‘I need a chateau as a home for my hero,’ I emailed my French friend. ‘Can you help me? It must be in a fairly remote location, but very grand, fit for a Turkish princess and her aristocratic French husband.’
After frowning over a map of south west France in vain, Hélène called the Tourist Office in Foix, Ariège. A cheerful sounding girl picked up the phone.
‘Er…I need a chateau, what can you suggest?’ ‘But…there’s a medieval castle here in town,’ was the reply. ‘No, it has to be in a remote area.’ ‘Oh… well then, what about all those Cathar castles?’ ‘No, no, they’re ruins. It has to be a grand chateau, where an aristocratic family would live in the 18th century.’ Long pause…’Could I ask what you want it for?’ The tone was getting impatient now. ‘It’s for my friend, who’s writing a novel set in 1811. She wants to situate the family in a splendid chateau but not near a town.’ Another pause. ‘All I can think of is a tumbledown chateau in a small village near Ax-les-Thermes in the Pyrenees. It’s in a shocking state but it was once a magnificent place. ‘ ‘Mademoiselle, I just know you’ve found the very thing. A thousand thanks.’ ‘Yes, but you can’t visit. It’s unsafe. It’s called Gudanes, by the way.’
Soon afterwards, Hélène and I made a trip to Ax-les-Thermes and drove out to take a look at the Chateau de Gudanes. It was absolutely right as a setting for my fictional family. A medieval fortress, much enlarged and updated in the charming style of the eighteenth century, it was indeed splendid. Even with its empty windows, patches of crumbling stonework and shutters hanging loose, an overgrown avenue and a sad air of neglect, it was perfect. And a personal thrill was that Voltaire stayed there, [he’s my literary hero].
Seen from outside the padlocked gate with warning signs of the danger.
The chateau is set in an extensive park surrounded by high walls
It was two years before we made a second trip into the Pyrenees and stopped to look at the Chateau de Gudanes again. By this time, there was good news in the nearby village. An Australian family had bought the chateau and repairs and renovation had already started. It would take much determination and effort to repair the long years of neglect, especially the water damage from holes in the roof, but our spirits lifted at the idea of this glorious place being lived in and loved once more. [And it had already given me lots of inspiration for my story; so much in fact that I was writing a second tale set in that region.]
And recently we made a third visit, when by good luck and good timing, we were actually able to go through the open gates, along that driveway and up the stairs leading to the wide terrace to the open front door. Now the chateau has all its windows fixed, the shutters have been repaired and the roof is sound. No wonder it looks brighter and seems to be beaming a welcome.
Thanks to the kindness of the new owners’ daughter, we had a tour round all the
habitable parts. The amount of restoration already done is amazing, and shows the
family’s love for this chateau, which has an atmosphere of warmth and serenity.
As Hélène said when we posed for a photo on the terrace, this chateau has a soul.
On the terrace below the open door, where Alfie the dog waits to accompany us on our tour.
Karina Waters, the owner and prime mover in the massive programme of works at the chateau, has recently written and published this book recording the story so far.
Chateau de Gudanes – A true love story never ends
For more details and photos of the progress of restoring the chateau, see this website
I have a great friend in Beth Elliot. Those of you who follow this blog and my posts on Facebook will know that Beth and I try to get together whenever I’m in England. And you may recall that Beth was my saviour when my phone was stolen in London, taking me to buy a new one and following that up with a fabulous day out in Greenwich. This time over, Victoria Hinshaw and I spent a few days doing research on the Duke of Wellington at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), located in Reading.
As it turns out, Beth lives just outside of Reading, in the very same town in which our hotel was located. Needless to say, we had the opportunity to see each other often. What does need to be said is that Beth went out of her way to accommodate Vicky and myself, picking us up at the train station, driving us where we needed to go, joining us for dinner nightly and taking us to hidden villages and places of interest on our days off. She was even kind enough to bring us back to her home on several occasions, giving us lunch, wine, laughs and the opportunity to see her fabulous garden and to unwind in her incredibly comfy front room.
Since Beth, Vicky and I first met in 2010, during Number One London’s Duke of Wellington Tour, she and I have shared personal histories and family stories, and I was most enchanted with her stories of her beloved Uncle Frank, who was Financial Editor for the Times. Frank Wright was born in 1900 and graduated from Manchester University before joining the staff of the Manchester Guardian, moving in 1924 to it’s London office as Assistant Chief Editor, going on afterwards to join the Times of London.
