Charles Nodier

We had hardly met again when we set off afresh to traverse the county of Ayr, which we passed over very rapidly, though this province is far from being the least curious and picturesque in Scotland. […] Ayrshire, besides, is the part of Scotland where the people appeared to us the most faithful to the national dress, and the most tasteful in the manner of wearing it.

   Charles Nodier, Promenade from Dieppe to the mountains of Scotland (1822)

Charles Nodier (1780-1844) was a French author and one of the key figures of early French Romanticism. From 1824 until his death Nodier was chief librarian for the Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal (Library of the Arsenal) in Paris, one of the branches of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the French National Library. In the Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal Nodier established a salon or 'cenacle'. This became one the most reputable literary salons of the day and was frequented by Victor Hugo, Émile Deschamps, Alfred Vigny and Charles Sainte-Beuve.

Nodier's literary output was prodigious. The subject matter was varied and included fiction, travelogues, history, archaeology, entomology (the study of insects), botany, linguistics and essays on literature and art.

Nodier became fascinated by fairy tales and folklore and at one point even declared he would write nothing but fairy tales [1]. Two of Nodier's tales of fantasy - Trilby, ou le lutin d'Argail (Trilby, or the fairy of Argyll) (1822) and La Fée aux miettes (The Crumb Fairy) (1832) – are set in Scotland. Trilby and Smarra, ou Les Démons de la nuit (Smarra, or the Demons of the Night) (1821) exemplify Nodier's fascination with dreams and folklore. The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales says of these works:

These tales go beyond Cazotte's in blurring the demarcation between reality and illusion, and were among the first French works to address dreams and the unconscious (thus prefiguring Freud and Jung). They also influenced the symbolists and surrealists in free‐associative explorations of inner truths.

Mary Louise Ennis, Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales

Charles Nodier and Scotland

CALEDONIAM! CALEDONIAM! What recollections, what impressions in the name of the first poetical country, whose brilliant inspirations, the direction of my studies permitted me to learn!

   Charles Nodier, Promenade from Dieppe to the mountains of Scotland, Chapter XIX, 'Caledonia'

Charles Nodier first visited Britain in 1821, spending fifty days travelling through England and Scotland. Nodier's account of his travels was published in English as Promenade from Dieppe to the mountains of Scotland. Nodier describes this work as “nothing but a pocket-book of a man who passed rapidly through a country new to him, and who writes his sentiments rather than his observations.” In Scotland Nodier visited Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dumbarton, Loch Lomond, Loch Katrine and Loch Long. Towards the end of his Promenade Nodier travelled through Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire. Kilmarnock, Mauchline, Sanquhar and Drumlanrig castle are mentioned and there is an apparent reference to a site near Loudoun Hill.

As can be seen from this list of places, most of Nodier's time in Scotland was spent in the west of the country. At the beginning of his Promenade, in the Preface, Nodier states that “there is no country more deserving of the attention of a traveller than the mountains of the west and north of Scotland” and later describes the western coast of Scotland as “that too exclusive object of my curiosity”.

Glasgow and Greenock

On Glasgow, Nodier states:

The compilers of cosmographical notices generally mention Glasgow as the best built town in Europe. I should agree with them if I had not seen Edinburgh. Nevertheless, the streets traced on the left bank of the Clyde, on a magnificent plan, promise one day to rival Edinburgh itself; and the day is not far distant, if the progress of this fine town continues in the same proportion. […] The view from New bridge, which leads to the new town, has something enchanting. It would put me in mind of that from the Pont-des-Arts at Paris, were not its banks of so fresh a verdure, and if the river, over which it is majestically thrown, did not disappear under a multitude of vessels. When you look nearer, and consider the people covered with draperies of lively and varied colours like those of Madras – the gypsies bending over the stream, and looking at the water, while they are smoking rolls of tobacco, not of so dark a colour as their browned mahogany skin – the light bridge which runs to the oriental horizon like an arch of reeds – and above all, the numerous steeples raised on cubical stories, which rise smaller and smaller one above another, like some minarets – you think yourself transported to the east.

