‘The Chatelaine of La Trinité’

The Chatelaine of La Trinité (1892) was Henry Blake Fuller‘s second novel and a spiritual sequel to his first novel, The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani, though no characters or plot elements reoccur. According to his notes, Fuller “meant to do for the Alps — French, German, Swiss, and Italian — what its predecessor had done for Italy itself.” It follows two women, the titular Swiss chatelaine and her American friend Aurelia West, on a tour of cities throughout the Alps. It is perhaps Fuller’s most difficult book, with ornate prose, oblique references, and unambiguous misogyny. Nonetheless, it was well-reviewed and is still considered among Fuller’s best work.

A 34-year-old Fuller wrote The Chatelaine during the summer of 1891 (in “7-8 weeks” according to his notes) while staying with family friends at 3343 S. Park Avenue in Chicago (since renamed Martin Luther King Drive; the house would have been midway between 33rd and 34th Street). “The ninth of the ten chapters was written on the St. Paul train between Chicago and Milwaukee,” he wrote, “during one of my frequent summer trips between Chicago and Oconomowoc.”

The Chatelaine was first serialized in The Century Magazine during the summer of 1892, and then, like the latter editions of The Chevalier, published by the Century Company and printed by De Vinne Press. Also like The Chevalier, the cover was designed by Alice Cordelia Morse. “This cover is bound in gray-green plain-weave cloth, with a cartouche containing floral motifs, with orange, silver, and blind stamping,” says the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which holds a collection of her books. “In an 1894 interview, Morse mentioned that she derived the edelweiss ornament from a Tyrolean belt, imagery suited to the alpine travel described in the book’s text. An example of this cover was shown at the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago, in 1893.”

The illustrations were drawn by George Wharton Edwards, including his signature or initials in most instances. Additional illustrations and vignettes were included in the original magazine serialization, but cut from the book.

Fuller’s sexist hostility toward women — an undertone in his other works, including The Chevalier and The Cliff-Dwellers — is on full display in The Chatelaine. The primary theme of the novel is how American business and industrialization are ruining Europe, and as part of this transformation, how the American “aristocracy of sex… in which husbands and fathers toiled at the oars, while wives and daughters sat above in perfumed idleness” (110), is ruining Western Civilization.

Aurelia West is essentially the novel’s villain by transforming the Chatelaine from an independent, “masculine” (in Fuller’s eyes) woman to a more traditionally feminine one. Fuller’s misogyny, and his envy of women who he believes lead a life of leisure, is evident in his other novels and private writings.

While The Chevalier implies several bisexual relationships between characters, there is only one potentially queer reference in The Chatelaine, when the Count Fin-de-Siecle and the Marquis of Tempo-Rubato appear to have just had sex when their traveling companions meet them at Juliet’s tomb in Verona (138-139).

Characters

As in The Chevalier, the characters in The Chatelaine have allegorical names and often satirical or honorary titles.

The Chatelaine of La Trinité: The honorary title of Lady Berthe Gloiredesalpes, a young Swiss woman born into a minor aristocratic family who owns an estate in the (fictional) Valley of La Trinité in the Swiss Alps, some 60 miles south of Neuchâtel.

Aurelia West: Latin for “The Golden One”. A young American woman from Rochester, New York. Her chief role in the story is to “Americanize” the Chatelaine.

The Governor: The Chatelaine’s godfather, an older German professor who was exiled to Switzerland for mysterious reasons. He owns a 10-acre estate between Morat and Avenches, which he calls Aventicum Novum, and where he collects Romain artifacts and has “planted” a large number of Roman ruins in the ground to recreate the foundations of an ancient city. “The Governor” is his mostly-satirical nickname.

Count Fin-de-Siecle: French for “End of the Century.” A young French writer who has come to the Alps to collect information for his fiction, not unlike Fuller himself. He is a well-dressed, modern, urbane Parisian who is constantly taking notes.

The Marquis of Tempo-Rubato: Italian for “Stolen Time.” A young Italian man, son of the Duke of Largo. While his father the Duke is known as a stiff, conservative aristocrat, Tempo-Rubato is progressive and democratic. In chapter 8, Fuller implies that the Marquis and the Count have a (hidden) queer relationship.

