Henry James was a prolific American (and British, taking the nationality before he died) writer, known for his dense, rich prose, and long, sometimes convoluted descriptive passages. In particular, he preferred to "straddle" the Atlantic, focusing on the respective characteristics of Europeans and Americans which seemed to define and differentiate them. His most famous works are novels, such as Daisy Miller, The Bostonians (Oxford World's Classics), and The Ambassadors (Oxford World's Classics). James travelogue of France is less well-known than another work which covered portions of France and was written 15 years earlier, Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, but is equally worthy of a reader's attention.
The "Little Tour" starts in the autumn of 1882, and lasts six weeks. James commences in the Loire Valley, touring most of its chateaux, then heads out to the Atlantic coast at Nantes, south to Bordeaux, east to Provence, covering primarily the portion west of the Rhone River, and then north to Burgundy. It rained a lot, and that, coupled with a rather ambitious itinerary, forcing him to move virtually every day, which seemed to accent James' dyspeptic mood. For sure, it is not all "Chamber of Commerce" gloss.
The true strength of the book is James' astonishing erudition. He KNOWS what has occurred historically in the various towns, and "points of interest," perhaps better than the natives themselves. Consider: "Normandy is Normandy, Burgundy is Burgundy, Provence is Provence; but Touraine is essentially France. It is the land of Rabelais, of Descartes, of Balzac, of good books and good company, as well as good dinners and good houses. George Sand has somewhere a charming passage about the mildness, the convenient quality, of physical conditions of central France: `son climat souple et chaud, ses pluies abondantes et courtes.'" James likes the chateau at Blois, as for Chambord, "...a touch of that quality of stupidity." Before departing for the coast, James takes a side trip south, to see the magnificent cathedral at Bourges, one that certainly rivals Notre Dame in Paris. He does not take the opportunity to visit the home of George Sand, who died six years earlier, in nearby Nohant. In Nantes he is impressed with the work of the sculptor, Paul Dubois, who created "...one of the purest and most touching of modern tombs."
Bordeaux does not even merit three pages; James finds Toulouse of more interest, in particular Saint-Sernin, "one of the noblest churches in southern France..." James admits spending only a few hours at Carcassonne, and considers "...those hours had rounded felicity." He had a better day than I; at least in its more modern incarnation it reeks "tourist trap." Narbonne is a "dirty little town." In Nimes, he heaps a fair amount of abuse on the "Maison Carree." He also takes in the Fountaine de Vaucluse, famous as the site where Petrarch composed his love sonnets to Laura; as well as Pont du Gard, Arles, and Les Baux. His guide of over a century ago was responsible for me visiting the Aliscamps in Arles, and "seeing" the Elysian Fields that he proposed. Then he turns north, heads to Burgundy, via Macon. He concludes his tour visiting Beaune and Dijon.
Like numerous others before and since, James concludes his "Little Tour" by expressing admiration for the planning and use of public space. In particular, it was a "charming public garden" in Dijon, which he enjoyed almost exclusively by himself as autumn deepened... "and as the light fade in the Parc the vision of some of the things I had enjoyed became more distinct."
Overall, my own pace would have necessitated the elimination of at least half the places on the tour, not that they were without merit, but simply so as to savor the others the better. "The pleasures of travel do not go to the swift..." Still, if you are going to France, or are fortunate to live there, this book will be more valuable than many a normal tourist guide. 5-stars.