The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Brouage is a small town on the west coast of France, once known for a superb natural harbour and the most important salt-production and export trade in Europe. It also has extremely well-preserved fortifications by Vauban, as can be seen in the following photos:

Four years ago I spent an afternoon there, and had a wander round the walls, stared over the salt-marshes (which once would have been salt-water) and kind of half-mused about the story you could set in such a place, young love, exile from the court at Versailles, a young noblewoman in apparent safety who becomes aware that, far from being removed from court politics in a backwater, she is still very much under observation and suspicion, and that anything can happen to her out here, and what allies she had are beyond her reach...ya-da, ya-da, you could write it yourself. What appealed to me was the juxtaposition of retreat and vulnerability, and the reach that politics can have.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I happened to read this in the Michelin Green Guide to the French Atlantic Coast:
In 1659, the 21 year-old Louis XIV was in love with Marie Mancini, the raven-haired niece of Richlieu's successor, Cardinal Jules Mazarin. The young couple wanted to marry, but their dreams were thwarted. The Cardinal had decided that "for reasons of State", the King must marry the Infanta of Spain [the Queen of Spain's beard, yes, yes] to guarantee the peace brought by the Treaty of the Pyrenees, recently signed by the two countries. Marie Mancini was sent to La Rochelle, where she heard, with despair, of the forthcoming marriage. From September to December that year, she withdrew to Brouage, where another of her uncles was Governor, "because solitude is the only solace for my broken dreams" [quote unattributed]. Mazarin subsequently allowed her to return to Paris.

Six months later, after the royal marriage in St-Jean-de-Luz, Louis contrived to absent himself from the official cortege, returning to the capital, and then rode to Brouage, where he occupied the room in which Marie had stayed, pacing the ramparts, as he too sighed for the love he had lost. Racine was inspired by this melancholy episode to write his tragedy Berenice.
At the time I read this I was, if not gobsmacked, at least a little boggled. I'm almost certain I hadn't come across it somewhere else. Given the setting, though, it's pretty hard not to imagine something like this taking place there.

A worthy repayment for the blood you shed, to be wrapped round buns by a Nuremberg confectioner [think of the scene with Rageneau, poet and baker, in Cyrano de Bergerac], or if your luck's in, to be hoisted on stilts by a French tragedian, and pulled about like puppets on a string!

Schiller, The Robbers

Racine can be described lazily as France's second-best playwright, after Moliere. Which raises the question, who, after Shakespeare, would be England's? (Sons of Ben shouldn't stir themselves to reply.) And who would be Scotland's number one?


At 17 July 2008 at 10:17 , Blogger Yvonne said...

Wow, what a great story - and how deliciously spooky that you caught the echo of it in Brouage without knowing about it.

That's a magnificent star-fort, by the way.


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