending their supposed discords in a more complex harmony, filling the privileged little edifice with an overlapping richness of hue and line through which the eye perpetually passes back to the great central splendor of the Cardinal’s tomb.

A magnificent moment it is, opposing to the sober beauty of Germain Pilon’s composition its insolence of varied detail—the “this, and this, and this” of the loquacious mediæval craftsman—all bound together by the new constructive sense which has already learned how to bring the topmost bud of the marble finials into definite relation with the little hood mourners bowed in such diversity of grief in their niches below the tomb. A magnificent monument—and to my mind the finest thing about it is the Cardinal’s nose. The whole man is fine in his sober dignity, humbly conscious of the altar toward which he faces, arrogantly aware of the purple that flows form his shoulders; and the nose is the epitome of the man. We live in the day of little noses: that once stately feature, intrinsically feudal and aristocratic in character—the maschio naso extolled of Dante—has shrunk to democratic insignificance, like many another fine expression of individualism. And so one must look to the old painters and sculptors to see what a nose was meant to be—the prow of the face; the evidence of its owner’s standing, of his relation to the world, and his inheritance from the past. Even in the profile of the Cardinal Nephew, kneeling a little way behind his uncle, the gallant feature is seen to have suffered a slight diminution: its spring, still bold, is less commanding, it seems, as it were, to have thrust itself against a less yielding element. And so the deterioration has gone on from generation to generation, till the nose has worn itself blunt against the increasing resistances of a democratic atmosphere, and stunted, atrophied and amorphous, serves only, now, to let us know when we have the influenza.

With the revisiting of the Cardinal’s nose the first object of our visit to Rouen had been accomplished; the second led us, past objects of far greater importance, to the well-arranged but dull gallery where Gerhard David’s “Virgin of the Grapes” is to be seen. Every wanderer through the world has these pious pilgrimages to perform, generally to shrines of no great note—how often, for instance, is one irresistibly drawn back to the Transfiguration or to the Venus of Milo?—but to lesser works, first seen, perhaps, at a fortunate moment, or having some special quality of suggestion and evocation that the perfect equilibrium of the masterpieces causes them to lack. So I know of some who go first to “The Death of Procris” in the National Gallery; to the little “Apollo and Marsyas” of the Salon Carré; to a fantastic allegorical picture, subject and artist unknown, in an obscure corner of the Uffizi; and who would travel more miles to see again, in the little gallery of Rimini, an Entombment of the school of Mantegna, than to sit beneath the vault of the Sistine.

All of which may seem to imply an unintentional disparagement of Gerhard David’s picture, which is, after all, a masterpiece of its school; but the school is a subordinate one, and, save to the student of Flemish art, his is not a loud-sounding name: one does not say, for instance, with any hope of general recognition—“Ah, yes; that reminds me of such and such a bit in The Virgin of the Grapes.”

All the more therefore, may one enjoy his picture, in the empty room of the Rouen gallery, with that gentle sense of superiority and possessorship to which the discerner of obscure merit is surely entitled. How much of its charm this particular painting owes to its not having become the picnic ground of the art-excursionist, how much to its own intrinsic beauty, its grave serenities of huc and gesture—how much, above all, to the heavenly translucence of that bunch of grapes plucked from the vines of Paradise—it is part of its very charm to leave unsettled, to keep among the mysteries whereby it draws one back. Only one trembles lest it should cease to shine in its own twilight heaven when it has become a star in Baedeker. …

From Rouen to Fontainebleau

The Seine, two days later, by the sweetest curves, drew us on from Rouen to Les Andelys, past such bright gardens terraced above its banks, such moist poplar-fringed islands, such low green promontories deflecting its silver flow, that we continually checked the flight of the motor, pausing here, and here, and here again, to note how France understands and enjoys and lives with her rivers.

