SELBY WHITTINGHAM takes a Proustian and Ruskinian trip through his and France’s past
Rouen at last, after an interval of more than twenty-five years! Again it was August, and again the rain was sheeting down upon the glass dome of the railway station. The first time, a gawky ‘teenager’, …” So began my mother’s account of her return in 1950 to where she had once stayed with a rich bourgeois family.
Her first visit had been not long after the death of Proust, who once visited Rouen Cathedral in an attempt to find the little figure on the Portail des Libraires which Ruskin had admired. I have never got to the end of Remembrance of Things Past, but have had a number of Proustian friends, among them two who each had a parent who had known the author. One of those helped Proust translate Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens into English.
In addition to the fact of my accompanying my mother, when I was aged just nine, on her return, my becoming a Ruskinian – a bridge between my interests in the Gothic and Turner – encouraged me later to love Rouen, and now to indulge in what is partly my own memory of the past, as Ruskin did in his Praeterita, in which he named Rouen as the first of “the three centres of my life’s thought”.
My mother, Barbara Whittingham-Jones, would have been sixteen in 1923, the probable date of her holiday. She had spent most of her life in a Lincolnshire rectory, but her father in 1919 transferred to a parish in Liverpool, from where my grandmother came.
The family she was sent to stay with lived at the Château du Grésil between Grand-Couronne, an increasingly industrialised suburb of Rouen, and Moulineaux, from where came the British Molyneux family – to which the famous diarist Thomas Creevey belonged, being almost certainly an illegitimate son of the Earl of Sefton. The château is set back from the Avenue de Caen on Route D3, for some decades now threatened by an encroaching housing estate (named after a Paris Communard), though still backed by the historic Forest of Rouvray, where William the Conqueror is said to have had the idea of invading England.
Had the family acquired the house only recently? An advertisement in Le Gaulois: littéraire et politique on27 August 1920 reads: “PETIT CHATEAU HENRI-IV … GRÉSIL … A GRAND-COURONNE (Seine-Inférieure), avec très jolie vue, chauffage central, eau, l’arc de 4 hectares [=c.10 acres] entouré de murs. Prix 175,000 francs. S’adresser sur place à M. LAURENT VILLÉGIATUR”. The only early record which I have found says: “au château du Grésil, la chapelle Sainte-Catherine bénie le 5 juillet 1734”. The layout of buildings both of the very small château estate (Grand Grésil) and of the even smaller one immediately to the west (Petit Grésil) remained the same as in a map of 1816, but then isolated from other habitations.
Alterations were made over the years, some recorded in the postcards that exist. One in use by 1905 shows the house from the end of the drive, on which stands a horse with its groom, with to the right the old tower of Petit Grésil. That located it in “Environs de Moulineaux”, but another dated 1914, giving a close-up view, places it in Grand-Couronne. Both show tall chimneys which were later removed. A card produced by Shell soon after 1972 (who owned the house by then, using it to accommodate engineers) shows the house covered in creeper, which doubtless had grown since the outbreak of the war in 1939. My vague memory of it in 1950 is of a place that had run wild.
My mother read history (a lifelong love) and law (for practical reasons) at Newnham College, Cambridge, being called to the bar at Gray’s Inn in 1931, aged just 24. She later became a Conservative activist (trying unsuccessfully to get elected as a councillor in a Labour ward of Liverpool) and a prominent anti-appeasement campaigner. She was living in Malaya on the outbreak of war, where she married my father, Henry R. Oppenheim, in 1940. She joined the WAAF, and then became a war correspondent after her return to England. (She and I had escaped from Singapore on the last ship home in 1942; my father later escaped in a small boat with the controversial Australian general Henry Gordon Bennett, whom he portrayed as being in a state of hysteria, while his troops had all become drunk.) Apart from her war reportage, she published on subjects ranging from Indonesia and Malaya to the history of Liverpool. Most of these now are of only specialised interest, but her article about her return trip to the château, which appeared in the January 1951 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine under the title of ‘The Adopted Son’, remains by contrast very fresh and readable.
That ‘Son’ was Benito, an Argentinian by birth. He became a favourite of his adoptive la Mère, and was also adored by my mother. In my mother’s case that may have been due to the contrast with her own mother, who could be critical and satirical. La Mêre had two other contrasting children, the pale Pierre with her first husband, and the swarthier Julietta with her second, a French diplomat at Buenos Aires. The family also consisted of the benign grand-mère, her sister the querulous tante and the second (or third?) husband, who spent weekdays at his office in Paris, avoided mass on Sundays and died soon after. There was no mention of the family in the 1950 telephone directory, but a 1936 census seems to indicate that la Mère was then head of the household, Suzanne Jourjon, born at Lille in 1883. With her were a domestique and a cook and Angelito Rodriguez, born in 1900 at Morón (a district in Buenos Aires), with Argentinian nationality and described as “régisseur” or director. I shall however continue to call the latter Benito – or ‘To, as my mother referred to him.
