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Emotions at Château de Bussy-Rabutin
Some stories have the power to move you centuries later
Every now and then the stories linked to a historic site stir my emotions. This time, perhaps it was because of the full moon, or perhaps the guide who was telling the story was simply very talented.
Last year I planted a little flag in my Google Maps about a castle to visit, but it was too far out of my way last winter for me to stop for a visit. Now it was right on my route, and this time I didn't miss it. It was just as well: a major renovation had just been completed this April – and the halls still smelt of glue and fresh woodwork, mmmm!
Warning: I'm going to sprinkle my story with quotes from the pen of Roger de Bussy Rabutin himself.
In the bright light of early June, the little château appeared to me happily planted in its neat French gardens, surrounded by multicoloured flowerbeds, overlooking the Burgundy valley opposite the pretty village of Bussy-le-Grand. What a haven of peace! The lords who built it must have felt so at home here!
"Let appearances be beautiful, for we judge only by them."
And then its history was revealed to me. Let's skip the chronology of its construction and stop in 1666, with Roger de Bussy-Rabutin. He was a great soldier under Louis XIV, but also a witty writer in the salons of Paris and a gallant among women. At the time, there was no shortage of amorous intrigues. He himself had a mistress, passionately loved for a dozen years, the Marquise de Montglas, a married woman, but so was he.
"When you don't love too much, you don't love enough.”
He wrote her a collection of naughty stories mocking and exposing the great men of the king's court. Unbeknownst to him, this text was shared by his lady with an unscrupulous woman, then published, before falling into the hands of the king himself. And the sovereign he loved so much, insulted and furious, imprisoned him in the Bastille for a whole year before exiling him to his little château at Bussy. His lady lover immediately dissociated herself from him, breaking his heart with a stroke of her pen. And there he was, alone in his château, isolated from the world of the court, stripped of his military duties and abandoned by his beloved.
"Absence only kills love if it is sick to begin with.”
For seventeen years he pleaded his case to the king, who would not budge. For seventeen years he raged, and drowned his nostalgia and resentment by decorating the walls of the rooms in his château. He surrounded himself with hundreds of portraits of men he admired, of royal and family genealogy, but also of women - royal lovers, friends, family. He added paintings of illustrious châteaux, like an album of his memories. He also had "mottos" painted, satirical images bordered by an explanation in Latin or French, illustrating the feelings of his heart, something like a comic strip.
"It is therefore true that hope is the only good of those who no longer have any."
Perhaps you have heard of his illustrious cousin, Madame de Sevigné? When they were young, her hand was refused to him by her family, but they met often in the salons of Paris. They each made a family, she lost her husband, then later he was exiled, and she spent long periods with her daughter in Grignan. She was very fond of seducing great men with her wit, then cooling their ardour as soon as they admitted defeat. He just loved this delicious torture, and they wrote to each other until the end of their days.
"Absence is to love what the wind is to fire: it extinguishes the small, it ignites the great".
Louis XIV eventually let him come back to court one day, to witness his rising from bed... but nothing was the same, everyone had changed, customs and codes had evolved... too late for Roger de Bussy-Rabutin.
"To put it bluntly, I'd rather have been less happy than to have died young.”
The walls of the château still seemed to contain all these emotions, three hundred and fifty years later... I went from the coolness of the interior to the marvellous gardens, all stirred up by these feelings. The croaking of the toads in the pond, the steady rustle of the water in the small gutters, and then, sloping gently down the hillside, the long, winding, fragrant path through the box hedge maze gently helped to refocus me before I set off again.
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