It is not only artists that have taken inspiration from the rich landscapes and unique culture of Brittany; generations of writers and poets have also been keenly stimulated by this enchanting region of France.
Any mention of books and Brittany must surely start with Jules Verne (1828-1905); one of the world’s most published authors and a native of the Breton port of Nantes. The publication of his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, in 1863 heralded the start of a wonderfully productive decade, marking the appearance of, amongst others; Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869) and Mysterious Island (1869). English translations of Verne’s work first became available in 1867 and the publication of Around the World in Eighty Days in book form in 1873 propelled the author from national icon to world-renowned celebrity.
Verne’s work often weaves a great adventure with an optimistic imagining of the opportunities for human progress through scientific advancement. Although none of his novels are set in Brittany, many contain references to the city of his youth and its seafarers; Nantes obviously features prominently in his autobiographical work The Story of my Boyhood (1891). Today, he is best known for the over 60 novels that constitute the Extraordinary Voyages series but he was also a prolific writer of short stories, historical works, poetry and drama. Verne is the second most-translated author in the world, ranking between Agatha Christie and Shakespeare; he is also the fourth most screened author, after Shakespeare, Dickens and Doyle, his works having been adapted for cinema and television more than 300 times since 1902’s A Trip to the Moon.
Born into a world of wealth and privilege in New York, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) had required a growing reputation as an author of note by the time she settled permanently in France in 1907, thanks mainly to the critical reception of The Touchstone (1900) and The House of Mirth (1905). Other major works soon followed, including Ethan Frome (1911), The Reef (1912) and that classic satire of social-climbing by marriage, The Custom of the Country (1913). In 1921, she became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for The Age of Innocence (1920).
Although her first novel was not published until she was forty years of age, Wharton published some 40 volumes during her lifetime, ranging from books on interior design and architecture to travelogues and collections of short stories and poetry. In an autobiographical sketch written towards the end of her life, A Little Girl’s New York (1938), she recalls when, as a 17 year old, she looked out of her city window and imagined the forest of Brocéliande spread out before her. Almost forty years later, she imagined a similarly mysterious Brittany; one that provides the atmospheric back-drop for two of the very few ghost stories she wrote: Kerfol (1916) and Miss Mary Pask (1926).
Creating a captivating but believable atmosphere was something that French naval officer and writer Louis Marie-Julien Viaud (1850-1923), who published under the pseudonym Pierre Loti, excelled at. He entered the Naval College in Brest in 1867 and was a frequent visitor to the north coast port of Paimpol between 1877 and 1884. Sometimes described as the finest descriptive writer of his day, he depicted the harsh and lonely life of the Breton fishermen who spent long seasons fishing for cod in the wild north Atlantic in his wonderfully evocative novel An Iceland Fisherman (1886).
François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) is one of Brittany’s most influential authors; soldier, statesman, diplomat and father of the French romanticism movement. His ambivalent attitude to the French Revolution saw him journey to North America in 1791 where he travelled quite extensively for a year; a journey that would inspire several future works such as Atala (1801) and René (1802) and a full account of his experiences in Travels in America (1826).
During his seven year exile in England he wrote his first significant work, Essay on Revolutions (1797), a powerful survey of world history through the lens of ancient and modern revolutions. He also wrote his epic novel The Natchez during this time but it would not be published until 1825 although the novellas Atala and René were early discarded excerpts from this book. Both these works were very well received, combining notions of idyllic innocence with the troubled melancholic angst of romanticism: in one, a young girl kills herself to protect her vow of chastity, made before she found love; in the other, a girl enters a convent in an attempt to escape her passion for her brother.
Other works followed and his treatise extolling Christianity, The Genius of Christianity (1802), was widely admired across the political spectrum, some scholars point to this work as the source of the renewed interest in Gothic architecture taken in the 19th century. In 1809 he began writing his memoirs, a project that he would return to every so often until his death. Published posthumously in 1849-50, his Memoirs From Beyond The Grave is as much a history of the turbulent times in which he lived as it is an exposition of his philosophical musings or conventional autobiography.
It seems that he regretted the publication of René, saying “if it were possible for me to destroy it, I would. It spawned a whole family of René poets and prose-mongers; all we hear nowadays are pitiful disjointed phrases; the only subject is gales and storms and unknown ills moaned out to the clouds and to the night”. Chateaubriand’s tomb is on the small island of Grand Bé, where, according to legend, an underground passage begins which goes as far as England. His legacy to French literature was profound; as a teenager, Victor Hugo wrote “I want to be Chateaubriand or nothing.”
