They reach Blois in the late evening of that day, as the sun is setting orange and pink behind the bare blackened skeletons of trees. They drive through the city, with its ramshackle Medieval buildings, cobblestone streets with sewers running through them, sheep and pigs and ducks wandering in and out of doorways, and the castle rising solid and dark on a hill – and then they pass into the countryside, dirt roads and forest mixed with farmland, until they turn suddenly into a drive Helene hadn’t seen, and the house is ahead of them, a fifteenth-century farmhouse with a modern addition in back, handcut beams and stucco and an oak door with a brass knocker shaped like a lion.
General Etienne comes out to greet them, waiting by the door as servants surround the carriage and begin taking down trunks and hatboxes, inspecting the horses, and helping Helene down from her seat. He wears an old-fashioned suit with sloping shoulders and light-coloured trousers, an elaborate watch fob, and carries a polished walking stick with a gold handle. His head is bare and his hair comes forward over a strong-jawed face. Though near fifty, he is strong, solid, and thickly built, quite the opposite of Philippe’s delicate beauty – though there is no mistaking the similarity in their faces – the long nose, the hazel eyes, the long lashes, and the high cheekbones mark him out as Philippe’s father, though Philippe’s cupid’s-bow mouth is the image of Sophie’s.
“Welcome home,” the General says, stepping forward and greeting Philippe warmly. “I trust you had a pleasant journey.”
“Most pleasant, thank you,” Philippe replies, stiffly – seeing his father at the wedding had been one thing, but seeing him here, looking forward to living with him here, is quite another. A small spark of loyalty to his mother rises up in him, creating an awkward shift in the air between them, but he stifles it, remembering that his mother had humiliated them all, had trampled over his life and hopes, remembering how he had sat in Lamarie’s apartment in Paris and wondered if his father hadn’t been right all along. If there had been something he didn’t know.
And there is no more confusion over politics. Lamarie, he’d realised, had been a moderate. He remembers endless lessons in Naples on the rights of man, the dangers of unadulterated power, the necessity of free trade and the equality of all men. He remembers a fierce anti-clericalism and a suspicion of marriage (he wonders idly what his mother had thought – if she had dreamed of becoming Madame Lamarie, should the General have died first). But he also remembers a man of unwavering loyalty to the crown, a man haunted by ghosts of ’93, a man who had once confessed to Alphonse (who was considering entering politics), “dear God, my boy, stay away from it – it will take your soul and cover you with blood. Stay with the law, make sure all transactions of property are carried out neat and precise, and maybe God will let you sleep.” A man with a scholar’s mind and a worldly history.
His mother, meanwhile, had been an ardent royalist – passionate and old-fashioned and with any number of vitriolic speeches to make against the republic whenever the topic came up. She and Lamarie had shared a mutual hatred of what the called the “extremists,” the “terrorists,” the men of ’93 who had shattered their Paris and their lives.
Here there is nothing but a solid and respectable militarism that knows no ideology, a slight nostalgic fondness for Bonaparte, and a grudging regard for the order and peace brought by the restoration. Here is his father’s world of sword and epaulet, flag and regiment, a world where Philippe’s wild adoration for the world of kings and nobles and the pastoral time gone by can find their expression. He’d sensed a slight reserve in his father’s letters when he’d spoken of this, a slight sense of the older man patronizing the younger, but he’d chosen to ignore it. Compared with Lamarie and Sophie, it is welcome.
And Helene is here – as his wife – and he is far from the hot, smoky, crowded city and all its sins.
“Dinner is at nine o’clock,” the General is saying, as he leads Helene through the front door and towards the staircase up to the apartment. It is small and neat, set out in the eaves and the top floor of the addition, with stairs at the front and the back. Helene explores happily, taking in the diamond-paned windows, the dark wood floors, the light pattern of the wallpaper, the slanting ceilings, and the plain, handsome furniture. A vision of children playing on the soft white rug in front of her flashes through her mind, and she leans onto her toes to softly kiss her husband’s cheek.
There is a long, narrow hall, with a window at the front and the parlour at the back. Two rooms – Philippe’s study and their bedroom – open off it at the front, by the staircase. Helene’s boudoir branches off the bedroom, and another staircase outside the parlour leads to the dining room, which they share with the General. It is, she thinks, looking out the windows at the brilliantly coloured leaves, rather like being mistress of an elegant treehouse.
