For me it was a story about a man called Mr Flop who was a flower collector. Mr Flop gathered up faded and dying flowers and whisked them off on a flying apple-tree branch (sort of prototype of Harry Potter’s Nimbus 2000) to the Kingdom of Flowers where they ‘regained their lost beauty and perfume and became more beautiful than ever’.
I loved the idea, but even more appealing was that Mr Flop whisked off the young heroine for a magical visit to the Kingdom on his flying branch. And what was the young heroine’s name? Alice? Dorothy? Wendy? No, they’d already had their fun. It was Laurette.
The stunning painting above is by artist Gordon Seward, currently exhibiting at the Espace Bouquières in Toulouse. Gordon’s work has been shown at prestigious venues around Europe, as well as in the UK and the US, and has been the subject of glowing articles by critics and collectors. But Toulousains are specially blessed (hooray!) as Gordon, for the last fifteen or so years, has returned each summer like a swallow to his adoptive city, thrilling locals and visitors alike with his latest creations. The fact that it was pouring down on the first morning did not deter devoted collectors from queuing up early in order to rush in and bag a goodie.
Bursting with beauty and emotion, luminous, vibrant, dramatic, bold, dancing, joyful, fluid, free–these are some of the expressions that spring to mind as you stand before the paintings. Swiss soprano Brigitte Hool, on a visit to the pink city to perform in The Magic Flute, stepped into the gallery one day and looked around. ‘Can I,’ she said to the surprised artist, ‘sing for your paintings?’ Which she then proceeded to do, celebrating them with a Puccini aria.*
What a perfect reaction.
Lacking the adequate tessitura to do a Mme Hool, or the springy calves to convey my admiration through a series of Nureyev-like leaps, I will try to express my own feelings in this short blog. (Obviously, I’d like to write a long blog, a very long blog, but…)
Art critics have described the artist’s work as ‘an ode to life’, ‘a source of constant pleasure’. Seward is ‘a colour magician’, a ‘new Fauvist’, ‘his explosive painting (bringing us) the fearless Mediterranean spirit and freedom.’ Gordon himself, in his autobiography Why I Paint, talks about the importance of first learning the rigorous craft of drawing, then describes ‘letting go’, allowing free rein to his intuition as a way of spurring the paintings ‘to bubble and sing’. He cites Matisse (one of his idols) as someone who ‘determined in contemporary painting the fundamental elements of joy and humility’ which ‘seem to me now more revolutionary and necessary than ever.’
This year, along with his wife and constant Muse, poet, lyricist and translator Cécile Toulouse, he has been working on an exciting new concept, a limited series of signed ‘Digigraphies’, high-quality lithographs using a technique which allows a dazzling range of colours. The theme chosen for this first series is ‘Toulouse’, in particular the city’s historical connection with some of the most amazing chapters in French aviation.
Readers of this blog will be only too familiar with my own attachment to la ville rose where I lived for many years, as well as my enthusiasm for this period of its history**. In the 1920s and 30s, Pierre-Georges Latécoère developed what was to become one of the world’s most legendary airlines (which incidentally will celebrate the centenary of its birth at Montaudran this year).
His aviators and mechanics were a larger-than-life bunch of daredevils, poets and writers, who risked their necks on every mission. Passionate about their vocation, they also had an appetite for life which included l’amour, toujours l’amour, prompting Didier Daurat, head of operations at the airline, to arrange for these ardent young men to lodge at the Hôtel du Grand Balcon on the corner of the Place du Capitole, a respectable boarding house run by the three genteel Marquez sisters. This, he assumed, would keep them in check (it didn’t–the sisters were pussy cats who adored their lodgers).
Both of the Sewards are keen historians, also fascinated by the city’s association with these fluttering starts in aviation. Gordon first set up his easel in Saint-Exupéry’s former quarters at the hotel, Room 32, many years ago, before the place was renovated.*** His canvases show the view looking out from the window towards the famous 18th century Capitole building. In January 2015 he returned to paint the moving scenes as people gathered on the square to hold a vigil after the Charlie Hebdo massacres (this is the subject of one of the ‘Digigraphies’).
This obligation of the artist to keep the flame of art burning more brightly than ever in ‘the heart of darkness’ recurs in his autobiography. He talks of Matisse, refusing to leave Nice during WW2, continuing to paint as bombers roared overhead.
