On this day of mourning after the horrific attacks in Paris yesterday, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about Henry Beston's deeply held ties to France. His mother, Marie Louise Maurice, was a native of Paris, where she first met Beston's father while he was a student at the medical school there. Henry was extremely close to his mother, and from childhood was as fluent in French as he was in English, which he said was a vital factor in the development of his concise but elegant writing style: “Mine was a French childhood, my mother a Parisian…Literature, I learned, was an art. I admired the swiftness and lucidity, the clarité of French style, and strove constantly for a smooth rhythm. Sentences should flow like ocean breakers.”
After Beston received his master’s degree in English history and literature from Harvard in May 1911, he secured a position as Lecteur d’Anglais at the University of Lyon for the 1912-1913 academic year. Located on the Rhône River in central France, Lyon was an ancient Roman settlement and France’s second largest city, after Paris. Beston was one of the youngest instructors to ever be appointed to the position at Lyon, although his students probably thought he was several years older; by his mid-twenties, Beston had an imposing stature. An American passport issued to Beston in 1918 stated that he was six feet, one and a half inches in height, but several people who knew him claimed that he was in fact taller than this—two or three inches taller, in fact; it may be that his broad-shoulders and athletic build made him seem taller or perhaps the passport information is simply incorrect. At the university Beston taught a special course in English literature— “L’Etude d’Anglais” and took a class on the fine arts with Professor Henri Lechat, a noted expert in Greek sculpture and antiquities.
During his time in France, Beston rented a room at a chateau owned by a titled family in Ste. Catherine, a farming community approximately forty kilometers southwest of Lyon. The teaching position left Beston with plenty of free time to explore the rural landscape outside Lyons, and he later stated that this period was instrumental in developing his love of nature: "I heard across the lovely, wet, sunlit autumn countryside the rumble of a farm cart’s wheel and the fine challenge of a cock, and hearing them I thought of how all these earthy things carry me back to France, back to Ste. Catherines sous Riviere, the village in the Monts Lyonnais where I lived quite a fair share of my French year. The mountains were about twenty miles in from the Rhone, one side running parallel to the river, another facing south on the wide plain of an ancient sided valley tributary to the Rhone. I used to take a little train across the foothill country lying west of Lyons, get off at the end of the line at Mormant, a village-town at the foot of the massif (for it was a “massif” rather than a range) and then continue to Ste Catherine on foot. The climbing road, some ten kilometers all together, went first up the Rhone-wards slope, then turned a steep grassy descent—almost a sort of grassy precipice—and then emerged on the southern flank, high, high above the wide valley and its scatter of red-roofed village huddles with the usual outlying few farms. Thirty or forty kilometers across was the superb solitary mountain Le Mont Pilat of the Cevennes a glorious mountain which in winter across the “brune” of the morning hillside, rose distant and violet and chasmed with pure radiation of new snow. Ste. Catherine, if I forget the farm boarding houses Mother and I were sent to in the summer (places not unlike the Bennetts but a little bit better, not “run down”) was the first place in which I encountered and knew and loved the earth. I hadn’t had any true chance before. We had a cottage on Quincy bay…but Nature, as well as the very decent “comfortably-offs”—in the Quincy valuations—was in a suburban mood there; she went yachting in a cat boat on Saturday afternoons and arranged her tides as if they had to take trains. There was no poetry…[f]ugitive glimpses, perhaps, but no deep, underlying mood. Then came France, and the earth and the revelation of the earth." This revelation stayed with Beston long after his return to the United States in late 1913 or early 1914, and would shape his future career as a writer.
When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, Beston-- like many young Americans-- felt the call to go to France to aid the United States' oldest ally. More on Beston's work as an ambulance driver on the Western front in the next blog entry, but today is a day to empathize with the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 14, 2015. Vive la France!