Nodier devotes a short chapter to Glasgow Cathedral, which is quoted here in full:

The cathedral of Glasgow, elevated above the steep street called High street, but on the other side of the hill which commands it, often escapes the eye of the traveller, who, besides, little expects to find so ancient and so striking an edifice in a town, the prosperity of which is so recent, and whose increase dates from so short a time. It is, in fact, the only building which attests that the city of Glasgow already enjoyed the recollections of ancient prosperity at the period when it began to be enlarged by its commerce and and manufactures. The construction of this church is said to have begun in the first half of the 12th century; and the style of its architecture, which is that of the age when the introduction of the painted arch [pointed arch?] took place, and when its angles, afterwards so lofty, then only exhibited a feeble break in the centre, seems in reality to indicate an epoch not nearer to us. The vast extent of the building, the bold elevation of the pyramidal steeple, the dark and solemn tone of the walls, the noble and simple character of the smooth masses and unadorned lines, are indebted for a still more majestic impression to the choice of the solitary situation of which I have endeavoured to give an idea. The aspect of this edifice, almost foreign to the city, from which it is not seen, puts one in mind of those ancient temples, built at a time when the profane inclosure of cities was not deemed worthy of containing the house of the Lord, and when the sacred courts around the church had no other dwellings but the silent mansion of the dead.

Tombs more or less ancient, more or less ornamented, varying from the most simple tombstone up to the sarcophagus and the obelisk, of which some are surrounded with an iron railing, and the greatest number inclosed with borders of flowers, and crowned with cool shades, cover in every part the church-yard, which will hold no more. When you behold this spectacle during the night, all these snow-white marble monuments, glittering on the dark green of the graves and the black ground of the walks, resemble spectres called together by the midnight bell, and waiting for the dawn of day to sink back into their coffins. Behind the cathedral stretches out a long hill, on which it seems to bear, and which augments the severity of the picture by the dismal colour of its verdure, and the pyramidal shape of its evergreens, which point to the skies like the obelisks in memory of the departed, and prolong, through a profound perspective, the image and the thought of the tombs. Two handsome buildings, placed in the environs, do not diminish this impression. They are lonely; and the whole space which surrounds them is uninhabited; and they might be taken for particular monuments erected only out of a pompous vanity. It is necessary to walk some way towards Glasgow, to reach the summit of the height, and see the smoke of the long chimneys of the manufacturer, in order to return to the domain of life. There everyone is occupied with the means of life, with working, with enjoying, and yet the time will come when the traveller, who shall seek on the banks of the Clyde for the poetical recollections which drew me there, shall find neither Glasgow, nor its manufacturers, nor its tombs; for every vestige of man on the earth dies, even the vestiges of his death.

Charles Nodier, Promenade from Dieppe to the mountains of Scotland, Chapter XVII, 'Glasgow Cathedral'

Glasgow and its environs appear to have had a profound impression on Nodier.  His novel La Fée aux miettes (The Crumb Fairy) (1832) is partly set in Glasgow and Greenock.  This strange tale, which is considered Nodier's masterpiece, involves Michel, a carpenter from Granville in Normandy, and his relationship with the eponymous 'Crumb Fairy', who is also known as Belkis, a variant spelling of Bilqis or Balqis, the Arabic name for the Queen of Sheba.  Unfortunately there is no English translation of this work.

The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales says of La Fée aux miettes:

It is about an insane asylum inmate and an aging hag: he saves with a magical mandrake and metamorphoses her back into a beautiful fairy. Its interpretations range from alchemical to psychoanalytical, centre on integrating the fragmented self, address the theme of madness and insight, and juxtapose dreams and reality, time and space—ideas that would fascinate Nerval.

   Mary Louise Ennis, Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales

Nodier locates the Scottish home of the Crumb Fairy/Belkis in Greenock. [2]  In Promenade from Dieppe to the mountains of Scotland Nodier describes Greenock as “one of the ornaments of Renfrewshire”.  While in Greenock the Crumb Fairy sets Michel the task of finding mandrake plants, which are discovered at two locations in Glasgow - a herbalist shop and lunatic asylum. [3]  Nodier had visited the lunatic asylum in Glasgow after reading a letter in La Revue de Paris concerning treatments in Scottish institutions.  The Glasgow Lunatic Asylum, located in Parliamentary Road, opened in 1814.  A map showing its location in the Cowcaddens area can be viewed here.