The wallpaper in the hall is a creamy white, with a pattern of sage green stems twisting up and down it and the occasional soft pink flower bursting in delicate, joyful bloom along the way. Helene falls in love with it immediately. It seems to her to break the borders of indoors and outdoors, filling her house with blossoms that could not fade or die. She envisions putting a small table at the end of the hall, by the window, and setting a vase of roses on it that would match the walls. In the winter, maybe, she will bring in evergreens, so she and Philippe can look every morning at something alive. She and Philippe! They will have mornings together this winter, in this lovely house – and the next, and then after that for so many years. It seems remarkable that this should be, that their marriage has turned out to be more than just an end to the misery of separation. She is surprised by this – she had always somehow assumed that after they were married, they would just vanish in a whiff of consummate happiness, and that would be that.
She turns to examine the bedroom.
It is dominated by a four-poster bed covered with a bedspread of dark red wool. Two chairs sit contentedly by the window that looked into the treetops. A table with a basin and a pitcher of water stand against the near wall, and to her left, the door to her boudoir is open. She goes in, and sees that her maid has unpacked and arranged her hair things and perfumes – and the doll – on the dresser, and hung her dresses and nightgowns in the boudoir. She opens the window and leans out, finding that she is looking down on her husband and father-in-law.
“Your mother was a good woman,” the General is saying, “I made her unhappy, and she clung to you to spite me.”
“She was a spiteful woman,” Philippe replies, taking a sip from a glass of wine he holds casually between thumb and finger.
“Understand this,” his father says, “I loved your mother as one man loves another. I married her because I believed I was fortunate that the mind and heart of my truest friend were housed in a woman’s body. But we were both too intelligent to live together as husband and wife, and try as I might, I could not summon up one bit of conjugal tenderness or passion for her.” He pauses, staring at nothing. “She never needed me,” he says quietly. “And so I fled to the arms of weak, wispy females who thought nothing and said less, and I loved them for their softness and their gentle manners. And I thought I was happy.”
Helene closes the window.
“I could never love a silly woman,” Philippe says earnestly. “They are so common. There is nothing angelic in their affected laughter, their chattering, their giggles. Helene – Papa, Helene is everything.”
“Is she?” his father nods, looking out into the trees again, smiling. “You make a very good bridegroom. I hope you are as good at being a husband.”
“Helene is poetry made human. She is neither silly nor shrewish – the two extremes of womanhood, both of which I detest.”
“There is so much of you, Philippe,” the General says. “You are like your mother that way. The best of your mother,” he adds quickly.
“I feel today,” his son continues, “as though I could swim across the world and not tire. It is as though everything I never really believed would happen has been made real. Great and wonderful things are going to come, and I will be there. Papa, I’m alive for the first time ever – my whole life has been a dream, a farce, but now the sun is up and everything that was in shadow or invisible is now clear and glittering.”
“Becoming a husband tends to clear one’s vision that way,” says the General. “Yes, there is sudden joy in our lives as husbands, but do not forget that there is pain as well – pain that is sharper because it is shared with a woman you adore, and you suffer her sorrows as well. And there is also tedium. There will be days with Helene when your life is normal and plain – and that must not frighten you.”
Philippe throws his glass to the ground, and it shatters into tiny, sparkling pieces.
“My wife is not ordinary! Do not insult her! I would sooner die than let my life become dull! I am bound for greater things!”
He storms into the house and leaves his father staring at the wine sinking slowly into the dry ground, turning it a dark reddish-brown, and at the shards of glass, glistening like broken diamonds in the grass.
It is a week after their marriage, and there is a late storm – Philippe closes the bedroom door behind him, sees his wife sitting up in bed reading with two pillows wedged behind her, while lightning flashes everywhere and illuminates the undersides of the last remaining leaves just outside the window. Hot for October – a hot night with wild light and shivering dying trees.
“Put the book away,” he says, staring over her head, his mouth pulling at the corners. “And unbutton your gown – I want to see you before I come to you.”
She does what she is told, silently, her eyes wide and dark. Moving from sitting to kneeling, letting the white cotton dress fall over her waist and hips –
“Is there anything you would not do if I were to ask?” and the question is a half-sneer, and he hates it even as he says it, knows he is frightening her, finds it impossible to stop. “What wife would allow that of her husband?”
“I – I do not – I am trying to please you –“ she replies, as though she is talking to a stranger, hesitating, stuttering. He has just come in from outside, from a wander through the night-time woods where he never goes far, just circles the house about ten feet inside the treeline, watching the yellow windows blink and shudder against the night.