“We had the run,” wrote my mother, “of the park, the orchard, and the kitchen-garden. The temptations of the orchard were irresistible. Those greengages! Large, lustrous, and yellow-gold … Immediately below the château lay the ‘field’, an unfenced sward girt by the circular drive, where the cows were tethered, tended by the lodge-keeper, Marie. Above the château loomed the forest, with its muted, velvet-carpet, its long green lanes.” The latter included the Route Forestière du Grésil some distance back from the house. The daily life was rural and simple. The local curé, “Le Grosgros”, came for a delicious lunch on Mondays, fondling La Mère’s plump forearm to the annoyance of Julietta. The latter with my mother one cold night walked through the forest to his presbytery, where they were treated to tiny glasses of Benedictine.
On Tuesdays Rouen was visited by train, calling at the fashionable patisserie and salon de thé founded in 1825, Maison Périer, 68 rue du Gros-Horloge – today, the facade little altered, the premises of the Parfumerie Nocibé. The clock tower was painted by a succession of English artists in the 1820s and 30s, mostly from the opposite direction, looking towards the cathedral with the bell tower on the right, the viewpoint taken c.1832 by Turner, who repeatedly visited Rouen, and by most later artists. But there is one by Gustave Henri Marchetti of 1920, with the bell tower on the left and the Maison Périer in the foreground on the right, the street filled by people in the dress of the time – as also in a photograph preserved by my mother on the front page of the Sunday Times of 8 July 1956, before the street was levelled and pedestrianised. At school about the same year my aged classics teacher brought from his stock of postcards one showing the clock tower, asking me if I knew where that was! In blogs about Rouen, people still recall the patisserie as a popular and chic rendezvous up until the 1970s.
We revisited the patisserie too in 1950, walking from the blackened and closed cathedral. An old assistant had not seen la Mère since before the war. Nothing daunted, we dashed to the modern bus station to catch the autocar, which after breaking down deposited us by the château entrance. The house was in a sorry state, the salon destroyed by a shell, other rooms bare except for the bedroom of la Mère, who had died the previous April, and which Benito had kept untouched during the war. In the neglected orchard Benito gave me the largest apple I have ever seen. Talleyrand once wrote “He who has not lived in the eighteenth century before the Revolution does not know the sweetness of life”. What would he have said on seeing the château, and Rouen, in 1950?
Our unannounced visit resulted, after recognition, in warm greetings and exchanges of memories. One was of a struggle over a gun between Pierre and Julietta which caused a bullet to graze my mother’s ear and splinter the panel of a door in the hall. Benito (or ‘To, as my mother called him) pointed to the replacement panel which had been made at the time.
One of the walks Julietta and my mother used to take through the forest was to a clearing with a Franco-Prussian War monument of two or three French soldiers reeling beneath the swords or bayonets of Prussians in spiked helmets. Some years after her visit my mother was at Heidelberg, where she met a handsome and fascist Prussian student, whom she now called Conrad von Hunziker, and who, in a neat ending to her story, brutally occupied the château in 1940.
The Latin charm of Benito, combined with the fact that my mother’s great-uncle and two of his sons had lived in Buenos Aires, then a major trading partner of Britain, may have sparked in her a desire to see that city. According to my grandmother, the invitation to stay with the family was due to a business connection between it and my great-grandfather, a manufacturer and exporter of paint. Again according to my grandmother, who, so my grandfather said, liked sometimes to embroider her stories, my mother, accompanied Randolph Churchill on a trip to South America to report on an upheaval there, but arrived after it had ended (probably the 1932-5 Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay). Randolph arrived at Buenos Aires on 7 June, being ordered by his father to return home “forthwith” to deal with a libel case. He got back on 2 July, the day when my mother’s surviving journal begins.
On 23 September, for a meeting at Penny Lane in Liverpool, she borrowed her aunt’s large Austin (both going strong over 35 years later), commenting, “Had she [her aunt] known that the car of a liberal-pacifist-vegetarian was to be used for a Churchill–Tory-platform, how she’d have writhed.” The following year a spoof advertisement, showing such a car with my mother at the wheel and Randolph beside her, heralded the “New Randy-Jones … Two Lung Power – Free Squealing – Double Ball Bearing … any colour except orange.” Orange was both the Labour colour and stood for the ultra-Protestants in the city.
