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Recently, in researching the book I'm working on, I had the remarkable good fortune of being able to visit the former homes of my two principal muses: French Revolution era writer and thinker Germaine de Staël's family chateau in Coppet, in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland, and celebrated Italian improvisatrice Corilla Olimpica's palazzo in Florence, Italy's Tuscan capital. Both homes have been beautifully preserved. In a time when few women owned property (while often being expected to serve as domestic angels in homes owned by their husbands) these two households were headed by women. This is where they reigned. While Corilla did not own her palazzo, it was granted to her by a benefactor based on her improvisational abilities, and she housed numerous family members and friends inside her walls.


Reflecting on the need for safe creative spaces and sanctuary, as well as the privilege and power of simply having space - let alone grand, elaborate space - was instructive as I considered the careers of both women, and how they used their homes to foster the careers and creativity of others.


Entryway to the Chateau Coppet

The Chateau Coppet is now a sort-of museum, open to the public and for guided tours. The chateau does a wonderful job of displaying objects, art, and literature that capture the Mme De Staël's life and her astounding list of achievements, while also providing a treasure trove of information about her circle of family and friends.


Spending time here did more to advance my sense of De Staël as a person than two decades of reading her work. Here, I was able to see the rooms she walked while in exile, the spaces she filled with her brilliant coterie - and to gain a sense of how that space flowed. How one room connected to another. Upon entering the Chateau, you are greeted with a large statue of Jacques Necker, former Finance Minister to Louis XVI and De Staël's beloved father, the original owner of the Chateau. You feel her reverence for him and how his influence pervaded her work, even as she transcended both her parents. In her bedroom - her stunning and majestic bedroom - there is a portrait of her second, somewhat unofficial husband, Albert Jean Michel de Rocca, and it drives home the reality that De Staël never gave up on love, overcoming a loveless marriage to her first husband and tempestuous and passionate affairs with Comte Louis de Narbonne and Swiss philosopher Benjamin Constant (along with a few others). Overcoming - living through - enduring. And for all the import De Staël placed on love, the equally beautiful bedroom next to hers belonged to her friend Juliette Recamier, who had also been exiled from Paris by Napoleon. The import she placed on her friendships, on providing shelter and safe harbour becomes apparent. History owes her a deep debt, for the minds she gathered round her helped to bring an end to Napoleon's sway and ushered in new political philosophies. The artists, writers and revolutionaries she sheltered surely grew and were emboldened by time spent together at Coppet. I wished I could absorb the echoes of their talks. Even their most idle talks.


As I walked from room to room, I could feel the intensity, the passion, the depths of the lives lived and battles waged in that Chateau. I saw how much her family and friends meant to her, and the sanctuary she offered to those in exile - stunning, awe-inspiring sanctuary.


The chateau grounds include the Allée Coppet, a walkway lined with majestic maple trees and clear views of Lake Geneva. Over the years, I've read a lot of material about Mme De Staël. I forget just where, but somewhere, once, I read about a night when she despaired, a night she met with Benjamin Constant on these grounds, surrounded by these trees, and had a passionate discussion. . . I could feel it palpably. As I walked the Allée, looking up at the trees and out at the lake, in a landscape still blooming with early October purple tansy flowers, I understood how the view of Lake Geneva might invoke passions and longings that fueled the work of geniuses. That spirit is still alive at Coppet. Being there, drinking in that feeling, absorbing the gently rugged and vivifying beauty of the landscape, together with the fine décor and warm rooms of the Chateau, my historical imagination ignited and my inspiration, my ache to write this book, deepened.


I am incredibly grateful to the talented guide who led me through the Chateau, pointing out details I may otherwise have missed, and teaching me, once and for all, how to properly pronounce De Staël: It is de Stahl, Stalle, Stall. . . Nevermind that accented 'e.' It's nice to finally know this.


Just when I thought I couldn't be more inspired, the next part of my research trip brought an opportunity to spend two nights in Corilla's former palazzo, where she once famously entertained a young Mozart, and where he played for her. Her home is now a rental apartment in Florence, but the owner has taken great care to preserve much of it's history and character. After wrangling with my travel dates and making arrangements with the proprietor, I was able to book a stay. Being able to spend time here was something of a dream come true for me, and I often felt like I was walking through my own imagination come to life.


