6. La Princesse de Clèves, Madame de Lafayette
Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, Comtesse de la Fayette, 1634-1692
I spent the Summer of 1967 teaching English to the four daughters of the Pelletier family in the little village of Villers-en-Prayères, near Laon in the department of Aisne in Picardy. I’m afraid I learned far more than my charges. It was my first time outside Ireland and I hadn’t a clue. I had my first taste of aubergine, courgette, camembert and yogurt. Incredibly I did not partake of the wine. I probably came across as terribly prim. It was a Summer steeped in history. The family was a cultivated one and there were loads of books about. M.Jacques Pelletier was a rising politician. Madame was elegance itself. The grandparents and great-grandmother lived in the adjacent château. The maternal grandparents came to visit and we played scrabble. I remember learning the word frôler, to brush past, explained by Grand-mère.
My duties took up the mornings only. In the afternoons I cycled for miles through the Picardy countryside which was dotted with the military cemeteries of World War 1. The battlefields of the Chemin des Dames were nearby. I stumbled on the resting places of more than a few Dublin Fusiliers. One can only do so much cycling so I had recourse to the Pelletier bookshelves where I found La Princesse de Clèves. Its authorship has been disputed but it is generally accepted that it was written in 1678 by Madame de Lafayette. Set in the court of Henri II in the sixteenth century, it is a tale of adulteries, jealousies and intrigues. Nobody lays a glove on anybody but there is the sense that something terribly lascivious is about to happen at any moment. It is a very early novel, electric with atmosphere. One becomes fiercely attached to the central character of La Princesse, married in youth to one man but in love with another. Will she? Won’t she? Nothing changes in the world of plots. It is peopled with actual historical characters. The youthful Mary Queen of Scots figures as la Reine Dauphine. She had been Queen of Scots since infancy and was at this point the wife of the French Dauphin. The charged atmosphere is reminiscent of the film Dangerous Liaisons which was itself based on Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangeureuses of 1782. The extraordinary thing about this book is how readable it is. The language is formal, a veritable festival of grammatical structures which are now rarely used . Yet, repetitions and formality make it strangely accessible.
‘Cependant, quelque rempli et quelque occupé que je fusse de cette nouvelle liaison avec la reine, je tenais à Mme de Thémines par une inclination naturelle que je ne pouvais vaincre.’
In 2009 President Sarkozy condemned the presence of La Princesse de Clèves on the modern school curriculum. Something more ‘useful’ for business would be fitting, he thought. Where have we heard that before? As a result of the President’s comments public readings of La Princesse de Clèves took place throughout France and copies of the novel sold out. The glory of Europe is not extinguished forever it would seem.
I bought my own fake leather- look copy in 1978 at a Paris bouquiniste. It remains one of the few books I have read for a second time. It rattled along just like the first time. I feel a third reading coming on. It can be read online in Project Gutenberg. Extracts from the film of La Princesse de Clèves, made in 1961, are on You Tube.
7.The Land of Spices, Kate O’Brien
I did not make it to the annual Kate O’Brien weekend in Limerick recently. Maybe next year. Frank McNally wrote a wonderful Irishman’s Diary in The Irish Times on the topic of Kate O’Brien prior to going to Limerick to speak at that weekend. Reading it, I was horrified to discover I had forgotten some of the key details of the plot of this wonderful novel. I just remember being totally taken with it in the seventies when we all rediscovered the long neglected O’Brien. The two incidents that did remain were the ‘embrace of love’ scene which famously led to the banning of the novel within these shores and the wonderful concert scene where the young girl recites Henry Vaughan’s Peace.
Those of us of a certain age may be able to connect more with the world of the heroine’s school, based on O’Brien’s experience in the F.C.J.Convent, Laurel Hill in Limerick. The snobberies and aspirations we recognized. After The Land of Spices I went on an O’Brien binge. Eventually I thought I had exhausted all of her oeuvre. That was a horrible feeling like the dreadful realisation that there is no more Jane Austen left to read. So, I was delighted to find My Ireland recently at a second – hand fair. Published in 1960 it is a gentle, witty and insightful account of the way we were, before bungalow blight and teenage tartlets and with the commercial hotel in every town complete with sauce bottles and a fry for the hapless traveller. There were fine passages on Clare and Limerick -‘my dear native place’- and a frank account of grim Belfast. I now realise I have not read Pray for the Wanderer. Let the search commence.
The Land of Spices is perhaps best read in tandem with Presentation Parlour, a memoir on O’Brien’s family, particularly her nun aunts in the Presentation Convent, also in Limerick. It gives The Land of Spices a context for those not familiar with the time. Frank McNally has alerted me to the need for a second reading.
8. Bowen’s Court, Elizabeth Bowen.
Elizabeth Bowen (1899 – 1973) at Bowen’s Court in 1962
‘The house of the planter is known by the trees’ said Austin Clarke. This is a great look behind those trees. Elizabeth Bowen was an only child and had no children herself. Being the last of her line she inherited the ancestral pile, Bowen’s Court, near Doneraile, Co. Cork. The house was the model for Danielstown in Bowen’s 1929 novel The Last September. Bowen’s Court is a history of the Bowen family from their arrival from in Ireland with Cromwell to the last days of the great house. The story of the Bowens is interlinked with the story of Ireland. We meet various characters from the family and simultaneously follow the fortunes of Ireland. The portrait of an intriguing relative called ‘Miss Prittie’ was memorable. Miss Prittie’s garden survived in Bowen’s Court for many years. It is also a history of the surrounding countryside at the foot of the Ballyhouras.
