Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Part 2: Two Gentlemen in Touraine: A Pilgrimage to Fairyland

This post is the second of a three-part series on the life and writings of Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr., founder of the Gibson House Museum. You can read the first part here

Let us then take a sweeping glance around, for we may not have another half so grand, half so fair, or half so high, while we are in the old Touraine which lies before us, there in the last orange glow of the departed sun. And if we follow these avenues of the roof below us, if we wind our way around these great towers, around the high and pointed roofs of slate, we may well imagine ourselves in some fairyland. This maze of cupolas, of domes, of towers, appears more bewildering to us than ever. And we lean against the stone, in an artistic intoxication, so overpowering is it.


—Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr., Two Gentlemen in Touraine (1899)

In 1899, when Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr. (“Charlie”) published Two Gentlemen in Touraine, a lighthearted but sophisticated book about the historic and picturesque French royal chateaux of Touraine, he was just twenty-four years old. A young Bostonian educated at elite New England prep schools, he also briefly attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he became captivated by French history and architecture. Charlie had talent, a refined sensibility, and an entrepreneurial spirit. His family, part of the last wave of Boston’s Brahmin elite, wanted him to become an engineer of some kind and so sent him off to MIT, then called Boston Tech and located, like his family’s fashionable brownstone residence, in the Back Bay. Charlie would later recall that he resisted such a utilitarian path. “I wanted only to create beauty, and, through my verse and my garden, I think I’ve done that.”

In the twilight of the Brahmin era, estates and inherited wealth were divided and subdivided; young men had to pursue careers and establish themselves, socially and financially. And so Charlie’s decision to become a traveling bachelor-poet created tension at home, especially with his father, Charles Gibson, Sr. Although mitigated by a close and loving relationship with his mother, Rosamond Warren Gibson, this tension would come to define his life in significant ways. A similar pattern of intra-familial conflict would play out with other gay men of Charlie’s generation, and beyond, in legal struggles over inheritance and, in some cases, disinheritance.

Manuscript copy of the first chapter of Two Gentlemen in Touraine.
Collection of the Gibson House Museum

Charlie published the first edition of Two Gentlemen in Touraine under the pen name Richard Sudbury, a reference to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Sudbury, Mass., Wayside Inn. (Charlie later explained the tribute in a 1907 lecture on the art of poetry: “Longfellow was the epic poet of America, and the central poetic figure of our history.... [He] sang of the homely lives of his fellow countrymen, of their firesides and their patriotism. His poems dwell in the hearts of the people who do not understand the greater poets.”) The edition was a lovely volume, elegantly bound with thick, gilt-edged pages, aesthetic printing, and striking illustrations. The Buffalo Commercial’s assessment reflects the praise given its appearance: “The book is ... richly endowed with artistic temperament, and ...  is in some details very unique and fascinating. But it is in externals that the book is most noticeable. The paper is of the finest quality; every page is beautifully ornamented, and the binding is rich, and the very best in every detail of the binder’s art.” Two Gentlemen in Touraine was a popular success, so much so that in 1906 two additional editions were published under Charlie’s own name in London and New York, including an “automobile edition” designed for the waves of international tourists then motoring through the French countryside.

Two Gentlemen in Touraine displays a precociousness and technical sophistication beyond Charlie’s years at the time of writing. This likely reflects the influence of a more mature and cosmopolitan collaborator, a silent partner and counter-voice, Maurice Mauny Talvande, a.k.a. Count de Mauny, whom Charlie first met in Europe in 1894. That year, Charlie began writing Two Gentlemen, a quasi-autobiographical tale based on this relationship. The book takes the form of an extended dialogue between author/narrator Richard Sudbury and a fictitious French nobleman, with Sudbury standing in for Charlie and the character Comte de Persigny for Count de Mauny.

Charlie and Mauny Talvande’s friendship and close collaboration deepened when Mauny Talvande returned with Charlie to the United States, subsequently giving talks on French architecture, history, and social customs. At the time, Charlie was about twenty; Mauny Talvande was approaching thirty. Charlie accompanied Mauny Talvande on his tour, assisting him in preparing his lectures and literary salons, one of which Charlie’s mother, Rosamond, graciously sponsored. The two men would soon collaborate on articles, from an ultra-conservative perspective, about moral education in France, historic buildings, and the sociology of modern France. Mauny Talvande was essentially a monarchist, an archconservative, and Charlie proved to be a sympathetic sounding board, and perhaps more.

We had been attracted to each other, perhaps by the very difference of our temperaments, and had been in one another’s society almost constantly for a month. At the end of that time our roads had led us in different directions, and we had parted, not to meet again. But so much interested had we been in various discussions, which we had had upon the social questions of life, that we had opened a correspondence, lasting, almost without a pause, during the years that had since passed.

