A Motor-Flight Through France (Part II)

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

This is the second part of a three-part series.
Read part one here and part three here.

From Rouen to Fontainebleau (Continued)

By Vernon, with its trim lime walks en berceau, by Mantes with its bright gardens, and the graceful over-restored church which dominates its square, we passed on to Versailles, forsaking the course of the Seine that we might have a glimpse of the country about Fontaine-bleau.

At the top of the Route du Buc, which climbs by sharp windings from the Place du Château at Versailles, one comes upon the great arches of the aqueduct of Buc—one of the monuments of that splendid folly which created the “Golden House” of Louis XIV, and drew its miraculous groves and gardens from the waterless plain of Versailles. The aqueduct, forming part of the extravagant scheme of irrigation of which the Machine de Marly and the great canal of Maintenon commemorate successive disastrous phases, frames, in its useless lofty openings, such charming glimpses of the country to the southwest of Versailles, that it takes its place among those abortive architectural experiments which seem, after all, to have been completely justified by time.

The landscape upon which the arches look is a high-lying region of wood and vale, with châteaux at the end of long green vistas, and old flowery villages tucked into folds of the hills. At the first turn of the road above Versailles the well-kept suburbanism of the Parisian environ gives away to the real look of the country, — well-kept and smiling still, but tranquil and sweetly shaded, with big farmyards, quiet country lanes, and a quiet country look in the peasants’ faces.

In passing through some parts of France one wonders where the inhabitants of the châteaux go to when they emerge from their gates—so interminably, beyond those gates, do the flat fields, divided by straight unshaded roads, reach out to every point of the compass; but here the wooded undulations of the country, the friendliness of the villages, the recurrence of big rambling farmsteads—some, apparently, the remains of fortified monastic granges—all suggest the possibility of something resembling the English rural life, with its traditional ties between the park and the fields.

The brief journey between Versailles and Fontainebleau offers—if one takes the longer way, by Saint Rémy-les-Chevreause and Etampes—a succession of charming impressions, more varied than one often finds in a long day’s motor-run through France; and midway one comes upon the splendid surprise of Dourdan.

Ignorance is not without its æsthetic uses; and to drop down into the modest old town without knowing—or having forgotten, if one prefers to put it so—the great castle of Philip Augustus, which, moated, dungeoned, ivy-walled, still possesses its peaceful central square—to come upon this vigorous bit of mediæval arrogance, with the little houses of Dourdan still ducking their humble roofs to it in an obsequious circle—well! to taste the full flavor of such sensations, it is worth while to be of a new country, where the last new grain-elevator or office building is the only monument that receives homage from the surrounding architecture.

Dourdan, too, has the crowning charm of an old inn facing its château-fort—such an inn as Manon and des Grieux dined in on the way to Paris—where, in a large courtyard shaded by trees, one may feast on strawberries and cheese at a table enclosed in clipped shrubs, with dogs and pigeons amicably prowling for crumbs, and the host and hostess, their maid-servants, ostlers and marmitons breakfasting at another long table, just across the hedge. Now that the demands of the motorist are introducing modern plumbing and Maple furniture into the uttermost parts of France, these romantic old inns, where it is charming to breakfast, if precarious to sleep, are becoming as rare as the mediæval keeps with which they are, in a way, contemporaneous; and Dourdan is fortunate in still having two such perfect specimens to attract the attention of the archæologist.

Etampes, our next considerable town, seemed by contrat rather featureless and disappointing; yet, for that very reason, so typical of the average French country town—dry, compact, unsentimental, as if avariciously hoarding a long rich past—that its one straight gray street and squat old church will hereafter always serve for the ville de province background in my staging of French fiction. Beyond Etampes, as one approaches Fontaine-bleau, the scenery grows extremely picturesque, with bold outcroppings of blackened rock, fields of golden broom, groves of birch and pine—first hints of the fantastic sandstone scenery of the forest. And presently the long green aisles opened before us in all the freshness of spring verdure—tapering away right and left to distant ronds-points, to mossy stone obelisks—and leading us toward sunset to the old town in the heart of the forest.

