In retrospect, I find it curious that when I moved to France, I was absolutely, positively sure that I had no interest in visiting châteaux.
Of course I knew that not everyone feels this way. Many foreign visitors plan their trips to France around just such visits: touring the great shining mansions in the Loire river valley, for example. Or the château of Versailles—we've all heard of that one!—the opulent seat of Louis XIV, the real-life setting of the strange ghost story that was the life of Marie Antoinette. It is a must-see attraction for French and foreigners alike, particularly when you take into account that it can be visited on a day trip from Paris. (Tourists adore day trips! and when I say that, I include myself; I am no exception.) I think it's very understandable that people like châteaux so much. There's a romantic glow about them—they tend to look like exquisite fairy-tale castles from the outside, and on the inside they are full of rooms and corridors and entire huge wings, high ceilings and places that you could lose your way in. And they are often furnished with very rare and often shiny works of furniture and art. Châteaux in France particularly tend to partake of this impressive, weighty feeling, especially the ones that date back to the seventeenth century or so—France's grand siècle, or "Great Century," the Baroque age of glory. For Americans especially, I think there's something beautifully exotic, almost alien, and practically fictional about them—after all, we grow up in architectural landscapes where nothing much goes back more than two hundred years, in a world totally devoid of gilded ghost-haunted castles to get lost in.
And yet, nonetheless, when I moved to Lille two and a half years ago, I brought with me a long list of places in and near the north of France, that I wanted, hoped, to go see; but châteaux did not figure in the list at all.
You may wonder at this irrational coldness. And it's a good question—but before addressing it, I think it might be worth making sure what exactly a château is. Perhaps you already know all about this; actually, the odds are good that you have a better understanding of it than I did when I left for France, because I was intensely ignorant when I went to this country and sometimes I am astonished by how ignorant I have remained. Even if you are already an expert, I hope you will bear with me for a moment while I explain that the important question, at least for me, turned out to somehow hinge on the difference between a château and a castle.
Does the difference seem obvious? I had always believed it was, when I lived at home and thought in English. But now, please try to imagine me newly transplanted to Lille, a confused foreigner, schlepping to the university every week for classes in French architecture and history and language, studying at home with notes and my dictionary, and earnestly trying to learn the proper names of things as they applied in this new world. And now you must try to imagine me looking surprised (imagine me over dinner, actually, startled midway through a grilled-cheese sandwich and a tiny salad of carrottes rapées) on realizing that the word château is, in my dictionary, translated literally and directly as castle. In fact these words are kissing cousins, cognates from the same root. Back somewhere around the gloomy twelve hundreds on the gloomy British Isles, the Anglo-Norman nobility—recently come in with Guillaume le Conquerant, or William the Conqueror, to rule the roost—derived the English word from the Old Northern French castel, which in turn had come to them from the Latin castellum: a diminutive of the word castrum, a way to say "a fortified village," or "a little fort." Further south, the dialect spoken near Paris went softer on the mouth, pronouncing the word chastel—and it all went from there, as language does. By the time the Sun King was building up Versailles, luxuriating in his grand siècle, the "fortified village" had become a château.
(I should ask you now to excuse my etymological digressions—I really can't help them. Studying the roots of French, watching how the Roman Empire's old vulgate spread and fractured across the far-flung lands of its former colonies, was one of my favorite pastimes in Lille. Admittedly, my entertainment opportunities were limited, but I really think you'd have to have a heart of stone not to find this fun. For instance, this tasty morsel: as French students are informed by their teachers early in life, the circonflexe—that little roof-shaped mark over the first a in château, which, I was pleased to discover, French children like to call a chapeau, just as English ones often call it a hat—originated as a text marker showing that an s used to exist in the spelling of a word, just after the vowel. Hôpital was once hospital, forêt was forest. Before the 16th century, then, château was spelled more like chastiau—and there you see the family relationship to castle clearer than ever, like a pronounced nose before one sibling gets plastic surgery. As long as we're on circumflexes and architecture, let me mention one of my favorite circumflexed words: fenêtre, the French word for "window," which derives from the Latin fenestra. The original lives on—in both English and French—in one of the most excitingly descriptive verbs around: "to defenestrate," which means to push someone out of a window. Appropriately enough, this has been known to happen, during times of political turbulence, even on the upper levels of certain French châteaux; and so we come full circle.)
But to return to the point at hand, what differentiates a château from a castle? Although I can speak only for myself, the truth is that when I imagine a castle, I have seen the same storybook image since I was about five years old. My ideal castle is a massive, heavy heap of grey-brown stone. Probably it is encircled by a moat; ideally, it is equipped with ramparts and a drawbridge, and maybe a portcullis and a few watchtowers with crenellations around the top (crenellations are those toothy edges that children draw in crayon when they want to make it clear they're depicting a castle—or at least, that's what I do). If conditions are perfect, there should also be arrow slits, an oubliette in the dungeon, and one or two convenient spots along the parapet from which to pour down boiling oil onto besiegers.
