The 'Russian Castle' through the eyes of Maurice Maeterlinck

The history of Esen Castle, located on the outskirts of Diksmuide, goes back to 1775. Throughout time the castle has taken on different appearances. Today, the provincial employees work from the Esenkasteel together with local partners on the development of the Westhoek.

Maurice Maeterlinck

Maurice Maeterlinck

The Ghent playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), son of Polydore Maeterlinck and nephew of Edmond De Ruysscher, entertains us in his autobiography Bulles Blueus (1948) with a few lively anecdotes about the goings-on at the late nineteenth-century Esen castle. In popular speech the castle is then called 'Russian Castle', a corruption of the name De Ruysscher, the pharmacy family from Diksmuide that owned the castle at the time. Maeterlinck is not to be found for the nineteenth-century appearance of the castle of Diksmuide:

"The castle of Diksmuide was impressively ugly. It was built on the ruins of a charming knight's estate from the 16th century, of which only an old copper engraving remains as a reminder. The local architect had amalgamated the Tourangeau style (the region of Tours) with the English rustic building style, crossed with the Swiss country house. To crown the horror, it was decorated with stained glass windows of real glass, which looked like transparent chromosomes, and the sun, used to the beautiful windows of the twelfth, thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, seemed to blush with shame when it lit them up."
The "Russian Castle" (1876-1879)

The orangery is built in eclectic brick architecture with battlements and turrets. At the end of the 19th century, the chateau is given a new look and a chapel is added. It is mainly the eclectic style that is denounced by Maeterlinck. In the early twentieth century, the castle was named Chateau de la tour blanche, after the tower with white stone ornaments that was added to the front of the castle.

Chateau de la tour blanche' (1879-1914)

Uncle Florimond

Maeterlinck describes his extravagant uncle Florimond, his mother's sister's husband, who was part of the Diksmuid noble family and spent his summers in the castle.

"He was a lot taller than father and made a monumental impression on us. His carefully shaven face looked like an oval full moon. His quadruple chin reached his stomach and his belly, which preceded him by a metre, sank to his knees. In order to make room for his protruding paunch and to enable him to reach the glasses and plates, the tables of his two main dining rooms had been carved with a wide arch."

To satisfy his great appetite, a total of four dining rooms are provided in the castle. He detests lounges, however. Maeterlinck's lively style of writing gives us an idea of the lavish, luxurious life in Esen Castle at the time. Uncle Florimond, for example, ventured into the cultivation of pineapples, an extremely expensive and daring hobby in the Belgian climate. In Northern Europe, the pineapple plant was difficult to attract into flower. Only very rarely did fruit appear on the plant.

"Whenever we were his guests, which was every two years, he would stand up and show us his pineapples. In ilo tempore, he would have said, only a few ventured into this extremely costly cultivation. He had a special greenhouse built for this American crop, which had to be heated in winter and summer with a boiler to a temperature of 25 to 30 degrees. Each pineapple cost him 100 to 150 francs, he admitted. They ripened slowly and with difficulty, piece by piece, and the fruit that turned golden yellow received special meticulous care. The rumour of its imminent ripening spread through the region and friends from neighbouring castles, as well as the most important citizens of Diksmuide, came to admire the miraculous fruit."
Pineapple plant (1850-1900)

Polydore Maeterlinck thinks pineapple growing is a waste of money. His melons, he says, are just as tasty, juicier, less pretentious and less destructive. Uncle Florimond dies a year after his successful cultivation. Given his majestic size, his crypt has to be widened before his coffin can be lowered into it. After this, the castle dwellers face uncertain times. The impact of the First World War on the castle is incalculable. It was set on fire by the Germans and not rebuilt until 1925. The castle was also occupied by German troops during the Second World War, resulting in damage.

After the war

Maeterlinck wrote Bulles Blueus after the Second World War. He closes the chapter dedicated to Uncle Florimond with a melancholic note about the influence of the destructive World Wars on Diksmuide and its castle.

"And all that is no more. The castle, Ypres and Diksmuide have been razed to the ground, even the graves have disappeared. The two towns were rebuilt, but did the second war, which was fiercer than the first, respect them? Every twenty or thirty years, will it be necessary to start life anew and return to death? And what happened to my sister, a prisoner of the Nazis in Brussels, and Florimond's parents? Is her daughter still alive, and her granddaughter? She was married to a French officer descended from the family of Jacques Amyot, the admirable translator of Plutarchus and Longus and one of the creators of our language. Where are they? No one can say and I wait with fear in the universal darkness and silence the cruel revelations, the mortal surprises of peace."

On 6 May 1949, a year after writing his Bulles Blueus, Maurice Maeterlinck died at the age of 86.


Discover more about the special history of the Esen castle via the route Streekhuis Westhoek on ErfgoedApp.