The Loire and the Indre

Fountainebleau is charming in May, and at no season do its countless glades more invitingly detain the wanderer; but it belonged to the familiar, the already-experienced part of our itinerary, and we had to press on to the unexplored. So after a day’s roaming of the forest, and a short flight to Moret, mediævally seated in its stout walls on the poplar-edged Loing, we started on our way to the Loire.

Here, too, our wheels were still on beaten tracks; though the morning’s flight across country to Orléans was meant to give us a glimpse of a new region. But on that unhappy morning Boreas was up with all his pack, and hunted us savagely across the naked plain, now behind, now on our quarter, now dashing ahead to lie in ambush behind a huddled village, and leap on us as we rounded its last house. The plain stretched on interminably, and the farther it stretched the harder the wind raced us; so that Pithiviers, spite of dulcet associations, appeared to our shrinking eyes only as a wind-break, eagerly striven for and too soon gained and passed: and when, at luncheon-time, we beat our way, spent and wheezing into Orléans, even the serried memories of that venerable city endeared it to us less than the fact that it had an inn where we might at last find shelter.

The above wholly inadequate description of an interesting part of France will have convinced any rational being that motoring is no way to see the country. And that morning it certainly was not; but then, what of the afternoon? When we rolled out of Orléans after luncheon, both the day and the scene had changed; and what other form of travel could have brought us into such delightful communion with the spirit of the Loire as our smooth flight along its banks in the bland May air? For, after all, if the motorist sometimes misses details by going too fast, he sometimes has them stamped into his memory by an opportune puncture or a recalcitrant “magneto;” and if, on windy days, he has to rush through nature blindfold, on golden afternoons such as this he can drain every drop of her precious essence.

Certainly we got a great deal of the Loire as we followed its windings that day: a great sense of the steely breadth of its flow, the amenity of its shores, the sweet flatness of the richly gardened and vineyarded landscape, as of a highly cultivated but slightly insipid society; an impression of long white villages and of stout conical towns on little hills; of old brown Beaugency in its cup between two heights, and Madame de Pompadour’s Ménars on its bright terraces; of Blois, nobly bestriding the river at a noble bend; and farther south, of yellow cliffs honeycombed with strange dwellings; of Chaumont and Amboise gallantly crowning their heaped-up towns; of manoirs, walled gardens, rich pastures, willowed islands; and then, toward sunset, of another long bridge, a brace of fretted church-towers, and the widespread roofs of Tours.

Had we visited by rail the principal places named in this itinerary, necessity would have detained us longer in each, and we should have had a fuller store of specific impressions; but we should have missed what is, in one way, the truest initiation of travel, the sense of continuity, of relation between different districts, of familiarity with the unnamed, unhistoried region stretching between successive centres of human history, and exerting, in deep unnoticed ways, so persistent an influence on the turn that history takes. And after all—though some people seem to doubt the fact—it is possible to stop a motor and get out of it; and if, on our way down the Loire, we exercised this privilege, infrequently, it was because, here again, we were in a land of old acquaintance, of which the general topography was just the least familiar part.

It was not till, two days later, we passed out of Tours—not, in fact, till we left to the northward the towered pile of Loches—that we found ourselves once more in a new country. It was a cold day of high clouds and flying sunlight: just the sky to overarch the wide rolling landscape through which the turns of the Indre were leading us. To the south, whither we were bound, lay the Berry—the land of George Sand; while in the northwest, low aclivities sloped away toward the Beauce, with villages shining on their sides. One arrow of sunlight, I remember, transfixed for a second an unknown town on one of these slopes: a town of some consequence, with walls and towers that flashed far-off and mysterious across the cloudy plain. Who has not been tantalized in travelling, by the glimpse of such cities—unnamed, undiscoverable afterward by the minutest orientations of map and guide-book? Certainly, to the uninitiated, no hill-town is visible on that particularly level section of the map of France; yet there sloped the hill, there shone the town—not a moment’s mirage, but the companion of an hour’s travel, dominating the turns of our road, beckoning to us across the increasing miles, and causing me to vow, as we lost the last glimpse of its towers, that next year I would go back and make it give up its name.