‘To hold in your hand a brush or a gun. To arm yourself with a pen or a dagger. A choice brought before us every day, as it always has been.’
And so it was, dear readers, that this weekend the Maître de Maison and myself sallied forth on our annual pilgrimage to the Espace Bouquières (alas we have missed a couple over the years), treating ourselves to a day of joy and nostalgia in la ville rose, soaking up the dusty heat and southern ambiance, strolling arm in arm through the narrow streets, past café terraces and fountain-splashed squares packed with locals and tourists.
Toulouse has changed dramatically. It continues to change with terrifying speed: the gigantic aerospace industry, the ‘Silicon Valley’ IoT (Internet of Things), the sci fi projects for flying taxis, driverless buses, the Hyperloop tunnel which will shoot trains between Toulouse and Montpelier in 20 minutes. Buying lamb chops at the Maison de l’agneau in the Marché Victor Hugo (opened in 1892), we exchanged reminiscences with the butcher.
Twenty thousand new arrivals each year, he told us, making neat wax paper packets. A far cry from the ‘old days’ when chansonnier Claude Nougaro penned his famous hymn to the city of his birth, ‘a flower of coral watered by the sun’ (have the Kleenex ready as you listen):
Celebrating the old and the new at the Espace Bouquières, the artist and his Muse welcome visitors, answer questions, talk about art, music, history, literature and life in general, including the trendy barber doing hipster haircuts just down the street. They are always, unfailingly, ‘disponible‘, at the disposal of all who come to buy or simply to look. And all around, on every wall, is a joyous ‘ode to life’.
What a treat.
The exhibition finishes on June 16th, but the four ‘Digigraphies’ will continue to be displayed in Toulouse at the Magasin Trait, 4 rue Vidal. There are also permanent exhibitions in Marseilles (Galerie Grossi), Lille (Atelier Kolorma), and Montauban (Art et Patrimoine).
Unlucky mortals far from these cities can amuse their bouches at:
PS: For the last several weeks I have been going through the elephantine birth pangs of finishing off Villa Julia, the last book in the French Summer series. In this I have been helped by a kindly fairy godmother who popped up from cyberspace and offered to help. Her name is Paula Heron Phillips(I hope she doesn’t mind me mentioning her in this blog) and she has been reading drafts, wielding sticks and carrots and giving excellent feedback. All through the sheer goodness of her reader’s heart. Every Indie author should be so lucky. I am so grateful. Merci Paula!!!!!xxxx. Anyway, I was happy to escape from the maternity ward for a day, put on my city togs and swan off with the Maître de Maison to see the Expo Seward. Especially as, along with the formal card, there was a more personal (and cheekier) invitation (see below) from the little bird which features in many of the artist’s paintings in various forms. I like to think this one was the nightingale the ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees’ which had serenaded us in our garden all through May, charming many a magic casement and causing us to hold up the mobile phone countless times in an attempt to record its magic notes (all we got was crackle). Here it is.
PPS Villa Julia will be out in …the future….
*recounted in Why I Paint (available from the artist’s website)
We bookworms are peaceful creatures, caring and sharing, communicating our joy and enthusiasm for a good read via book blogs, book clubs and book reviews. One of the biggest platforms for reviews is Amazon (where many bookworms spend zillions buying their fodder). But Amazon has recently introduced a rule which, like Rouget de Lisle singing the Marseillaise, has got us rampant. May is a month for revolutions. Even a worm can turn.
Today I’m reblogging an excellent post from author/blogger Barb Taub, of great relevance to all book lovers who buy from Amazon and leave reviews on their site. This is something I do myself: it helps other readers and of course helps the author (and as an Indie author I can tell you those reviews are important ). My policy is to leave a review on various sites-Amazon US (com) Amazon UK, Amazon France etc. But two days ago I tried to leave a review on the US site and it was refused. Why? because Amazon has a new rule, as Barb explains in her blog: ”You must have spent at least $50 on Amazon.com in the past 12 months’ in order to leave a review.’
What???? So customers like myself, who since 2007 have spent thousands of euros (I live in France) on Amazon products, not to mention the Maître de Maison, who is on Amazon Prime and whose credit card is even more dented than mine, are now being told we have to spend $50 on the US site just for the privilege of being able to review, for absolutely free, a book bought from another Amazon site? As one commentator, S. K. Nicholls, said ‘Amazon won’t post a paid review…but demand payment for your RIGHT to review.’
