Category Archives: Literature

Chateau de Chaumont: A Royal Consolation Prize

Photo by Manfred Heyde, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Chaumont is most famous for being a consolation prize for Diane de Poitiers, the favorite of King Henri II of France. When he was killed in a jousting mishap in 1559, his widow, Catherine de Medici, immediately turned Diane out of exquisite Chenonceau and sent her packing to Chaumont. The photo above is from Wikipedia; it’s difficult to get the view of the chateau from across the River Loire with any camera easy and light enough for me (aka my trusty iPhone).

It seems like a perfectly fine chateau to those of us who will never own a chateau.

But Diane was not pleased. In fact, she barely lived there at all. But she was shrewd enough to develop and profit by the Chaumont lands for the rest of her long life.

The original defensive medieval chateau was pulled down and the present building was begun around 1465. It was built with some medieval features such as the serious drawbridge.

I’m not sure exactly how the drawbridge works. I would not want to get in its way.

I know people were shorter in stature in the past. I do wonder if the low doorway also had some defensive use. “Attention de Votre Tete!”

There are many other medieval-looking details in the chateau, like this stone corbel.

But the overall effect is of a gracious Renaissance castle.

Before she sent Diane to Chaumont, Catherine de Medici owned it beginning in 1550. She entertained her friends there, including the astrologer Nostradamus.

I find Catherine’s rooms and furniture pretty dreary. I can see why she jumped at the chance to move into magical, light-filled Chenonceau.

Catherine had very nice views of the Loire from Chaumont, which is perceived high on the riverbank above the town.

But who can blame her for wanting to live on top of the River Cher at Chenonceau?

So Diane had to make do with Chaumont (and its very profitable lands).

After Diane’s time, the chateau passed through various aristocratic hands.

Germain de Stael, portrait by Francois Gérard, 1810, Public Domaine

Madame de Stael, the indomitable French intellectual and champion of freedom, owned Chaumont beginning in 1810. She survived the French Revolution and had the great honor of having one of her books banned as Napoleon was showing his true colors as a tyrant. (No specific reference for that opinion, just my general knowledge of her from reading her work).

The heiress to a sugar fortune, Marie-Charlotte Say, acquired the chateau in 1875. Soon after, she married Amedee de Broglie and they began an enthusiastic renovation.

Monsieur de Broglie liked horses. A lot.

He built stables much nicer than the houses most people lived in.

They also entertained a lot. An elephant in the garden? Sure! This was the Belle Époque!

In the heyday of empires, a maharajah from India was an elegant houseguest.

The actress and artist Sarah Bernhardt visited often.

So did the novelist Marcel Proust.

Did he write a few pages of his masterpiece, “Remembrance of Things Past,” in these elegant rooms?

Maybe he heard a bit of scandalous gossip during a three-way teatime?

What do aristocrats do when a priceless antique develops huge cracks and threatens to fall apart?

Call in the goldsmiths to fill in the cracks, of course! This commode was once the property of Louis XV, so it was worth fixing.

The family owned many other treasures, like this lovely portrait of Queen Anne of Brittany. She united the kingdoms of France and Brittany by her marriage to King Louis XIV, so she has the coats of arms of both kingdoms in the corner. The artist seems to be unknown.

A grand fireplace features the emblem of King Louis XII, the porcupine.

I particularly liked the chapel, which was resplendent with an art installation.

The grounds of the chateau host a huge garden show every year, and master gardeners create nature-themed displays. Filling up the chapel with branches, flowers and quirky found objects was a stroke of genius, if you ask me.

Back outside in the courtyard, I admire the towers and turrets and the view over the Loire. I was recently in a discussion group where the leader asked how many of us would like to be a king or queen. Nobody raised a hand.

But I wouldn’t mind being a carefree aristocrat in the Belle Époque, eating dinner with Sarah Bernhardt and Marcel Proust across the table.

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!

In honor of Jane Austen’s birth on December 16, 1775, I’m revisiting one of my favorite travel memories. In 2014, I visited the home where Jane lived in her last years. And I experienced Six (or fewer) Degrees of Separation from Jane.

Jane Austen lived the last few years of her too-short life in tranquil Chawton, Hampshire, with her mother, her cherished sister Cassandra, and a family friend. The women were pretty much penniless after the death of Jane’s father.  Like most single women of their time, they had to depend on the kindness of relatives for a roof over their heads.