Baron Zeitgeist: German for “Spirit of the Age.” His actual name is Baron von Habichtsgeb, but the Governor and the narrator call him Zeitgeist because it’s easier to pronounce. A young German nobleman.

Eugénie Pasdenom: French for “Well-Born No-Name;” also goes by the stage name “Duchesse des Guenilles,” which is French for “Duchess of Rags.” A young French actress and operetta from Paris who travels to Lucerne to perform an opera.

Professor Saitoutetplus: French for “Knows All and More.” The Governor’s academic rival, an older French professor who owns an estate near Cortaillod where an ancient lake-dwelling was found.

Summary

Chapter 1: Neuchatel: Lake-Dwellers, Ancient and Modern. Fresh off a train from Paris, Aurelia meets Berthe in Neuchatel, where they will begin a tour of the Alps. Meanwhile, prehistoric pile-dwellings are discovered at the Governor’s estate across the lake. After some character introductions, Bertha, Aurelia, Zeitgeist, and Saitoutetplus leave with the Governor on his boat, the Hirondelle, to cross the lake, but when they arrive, it turns out the pile-dwellings aren’t ancient, but very recent construction that was abandoned a few years before.

Chapter 2: The Jura: Bound to the Chariot-Wheels. During an outdoor concert at the Governor’s estate, Aurelia remembers how she came to the Alps. After boarding a train at Gare de l’Est, she makes most of the trip in a third-class car, where Fuller displays open revulsion for the working class. But during a stop in Delle, a man (later revealed to be Tempo-Rubato) pulls her into a first-class car just as the train leaves the station, saving her from being left behind. In this car she meets the “Duchesse des Guenilles” and her theatre troupe, who are traveling to Switzerland to perform.

Chapter 3: Lucerne: The Trail of the Serpent. The Governor’s retinue begins their Alpine tour by traveling first to Lucerne, where they meet Fin-de-Siecle, Tempo-Rubato, and the Duchesse des Guenilles. They attend the opera, where Aurelia realizes that the Duchesse des Geunilles is a stage name for Eugenie Pasdenom. Aurelia, Bertha, and the Governor leave before the end of the opera out of boredom. The next day, Pasdenom comes upon the Governor at the Lion of Lucerne and asks why they didn’t stay for the whole performance. He doesn’t give her an answer, and when she invites them to come again that evening, he says they don’t have time! He prefers “the old school of acting” and finds her performance bewildering.

Chapter 4: Constance: Some of the Victims. In the old German city, the Governor gets annoyed with Fin-de-Siecle and suggests he spends two weeks writing at the estate of a nearby friend, to which Fin-de-Siecle agrees. But his entire party is soon invited anyway. At the estate, a Swedish mountaineer who has PTSD from being trapped in the Alps during a snowstorm pretends to take them on a backpacking trip, using only a 3-D map of the mountains, but even the faux excursion leaves him in tears.

Chapter 5: Salzburg: Mephisto Among the Manuscripts. The Governor is obsessed with buying an original Mozart manuscript, and finally tracks one down, but afterwards is hounded by countless people trying to sell him more. The next chapter reveals Fin-de-Siecle was behind the latter manuscript hawkers, as a prank on the Governor.

Chapter 6: The Dolomites: Science in Panic. As the group travels across the rugged terrain and small towns of the Dolomite Mountains, Aurelia constantly complains about their lodging, dining, and traveling conditions. Fuller’s misogyny takes center stage when Zeitgeist complains that American women represent an “aristocracy of sex,” who lounge around in “a great hotel, without duties,” while their husbands and fathers “toiled at the oars.” The Governor’s rival, Professor Saitoutetplus, sends the group a message that he will join them shortly in the town of Caprile. To avoid the Professor, the Governor insists they leave quickly before he arrives. But when they reach Botzen, Saitoutetplus is waiting for them anyway.

Chapter 7: Meran: Fancy Lights Its Fires. The group accepts an invitation from Zeitgeist’s mother to spend a week at their ancestral estate in Meran. Aurelia decides to make the Chatelaine her “work of art” by transforming her into a more traditionally feminine woman, one that better aligns with the aforementioned American “aristocracy of sex.” Aurelia dresses, styles, and grooms the Chatelaine after herself, and presents her at a party, where Zeitgest shows a sudden interest in her for the first time.

