Last week, a friend of ours told us his mother was selling the family château in Brittany. Thomas’ dream of becoming a gentleman farmer as they say in French – also the name of a brand of clothing here – was shattered. But will he really miss paying 20,000€ in property taxes every year? And just as much in upkeep and maintenance?
La grande maison
I’d been out to his family’s country home – really a château – a few times. On the estate, la grande maison, along with several outbuildings, accommodate the sprawling families who come to visit every summer. We usually stay in the Commons, which were originally stables, a carriage house, and a woodshed, now renovated into cozy living spaces. (But the chicken coop, above right, still houses chickens. It’s even on the historic monuments register!)
The main Commons house, with its large functional kitchen, armoires full of mismatched dishes, and old-fashioned Moulinex toaster (what’s that burning smell?), is comfortable. But the grande maison is majestic: built by a couple of métayers, or tenant farmers, the manor’s central feature is a tower with a large clock, whose bell would signal to field hands when the working day was over.
Nowadays, the old clock has stopped, but the manually-operated dinner bell still gets plenty of use: family members ring it by pulling on the long chain at around 7 p.m. to signal aperitif hour. Children of all ages stop whatever they’re doing – gathering wildflowers, riding broken-down bikes, lolling next to the (inflatable) swimming pool – and come running for cool beverages like kir (blackcurrant liqueur + white wine) or limonade and dried sausage.
All over Europe, the terms grande maison, Great House, or Big House are used to refer to one’s estate or villa, noblesse oblige – meaning that your very position as a château owner, or châtelain, means that you would never actually use the word château. The words château or mansion apparently are discouraged even by modern etiquette books, discounted as decidedly déclassé and pretentious ways of referring to one’s estate. If only the authors of those books knew that the “Big House” in the United States means prison!
I discovered the euphemism a second time last summer, after pedaling my bike through the Creuse department – also known as la France profonde or Deep France – to another friend’s “country home.” She had referred to my destination as a hamlet surrounding the Château R., and so when I arrived, out of breath, in front of a pair of wrought-iron château gates, I called her and asked if I should turn right or left. “No, dear, just come right through those gates!”
So I did, and then I walked alongside my bike some ways down a dusty gravel lane. Parking my now-dwarfed bicycle in the shade of a massive L-shaped château, I marveled at the pair of wide turrets which buttressed the château’s eastern end.
Mostly Louis XV
Once past my stupefaction at this even bigger version of the Big House, my host gave me a complete tour: portions of the château dated from the 16th century, and the most modern part had a keystone inscribed with the date 1881. Feeling a little overwhelmed, I made my way past framed family trees dating back to the Middle Ages, and climbed stairs under the scowling ancestors whose portraits hung on every dark wood wall. But the dim interiors were a pleasant foil to the stifling heat and sun in which I’d just spent hours pedaling my bicycle.
A recent inheritance, the château hadn’t been continually maintained throughout the years, and so my friend and her husband were confronted with the daunting task of sorting, organizing, and redistributing the stockpiles of royal furniture (mostly Louis XV) as well as the damp, crumbling papers and books that filled room after room after room, each one more cobweb laden than the last.
Finally, when we arrived at the library, whose walls were crumbling, and I saw the number of books that had been ravaged by hungry rodents, I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for my friends. Sure, I can just hear you thinking, "Poor little château owners!" But they didn’t ask to inherit a château, and considering the cost of renovation and upkeep of this place, it occurred to me that the American way of using the term “Big House” wasn’t so inappropriate after all.