Sunday, July 31, 2011

Learning from Henry James about Bluebeard and Anne

July, 2011
My obsession has been pretty private; I haven’t spoken a lot about my interest, although several people know that I am writing a historical novel, and I’ve mentioned Anne of Brittany, whom few people know about.  I say she was Queen of France twice—and that awakened a friend who remembered reading a book about her when she was a teenager. Little is generally known or taught about the time or characters. Writers and film makers have acquainted Americans with the Tudors, the Borgias, and the Boleyns. Most novels of the period are set in England. American novelists don’t set novels in France until the time of Diane de Poitiers, which is more than  thirty years and three kings later than Anne and her husbands (except for Eleanor of Aquitaine, who has a link to England.) . Whenever I see a reference to Anne in general  print or electronic media, even general history or guidebooks, it is cursory , general, and often wrong.  Anyone who reads this can see that I’ve become obsessive about the time, the period, and the issues. As I became more involved, and told people about my travel plans, they  ask questions and I perceive that they are becoming interested too.  I’ve even gotten advice from someone I respect to refer to “Anne of Brittany” in English, not to use the French. Starting this blog is a big step for me.

My work and my days and evenings are now proceeding on several planes at once:
1- most important, I continue to work on the book. As of mid-July, I have twenty-one chapters written, and in some stage of editing. The last chapter is still only notes; it has to tie everything together and I will not do that until I return from France and go over everything again.  I have started to build an index; chapter by chapter. It will be put together in a few months, when I have completed my draft. Having  the index allows me to double-check  details about people and places,  to augment notes for my trip, and to deal with an issue that is an ongoing concern-the use of French or Anglicized names for people, titles, and places. In this round with the index, I am also working to coordinate and update the  timeline to keep the narrative consistent.

2--It’s about two months until I get to France. There’s quite a bit more preparation I want to make for the trip: more notes about places and background;  decisions about time allocation; what to bring. Shall I get a Kindle, or even an iPad? If I get my netbook fixed, will  it allow me to work efficiently and write as I go along? I have my file box, my notebooks, my voice recorder.

3--French. Next week is the last class; I’m working hard and improving all the time, but not nearly as good as I’d like to be. I read quite well, and can probably be understood, if not considered literate. I’ll keep trying to improve as I go along. I will load a French dictionary on my e-reader, whichever one I get.

4—This narrative has to become a blog. People have been asking enough questions that I see the value. It will both provoke more interest and help to promote the book. I’m almost far enough along to start figuring out the mechanics of creating a personal, professional blog.

July 5, 2011
Yesterday I went to see “Midnight in Paris” by Woody Allen. I smiled the whole time! And I felt tremendously excited on all levels. It was a charming film, but I was thrilled at the idea that I would be in that beautiful place in two months. What is it about Paris that affects writers and artists so  completely? Last night I heard David McCullough talk about it in connection with his new book about the American artists  who went to Paris in the 19th century. Surely there is some of that same feeling that people have for New York. But what? I think perhaps it is the atmosphere of excitement, of encouragement to creativity, of openness to ideas and to diversity. And in Paris, one is surrounded by beauty, unlike most of New York. Yet that is not what I need from Paris; I’m really not going for ‘creative’ reasons, although I fully expect to be inspired by being there and in France. For me it really is the research, the in-depth understanding of the places that will give more fullness to my writing. And I have found always, whenever I travel, that being alone, going to a different place, even somehow, the time difference, does stimulate me to think more profoundly and to write more.

July 6
I had lunch with a Canadian friend and her attorney-son whose father’s family is from the Loire valley. History  fascinates him.  He was very interested in my book and according to her, “intrigued by the subject of (my) novel” He knows more about Anne than anyone I’ve met, and had recently been to her principal châteaux while visiting his grandmother in Angers.  He was able to tell his mother quite a bit about  Anne de Bretagne and “the precarious political position of Brittany that destined her to become the queen to two French kings, and through her daughter Claude, the bearer of the future French royal dynasty.” Not only does he know a lot, but I was really heartened to learn that he had said  “that Anne de Bretagne is comparatively unknown to Anglo-Saxons and that most of the research material is in French.” She added that they agreed “You might  have a best seller.”

July 9
It is Saturday, so I spent most of the day studying: French, which I am taking very seriously, of course. Also spent considerable time on the work for my Study Group-lately that is the main counter to my French preoccupation. Yesterday I made my final reservation for the last three nights in Paris, at a nicer, more expensive hotel. One final blowout. This afternoon I got an email from my friend Jim about self publishing, and that spurred me to work on this some more, in preparation for using this some way. It is interesting, but who would want to read it?

July 12, 2011
Last night I went to Barnes & Noble to hear Ina Caro, a historian, talk about her new book that deals with seeing French history by train, using Paris as your base. I have and am reading her earlier book. Her best single idea, in my mind, is traveling chronologically, to afford a better perspective on history and changes as they progress, visible through architecture. I certainly appreciate the concept, which won’t really work for me. This book is also an interesting way of planning a longer vacation in France; one she came up with when she had an apartment in Paris. I asked her specifically whether the idea for this kind of trip came first, or the decision to write about it. She didn’t answer. My next question was about the people: were the people friendly? Someone else had asked about being alone, as opposed to her travel with her (well-known historian ) husband Robert. She didn’t answer that either. She replied to me that the people were not friendly, but were always polite. She said that French people always do what is legal. A man tapped me on the shoulder and said, “If your accent is better than hers, people will be nicer to you.”  I’m working hard on my French.

August 7, 2011
Henry James knew Anne, and brought Bluebeard into the picture
 After spending much of the day working on the details of my trip, I decided to go to my new Kindle, on which I had downloaded the Complete Works of Henry James, so that I could read about his travels in France. He's a wonderful writer, of course, and it was fun reading, utilizing the ability to mark highlights and make notes...until I came to the section on Nantes--a very important place in Anne's life. As he traveled through the Loire Valley and visited some châteaux, he heard about Anne from some of his guides, with just the usual minimal detail. But almost as an aside he says that the chateau in which she and Charles sometimes lived was, about 80 years earlier, the home of  "the horrible Maréchal de Retz, who in the fifteenth century was executed at Nantes for the murder of a couple of hundred young children...."

Not in all my reading had I seen anything about this. So of course, I ran to Google, and found several strange references, most dealing with vampires and werewolves. But there were some more straightforward explanations of a Gilles de Rais, (or Retz) born in 1404 near Nantes. He was from a noble family that bore many of the names mentioned throughout the history of Brittany and of the characters in my book. He was well educated, entered the military, and married a wealthy heiress. At some point, he became increasingly weird, and lived alone with his servants in his castle. For seven years he "inveigled little boys and girls into his castle, at the rate of about two each week, and then put them to death in various ways, that he might witness their agonies and bathe in their blood, experiencing after each occasion the most dreadful remorse, but led on by an irresistible craving to repeat the crime. When this unparalleled iniquity was finally brought to just light, the castle was found to contain bins full of children's bones." 
Other references said that the legend of Bluebeard may be based on his story.
But why had I never seen anything about it before? How do I work it into the story? It's too juicy to ignore.
More research of course, and more room for my own imagination, but would this be a partial solution for the people who warn me to "make it sexy'? It's certainly sensational, more than I could ever have imagined.