This is clearly nonsense. It becomes even more nonsensical when Amazon won’t let you buy something on its US site, but re-directs you to the country where you live. I am a member of the excellent Kindle Unlimited scheme whereby I pay 9.99€ per month to ‘borrow’ 10 e-books at any one time but see on the left what happens if I go to the US site to browse? Talk about Catch 22…
Here’s what Barb Taub says:
An open letter to Amazon:
I should be your Holy Grail. I’m the real deal, an actual reader who goes through books carefully, thinks about what they mean and how they’re written, and then writes a considered, thoughtful, and hopefully helpful analysis—in other words, I’m a book reviewer.
Writers, potential customers, publishers, and oh yes—you, Amazon—should be jumping for joy and giving thanks that I’ve taken hours to read and yet more hours to craft reviews for hundreds of books. Instead, Amazon, you’ve decided to punish reviewers like me.
In the name of discouraging “fake” reviews, your new policy requires reviewers like me to spend $50 on Amazon’s US site and even more, £40 on Amazon UK before I can share my review. Have you thought about other solutions, or the effect this will have on legitimate reviewers?
The full article is here: do please read it and add your voice to the protest by sharing and commenting.
Millions of internet fans will doubtless have been scratching their heads over the untypical silence emanating from deepest Tarn over the last few weeks. A bout of dysphonia? A fit of the sulks? The delivery of the latest series of ‘Game of Thrones’ by an Amazonian drone?
I can now reassure them. The Maître de Maison and I have been on holiday.
The trip, however, did not start well.
First stop, Blagnac, the airport of Toulouse, la ville rose, capital of Occitania. This ever-expanding gigantic aeronautical hub (9 million passengers in 2017) has changed since I first saw it, but I’m still pretty familiar with the place. Its control tower holds no secrets: have I not, over the years, taught generations of its controllers and technicians to say ‘Roger Over and Out’ in an impeccable Yorkshire accent? Have I not driven back and forth 923 times, ferrying aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbours, and other visiting dignitaries? Have I not flown in and out of it myself at least 482 of those 923 times, on one momentous occasion seated next to an ex-member of Wham? (Wake me up before you go-go. I have the T-shirt).
In theory, I should be able to do the journey with eyes closed and, as they say locally, ze finger in ze nose. This is unnecessary, however, because the Maître de Maison has a top-notch hyper-smart GPS system in the car which, its finger in its nose, tells it exactly where to go. There’s just one problem: the seven dwarfs of Blagnac keep nipping out at night and moving parts of the infrastructure around without ringing the satellite and telling it. Old familiar bits get blocked off by giant pieces of LEGO; new, confusing bits get added on. And so it was that on a sunny April morning, the MDM and I, having waved goodbye to the farmhouse in the Tarn, swung on to yet another of the 372 roundabouts on the airport approach, preparatory to swinging off into one of the 101 car parks in plenty of time to park up, trudge 5 kilometres to the terminal, and catch our flight to the UK, destination Edinburgh.
Seconds later, guided by the trusty GPS, we found ourselves heading back to the Tarn, sucked into a mighty ocean of cars on the Toulouse Ring Road from Hell. Being one of the famous ‘Transport Strike’ days in my adoptive country, it all looked like the opening scene in ‘La La Land’. The only difference was nobody was dancing from bonnet to bonnet. As we were forced to crawl inch by inch back whence we had come, we contemplated with horror, across the solid concrete central reservation, the jam of hooting cars all trying to go the other way–that way being, of course, the one we had just left and needed to get back to in order to catch our plane. It was at this point that I started screaming hysterically that I would never get to Scotland to see the latest Great Nephew, born in January, never mind the Monet haystacks and the Reverend R. Walker in the Scottish National Gallery. (When we arrived, the Monets were on loan. Probably in France. )
The Gare Matabiau, railway station of la ville rose, was just hoving into sight when the MDM, who had been dreaming of haggis and single malts for weeks, wrenched the steering wheel violently to the left and in a daring Formula 1 manoeuvre (which I missed, having shut my eyes and stopped breathing) we veered across the Canal du Midi and several lanes of stalled lorries to find ourselves miraculously, if not moving, at least facing the right way.
Oh happy day. Two hours later we boarded our Flybe flight and let somebody else do the driving.