What I knew about Uncle Frank was that he and his wife, Auntie Marie, had never had children of their own and so looked upon Beth as a most favourite niece. Beth spent many hours with Uncle Frank and Auntie Marie, but what sticks in my mind most are Beth’s stories of going with Uncle Frank to his London office. Once the day’s business was done, Uncle Frank would ask Beth what she most wanted to do, and would then grant her wishes, regardless of the fact that most of the places she chose were at opposite ends of London. Off they’d go, Uncle Frank indulging the wishes of his favourite little girl and Beth enjoying his undivided attention.
So, when Beth mentioned during our last visit that she had some things of Uncle Frank’s she was set to take to the charity shop, I had to ask –
“Wait. What? What sort of things?”
“Oh, just some old clothes. I’ve got a Chinese robe he bought in the 30’s at Harrods.”
“Wait. You’re giving Uncle Frank’s 1930’s Chinese robe from Harrod’s to the charity shop?!”
“Do you want to see it?”
Off she went, up the stairs and back down. “I have this, too,” she said, laying a treasure on the table before me.
“It’s Uncle Frank’s cigarette case,” she said.
“And it’s leather. And embossed with his initials.” Upon opening it, I saw the Harrod’s stamp. I picked it up and inhaled the smell of leather and tobacco.
“Would you like it?” Beth asked.
“What? Don’t you want it?”
“I don’t smoke. And besides, what am I ever going to do with it. If you think you can use it, please take it.”
I stared at her. Stunned. “I don’t smoke, either. But I’d love to have it. Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’ve got to have a clear out. And here’s the robe I told you about.”
“Try it on,” Beth urged.
Silently I prayed, please, Uncle Frank, be the same size as me. Please. I slipped the robe on and . . . it fit. Like a glove.
“I love it,” said I, looking at myself in the mirror and running a hand over the black silk lapel. “How does it look?”
“It looks fabulous on you,” offered Vicky.
“Do take it if you want it,” said Beth. “It’s only going to be given away otherwise.”
“I can’t believe you’re giving this away.”
“I can’t believe you want it,” said Beth. “Hang on, I’ve got some other bits if you want to see them. Come with me out to the garden, they’re in the shed.”
In the shed?!
After a quick rummage, Beth came out with a rather large box, which held a morning suit – tailed jacket, waistcoat and striped pants. Even a pair of spats.
Holding out the jacket, Beth said, “Here, give it a try.” I took it from her and attempted to get into it. Dash it all, it didn’t fit.
“It’s too small!” I lamented.
“It isn’t,” Beth said.
“There’s no way I can get it on,” I wailed.
“Here, give it to me,” Beth said, in her no nonsense way. “Now, you stand there and I’m going to slip it on you. You don’t think Brummell got into his coats without help, do you? Gentlemen needed a valet to don their coats. Turn your back to me and put your arms down at your sides and I’ll slip this on you.”
I complied, doubtfully. Beth slid the coat sleeves up over my arms, gave it a yank and settled it upon my shoulders. “There. I told you it would fit. Go look in the mirror.”
I obeyed. Reader, it fit. As though it had been tailor made for me.
“Wow,” said Vicky.
“How does it look?”
“Wow,” repeated Vicky. “Do you like it?”
“Like it?! I love it.”
“Here, take the waistcoat, too,” offered Beth. It, too, fit like a dream. Once I’d removed the coat, Beth directed my attention to the construction details inside, gorgeous attention to detail and quilting that had gone out of fashion many decades ago.
“Try the pants on,” suggested Beth. I did, but while Uncle Frank and I seemed to be the same size from the waist up, we varied widely from the waist down. Or it was the style of the striped trousers that defeated me – I looked like a clown in the baggy trousers.
“No,” said Beth, “those won’t do. But there are a few final things you must see.”
I didn’t care about anything else. The robe and coat were each beyond my wildest dreams. But who was I to say no?
This time, she came through with a hat box. Opening the lid, we found a leather collar box and, upon opening that, we discovered that it still held a number of collars, as well as collar and cuff studs. Beneath that was a gentleman’s white silk dress scarf. And under that were the hats. Three hats. And what hats they are!
