Dear Frenchly Readers,
My aunt Maggie lives in the Berkshires, where New York State and Massachusetts share a mountainous, rolling border. And when the clouds are gray and ominous she calls them “low lying Ethan Frome clouds.” She’s referring, of course, to Edith Wharton’s perfect novel of that name about a man who is in love with his ailing wife’s cousin and caregiver. I remember first reading the book when I was in high school. And till this day, though I have forgotten much of the story itself, I still remember the snow and gray sky and I remember, more than anything, how the story was framed by a narrative device that, at the time, blew my mind: the book is framed by a prologue and an epilogue that is narrated by a man who comes to the village for the winter and meets a limping Frome. Then, the chapters in between are all narrated in a limited 3rd person and tell the story of Ethan Frome and how he came to have the limp he has. It’s a love story, a story of lives that get stuck in the aspic of permanent unhappiness, of people who keep living but are ghosts of the selves they hoped to be, a story of duty and passion and the starkness of the New England landscape, both outside the window, but also inside the hearts and minds of New Englanders.
Ethan Frome, considered an American masterpiece, was begun by Wharton in French in Paris as a French language exercise. Then, several years later, Wharton came back to the story, and wrote it during a period of intense emotional turmoil while her husband, Teddy’s, mental health disintegrated. At the time, the Whartons were living in the Berkshires at what is known as “the Mount,” a gorgeous turn of the century house on 113 acres, with stunning gardens that were modeled, in part, on the gardens Wharton had seen and fallen in love with when living in France.
In the short ten years she and Teddy lived at the Mount their marriage fell apart. Ethan Frome came out in 1911, the same year the Whartons sold their estate They divorced in 1913. And Edith moved back to France, where she stayed, first in Paris and then in the small village of St.Brice-sous-Forêt. Eventually she also acquired the Château Ste.-Claire, in the south of France. In 1921, she wrote The Age of Innocence about old New York and won the Pulitzer Prize. She returned only twice more to the States; one of those times was to receive an Honorary Doctorate from Yale. She died in France when she was 75 years old and was buried in the Cimitière des Gonards in Versailles.
The Mount, however, endured and is still known as “Edith Wharton’s home.” It was designed and built with her input in 1901 and the gardens she and her gardener created together are still magical, and retain their French inspiration. (In France you can visit her garden at the Chateau, which is considered magical and has been officially named “un garden remarquable,” which doesn’t mean “remarkable,” actually, but, instead, “outstanding.”)
Now a museum, the Mount opens its doors this time of year for nightly “Ghost Tours.” Wharton herself said she was haunted as a child after a bout with typhoid fever that left her visited “by formless horrors.” As an adult, she wrote at least eighty five short stories, many of which were ghost stories; a book of these stories was reissued last fall. Some of them took place in old estates in France; her most famous of the French ghost stories was “Kerfol,” which takes place in a haunted chateau in Brittany.
In the 40’s, the Mount became a school for girls who said they witnessed paranormal activity. Then the Mount stood empty for over thirty years, when, it’s said, ghosts were the only inhabitants in the home and gardens. In both 2009 and 2014, a TV show called “The Ghost Hunters,” came to the Mount and claimed they saw spectral figures. The local lore remains that the Mount is haunted.
Though I can’t pick up and go this year (the tours end on the 31st), I am putting this on my bucket list—I love the idea of traipsing though Edith Wharton’s old house with a flashlight on a dreary October night, hearing bumps and cackles emanating from the dusty shadows.
Last Sunday and Monday, I was sick with a cold and had an excuse to binge watch and then review the new Netflix show, Notre-Dame: La Part du Feu, about the 2019 fire that almost destroyed the famous French cathedral. I don’t always get the chance to write for Frenchly. But when I do, I love diving into a topic. My review is here and, in it, I also write about a documentary I got out of the library made by PBS for Nova. If you end up watching the show (or the doc), I’d love to hear what you think.
This week, my family has been enjoying apple sauce my husband made with piles of the apples we picked two weeks ago. It’s faintly pink, skinless, and so tangy and sweet it’s addictive. I also made an applesauce cake with raisins I soaked in Cognac and has a cream cheese frosting. I am almost appled out, I am afraid. Yet…I still have to make an apple pie, my boys’ favorite.
I am thinking Sunday will be my day to tackle that pie, as tonight I am going down to New Haven to take my older kid to a one day program at Yale on Saturday (neither of us, évidement, is getting an Honorary Degree). Also, I plan to make chili to share with friends on Monday night before we all go trick or treating and I hope to whip up these chocolate pumpkin swirl muffins for Halloween lunch boxes. Might be a lot….
I am taking the new Barbara Kingsolver novel with me to New Haven—I can’t wait to sit for an hour and read. And this is a cool piece from Atlas Obscura about the origins of the word “nightmare.” Also, check out these photos from National Geographic of King Tut’s tomb.
I’ve included, below, Andrea Meyer’s moving review of a new film with Catherine Deneuve called Peaceful, and the seasonally appropriate round up of French scary movies…hopefully you won’t get too many nightmares suffocating you in your sleep!
France resets their clocks an hour back this weekend. In the U.S. we do it next weekend. Which means for one week, we are only separated by 5 hours, which somehow makes France seem closer to us for a brief seven days.
And, I was finally given the go-ahead by my publisher to share the cover of my new novel, out next summer. It’s called Pete and Alice in Maine. You can even pre-order the book, which blows my mind. Check the cover out on my Insta and tell me what you think of it?
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The Heart of France: Notre-Dame on Fire in 6 Episodes on Netflix
9 French Horror Movies, from Classic to Contemporary