The Warble

The Official Blog of Karen Ullo

In the Footsteps of Alix de Morainville: My Research Trip to France, Part 3

In the Footsteps of Alix de Morainville: My Research Trip to France, Part 3

For several years now, I’ve been working on a historical fiction novel set during the French Revolution. The novel re-tells the story of Alix de Morainville, first introduced in George Washington Cable’s 1888 book Strange True Stories of Louisiana. The legend of Alix de Morainville holds that she was the daughter of a Norman count, raised in the tiny fishing village of Morainville, who later moved with her parents to the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Versailles, and married her cousin, Vicomte Abner de Morainville. After her husband was killed during the French Revolution, she married her gardener, Joseph Carpentier, to lose her title and save her life. Then the two of them fled to Spanish-controlled Louisiana, into the wilderness of the Attakapas Territory, in modern-day St. Martin and St. Mary Parishes.

My novel, La Citoyenne, retells this story in a whole new way, taking both Alix and the reader on a journey through France in the last days of the ancien régime and the first years of the revolution. My recent trip to France took me to many of the settings of the novel so that I could experience some of Alix’s life first-hand.

Read Part 1 of my adventures here.

Read Part 2 of my adventures here.

Third (and Final) Stop: Étretat

In Cable’s book, Alix de Morainville grew up in the Norman town of Morainville, which he describes as a fishing village where her family’s château is perched atop a cliff looking over the English Channel. But while Cable’s “Strange True Stories” drew on facts (exactly how much fact remains the subject of debate), the stories themselves are fiction. So while there is a Norman town called Morainville, it is not on the coast. I chose to use Étretat as the model for coastal Morainville because of its famed white cliffs, immortalized by Claude Monet, and because it is home to Château les Aygues. Although it was built later than my story is set, Château les Aygues is nevertheless a Norman château that I wanted to serve as a model for Alix’s home.

One of many paintings of Etretat by Claude Monet

Chateau les Aygues

It was pouring down rain when I arrived in Étretat (how I got there is a story in itself), and I had to hike immediately to Château les Aygues through the downpour in order not to miss the tour. Photography is not permitted inside the château, but the owner did compliment my French, and I found some interesting tidbits of French and Norman history inside.

After the tour, once it finally stopped raining (although the sun still did not come out), I was able to begin exploring both the town and the cliffs, including the museum at the top of the eastern cliff.

The Church of Notre Dame in Etretat

Statues in churches throughout France were beheaded during the Revolution. The ones in Etretat still remain so.

The more ancient Church of Notre Dame (11th century) at the top of the Eastern cliff, which is no longer in use.

1786 painting by Jean Alexandre Noel of fishing boats in Etretat

 

I also met another woman traveling alone, and with her company, I was emboldened to explore the beaches at low tide, a very slippery place where I might have been afraid to go alone. The beach in Étretat is not made of sand. The most accessible part is made of smooth, beautiful pebbles that are surprisingly large—some the size of chicken eggs, and some much larger. But the western section that is only accessible at low tide is a sort of field of rocks that look a bit like cheese, and lead toward caves that are both natural and man-made, with the man-made ones having been cut by Nazi soldiers during the occupation. It’s truly a beautiful and unique landscape.

Where pebbles meet rocks

Very slippery rocks that look like cheese

Rocks covered in seaweed at low tide

Evidence of Nazi occupation

The view from inside a cave

 

 

 

 

 

The second day in Étretat, my new friend and I explored the western cliffs as far as we dared, and in the last few hours before I had to return to Paris to catch the next day’s flight home, I finally got to see Normandy in sunlight. There is no wonder why Monet loved the light in Étretat. But be warned: if you go there, the seagulls are your enemies. I bought an ice cream cone, only to have one of them steal it directly out of my hand. So if La Citoyenne features seagulls as villains, now you know why.

 

In the Footsteps of Alix de Morainville: My Research Trip to France, Part 2

In the Footsteps of Alix de Morainville: My Research Trip to France, Part 2

For several years now, I’ve been working on a historical fiction novel set during the French Revolution. The novel re-tells the story of Alix de Morainville, first introduced in George Washington Cable’s 1888 book Strange True Stories of Louisiana. The legend of Alix de Morainville holds that she was the daughter of a Norman count, raised in the tiny fishing village of Morainville, who later moved with her parents to the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Versailles, and married her cousin, Vicomte Abner de Morainville. After her husband was killed during the French Revolution, she married her gardener, Joseph Carpentier, to lose her title and save her life. Then the two of them fled to Spanish-controlled Louisiana, into the wilderness of the Attakapas Territory, in modern-day St. Martin and St. Mary Parishes.

My novel, La Citoyenne, retells this story in a whole new way, taking both Alix and the reader on a journey through France in the last days of the ancien régime and the first years of the revolution. My recent trip to France took me to many of the settings of the novel so that I could experience some of Alix’s life first-hand.

Read Part 1 of my adventures here.

Second Stop: Paris

In my novel, Alix’s home in Paris is situated in the neighborhood of Saint Germain des Prés, which is where I spent most of my time. Saint Germain des Prés is home to such landmarks as Saint Sulpice Church, the Sorbonne (Université de Paris), Luxembourg Gardens, and the Odéon Theatre.

Saint Sulpice was a major focus of my time in Paris because it is Alix’s parish church and the setting of several scenes from the novel. I toured it twice, as well as attending Mass and an organ recital.

The astronomical gnomon inside Saint Sulpice, which uses the sun for extremely precise measurement of time. Some scholars believe its existence is the reason the Revolution did not desecrate Saint Sulpice to the same extent as most other churches.

