Read Chapter XIII - Le Mans of A Little Tour in France, free online book, by Henry James, on

It is very certain that when I left Tours for Le Mans it was a journey and not an excursion; for I had no intention of coming back.  The question indeed was to get away, no easy matter in France in the early days of October, when the whole jeunesse of the country is returning to school.  It is accompanied, apparently, with parents and grandparents, and it fills the trains with little pale-faced lyceens, who gaze out of the windows with a longing, lingering air not unnatural on the part of small members of a race in which life is intense, who are about to be restored to those big educative barracks that do such violence to our American appreciation of the opportunities of boyhood.  The train stopped every five minutes; but fortunately the country was charming ­hilly and bosky, eminently good-humoured, and dotted here and there with a smart little chateau.  The old capital of the province of the Maine, which has given its name to a great American State, is a fairly interesting town, but I confess that I found in it less than I expected to admire.  My expectations had doubtless been my own fault; there is no particular reason why Le Mans should fascinate.  It stands upon a hill, indeed ­a much better hill than the gentle swell of Bourges.  This hill, however, is not steep in all directions; from the railway, as I arrived, it was not even perceptible.  Since I am making comparisons, I may remark that, on the other hand, the Boule d’Or at Le Mans is an appreciably better inn than the Boule d’Or at Bourges.  It looks out upon a small market-place which has a certain amount of character and seems to be slipping down the slope on which it lies, though it has in the middle an ugly halle, or circular market-house, to keep it in position.  At Le Mans, as at Bourges, my first business was with the cathedral, to which I lost no time in directing my steps.  It suffered by juxtaposition to the great church I had seen a few days before; yet it has some noble features.  It stands on the edge of the eminence of the town, which falls straight away on two sides of it, and makes a striking mass, bristling behind, as you see it from below, with rather small but singularly numerous flying buttresses.  On my way to it I happened to walk through the one street which contains a few ancient and curious houses, a very crooked and untidy lane, of really mediaeval aspect, honoured with the denomination of the Grand Rue.  Here is the house of Queen Berengaria ­an absurd name, as the building is of a date some three hundred years later than the wife of Richard Coeur de Lion, who has a sepulchral monument in the south aisle of the cathedral.  The structure in question ­very sketchable, if the sketcher could get far enough away from it ­is an elaborate little dusky façade, overhanging the street, ornamented with panels of stone, which are covered with delicate Renaissance sculpture.  A fat old woman standing in the door of a small grocer’s shop next to it ­a most gracious old woman, with a bristling moustache and a charming manner ­told me what the house was, and also indicated to me a rotten-looking brown wooden mansion in the same street, nearer the cathedral, as the Maison Scarron.  The author of the “Roman Comique” and of a thousand facetious verses enjoyed for some years, in the early part of his life, a benefice in the cathedral of Le Mans, which gave him a right to reside in one of the canonical houses.  He was rather an odd canon, but his history is a combination of oddities.  He wooed the comic muse from the arm-chair of a cripple, and in the same position ­he was unable even to go down on his knees ­prosecuted that other suit which made him the first husband of a lady of whom Louis XIV. was to be the second.  There was little of comedy in the future Madame de Maintenon; though, after all, there was doubtless as much as there need have been in the wife of a poor man who was moved to compose for his tomb such an epitaph as this, which I quote from the “Biographie Universelle”: 

    “Celui qui cy maintenant dort,
     Fit plus de pitié que d’envie,
     Et souffrit mille fois la mort,
     Avant que de perdre la vie
     Passant, ne fais icy de bruit,
     Et garde bien qu’il ne s’éveille
     Car voicy la premiere nuit,
     Que pauvre Scarron sommeille.”