Two Gentlemen in Touraine can be read as a coded narrative about a gay pilgrimage, in the context of aesthetic tourism. Charlie paints an eroticized landscape of image and emotion that explores same-sex desire, a liminal space of touristic fantasy, a never-never land of sensual reverie, where peasants and noblemen, happily interdependent, find common ground in a time and place that never was. Significantly, Two Gentlemen in Touraine is a story of a romantic relationship that unfolded just prior to the 1895 criminal trial in England of Oscar Wilde for sodomy, which had a chilling effect on gay relationships and forced many queer men and women in Europe and America more deeply underground. The book also appeared before the early-twentieth-century advent of Freudianism, which  cast same-sex relationships in a much more critical light. In this fleeting moment, Sudbury/Charlie “exchanged imaginations” with Comte de Persigny/Count de Mauny, whom the narrator describes in eroticized language: 
His tall figure stood before me, straight and distinctive in outline. I thought him wonderfully little changed since we had last met, though he spoke often of the gray hairs which I found it impossible to discover in his locks. He was a noble type of a Frenchman, the Comte. His light brown hair fell back in a slight wave, from his broad forehead, showing two large temples that were neither high nor low, but that spoke of a wonderful intelligence behind them. No one could look upon the Comte de Persigny and not be sensible that he was in the presence of a man of unusual qualities. The eyebrows, a little darker than the hair above, were smooth and even, though they seemed to protrude almost unnaturally, owing to the strong development of the forehead. Beneath them shone a pair of deep-set eyes, bearing that indescribable look which we find in all men who have thought much and thought deeply. It is difficult to convey the impression of this look in a man’s eyes to anyone who has not observed it for himself.

In 1898 Mauny Talvande married Lady Mary Byng, daughter of the 4th Earl of Stratford and a maid of honor to
Queen Victoria. The couple maintained close connections to Boston society. (Isabella Stewart Gardner, in fact, was godmother of their daughter.) The marriage was ill-fated, however, and dissolved following Mauny Talvande’s involvement in a homosexual scandal related to his establishing a French boarding school for the sons of the British elite. Personal bankruptcy, bad press, and increasing skepticism about his social posturing and entrepreneurial confidence games led to his departure from Europe and Britain. He fled to a tiny island off the coast of Sri Lanka, which was, according to historian Robert Aldrich, a notorious site of homoerotic cultural encounters and sexual tourism from the Victorian period onward. There he built a fanciful estate called Taprobane, manufactured fine furniture, and became a published authority on tropical gardening. Charlie and Mauny Talvande would keep up an affectionate correspondence for the rest of their lives.

In the elegantly printed pages of Two Gentlemen in Touraine, we can discern thinly veiled fragments of autobiography as well as crosscurrents of popular culture: travel and tourism, complex and sometimes ambiguous responses to modernity, and contemporary taste in reading and intellectual culture. On a more personal level, however, the book documents a kind of love that was often misunderstood and harshly scorned by society. During one of their extended philosophical dialogues, Sudbury/Charlie reveals to Comte de Persigny/Count de Mauny,

I have often argued in my own mind whether, in the case of such a possible affinity of two minds—such a Platonic friendship, be it in any class of society or life—whether these souls might not become intellectually satisfied with one another, and end by being sufficient to themselves. They would find, it is true, a great contentment in one another’s company. They would have a progressing influence upon one another, which might become, in time, almost sublime, but which, for its very purity and light, the world would certainly misunderstand. Therefore, in arguing with myself upon this ideal relationship, I have often thought that the misunderstanding of the world, in this self-absorption of the two minds, might defeat its own object rather than produce greatness, as you have said.

Comte de Persigny/Count de Mauny, the mentor in the relationship, seems to advise courage and fortitude:

They must not allow the world to misunderstand them ... for then they would be unable to accomplish much of what they would do. Yet how many men who have stood out upon the pinnacles of the world’s history have been misunderstood for this very reason! True greatness will never be thoroughly understood until the mind of the world is great enough to realize and to recognize that which is often overlooked, or, as you say, misunderstood.

Although he was a successful and respected author and lecturer in the early twentieth century, Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr. became increasingly overlooked and misunderstood as he grew older and adamantly—perhaps obsessively—refused to change with the times. As he suggested in one of his later poems, he preferred to be remembered “... not as I am, with suffering that mars the countenance and seared with countless scars, / But as I was, a youth of twenty-three .… Charlie most certainly accumulated emotional scars during his lifetime, evidence, perhaps, of tensions within his family and social milieu over his sexual identity—his queerness—and with his cultural persona as bachelor-poet and bon vivant. His was a strategy of retrenchment, like that of other gay men at the turn of the century, creating his own hermetically-sealed worlds: a fairy-touched chateau in the French countryside, a book of inward-looking sonnets redolent of the gay pastoral mode, or a Back Bay house museum and literary shrine frozen in Victorian amber.

- Todd S. Gernes, Ph.D. (Associate Professor, Stonehill College)


  • Robert Aldrich, Cultural Encounters and Homoeroticism in Sri Lanka: Sex and Serendipity (Routledge, 2014). 

  • “C. K. Scott Moncrief (1889–1930),” University of Edinburgh Alumni Service website.

  • S. Chomet, Count de Mauny: Friend of Royalty (Begel House Inc., 2002).

  • Howard P. Chudacoff, The Age of the Bachelor: Creating an American Subculture (Princeton University Press, 1991).

  • T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1930 (University of Chicago Press, 1981).

  • Richard Sudbury [Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr.], Two Gentlemen in Touraine (Herbert Stone & Company, 1899).

  • Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914 (Stanford University Press, 1976).

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