Chapter 8: Verona: Nel Regno D’Amore. On the way to Verona, the group is reunited with the Marquis of Tempo-Rubato, who is now performing as an acrobat. In Verona, Aurelia brings them to see the purported home of Shakespeare’s Juliet, and later to her tomb, where they pay their respects. Fuller implies that Fin-de-Siecle and Tempo-Rubato have just had sex when the rest of the group arrives at the tomb (138-139).

Chapter 9: Bellagio: The Goddess Manifest. The groups pays a visit to the Marquis of Tempo-Rubato’s estate on the shores of Lake Como. Aurelia requests that Tempo-Rubato retrieves a flower from the middle of a garden pool in a show of chivalry to the Chatelaine (his parents’ favorite flower). Mortified, Tempo-Rubato pawns the duty off on Fin-de-Siecle, who reluctantly agrees. Aurelia “had always been taught to expect a great deal of the men, to express her expectations unreservedly, and to insist most rigorously upon their fulfillment” (157), so this request is part of her mission to convert the Chatelaine to her version of womanhood. Later in town, Aurelia and the Chatelaine run into Pasdenom. When the Chatelaine humiliates Pasdenom, Aurelia believes that the Chatelaine’s metamorphosis is complete.

Chapter 10: La Trinite: Mirage. The Chatelaine takes Aurelia to her rustic ancestral castle a a small town in the Alps. Aurelia helps her transform the estate into a more modern, bombastic place that will impress visitors. When the Governor, Zeitgeist, Fin-de-Siecle, Tempo-Rubto, and Pasdenom visit the updated estate for a dinner, they are indeed impressed by all the finery, but lament that the Chatelaine has turned into another Aurelia. In a last effort to make the men enamored with the Chatelaine, Aurelia requests they bring her a sprig of edelweiss from the top of the mountain for which the valley is named. They leave the next morning, ostensibly to complete their task, but they never return. Instead, Fin-de-Siecle sends her flower-shaped jewelry from Paris, Zeitgeist sends her a bouquet of flowers from South Tyrol, and Tempo-Rubato sends her a painting of edelweiss in his own hand.

Years later, a stranger visits the valley, which has been industrialized and lacks any of its original charm. He asks after the Chatelaine, but: “She had left the valley. The Chatelaine — her way prepared, her path made straight — was now in Paris.”

Contemporary Reviews

“Mr. Fuller’s new story is neither an allegory, art criticism, nor a morality. His series of pictures shows simply how the Lady Berthe Gloiredesalpes, who is as cool as is the uppermost needle of the Finsteraarhorn, (a peak never flustered by the avalanches which roar and crash below,) was amenable to the laws which govern all women… The book makes us question whether Mr. Fuller may not have something of the Berlioz traits, facility not alone in musical composition but musical criticism. The expedition to Salzburg, with the chapter on Mozart and his music, especially the criticism on the much-beloved master, we think scarcely another man in the United States could have produced. Perfect acquaintance with Mozart, even to his method of score writing, is shown. To thorough musical acquaintance Mr. Fuller adds the finest literary acquirements… You must not read The Chatelaine as you would take down at a gulp a glass of wine. It is rather as a liqueur, to be sipped drop by drop. Then develops the subtle aroma. It was “the unfettered fancy” that made Mr. Fuller’s The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani a remarkable book, and something of the same caprice pervades The Chatelaine, only you might lose your heart and soul with Berthe, though, did you possess this edelweiss, a transplanting of her from her dazzling snowfield might make her pine away and perish. The many will deem The Chatelaine perplexing and inscrutable, but to the few it will be distinct, significant, endued with an indescribable fascination.” —The New York Times, Sunday, January 1, 1893 (no byline)

Editions

  1. Serialization (1892), The Century Magazine, New York. Full view courtesy of Harvard University (search the omnibus for “Fuller”).
  2. First edition (1892), The Century Company, New York. Full view courtesy of Harvard University.

Links

Sources:

  • The Henry Blake Fuller Papers, Newberry Library
  • Henry Blake Fuller: A Critical Biography by Constance M. Griffin
  • Henry Blake Fuller by John Pilkington Jr.
  • A Varied Harvest: The Life and Works of Henry Blake Fuller by Kenneth Scambray
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