Spending time in those rooms, gazing at a reproduction of her portrait ( the original hangs in the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome), I was transported. The floors remain the same as those walked by Corilla and her circle in the late 18th century throughout much of the home. I walked those gorgeous floors in my bare feet, trying to soak up some of the history, some of the untold stories.



The owner of Corilla's palace, Mario, was an excellent host. He graciously provided me with more information about Corilla than I had ever been able to find in all my years of research. The most valuable book he lent me was a collection of Corilla's correspondence with her lifelong friend Giovanni Cristofano Amaduzzi. Reading fragments of her personal letters while sitting in the very rooms where she composed those letters created a sense of intimacy with Corilla that I have been trying to capture for years. So little research has been done about her, and so little is known, she remains a very mysterious figure. The nights I spent in her palazzo have helped me begin to penetrate that mystery. Mario told me a wonderful story about one of Mozart's visits to Florence. Corilla had written a sonnet for him, and somehow, he was leaving town before she had a chance to get the sonnet to him, so a messenger was sent, racing across the city, to deliver said sonnet to Mozart before his departure. Imagining such a poetic emergency, a young man running through the Vias of Florence with a sonnet to deliver - history comes alive. The vibrancy, the urgency of creative output and expression - it can be felt in the bones.


A bit of ceiling being restored

At present, only one floor of the palazzo is available for rent, but it is a multi-story building, and another level is currently being restored. Mario plans to create still more space dedicated to Corilla's memory, and is hard at work restoring the building's historical elements. It heartens me to know that such care is being taken to preserve her memory, when the site could so easily be modernized for pure commercialization - although, of course, Corilla's story, about which too little is still known, also makes for a fantastic draw. And the home is no less than stunning, while also, somehow, being cozy and comfortable. I'm not sure where else you can get such a thing. I never wanted to leave. I already dream of returning.


I spent one full evening in Corilla's palace working on my own writing, inspired by the very subjects she once improvised upon. To sit and write in her house, to add my echo to the myriad other echoes between those walls - it felt powerful. Much of what has been recorded about Corilla speaks to her having been a 'bad mother' who abandoned her son. The truth is we don't know what happened. There's a chance her son may have died young. There's a chance her no-good Napolitano husband may have made custody of her son impossible for her. We don't know. Quite yet. What we do know is that her sister and niece lived with her in this house, along with a large number of servants. We know that she doted on her niece and was very involved in her upbringing. This doesn't sound like the behaviour of a thoughtless, glory-seeking libertine to me. We also know that she was a very ambitious woman who insisted on being recognized as at the top of her field - for this she was criticized and lampooned.


Beautiful, original floor

Sitting there, writing in her house, I called upon my own creative powers, and thought long and hard about what I believe myself capable of achieving and why it matters. And who I can help, and offer shelter to, as I go. I thought about my role as an artist and a mother. The echoes in Corilla's house were loud. The floors were so warm and worn.


Goethe, a contemporary of De Staël's and someone with whom she corresponded at length, is often quoted as having said that "architecture is frozen music." This idea has also been attributed to other neo-classical thinkers and, apparently, among architecture aficionados (and students of Goethe, I presume) it has attained the status of a cliché, and its entire premise has been picked apart and rather mocked. This much I have gathered from a brief Google search about the quote's origin. Whether or not architecture and music actually share a common soul (both certainly require structure, math, engineering, composition - although no one dies from a discordant note), there is something in this idea that I needed to grapple with while spending time in the homes of these two illustrious women.


The former homes of many famous authors can be visited - as many famous artists and public figures of all stripes. Here they lived. Here they ate and paced and chatted and slept. Got sick. Dreamt. Lounged. Had sex. What is it about the homes of our idols that fascinate us so? Should I not have been content just to read their work? Why was I so called to see where they lived? I am still trying to explain it to myself, but there is something about being in the places where historical events have unfolded that calls forth the essence of those events within me. I imagine it must be so for others as well.


My time in these beautiful, storied homes was downright spellbinding. I remain entranced. Which is a very good thing, because I want to do them justice in my forthcoming book.


