The 19th century seems long ago and far away. But a weekend circuit visiting the homes of five of the most influential French writers of the period shows just how significant they were to their literary output.
La Maison de Colette
The little Burgundy village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye seems an unlikely cradle for Sidonie-Gabrielle Goudeket, or Colette, as France’s most famous female author—who would one day be nominated for a Nobel Prize and buried in a majestic state funeral—came to be known.
The bourgeois house with the blue shutters where she spent her first 18 years under the watchful eye of her mother, Sido, whom she memorialized in her Claudine novels, is certainly comfortable, decorated in the formal style of the day, with a pleasant garden in the rear. But for Colette, who was born in 1873, this house was a paradise and instilled her passion for the gardens and nearby woods, of “wild rovings … and discoveries,” who were her first lovers.
Yet her mother’s house also demonstrated the misalliance between domesticity and creative freedom. In a nearby museum dedicated to Colette’s archive, an early photograph shows her as a young girl with a serious expression and wearing a white ruffled dress, the avatar of the Claudine series, which first put her on the literary map. Pictured a few short years later in her sailor costume, à la Gigi, her gaze is already precocious. (She claimed that when her skirts went up, her calves were already attracting glances.)
Dressed as a faun in 1906, she has a glance as fully transparent as her bare arms and décolletage—this is the Colette who was as fearless with her body as she was with her mind. She wrote novels, poems, and plays, went on the road to act in many of them, and took male and female lovers with impunity. Eventually, as an older eminence, she famously faced down aging, as in her novel Cheri, by taking a much younger lover.
La Maison de George Sand
Inside the stately house of George Sand in Nohant-Vic, in the Indre region of France, was a hotbed of multi-generational creativity. Recaptured from her inheritance after a contested divorce, it was the site of her ferocious literary output as well as the home of her most famous lover, the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin; her son, Maurice, a painter and marionette impresario; and two granddaughters, who understood the crucial need to preserve the house in its original state.
Born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin de Francueil in 1804, married by 18, with two children soon after, she left to make her way as a sexually free writer in Paris, wearing men’s clothes and smoking in public defiance of French law (which, at the time, allowed only men to smoke). She came to value her independence and financial freedom above all.
Taking the partial pen name of her first lover and co-author, Sand returned to Nohant-Vic, the wellspring of her vast production of more than 70 novels, plays, articles, letters, and an autobiography, often leaving her many lovers in the middle of the night to write in her hammock until daylight. She created a soundproof room for Chopin, a hand-painted theater where she invited up to 60 people at a time to see the in-house productions for which she sewed the costumes as well as for the charming puppets created by Maurice (now displayed in a special exhibition in a gallery above the bookstore next door). She thrived on the extended stays of close friends such as Balzac, Flaubert, and de Maupassant in the many guest rooms of this most romantic of country houses.
Sand invited scandal but took no notice of it. She wrote first of impossible love, then socialism, and finally the natural world. She loved passionate discourse, insisting she was every bit as intellectual as any man. Yet she was also devoted to her children. Though we remember her more for her person than for her books, her delightful house and its nearby chapel and inn prove a woman’s home can be her castle too.
Le Musée Éphémère de Marcel Proust
The French novelist Marcel Proust spent his vacations as a young boy in the house of his Tante Elisabeth—who became Tante Léonie in Remembrance of Things Past—in Illiers-Combray, a small village by the Loir River renamed later in his honor, Combray being the fictional village of Proust’s masterpiece. Proust, born in 1871, returned to the house at age 15, when his aunt died.
It was here that Proust derived many of the locations and characters of his seven-volume book—friends of his uncle’s would visit from Paris and became the models for Monsieur Swann of Swann’s Way. The dining room was where the young Marcel indulged his passion for reading while everyone else was out. The municipal garden and the nearby church became favored retreats. And it was here that Tante Elisabeth would give him a madeleine to dip in his tea before they went to Mass, the gateway sense memory for his novels.
While the modest provincial dwelling is under restoration (it’s due to reopen next year), the Society of Friends of Marcel Proust has created the Musée Éphémère de Marcel Proust for its furnishings and memorabilia. Original editions with Proust’s notations, drawings and paintings, and, most poignantly, photos of Proust as a boy are installed. With his sober face, ruffled bow tie, white spread collar, and smart black suit, he looks every inch the future literary sensation.
If you’re lucky, you might get Martine Le Blond-Zola, the great-granddaughter of Émile Zola, as the tour guide at the Maison Zola, in Médan, outside of Paris. Zola’s novels deconstructed the social transformations of his time. He may be most known, however, for accusing President Félix Faure of anti-Semitism and falsely convicting the French officer Alfred Dreyfus of treason in a case that rocked France. Le Blond-Zola is an heiress of the long-term relationship that Zola, born in 1840, had with his seamstress, Jeanne Rozerot, which produced his only two children. His wife, Alexandrine, put up with things, which left Zola permanently torn in two.
His home does not reflect this strife. Sumptuously restored through the beneficence of Yves Saint Laurent’s partner, Pierre Bergé, the house, whose magnificent grounds encompass both banks of the Seine, is a paragon of 19th-century style. Elaborate stained-glass windows, high engraved ceilings, spectacular collections of arms and instruments, and more personal comforts, such as a special heating duct installed under Zola’s writing chair, abound.
As Zola’s success grew, so did the house and grounds, which eventually included two towers, formal gardens, and a folly across the river to entertain his frequent guests, such as Cézanne (whose bills he often paid), de Maupassant, and Flaubert.
The man of the people still cherished the success—and the big meals—he finally came by from his many books. And even though politics ended up being his defining legacy, Zola’s passion was literature, especially as it related to the demimonde—his novel Nana, about a prostitute, created a scandal. (Did Zola do his own research? Nobody knows for sure.) His great-granddaughter describes him as a humanist above all.
Hauteville House, La Maison de Victor Hugo
The Victor Hugo house, on the southeast corner of the Place des Vosges, is a Parisian landmark. But the main event of this polymath’s long and vibrant life is his home on the rough-hewn isle of Guernsey, off the northwest coast of France. It’s not easy to get there, but that was the point. As a champion of the poor and of social justice, Hugo, born in 1802, had exiled himself from France when Napoleon III seized power.
For 15 years, the house became an alternative kingdom where he wrote his most famous novels (Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris). It’s also where Hugo was able to put into practice his copious ideas for décor. Set designers from the productions of his plays had taught him how to do much with little. From the vestibule to the wall coverings to the top-floor-terrace lookout, Hauteville House reflected his most ardent passions, “fornicating and interior decorating.”
His mistress Juliette was installed nearby, but Hugo’s sexual appetite was mythic—he kept a sex diary—and he created a Feydeau-farce style bedroom where one amant could exit as another entered. (He was afraid to sleep alone.) The menagerie of pets and family—including his wife, Adèle, and his volatile daughter (also Adèle), a talented musician who went mad when her English lieutenant abandoned her—were often in residence, too.
Hugo entertained lavishly but also invited a cohort of orphans to balance things out for dinner every Sunday. And because he believed in ghosts and spoke to spirits, dedicated chairs and corners were established where he could make them welcome, too. The elegant house was recently totally restored by the Pinault Collection.
Patricia Zohn has contributed to numerous publications, including Wallpaper, Artnet, the Huffington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times