Impress Books Literary Pilgrimage Tour – Part 2

Picking up our tour en route to France (see last week’s post Impress Books Literary Pilgrimages Tour – Part 1 for the first part of our journey) we enter the wonderful Loire Valley where Colin will be our guide around one of the former residences of nineteenth-century novelist Honoré de Balzac:


It was just a family vacation. We had been touring France for several weeks and had ended up in the Loire Valley. Châteaux to visit were in abundance and we had spent a great day at Chenonceau, along with many other people. I had spotted, though, a small château not far away from where we were staying, one that had been a second home for probably my favourite French novelist, Honoré de Balzac, who had stayed there off and on throughout his life – the Château de Saché. He had often fled here from Paris in order to escape the many creditors, publishers and editors that were continually after him, often leaving his mother at the house in the rue Cassini in Paris to make his excuses.


Chenonceau had been packed with people, but here we found ourselves completely alone. A single person sat on a chair at the entrance collecting the small admission fee, and then we were able to explore the house unguarded. Nothing was cordoned off and it was if Balzac had just stepped outside for a walk and might return at any moment. We were able to sit on his canopied bed, sit at his desk, and admire the view from the second floor room where he had written many of his best novels. It was a spartan room but he had spent up to 15 or 16 hours a day writing there, sustained by the copious amounts of coffee that some say eventually killed him.

In the basement of the château was an example of the printing press that features so memorably in the opening pages of Les Illusions Perdues. Not earning enough money as a writer, Balzac had, at first, become a publisher of cheap classics for which he wrote the introductions. His intention was to produce them for 5 francs, sell them to customers for 20 francs or to booksellers for 13 francs. However, he had produced too many copies and being unable to sell them was forced to remainder them. Failing as a publisher he therefore decided to become a printer and borrowed a large sum of money in order to buy a printing works. He could cut costs by printing the books himself, and he could even print his own novels. But the extra work needed to make the printing press economic didn’t materialise and he fell deeper and deeper into debt, a position from which he never recovered but one which fuelled his writing for the rest of his life: his stories continually revolve around the winning or losing of a fortune.

Also to be found in the basement of the Château de Saché was a set of proofs, annotated with Balzac’s handwritten corrections. He would stand by the thundering machine as the sheets came off the press and set to work correcting and re-correcting them. One can only wonder what the compositor was thinking as he watched the great man delete word after word, line after line, scrawling new text across the pages and filling every space the margins afforded.


Picture: A proof page annotated by the author. From Balzac: A Biography by Stefan Zweig.

Saying au-revoir to Balzac, we hop on the TGV with Tamsin to the south of France and the town of Rocamadour. We are the furthest distance from home our tour will take us and the furthest back in time our literary sources will go – the medieval world of La Chanson de Roland:

map 2

I took several modules on medieval French literature at university and read La Chanson de Roland in my first year. The hero of the poem, Roland, was given a sword by King Charlemagne which he used to single-handedly fight off an army of a hundred thousand men giving Charlemagne and his troops time to retreat to safety. The sword, named Durendal, was supposed to be the sharpest sword known to man and contained a number of precious holy relics. To prevent the attacking army from capturing the sword Roland tried to destroy it but Durendal proved to be indestructible so Roland threw it at a cliff side where it became embedded. Legend has it that Durendal is still lodged in that cliff in the historic town of Rocamadour in France. While on holiday nearby I visited Rocamadour and sure enough, amongst the hordes of tourists and ‘ye olde souvenir shops’ there is a rather rusty sword stuck fast in the cliff.


We have now travelled over 1,000 miles on our tour, but it’s not over! Join us next week when we will make the return trip to Exeter, with at least one stop along the way…

Sources for pictures:

Source for maps: Google Maps



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