In French Fairy Tales: A Jungian Approach Bettina L. Knapp draws parallels between the character of Michel and the temperament of his creator, Charles Nodier.  Knapp also explores the sun and moon symbolism present in La Fée aux miettes with Michel representing the moon and the Crumb Fairy/Belkis symbolising the sun.  The places associated with each character also have appropriate sun/moon associations - the Glasgow lunatic asylum in which Michel is interred, with "lunatic" deriving from the Latin lunaticus meaning "of the moon" and Greenock, a name which may derive from the Gaelic grian-aig, meaning "sunny bay" or grian-chnoc, the "the knoll of the sun", the latter suggesting an ancient site of sun worship. [4]  This meaning of the placename Greenock may have been known to Nodier, who displays a keen interest in the meaning of Gaelic placenames in Promenade from Dieppe to the mountains of Scotland.

Illustration from La Fée aux miettes in Contes de Charles Nodier (1846)

Georg Brandes gives an overview of The Crumb Fairy in Main Currents In Nineteenth Century Literature (1906):

La Fée aux miettes seems to me the best of Nodier's fantastic tales. There is undoubtedly too much of it; it is not without an effort that one follows all the wild twists and turnings of a fantasy which occupies 120 quarto pages, even though much of it is both interesting and charming. A poor, harmless lunatic in the asylum of Glasgow tells the story of his life. This is the setting of the tale, but we forget it altogether in the marvellousness of the events related. All the chords of human life are touched, jarringly and wildly. It is as if life itself passed before one's eyes seen wrong side out, seen from the perfectly permissible standpoint of the dreamer or fever-patient.

In the little town of Granville in Normandy lives a worthy, simple-minded young carpenter, Michel by name. In the same town lives an old female dwarf, shrivelled and ugly, who, because she gathers up the scraps of the school-children's breakfasts is called “la Fée aux miettes” ['the Crumb Fairy']. Four or five centuries ago she might have been seen in Granville, living in the same way, and she has made her appearance at intervals since. This being is assisted by the young carpenter with small sums of money, and she in return assists him with all manner of wise advice.

On the subject of the origins of Nodier's tale, Brandes states:

The model for the Fée aux Miettes was an old woman who served in his father's house when he was a child, and who treated his father, a man of sixty, as if he were a giddy youth. This old Denise maintained that before entering the Nodiers' household she had been in the service of a Monsieur d'Amboise, governor of Château-Thierry. When she held forth on the subject, she mixed up with her own experiences reminiscences of the most extraordinary events and most antiquated customs; and the family, out of curiosity, caused inquiry to be made about this remarkable governor. The archives of the town showed that only one of the name existed, and that he had died in 1557. One can see how the story of the fairy evolved itself out of this curious incident. The very slightest element of fact – a landscape, a legend, a dream, a lie, a mere mote – was enough for Nodier.

Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire

Nodier's journey through Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire is covered in the last Scottish chapter of his Promenade from Dieppe to the mountains of Scotland. The exact route Nodier and his party took from Lumloch, near Glasgow, to Kilmarnock is not known - Nodier only states that they “had decided, contrary to the signs of the heavens, and the advice of our last landlords, to go over other mountains.”

Nodier remarks on the appearance of the people of Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire, including their adherence to the national dress, comparing them favourably to the subjects of the great French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665):

We had even got, without any inconvenience, to the little town of Kilmarnock, where the market-day had drawn together an incredible number of pretty women from all the neighbourhood, remarkable for the contrast, though every day less new to us, of the finery of their elegant costume and their naked feet, which boldly brave the rough sand of the roads. Ayrshire, besides, is the part of Scotland where the people appeared to us the most faithful to the national dress, and the most tasteful in the manner of wearing it. The men, women and children, rival each other in the drapery of their broad plaids, without any well fixed rule, it would seem, but in a way to charm the eye of an artist, and excite the emulation even of a Parisian belle. This observation struck me particularly at Sanquhar. I am convinced the most able of our landscape painters could never dress his peasants with more grace, though he should give himself entirely to his imagination. I have seen groups, which, taken as they were, would not disgrace a picture of Poussin.