There is rather a quiet, satisfactory place in front of the cathedral, with some good “bits” in it; notably a turret at the angle of one of the towers and a very fine steep-roofed dwelling, behind low walls, which it overlooks, with a tall iron gate.  This house has two or three little pointed towers, a big black, precipitous roof, and a general air of having had a history.  There are houses which are scenes, and there are houses which are only houses.  The trouble with the domestic architecture of the United States is that it is not scenic, thank goodness, and the characteristic of an old structure like the turreted mansion on the hillside of Le Mans is that it is not simply a house.  It is a person, as it were, as well.  It would be well, indeed, if it might have communicated a little of its personality to the front of the cathedral, which has none of its own.  Shabby, rusty, unfinished, this front has a romanesque portal, but nothing in the way of a tower.  One sees from without, at a glance, the peculiarity of the church ­the disparity between the romanesque nave, which is small and of the twelfth century, and the immense and splendid transepts and choir, of a period a hundred years later.  Outside, this end of the church rises far above the nave, which looks merely like a long porch leading to it, with a small and curious romanesque porch in its own south flank.  The transepts, shallow but very lofty, display to the spectators in the place the reach of their two clere-storey windows, which occupy, above, the whole expanse of the wall.  The south transept terminates in a sort of tower, which is the only one of which the cathedral can boast.  Within, the effect of the choir is superb; it is a church in itself, with the nave simply for a point of view.  As I stood there I read in my Murray that it has the stamp of the date of the perfection of pointed Gothic, and I found nothing to object to the remark.  It suffers little by confrontation with Bourges and, taken in itself, seems to me quite as fine.  A passage of double aisles surrounds it, with the arches that divide them supported on very thick round columns, not clustered.  There are twelve chapels in this passage, and a charming little lady-chapel filled with gorgeous old glass.  The sustained height of this almost detached choir is very noble; its lightness and grace, its soaring symmetry, carry the eye up to places in the air from which it is slow to descend.  Like Tours, like Chartres, like Bourges (apparently like all the French cathedrals, and unlike several English ones), Le Mans is rich in splendid glass.  The beautiful upper windows of the choir make, far aloft, a brave gallery of pictures, blooming with vivid colour.  It is the south transept that contains the formless image ­a clumsy stone woman lying on her back ­which purports to represent Queen Berengaria aforesaid.

The view of the cathedral from the rear is, as usual, very fine.  A small garden behind it masks its base; but you descend the hill to a large place de foire, adjacent to a fine old public promenade which is known as Les Jacobins, a sort of miniature Tuileries, where I strolled for a while in rectangular alleys destitute of herbage and received a deeper impression of vanished things.  The cathedral, on the pedestal of its hill, looks considerably farther than the fair-ground and the Jacobins, between the rather bare poles of whose straightly planted trees you may admire it at a convenient distance.  I admired it till I thought I should remember it (better than the event has proved), and then I wandered away and looked at another curious old church, Notre-Dame-de-la-Couture.  This sacred edifice made a picture for ten minutes, but the picture has faded now.  I reconstruct a yellowish-brown façade and a portal fretted with early sculptures; but the

details have gone the way of all incomplete sensations.  After you have stood awhile, in the choir of the cathedral there is no sensation at Le Mans that goes very far.  For some reason not now to be traced I had looked for more than this.  I think the reason was to some extent simply in the name of the place; for names, on the whole, whether they be good reasons or not, are very active ones.  Le Mans, if I am not mistaken, has a sturdy, feudal sound; suggests something dark and square, a vision of old ramparts and gates.  Perhaps I had been unduly impressed by the fact, accidentally revealed to me, that Henry II., first of the English Plantagenets, was born there.  Of course it is easy to assure one’s self in advance, but does it not often happen that one had rather not be assured?  There is a pleasure sometimes in running the risk of disappointment.  I took mine, such as it was, quietly enough, while I sat before dinner at the door of one of the cafes in the market-place with a bitter-et-curaçao (invaluable pretext at such an hour!) to keep me company.  I remember that in this situation there came over me an impression which both included and excluded all possible disappointments.  The afternoon was warm and still; the air was admirably soft.  The good Manceaux, in little groups and pairs, were seated near me; my ear was soothed by the fine shades of French enunciation, by the detached syllables of that perfect tongue.  There was nothing in particular in the prospect to charm; it was an average French view.  Yet I felt a charm, a kind of sympathy, a sense of the completeness of French life and of the lightness and brightness of the social air, together with a desire to arrive at friendly judgments, to express a positive interest.  I know not why this transcendental mood should have descended upon me then and there; but that idle half-hour in front of the cafe, in the mild October afternoon suffused with human sounds, is perhaps the most abiding thing I brought away from Le Mans.