I’ve driven a great deal in most parts of France, but still, as I made may way around Champagne researching FINDING EMILIE, I was surprised that anywhere in France could feel so remote. Driving just from one block or two of houses and shops lining the roadway to another hamlet of similar size might take as long as half an hour, and the distances between towns with any appreciable population was much longer.
On my Michelin map I could barely find Cirey, the tiny village where the chateau in which Emilie du Châtelet and Voltaire lived sequestered for years is located. To go from there to my next stop took me through hours and hours of beautiful fields and vineyards, but almost no towns. I was in search of a place equally small, the village of Étoges.
Why Étoges? I must confess one of the secrets of writing historical fiction: you work with what you have. I couldn’t fudge on Cirey because it really was the Marquis du Châtelet’s ancestral home and it really was where Emilie and Voltaire lived. However, I needed a chateau for some other scenes in the book, and it ended up being Étoges through a process so, well, practical, that I am almost afraid to share it for fear the sense of destiny, which to me figures so strongly in the novel, will be shattered. But I’ll tell you anyway, because if you’re reading this, we’re friends, right?
My trip to France was not nearly as long as I wanted, and I needed to be practical about the distance I could cover. Since my partner was going to do some collaboration with fellow scientists in Strasbourg as part of our trip, he and I decided we would stick only to places between Paris, Strasbourg and Geneva, our point of departure for home.
I did some searching for chateaux along our route, and found it cumbersome to sort through what was open, what was ruined, and what was unsuitable for other reasons. Then I hit on the idea of looking only for chateaux that had rooms available for guests, so we could spend the night and have a chance to look around at leisure. I found only a couple, Étoges among them. I checked out the website and decided it would do quite nicely. Very well then, I said to myself. The character who needs a chateau will be named Laurent d’Étoges and this will be his home.
Finally, months later, there we were. The town is too small to have even a tavern or restaurant, so the chateau experience included a wonderful dinner complete with the local beverage, real champagne! We stayed in a room I imagined belonging to my heroine Lili, and I truly felt as if I slept in her bed, brushed my hair at her dressing table, and washed my face in her basin–albeit with running water.
I don’t want to do any plot spoilers, so I’ll just say that the photo of me lounging on the grass is exactly the spot where Lili and Delphine sat for an important scene near the end of the book. The view looking out over the grass to the chateau is what they would have seen, although much of the surroundings would have been planted in formal gardens at the time.
Just before we left to continue our journey to yet another remote chateau, the one at Ferney, where Voltaire spent his life after the death of Emilie, I had a chance to sit down with the present owner of the chateau at Étoges, and in halting French (mine not hers), we discussed the history of the place.
I learned a few interesting tidbits. Apparently this was the home of one of Louis XV’s wife’s best friends, and despite the modest size and remote location, it was one of the queen’s favorite getaways. Later, when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette rushed east to get across the border to safety at the beginning of the French Revolution, Étoges was one of the places they stayed. But neither of these facts was helpful to me. Instead I cared about a little detail tucked away in the middle of a paragraph in the middle of the book.
Historical novelists are funny birds. At the same time we feel free to embellish and invent to fill out a story, we absolutely salivate at digging out new facts. I completely invented Laurent d’Etoges, based on nothing more than finding the most convenient home for him, but when the owner shared with me a booklet someone had written about the chateau, there was the name of the man who had been Comte d’Étoges at the time. Not Laurent but Ambroise. Ambroise de Clément-Feuillet to be exact.
At home and back to the keyboard, that’s who he became, even though I really do like the name Laurent better. It’s very happy making to know I’m right. And it’s happy making indeed to look back and think about that lovely little corner of Champagne and the beautiful little chateau where I can still imagine my characters Lili and Delphine relaxing in the cool air of a summer morning, just as I was not too long ago.
About the Author
LAUREL CORONA is the author of PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER (Berkley Books 2010),THE FOUR SEASONS, a novel of Vivaldi’s Venice (Hyperion/VOICE 2008), and FINDING EMILIE (S&S/Gallery 2011). She also wrote UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH: A HOLOCAUST STORY OF LOVE AND PARTISAN RESISTANCE (St. Martin’s 2008). Please visit her website and blog at www.laurelcorona.com, and her special website for PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER, “Xanthe’s World,” at www.pensdaughter.blogspot.com.