The Vallée-aux-Loups area owes its name to the ancient presence of these ferocious predators, the last of which was killed in 1870. It is difficult to imagine today a pack prowling in this peaceful park, with its gravelled paths, its freshly mown lawn and its clumps of rhododendrons elegantly cut to hug the curve of the valley. Moreover, François René de Chateaubriand does not mention it in his famous Memoirs from beyond the grave, where he describes the 7-hectare estate as a “wild orchard” and a “gardener’s house, hidden among the hills covered with drink “.
He lived there for only ten years but, upon his arrival in 1807, to escape Napoleon’s anger after a virulent article published in Le Mercure de France, he undertook major works to shape the park according to his imagination. Inspired by the English gardens and the park of Méréville, a creation of the landscape painter Hubert Robert where he often stayed, he leveled a hill to widen the entrances and clear the view from the windows of the house, then traced the paths that encircle the central meadow.
A personal and “literary” park
With his wife Céleste, he plants thousands of flowers and “green” trees (no taller than about thirty centimeters), bought from the famous Parisian nurseries Cels and Noisette, or donated by relatives, like these Scots pines in orange trunk offered by his mistress and muse Nathalie de Noailles. Empress Joséphine, recently divorced from Napoleon and keen on botany, gave him a magnolia with purple flowers, one of the only two specimens known at the time in France, along with that of the Château de Malmaison.
For this park which he wants to be resolutely personal and “literary”, Chateaubriand chooses essences which remind him of his Breton childhood and his travels: an oak from Armorica, unfortunately extinct, a blue cedar from the Atlas and another from Lebanon, in memory of his journey to Jerusalem. In memory of his expedition to America, he introduced a bald cypress from Louisiana, with bark as soft as velvet, and a catalpa which, struck by lightning, formed a dozen sinuous trunks. When he is not gardening, Chateaubriand spends twelve hours a day writing recluse in the Velléda tower, in the heart of the park, surrounded by his “hamadryads”, the pagan nymphs of the forest associated with his daydreams and the characters of his novels.
A place that has become a museum
In his memoirs, which he began to write in the Vallée-aux-Loups, he was delighted to see his trees prosper: “They are still so small that I give them shade when I place myself between them and the sun. . One day, by returning this shadow to me, they will protect my old age as I protected their youth. Alas, the writer never saw them reach maturity: beset by debt after the loss of his pension as a peer of France, he had to give up his dream of being a gentleman-farmer and sold the estate at auction.
“La Vallée-aux-Loups, of all the things that have escaped me, is the only one I regret,” he lamented. Fortunately, the following owners will preserve its creation and enlarge the area of the park by purchasing wood from the Cavé. In the 20th century, the alienist doctor Henri Le Savoureux even saved the site from a tramway project by having it classified. He set up a nursing home and a literary salon there frequented by many artists and intellectuals: Paul Valéry, the painter Jean Fautrier, Saint-Exupéry…
The purchase of the estate by the department of Hauts-de-Seine allowed the opening in 1987 of a small museum which regularly welcomes contemporary visual artists, such as this summer Marie Denis, whose multi-faceted herbarium, created in situ from flowers and park leaves, fixed in graphite powder and gold its ephemeral beauty.
Memoirs from beyond the grave, book one, chapter 1:
“I like this place; it has replaced my father’s fields for me; I paid for it with the product of my dreams and my waking hours; it is to the great desert of Atala (1) that I owe the small desert of Aulnay; and to create this refuge for myself, I did not, like the American colonists, despoil the Florida Indians. I have attached myself to my trees; I addressed to them elegies, sonnets, odes. There is not a single one of them that I have not cured with my own hands, that I have not delivered from the worm attached to its root, from the caterpillar stuck to its leaf; I know them all by name, like my children: it’s my family, I have no other, I hope to die among them. »
(1) From the name of the novel which earned him his first literary success.