25 MARCH 2000, Page 43

From defence to decoration

Douglas Johnson

LIFE IN THE FRENCH COUNTRY HOUSE by Mark Girouard Cassell, £25, pp. 352 This is in no way a guidebook. It is an examination of an important aspect of French history, well written and beautifully illustrated. Impressive research has enabled the author to consider how French châteaux and seignorial residences were lived in from the 14th to the 20th centuries.

He has therefore written a social history that embraces many themes and raises many important questions. For example, how many did the French nobility number in 1789? Estimates vary from 135,000 to 340,000, although a more confident calcu- lation states that one-third of the thousand richest landowners in 1800 could be described as former nobles.

The history of château-building reflects the history of France. In the days of feudal- ism, country houses had been built for defence rather than for comfort. Hence their thick walls, machicolations, portcullis- es, towers and moats. But the development of artillery led to the decline of lofty tow- ers. After the Hundred Years war, a form of domestic peace was re-established, and military features became more symbolic and decorative. Early Italian influences brought in columns, and under Francis I the classical influence permeated the struc- tures of the building.

But, as Mark Girouard shows, while new forms appeared, the old never completely disappeared. Feudalism persisted, not only in the architecture of the châteaux but also in the attitudes of the people who lived in them. The peaceful decades were never fully peaceful (and perhaps mention should have been made of English invasions). Troops continued to be garrisoned in cer- tain châteaux, moats and drawbridges sur- vived, walls had loopholes for guns. At Kerjean, in Brittany, the main building of the château, with its classical façade, is set behind fortified walls that were built at the same time. At Le Lude, in the Sarthe, the château was remodelled during the 16th century. The owner and his son both served as soldiers (fighting was still considered to be the most honourable of occupations for a noble) and they equipped their seignorial residences with elements of defence. But while the moat was real, the machicolations were purely ornamental.

It is natural that the author of a famous book on English country houses should compare the French experience to the English. He points out that the most important traditional element in English houses, the great hall, has no parallel in France. It was the staircase rather than the great hall that became the essential feature of the 16th- and 17th-century châteaux. It was the status symbol of noble residences. This meant that while the English great hall was an invitation to ceremony, a French house, with entrance by way of a staircase or several staircases, was more given to a certain informality. There are stories of nobles playing cards with their valets.

But was this because the French aristo- crats were more confident of their official status than were their English counter- parts? In any case, it is always difficult to know whether an event described in some memoir was a frequent or a unique occur- rence. When the embalmed body of Fran- cis I, together with his effigy, were taken to the château of Saint Cloud, and when meals were served to the effigy for some 11 days, this was certainly unique. It symbol- ised the continuity of the monarchy. But the ceremony was part Roman and part an inheritance of the Gothic customs of Charles V, a synthesis of mediaeval and Renaissance. And such a synthesis was typ- ical of the period of Francis I.

This book demonstrates the continuity of French history. The author is particularly interested in Vaux-le-Vicomte, not simply because of the hostility of Louis XIV to Fouquet, its creator, but principally because it was the birthplace of the salon, which he describes as the linchpin of French life. Grand architectural treatment that had concentrated on the exterior was then applied to the interior.

But Vaux-le-Vicomte crops up again, since at a time when the bourgeoisie were acquiring châteaux it was bought in 1900 by the sugar manufacturer Sommier (he is said to have acquired it without ever having seen it). He married a Casmir-Perier, descendant of the man who had, from the château of Vizille (near Grenoble), led the first revolt against the crown in 1788. A photograph of 1900 shows a staff of 16 ser- vants at the Duc de Rohan's château of Josselin, in Brittany. Today, Rohan leads the Gaullist party in the Senate and has recently celebrated the marriage of his daughter to a brother of the Comte de Paris, pretender to the French throne. Some chatelains may change, but others seem to be there for ever.

The château of Le Plessis-Bourre (Maine-et-Loire), built 1468-1473 for Jean Bourre, chief financial minister to Louis XL Its moat and towers echo the feudal tradition, but the interior is relatively domestic and lacking in flamboyance.