Above: A glorious light show illuminates the facade of Rouen Cathedral.
“We decided to break the trip and enlarge our cultural vista by stopping off in Rouen for the night, and why our experience in that historic town didn’t leave its mark on the rest of our lives is proof positive that there must be a special Providence set apart to watch [over] the faltering steps of such ninnies as we.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
I was looking forward to being in Rouen. This was a day when I could really reconnect with the girls, and I was eager to do so. I’d been on my own the last few days, and had been missing my traveling companions.
I started my tour of Rouen just as Cornelia and Emily had, walking in their footsteps to the Vieux Marche, where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. This had been one of the most powerful, profound moments of Cornelia’s and Emily’s journey.
“… at last we were in the old Market Place, standing on the spot where that guileless girl from Domremy was burned to death. It was Emily’s first experience of the sort. She stood in the center of that beautiful and heartbreaking square murmuring, ‘This is the place. This is the very place.’ And quietly, unpremeditatively, we both stooped down and touched the cobblestones.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
Gardens have replaced those cobblestones, and in their center is a placard marking the location where Joan of Arc was executed. Standing there, knowing what this moment had meant to the girls, I couldn’t help but feel a bit overawed myself.
After a while, I continued our tour down the Rue de le Gros Horloge (Street of the Big Clock) to the magnificent Rouen Cathedral, where I discovered that it was closed until 2pm. I decided to use that time to get some lunch, as well as a few answers, hopefully, to a mystery I needed to solve.
I started with lunch, consisting of a scrumptious surimi baguette, which I ate in a lovely shaded garden area adjacent to the cathedral. It took me some time to realize that I was lunching amidst a number of fragments from the cathedral’s facade which had been blown off during World War II and never put back. The cathedral had taken a major hit on April 19, 1944, and two buttresses were all that had kept the whole building from collapsing. Repair work from that assault continues to this day.
After my lunch in the garden, I went to the tourist office, and threw a question at the staff that – they admitted themselves – they’d never been asked before:
Did anyone happen to know where the red light district of Rouen was located a hundred years ago?
The reason for my question stems from one of the most hilarious passages in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, involving a mistaken address which landed the girls at the doorstep of a brothel, which they believed to be a respectable pension where they could bed down for the night. Astonishingly, the madam of the establishment provided the girls with a room. A quick reminder: Cornelia’s and Emily’s book is a work of non-fiction. This really happened.
“… beckoning us to follow, [she] led us down a hall. It was lined on either side with smallish rooms, rather elaborately decorated. Some of the doors were open, and we caught glimpses of the other guests who seemed quite surprised to see us and we were indeed surprised to see them. They all appeared to be young women in very striking evening dresses. This was certainly unusual, but we concluded they must all be waiting to go out to a dinner-party… I couldn’t help thinking that this was an eccentric sort of pension, and Emily remarked that it lacked the ‘homey’ quality of the one in St. Valery.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
So where would this house of ill repute have been? To my delighted surprise, the staff seemed to have at least a fairly good guess as to where the red light district was located. They marked the area on a map for me, which I followed down to a neighborhood which did seem a little rough, by French standards – meaning that it didn’t look picture-postcard beautiful. I couldn’t know which building had once been the brothel they stayed in, but I was pretty convinced I was in the right area. Satisfied with these results, I headed back to the cathedral.
On the way there, I overheard an English woman saying something to her friends about having to check out some amazing place. “Hmmm,” I thought, “interesting…” So with only the barest of introductions, I latched onto her group, and tagged along with them into the courtyard of a large half-timbered building. In the middle of the courtyard, what appeared to be construction work was taking place. But on closer inspection, it turned out to be an archaeological dig. I had never seen a dig up close. An unexpected first.
Standing in a three-foot-deep trench was a woman looking over piles of bones, measuring each of them, while another woman crouched next to a full skeleton in a grave, examining it and making notes. Wow, now it really was a first. I had never seen human remains before, let alone any dating back to the Great Plague of thirteen-hundred-something.
After this quick, surprising detour, I finally made it to the cathedral, where my first order of business was to locate the Joan of Arc chapel. Cornelia and Emily had each lit a candle here, which Cornelia recalled:
“I placed [the candle] on a little spike beside the others which flickered before the shrine of Joan. She hadn’t been canonized for very long and it was sweet to think of her coming into the eminent name of St. Joan. For all my Universalist forbears, I went down on my knees to thank her and France and God for letting me be there.”
Of all the moments of “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” that I wished to capture for myself, this was the one that I felt most deeply. I lit a candle for Cornelia and Emily, and placed it on a small altar with some others. While I didn’t drop down on my knees, I did sit in a chair in front of the chapel of St. Joan, and gave thanks to her and Cornelia and Emily and God for letting me be there, for leading me into this joyous adventure.
That night, I returned to the cathedral – or, rather, the square in front of it – where a large number of people were gathering to watch what I had been told was some sort of “light show”. This proved to be an anemic description for the wondrous piece of performance art it was. It turned out to be one of those bold, mind-bending entertainment pieces, where enormous images and animation are projected onto the side of a building. I had heard of such a thing, but this was the first time I had ever experienced it.
Set to classical and medieval music, this production told the story of France. It was exquisite, breathtaking, inexplicable. And on a beautiful, warm night, just to make it perfect.
Delighting in the spectacle, I was fervently wishing that such a thing had existed when the girls were here – how they would have been dazzled! But most likely Cornelia and Emily would have missed it, anyway. It was now close to midnight – by this time, the girls would probably have turned in for the night at the brothel down the road, where they “slept the sleep of babes.”
Top Row: A placard marks the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake; strolling along the Street of the Big Clock.
Middle Row: Lunch in the cathedral garden; unearthing the bones of 14th century plague victims.
Bottom Row: Rouen Cathedral by day, featuring the tower which the girls were coerced into climbing; Cornelia and Emily once again visit the chapel of St. Joan.