But now we were approaching a town with a name—a name so encrusted and overgrown with associations that it was undeniably disappointing, as we reached its outskirts, to find Châteauroux—aside from its fine old château on the Indre—so exactly like other dull French towns, so provokingly unconscious of being one of the capital cities of literature. And it seems, in fact, literally as well as figuratively unaware of its distinction. Fame throws its circles so wide that it makes not a ripple near home; and even the alert landlady of the Hôtel Sainte Catherine wrinkled her brows perplexedly at our question: “Is one permitted to visit the house of George Sand?”

Le château de George Sand? (A pause of reflection.) C’est l’écrivain, n’est-ce pas? (Another pause.) C’est à Nohant, le château? Mais, Madame, je ne saurais vous le dire.”

Yet here was the northern gate of the Sand country—it was here that, for years, the leaders of the most sedentary profession of a sedentary profession of a sedentary race—the hommes de lettres of France—descended from the Paris express, and took diligence on their pilgrimage to the oracle. When one considers the fatigue of the long day’s railroad journey, and the French dread of déplacements, the continual stream of greatness that Paris poured out upon Nohant gives the measure of what Nohant had to offer in return.

As we sat at breakfast in the inn dining-room we irreverently pictured some of these great personages—Liszt, Sainte-Beuve, Gautier, Dumas fils, Flaubert—illustrious figures in the queer dishabille of travel, unwinding strange cache-nez, solicitous for embroidered carpet-bags, seated in that very room over their coffee and omelette, or climbing to the coupé of the diligence outside. And then we set out on the same road.

Straight as an arrow, after the unvarying fashion of the French government highway, it runs southeast through vast wheatfields, past barns and farmhouses grouped as in the vanished “drawing-books” of infancy—now touching, now deserting the Indre banks, as the capricious river throws its poplar-edged loops across the plain. But presently we began to mount insensibly; till at length a sharp turn, and an abrupt fall of the land, brought us out on a long ridge above the plain of the Berry, with the river reappearing below, and far, far south a blue haze of mountains.

The road, after that, descends again by gentle curves, acquainting one gradually with the charming details of the foreground—pale-green copses, fields hedged with blossoming hawthorn, long lines of poplars in the plain—while, all the way, the distant horizon grows richer, bluer and more mysterious. It is a wide lonely country, with infrequent villages—mere hamlets—dotting the fields; one sees how the convivial Dudevant, coming from the livelier Gascony, might have found it, for purposes of pot-house sociability, a little thinly-settled. At one of these small lonely villages—Vicq—just where the view spreads widest, the road loses it again by a gradual descent of a mile or so; and at the foot of the hill, among hawthorn and lilac hedges, through the boughs of budding trees, a high slate roof shows to the left—the roof of a solitary plain-faced, fawn-colored house, the typical gentilhommière of the French country-side.

No other house is in sight: only, from behind the trees, peep two or three humble tiled cottages, dependencies of the larger pile. There is nothing to tell us the name of the house—nothing to signalize it, to take it out of the common. It stands there large, placid, familiarly related to the high-road and the farm, like one side of the extraordinary woman it sheltered; and perhaps that fact helps to suggest its name, to render almost superfluous our breathless question to the pretty goose-girl knitting under the hedge.

Mais oui. Madame—c’est Nohant.

The goose-girl—pink as a hawthorn-bud, a “kerchief” tied about her curls—might really, in the classic phrase of sentimental travel, have “stepped out” of one of the novels written yonder, under the high roof to which she pointed: she had the honest savor of the terroir, yet with that superadded grace that the author of the novels has been criticised for bestowing upon her peasants. She formed, at any rate, a charming link between our imaginations and the famous house; and we presently found that the happy miracle which had preserved her in all her 1830 grace had been extended to the whole privileged spot, which seemed, under a clear glass bell of oblivion, to have been kept intact, unchanged, like some wonderful “exhibit” illustrative of the extraordinary history lived within it.