“Try them on,” Beth prompted. After a stunned moment, I lifted the first hat, a derby, and put it on. Again, it fit as though it had been made to fit my head alone. Then there were two top hats, one a traditional beaver hat, the other a silk, collapsible opera hat. Each one fit. And looked deuced fine atop my head, if I do say so myself.
“Do you think you can fit this all into your suitcase?” Beth asked, once I’d left off admiring myself in the mirror.
“Never. We’ll have to ship it. Are you absolutely certain that you want me take it all?” I asked. “I mean, I know what Uncle Frank meant to you.”
“Uncle Frank would be thrilled that they were being given to someone who can enjoy them. Believe me, you’re doing me the favour by allowing me to clear all this out of my attic and shed. I just can’t believe that you actually want it all. I’ll go and fetch a box and we can pack these up.”
While Beth was gone, Vicky asked, “What in the world are you going to do with all that suff?”
“I’m going to wear it. At writer’s conventions and seminars. And maybe on Sundays. All my costuming needs have been taken care of in one fell swoop!”
My costuming needs had been take care of, and not only by Uncle Frank. I had found the beauty below in a charity shop in Bath for twenty quid before meeting up with Vicky and Beth.
Next day, Beth boxed up my treasures – and tied up the boxes with string. I’ll let you digest that for a bit. String. A lost art. I could wax lyrical and write an entire post about the string, but I’ll spare you. Shortly thereafter, Beth and I walked down to her local Post Office and shipped the boxes off to my address in America. And they both arrived long before I made it home.
I’m thrilled to report that all of Uncle Frank’s clothing has now been dry cleaned and they are hanging in my closet, just waiting for their first airing at the upcoming Romance Writers of America (RWA) Conference in Denver. Now all I need is a valet.
This article first published by The Bluestocking Belles on 17/04/18
The Castle Tavern, [digital image owned by the Society of Brighton Print Collectors]
Parkland House, Marine Parade, Brighton, 31st August 1814
Today I shall not be present at Donaldson’s for the teatime meeting. It is a great pity when the weather is so mild and the sea is calm. However, Lady Fording is fatigued and so we must remain quietly at home. She won quite a large sum at cards last night, and continued playing longer than usual, encouraged by her success. I do love her for being such a sprightly old lady. And she is very kind to me, but even so, I cannot tell her anything about the Events of last night, even though it is thanks to her that I had the means to escape a Horrid Fate.
Emily, you swore to me you would keep anything I told you a Secret and so I will set down what happened. It will unburden my mind to share it with you. Let me begin from the moment when that odious Mrs Chetwynd interrupted our little gathering at the Castle Tavern last night. By the by, did you see how low cut her gown was? If she had so much as sneezed…! She took me into the other salon, into an alcove and [I shudder as I write his name] that horrible roué, Sir Bilton Kelly, was there, with his dissipated face and oily manner. Between the pair of them, they thought they had me trapped, so that I would submit to being taken to the Prince Regent’s private party.
My dear Lord Longwood had warned me repeatedly against accepting any such invitation, and indeed, I was very Angry, but could not push my way out of that narrow alcove with Mrs Chetwynd blocking the way. It was most humiliating to see that many people in the room were watching, some more discreetly than others. And, oh, thankfully, at the far end of the room was Lord Longwood. He noted the general silence and turned in my direction. Lady Fording has been instructing me in the language of the fan, and so, even though my hands were shaking [with anger, not fright, you understand], I hastily took mine in my hand, waved it, then snapped it shut, laying a finger on the top of the sticks. That signals ‘I wish to speak with you’, and Lord Longwood understood.
At once, he made his way over toward me. Mrs Chetwynd was angry and tried to distract him, but he ignored her. When Sir Bilton Kelly blustered, he stared at him through his eyeglass in a truly Terrifying manner. Then he offered me his arm and so I made my escape. Once we reached the hallway, my knees began to shake. You know how Lord Longwood’s face goes dark when he scowls, and his black hair falls over his forehead. He assured me he was not angry with me and suggested we should take a turn along the path up towards the Pavilion and back, so I might compose myself.
