by Erin Byrne
I felt claustrophobic inside the square room deep inside the thick stone cavern of the White Tower. There in the huge complex of the Tower of London, I experienced a trapped feeling of dejavu. I could not shake the memory of sand trickling through the hourglass. I remembered the dreary atmosphere here in the year 1415, the first year of captivity.
More than 5 centuries after he was here, I felt the presence of Charles d’Orleans of France, the one whose memories of the hourglass felt like my own. He was captured at Agincourt by Henry V, at the age of 21. Charles spent 25 years as prisoner, first in the Tower, then in various homes and castles throughout England. His entire life story is presented with intricate care and insight by Hella S. Haasse in her novel, In a Dark Wood Wandering. This book was published in 1949 and has never been out of print. It is Charles’ years stuck in England as a pawn in the Hundred Years War that is the turning point of the book, and the making of the man.
Dutch writer Hella S. Haasse has received The Dutch Literature Prize and other prestigious international awards. She received the medal of the French Legion d’Honneur in 2000. Haasse has written novels, plays, poetry and essays. Her work has been translated into dozens of languages. Hella S. Haasse is 89 years old and is still writing; in 2006 her short stories were published in Her tuinhuis (The Garden House).
The English translation of In a Dark Wood Wandering had a captivity of its own. A Chicago postal worker, Lewis C. Kaplan, whose passion was translating books of high quality, lovingly translated 150 pages of the epic novel in his few hours of spare time, in evenings and on weekends, before he died. The papers, locked in a briefcase, remained forgotten in a closet for 20 years, almost as long as Charles himself was kept. They were found by Kaplan’s wife and son after a fire in their home. The sopping pages were dried, discovered to be a translation in progress, and passed on to Anita Miller of Academy Chicago Publishers. Miller than collaborated with Haasse herself to retain the liveliness and vigor of her original style, and finally the English version was published in 1989. A full 30 years after their internment in the closet, the pages were released.
In a Dark Wood Wandering traces Charles d’Orleans’ childhood as a member of the royal house of France, growing up in various castles in the Loire region of France, surrounded by luxury and learning. The cast of characters in his life included the Royal House of Valois, as well as the often overlapping family trees of Orleans, Burgundy and Berry. The intrigues, betrayals and clashes of 15th century France swirled around him. Suddenly he was whisked off to England, witness to more plotting, drama, and the English side of the Hundred Years War.
The novel also brings d’Orleans’ time in the Tower of London to a sand-dwindling standstill. Time stops. The reader then follows Charles to Pontefract, Wingfield and Amphill castles and other manor homes throughout the entire country. Haasse weaves Charles’ own writings into her own vivid descriptions; the reader feels drawn into his struggle to stay sane and hopeful. Charles’ dreams of a homecoming are finally realized: at 46 years of age he returns to his beloved France to marry again and father the future King Louis XII.
He whom Shakespeare referred to as “a prisoner of good sort” was treated well, with wall-hangings, warm blankets and silver. However, Charles had to pay room and board as well as an extravagant ransom. He was still a prisoner, with all the frustration and mental anguish that come with that title. “Charles’ sojourn in the Tower carried, despite tapestries and cushions, the unmistakable stamp of imprisonment,” writes Haasse. She describes the White Tower: “A real labyrinth of gates and corridors closed off by double doors… everywhere one could see only high walls, battlements, towers and pinnacles. The citadel was full of guards armed with lances and pikes and wherever one looked one saw heavy bars and doors studded with iron.” No amount of luxury could take away the oppressive feeling of the constant presence of these hostile sentries.
Time sifted through the glass, grain by grain of sand. “Before one fully realizes it, the lower globe is completely filled; an hour has gone by, a long precious hour of life which seems suddenly to consist of a terrifying number of such hours. He whose life it is sees the sand slipping away with comingled feelings of fear, regret, impatience and despair. He sees that the passage of time is at once pitilessly slow and unmercifully fast.” Deep inside the shadows of the thick walls, time could easily just disappear, along with all sense of it. Very often the sanity of the prisoner disappeared as well. Visiting the Tower today, one can well imagine screams of agony smacking against the rock ramparts. Not so with Charles; he found his own antidote to melancholy and despair.
Contributing to my certainty that I had been in this Tower before was Haasse’s ability to make the cold London fog visibly invade the room and seep into the reader’s very bones. “The icy cold impenetrable fog which drifted in from the sea seemed to Charles an alien and hostile element, it even crept through cracks in the doors and windows, into his room.” Any time of year, those who visit the Tower of London are likely to be treated to the experience of having the chilly mist inject itself into one’s veins.
On the day I visited the Tower of London, the weather beat on the impregnable castle. “Grey, lusterless sky–rain, rain, always more rain.” Haasse’s portrait of the scene mirrored what I saw. I could hear “small waves of the Thames beat on the embankment with a hissing sound.” Charles was allowed to stroll within the walls of the White Tower, always accompanied by his jailers. It made Charles even gloomier to walk in the courtyard where executions had taken place–the grass was short and brownish. He did not find solace anywhere; he stayed inside and listened to the hollow clanging of London’s bells, pining for France.
I looked out a narrow window and saw this courtyard. In the 21st century, it was swarming with Yeoman, also called Beefeaters, marching in formation in their red and black uniforms. Costumed knights jousted in their shiny armor. Inky ravens screeched their annoyance. Tourists of all nationalities furrowed their brows, trying to imagine Anne Boleyn being marched from the Queen’s House toward her decapitating end. The atmosphere was lively, the colors vivid; all was noisy and chaotic in contrast to Charles’ damp, silent fortress.
What was Charles’ secret to escaping his monotonous existence? “One day, to amuse himself, the prisoner begins to write in the light, flowing style characteristic of him, a story in rhyme about his life. This new pastime has a strange effect on the prisoner…he has begun it out of boredom and a vague, melancholy nostalgia for the carefree childhood that vanished all too quickly…poetry is his only means of relief, there is no other.” So began the writing career of the Duke d’Orleans, who some have referred to as the last of the poets of the Middle Ages. Charles wrote ballads and rondels that ring with honesty and originality to this day.
“Reason…set me to ripen in the straw of prison,” Charles wrote. “Here I have stayed not allowed to soar into freedom.” He wrote of his love for his wife, Bonne, who died during his time in England: “Strengthen, my Love, this castle of my heart.” He wished for spring, “The year has changed his mantle cold, Of wind, of rain, of bitter air; And he goes clad in cloth of gold, Of laughing suns and seasons fair.” Standing in that dank room, I easily visualized his dark head bent over his work, cutting a large sheet of vellum into eight parts, creating a booklet in which he can write his ballads. Carefully, in red ink, he decorated the initial letter of each poem with vines and flowers.
The handsome manuscripts of Charles d’Orleans are in the British Library. On the cover a famous miniature shows Charles in a variety of poses in the Tower: writing at his desk, looking from an upper window, paying his ransom, and leaving on horseback under Byward Tower. It is one of the earliest paintings of the Tower of London, painted circa 1500.
I wandered through the hollow, echoing rooms, up winding, narrow stairs, and past tiny windows that allowed inches of grey clouds inside. Later, I looked into a glass case that held a page of calligraphy written by Charles d’Orleans. History crashed into the present as I stared at the paper through the glass. The vines and flowers were drawn with a flourish. Here was the beautiful evidence of how Charles chased away his despair by writing of his life, loves and longings. In a Dark Wood Wandering is the story of how Charles d’Orleans took comfort from these cold stone walls of the Tower of London in the beautiful fortress of his own mind.