The house faces diagonally toward the road, from which a high wall once screened it; but it is written in the Histoire de ma vie that M. Dudevant, in a burst of misdirected activity, threw down several yards of this wall, and filled the opening with a hedge. The hedge is still there; and thanks to the impulse of destruction, the traveler obtains a glimpse of grass terraces and stone steps, set in overgrown thickets of lilac, hawthorn and acarcia, and surmounted by the long tranquil front of the château. On each side, beyond the stretch of hedge, the wall begins again; terminating, at one corner of the property, in a massive old cow-stable with a round pepper-pot tower; at the opposite end in a charming conical-roofed garden-pavilion, with mossy steps ascending to it from the road.

At right angles to the highway, a shady lane leads down past the farm buildings; and following this, one comes around their flank, upon a large pleasant untidy farm-yard, full of cows and chickens, and divided by the long range of the communs from the entrance-court of the château. Farm-yard and court both face on a small grassy place—what, in England, would pass for a diminutive common—in the centre of which, under an ancient walnut-tree, stands a much more ancient church—a church so tiny, black and shrunken, that it somehow suggests a blind old peasant-woman mumbling and dozing in the shade. This is the parish church of Nohant; and a few yards from it, adjoining the court of the château, lies the little walled graveyard which figures so often in the Histoirede ma vie, and where she who described it now rests with her kin. The graveyard is defended from intrusion by a high wall and a locked gate; and after all her spirit is not there, but in the house and the garden—above all, in the little cluster of humble old cottages enclosing the shady place about the church, and constituting, apparently, the whole village of Nohant. Like the goose-girl, these little houses are surprisingly picturesque and sentimental; and their mossy roofs, their clipped yews, the old white-capped women who sit spinning on their doorsteps, supply almost too ideal an answer to one’s hopes.

And when, at last, excitedly and enchantedly, one has taken in the quiet perfection of it all, and turned to confront the great question: Does a sight of Nohant deepen the mystery, or elucidate it? — one can only answer, in the cautious speech of the New England casuist: Both. For if it helps one to understand one side of George Sand’s life, it seems actually to cast a thicker obscurity over others—even if, among the different sides contemplated, one includes only those directly connected with the place, and not the innumerable facets that reflected Paris, Venice, Fontaine-blaue and Majorca.

The first surprise is to find the place, on the whole, so much more—shall one say?—dignified and descent, so much more conscious of social order and restraints, than the early years of the life led in it. The pictures of Nohant in the Histoire de ma vie are unlike any other description of French provincial manners at that period, suggesting rather an affinity with the sombre Brontë background than the humdrum but conventional and orderly existence of the French rural gentry.

When one recalls the throng of motley characters who streamed in an out of that quiet house—the illegitimate children of both sides, living in harmony with one another and with the child of wedlock, the too-intimate servants, the peasant playmates, the drunken boon companions—when one turns to the Hogarthian pictures of midnight carouses presided over by the uproarious Hippolyte and the sombrely tippling Dudevant, while their wives sat disgusted, but apparently tolerant, above stairs, one feels one’s self in the sinister gloom of Wildfell Hall rather than in the light, temperate air of a French province. And somehow, unreasonably of course, one expects the house to bear, even outwardly, some mark of that dark disordered period, — or, if not, then of the cheerful but equally incoherent and inconceivable existence led there when timid Madame Dudevant was turning into the great George Sand, and the strange procession which continued to stream through the house was composed no longer of drunken gentlemen-farmers and left-handed peasant relations, but of an almost equally fantastic and ill-assorted company of ex-priests, naturalists, journalists, Saint-Simonians, riders of every conceivable religious, political and literary hobby, among whom the successive tutors of the adored Maurice—forming in themselves a line as long as the kings in Macbeth!—perhaps take the palm for oddness of origin and adaptability of conduct.