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It was their good fortune that Jane’s brother Edward Knight was able to come to the rescue. Why was his name Edward Knight, not Edward Austen?  He had been formally adopted by a cousin of Jane’s father, Thomas Knight.  Thomas and his wife Catherine were wealthy and childless.  They made Edward their heir.  He inherited several estates, among them a grand house at Chawton.  The house came with a sizable but cozy cottage, which Edward made available to his mother and sisters for their lifetimes.

At last, in her thirties, Jane had a stable home.  She had begun writing as a teenager but had more or less given it up during the years that she had no settled home.  In Chawton, she established a routine of writing every morning at a little round table in front of the dining room window.  Her sister Cassandra took over morning household chores, giving Jane the freedom to write. In the afternoons, they took long walks in the countryside–just like Jane’s heroines. They also spent a lot of time visiting friends and relatives, including the wealthy connections Edward Knight was able to give them.

On this humble little table, Jane wrote the classics we know and love: Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Some of them she had begun earlier and had put away. Family lore had it that a squeaky door was purposely never oiled, so that Jane always had warning of visitors.  She would hastily hide her manuscript until the visitors had left.

Jane’s books dealt with the serious problems of women dependent on men for economic security.  As she knew all too well from her own life, an unmarried woman without a fortune of her own had very few options for survival. Jane spun her stories with humor, but also with hard-earned experience in understanding human conflicts.

I was deep in a discussion about Austen family history with a man stationed in the house, when I noticed that his name tag said, “Mr. Knight.”  Could it be?  Yes!  My Mr. Knight was a living, breathing, direct descendant of Jane’s brother! I think he looks just like his ancestor.

In Copenhagen this month, I loved seeing some outfits from Jane’s era in the Design Museum.

The Empire dresses first popularized by Josephine, the wife of Napoleon, were popular in Scandinavia as well as in Jane’s England.

I loved the puff detail on this one, which was made in Denmark’s colony in the Indies. (Taking care of fragile garments like this was the job of slaves–an unpleasant fact that countries like Denmark and England and America are still struggling to come to terms with). In one of her books, “Mansfield Park,” Jane touched on the subject.

Still, I can dream of a ladylike life in a peaceful English village. How about a little cotton jacket for a stroll in the garden?

I just found my DVD of my all-time favorite movie based on Jane’s work, “Persuasion.” It’s about maturity, regrets, making one’s own risky choices, and second chances. It stars Amanda Root, Ciaran Hinds, Corin Redgrave, Fiona Shaw, and a long list of other fine British actors. I’ll be watching it today, and feeling grateful that in her short life Jane was able to write as much as she did.

Three Witches for Halloween


Henry Fuseli, a Swiss artist, painted “The Three Witches” from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in 1782. They look surprisingly modern to me. They look like they know unspeakable things, and their mouths are set as though they’re not about to tell all they know. I always think of Shakespeare’s three “weird sisters” as sort of endearingly eccentric mumblers, but these three look like they mean business. 

In theater circles, this play is usually called “the Scottish play.” There’s a superstition that saying the actual title inside a theater, except as necessary in performance of the play, invokes a curse. Terrible things will happen.


The painting is in the European collection at the Huntington Museum and Gardens in Pasadena. I think it’s pretty scary, especially after reading that since the play was written, many people have believed that it incorporates actual supernatural incantations used by actual witches. Speaking the words out loud is said to invoke real spells and curses. (Cue thunder and lightning).

The inscription on the frame is in Greek. It’s a quotation from the ancient playwright Aeschylus: “Not women, but Gorgons I call them.”


Who are Gorgons? They are Medusa and her sisters, monsters whose glance turns men to stone. The Medusa painting above is by Caravaggio, around 1593-1610. It’s in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. (The image is in the public domain). OK, if I suddenly had snakes instead of hair, I’d scare myself to death before I turned anybody to stone. Just saying. 


No doubt there are many other images of Shakespeare’s witches. I’ll close with one painted by an American artist, William Rimmer, in 1850. The weird sisters here have called up some kind of apparition.


I expect to see all kinds of apparitions (wanting candy) on Halloween. Me? I was Cleopatra for this year’s youth group Halloween party. (I could have carried some kind of snake, come to think of it).