Now this sort of castle does exist in France, but it's not what people generally mean when they mention a château. The French word that describes my ideal portcullised castle is un château-fort, which is not so different from a forteresse: that is, a fortified residence. Most of the buildings we think of as châteaux, however, are not like this. The Loire Valley châteaux, for example, started to be built by noblemen and members of the King's court around the year 1500. By that time, France had exited the Middle Ages, and all the defensive accoutrements of the château-fort were no longer necessary. For the ramparts and battlements and all the rest are, of course, basically medieval, and really meant for defense. They were designed for a world in which the lord might come under physical attack from his rivals at any time, a world of petty nobility and squabbling city-states and uncertain control from the center. And the world was like this, once. It was as late as 1415 that the invading English king Henry V routed the French army at Agincourt, in the process of trying to claim France for his own during the Hundred Years' War; and only fifteen years later that Joan of Arc led the young French king Charles VII, opposed not only by the English but also by the ambitious Dukes of Burgundy, to victory at Orleans and Reims.
But by the age of the châteaux, that world was changing. The first of the great Loire manors were built in the time of François I, a king known as "the Father and Restorer of Letters" in France for his patronage of the arts and classics. The world was becoming more centralized, and a good deal safer. And as the Renaissance wore on, the châteaux shed their medieval exoskeletons and came to look more like the country seats of show-offy noblemen than like the homes of people who expect to have to throw boiling oil on a moment's notice. They were no longer castles in the medieval sense; they were large, fancy and beautiful holiday houses—the French Renaissance equivalent of a McMansion.
And here we approach the reason why I've never been a fan of châteaux, despite the fact that I'm American and romantic and a sucker for tourism. It seems to me that a château is less like a castle, at least my imaginary medieval version, and more like what one typically thinks of as a palace; and palaces—unlike castles—usually strike me as alarming and even a little bit oppressive. If I had to explain why, I guess it has something to do with the reasons why I generally prefer medieval things to things from the late Renaissance, and I like Gothic cathedrals more than I like Baroque ones. I mean, to be honest, I didn't really even know any of these things, or what Gothic and Baroque were, until I started studying the history of art and architecture in Lille; and yet as early as my literature classes in college I was able to determine that I prefer Romantic things to modern or postmodern ones. This should probably be no surprise; the Romantics, after all, those nineteenth-century melancholics who feared the smoke of factory towers and spent their time looking for Dionysian sublimity in British oak groves, had a profound, if somewhat rose-tinted and ahistorical, love for ruined places and medieval things as well.
It's hard to account for personal aesthetics, of course, but I think the issue is that I prefer things that are slightly ruined. The typical medieval castle is that: imperfectly kept up, slightly damp, falling to bits around the edges. I like this kind of thing better than an ornately decorated mansion that is perfectly tidy and dry in every corner. And this is the telling difference between a castle and a palace. Your typical castle has some shadowy bits of history, one or two vanished towers, moss growing on the stones. Palaces don't. Palaces, in my experience, are mostly gilt and sharp edges. There are too few shadows, no place to hide; and they're too heavily ornamented, all glitter and intricate detail. This is unsettling for people like me, who are easily distracted. I'm too easily distracted to be good at the Internet. I'm unsettled by shopping malls. Perhaps you can imagine why the dense, massy undulations of Baroque architecture, the insane proliferation of detail, leaves me feeling disoriented enough to want to just sit down and close my eyes.
There is something comforting in the bulk of a castle from which most of the ornament and detail has fallen away. It's sort of elegant in its simplicity, like the classical statues of the gods that the Greeks used to paint in a riot of psychedelic colors, but which the centuries have scoured clean and white for us. Paradoxically, what appeals to me is the presence of soft edges—of mystery. So much has fallen away over the centuries that it is hard to be certain, any more, of the original intent of anything you see. There is an uncertainty that gives your own imagination room to play; enough slack to send your mind across the centuries, to meet that of the original builder or sculptor or inhabitant. The effect is like that of fog curling round the corners of city streets, or chiaroscuro in a painting, or the action of time upon the faces of the saints on the front of a Gothic cathedral: things seem softened, written over in unfamiliar lights and shadows, strangely alive.
It's possible that my dark feelings about châteaux are rooted in the one visit I had previously made, before my move to Lille. Because I had done it, once. It was the summer of 2002, when I was briefly in France for a reason that seems less important in retrospect. I went to Versailles. I could not resist a day trip out of Paris—I told you I was no exception to the rule. I rode there on the RER suburban train out of Paris, as if I were any commuter, and got off in the posh suburb that is Versailles town. Between the train station and the château, the streets were tidy, the houses expensive, the overpriced snack and souvenir shops well-swept. But when I arrived at the château itself, it made me feel gloomy and a little bit unwell. Its looming front darkened the blue July sky; and the vast sweep of the stone courtyard, and the throngs of tourists speaking in many tongues made me feel as if I were approaching the Vatican.
