I’m a sucker for stories about yearning. Desire, to me, is the most powerful emotion. Yearning activates my primitive mind so that in a fit of longing I find myself prowling city streets not sure what I’m looking for but relishing the search for whatever it is that calls to me.
Some of the best stories in literature are about yearning. In the movie Sabrina, the daughter of a chauffeur for a wealthy family falls in love with the family’s son, playboy David. She can’t have him, of course, because he’s of a higher class, and so older brother Linus steps in to break up the affair by sending Sabrina to Paris, where she learns culinary skills. When she returns, a sophisticated woman of the world, Linus himself falls in love with Sabrina. It doesn’t hurt, of course, to have an all-star cast of Audrey Hepburn falling for William Holden to be swept off her feet ultimately by Humphrey Bogart.
What is it about the mixing of classes that twists my heart? In Remains of the Day, by Japanese-English author Kazuo Ishiguro, housekeeper Miss Keaton yearns painfully for butler Mr. Stevens, servants of the wealthy residents of Darlington Hall. In the film version, Emma Thompson plays Miss Keaton and Anthony Hopkins is the uber reserved Mr. Stevens. This is a WWII story, and adding an element of war makes longing even more delicious. The most Miss Keaton ever gets from Mr. Stevens is a tip of the hat, but it’s enough to let me know that he suffers from a similar romantic ache tightly harnessed by restraint.
And then there’s the Daphne du Maurier novel Frenchman’s Creek, set during the Reign of English King Charles II. When Lady St. Columb visits Navron, her husband’s country house in Cornwall, and finds it occupied by pirate Jean-Benoit Aubery, how can she keep from falling in love with him? The novel was written in 1942, however, and, as much as she yearns for the thrill of buccaneer adventure, Lady St. Columb forces herself to stick with her doltish husband (who happens to be very rich and well established).
I’m not sure why Fern Forest treehouse guests Elisa and her French husband Vivien made me think of these literary tales. Could be that Vivien was raised on a dairy farm in southwest France, the property enhanced by old stone buildings and contented cows. He became a farmer himself and migrated to Minnesota to work as an agrarian hired hand. Eventually he segued to construction work and now lives in Boston, where he renovates historic buildings. His wife Elisa is a personal assistant to a wealthy family in Boston (they own five homes, each with its own personal assistant), and chauffeurs the teenage daughter around as well as caretaking the house. She also cooks (like Sabrina?) five nights a week for a another couple, a pair of doctors, sets the table and leaves (“going home to my husband”) just before the family sits down to the delicious meal she has prepared.
Miss Keaton and Mr. Stevens? I don’t think so. Sabrina and Linus? Not quite. Lady St. Columb and the pirate? Not at all. There’s nothing subservient about Vivien (a name which means “alive, animated, lively”). And I don’t think he’s a pirate—he has an honest look about him and prefers to travel by bicycle rather than pirate ship. Elisa is an artist—painting is her medium—and she doesn’t need to yearn because Vivien seems completely committed to her.
In May 1913 the New York Times ran an article about a visit to the U.S. of Frenchman Monsieur Andre de Fouquieres, who wrote, “I found that American women are not simply creatures of luxury and elegance. They have also a soul, fresh, ardent, restless, in which new instincts are awakening.”
Such a woman books a night in a Vermont treehouse and spends the day before she arrives hiking a mountain with her French husband in a hard rain, loving every minute of it.
According to Vivien, De Fouquieres had it wrong when he said, “A woman of New York or of Boston would not understand our sentimentalisms. That delicious spirit of which our poets have dreamed, that adorable vision ‘which is never quite the same yet never quite different,’ is not found in the American woman. And we are egotistical enough to wish that she were more like those inspirers of genius, so that we could understand her better, love her better, hold her closer to our troubled hearts, find her more stirred, more melancholy, less positive and more touched with sadness.”
That was 18th Century thinking, Vivien said. He is not lost in “sentimentalisms” but, in fact, is a man of action. After a good night’s sleep in the treehouse, he came to the breakfast table with half a loaf of solid whole grain bread, a jar of natural peanut butter, and a huge can of quick oats. “I mix the oats with your granola,” he said, his accent rich with French pronunciation. Then he added, “I like carbs.” He also ate the rhubarb bread I’d made, a couple of croissants, the fruit salad, the yogurt and the soft boiled egg. “He doesn’t get hungry again until two p.m.,” Elisa said.
After breakfast, their bicycles fixed to the back of their car, these two fresh and ardent souls headed off for Montreal to celebrate their second anniversary by cycling around the city. There’s none of the old French melancholy in either of these two adventurers. As Sabrina says, they “have learnt how to live... how to be In the world and Of the world, and not just to stand aside and watch.” Sabrina also advises living “la vie en rose,” and I’m sure Vivien and Elisa are living lives that are about as rosy as it gets.