Monday, February 6, 2012

Conclusion of Henry James' A Little Tour Of France - Loches, Toulouse & Bourg-en-Bresse

Chartes River


Loches is a brief stop on James' tour. The highlight is visiting the tomb of Agnes Sorel, longtime mistress of Charles VII. She died in 1450 at the age of 28, the general ruling being "complications during pregnancy" though the exact cause is not known for sure. Some historians speculate she might have been poisoned by a jealous rival or some other person who just wanted her "out of the way".

Sorel has the distinction of being the first mistress in the history of France to be officially recognized by the royal court. Go girl! I'm always interested in the stories of the court mistresses, simply because I'm fascinated by the amount of unacknowledged power they often had over the most powerful men in the world. When I think of that combined with wondering what they might be like in their quiet moments, what they thought about, what they might have regretted, the plots they might have thought out... There's endlessly fascinating stories there.

Agnes Sorel

There was a study done a few years back where scientists and historians worked together, studying fragments of Sorel's hair and skin, were able to do a face reconstruction, which you can read more about here. Pretty cool stuff!

 Tomb of Agnes Sorel

facial reconstruction study of Agnes Sorel

James also toured the nearby home of Jacques Couer , a French banker and merchant in Bourges. When I saw the pictures of this place, I was stunned at how similar the place looked to George Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate just down the road from my house. I know Vanderbilt's vision for his home was inspired by European chateaus but the set -up between these two houses was strikingly similar.

Jacques Couer

"Jacques Couer's House At Bourges" by C.C. Payne

same type of L-shape gateway arches on Biltmore Estate
courtyard (formerly stables)
Though it's cut off in this photo, Biltmore has the same
L shape between main house and pass-thru arches 
as the Bourges house

Another funny connection between the two is James describing Jacques Couer as "A Vanderbilt of the 15th century".  :-) So I'm guessing business was good for Couer!

While exploring some of the statues and friezework in Bourges Cathedral, James makes an odd statement:

The portals, especially the middle one, are extremely interesting; they are covered with curious early sculptures. The middle one, however, I must describe alone. It has no less than six rows of figures -- the others have four -- some of which, notably the upper one, are still in their places. The arch at the top has three tiers of elaborate imagery. The upper of these is divided by the figure of Christ in judgement, of great size, stiff and terrible, with outstretched arms. On either side of him are ranged three or four angels, with the instruments of the Passion. Beneath him in the second frieze stands the angel of justice with the scales; and on either side of him is the vision of the last judgment. The good prepare, with infinite titillation and complacency, to ascend to the skies; while the bad are dragged, pushed, hurled, stuffed, crammed into pits and caldrons of fire. There is a charming detail in this section.

CHARMING?? The guy is talking about the pits of hell and he uses the word "charming"? That little bit just left me saying... ummm, okaaay, moving on... lol

On a lighter note, James also visited La Rochelle, a one time vacation hotspot where the gentry class would go to "take the waters", soaking to cure their ailments or just feel some cleaner air for a bit. The town now hosts an international film festival every year.

La Rochelle, France


Bourg-en-Bresse was the hometown of Duchess Margaret of Austria, daughter of Emperor Maximillian and  his wife, Mary of Burgundy. Margaret was also the aunt of Charles V. As a child, Margaret was betrothed to Charles VIII. She was released from the betrothal so that Charles could make a political alliance in marriage to Anne of Brittany. At one time, she was even considered as a potential wife for Henry VII. Instead, Margaret was married off to John of Castile, son of Ferdinand V, King of Aragon. John died within a year of the marriage. 

Duchess Margaret as a young girl
"Portrait of Margaret of Austria" 1490 by Jean Hey

Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo. 1666. Empress Doña Margarita de Austria in Mourning Dress.

John of Castille, Prince of Asturias

In 1501 she married the adorably named Philibert the Handsome, Duke of Savoy. Unfortunately, he died just 2 years later. Not sure what was going on with Margaret's husbands... almost makes her look like a "black widow" wife!

"Philibert the Handsome"

Embracing her two-time widowhood, Margaret went on to govern the Netherlands for 22 years until her death in 1530 at the age of 51. Before her death, she had the Royal Monastery of Brou built, with a mausoleum for herself and Philbert.  She only had an extra year with the second husband but maybe there was a better connection there than with John?