But it’s chilly out. For the Halloween Stroll tonight in my small town, when traffic is blocked on the main drag and everybody turns out in costume, I might go with an older outfit: Crazy Cat Lady. Some people would say it’s not a costume: it’s what I really am. Anyway, it features a comfy chenille bathrobe. Happy Halloween!

Tivoli in Springtime


I’m not big on amusement parks. In fact, I’ve successfully avoided taking either children or grandchildren to Disney World ( bad grandma!)


Rides either terrify or bore me. But I loved Tivoli in Copenhagen. The park opened in 1843, just outside the west gate of the still-walled old city.


King Christian VIII was worried about social unrest at the time. Workers all over Europe were annoyingly demanding higher wages and shorter hours. The founder of the park, George Carstensen, convinced the king that if the people have a place to amuse themselves, “they do not think about politics.” As the city expanded, Tivoli became almost the center. That’s the tower of the City Hall in the background.


I visited at twilight because I wanted to see the fabled lights.


The daffodils were perfect.


So were the thousands of tulips. In fact, the flowerbeds were so perfect that I wondered if gardeners came in nightly and replaced them with fresh plants straight from a greenhouse.


A rock band was getting ready to set up at the Chinese theater. The theater dates from 1874.


The pagoda sparkled.


Families strolled and let cotton candy melt in their mouths.


A pair of peacocks wandered into a restaurant.


There are any number of restaurants, plain to fancy, plus food carts strategically placed.

Tivoli has many faces.


Raincoats for sale? Sure. It rains quite a bit in Copenhagen.


Hans Christian Andersen, 1805-1875, is pretty much the secular patron saint of Denmark. He loved Tivoli Gardens. In 1965, the city put up a bronze more-than-double life size statue of the writer of at least 125 fairy tales, just outside City Hall. He’s holding his place in a book while he gazes up at the bright lights of Tivoli across the street. His knee is brightly polished because everybody sits on his lap for a photo. The sculptor was Henry Lucknow-Nielsen.


Across town, the wistful sculpture of Andersen’s Little Mermaid draws rowdy crowds from the nearby cruise port. It may be all some people really see of Copenhagen.


Minus the crowds, the mermaid is lovely. She seems to ignore the busy harbor behind her. I’m sure she dreads the rowdy cruise-boat crowds, but maybe she’s off in her own world. Edvard Eriksen created her in 1913.

Tivoli in springtime did not disappoint. I loved Copenhagen so much that I’m going back in December (cheap off-season airfares helped).

Will it be cold? Afraid so. It was cold enough for mittens and wool hats in early May. But I expect Chrismastime in Scandinavia to be a fairy-tale experience. Plus there may be snow!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, literature and history of Europe!

My Scandinavian Fathers

Actually my Scandinavian father and father-in-law are no longer with us, and I only knew grandfathers back one generation. But they were all descendants of families from Sweden, Norway and Finland who made the perilous journey to America in the 19th century. (The one exception was my British grandfather, who made a perilous journey of his own). The sculpture above is from Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s fantastic outdoor collection in Oslo, where the city gave him an entire huge park and studio for his lifetime. It’s a carefree image of fatherhood.

My forefathers did not have carefree lives in the Old Country. I never heard any of my relatives speak longingly of returning, although my grandmother used to croon Finnish lullabies to us in the rocking chair. My people were no doubt poor potato farmers trying to scrounge a living from rocky little plots of land. They were very happy to arrive on American shores and begin new lives in the rich soil of Minnesota. I was not particularly motivated to visit Scandinavian or Nordic regions–I guess I vaguely thought of these lands as poor backwaters, maybe lacking paved roads and indoor plumbing.

Over the past few months, I finally got around to visiting, over four different trips: first Sweden, then Denmark, then Finland, then Norway.  Now they’re my new favorite destinations.

Looking at Scandinavian art, I was struck by images of children parting from parents they would never see again.

This painting, by Adolph Tidemand, is “The Youngest Son’s Farewell.” It was painted in 1867, when the great wave of migration was well under way. It’s in the Kode Gallery in Bergen, Norway.

In the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo, there’s a similar poignant scene painted by Harriet Backer in 1878, “The Farewell.”

What’s going on here? It’s either a scene of emigration, or possibly of going off to war.  One of the reasons for leaving the Old Country was to escape compulsory military service. A servant hauls the young man’s duffel bag.