Chateaubriand should not be confused with the similar sounding Alphonse de Châteaubriant (1877-1951), another noted Breton author. His two most highly regarded novels both won prestigious national awards either side of the First World War; Monsieur des Lourdines (1911) and La Brière (1923). Both works focus on the battle of man against his, sometimes overwhelming, fate; nature versus industrialisation; the erosion of community amidst the corruption of the modern world. La Brière was the biggest selling French language book between the world wars but is not so well known these days due to Châteaubriant’s post-war ignominy; he was a vocal supporter of Nazi ideology and an active collaborator with the German occupying forces. He fled to Germany as the allies approached Paris in 1944 and thence to Austria after the German surrender. In October 1948, he was sentenced to death in absentia as part of the legal process purging France of wartime collaborators but he escaped justice, having taken refuge in a Tyrolean monastery where he died a few years later.
The Second World War features as backdrop to two quite different works evoking Brittany in wartime and both published while the war was still raging. The Anchored Heart (1941) by Ida Treat (1889-1978), an American writer and journalist who had lived in Brittany for some fifteen years, offers a keenly observed account of life on the Ile Bréhat off the north coast of Brittany prior to and during the initial German occupation in 1940.
The author once known as the queen of spy writers, Scottish-American Helen MacInnes (1907-1985), published 21 espionage thrillers during her career as a writer that began with a volume on sexual life in ancient Rome. Her second novel, Assignment in Brittany (1942), was a New York Times bestseller highly praised for its depiction of covert espionage and clandestine living in German-occupied Brittany in 1940. MacInnes’ books have sold over 25 million copies in the USA alone and have been translated into over 22 languages. Several of her books have been adapted for cinema including Above Suspicion (1941) and The Salzburg Connection (1968).
When one thinks of novels depicting Brittany during times of war, a much earlier conflict is usually brought to mind – the French Revolution of 1789-99 – due to one of the greatest of French writers, Victor Hugo (1802-1885). Profoundly influenced by the work of Chateaubriand, Hugo’s talent was prodigious; publishing several volumes of highly acclaimed poetry and two novels by the time he was 29. His novel, The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829) confirmed his reputation as a powerful writer of note and was, tellingly, cited as a major influence by both Dickens and Dostoyevsky. Hugo made two extended tours of Brittany in 1834 and 1836 and while a popular playwright in his day, he is perhaps best remembered internationally as the author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862) which he wrote during his long exile in Guernsey.
Acclaimed a national hero upon his return to France in 1870, Hugo re-entered the political arena; his literary output now mostly consisting of collections of poetry and political tracts. However, his last novel, Ninety Three (1874) is a drama centred around the Breton counter-revolutionary revolts known as the Chouannerie in 1793. This was a popular movement that was less inspired by the royalist cause than anger at the heavy-handed acts of the republican government including its suppression of the Parliament of Brittany and the rights guaranteed under the acts of union with France and repression of the Church. Hugo weaves his tale between Brittany and Paris and the narrative is broken into three parts, each offering a different view of events through the eyes of the main protagonists.
The Chouan rebellion of 1792 to 1800 also formed the back-drop to the first novel that Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) published under his own name; Les Chouans, written in 1827. Set in 1799, the book is the earliest historical setting for the vast collection of novels and short stories that would eventually constitute La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy). A well-paced historical romance, the book perhaps lacks the depth of characterisation that would later become a key feature of the author’s work. His reputation as the supreme observer and chronicler of contemporary French society has often seen him labelled as the greatest French novelist of all time.
One of France’s most widely read authors, Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), was a prolific playwright and writer of non-fiction, predominantly travel related books, but his best legacy is surely his extensive series of historical romance and adventure novels. Incredibly, three of his most famous works were published in the same year, 1844, namely: The Corsican Brothers, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The final volume of the trilogy featuring the musketeers, The Vicomte of Bragelonne (1847) concludes with the story of The Man in the Iron Mask.
It is on the foreshore near Le Palais on the island of Belle-Île-en-Mer, off the southern coast of Brittany, that Aramis, Porthos and d’Artagnan meet for the last time; a few miles east along the coast is the site of the climactic scene in the grotto of Locmaria. Dumas’ work was published in English several times during his lifetime, cementing his reputation and celebrity status throughout Europe. Although Dumas is credited as sole author of his novels, he had a ghost writer, Auguste Maquet, who produced drafts built around plots based upon historical events; Dumas polished or re-wrote these drafts adding his signature flair for character and drama. Maquet took Dumas and his publishers to court several times over unpaid fees and for recognition as co-author but eventually dropped his copyright claim for a lump sum settlement.