He idly wonders what it would be like to lie with a whore, a strange woman with neither past nor present, skilled and foreign and already spoiled. There is a strange shock of pleasure at the thought, a renewed vigour in his kisses, as Helene makes a small sound and he pushes her onto her back. Harder than he’d intended – the breath goes out of her and she gasps, and he practically tears at his trousers in his haste now – Helene – God save me –
His fingers wrap around her wrists, where the pale blue veins make spidery paths under her translucent skin – and he brings them over her head, bearing down until they make dents in the sheets – then he is fumbling at the fastenings of his trousers again, and Helene is limp and unresisting, and he wants to stop, but he can’t, she would have to understand that he can’t . The lightning flashes again, and somewhere a cooling breeze starts – it will be autumn again by morning – . And now he is inside her, awkward and too eager, and she bites her lip, wriggling and wincing – now both of his hands slide under her nightgown, between cotton and skin, and he is thinking of his nameless imaginary whore – he sweeps Helene’s hair off her neck and runs his teeth against her perfect white skin – she goes rigid and unmoving – he bites gently, then harder – sucking at her skin, her luminous milk-white skin, pulling her hands onto his waist, where they stay, still and helpless. He can feel the sweat starting at the roots of his hair, see Helene’s mouth set and thin, but she is just a helpless blur of sensation, divorced from his body and mind, his thoughts, his clumsy, desperate movements that take him over and pour themselves over his skin like wine –
And then with a rush, it is over, and there is nothing but a sudden awareness of the dark, the bursts of lightning, and a crushing shame that has no words. He has to get away; everything is crashing – and if only the lightning would stop, would leave him alone – the pale, stern body of his wife lies beside him, smoothing her nightgown back over her knees, and he feels the flush in his cheeks, the damp hair that clings to his forehead, and he is afraid, and ashamed. He pulls his trousers on with his back to Helene, and walks over to the basin, washing his face and chest, crawling back into bed and pulling off his trousers again under the duvet.
When she realises it is there, the baby feels heavy and hot inside her. She turns on her side in bed and it is almost as though she can sense her blood becoming sluggish and thick, her body being taken over, besieged from within.
Which is not to say she isn’t happy – she is – desperately happy, if she thinks about it. She wants to love it wildly and devotedly, to think about it constantly the way Philippe thinks about his poems, to have every inch of her body be built for a purpose. She wants to lie in the sun and let it warm her ridiculously feminine body, feel the child turn and stretch against the warm redness of her, raise it to sober and thoughtful adulthood under her patient tutelage. She thinks of the books she will read to it, the clothes she will have made. But it is strange to walk around with this other being within, to worry that if she jumps too hard or eats too much garlic, she might destroy it. Strange to feel as though her very core is not her own, is subject to the whims and needs of something else.
And there is a strange sadness, an unnameable and shameful despair, for the childhood now definitely left behind. She realises it is a bit late – her marriage has effectively ended that several weeks ago, and her extravagant passion for Philippe should have been enough to pull her into womanhood – but it is there nonetheless. It is strange – I want to play with my dolls and run to my mother, and I cannot. I am a hundred miles from her, and I am a married woman. I must behave as one.
She unpins her hair and lets it fall down her back, and lies in her petticoats and chemise on her unmade bed, dismissing the chambermaid when she knocks and telling her she can do the room later. She pulls the doll from the dresser and clutches it close, feeling her breasts already sore and aching. And she cries for reasons she can’t understand, because she feels cut off and adrift, because she feels very young and afraid, because she worries about how desperately she will love the child and how so much can go wrong, because she sees her own girlhood now pulling away – for not the first but the most vivid time, she sees a chapter of her life definitively close. I can never be a child again, no matter what I do. And I am scared, and I miss it.
She spends much of the afternoon seated beside Philippe in the parlour, as he writes a review of his friend Emile Deschamps’ latest book and she embroiders a pillow cover. He asks if they might invite the LeBlanc family for Christmas – she says it would be lovely. In the evening, the cook makes chocolate (“the General – he thinks it is decadent, but you young people are decadent in everything, no?”), and pours heavy tablespoons of English cream over the top. The foam clings in bubbly melting eddies to the sides of the Provencal china mugs, and Helene dips her finger into their sweet warmth until every last drop is gone.
“I am having a baby,” she tells Philippe calmly, as they read together before bed. “Probably in the autumn. Does your father know anyone who might recommend a good midwife?”
For a moment Philippe’s mind goes blank – he watches his wife’s big soft eyes blink a few times, watches loose strands of her hair brush across her narrow mouth, and suddenly is repulsed by her, by the strange workings of her body and the blood in which the child was conceived and now rests, growing, sucking out the blood from his wife.
