Edith Wharton.

A motor-flight through France online

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Produced by Mary Glenn Krause, MFR, Charlie Howard, and
the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at
http://www.pgdp.net (This file was produced from images
generously made available by The Internet Archive)

Transcriber’s Note: Italicized text is enclosed in _underscores_.









Published October, 1908



















Chauvigny: Ruins of castle Frontispiece
Facing page
Arras: Hôtel de Ville 2

Amiens: West front of the Cathedral 6

Amiens: Ambulatory of the Cathedral 10

Beauvais: West front of the Cathedral 14

Rouen: Rue de l’Horloge 18

Rouen: The façade of the Church of Saint-Maclou 22

Rouen: Monument of the Cardinals of Amboise in the Cathedral 26

Le Petit Andely: View of the town and Château Gaillard 30

Orléans: General view of the town 38

Nohant: Château of George Sand 42

Nohant: Garden pavilion 44

Clermont-Ferrand: Notre-Dame du Port 50

Orcival: The church 62

Moulins: Place del’Hôtel-de-Ville and the Jacquemart tower 70

Bourges: Apse of the Cathedral 74

Château of Maintenon 76

Neuvy Saint-Sépulcre: Church of the Precious Blood 84

Neuvy Saint-Sépulcre: Interior of the church 88

Poitiers: Baptistery of St. John 90

Poitiers: The Church of Notre-Dame-la-Grande 92

Angoulême: Façade of the Cathedral 96

Thiers: View of the town from the Pont de Seychalles 98

Bordeaux: Church of The Holy Cross 100

Bétharram: The bridge 106

Argelès-Gazost: The old bridge 108

Salies de Béarn: View of old town 110

St. Bertrand-de-Comminges: Pier of the Four Evangelists in the
Cloister 116

Albi: General view of the Cathedral 118

Albi: Interior of the Cathedral 120

Nîmes: The Baths of Diana - public gardens 122

Carcassonne: The Porte de l’Aude 124

Saint-Remy: The Mausoleum 126

St. Maximin: Choir stalls in the church 130

Toulon: The House of Puget 134

Orange: The Arch of Marius 136

Grignan: Gate of the castle 138

Valence: The Cathedral 142

Vienne: General view of the town 146

Brou: Tomb of Margaret of Austria in the church 150

Dijon: Mourners on the tomb of Jean Sans Peur 154

Avallon: General view of the town 158

Vézelay: Narthex of the Church of the Madeleine 160

Sens: Apse of the Cathedral 168

Noyon: Hôtel de Ville 186

St. Quentin: Hôtel de Ville 188

Laon: General view of the town and Cathedral 192

Soissons: Ruined church of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes 196





The motor-car has restored the romance of travel.

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 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 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 have been 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 hedge-rows 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 _charmilles_ 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.

[Illustration: ARRAS: HÔTEL DE VILLE]

The country itself - so green, so full and close in texture, so
pleasantly 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 a deep delicious thatch
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 gravelled _place_. Everything
about this rich juicy land bathed 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 fruit-trees
bordering straight interminable roads, may produce in the American
traveller 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 poetry instead
of banishing it, one understands the higher beauty of land developed,
humanised, 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 villages became rarer,
as they always do on the high wind-swept plains of France. Arras,
however, was full of compensations for the dullness of the approach: a
charming old grey 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 passed 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 cross-roads; 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 Ages. 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 defence 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 neighbours, each drapery drawn within
the same perpendicular bounds? Yes, perhaps - if one remembers Rheims
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
strongly does the contemplation of the great cathedrals fortify
the conviction that their chief value, to this later age, is not
so much æsthetic 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 spirit of man in its long invincible 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 gift 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 ardour 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 traveller 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 reasserts itself: 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 personages; 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
by-paths, 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_.




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 northern 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
impression 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 calm aloofness, of affected ignorance of the traveller’s object in
visiting it - suffering its little shuttered non-committal streets to
lead us up, tortuously, 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

It seems in truth like some climax of mystic vision, miraculously
caught in visible form, and arrested, broken off, by the intrusion of
the 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 for ever back from breaking into the long ridge
of the nave and 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 became more deeply Norman - more thatched
and green and orchard-smothered - 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 hill, we looked down a long green valley to Rouen
shining on its river - belfries, 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 last hill of 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.

[Illustration: ROUEN: RUE DE L’HORLOGE]

The poetry of the descent to Rouen is, unhappily, dispelled by the
long approach through sordid interminable outskirts. Orvieto and

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