Why Gardens?

La Maison de Chateaubriand. Photo taken by author.

The question of French literature’s portrayal of the environment has been widely debated in the ecocriticism field, with scholars such as Douglas Boudreau and Marnie Sullivan arguing that ecocriticism is predominately focused on literature written in English.[1] Until recently, scholars of French studies have largely ignored the intellectual and cultural approach to nature; in order to further our understanding of French environmental writing, we need to understand how the literary side of French Romanticism has influenced scientific advances that took place in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century France. From 1807 to 1818, François René de Chateaubriand was the proprietor of Vallée aux Loups, an arboretum located on the outskirts of Paris in Châtenay-Malabry. Few works have been published on general French gardens in English, one of them being Denise Le Dantec and Jean-Pierre Le Dantec’s Reading the French Garden: Story and History.[2] By looking at lesser known French gardens such as Vallée aux Loups, we will better understand the connection between literature and natural science in early nineteenth century France.

Some of the questions I pose throughout this project are the following: Which plants from Voyage en Amérique did he plant in his gardens? What is the significance of each flora? What can the organization of the garden tell us? How does he tie the gardens to his ethnography of Amerindians? Specifically, in my project, I will closely analyze the flora at Vallée aux Loups and Chateaubriand’s ethnography of North America, Voyage en Amérique (1827). I argue that Chateaubriand’s ever-changing perspective on the environment can be seen clearly during the time lapse between the creation of his gardens, which were based on his earlier works Atala (1801) and René (1802), and his more serious attempts of scientific writing in Voyage en Amérique. By cross-referencing this ethnographical work with his gardens, we will further understand how Chateaubriand brought his American travels to the French public in the forms of written prose and landscaping.[3]

[1] Edited by Douglas L. Boudreau and Marnie M. Sullivan, Ecocritical Approaches to Literature in French. (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015) 2. There are relatively few ecocritical works in French-language literature and those that exist are mostly recent production. This has as much to do with the history of ecocriticism itself as it does with the culture of literary scholarship in French, which is that the environment does not hold as much importance as does anthropocentric topics such as social, political, or economic issues.

[2] Reading the French Garden was originally published in French in 1987 and translated in 1990.

[3] While this article mostly pertains to Voyage en Amérique and Vallée aux Loups, there will be some reference to his early novellas, Atala (1801) and René (1802). While they are fictional accounts, they are important to refer to when analyzing Chateaubriand’s ever-changing perspective on North America.