He stamps down the thoughts, pushes them into a dark little chamber in the pit of his stomach where all his unremembered sins lie clinging to each other.
Cupid turns to Psyche in the night, he writes in a frenzy a few days later. The unseen curves of her body are a test of his will, of his obedience to the Gods. She is his, but foreign, but unknown, and he is the same to her. They are as ships that signal their passing in the channel, but cannot call to each other, cannot see their comrades’ faces and read their eyes. They wake as strangers, separately blinking in newborn daylight, and he is a raging fire, tortured and alone. When she comes to him, she is slow and deliberate and consumed within herself, and he burns, and she is the air – she is light, and cool, and feeding the flame it breathes on.
He is writing unpublishable prose. Scraps that turn to nothing, that he balls up and tosses in the basket and then rescues and files away somewhere he cannot see them. It is disintegrating – the ordered beauty of metre, the organizing hierarchy of rhyme. His sonnets splinter into essays, his simple metaphors fall to long and rambling explanations, and everything turns back to lust – shaming, destroying lust.
He is a poet – in a self-imposed exile from Parisian society, but nevertheless a poet and a Romantic. His publisher considers him to be a reliable paycheque, the Paris Gazette has a regular space reserved for him, and Nicolas LeBlanc is not only his constant admirer but a dear friend who is coming for Christmas.
His place and reputation are becoming assured. He has written odes on the country homes of gentlemen he has never met, poring over detailed drawings of them sent hastily from Paris. He has rewritten the myth of Icarus in verse. He has learned enough English to read a book Lamartine sent him by an obscure Englishman called Blake, and he has been moved to awe and horror. He has wandered through the Blois countryside and composed odes upon riverbanks, castles, and fog – railed to Helene about the hideous factories polluting the countryside with their nose and smoke. He has written long letters to Eugene explaining – yet again – the importance of sobriety and discipline in writing poetry, and he has corresponded regularly with Lamartine, Deschamps, Vigny, and Nodier
And yet he spends half his nights sitting up and writing scattered, unpublishable prose – as undisciplined to the grace of poetry as a drunkard is to the grace of God, and as bewitchingly erotic as a Gypsy dancing girl in a Paris ghetto. He puts them in a drawer of his desk and he does not look at them again, but he knows they are there. He knows they are there.
My dear Friend, Lamartine writes, a red scarf around his neck, his shirt open, his new jacket cut with dashing military lines. I write to tell you of the latest news from Paris. I have read your latest odes from your life in the country – or your extended honeymoon – whichever it is. I admit I cannot understand why you doggedly insist on remaining in your self-imposed exile, when there is so much opportunity for you in the capital.
Particularly for you, with your royalist inclinations, there is opportunity. The king has walked a narrow and difficult line since the fall of the Emperor, but I can see the tide turning in favour of the Bourbons. The poor Duc de Berry – yes, my friend, I sympathise for the death of a young man, despite disagreeing with his politics – has become a symbol around which all the sentimental women of Paris may weep, crying “oh the pitiful man,” and raining down curses on the souls of his assassins. And the King’s brother Charles (there is a man I do not trust – he is the sneakiest, vilest sort of aristocrat) wades into the crowds and whips them into such a monarchist fervour that he will soon be able to dissolve parliament entirely and nobody will even notice it is gone. Yes, my friend, there is opportunity for a court poet here. For where the women of Paris bring their weeping eyes and where they kneel down and raise their handkerchiefs to their bare bosoms, there follow their husbands and priests and all the landed men of the realm, who fill the ballot boxes with their wives’ tears. And they have no one to write them odes.
Forgive me if I am bitter. I am a man of steadfast principles, and every morning sees me further and further from the overwhelming majority of the people. As though France is becoming less and less my home. I still have my livelihood, thank God – though I believe sometimes they publish me more to laugh at me than to listen to me. But there is yet that freedom of the press which means I may speak my principles aloud and still have food and shelter.
Philippe, if you could see Paris. Louis XVIII and Charles and all their lot, restored to God’s rightful throne, live alongside the most terrible deprivation you have ever seen. The gentlemen ride through the streets in their gilded carriages, and crowds of starving children follow them, women in tattered dresses that scarcely conceal their modesty, let alone shield them from the cold. And they cheer, these wretches – they shout huzzah to God’s representative on earth, and on Sunday they crowd into the churches, where reign sleek and well-fed priests who have bartered and blackmailed and bought their way into holy orders, who mouth the gospel of Christ while serving Caesar and Mammon, and they swallow the sermons of complacency in a language they cannot understand.
