Edith Wharton’s “A Motor-Flight Through France”

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:: RETROSCOPE ::

Retroscope is a monthly series that mines the past for literary travel writing gems.

Déplacements, the Loire, fretted church-towers, George Sand, goose-girls, recalcitrant magnetos, hawthorn, serried memories, stout conical towns, dulcet associations, gentilhommières, secondhand Panhards & the queer dishabille of travel.


(Intro)

In 1906 Edith Wharton took a two-week tour through France, traveling by automobile: a recently purchased, chauffeur-driven, 24-horsepower secondhand Panhard. Starting at Boulogne-sur-Mer, her itinerary took in the cathedral towns of Amiens, Beauvais and Rouen; then Fontainebleau, Orléans, Tours, Châteauroux and Clermont-Ferrand; and finally Paris via Bourges—a flying tour by even today’s standards. She was accompanied by her husband, Teddy; brother Harry; and Harry’s girlfriend, Nicette.

Born Edith Newbold Jones during the Civil War into a wealthy, socially prominent New York family (the Joneses were said to be the ones to keep up with), she was forty-four at the time of the tour, and had traveled in Europe extensively with her family from an early age. France was rapidly becoming her adopted country. Although she had written stories from childhood, her first novel was not published until 1902, followed three years later by The House of Mirth, the first critical and commercial success for the magnificent writer who, two decades later, would be the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. The 1906 tour, together with further exploration the following year, was the basis for a series of articles in the Atlantic Monthly, collected and published in her 1908 book, A Motor-Flight Through France.

Orléans: General view of the town

Most ironically striking for the modern reader is Wharton’s introductory observation, at the dawn of the automotive age, that “the motor-car has restored the romance of travel.” The Panhard was an open touring car with, at most, a cabriolet folding hood providing partial shelter, and the occupants likely wore dusters to keep their clothes clean on what was surely a mix of paved and unpaved roads. She elaborates: “Freeing us from all the 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 grandparents. 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 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!”

The high point of the tour for Wharton, according to biographer R. W. B. Lewis, was the visit to Nohant, near Châteauroux and the home of novelist George Sand until her death just thirty years earlier. (For comparative recency, think Raymond Carver.) Wharton strongly identified with Sand, “a woman of immense talent and an irregular private life.” Separated from her husband, Casimir Dudevant, Sand had affairs with several leading men in the arts, most notably eminent composer Frédéric Chopin and writer Alfred de Musset.Compass Rose

(Excerpt)

Chapter IV: The Loire and the Indre

Fontainebleau is charming in May, and at no season do its 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 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.


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 tantalised in travelling, by the glimpse of such cities—unnamed, undiscoverable afterward by the minutest orientations of map and guide-book?


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 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.

Nohant: Château of George Sand

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 to the northwest low acclivities sloped away, 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 tantalised 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.”


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.


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 race—the hommes de lettres of France—descended from the Paris express, and took a diligence on their pilgrimage to the oracle. When one considers the fatigue of the long day’s railway 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 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 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 plain-faced fawn-coloured house, the typical gentilhommière of the French country-side.


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?”


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 signalise 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 y 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 savour of the terroir, yet with that superadded grace that the author of the novels has been criticised for bestowing on her peasants. She formed, at any rate, a charming link between our imagination and the famous house; and we presently found that the 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 this impulse of destruction, the traveller obtains a glimpse of grass terraces and stone steps, set in overgrown thickets of lilac, hawthorn and acacia, 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 is a charming conical-roofed garden-pavilion, with mossy steps ascending to it from the road.


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 savour of the terroir, yet with that superadded grace that the author of the novels has been criticised for bestowing on her peasants.


At right angles to the highway, a shady lane leads down past the farm buildings; and following this, one comes, around their flank, on 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 Histoire de 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, Fontainebleau and Majorca.

Nohant: Garden Pavilion

The first surprise is to find the place, on the whole, so much more—shall one say?—dignified and decent, 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 and 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 the 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 manners.

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 surrounding it. And so one may, not too fancifully, recognise 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 centralising 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.


Alan Bernheimer’s latest collection of poetry is From Nature. Born and raised in Manhattan, he has lived in the Bay Area since the 1970s. He produces a portrait gallery of poets reading on flickr. His translation of Philippe Soupault’s memoir, Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, was published by City Lights in 2016.

Lead image: Photoglob Co./Library of Congress

Inline images: Adapted from A Motor-Flight Through France, by Edith Wharton (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908)

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