The last remaining artifact of the revolutionary Cult of the Supreme Being in France, above the doors of Saint Sulpice

One of three newly restored paintings by Eugene Delacroix in the Chapel of the Holy Angels in Saint Sulpice

 

 

 

 

I did leave Saint Germain to tour sites pertaining to the French Revolution in other parts of Paris, as well as to visit the Carnavalet Museum, which only recently reopened after five years of renovation. I focused on the section devoted to the revolution, but if you’re going to Paris, you can easily spend an entire day there viewing everything from ancient streets signs to original Renoir paintings.

Recreation of a genuine 18th century salon, Carnavalet museum

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Carnavalet Museum

 

Detail of a painting of the Festival of Federation on the 1st anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, July 14, 1790, Carnavalet museum

 

 

 

Another highlight of Paris was a tour of Saint Joseph des Carmes, a Carmelite monastery before the revolution that became one of the major sites of the September Massacres in 1792—an event that will feature heavily in my novel. Here, one hundred fourteen priests who refused to swear an oath to the “Constitutional Church” were martyred, including many who served at Saint Sulpice.

Saint Joseph des Carmes

The statue before which the martyrs prayed immediately before being executed

Skulls of some of the 114 priests killed during the massacres in the crypts of Saint Joseph des Carmes

In the Footsteps of Alix de Morainville: My Research Trip to France, Part 1

In the Footsteps of Alix de Morainville: My Research Trip to France, Part 1

As those of you who follow me on social media know by now, for several years I’ve been working on a historical fiction novel set during the French Revolution. The novel re-tells the story of Alix de Morainville, first introduced in George Washington Cable’s 1888 book Strange True Stories of Louisiana. The legend of Alix de Morainville holds that she was the daughter of a Norman count, raised in the tiny fishing village of Morainville, who later moved with her parents to the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Versailles, and married her cousin, Vicomte Abner de Morainville. After her husband was killed during the French Revolution, she married her gardener, Joseph Carpentier, to lose her title and save her life. Then the two of them fled to Spanish-controlled Louisiana, into the wilderness of the Attakapas Territory, in modern-day St. Martin and St. Mary Parishes.

My novel, La Citoyenne, retells this story in a whole new way, taking both Alix and the reader on a journey through France in the last days of the ancien régime and the first years of the revolution. My recent trip to France took me to many of the settings of the novel so that I could experience some of Alix’s life first-hand.

First Stop: Versailles

This trip was supposed to happen last year, and my husband, Michael, was supposed to go with me. But, like most things in 2020, it got cancelled due to Covid. This time around, I went alone, but it was still Michael who planned the details.

One of the most difficult logistical challenges was to get inside the Royal Chapel, where several scenes in the novel are set. The chapel is closed to the general public and only accessible in one of two ways: you can go on a guided tour purchased through Versailles that takes place only at very specific times, in French, or you can attend a concert there. So, we planned the trip around a date when a concert was offered in the chapel, only to have it cancelled a few weeks before. The only possible way to get into the chapel was to purchase a tour that started mere hours after my flight landed and come straight from the airport.

So that’s what I did:

The Royal Chapel from upstairs

Gallery of the Royal Chapel

Tabernacle of the Royal Chapel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After dinner that evening, I also walked around the town of Versailles, which surrounds the palace, to see other sites related to the revolution.

 

Hotel des Menus Plaisirs, where the Estates General and later the National Assembly of 1789 met. It’s now a music school.

Another view of Hotel des Menus Plaisirs.

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The Queen’s Stables, now the appellate court

 

The next morning, I had arranged to meet a private, English-speaking tour guide at 9:00 am, but my alarm didn’t go off. Thanks to jetlag, I woke up at 11:25. If you ever go to Paris, hire Raphaelle Crevet. She waited for me.

The Salon des Nobles, where Alix de Morainville will be presented to the queen

 

 

 

The Oeil de Boeuf, an antechamber of the king’s apartments that plays a part in the novel

 

 

 

The reception room in the Petit Trianon, where Alix will play the harp for the queen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One particular point of interest for me, since Alix spends part of her life living in Versailles, was to get some idea what the apartments of the courtiers looked like, and how they lived. Unfortunately, most of those apartments were torn down in the 19th century after being vacant and neglected for decades. They’ve been transformed into things like offices, restaurants, and the Gallerie des Batailles. But I still got a lot of useful information from my guide.

The Gallerie des Batailles (The Gallery of Battles)

Also, even though my concert in the Royal Chapel was cancelled, I got to attend one in the Royal Opera instead:

The Royal Opera at Versailles

The Stage of the Royal Opera of Versailles

Upper Galleries of the Royal Opera

Orchestra of the Royal Opera

Ceiling of the Royal Opera

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Making of Books: Crafting Catholic Literature for the 21st Century

On the Making of Books: Crafting Catholic Literature for the 21st Century

On Thursday, April 29, 2021, from 7:00 PM – 8:30 PM Eastern, I’ll be joining other Catholic authors and editors for a free online forum about Catholic literature in the 21st century. Sponsored by the Collegium Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and the St. Benedict Institute at Hope College, I’ll be joined on the panel by Vivian Dudro, Senior editor at Ignatius Press; Joshua Hren, founder and editor-in-chief of Wiseblood Books; and Suzanne Wolfe, author of four novels including The Confessions of X, which won the Christianity Today Book of the Year award, and moderator Bernardo Aparicio, founder and publisher of Dappled Things.

In recent years, Catholic fiction has experienced a literary revival.  How can we account for this rebirth of Catholic literature? Who or what is driving it? What kind of books are Catholic authors writing? What kind of market is there for this revival?  This panel brings together Catholic editors and authors to explore the promises and possibilities of contemporary Catholic fiction.

To find out more or to register, visit the event site here.