Randolph had split the Tory vote by standing as an independent in a still remembered Liverpool by-election in January 1935. How he and my mother got thrown together was partly due to their joint attacks on the local Conservative caucus, controlled by Sir Thomas White – hence the suit for libel, which had been instigated by White. Both Winston and Randolph occasionally said they were not Conservatives, but Whigs. In her various writings on Liverpool politics, my mother described the seven different political clubs of a century earlier supporting a whole gamut of opinions, the Conservatives opposing their corporation fellows sporting the colour red, as she did. She was drawn to the more liberal end of Conservatism and later may have voted Labour and Liberal in turn, being studiously vague because of her attachment to the historic secrecy of the ballot and a love of mystification. Winston Churchill became a radical Liberal before returning to the Conservative fold with the help of White’s predecessor, Sir Archibald Salvidge, an Orange sympathiser, who established Liverpool as a Conservative city on the foundation of the support of working class Protestants and exclusion of Catholics – which my mother opposed, looking back to the time when Canning was a Liverpool MP supporting Catholic emancipation. Moreover, my Anglican grandfather was damned as “a rather ritualistic local vicar” by the Independent Alderman, Revd Harry Dixon Longbottom, a sort of precursor of the Revd Ian Paisley.
Her teenage holiday additionally made my mother a lifelong Francophile. When I reached the same age as she had been in 1923, she spotted a small advertisement on the front page of The Times. This sought an exchange with the eldest son of the advertiser, a former mayor of Angers, which duly occurred, instilling in me too a deep love of France.
Twenty-five years later on holiday, I searched in vain, to the exasperation of my wife, the location of the Château du Grésil and the landmarks I had passed en route in the autocar from Rouen in 1950. The château is not named on modern maps, but can be found just to the left of the Rue Eugène Pottier (1816-87, the Communard revolutionary), on a circular drive joined to a straight one from Route D3. In the archives there are online maps one of 1813 and another later, undated one. These show two small estates: Hameau du Grand Grésil and, just to the west, Hameau du Petit Grésil, the latter presumably the one with the tower seen in later photos. The layout of the buildings in each estate was the same and conforms to what exist today. Later maps of 1961 also exist.
Monsieur Benito had died in 1972, fourteen years after my mother’s death. His true identity until now remained hidden, as my mother wanted to respect the family’s privacy and besides, as already remarked, enjoyed occasional mystification. He had told her that he had adopted the grandson of Marie the lodge keeper, born illegitimately in the same year as myself. That boy was one of those who first greeted us in 1950.
Many Britons still visit Rouen, thanks to the persistent hold its history and fabric have on our national imagination – a legacy of Monet, Turner, Ruskin, Proust and less happy wartime memories. But it cannot feel as personal for many of these visitors as it does to me – a place suffused not just with artistic significance, but memories of my own boyhood, and always the powerful presence of my mother. The Cathedral may have been restored, some old town streets can still be seen, and even the Château still stands – but it all feels increasingly distant, a domain as lost as Alain-Fournier’s ‘Les Sablonnières’ – a France, and a Europe, increasingly emptied of an ineffable “sweetness of life”.
Ian Warrell, Turner on the Seine, Tate Gallery, pp.162-91
J.Morlent, Voyage Historique et Pittoresque du Havre à Rouen sur la Seine, en Bateau à Vapeur, 1829 (copy owned by Turner)
John Murray, Hand-Book for Travellers in France, being a Guide to Normandy etc., 3rd ed. Revised, John Murray 1848 (copy owned by Ruskin)
The Traveller’s Handbook for Normandy & Brittany, Thos. Cook & Son, 1923
J.G.Links, The Ruskins in Normandy: A Tour in 1848 with Murray’s Hand-book, John Murray 1968
Géraldine Lefebvre, Léon Monet, frère de l’artiste et collectionneur, Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, 15 March-16 July 2023
Churchill Archive, Churchill College, Cambridge
Paul Nuttall, ‘Whiteballed’: Randolph Churchill, The Conservative Union and the Liverpool Conservative Party, 1935, 2020
Josh Ireland, Churchill & Son, 2021
Randolph Churchill, The Young Unpretender. Essays by his friends collected and introduced by Kay Halle, 1971. (Michael Foot recalled attending one of Randolph’s meetings in the Wavertree by-election, when Randolph cried “And who is responsible for putting Liverpool where she is today?” prompting a voice from the back of the hall, “Blackburn Rovers!”)
Anita Leslie [sister of the unconventional Irish baronet, Shane Leslie, 1916-2016, Légion d’honneur 2015], Cousin Randolph: Life of Randolph Churchill, Hutchinson 1985
Arturo Bray (1898-1974), Armas y Letras (Memorias), 3 vols, 1981 etc
Spruille Braden, Diplomats and Demagogues, New York 1971
SELBY WHITTINGHAM is the founder and secretary of the Independent Turner Society, which campaigns to unite all of J M W Turner’s paintings in a special Turner Gallery, in accordance with the painter’s last wishes. He is also the author of numerous books on Turner, and a regular contributor to The Jackdaw