I have seen old women sitting in the street, covered in their own excrement, begging without dignity for a scrap of bread to keep them alive so they may beg one more day. I have seen children, hollow-eyed and bent with rickets, working from six o’clock in the morning until eight o’clock at night, with no opportunity for schooling or self-improvement. I have seen dogs treated with more care than the King’s own subjects.
If you only knew – if you could only leave your country paradise long enough to see what is happening – if you could give a thought to how your world is so much larger than just your wife and a set of verses neatly composed upon the subject of a daffodil, then you might find just how much you are transformed. How much the fire of that passion which I know is in you may burn for the cause of righteousness. Philippe, with your eye for beauty and virtue – let me tell you what happens to beauty and virtue in Paris today.
A young woman born in the country comes to the city for work. She takes a job in a factory, eager to send money to her family in Brittany, whose farm is suffering. She has heard that the mills offer boarding houses run by respectable women, that there are missions provided for the spiritual welfare of the mill girls. She is fifteen, and pious, and pretty – with milky skin and soft cheeks and long dark hair.
Three years later, she has suffered. She has worked fifteen hours a day in a mill that has half-deafened her. She has lost a finger in the machines, and seen girls catch their hair in the looms and be scalped before her eyes. She has learned that her foreman is a violent drunk, and she has suffered beatings at his hands, her innocent body purpled and bruised. But she cannot protest, or she will be cast out onto the streets with no money. For she does not earn enough to have saved, she does not earn enough to make herself or her family secure – she is a slave to the meager wages handed out at the factory gates, and she must submit to any indignity in order to keep them. Her young face is sallow now, and two teeth are missing. Her hair is kept short, so it does not catch in the machines and so the lice do not spread. She has a constant cough from the dust that flies around the workroom.
Imagine what could happen to this girl. Imagine what she lives her life one step away from every day – death, destitution, disease. Imagine what she would be forced to do if she were turned out from the factory – this innocent girl, full of virtue and beauty, forced to supplement her income on her back, the risk of disease, of bearing a child into such squalor. This is what the royal family has made of your beauty and virtue, Philippe. Tell me of your daffodils now.
Lost in your rural idyll, you do not see these girls – you do not see the stream of excrement that flows through Parisian streets, the children playing in rivers of urine and tallow and God knows what. You do not see the houses packed so close that consumption in one means consumption up and down the entire street, the entire arrondissement. You do not see the stench rising from the Seine, the sickly vapours spreading their poison over the city, already yellowed with smoke and foul air. You do not see the whores – some practically children – coughing blood into their dirty handkerchiefs, the veterans of Napoleon’s wars standing on the corner with a filthy bandage tied around their missing legs, begging and raving and half off their senses with drink. You do not see the young men pale and sweating with laudanum, the fields eaten up by smoke-belching mills, the forests and meadows and streams that fill your Romantic imagination being rapidly gobbled up by opportunistic men who care nothing for their workers and only for their profits. And you do not see the Bourbons sweeping by in satin and lace, with pheasants and truffles at breakfast, who allow this to happen, who do nothing to stop it, and who soak up the adoration of these ignorant people at every turn. I believe that if you saw it – if you knew – you would hate it as I do. You are not an evil man. You want to see beauty, and so you have gone to where beauty is, but Philippe, we need you.
I have read your Icarus – what a suitable subject. A warning against ambition, a call to arms for mediocrity. Stay in your rural hamlet, your village cut off from the world, and do not hope to fly – do not see the glorious burning of the sun, do not feel it set you on fire.
I may add that I miss your companionship. I sensed a kinship between us, despite our differing beliefs. You have a prodigious talent, and have had remarkable luck in your early career. You belong in Paris. You are wasting yourself in the country, writing gentle odes for country squires.
I beg you to reconsider.
With sincerity and respect,
Alphonse de Lamartine
It is night, silvery in the moonlight reflected off snow, silver like metal peeled into sharp slices that stab and freeze. Helene has pulled the blanket over her head but still she shivers because the fire warms only one side of her, and the warm brick she brought to bed has long since gone cold.
Philippe has come in from a walk in the garden and sleepily strokes her shoulder, lifting her hair to kiss the back of her neck. His mouth is warm on its inside – teeth and tongue and the slippery inside of his lips – but cold on the outside, the cheek pressed to her skin, the dry chapped lips. She arches away from him.