Nodier's fertile imagination is displayed in his account of a gathering rainstorm:

All the shades of the forefathers drew their long-trained garments as they ran from mountain to mountain, and crowded together confusedly at a point of the sky; an immense close band, above which one could scarcely distinguish the supercilious front of some aged seers with their bald beards, and the eagle-winged helmets of a few warriors. This magnificent areopagus of bards and heroes was not long in dissolving upon us in a cold penetrating rain, mixed with hail, and accompanied by all the echos.

Nodier then provides a brief account of his impressions while travelling through the parish of Mauchline and beyond:

...we traversed the parish of Mauchlin with enthusiastic exclamations on the picturesque and wild spots displayed every moment by the varieties in the course of a romantic river. Above its steep and menacing sides, whose summits are decorated with the most delicious landscapes, the eye discovers here and there flourishing habitations and majestic ruins.

This is followed by a reference to “the towers of Queensberry-house, the Holy-Rood of solitudes” which must be Drumlanrig castle, in the Queensberry estate, Dumfriesshire.

Nodier concludes the chapter with an overview of William Wallace and the “other Scottish chiefs” and the reverence afforded them. This appears to have been inspired by “the ruins of a castle of Tiberius, less well known to the inhabitants of this part as a precious remnant of an ancient Roman habitation, than as having served as an asylum for Wallace.” This is probably a reference to 'Wallace's Knowe' an earthwork which was once believed to be the ruins of a Roman fort used by William Wallace during the 'Battle of Loudoun Hill' in 1296.

On Wallace, Nodier states:

He is to this nation one of those heroical personages, whose proportions are all presented to the mind on a gigantic scale, like that of the demigods of Homer. 

Nodier's Trilby, ou le lutin d'Argail (Trilby, or the fairy of Argyll) (1822), is a supernatural tale set in the Trossachs and Argyll.  Nodier's impressions of the inhabitants of Ayrshire and their manner of dress probably lay behind his description of Jeannie, one of the principal characters of Trilby, wearing a “robe rouge des manufactures d'Ayr”. [5]

Standing erect in her narrow boat as it sped forward, Jeanie freed to the winds her long black tresses. The sunshine had delicately shadowed without marring the fair freshness of her white neck that seemed more white in contrast with the red wool of her Ayrshire frock.

  Charles Nodier, Trilby, The Fairy of Argyle, translated by Minna Caroline Smith (1895)

Illustration from Nodier's Trilby

Nodier briefly alludes to Ayrshire, or the town of Ayr, in the final chapter of La Fée aux miettes when mention is made of three ships, named the Caledonian, the Fingal, and the Ayr.  Ayr and Caledonia are both chapter headings in Promenade from Dieppe to the mountains of Scotland. In the same work there are a number of references to Fingal, and the Ossian cycle of poems, of which Fingal is the hero.

Va au port de Clyde, mon garcon; prends une bonne place pour Greenock sur le Caledonian , ou sur l'Ayr, ou sur le Fingal

  Charles Nodier, La Fée aux miettes, 'Conclusion'

Map showing the locations of Glasgow, Greenock, Irvine, Kilmarnock and Mauchline.  Source: Wikipedia

1. Bettina L. Knapp, French Fairy Tales: A Jungian Approach  p187

2. Ibid. p190, 193  A brief overview of the Scottish setting of The Crumb Fairy can be read at  page 13 (page 6 of the PDF document) 

3. Bettina L. Knapp, French Fairy Tales: A Jungian Approach  p194

4. Entry for Greenock in Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome (1882-1885).

5. Trilby, by Charles Nodier

Sources and further reading

Brandes, Georg.  Main Currents In Nineteenth Century Literature  1906

Knapp, Bettina L.  French Fairy Tales: A Jungian Approach  State University of New York Press, Albany 2003

Nodier, Charles.  La Fée aux miettes (in French)

Nodier, Charles.   Promenade from Dieppe to the mountains of Scotland  1822

Nodier, Charles. “Smarra” & “Trilby”   Dedalus European Classics 1993

Nodier, Charles.  Trilby, The Fairy of Argyle, translated by Minna Caroline Smith  1895  Kessinger Publishing

Text, excluding quotes and extracts, copyright © John Loney

Portait of Charles Nodier from Wikipedia

Photographs of Glasgow Cathedral and Necropolis © John Loney


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