Grazie mille to Mario in Florence and to the staff at the Chateau Coppet.

My mind has been expanded. Thank you for all the work you do to preserve the legacies of these two important women.

Books shared by the host at Corilla's Palace



  • Jennifer Houle

Kindred spirits in the Jardins de Luxembourg, Paris

Six days ago, I set out on what I can only call a "literary quest" - traveling to France, Switzerland, and Italy, researching historical women writers/thinkers/artists. I landed in Paris jet-lagged and disoriented, unsure of how I was going to bring all the disparate threads I was pulling on together. My writing process tends to be a bit disorganized, coming together in fitful bursts of determination.


On my first full day in Paris, I had planned to go to Versailles, to immerse myself in the times of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and to contemplate the decadence that had fueled so much revolutionary fervor in the 1780s. I wanted to draw connections between the income disparity of pre-revolutionary France and income disparity today - something I believe is at the root of almost all society's ills. I'm not endorsing a communist vision when I say this. I am talking about income disparity so vast it seems an almost insurmountable divide. Kings and peasants. CEOs who earn more on January 1st of every year than the cream of the middle-class earn all year, and more than enough in an hour to pull a person - a family, even - out of the crushing depths of poverty. That's what I thought I would get from Versailles. An opportunity to ponder. And also an opportunity to see first hand how Louis XVI and his young bride lived. I do not blame them for who they were, or for their wealth. There are always two sides. I also thought I would get a better sense of Jacques Necker, finance minister to the king, and the father of my muse, Mme de Staël.


But when the day dawned, I found myself resisting the idea of going to Versailles, getting on a train and being trapped on the grounds for a prolonged visit. I was still too tired. I decided to let myself off the hook, and simply walk around. I wanted to see the Jardins de Luxembourg, and so I headed off in that direction. As mentioned, I was feeling tired, anxious, and the busy-ness of Paris had me on guard. But the beauty of the gardens disarmed me quite a bit, and I began to relax. I ate something, drank coffee, gazed at the statues of queens that ring the gardens, and began to daydream. I strolled. As I was strolling, I overhead a woman teasing her husband about his hat in such a charming way that I couldn't help but smile at them. They were speaking English, and I thought I detected an East Coast American accent. I'm not sure why, because it really isn't in my nature to approach strangers, but I said something to them, asked them something, and the next thing I knew I had sat down next to them and we were chatting.


It turned out they were from the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas (but originally New Jersey, so my ears did not deceive me), briefly in Paris as part of a cruise. I told them about the research I was in Paris to do, and the man said: "You sat down next to the right people." I gave him a skeptical look. Skeptical looks are also in my nature. "Did I now?" I asked, hoping he would not disappoint, but fully expecting he would. "I'm a historian," he said.

"Are you?" I asked. "A real one, or just a guy who likes to spout off at the bar?" I asked this with a smile. I am descended from barstool historians, so this, to me, was a fair question, if a tad impolite. Luckily, he laughed. His wife said she liked me.


Their names were Vincent and Doris. Vincent told me he wrote for a local tourism magazine in St. Thomas - historical articles. He said he understood my desire to seek out information about a little known historical personage, because he too was interested in a historical figure about whom little is remembered: John Perkins, the first black officer in the British Royal Navy. As he spoke about Perkins, telling his story (which is fascinating), I could see the same curiosity and determination at work in him that I feel when I am researching my subjects. For more than fifteen years now, I have been intermittently researching Mme Germaine de Staël and Maria Maddalena Morrelli, squirreling away every tidbit I learned. But why?


In speaking with Vincent and Doris, the word "connection" kept coming to me. Why had I so easily connected with them? We spoke about our historical interests, but it was also an extremely friendly conversation filled with laughter and understanding. I spoke of my kids, they spoke of their children and grandchildren. No awkwardness.


I began to wonder more about how certain people connect with others. How had Vincent seized on the story of John Perkins, a long ago sea captain, and become determined to learn more about this one man? What was it about 24-year-old me that fell upon a book about an influential salonnière at the time of the French Revolution and became enduringly captivated? It is said that reading, deep reading, is akin to an act of telepathy. I suspect it can be so with any of the arts- connecting deeply with a piece of music, sculpture, architecture, or painting, and feeling an affinity with the artist who created it, feeling you understand exactly what they wanted to convey.