The rituals of upper-class life are described in detail. Each year during the nineteenth century the family set out in convoy for their much loved hunting lodge in Camira, near Nenagh, a formidable distance from Bowen’s Court. My mother and I both read the book in the mid-seventies. We decided we would search for Camira. We spent a memorable Sunday driving the roads around Nenagh sussing out every likely looking ruin. On the point of giving up, we spotted some ivy-clad walls to the left of an avenue leading to a substantial farmhouse. We headed up the avenue. A lady emerged and confirmed to us that the ruins were indeed those of Camira. The best bit was that she herself had been recuperating from illness and had been reading Bowen’s Court during her convalescence. What a coincidence!
After World War II Bowen entertained many eminent literary figures at Bowen’s Court. In the grim economic climate of the early sixties it became clear to her that she could not continue to keep up the house and lands. She sold to a neighbouring farmer in the belief that life would go on in the great house. Sadly it was demolished soon afterwards.The fictional house in The Last September did not survive the War of Independence. Ultimately Bowen’s Court met a not unsimilar fate. In later editions of the book Bowen graciously though poignantly states that she was glad Bowen’s Court ‘never lived to be a ruin’.
Elizabeth Bowen and her husbad Alan Cameron are buried in Farahy Churchyard just at the edge of the demesne wall.
Postscript – Bowen’s A Time in Rome is a great guide to the Eternal City.
9. Victoria R.I., Elizabeth Longford
Cover portrait – Queen Victoria in 1839, Landseer, Royal Collection.
Lady Longford told her grandchildren that an ignorance of history would be like living in a house without windows. She was the mother of Thomas Pakenham and Antonia Fraser, two more great biographers. Between them that family have opened a great many windows in the most engaging writing style. Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette was also a hot contender for inclusion on this list. I’ve opted for Victoria R.I. because of the enormous span of history it covers. First published in 1964, it takes us from the close of the Regency period to the dawn of the twentieth century. We read of the small intimacies of Victoria’s life and of many great international events. The dramatis personae increases and multiplies as does the queen’s numerous family. Her much intermarried extended family in Europe regarded itself in much the same way as we now regard bloodstock. Everybody was strategically married to everybody else’s cousin. This was more than a biography. It is the story of nineteenth century Britain. Elizabeth Longford describes it all in the context of the coming of the railways, the penny post, the spread of liberalism and the colonial adventure.
Events described in this book keep popping up in subsequent reading and elsewhere, the Lady Flora Hastings scandal, the Tranby Croft affair, the Mordaunt divorce case. The importance of Germany, its language, history and culture is ironic in the light of events soon after Victoria’s death. People are constantly to-ing and fro-ing from German castles and watering places. Children and grandchildren are married off to Germans. German is the home language of Victoria and Albert. Grandson Willy [Kaiser Wilhelm II] is a histrionic presence at the bedside of the dying Queen. Very soon the royals would have to revise cultural allegiances. The pages of the Art Journal of one of the years of the 1890s reveal a full colour plate portrait of the then Duke of York, later George V, resplendent in full dress German uniform, all pointy helmet and epaulettes. I had never seen that particular image before. I wonder did someone set a match to it in a basement in Windsor Castle sometime in 1914 or whenever they changed the family name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor.
10. Civilisation, Kenneth Clark
My friend Kathleen, an oide Gaeilge par excellence, always encouraged her pupils to begin an essay with an oscailt plaoscach, an explosive opening. ‘I am standing on the Pont des Arts in Paris’ is how Clark begins Civilisation. What better oscailt plaoscach could there be? The book is the text of Clark’s great television series of the same name first broadcast in the late sixties. We were given another go at it in the eighties when Clark (1903-1983) died. Having watched the series his wonderful voice travels with the reader to the text.
Civilisation is a great apologia for the greatness of western art, music and literature. He puts forward the familiar argument that European culture barely survived the ‘dark ages’, a theory much disputed since.
‘In so far as we are the heirs of Greece and Rome, we got through by the skin of our teeth’.
Clark is convincing here. Early Irish art receives appropriate attention. He takes us through the middle ages, renaissance, reformation and enlightenment to the modern age. I love this book because I am a europhile (and you can throw in America). I will not be going to Thailand any time soon. I never had any great urge to frolic on Bondi Beach. I’ve seen the pictures of Ayers Rock. Ca suffit. Sorry. I have not yet seen the ducal Palace in Urbino or the high Altar of the Abbey Church of Vierzehnheiligen and life is short and I’m sixty-three.
Clark’s eleventh chapter, ‘The Worship of Nature’ is particularly wonderful. Poetry is given as much emphasis as art. In the final paragraph of Civilisation Clark states ‘I said at the beginning that it is a lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation’. He ends by quoting Yeats ‘Things fall apart…’
I read Clark’s self-portrait Another Part of the Wood recently. It too is a great read. The family, grown wealthy in the industrial revolution (Clark’s spools of sewing thread), turned to pleasures in subsequent generations. Where did I hear that Clark’s father was a contender for the title of being the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo? Alan Clark, controversial M.P., was his son. The memoir takes us through an Edwardian childhood, Winchester, Oxford and his wartime directorship of the National Gallery when he supervised the evacuation of works of art to protect them during the blitz. ‘The skin of our teeth’ again.
Kenneth Clark 1903 – 1983