“I am tired.”
The scene comes to her in strange hallucinatory fragments as she drifts in and out of sleep – Philippe’s fingers pressing at her waist through the layers of nightclothes, her thick voice murmuring half-nonsensical protestations, her husband’s knee digging into her thigh, encircling her leg, his hips squirming behind her.
“Philippe … don’t …”
“You made a vow,” he whispers against her neck, and his breath has the edgy smell of stale wine, sour and rancid.
“You promised to obey me.”
She bats ineffectually at him and closes her eyes. He is warm and pliable; his waist moves in and out with his breathing. She kicks at the brick and hears it crash to the floor, and moves to her stomach, to bury her face in the pillow.
“I have been,” she murmurs. “Sleep.”
He does not want her to submit to him, to obey him. He wants her to come to him of her own accord. Some small part of him tells him she never will, and he rails against it.
There are hands in her hair now, pulling her head back; she whimpers with the sudden pain, the imposition on her sleep-fogged softness. He presses half-open lips hard onto her jaw, her cheek, her mouth still open and curled in surprise.
And now it is an instinctual struggle, the lashing out of a trapped animal; her hands are at his face, nails curled towards his cheeks that are still almost as smooth as a boy’s, and his hand fumbles with the buttons of his trousers, and his breath comes faster – by the Lord, she is beautiful when the colour rises in her cheeks, and her head falls back like this, her mouth open and gasping.
He kisses her knees as the yards of skirts slide over them, and one of her hands comes up to his face, her fingers on his chin, the tip of her ring finger catching in his mouth, the palm of her hand over his eyes, and he bites the curved pale flesh between finger and thumb. She is arching under him; he crawls up her body, sliding one finger between her thighs – her hands so cold and here so warm – she grips with her knees and twists him to the side but he slips his hand around to her hip and pulls her down the bed towards him, sitting up, sliding his trousers down just far enough.
She grips the headboard, but he wrenches her fingers free and brings her hands to his face, kissing her fingertips, mouth open, eyes closed, into oblivion, her voice raking over his skin. He wonders if it would frighten the baby.
My dear Lamartine.
It is five days until Christmas, and my wife is preparing for the LeBlanc family to arrive. She has ordered mountains of extra food – each hour, the bell rings and one servant or another rushes to the back door to take in naked goose carcasses, their heads flopping to the side and a few scruffy pin feathers still clinging to their stripped wings. Or piles of pate, wrapped in oiled paper, or it is the miller with sacks of flour (white and wheat) or the grocer with honey from Greece and blocks of sugar from the West Indies and ginger from India. And all of it is piled in the larder, catalogued and accounted for and ready to be brought to our Christmas table – it is such a miracle that I have Christmas with Helene. That we are host and hostess of the same table, not overgrown children pining for each other from households across the city from one another. The nights draw in and the forest is so close, and there is snow on the branches of the fir trees, and here we are, together, in our little parlour at the front of the house, warm and candlelit against the world.
And next year, our son (I am sure it is a son) will be with us. It has happened so quickly. I feel I am prepared to be a father – to be a husband and a father. It is my chief delight, my dear Alphonse, to be surrounded by my family and to dote on them entirely.
I have read your letter. Again and again – it is disturbing, and moving, and passionately written. Of course, I expect no less from you. My Alphonse, so bright and so much a citizen of the world. I am not like you – I am a private man. I want nothing more than to be left to my own devices, with my family and friends and a study to work in. Why must my work be political? Why must my choice of subject be interpreted as a public act? If I choose to write an ode to a wildflower, or an ode on the beauty of the Duc de Blois’ country home, or an ode upon the song of a lark, why must it be interpreted as supporting one or the other of an ever-competing horde of politicians in Paris who neither know nor care about my beliefs?
My Romanticism is an escape from that world, an escape from the ugly realities of this modern world of ours, an escape into a gentle, beautiful past where parliaments and proclamations give way before mythical kings and nymphs. I am not Icarus – I do not retreat out of fear. I retreat out of love. Out of ideals. The ideal is what matters – the pure, unpolluted vision. This is our sacred trust as poets, the guardianship of the ideal.
You seek to ally Romanticism necessarily with liberalism. I do not accept this. Witness Chateaubriand. Here is a man of poetic vision and with a great knowledge of the world, a man who is a member of the Academie Francaise, a man who is singularly known as the father of our little group – and he is a royalist, a Catholic, an anti-revolutionary. Romanticism is not a political movement, my Alphonse – it is a belief in the truth of our emotions, a belief in beauty, a belief in the truth of myth and legend.
