Saturday 19 May 2012

Researching in Reims…. and saying hello to History Girls on the way. by Theresa Breslin

To Paris to do author presentations.

Certainly different from trogging to Tottenham or visiting Vatersay. Invited by Superwoman Librarian of the British School there, which is situated in St Germain-en-Laye. That name sets my Research Antennae quivering – a location of the French court. My latest book, due out this year, Spy for the Queen of Scots, is set partly in France. Could gather more material and take some photos, esp. useful for Blog Tour and future Festival events.  

Into the school. Meet staff and students and am once again impressed by the fact that from Hong Kong to Halifax the young people I meet are just so nice. Modern youth are universally criticised, but I consider them pleasant and interested and very, very observant. One young man especially, who can identify a Lancaster Bomber (Kezzie at War) Well done Tom! Sessions are terrific. And what’s this? Casual conversation reveals that there is a memorial to James VII in a church close by. I didn’t know! Quick detour to take pic. Not for this book, but maybe in the future? Does this happen to anyone else? Researching one subject and being led elsewhere, with different ideas sparking? Lunch break. Talking to various folk. 
Have a little time to explore the library. 
Spot a History Girl! 
Then another! 
Mary H and Barbara. 
Gather books for a pic 
and make sure librarian has note of History Girls Blog address. 
Afternoon is as good as morning. Great discussion points. Have a brilliant day. Marvellous hosting and feel so energised sharing stories.
Next day take time to reorganise presentations, make notes re enquiries, and follow-ups. If I don’t do this soon after, or if on prolonged tour and wait until I get home, it’s more of a burden.

Following morning, early start for Reims. How sensible to choose the hotel which enables us to fall out of bed into the Gare de L’Est. Husband happy on the TGV. I know, I know, it’s been said before, but French trains really are impressive. Attempting to find the tomb of mother of Mary Stuart but nary a sign of Mary of Guise, nor even ruin of convent where her sister was Abbess and where Mary Stuart spent her last days before leaving France for Scotland. To the Cathedral, coronation place of French kings.
Stunning, with stained glass by Chagall. Masses of statues and, yes, I did take in the famous Smiling Angel, 
but it was the Gargoyles that did it for me. The subversive side of Church architecture
 - convention dictates what Saints should look like, but with gargoyles the sculptor has free imagination and can explore the darker side. Didn’t discover the Labyrinth, which I wanted to see after reading Teresa Flavin’s fascinating book, The Blackhope Enigma. Next time. Next time. Close by is a Carnegie Library. Being a total library groupie I have my photograph taken with Andrew C. statue outside. Inside, archivist does his best, but suspects all royalist tombs destroyed in Revolution. If there’s anyone out there who knows where Mary of Guise lies please get in touch! Fellow researchers in library offer help. Examine Mary Stuart’s Book of Hours on computer screen. No notes in the margin but some sentences inscribed on end papers. Am allowed to photograph inside of the Reference Room, usually off limits to tourist. Beautiful glass windows and lights. Collect coat, scarf, gloves. Leaving building. And then, wonder of wonders…. Notice a sign for a special exhibition: Reines et Princesses.

     Oh! I have found gold! 

Takes us through fairy and folk tales. Drool over the exhibits. I  adore  old children’s books - I hate to say I collect these, because the ones I  have are not behind glass but are read regularly. Onwards via the evolution of the concept of “royalty” to the line of actual rulers of France. 
And there is the book. With the symbol of the dolphin and an embossed ‘F’ indicating Mary’s husband, Dauphin Francis. Adorned with that Coat of Arms which made an everlasting enemy of Queen Elizabeth of England: the French Fleur-de-Lys, quartered with the Scottish Lion Rampant, and the Lion of England. Mary Stuart’s father-in-law, King Henri, using the fact that his daughter-in-law’s Granny was a sister of Henry VIII to try to establish French sovereignty over England. 

 The Exhibition timeline leads on, towards the French Revolution, showing the growing discontent of the people and the use made of print to spread ideas and smear celebrities - topical in 2012 - by titillating scandalous suggestions. High up on the wall, with a little modesty panel of gauze which can be lifted to view the picture, is a depiction of Mari-Antoinette engaged in an explicit sexual act. Our modern tabloids seem tame compared to what was circulating then.

Back to Paris. Whiz about as you do when time is limited. To the Marmottan for exhibition of foremost female Impressionist, Berthe Morisot, - on until end of June if anyone is interested. Arts et Métiers Museum - husband goes for Foucault Pendulum. I find the room with ingenious, but somehow slightly sinister, automaton models. Immediately think of Sally Gardner’s thrilling The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade. Spend pleasant hour around Notre Dame where Mary was wed to Francis. 
Off to Musée de la Chasse – 
and wonder if History Girl, Katie Grant, (Hartslove) has been here? 
Hunting equipment chillingly efficient. Good piece of stained glass depicting woman riding pillion. 

On to Rue St Antoine, site of the tournament where (supposedly predicted by Nostradamus) King Henri received a fatal bow when a wooden lance pierced his eye, changing Mary’s life to make her Queen of France at 16 years old. Lines in my head for the book…

‘Blood poured from the wound, staining the sand red around the fallen king.’

Last day. Time to leave. Notebooks crammed, bits of paper, tons of photographs, leaflets, maps, post cards… and emails of new friends, (much interest in Mary Stuart) Loads of material and stacks of stuff for the future.  

On return family and friends say: ‘Paris! Lucky you! I wish I had a job like that. It must be great to swan off and meander about Paris doing nothing for a few days.’

I smile and say nothing, for I have a hoard of treasure to truffle through. 

Theresa Breslin will be appearing at the KELMARSH FESTIVAL in July and the EDINBURGH BOOK FESTIVAL in August this year to speak about her latest novel Spy for the Queen of Scots and the Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales.


Beach-Combing Magpie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beach-Combing Magpie said...

Greetings! I actually live here in Reims... Did you manage to see the elephant on the cathedral? Very difficult to find if you're not in the know. Here's a link to find a photo. Let me know if you want any photos taken long-distance, if you see what I mean.

Celia Rees said...

Blimey, you were quick off the mark! Or are there only 22 hours in the Scottish day?

Theresa Breslin said...

Greeting Beach-Combing Magpie! I did NOT see the elephant! How could I miss that? Many many thanks for the offer of photo taking. I always arrive home with regrets of things not seen, photos not taken so that's exceptionally kind of you. If you need any Scottish photos do let me know. Question... where exactly is the Labyrinth?

Celia - Sorry. It was set and logged for Sat 1a.m. When it blipped in early I alerted our admin team who fixed it. xT

Celia Rees said...

No problem. I thought that was what had happened. Easily done!

Beach-Combing Magpie said...

It is there, but I just can't remember where! There's also one in Amiens - more visible. I'll investigate tomorrow and keep you posted!