In his company I soon felt calmer. But then he announced that he would be leaving Brighton today to return to London. That made my heart sink into my boots, for he is always so kind and helpful towards me and, as you have suspected, I do love him with all my heart. On an impulse I begged him to kiss me goodbye. But I asked for a proper kiss. He was shocked and then, his face changed, those wonderful green eyes glowed and he did, indeed kiss me. In those moments, I went to heaven. But now I am Wretched, for I want more of those sensations. Oh, Emily, I depend on you to support me through the next days as I struggle to appear calm. At least, until we can meet for a conversation, I have my copy of Lord Byron’s Corsair, to divert my mind from its sorrows. Truly, Emily, I cannot decide if being in love is a blessing or a curse.
I trust your esteemed mama improves in health so that you may soon be free to return to Town, for you are missing the Event of the year. You must know that even we married ladies are all aflutter since the arrival of a certain French gentleman in our midst. Monsieur de Montailhac is the brother-in-law of Sir Richard Hartford, and the son of a French marquis and his wife – a Turkish princess, no less. These details I have from Cecilia Hartford, who is only too ready to boast of her handsome guest.
Indeed, Celeste, I have now been present at two events where the gentleman also figured. I feel such pangs of jealousy against Cecilia, who can feast her eyes on this marvel of masculine beauty every day. He casts even Lord Byron into the shade. His hair is raven black, like his eyes. Oh, such fascinating almond eyes, with a constant roguish twinkle. And his smile makes one forget who and where one is! To the advantages of a trim figure, he adds impeccable style and a delicious French accent that charms us all.
Of course, that odious cousin of Cecilia’s, Mrs Bingham, swoops on the poor man, pushing her poor plain little Lydia at him. [The only man who ever notices Lydia is Jack Barrowman and Mrs B considers him a rustic. She would do well to accept the match for her daughter. It is already Lydia’s third season, is it not?]
And by chance, a little later that day I was in Charters Square in Soho to make a purchase at the showroom of the fine silversmith there, when I espied Monsieur de Montailhac [his name is Arnaut, is it not delightful?] coming out of that very shop, in company with a pretty young lady. They stood and spoke for a time, while I pretended to inspect the goods in the display window. Then he kissed her hand and the smile they exchanged was so intimate, I felt ashamed to be spying on them.
It seems Mrs B is doomed to yet another disappointment over her daughter. But if you wish to see our handsome Frenchman, you should in truth come back soon.
Yr affectionate friend,
About the Book
Arnaut de Montailhac’s reputation as a charming rake is well established. Secretly, he longs for a role where he could shine on merit. Perhaps the political events of the summer of 1813 will give him that opportunity. But when his first official task is to seduce a beautiful young spy, Arnaut suspects he is considered to be nothing more than a charming fribble. However, events quickly turn nasty and he sets off on a quest, determined to prove his true worth. Louise Fauriel, hardworking member of a family of Huguenot silversmiths, is the complete opposite of Arnaut. Linked by the need to smuggle letters from the Bourbon king in exile at Hartwell House to Arnaut’s father, the unlikely pair travel between France and England, with Napoleon’s vengeful agents never more than one step behind. In the desperate race to succeed in this mission, even a rake has no time for love.
Excerpt: A rake in peril from the ladies
Behind his fixed smile, Arnaut was fuming. He and Richard had taken refuge in the drawing room to settle their plans for the afternoon when Cecilia swept in with a group of ladies. It was evident she was determined to show off her French visitor. Everywhere he looked, he saw ladies nodding and smiling at him. He felt like one of the horses he had seen exhibited at Tattersalls the other day. Servants appeared with tea and cakes. Arnaut was horrified. How could he escape? Yet in less than thirty minutes it would be three o’clock, time for his meeting with Pierre D’Escury in Soho.
He found himself sandwiched between a formidable matron and her shockingly plain daughter. Not for the first time, he regretted his ability to attract ladies. The girl was gazing at him with a sort of dazed intensity, as if he was a rare item in a museum. Arnaut cast an urgent look at Richard, seated in the window alcove beside an elderly lady wearing a monstrous bonnet. Richard met his eye and gave a faint, apologetic smile. No help from him, then.
Now Cecilia came to stand in front of them. ‘How delightful to see you such good friends already with our guest, Cousin Chastity,’ she trilled. ‘I am sure Monsieur de Montailhac is telling you all about the latest Paris fashions.’
In spite of his growing frustration, Arnaut had to swallow a laugh. Nobody could help the name their parents gave them but ‘Chastity’ did not sit well on this large and opulently endowed lady. She turned towards him and beamed. ‘He is making acquaintance with my dear Lydia here. So charming.’