I wish you the best for Christmas and the new year – may 1824 be blessed with joy and success.
Nicolas and Claire arrive two days before Christmas. Two servants carry in their bags, and a young West Indian nanny carries an overdressed and screaming George-Marie.
“He has been bellowing constantly since this morning,” Claire tells Helene, when they are in the downstairs guest room. The nanny has unwrapped George-Marie and has borrowed a drop of brandy from the cook, and dipped her finger in it, and is rocking the baby back and forth in the corner.
“Perhaps he’s hungry,” Helene suggests.
“Most like,” Claire says, leaning back on the bed so her maid can pull off her wet wool stockings and lay them out on the rack in front of the fire. “And I believe he may have a tooth breaking through.”
The baby has quieted now, and Claire gestures for the nanny to bring him to her.
“Thank you, Elise,” she says. “You may go and prepare his things in our room. But first, do make sure you get some warm brandy and milk for yourself and change your stockings – I cannot have you catching cold.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the nanny says, curtsies, and leaves. Claire’s maid puts on her slippers – Claire dismisses her and she also curtsies and departs.
“He is a beautiful lad,” Helene says, and now that she can see him without the howling red face and pumping fists, he really is. He is round and soft, with fair skin and his mother’s dark hair.
Claire unlaces her dress, and Helene notices her corset is loosened around her bust – she looks away – Claire lifts George-Marie to her bosom and makes soft little noises as he grips his mouth onto her breast.
“Elise does not nurse him?” Helene asks.
“Oh no – I did not have her until he was over a month old; before then, I had him sent to the country. It is much healthier for him, as the air is clearer. But I could not bear to be away from him – oh, Helene, how I wept at night when he was not there! So I went to Nicolas and begged him, and we found better rooms, further from the river and the stench of it, where there is a little park nearby, and it is healthier, and I immediately sent for him to come back. I have heard some little gossip at the salons that I am being selfish, but I do try to pay it no mind.”
“Will it not ruin the figure? I have heard it said …” Helene flushes scarlet. “I apologise – I am intruding. I apologise – but I am expecting my own child, and without my mother or friends nearby.”
“That is wonderful news,” Claire says.
“And I do think I shall nurse him myself.”
“My sister says that maternal solicitude is very important to the child. And there are wet nurses who consider their charges to be only another few coins in their pocket. They leave them alone with their own filth, alone in the house while the nurse is out – carry them around as though they were a bag of potatoes –“
“But all the women are sending their babes to nurses now – not just the ladies, but shopkeepers’ wives and even the best of the servants.” Claire wipes her hair off her face with the heel of one hand. “So it is difficult to know what is best.”
Just then, they hear voices in the hallway, two men laughing, and then Nicolas saying, “a good sum for what was really a frightfully bad ode!”
Then Philippe flung open the door and bellowed, “come! Let us fetch our wives and take them into town, for the Revelers are to appear!”
Helene leaps up.
“Claire – take some of my wraps; yours are still wet. I intended to tell you all about the ladies you shall be introduced to – I have been calling and calling and it is beginning to drive me mad, but I think I have made a bit of an impression.
“There is Madame Moreau, whose husband is a merchant, and who has a truly magnificent house and three of her own carriages – be certain to compliment her on her jewellery; she is most particular about it. And Madame Girard, and her two daughters – she will talk of nothing but getting them married. I do like Madame Fournier; she is quiet and elegant, and you would not expect her to have a cutting wit and such a sense of fun, but she does! We shall try and sit beside her at Monsieur Bessette’s party on Christmas Eve. Oh, but before we depart, I must inform the cook to make dinner later –“
She runs off to the kitchen and half an hour later they all find themselves walking briskly the mile and a half over the snow-packed road into Blois proper, bundled in several layers of wool.
Squirrels chatter at them occasionally, and the odd crow bursts out in a croaking song from deep inside the woods, but otherwise, the walk is quiet, and eventually, Claire began to sing.
“Les anges dans nos campagnes
Ont entonné l’hymne des cieux
Et l’écho de nos montagnes
Redit ce chant mélodieux:
Gloria in excelsis deo.”
Helene joins in as she repeats the chorus, their clear sopranos arching icy and sharp into the winter air, but she has to drop out on the verses, because she doesn’t know them. Claire’s voice is strong and sure and lovely, and then the men join in, Nicolas improvising a tenor line over Philippe’s rich, dark bass. Listening to the three of them, their singing interspersed with the occasional giggle when a note goes wrong, breathing in the wool of her scarf and the pine forests and the smoke and brandy on the men’s breath, Helene feels entirely happy.