One expected the scene of these confused and incessant comings and goings to wear the injured déclassé air of a house which has never had its rights respected—a house long accustomed to jangle its dinner-bell in vain, and swing its broken hinges unheeded; and instead, one beholds this image of aristocratic well-being, this sober edifice, conscious in every line of its place in the social scale, of its obligations to the church and cottages under its wing, its rights over the acres surround it. And so one may, not too fancifully, recognize in it the image of those grave ideals to which George Sand gradually conformed the passionate experiment of her life; may even indulge one’s self by imagining that an old house so marked in its very plainness, its conformity, must have exerted, over a mind as sensitive as hers, an unperceived but persistent influence, giving her that centralizing weight of association and habit which is too often lacking in modern character, and standing ever before her as the shrine of those household pieties to which, inconsistently enough, but none the less genuinely, the devotion of her last years was paid.

Nohant to Clermont

There happened to us, on leaving Nohant, what had happened after Beauvais: the quiet country house by the roadside, like the mighty Gothic choir, possessed our thoughts to the exclusion of other impressions. As far as La Châtre, indeed—the little town on the Indre, where young Madame Dudevant spent a winter to further her husband’s political ambitions—we were still within the Nohant radius; and it was along the straight road we were travelling that poor old Madame Dupin de Francueil—si douillette that she could hardly make the round of the garden—fled in her high-heeled slippers on the fatal night when her son, returning from a gay supper at Châtre, was flung from his horse and killed at the entrance to the town. These scenes from the Histoire de ma vie are so vivid, they live so poignantly in memory, that in reliving them on the spot one feels, with Goncourt, how great their writer would have been had her intrepid pen more often remained dans le vrai.

La Châtre is a charming town, with a remarkably picturesque approach, on the Nohant side, across an old bridge out of which an old house, with a steep terraced garden, seems to grow with the conscious pleasure of well-grouped masonry; and the streets beyond have an air of ripe experience tempered by gaiety, like that of those ironic old eighteenth-century faces wherein the wrinkles are as gay as dimples.

Southward from La Châtre, the road runs through a beautiful hilly country to Montluçon on the Cher: a fine old border town, with a brave fighting past, and interesting relics of Bourbon ascendancy; but now deeply, irretrievably disfigured by hideous factories and long grimy streets of operatives’ houses. In deploring the ravages of modern industry on one of these rare old towns, it is hard to remember that they are not museum pieces, but settlements of human beings with all the normal desire to prosper at whatever cost to the physiognomy of their birthplace; and Montluçon in especial seems to have been a very pelican to the greed of her offspring.

We had meant to spend the night there, but there was a grimness about the inn—the special grimness of which the commercial travellers’ hotel in the French manufacturing town holds the depressing monopoly—that forbade even a glance at the bedrooms; and though it was near sunset we pressed on for Vichy. We had, in consequence, but a cold twilight glimpse of the fine gorge of Montaigut, through which the road cuts its way to Gannat, the first town to the north of the Limagne; and night had set in when we traversed the plain of the Allier. On good French roads, however, a motor-journey by night is not without its special compensations; and our dark flight through mysterious fields and woods terminated, effectively enough, with the long descent down a leafy lamp-garlanded boulevard into the inanimate white watering-place.

Vichy, in fact, had barely opened the shutters of its fashionable hotels: the real season does not begin till June, and in May only a few premature bathers—mostly English—shiver in corners of the marble halls, or disconsolately peruse last year’s news in the deserted reading-rooms. But even in this semi-chrysalis stage the town presented itself, the next morning, as that rarest of spectacles—grace triumphant over the processes of the toilet. Only a pretty woman and a French ville d’eau can look really charming in morning dishabille; and the way in which Vichy accomplishes the feat would be a lesson to many pretty women.