With her great past, it seems, she has partly ceased to live; for, ask as we would, we could not, that morning, learn the way to King Richard’s Château Gaillard on the cliff above Les Andelys. Every turn from the Route de Paris seemed to lead straight into the unknown; “mais c’est tout droit pour Paris” was the invariable answer when we asked our way. Yet a few miles off were two of the quaintest towns of France—the Little and Great Andely—surmounted by a fortress marked an epoch in military architecture, and associated with the fortunes of one of the most romantic figures in history; and we knew that if we clung to the windings of the Seine they must lead us, within a few miles, to the place we sought. And so, having with difficulty disentangled ourselves from the Route de Paris, we pushed on, by quiet by-roads and unknown villages, by manoirs of gray stone peeping through high thickets of lilac and laburnum, and along shady river-reaches where fishermen dozed in their punts, and cattle in the meadow-grass beneath the willows—till the soft slopes broke abruptly into tall cliffs shaggy with gorse, and the easy flow of the river was forced into a sharp twist at their base. There is something fantastic in this sudden change of landscape near Les Andelys from the familiar French river-scenery to what might be one of Piero della Francesca’s backgrounds of strangely-fretted rock and scant black vegetation; while the Seine, roused from its progress through yielding meadows, takes a majestic bond toward the Little Andely in the bay of the cliffs, and then sweeps out below the height on which Cœur-de-Lion planted his subtly-calculated bastions.

Ah—poor fluttering rag of a ruin, so thin, so time-worn, so riddled with storm and shell, that it droops on its rock like a torn banner with forgotten victories in its folds! How much more eloquently these tottering stones tell their story, how much deeper into the past they take us, than the dapper weather-tight castles—Pierrefonds, Carcassonne, and the rest—on which the arch-restorer has worked his will, reducing them to mere Museum specimens, archæological toys, from which all the growths of time have been ruthlessly stripped! The eloquence of the Château Gaillard lies indeed just there—in its telling us so discursively, so plaintively, the whole story of the centuries—how long it has stood, how much it has seen, how far the world has travelled since then, and to what a hoarse cracked whisper the voice of feudalism and chivalry has dwindled. …

The town that once cowered under the protection of those fallen ramparts still groups its stout old houses about a church so gray and venerable, yet so sturdily planted on its ancient piers, that one might fancy its compassionately bidding the poor ghost of a fortress come down and take shelter beneath its vaultings. Commune and castle, they have changed places with the shifting fortunes of the centuries, the weak growth of the town outstripping the arrogant brief bloom of the fortress—Richard’s “fair daughter of one year”—which had called it arbitrarily into being. The fortress itself is now no more than one of the stage-properties of the Muse of History; but the town, poor little accidental offshoot of a military exigency, has built up a tiny life for itself, become an abiding centre of human activities—though, by an accident in which the traveler cannot but rejoice, it still keeps, in spite of its sound masonry and air of ancient health, that almost unmodernized aspect which makes some little French burghs recall he figure of a lively centenarian, with all his “faculties” still active, but wearing the dress of a former day.

Regaining the Route de Paris, we passed once more into the normal Seine landscape, with smiling rustic towns close-set on its banks, with lilac and wisteria pouring over high walls, with bright little cafés on sunny village squares, with flotillas of pleasure-boats waiting under willow-shaded banks for their holiday freight.

Never more vividly than in this Seine country does one feel the amenity of French manners, the long process of social adaptation which has produced so profound and general an intelligence of life. Every one we passed on our way, from the canal-boatman to the white-capped baker’s lad, form the marchande des quatre saisons to the white dog curled philosophically under her cart, from the pastry-cook putting a fresh plate of brioches in his appetizing window  to the curé’s bonne who had just come out to drain the lettuce on the curé’s doorstep—all these persons (under which designation I specifically include the dog) took their ease or pursued their business with that cheerful activity which proceeds from an intelligent acceptance of given conditions. They each had their established niche in life, the frankly-avowed interests and preoccupations of their order, their pride in the smartness of the canal-boat, the seductions of the show-window, the glaze of the brioche, the crispness of the lettuce. And this admirable fitting into the pattern, which seems almost as if it were a moral outcome of the universal French sense of form, has led the race to the happy, the momentous discovery that good manners are a short cut to one’s goal, that they lubricate the wheels of life instead of obstructing them. This discovery—the result, as it strikes one, of the application of the finest of mental instruments to the muddled process of living—seems to have illuminated not only the social relation but its outward, concrete expression, producing a finish in the material setting of life, a kind of amiable conformity in inanimate things—forming, in short, the background of the spectacle through which we pass, the canvas on which it is painted, and expressing itself no less in the trimness of each individual garden than in that insistence on civic dignity and comeliness so miraculously maintained, through every torment of political passion, every change of social conviction, by a people resolutely addressed to the intelligent enjoyment of living.

This is the first part of a three-part series.
Read part two here and part three here.