Wednesday, March 28, 2018

La Guyonnière - an inspiration for my latest novel

Born in Hue, Vietnam, my Eurasian mother came to France for the very first time in 1955. She grew up in Paris and Nantes but warmly recalls memories of her summer holidays at her paternal grandparents' country home in Western France, in the area of La Guyonnière.

Her childhood was provincial in many ways.
She told me of how she would eat an entire Far Breton to herself, how she and the other children went cycling in the countryside, or else joyfully ate the ripe berries they had picked from the nearby groves.

It all sounded to me like an idyllic French holiday. I could imagine my mum in a summer dress and a little white apron, her hair parted in two braids alongside her moon-shaped face, her naturally tanned Eurasian skin basking in the French sunshine.

I learned from genealogy documents that my family's property in La Guyonnière extended for more than 100 hectares and was called La Roche-Thévenin. It had existed since at least the 14th century, passed down through my Bégaud ancestor.

Upon retirement, my great-grandfather, Pierre Candeau had become its guardian. Today, since passing on to his brothers and sisters, the property has been resold. It still exists but it is no longer part of my family's heritage. I don't know the current owner. I believe they often open the property to the public for commemoration of its history.

La Roche-Thévenin
Courtesy of Llann Wé 

When I wrote my latest novel, Julien's Terror, I stumbled upon the area of La Guyonnière again. It is an area east of Montaigu in the West of France, not far at all from Nantes. I had my characters spend some time there while traversing the Vendée. It was an accidental find.

I was actually researching the life of the Vendée general who, at the peak of France's revolutionary Terror, when extreme secularism saw the murder of priests and nuns, stood up valiantly to lead Vendée peasants against a government that tyrannised them.

From the rest of the world's point of view, Charette remains an unknown general despite being later praised by Napoleon for his genius military tactics. Charette was very much a leader of the people, and had been summoned by the peasants themselves who had had enough of mandatory conscription and the brutality against their priests. It is suggested that he practiced (invented?) guerilla warfare before the term became later known in Europe, following the Napoleonic wars in Spain.

It turned out that around the time when my novel takes place, there was such a thing called the Battle of La Guyonnière and it led to the capture of Charette. It took place in March 1796 when Charette had long lost hope and was living in hiding, from shelter to shelter. Seven months earlier, the defunct king's brother, the Comte d'Artois, who Charette had counted upon for bringing reinforcements, had decided he did not wish a part in the conflict, and had deserted him and the royalist cause, sailing back to England.

Now Charette was living on luck. He had even found refuge at one of my ancestors' home in Chavagne-en-Paillers. But in March 1796, his luck had run out. He was wounded and running for his life. Harrassed by General Hoche and progressively abandoned by his troops, Charette made way for La Guyonnière. From there, he and his men encountered a couple of the general's columns. They managed to escape to the woods of La Chabotterie until another larger column, this time led by General Travot, encircled them. All of Charette's men were killed, save for three. It was said the following exchange took place between Charette and Travot.

"Are you Charette?"
"Yes, it's me. Where is your commandant?"
"I am the commandant."
"You are Travot?"
"I am."
"About time. It is to you that I wanted to surrender," Charette replied, handing him his sword.

The Capture of Charette, Louis Joseph Watteau, 1796

Julien's Terror recounts the tragic fate of Charette following his capture, and how for several hours, to the sound of drums, he was paraded with great derision through the streets of Nantes. On 29 March 1796, exactly 222 years ago, he was shot on Place Viarme in Nantes.

Just as he had shown courage in the battle, he went bravely to his death. He refused to be blindfolded. He stood straight, and addressing the firing squad he designated the left side of his chest, calling out, "Soldiers, aim well. It is here that you must strike a brave man."

Charette's greatness is merely glimpsed in my novel but the landscape of the Vendée looms large both in my mind, and in this story which is so dear to my heart.

I can scarcely escape the pervasive presence of the Vendée in my family's history. One of my 19th century great-aunts was born south of Montaigu in the Brouzils, very near the forest where once Charette and thousands of Vendée peasants took refuge while infernal columns raged through Western France. La Guyonnière and its properties - La Roche-Thévenin, La Chausselière and La Friborgère - were all owned by my family. In the south of La Guyonnière, my ancestor, Pierre Charles Marie Gourraud de La Proustière had been mayor of Chavagne-en-Paillers, and his property brought refuge to Charette.

Despite this pervasive Vendée heritage, no one in the family speaks of it nor encouraged me to write Julien's Terror. I wrote it while knowing nothing of my family's strong roots in this Western region of France. While only one of my uncles now lives in the Vendée, in La Roche-sur-Yon, we are for the most part, scattered all over the world, from Corsica to Hawaii, from Norway to Australia.

I can't help but think it is no coincidence that of all places I could have written about, I returned to La Guyonnière and more broadly, to the Vendée, as though I was impelled by a collective memory, a spiritual energy that wished to be heard and take form.

We Bretons have a bond with the dead, so I'll take that. In memory of Charette.

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