This is just a blog post. How deep can I go? For now, I simply want to acknowledge the great serendipity of my meeting with Vincent and Doris. It brought me back into touch with the important question of ''why'' exactly I am here, in Europe, walking the path I am, carrying the books I am, asking the specific questions I came to ask - and being led on, inexorably, towards questions I never anticipated.


In speaking with this couple, chatting and laughing, and simply having the opportunity to explain to complete strangers what I'm up to, and to be met with such enthusiasm - it pulled me out of my panicky jet lag and put me back on mission. I don't want to wax tooooo poetic about how we are, all of us, angels to one another, but there you have it.


I believe that for the rest of my days, I will be interested in Officer John Perkins. I will look into his history and it will inform my own sense of history. I think that Vincent and Doris were also interested in my project. He wrote down Mme Germaine de Staël's name on a piece of paper, gave me his email address and asked me to please write when the book was published. Doris seconded this. ''Please,'' she said. ''Really do let us know.'' I told them I might blog about it and asked their permission to post their picture.


Here we are. Thank you, Vincent and Doris - Doris and Vincent (I don't like naming the husband first, I just don't), for helping me get my footing on this quest. You did appear as angels. I felt guided and am trying to trust that feeling, as well as my own instincts. This trust has served me well thus far.


I haven't even mentioned how Vincent is Sicilian, and I am part Sicilian, and Sicily seems to have something to do with this book I am writing, something insistent. . . no matter. This is just a blog post. There is a book on the way.


Thank you angels. Journeys are for nothing if you encounter no new friends.





























  • Jennifer Houle



Our banner up on stage at the Playhouse

Last week, Fredericton hosted it's third annual literary festival - Word Feast. It brought me to tears (quiet, discreet, sitting-in-the-audience-and-listening tears) at least three times.


I wonder about the quiet reactions being had by other audience members. Words, after all, have a lot of power and carry a lot of emotion, a lot of complex thought. Just like people do. When like meets like - however antipathetic the types of power, emotion and thought being carried might actually be - there is bound to be a reaction.


Our authors spoke and read about injustice, pain, love, terror, grief, illness, beauty, silence, regret, uncertainty, anger, outrage, personal and cultural history, instability, and joy.


They were funny and incisive and heart-pounding and gut-wrenching.

Listening to them, I found myself cycling though wonder, bliss, sorrow, agitation, frustration, ache to create, fear and love, worry and love. Or, to quote the title of our first festival headliner, Rebecca Rosenblum's novel: So Much Love. So much. I imagine it was the same for many. I imagine the words did their propulsive and sometimes trajectory-changing work.


*


I have had the great good fortune of being part of the festival's Board since almost the beginning. In late 2016, I eagerly signed up to volunteer, excited for the opportunity to help build something that would bring authors into our city and help to inspire the next generation of readers and writers. I had NO idea how much work went into putting on a lit fest. So much love, yes, but also, so much work. A staggering amount of work, but worthwhile, for the sorts of seemingly magical connections made possible by events like Word Feast. Connections known only to those who make them, but no doubt travel outwards in a ripple effect, changing things. I have been changed.


*


The festival was founded by Ian LeTourneau, Fredericton's first Cultural Laureate, as a legacy project. I offered to volunteer, saying I could probably help with communications. Next thing I knew, I was on the board, sitting around a conference table with other local writers I admired and a number of dedicated volunteers.


I had been wanting to get more involved with the local literary community for years. My first book had recently been published, but with two young children and a full-time job, I rarely made it out to events. My writing and literary life felt like something that happened only in stolen moments, not a part of my actual (i.e. real) life or self. I wanted to change that if I could. Two and a half years later, I have been gifted with new friendships and connections that have contributed to a fundamental transformation of my sense of community, belonging, and purpose.