Lydia nodded and wriggled without taking her eyes from his face. Did the girl have any conversation, he wondered, or was she simply her mother’s puppet? He was hemmed in by these three females. He would have felt less threatened among a hostile crowd at a prize fight. Thankfully, someone else addressed Cecilia and she was obliged to move away.
The clock on the mantelpiece struck the hour. Arnaut gave a silent groan. Think, dammit! he told himself. You have to escape without giving offence. He gave an exaggerated start and stood up, pretending to check the time.
‘More tea, Monsieur de Montailhac?’ Cecilia hastened back, blocking his way. This began to seem like a conspiracy. But he was going to escape. He smiled his most charming smile and handed her his cup, still untouched.
‘Thank you, no. I regret, but I am obliged to take my leave,’ he insisted over her shocked protests. ‘In such charming company I had almost forgotten that I’m engaged to spend this afternoon with an elderly friend of my father’s. He is housebound and so you appreciate I cannot disappoint him.’ It was not so far from the truth. He turned and bowed in the grand style his father had taught him. ‘Ladies, I am desolated but I cannot stay.’
He was aware of the sudden silence and the heads turning to follow him. Straight backed, he marched out of the room, letting out a deep breath once the door had closed behind him.
The year is 1810. Take a young man seeking adventure and action. He fights in Wellington’s Peninsular Army against the French forces of Napoleon. But then he is badly wounded at the battle of Talavera and has to give up the military career he loves so much. He becomes moody and difficult.
Another young man lives the life of a society darling but he has no money. He must live by his wits. Into their lives comes a lively young lady, determined that she will not be married off to anyone, even though her mother has ordered her to make a good match. She longs to go back home and carry on helping her father the vicar with his good works.
B -u -t the two gentlemen are so very handsome and so admiring, she is tempted…. just a little….and at the same time she becomes aware of sinister undercurrents in society life. She has to prevent a spy from damaging her country, but at a possibly fatal cost to herself.
The Wild Card was one of the winners in the RNA Joan Hessayon Awardsfor a first novel. The Judge’s summary:
The Wild Card(Hale) by Beth Elliot – “The background is terrific, the story lively and the pace relentless as the story builds to a fantastic climax. A wonderful, charming and well-written Regency with its essential lightness spiced with intrigue.”
The year is 1818. In Paris the French king, Louis XVIII, is doing his best to establish a peaceful regime. The Duke of Wellington, along with the other members of the Alliance, wants to withdraw the Army of Occupation and allow France to be independent.
At the other end of France at the Chateau de Fontanes in the Pyrenees, Joachim de Montailhac, the youngest of the three brothers, has the job of caring for the family estate. He deals with replanting and maintaining the woods, organising the work of the tenants, villagers and farmers, supervising the family stables and other livestock.
Into his busy life come some unexpected problems, in the form of two sisters. He senses from the outset that they are going to be trouble. And at the same time the unrest that has simmered in the southern French towns spreads into the local area. It is clear the rebels are targeting his family.
Helen [Nell] and Sophie Hartford are cousins of Joachim’s sister-in-law, Olivia [seeScandalous Lady]. In the Spring of 1818 they find themselves outcasts from their father’s home and are forced to accept Olivia’s assurance that the Marquise de Fontanes and her family will make them welcome. Two unhappy girls struggle to fit into the very different lifestyle of the large and slightly exotic Montailhac family.
Between 1809 and 1814, Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire was the home of the exiled French king, brother of King Louis XVI who was executed in 1793. Previously titled the Comte de Provence, Louis Stanislas was now known as King Louis XVIII of France. He worked tirelessly to promote himself as a future ruler of France in a constitutional monarchy; showing willingness to accept many reforms and tolerance of minority religions. He was more liberal than his ministers and even his younger brother, the Comte d’Artois [who later became King Charles X, after Louis’s death in 1824].
It was thanks to his cousin the Regent, later King George IV, that Louis was able to seek refuge in England. The condition was that he must reside at a distance of 50 miles from London. At Hartwell House, he was accompanied by his queen, Marie-Josephine of Savoy, his niece, the Duchess of Angouleme and her husband, the Duke of Angouleme, son of the Comte d’Artois.