Above : Royal Monastery of Brou


Henry James seemed to have mixed feelings about this town. On one hand, he found the people of Toulouse dirty and shabby and the town having little to offer, but beyond that he explains that the people seemed extraordinarily cordial to tourists:

The shops are probably better than the Turinese, but the people are not so good. Stunted, shabby, rather vitiated {to have a blemish or stain} looking, they have none of the personal richness of the sturdy Piedmontese; and I will take this occassion to remark that in the course of a journey of several weeks in the French provinces I rarely encountered a well-dressed male... I hasten to add, lest my observation should appear to be of a sadly superficial character, that the manners and conversation these gentlemen bore (whenever I had occassion to appreciate them) no relation to the state of their chin and boots. They were almost always marked by an extreme amenity. At Toulouse there was the strongest temptation to speak to people simply for the entertainment of hearing them reply with that curious, that fascinating accent of the Languedoc, which appears to be abound in finial consonants...

James also noted in Toulouse:
The oddity is that the place should be both animated and dull. A big, brown-skinned population, clattering about in a flat, tortuous town, which produces nothing whatever that I can discover. Except for the church of Saint-Sernin and the fine old court of the Hotel d'Assezat, Toulouse has no architecture; the houses are for the most part are brick, of a greyish-red color, and have no particular style.

Church of Saint-Sernin, Toulouse

Hotel D'Assezat

But the people are nice! There's that, right?! LOL

James visits the Pont du Gard aqueduct in Toulouse, recording his impressions of the Roman architecture:

Over the valley, from side to side and ever so high in the air, stretch  the three tiers of the tremendous bridge. They are unspeakably imposing, and nothing could be more Roman. The hugeness, the solidity, the unexpectedness, the monumental rectitude of the whole thing leave you nothing to say -- at the time -- and make you stand gazing. You simply feel that it is noble and perfect, that it has the quality of greatness. A road, branching from the highway, descends to the level of the river and passes under one of the arches. This road has a wide margin of grass and loose stones, which slopes upward into the bank of the ravine. You may sit here as long as you please, staring up at the light, strong piers; the spot is sufficiently "wild", though two or three stone benches have been erected on it. I remained there an hour and got a complete impression; the place was perfectly soundless and for the time at least, lonely; the splendid afternoon had begun to fade and there was a fascination in the object I had come to see. It came to pass that at the same time I discovered in it a certain stupidity, a vague brutality. That element is rarely absent from great Roman work, which is wanting in the nice adaptation of the means to the end. The means are always exaggerated, the end is so much more than attained. The Roman vigour was apt to overshoot the mark, and I suppose a race which could do nothing small is as defective as a race that can do nothing great. Of this Roman  rigour the Pont du Gard is an admirable example. It would be a great injustice, however, not to insist upon its beauty -- a kind of manly beauty, that of an object constructed no to please but to serve, and impressive simply from the scale on which it carries out this intention.

 Pont du Gard aqueduct in Toulouse

James goes on to explore Tour Phillipe le Bel in the town of Villeneuve-les-Avignons. Viewing the castle, James lets his European wit fly for a minute before turning poetic:

...Every dark hole in Villeneuve is called a dungeon; and I believe it is well established that in this manner, in almost all old castles and towers, the sensibilities of the modern tourist are unscrupulously played upon. There were plenty of black holes in the Middle Ages that were not dungeons, but household receptacles of various kinds; and many a tear dropped in pity for the groaning of the larder and the faggot-nook {fireplace}. For all of this, there are some very bad corners in the towers of Villeneuve, so that I was not wide of the mark when I began to think again, as I had often thought before, of the stoutness of the human composition in the Middle Ages and the tranquility of nerve of people to whom the groaning captive and the blackness of a "living tomb" were familiar ideas which did not at all interfere with their happiness or their sanity. Our modern nerves, our irritable sympathies, our easy discomforts and fears, make one think (in some relations) less respectfully of human nature.

Tour Phillipe le Bel 

So that's it on this one folks. James covered a number of other towns but these were the places that jumped out at me while I was reading.   Hope this helps as a visual guide if you decide to delve into this book. Since it's February, the month of valentines, I think next up will be the French love story (of sorts..  you'll see what I mean), Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost.


the town of Villeneuve-les-Avignons