Last week, on the occasion of my niece’s wedding nearby, we stayed at Chateau de la Puisaye, a Napoleon III house set in a large park a mile outside of Verneuil-sur-Avre on the southern Normandy border. Diana and Bruno Costes (she British, he French) have turned the chateau into a country “bed-and-breakfast,” offering five traditionally furnished bedrooms in the main house, a guest cottage, and a studio over the old stables. Our son and his family (children aged nine and eleven) joined us.
One of our rooms on the second floor (Europeans say the first floor), looked out the back onto green grass, a box hedge, and a large kitchen garden, hence called the Chambre du Potager. Decorated in antiques, the light and airy room had a closed fireplace and three tall windows, high ceilings, and a large bath. White wainscoted panels were papered in pink and green floral with complimentary borders and matching draperies. The room is charming, recalling Jane Austen, with polished hardwood floors and oriental carpets. Two more bedrooms faced the front drive and park with tall windows as well, nicely appointed, and two more on the third floor.
Always intrigued by history and the mystery of time, I wondered who had lived here over the centuries. Diana said an elderly lady was the last owner. She mentioned that a tunnel, perhaps no longer evident, once hid Resistance fighters in World War II. Our articulate hostess was certain the house held many secrets and hidden passages, nooks and crannies yet to be discovered. The house had seen so much, both joy and sorrow, I thought, love and hate, birth and death. Foreign armies encamped, reigning terror upon the countryside.
For we were, after all, in Normandy, unhappy witness to centuries of war. Northwest, the landing beaches of World War II stretch alongside the English Channel, where so many young soldiers were gunned down by the enemy on overlooking cliffs. Today they rest beneath rows of white crosses in a field of green, and I often thought of these young men and the world they protected with their lives, our world. How deceiving peacetime could be, especially in our lovely chateau surrounded by leafy park and night silence and sun and shadow, in rooms of genteel comfort and civilized conversation. How deceiving it all was, not wanting to believe we lived in a rare moment of peace that bridged the times of war. How long would it be before fighting revisited this lovely pastureland of chateaus and sheep and medieval stone?
Of course this area of southern Normandy has seen other wars over the centuries, for Normandy was British for many years, a coveted prize with its ports and pastures. Fortified villages surrounded by deep moats saw much bloodshed in the Hundred Years War that pitted English against French and raged intermittently from 1337 to 1453. Verneuil-sur-Avre was formed from three such villages, with streets that trace the old walls, each community clustering around its church and market.
Much to the delight of my grandchildren, chateau sheep grazed in a distant field, and the children were invited to help herd them to another pasture. Two elderly ponies, a horse, and a donkey grazed in another paddock. Three dogs meandered in and out of the chateau, nuzzling the children and other friendly hands, and two cats could be spotted if one watched carefully. There was a heated swimming pool, put in this last year, anchored at one end by a picturesque stone gatehouse.
The gravel drive curved up to the white façade of the chateau as if curtsying, and mature plane trees shaded broad lawns and white wrought-iron chairs and tables and wooden lounges. We had unseasonable rain and cool temps this last week, but in better weather guests could sip cocktails on the lawn before dinner. I for one enjoyed the drawing rooms.
The entry led to stairs spiraling up to the bedrooms. Guests met in the paneled drawing room to the right of the entry for an aperitif before dinner. (My grandson played a little Beethoven on the grand piano.) Velvet upholstered chairs and a settee grouped around a working fireplace probably ablaze in winter. The adjoining library housed walls of books with another working fireplace.
In the dining room to the left of the entry, Diana served hot breakfasts with fresh breads and jams, and even dinner (with notice), featuring local foods and French country wines. She was most gracious in preparing several dinners for us over the week we stayed, all delicious.
I particularly appreciated (naturally) the many books that greeted us, and I left my own novels to add to the chateau’s collection. There were hundreds of books in English and French and other languages, out-of-print books, bestsellers, classics, history, crime, romance, art, cooking, landscape. Books were stacked on tables and mantels and overflowed from shelves. They lined the rooms with history, their own history and those stories living inside the leaves, reflecting centuries of writers and readers, but also reflecting a more sophisticated syntax and thought pattern.
I came across a young-adult story with black-and-white illustrations on shiny pages. The printing style reminded me of books I once borrowed and devoured from our local Orinda library when I was young. The title page stated the book was a war printing, using circumscribed ink and paper, for it was dated 1944, London. It appeared to be about a girl’s school with a simple and direct and sweet style. I thought how different today’s young adult novels are, with their dark and often violent themes, their sexually charged language, their despairing and anguished tones. What have we sowed in the hearts and minds of our children and what kind of a culture will we – and they – reap one day? Perhaps we already are reaping what we have sowed.
Tucked among old books on the landing upstairs I found an Anglican Book of Common Prayer with no publication date, but with a Christmas 1915 inscription from the owner’s grandfather. By Christmas 1915, Britain was in the First World War. London bombing commenced in May of that year. The leather-bound prayer book, its tissue pages well thumbed, was no more than two by three inches, and it contained not only Anglican prayers and liturgies, but hymns as well. It looked to be the old 1662 Prayer Book, similar to our 1928 BCP in America, with rites going back to the seventh century monastic offices and the medieval liturgies of Old Sarum.
Diana’s warmth charmed us, encouraging conversation. She treated us like family. As my nine-year-old granddaughter nodded off to sleep under white embroidered linen, she said with a happy smile and a sweet sigh, “Diana is so nice, I just want to move in and help her in the kitchen.” “I know,” I said, “me too,” and I gently turned out the light and kissed her on the forehead.
The skies are broad in this rolling countryside, and while the rain limited our explorations, the changing skies created dramatic canvases of blues and whites and grays. We walked out to the paddocks and followed the gravel paths and drove the lanes through fields of corn waiting for harvest.
Staying at Chateau de la Puisaye was far more than memorable and far more than restful. It was stepping into history and for a short time living there as though we shared the space with hundreds of ancestors. The two hundred years these rooms witnessed seem to have been more ordered times, in spite of candlelight and bedpans and cold rooms heated by fires in hearths. It was a time when social graces tamed our bestial natures and manners orchestrated our gatherings. Conversation linked minds and hearts, and shared meals wove generations together. Civility, that old art of living with one another, was valued over self-esteem, thoughtfulness over thoughtlessness, patience over impulse. Being dependent upon one another for day-to-day needs required selfless sacrifice. It required love.
One cannot turn back the clock, but it is good to be reminded of what we have lost, so that we might plant similar seeds before the the lost is forgotten completely. We flock to these quiet old houses seeking something we cannot name; we mourn a time of gentle, gentile, gentlemen and gentlewomen. Today transfixed by gadgets and toys and bright screens with buttons, we have nearly forgotten how to think, how to reflect (or even dream), how to link generations with words around a table.
Chateau de la Puisaye reminded me how to live gently. The old house said, do not forget. Thank you, Diana and Bruno Costes, for pulling this past into our present and with such grace.