I had been hoping for sublimity, I think, but what I found was an oversized formality that upset and intimidated me. I paid too much to get inside. Once in the bowels of the place, the conspicuous opulence made me nervous. There was another set of gilt chandeliers; here was another bedroom with silk-paneled walls. The château's centerpiece, the Hall of Mirrors, disquieted me most of all—you are herded down a ballroom-cum-hallway lined with reflective glass and studded with crystal, surrounded by the voices and echoing feet of two dozen people you don't know. It felt like a funhouse ride, the scary kind. There are vast gardens behind the château, but on that visit, I was so unnerved by the house itself that I never got near them.
Later, in Lille, this sense of echoing size and head-aching light came back to me as I read about the achievements, and historical importance, of the era of Louis XIV. This opens out on the Grand Siècle, which I have mentioned before in connection with châteaux and with this king. It is quite an important idea if you want to learn about French cultural history, and is particularly relevant to châteaux. Because I had not studied French before leaving home, I had never heard it before my classes in Lille; but its significance soon enough became apparent.
Le Grand Siècle means "The Great Century," and in France its reference is specific. Consider: if you are a student of, let's say, English history or literature or culture, and you were asked to identify the "Great Century" of Britain, what would you choose? I imagine two candidates might leap to mind. One could be the 16th century, the age of the English Renaissance in flower: the age of Shakespeare and Marlowe, of Sidney and Spenser, of Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake, the sonnet cycle and the Fairie Queene; of naval hegemony, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the astonishingly long 45-year rule of Elizabeth I. The other is the 19th, Britain's Age of Empire—the days of colonization and imperialism, of industrialization and reform; and of Disraeli and Gladstone, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, Dickens and Austen, the Brownings and the Brontes and Walter Scott and H.G. Wells and Alfred, Lord Tennyson—and, of course, 63 relatively stable years of Queen Victoria. Of course these were not simple times; they were not golden ages; they did not lack their stains of moral darkness, controversy, and regret. But they were interesting, and exciting, and memorable at home and abroad.
In France, the big century was the seventeenth. The term the Great Century wasn't coined until later—by Voltaire—and although the period is often defined with ragged edges, established by a monarch's reign rather than the neat zeroes of a century's end, the consensus is clear enough. At this time Louis XIV, the Sun King, ruled from Versailles, and around him he gathered the brilliant of the nation. In the theater, Corneille wrote for the King's court, and then Molière, and Racine. In music, Louis's court composer Lully was working out the French versions of opera and ballet (for the King loved to dance), and in Paris, Louis had established the Comédie Française (for theater), the Académie Française (for literature and language), and the Paris Opéra and its ancillary Ballet (for the obvious purposes). He set the architect Claude Perrault to expanding the Louvre—Perrault's brother Charles was off rewriting fairy tales—and appropriated the dream team of architect Louis Le Vau, decorator Charles Le Brun, and garden designer André Le Nôtre, who had done splendid things for the château of a courtier whom Louis pitched into jail in a fit of envy, and set them to turning his hunting lodge at Versailles into a marvel of ostentation that would astound the world. Off in the distance Descartes and Pascal philosophized (and disagreed) about mathematics and God, the real Cyrano de Bergerac and the real d'Artagnan plied pen and musket, and Jean de la Fontaine, the great fabulist, wrote pithy lines comparing human beings and their social obsessions to the animals in ways that were only too apt.
What more can one say about such interesting times? They seem to define themselves: the remembered names create an outline, and the wars they waged and the writing and music and monuments they left behind. And in the middle of it all, defining the new culture and the edges of the Siècle itself, there was the 72-year rule—the longest in recorded European history—of Louis XIV, who called himself le Roi Soleil, and insisted that all other things revolve around him.
Perhaps, after all, that's why I'm not such a big fan of this period or what it produced. It was a brilliant time, all right—Louis insisted on carrying the sun metaphor as far as it would go, illuminating everything around him with his Apollo-like glow. Certainly it's no coincidence that the century it led into was the Siècle des Lumières—or, as we call it in English, the Age of Enlightenment. But, as I think have already mentioned, I am wary of places that are entirely brilliantly illuminated. I prefer a little dimness, a little mystery: the space for strangeness to play. In the châteaux of this time, in their architecture and décor—in their fiercely intentional symbol schemes, their clustered detail, their gilding and their glass—I see no shadows. And I have never liked that.
Which is why, after all, it seems so strange that in the months before I left France last year, I found myself embroiled in a mad château-seeing spree that brought me to four palaces in five days, all around the Île-de-France, and exposed me to more gilt and mansard roofs than I had ever expected to get myself into. This is surprising, taking the long view. But at the time, I didn't find the reversal odd. I had recently been convinced, converted, finally brought over to a fascination with châteaux by a couple of very peculiar elements I would never have anticipated. The whole thing had something to do with the classes I had been taking, over at the Université Catholique, and something also to do with its brick neo-Gothic façades and the white sculpture of Saint Michael that rested over its arched door. There was some involvement, too, from the bright flowers in the parterres of the university courtyard and the white mists of the low winter sky. But the two things that finally suckered me in, that provided threads I couldn't help but follow, might have been tailor-made for me; they provided all the mystery and strangeness I could want: I was finally brought to the doorways of these great Baroque châteaux by two complicated and misty ideas: ghosts, and gardens.
To be continued.