Updated with a few pics from my recent trip to France
I’m a bit afraid of Henry James. It’s not that I actively dislike his writing. It’s just that I’ve not been tempted to re-read those of his novels I’ve read and, having sighed over his verbosity and resented having to hunt back through the text to find the beginning of a particularly convoluted sentence, I’ve always thought of him as a “difficult” writer.
Reading this book – which until a few weeks ago I didn’t even know existed - has given me a whole new appreciation for James’ writing. Originally published in serial form in The Atlantic Monthly in 1883-1884, it’s an account of James’ travels in provincial France in the early 1880s. Starting with the idea that "France may be Paris, but Paris is not France", James spent six weeks travelling to various provincial towns, starting in the Loire Valley, going south-west to Bordeaux, through various towns in the south of France, before heading north through the Rhône Valley to Dijon in Burgundy. He describes the churches, castles and other buildings he visited, the inns he stayed in, the meals he ate and the people he met. However, this is no Lonely Planet guide. (Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with a Lonely Planet guide, I hasten to add). Rather, it’s a learned, witty and erudite discussion of art, architecture, history and culture, interspersed with insightful observations on the joys and discomforts of travel, all of it communicated in accessible prose and blessedly short sentences.
One of the things about this work that most endeared me to James comes early on. In Chapter II, James describes looking at some old houses to the north of the cathedral in Tours. Why? Because characters in a Balzac novella – [b:The Vicar of Tours|2154956|The Vicar of Tours|Honoré de Balzac|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348572097s/2154956.jpg|18849067] - lived in one of them. I love that Henry James went on literary pilgrimages, one of my favourite travel activities.
I may not have enjoyed reading this delightful work quite so much if I'd not recently completed my own little tour in France, covering some of the same territory James covered more than 130 years ago. Remembering those places I’d visited such a short time ago certainly enriched the reading experience. I found myself reading passages aloud to my husband, marveling at how similar James’ experiences of particular places had been to our own and at how much more skilled he was at describing those experiences. I could give many examples of this, but I’ll limit myself to James’ description of the landscape in Provence, of which he writes:
…[F]or there is an inexhaustible sweetness in the gray-green landscape of Provence. It is never absolutely flat, and yet is never really ambitious, and is full both of entertainment and repose. It is in constant undulation, and the bareness of the soil lends itself easily to outline and profile. When I say the bareness, I mean the absence of woods and hedges. It blooms with heath and scented shrubs and stunted olive; and the white rock shining through the scattered herbage has a brightness which answers to the brightness of the sky.
From châteaux in the Loire Valley to Nîmes, to Arles, to the Pont du Gard, to Les Baux, to Avignon, to Lyon, I love that I unknowingly followed in Henry James’ footsteps, walking the same streets and seeing the same sights. I wouldn’t have known that I’d done so, if it hadn’t been for this book turning up in my GR friend Jane Steen’s update feed. Thank you, Jane!
A word of caution: I read this on my Kindle and, cheapskate that I am, made the mistake of downloading the free version. It was full of punctuation and spelling errors. Not so bad that it was unreadable, but enough to be annoying. James would be appalled to see how his work has been digitised. He would, I’m sure, have a very sharp word to say to the person responsible.
This seems a good a place as any to post a few photos taken on my recent trip to France.
First, my favourite place in Provence, St Paul-de-Mausole, the asylum where Vincent Van Gogh was a voluntary patient for a year:
The medieval town of Les Baux:
The Roman acquaduct Pont du Gard, not far from Nîmes:
Le pont Saint Bénezet in Avignon, on which I danced while I sang the old French song:
Chinon castle in the Loire Valley, where Henry II lived with Eleanor of Aquitaine:
More photos to come ....