Whatever the reason, the parents are devastated to part with their son. There was no email, no Skyping, no jet planes for quick visits home.  Leaving very often meant leaving forever.

Life in Scandinavia was full of peril as well as poverty. In this 1858 painting by Carl Bloch, a Danish family looks anxiously out to sea was a storm approaches.  Will Father return, or will they all be left to fend for themselves? “Fisherman’s Families Await Their Return in an Approaching Storm” is in the Hirschsprung Gallery in Copenhagen.

In Vaxjo, Sweden, I stopped by the House of Emigrants, full of fascinating displays about the great wave of migration that brought my people to America starting around the 1850s and continuing well into the 20th century.

The museum contains a replica of the writing hut of the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, who meticulously documented the immigrant experience is the four historic novels “The Emigrants.”

Moberg spent a lot of time in the very Minnesota counties where my ancestors put down roots, just north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

I had already watched the fine Max Van Sydow/Liv Ullman movies “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”

While still traveling, I downloaded the four novels and devoured them.  Suddenly, I wanted to know all about my Scandinavian fathers.  Travel constantly opens up new doors!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, the British Isles, and now the Nordic and Scandinavian countries!

Rudyard Kipling’s Beloved Bateman’s

 

1fac83c7-7594-479b-a24f-4643c42663f6The Nobel prize-winning British author Rudyard Kipling died on January 18, 1936 in his beloved country home, Bateman’s, aged 70. The house is deep in the rural countryside of East Sussex, close to the site of the Battle of Hastings.

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Public Domain portrait of Rudyard Kipling, from John Palmer’s 1915 biography

I have to confess I’m not really familiar with much of his work, but I loved visiting the home where he and his wife chose to spend the last 34 years of his long and productive life.

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They bought the house in 1902.  It had  no bathroom, no electricity, and running water was only downstairs. But Kipling wrote, “Behold us, lawful owners of a grey stone lichened house–A.D. 1634 over the door–beamed, panelled, with old oak staircase, and all untouched and unfaked. We have loved it ever since our first sight of it.”

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The house is now in the hands of the National Trust.  Most of the furnishings are from Kipling’s happy time there. It is hard for us to appreciate just how famous this man was even before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but the house was a peaceful retreat from Kipling’s busy life–he was active in politics and journalism, besides literature, all his life.9313938c-3171-478f-ad25-bc04c49b1791

His wife Caroline ran his affairs, working tirelessly in a tiny hidden office with a window looking out into the entry way, above and to the right of the fireplace.  She kept an eagle eye on the many people who knocked on the door, seeking time with the great man.  Not many were admitted when he was working in his study, pictured below. (We should all probably have someone like Caroline to turn off our internet when we want to get something accomplished).

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Kipling spent a good part of his working life in India and Africa, writing about both the glories and pitfalls of British imperialism.  He wrote with foreboding about the difficulties–and the morality–of maintaining the global British Empire, which was still in its heyday during Victorian times.

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In 1915, at the outbreak of World War I, Kipling’s son John was wild to join the fight.  He was rejected by both the Royal Navy and the Army because of poor eyesight.  So Kipling used his connections to get his son into the Irish Guards. John Kipling was killed in the Battle of Loos, aged 18, having been sent in with reinforcement troops.  He was last seen stumbling blindly on the battlefield, possibly from a face wound. His childhood bedroom, pictured above, is a poignant memorial to a lost son.

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I especially liked the dining room. The walls are covered with embossed leather brought from India.

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Above the fireplace is a painting that everybody in the family hated, but it was too good to get rid of. (Or maybe it was a gift from someone who was not to be insulted? I have items like that in my house, but I generally just get them out when the giver is visiting). The painting really is pretty ugly. It seems to show a naked crying baby, maybe with a mother or nanny wondering what to do.

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Mr. Kipling’s chair was placed so that his back was always to the hated painting.

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I think the kitchen must have had modern conveniences in the years leading up to Kipling’s death in the house in 1936.  Now, it’s a serene mostly-empty space where National Trust volunteers and staff dry flowers from the gardens.

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Literary fashions come and go, even for Nobel prize winners.  Having seen Rudyard Kipling’s country home, maybe I’ll find the time to dip into his writings. I’m sure Mr. Kipling would appreciate a visitor.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

 

Happy Birthday, Emily Bronte!