Supporting others in the literary community means more to me now than ever, because I know how precious the work being done by writers is, and how difficult it can be to connect the right readers with the right books. Very difficult. While there is absolutely magic at play when it comes to readers finding their special books, opportunities for that magic to happen are also key. I have long believed in the importance of having a vibrant arts sector, knowing what it can mean to a city, a region, a province. What it can mean for vulnerable populations. Now, I see even more clearly the challenges that exist in terms of connecting the arts community with the larger public - not that there really is a "larger public" when it comes to books. There are just myriad, myriad people with different vulnerabilities, longings, needs, hopes, curiosities, aches, interests, and personal quirks and quests. Young and old.


Who needed the words we were proffering as a feast? Would they find us? Would we connect?


*


I can't speak for anybody else, but I connected deeply. This year, I felt nourished by listening to lunchtime talks: Sue Sinclair and Elizabeth Effinger discussed an erasure poetry project that involved incarcerated women. Doyali Islam gave a compelling and mindful talk on the gifts of silence in a poetic practice. In a life.


I got to see my mother enjoying Amy Spurway's reading of her raucous novel Crow, which takes place in Cape Breton. I drifted off into the humour and awkwardness of young love as Carrianne Leung read from That Time I Loved You. I welled up when our musical performer Adyn Townes cranked it up with a catchy riff that made me want to run, run fast towards what I most care about.


I welled up for the first time at our official launch, when Ian read the long list of community sponsors who had supported the festival. I'm sure that for some audience members, hearing the roll call of local businesses, individuals and artists was a bit tedious. For me, hearing the names of so many supporters all at once struck something, and I realized how fortunate we are to have received so much unhesitating and generous support. Businesses are asked for donations all the time, as are local artists and writers. Choices have to be made, and it is really heartening to know that so many believed in what the literary festival wants to do.


My emotions remained high as Fredericton's current Poet Laureate Jenna Lyn Albert took the mic to recite a poem commissioned specially for the festival. This poem was then translated into French and Wolastoqiyik. Hearing the piece in all three languages, and appreciating the effort that went into the translations, was powerful.


*


A few days post-festival, and I am still reflecting, still thinking about the real goals. I'm sure each member of our board has slightly different passions and hopes, but as for myself - it's all about creating opportunities for connections to happen. I'm not entirely sure how I would have survived my childhood and young adulthood had it not been for books and the imaginative strength I drew from them, and I want to help bring that to others.


We aren't so much about fostering literacy as we are about fostering creativity and inspiration. Literacy is critical, but our festival is aimed at those who can already read (or will soon be learning how to). A society that places a high value on reading will, of course, also buoy literacy rates. Aiming to foster creativity is an important distinction - to create an appetite for written expression, clear, hard-hitting language deployed in the quest to entertain, educate, inspire, uplift, upset, or unsettle. Or even just amuse. We need this, as a culture. We need our really good stories. Our powerful words. Our healing words. Our beautiful, beautiful turns of phrase. . .


But, probably because this is an election year, I have also been spending a lot of time thinking about the power of words to stir up hate, negativity, and skim over atrocities. Another word for a story after all is a lie.


But that's not what we're on about when we talk about the power of story is it? I know the kind of words, the kind of stories, essays and poems I am hungry for. They aren't all politically correct, but none of them are hateful. Some of them may be furious. A little bit dangerous. A whole lot wild. But none of them were created to stir up hatred or animosity or unfounded fear. Or to promulgate outrageous falsehoods about our actual world and the people in it. The words I am hungry for go higher - they trigger insight, sympathy, empathy, and connection. They are beautiful. Stunning. Staggeringly so. They know they are sharp and dangerous and hold power. But they want to cast light. For all that they may glory in the shadows - the goal is always to bring light, bring emotion, bring a burning question, bring water, bring food - contribute to the feast.


*


When I was eight years old, I found an old book that had been my father's when he was in university, and I fell in love with poetry. Life changed.


When I was 18 years old, I found an old novel someone had given my mother when she was pregnant with me (which she never read - must have been busy with something else) and it sparked a massive creative hunger in me. I became braver. Life changed.


When I was 22, I found an old book in a used bookstore. Next week, I fly to Europe to research some of the passions sparked by that book. Life continues to change.


I was a lonely kid, but I had books.


Adulthood can be even lonelier and more frightening than childhood.


Bringing books to the public. . .contributing to the feast. It is immensely rewarding.


And, like so many others, I am hungry still.