The atmospheric appeal of writers’ homes : No. 3, January 2013
Writers’ homes are rooted in the local areas that inspired their illustrious residents. Visiting them is an original way of discovering France and steeping yourself in French culture, and is attracting ever-increasing numbers of people. Visits are enhanced by the expertise of a network of public and private property managers, under the umbrella of a national federation.
It takes a lot of passion to preserve writers’ houses and keep them alive. The efforts of the local authorities, individuals and associations that own them are being rewarded by increasing public enthusiasm. More than 1.5 million visitors were recorded in 2011 and the figure is constantly increasing. “There is an emotional aspect to these places, the impression of being welcomed into a friend’s home, which makes them very different from traditional museums,” notes Sophie Vannieuwenhuyze, of the National Federation of Writers’ Homes and Literary Heritage. Based in Bourges, the organisation is responsible for combining and promoting these very dissimilar places.
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- Honoré de Balzac’s desk
It would be impossible, of course, to mention all of the 185 houses open to the public! Some are unmissable, however, such as the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée on Place des Vosges in the Marais district of Paris, which is full of photos and drawings and is where Victor Hugo wrote Lucrèce Borgia and a large part of Les Misérables. Still in Paris, in Honoré de Balzac’s house, you can imagine the novelist hunched over his desk day and night, writing the pages of La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy) over endless cups of coffee.
Atmospheres vary widely: from the house of the sailor Pierre Loti, author of Pêcheur d’Islande (An Iceland Fisherman), in Rochefort on the Atlantic coast, which evokes by turns a Turkish salon and an Arab mosque, to the pink house in Illiers-Combray in central France, where Marcel Proust, the bard of A la Recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), spent his childhood. La Vallée-aux-Loups, in Châtenay-Malabry near Paris, was a refuge for François-René de Chateaubriand and stands out for its remarkably evocative grounds, dotted with the cedars of Lebanon, Greek plane trees and wild Louisiana cypresses planted by the great Romantic author.
Writers were inspired not only by their homes but also by the landscapes and life around them. Balzac can also be found in his native region, at the Château de Saché in the Touraine, nestling in the Indre valley, where he set his novel Le Lys dans la vallée (The Lily of the Valley). From the François Mauriac Centre in Malagar near Bordeaux, you can admire the vines, cypresses and landscapes that inspired La Chair et le sang (Flesh and Blood) and the famous Nœud de vipères (Viper’s Tangle). In George Sand’s house in Nohant (Centre), time has stood still. Visitors will feel perfectly at home in the midst of the copper cooking utensils in the kitchen, the marvellous garden and the familiar ghosts of Frédéric Chopin and Alfred de Musset. In this magical, mysterious region of woods and pools that inspired La Petite Fadette (Little Fadette) and La Mare au diable (The Devil’s pool), the moving memory of La Bonne Dame still survives from generation to generation.Visitors who love Provence, meanwhile, will adore Jean Giono’s house in Manosque and Alphonse Daudet’s Mill in Fontvieille.
The success so far has led to numerous other projects. The house in Besançon where Victor Hugo was born, for example, will open in September 2013. Other plans are in the pipeline, for example to save the house in Vichy where the journalist Albert Londres was born, or the childhood home of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the Ain region (close to Switzerland).
The Historic Writers’ Houses Route takes in 12 locations in the Paris region. They include Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s touching little house in Montmorency and Alexandre Dumas’ famous and charming Château de Monte-Cristo, with its ornately sculpted facades, in Port-Marly. The route also takes in the residences of several famous foreigners living in France: Ivan Turgenev’s dacha in Bougival and the home of the symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck in Médan.
Writers’ homes often host events, exhibitions, concerts, conferences and workshops. Sometimes they also offer authors’ residencies, libraries and research centres. Jules Verne’s house in Amiens (Nord) organises guided tours in costume by characters from Around the World in Eighty Days or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, family games, literary events and storytelling shows. Le Clos Arsène Lupin, home of the creator of the gentleman burglar in Etretat (Normandy) offers a tour in the form of a puzzle. La Maison des ailleurs, the apartment where Arthur Rimbaud was born in Charleville-Mézières (East), on the same quay as the Musée Rimbaud, tells the story of the poet’s life.
A European partnership between writers’ houses has been outlined at the instigation of Germany, but there is currently no real national network anywhere other than France. The National Federation of Writers’ Houses and Literary Heritage is highly sought-after by other countries. The Rencontres de Bourges, which take place every two years, welcomed Latvians, Hungarians and Germans in November. The Federation also organises study days in the spring in a different region every year; there are plans to add the new Rencontres du Sud-Ouest in the south-west in 2013. All provide opportunities to share experiences and a common passion.