Not long after the publication of The Black Tulip (1850), Dumas went into exile, travelling extensively, and maintained his impressive literary output during those thirteen years, including writing one of the earliest werewolf fantasies, The Wolf Leader (1857). He returned to France in 1864 and spent much of 1869 in Brittany writing a book to the glory of good food which was published posthumously as A Dictionary of Cooking (1873). Dumas’ work has been published in over a hundred languages and adapted into a multitude of cinema and television offerings.
Numerous authors have continued the tradition of crafting historical romances set in Brittany, first established by Wace of Jersey and Marie de France in the 12th century.
Born in Brittany, Marguerite Cunliffe-Owen (1859-1927) was a Countess who became a successful newspaper columnist and author who often published under the pseudonym La Marquise de Fontenoy. Two of her novels are set in Brittany; Emerald and Ermine (1907) has all the ingredients that you would expect to find in an historical romance of its time; a brooding château, secret passages, fabulous jewels and the battle between heroine and villain. Her subsequent book, The Cradle of the Rose (1908) is a more atmospheric novel that tries hard to evoke the spirit of Brittany, telling as it does the tale of a diplomatic spouse who returns to her roots while her husband is on assignment in the Orient and quickly finds herself mysteriously thrust into the role of feared feudal princess.
Susan Carroll is an award-winning American writer of historical romance novels; her The Dark Queen Saga (2005-12) consists of six interesting novels based around a family of legendary healers and mystics in Brittany, known as the Sisters of Faire Isle and their battle to thwart the sinister ambitions of Catherine de Medici, the Dark Queen.
Brittany during the Middle Ages also forms the backdrop to the five novels that make up the His Fair Assassin (2012-20) series of books by the American author Robin LaFevers. Aimed primarily at young adults, the books merge a significant amount of historically accurate details amongst tales of high intrigue, romance, betrayal and a convent that secretly trains deadly assassins.
Amongst the many works written by American author Gillian Bradshaw is the historical novel The Wolf Hunt (2001); a book based on Marie de France’s Breton lai of the werewolf, Bisclavret. The book is strong on historical atmosphere and features well drawn characters mired in often complex situations and even if you know the lai of Bisclavret, the tale crafted by Bradshaw is a compelling version worth reading.
The Warlord Chronicles (1995-97) is a trilogy of books by English author Bernard Cornwell featuring the legendary King Arthur and set around the 6th century; a time when the old religion of the Celts was finally supplanted by Christianity and when the native Britons were fighting a steadily rear-guard action against the Saxon invaders to the east and repelling Irish incursions in the west. The British colonisation of Armorica and the roles of Arthur and his knights in forging Brittany feature throughout the books which offer a wonderful blend of historical fiction and Arthurian mythology. Cornwell, a prolific writer, himself once said that of all his books, these were his favourites.
Another British author, Robert Holdstock (1948-2009), took inspiration from the mythology surrounding King Arthur’s sage Merlin in his fantasy novel Merlin’s Wood (1994); a contemporary story of a young couple returning to their childhood home near the forest of Brocéliande whose deaf, dumb and blind child slowly gains all his faculties while his mother loses hers. The theft of power is a core theme in the book which revolves around the eternal struggle between Merlin and Vivien and its impact on those who live within the shadows of the magical forest.
The folktales of Brittany also find their way into one of the many works penned by the English writer, A S Byatt, in her award-winning novel, Possession (1990). This is a very entertaining book and difficult to sum-up in a sentence but essentially the tale revolves around a pair of academics determined to uncover the truth about the depths of the relationship between two Victorian poets; both stories run parallel throughout the book and spend much time in Brittany, and also explore the legends of the fairy Melusine and the sunken city of Ker-Is.
The lost city of Ker-Is forms one of the major elements in the occult fantasy The Vampires of Finistère (1970) by Peter Saxon; this was a pseudonym used by various authors who wrote what might be termed pulp fiction for a small British publishing house in the 1960s. The author is believed to have been Rex Dolphin (1915-1990) whose tale features many of the tropes one would expect to see in a Hammer movie of the period: men dressed as skeletons dancing around nocturnal bonfires, a kidnapped virgin, the Green Wolf, hostile locals, a feral girl, werewolves and the Princess Ahès re-imagined as a shape-shifting vampiric mermaid.
The symbolism associated with Gothic horror fiction features heavily in the first novel of the French writer Julien Gracq (1910-2007). The Castle of Argol (1938) tells the tale of a wealthy man who has bought a mysterious castle in rural Brittany and invited his best friend to visit, who arrives accompanied by a beautiful woman. Gracq described his work as a demonic version of Wagner’s opera Parsifal although the book is, at times, overburdened with symbolism and verbose descriptions. The interplay between the three characters takes place over a deliberately unspecified amount of time and is related to the reader, there being virtually no dialogue in the book.