The place, at all seasons, is an object-lesson to less enlightened municipalities; and when one finds one’s self vainly wishing that art and history, and all the rich tapestry of the past, might somehow be brought before the eyes of our self-sufficient millions, one might pause to ask if the sight of a well-kept, self-respecting French town, carefully and artistically planned as a setting to the amenities of life, would not, after all, offer the more salutatory and surprising example.

Vichy, even among French towns, stands out as a singularly finished, specimen of what such municipal pride can accomplish. From its spacious plane-shaded promenade, flanked by bright-faced hotels, and by the long arcades of the Casino, to the park on the Allier, and the broad circumjacent boulevards, it wears, at every turn, the same trim holiday air, the rouge and patches of smooth gravel, bright flower-borders, gay shops, shady benches, inviting cafés. Even the cab-stands, with their smart vis-à-vis and victorias drawn by plump cobs in tinkling harnesses, seem part of a dream-town, where all that is usually sordid and shabby has been touched by the magic wand of trimness; or where some Utopian millionaire has successfully demonstrated that the sordid and shabby need never exist at all.

But to the American observer, Vichy is perhaps most instructive just because it is not the millionaire’s wand which has worked the spell; because the town owes its gaiety and its elegance, not to the private villa, the rich man’s “show-place,” but to wise public expenditure of the money which the fashionable bathers annually pour into its exchequer.

It was, however, rather for the sake of its surroundings than for the study of its unfolding season, that we had come there; and the neighboring country offered the richest return for our enterprise. From the plain of the Limagne the hills slope up behind Vichy in a succession of terraces divided by joyous streams and deeply-wooded glens, and connected by the interlacing of admirable roads that civilizes the remotest rural districts of France.

Climbing by gradual heights to the hill-village of Ferrières, we had, the day after our arrival, our first initiation into what the near future held for us—a glorious vision, across the plain, of the Monts de Dôme. The blue mountain haze that had drawn us steadily southward, from our first glimpse of it on the heights of the Berry, now resolved itself into a range of wild volcanic forms, some curved like the bell-shaped apses of the churches of Auvergne, some slenderly cup-like and showing the hollow rim of the spent crater; all fantastic, individual, indescribably differentiated in line and color from mountain forms of less violent origin. And between them and us lay the richest contrasting landscape, the deep meadows and luxuriant woodlands of the Allier vale, with here and there a volcanic knoll lifting on its crest an old town or a Rhenish-looking castle. The landscape, thus viewed, presents a perplexing mixture of suggestions, recalling now the brown hill-villages of Umbria, now the robber castles of the Swiss Rhineland; with a hint, again, of the Terra di Lavore in its bare mountain lines, and the prodigal fertility of their lower slopes; so that one felt one’s self moving in a confusion of scenes, romantically combined, as in the foreground of a Claude or a Wilson, for the greater pleasure of the eclectic eye.

The only landscape that seems to have been excluded from the composition is that of France; all through Auvergne, we never felt ourselves in France. But that is, of course, merely because the traveller’s France is apt to be mainly made up of bits of the Ile-de-France and Normandy and Brittany; and not till one has explored the central and southwestern provinces does one learn of the countless Frances within France, and realize that one may find one’s “Switzerland, one’s Italy” without crossing the Alps to reach them.

We had, the next day, a closer impression of the scene we had looked down on from Ferrières; motoring first along the high ridge above the Limagne to the ancient black hill-town of Thiers, and thence descending again to the plain. Our way led across it, by the charming castled town of Pont-de-Château, to Clermont-Ferrand, which spreads its swarthy mass at the base of the Puy de Dôme, — that strangest, sternest of cities, all built and paved in the black volcanic stone of Volvic, and crowned by the sinister splendor of its black cathedral. It was Viollet-le-Duc who added the west front and towers to this high ancient pile; and for once his audacious hand was so happily inspired that, at the first glimpse of his twin spires soaring above the roofs of Clermont, one forgives him—for the moment—the wrong he did to Blois, to Pierrefonds and Carcassonne.

This is the second part of a three-part series.
Read part one here and part three here.