From Gustave Flaubert to Marcel Proust, Normandy has inspired some of the greatest French writers. Alison Weeks takes a literary tour of the region
Even if you’ve never set foot in Normandy, you would probably recognize the scenery. Its chalky cliffs, picturesque harbours and sweeping meadows were immortalised by the Impressionists in paintings such as Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise and The Cliffs at Étretat. While this gentle landscape is often celebrated as the home of Impressionism, Normandy also played a significant role in lives of some literary giants.
Easily accessible from Paris – Caen is only two hours by train from the capital – the region has long provided an escape for city dwellers. In the 19th and early 20th century, the urban upper classes flocked en mass to the region’s coastal hotspots like Deauville and Dieppe. One such visitor was Marcel Proust; the author was born in Paris in 1871 and, although he spent most of his life in the capital, he went regularly to the coast, seeking relief for his asthma. Most of the trips were to Cabourg which, along with Deauville and Trouville¬sur¬Mer, would provide the inspiration for the fictional town of Balbec in his chef d’oeuvre, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.
Lying between Caen and Deauville, Cabourg was a former fishing village turned seaside resort that attracted wealthy tourists to its elegant Grand Hôtel, built in 1855. Always one for keeping up with society, Proust stayed at there every summer from 1907 to 1914 and featured it in his novel as the Grand Hôtel of Balbec. The author likened its glass-fronted dining room to a giant aquarium where the bourgeoisie were displayed for the benefit of working¬class passers¬by strolling on the promenade.
With its Belle Époque grandeur, the hotel remains almost as Proust knew it, although the beachfront promenade has been renamed in his honour. Today’s guests can dine in the ‘aquarium’, with its grand interior and stunning sea views, or conjure up their own memories (Proustian or otherwise) with tea and the famous madeleine sponges in the salon. Enthusiasts can even ask to stay in Proust’s room (it’s number 414). Beyond the hotel, signs referring to the author, with selected excerpts from his work, have been placed along the seafront and around the rest of the town.
Further up the coast lies another town with strong literary links. Étretat is best known for its associations with the Impressionists, in particular Monet, who painted the famous alabaster cliffs. But this picturesque spot was also home to Guy de Maupassant, France’s greatest short story writer. He was born in 1850, reputedly at the Château de Miromesnil, near Dieppe, but after his parents separated, he spent the greater part of his childhood living with his mother in Étretat. Although he went on to work in Paris and travel widely, the author maintained a strong affection for his coastal home.
After the success of his first volume of short stories, La Maison Tellier, Maupassant returned to Étretat and built ‘La Guillette’, a Mediterranean¬style villa near the sea. Here he finished work on the novel Bel Ami and wrote what is often considered his greatest work, Pierre et Jean, in 1887. The home is not open to the public, but they can visit the Château de Miromesnil.
Étretat was also home to a less familiar author, Maurice Leblanc. Born in Rouen in 1864, Leblanc got his start by writing short stories for magazines, but his breakthrough came with the creation of the ‘gentleman thief’ Arsène Lupin in 1905. Sometimes described as the French answer to Sherlock Holmes, Lupin featured in about 20 novels, in which he outsmarts the authorities (usually for the greater good). The character has appeared often on the big screen, most recently in 2004, played by Romain Duris.
Although he lived mostly in Paris, Leblanc bought a home on Rue Guy de Maupassant in Étretat in 1918, so that he could return to his native Normandy each summer. Today the house has been transformed into a visitor centre dedicated to his work, with a clever audio guide narrated by ‘Arsène Lupin’ and rooms re¬created to represent scenes from the detective stories. The visit is based mainly on L’Aiguille Creuse (The Hollow Needle), in which Lupin unlocks the secret to the lost treasure of the kings of France (which happens to be hidden inside the needle of rock off the Étretat coast).
About 20 minutes north of Étretat lies Fécamp, another coastal town popular with writers and artists, although its biggest claim to fame is Bénédictine, the fragrant herbal liqueur supposedly based on an ancient recipe used by monks at the local abbey. Maupassant’s grandmother lived at 98 Rue Sous¬le¬Bois (now Quai Guy de Maupassant), which some scholars believe was his birthplace. They maintain that Maupassant’s mother made up the claim that he was born at the Château de Miromesnil in an attempt to raise her social status.
Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, often visited Fécamp and was inspired to write several poems about the area. Away from the coast and deep in the Normandy countryside lies another place with significant ties to Hugo. The charming village of Villequier nestles between rolling orchards and
the banks of the River Seine. The grandest homes in this unassuming commune can be found along the riverside and it is here that Hugo, his wife and daughters were invited to stay by their friends, the Vacqueries, in 1839. Surrounded by flowers and overlooking the peaceful river, it is a delightful place, which makes it all the harder to realise that it was the setting for the most tragic episode in the author’s life.