Emily Bronte, portrait by Branwell Bronte

Emily Bronte, portrait by Branwell Bronte

Emily Bronte was born on July 30, 1818. Her brother Branwell, an aspiring poet and portrait painter, composed one of the very few images of her. His sister Emily was painfully shy, hardly speaking with anyone outside the family. But she was a bold artist.  Her novel, Wuthering Heights, is still startling in its passion and social critique.

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Branwell  was the only son in the family and great things were expected of him. I think poor Branwell suffered from what we might now call Preacher’s Kid Syndrome: a need to act out, just because his father, the Reverend Patrick Bronte, was such an upright man. Branwell studied painting, in between bouts of drinking, taking opiates, and getting fired from various gigs as a tutor–for which his father had taken great pains to educate him. In around 1834, at age 17, Branwell painted the group portrait above. It is now one of the most treasured works in London’s National Portrait Gallery, and the centerpiece of a special Bronte exhibit I saw last spring.

Why is this rare painting folded in the middle?  We’re lucky that it still exists, damaged as it is. The portrait, together with the profile of Emily, traveled to Ireland with Charlotte Bronte’s widower after her death as a young bride. It appears that a heartbroken Arthur Bell Nicholls shoved the portraits of his beloved Charlotte and her sisters on top of a wardrobe in an Irish farmhouse, out of sight and out of mind.

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The churchyard where all the Brontes are buried (except Anne, who died at Scarborough and was buried there) is just outside the door of the parsonage. Living there, walking every day past the graves of so many loved ones who had died so young, must have been unbearably sad.

By the time Charlotte died, shortly after her marriage and while pregnant with her first child, Branwell, Emily and Anne were already dead. Most likely they died of either tuberculosis or infectious diseases from the poor sanitation in the village. (Branwell more or less drank himself to death). Nicholls stayed in Haworth for several years to care for his father-in-law. Nicholls eventually remarried. His widow finally discovered the paintings (housecleaning, no doubt) in 1914.

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Sadly, it seems that Branwell had erased himself from the family portrait. This fact was not known until the 1950s, when the oil paint became more transparent with age. Now, it is clear that there was once a man’s figure between the sisters.  Did Branwell already have such a low opinion of himself? Was he ashamed to be seen with his much-more-virtuous sisters? Or did he feel he could not do justice to his own wonderfulness? Or was this possibly a portrait of his father, who took a very dim view of Branwell’s nights spent in the local pub or worse?  We’ll never know.

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The London exhibit also contains items such as Charlotte’s tiny boots. The caption says that for outdoor wear, the boots were most likely worn with wooden platens strapped to the soles for a little protection against mud and snow. How did the Bronte girls manage to walk for miles in the rugged North Yorkshire moors in footgear like this?

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Last year I made a literary pilgrimage to Haworth in Yorkshire.  The town still looks much the same as it did when Emily composed her novel about wild forbidden love on the moors. I was lucky enough to stay at Ponden Hall, a house where the Brontes were regular visitors. It’s now a family home, a lovingly run bed and breakfast, and a venue for  gatherings of artists, writers, and Bronte fans. The charming hosts go out of their way to show all visitors around their historic home.  In the photo below, the bookcase is a hidden door into a secret library. The Bronte girls used to visit the house, a couple of miles from the parsonage, to use the library.

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It’s possible to actually sleep in the “box bed,” shown above, with the little window that reportedly inspired Emily to write her famous scene where the ghost of Cathy appears outside the window, begging to be let in.  Her forbidden and guilt-ridden lover Heathcliffe staggers out onto the moors in desperate search of her. (Did I sleep in the box bed? No, but maybe next time! Do I believe in ghosts? Maybe!)

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in "Wuthering Heights," Public Domain

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in “Wuthering Heights,” Public Domain

In 1939, Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon played the lovers Cathy and Heathcliffe in the classic romantic film based on the novel.  Since then, there’s been a 2011 film version that makes explicit the racism that Emily only hinted at in her novel, by calling Heathcliffe a “gypsy.” It’s on my list to watch.  There’s a 2009 miniseries, too.

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Did I venture onto the wild moors myself?  Only partway.  I had a broken foot, thanks to a super-klutzy fall just before I left on my trip.

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But I’m determined to hike the moors.  Next time, I hope I’ll be able to follow the signposts and get just a little bit lost in the wild countryside that inspired Emily Bronte and her sisters.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, history and literature of Europe and the British Isles!