At the other end of the literary spectrum, the prolific English author P G Wodehouse set his farce Hot Water (1932) in the fictional Breton resort of Saint-Rocque. Some people have suggested that this town is a fictionalised Monte Carlo but this is unlikely; Wodehouse was not an author to waste words and would not have given a Breton name and specified Brittany as the town’s location if he had intended the south of France.
It is far more likely that Saint-Rocque is a fictionalised Dinard; a resort on the north coast of Brittany that was very popular with wealthy British and American high-society and celebrity visitors, including Wodehouse himself, right up to the mid-1930s when it started to lose favour to the resorts of the French Riviera. Indeed, other literary luminaries such as Churchill, Colette, Agatha Christie, Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, Verne and Proust were regular visitors and today, just across the Rance estuary is the home of one of the most successful contemporary Russian writers, Grigory Chkhartishvili, who publishes under the name Boris Akunin. An accomplished historian, he turned to writing fiction at forty and since the publication of his first novel, The Winter Queen (1998), has amassed sales in excess of 30 million books.
Although Hot Water contains none of Wodehouse’s regular characters, the character types he often depicts are all present: an ambitious wife, English aristocrats, an American millionaire and ex-football star, a prohibitionist but hypocritical US senator, con artists, jewel thieves and an undercover private detective. The book is not one of Wodehouse’s better known works but it is classic Wodehouse and amusingly captures the carefree atmosphere of a French resort between the world wars. Saint-Rocque also appears in in his later novel, French Leave (1956).
Another English author who specialised in humorous fiction, H E Bates (1905-1974), set his follow-up novel to The Darling Buds of May (1958) in Brittany. A Breath of French Air (1959) takes place a year after the events of the previous book and sees the Larkin family escape the summer rains of rural Kent for the sun of Brittany only to find more summer rain, weak tea and a rather curmudgeonly hotel keeper.
The Belgian writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989) was a frequent visitor to Brittany. His most famous character, the detective Maigret, features in an astonishing 75 books and 28 short stories, and despite the character having spent his formative years in the Breton city of Nantes, only one novel features an entirely Breton setting; Maigret and the Yellow Dog (1931). This is a classic Simenon whodunit with Maigret called to investigate an attempted murder and soon becoming embroiled in a poisoning, the mysterious disappearance of a journalist and a suspicious vagrant with a yellow haired dog.
Simenon also wrote a number of weightier novels or what the French call romans durs, one of these also has a Breton setting, The Red Donkey (1933). The book is a coming-of-age drama telling the story of a troubled young newspaper reporter in Nantes who spends his evenings in a nightclub where he grows obsessed with an older woman and through a combination of debt and naivety becomes involved with criminals for whom he steals identity documents. This novel was published in English as The Nightclub and is one of almost 400 books written by Simenon who is one of the most translated and best-selling authors of the last hundred years, with over half a billion books sold.
Sometimes described as the heir to Simenon, former editor and publisher, the German author Jörg Bong has written nine crime novels set in Brittany under the pseudonym Jean-Luc Bannalec; the first in the series was published in English as Death in Brittany (2012). His books follow the many investigations of a maverick, coffee-loving fictional detective banished to the province from Paris and are rich in local colour and detail.
No literary look at Brittany would be complete without mention of those most colourful of Bretons, Astérix and Obelix, created by Albert Uderzo (1927-2020) and René Goscinny (1926-1977) in 1959. A few towns have tried to lay claim to being the inspiration for that small village populated by indomitable Gauls who, time and again, resist the Roman invader but the strongest claim seems to belong to Erquy on the north coast of Brittany. It enjoys the right coastal setting with evidence of an Iron Age defensive fortification, has the requisite stone quarries and even the three menhirs featured in the fictional village. When asked, Uderzo suggested that he might have been unconsciously drawn to the area around Erquy as the setting for his comic strip; his family settled near Saint Brieuc during the Second World War and it was an area that he returned to often. In Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix (1963), published in English as Astérix and the Banquet, Astérix and Obelisk decide to break out of the stockade the Romans have built around their village and travel throughout Gaul to collect regional delicacies for a special feat; the map drawn by Astérix notes the route they will take and places the area around Saint Brieuc and Erquy as home.
Since their first appearance in 1959, the characters have morphed into an industry; 34 books published in over a hundred languages with over 280 million copies sold, a dozen movies and even a theme park. Impressive achievements for a little guy from Armorica!
As is the case with all works that have been translated from one language into another, the competence and skill of the translator and their editor is crucial. There are plenty of great translations around but also some less good, albeit linguistically accurate, ones; choose your edition with care. If unsure, why not have a hunt here on WordPress to see what others recommend?