Hugo’s daughter, Léopoldine, eventually married Charles Vacquerie in 1843. Later that year, the newlyweds were staying at Villequier when they were both drowned in a boating accident just a few miles up river from the house. Devastated by the loss of his 19¬year¬old daughter, Hugo never fully recovered from the tragedy. His moving poems, Demain, dès l’aube, (Tomorrow at Sunrise) and À Villequier, tell of his annual pilgrimage to her grave in the town.
Today the Maison Vacquerie houses the Musée Victor Hugo, a well¬appointed museum dedicated to the life and works of the author, containing personal effects of both the Hugo and Vacquerie families. A short walk from the house, a statue of Hugo looks out over the River Seine and the site of Léopoldine’s death.
Hugo travelled extensively in Normandy, but one of his favourite places was Rouen, the region’s historic capital. With its ancient buildings and charming medieval streets, it is clear to see why the great Romantic was a fan of the city. An advocate for the preservation of historic monuments, the author was particularly fond of the gothic cathedral and nicknamed the city ‘la ville aux cent clochers’ (the ‘city of a hundred bell¬towers’).
The cathedral was also a favourite subject of Monet, who painted it at different times of the day to capture the varying light on its façade. Rouen’s most famous son, Gustave Flaubert, also drew inspiration from the landmark and used it for a pivotal scene in his 1856 novel Madame Bovary. It is here that Emma Bovary meets her lover, Léon, before the two embark on their infamous carriage ride around the city. Flaubert also based La Légende de Saint¬Julien l’Hospitalier, a story in his Trois Contes, on a stained-glass window in the cathedral.
Born in 1821, Flaubert was the son of a prominent Rouen surgeon and grew up in the family’s apartment adjoining the hospital. Today the apartment is part of a dual¬purpose museum dedicated to both the author’s life and the history of medicine. Visitors can see the room where Flaubert was born, as well as a variety of personal artefacts and even the stuffed parrot that inspired the pet Loulou in Un Coeur Simple, another of the Trois Contes. There is also an important collection of 19th¬century medical objects, which would have been familiar to the author, as he grew up in a world of science. Flaubert drew on this medical milieu in his writing, particularly in Madame Bovary with the character of Charles Bovary, but also with the scientific precision with which he approached his prose and his pursuit of le mot juste.
Yet some of his greatest inspiration came from a very different place. As a young man, Flaubert spent a great deal of time at the family’s country home in Croisset, a hamlet just outside Rouen. Although he later travelled abroad and lived in Paris, he returned frequently to Normandy and to Croisset in particular. Flaubert devoted himself to his work there, earning a reputation as the ‘Hermit of Croisset’.
Ironically, while shunning the urban life in favour of this pastoral setting, Flaubert toiled over Madame Bovary, the story of a country doctor’s wife who longs for the pleasures and excitements of the big city. Although the family house no longer stands, Flaubert’s depictions of rural life paint a picture of 19th-century Normandy as accurate and lasting as any painting. The novel, which caused a scandal for its ‘immoral’ content, came to be regarded as a classic work, helping to ensure the region’s place on the literary map.
NORMANDY’S WIDER LITERARY LINKS
These English-language writers also have associations with the region:
FORD MADOX FORD
The English author of the Parade’s End trilogy served in France during World War I and later lived in Paris with his ‘Lost Generation’ contemporaries who had fought on the Western Front. Ford spent his final years in the resort of Deauville and died there in 1939. He is buried in the town cemetery.
After his release from Reading prison in 1897, the Irish playwright went into exile in France. Before moving to Paris, he stayed at a hotel in Berneval-le-Grand, near Dieppe, where he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
ALGERNON CHARLES SWINBURNE
While staying with a friend near Étretat, the Victorian poet nearly drowned off the coast. Bizarrely, one of his rescuers was a young Guy de Maupassant, who would later write about the encounter in The Englishman of Étretat.
By ferry: Alison travelled from Portsmouth to Caen with Brittany Ferries. Crossings from £119 one way for a car and two passengers.
Tel: 0871 244 0744
WHERE TO STAY
Le Grand Hotel
Les Jardins du Casino
Tel: (Fr) 2 31 91 01 79
Step back in time at the elegant seaside hotel where Marcel Proust stayed. Doubles from €210.
La Maison Blanche
3 Boulevard René Coty
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 56 76 82
Charming B&B in a 16th-century manor house with sweeping views of the River Seine. Doubles from £100.
WHERE TO EAT
Le Clos Lupin
37 Rue Alphonse Karr
Tel: (Fr) 2 27 30 19 33
Named after Maurice Leblanc’s gentleman thief, this charming restaurant serves local specialities. Menus from €15.
Le Grand Sapin
12 Rue Louis le Gaffric
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 56 78 73
Rustic restaurant with views of the River Seine. Menus from €15.
WHERE TO VISIT
Château de Miromesnil
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 85 02 80
Musée Victor Hugo
Quai Victor Hugo
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 56 78 31
Le Clos Arsène Lupin
15 Rue Guy de Maupassant
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 10 59 53
Musée Gustave Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Médecine
51 Rue de Lecat
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 15 59 95