“Il est né, le Dieu de gloire
Terre, tressaille de bonheur
Que tes hymnes de victoire
Chantent, célèbrent ton sauveur.
Gloria in excelsis deo!”
She draws her cape around herself, and thinks, I was such an odd, quiet, lonely child, drifting from military apartment to military apartment, never knowing anyone my age for long. I have grown so used to finding company in my own thoughts, in my possessions, in my books – Philippe has broken through that calm, regal girl, sparked me into life. I was unused to loving – I had not loved anything like him before; half the time I feel like a child being given a holiday when I am with him.
She still loves her things – strangely, not out of pride but because she can make them permanent, can make them last. She loves her doll, that now stands behind the bottles and jars on the table in her boudoir, she loves the pearl comb she wore on the night of the English ambassador’s ball, the night Sophie died. She loves the paintings she has purchased for the parlour from Blois’ best artists, and the vases and clocks she has bought for the bedroom. They are hers, she can care for them, she is proprietary about them. And she loves the Revelers, in their bright costumes – the twirling jesters, the regal Lords and their elegant Ladies, the saints and villains and heroes that do battle in verse throughout the streets, and the minstrels that follow them, singing a raucous and beautiful mixture of French and Latin. But most of all, she loves walking back in the dark, leaning against Claire’s woollen shoulder, singing Christmas carols into the cold wind, and laughing when she misses a note. Philippe’s hand is gentle and warm on her back, and for the first time in her life, she is surrounded by a life she has made for herself, and a catch in her throat, a tightness in her chest that she hadn’t even known was there, vanishes into the midwinter’s night.
Boxing Day in Paris is clear and bitterly cold. The market is closed, the churchbells are silent, and even the beggars have ceased their noisy clamouring for centimes and instead sit hunched in doorways out of the wind, or against the walls of bakeries, where the heat of the ovens remains in the bricks for hours at a time. Lamartine has opened the curtains in his study and let the light flood inside, put an extra log on the fire and sits with two pairs of socks on and a red silk scarf tied around his head like a Turk. He flexes his fingers every few sentences and blows on their chapped, ink-stained tips to keep them from freezing.
I can scarcely believe I must even write this letter, as the answers to your arguments are so blindingly obvious you must surely have considered them yourself.
Philippe – you must have realized by now – every written word is political. If you spend your life composing verses upon the beauty of an aristocrat’s home, you are tacitly supporting the existence of this aristocrat, the system whereby he maintains his lands and riches, and his ability to dictate the subject of your work. Philippe – you do not know Paris. The populace are becoming more educated – slowly, but it is happening. There are Sunday Schools now for the working children – free Sunday Schools! There are female seminaries for the mill girls and they are pouring into Paris by the hundred every day. There are magazines printed in the basements of taverns, student newspapers with the latest in poetry, fashion and politics – the people of Paris can read now, and they are reading what you write, what I write, what Deschamps and Dumas and Vigny write. You are in the world, whether you like it or not, my man, and it is now merely a question of what you do with that fact.
You speak of escape from the world, but you have that luxury. The mill girl does not – the beggar does not – the prostitute, child labourer, wounded soldier, does not. If we Romantics can see the evils of this world – the soot and dirt and filth that you abhor (evils that a liberal government would seek to cure – evils that a government for the people would address), and our responsibility now is to point the way to a better world, to show the lost masses their way to salvation. Our duty is to lift them from ignorance and make the world more beautiful. What good does it do the world if you feel in your soul the exquisite beauty of love, of sorrow, of hope, of horror – your task is not to feel, but to make others feel.
The Romantic must begin with the longings of his own soul and translate them into universal experience – your soul must unite with the souls of thousands, must set them on fire with your emotions – and you are the man who can do it.
My God, you made me weep when you wrote of an apple blossom – how much more could you bring to the world if you chose less insipid subjects? In that apple blossom was the transience of youth, the inevitability of decay – but veiled, shadowed, hinted at, pushed down as though they were a distraction from the central theme of the poem when they are in fact themselves the central theme of the poem.
Do not be afraid of it – do not be bound only to beauty and virtue; Romantics believe that all emotions are beautiful, even hatred and lust and horror. Do not be afraid to tear through the world like a refining fire, to cry out in anguish as well as in love, to celebrate blood and anger and fear as much as you would a flower or a birdsong. These things too are beauty.
Come to Paris.