Edinburgh. We had been there briefly, on flying visits. This time we had the leisure to get to know the place. First stop, Sainsbury’s, for a packet of chocolate digestives. We joined the checkout queue. No-one, alas, was wearing a kilt. But they were all wearing big smiles.
Checkout clerk: Good afternoon to you. Are you enjoying yourselves today?
Me: Good afternoon. Yes, thank you. We’ve just arrived.
Clerk: Where are you from?
Clerk: Really? I love France. Do you have any special plans for your visit?
Me: We’re going to visit Holyrood House.
Clerk: That’s a grand place. You’ll enjoy it. Wish I was going with you.
Me: Ha ha. What time do you finish tonight?
By the time I’d paid for my packet of biscuits I’d learned the young man was a student at ‘Uni’, his exams were coming up, he was juggling bouts of revision with supermarket shifts, his girl-friend was called Mia, all his family had red hair, and life was grand and Edinburgh a fine place to live.
The queue of customers waiting behind wished us well as we departed.
A similar scenario was repeated later at John Lewis where I was buying a pair of reading specs. This time it involved three assistants, one of whom gave the glasses a 15-minute polish while we exchanged life-histories and travel plans, then two others who scoured the place looking for different styles of glasses cases, whose relative merits were discussed for half an hour until we all reached a verdict on the red one and agreed how wonderful life was.
The next day the elderly gentleman queuing behind me for the toilets at The Royal Botanic Gardens informed me he was a regular visitor and wasn’t he lucky to live near such a marvel? Over the flushing of the loos we agreed the weather was perfect, not too cold, not too hot, just right, and the blossom trees were a wonder to behold, had I see the Japanese cherry by any chance?
By now I had concluded that Edinburgh was the Mindfulness Capital of the world. Even the motorists just sigh and shake their heads gently when someone bumbles into their lane, doubtless distracted by the romantic skyline and the statue of Sir Walter Scott.
There was just one rub: we had been looking forward to making people mad with jealousy by posting on social media the 300 photos taken on the MDM’s brand-new, top-notch hyper-smart smart phone, bought specially to take superb photos liable to make people jealous. But the phone wouldn’t let us. Something about the ‘wrong codes’. The ‘right codes’, obviously, were back in the Tarn, on a post-it.
Still, at least the thing didn’t explode in mid-air on the flight back, so I can now share some of them on this blog.
Have a lovely day, wherever you may be, and don’t forget to take the time to look at the cherry trees.
PS The newest great nephew was adorable, just like his big three-year-old brother. Aw.
A leg of lamb– gigot d’agneau–is a firmFrench favourite for Easter. Stick it full of garlic slivers and rosemary leaves, cover with butter (yes) and roast on high heat until pink in the middle. But this year I’ve gone for something more complicated, in honour of the tender new vegetables just coming on to the market– a navarin d’agneau, lamb stew, but with class.
First, a trip to the market. Here are Claudie and Caroline at the wonderful market in Biarritz. They’re shopping for lamb to make a tagine, but the basic principle is the same. Forget your list and throw yourself on the mercy of He–or She–Who Knows Best…
“In spite of the early hour there was a bustle. Caroline felt her spirits lift as they stepped indoors. The tiny bars with their zinc counters were doing a brisk trade in strong espressos. A din came from the produce stalls, where the market sellers, on raised platforms, vaunted the quality of their wares interspersed with rapid-fire banter with the customers in a mixture of languages, French, English and Spanish.
‘Deux kilos de saucisse pour la belle dame à la robe rouge!’
‘Et vous Monsieur, qu’est-ce qu’il vous faut? Un bon pied de porc pour ce midi?’
A long queue had formed at one stall where three men in Basque berets were nimbly dodging and dancing past each other reaching for hams, duck legs and trays of charcuterie…
It took a good half hour for Claudie to drag Caroline to thestall which sold the lamb.Laid out behind the glass were different cuts of lamb chops, shoulders of lamb, gigots, racks of lamb, lamb sausages. Caroline tried to take it all in. Presiding over the proceedings was lady of a certain age with a regal bearing. Under her white apron she wore a fluffy angora top in Barbie pink. Rubies glittered in her ears, the same colour as her Chanel red lipstick. Her blonde hair was sprayed into an immaculate golden helmet.
Caroline nudged Claudie.
‘It’s Catherine Deneuve.’
‘That is la patronne. The owner’s wife. She has to keep up appearances. Look at that diamond, you can see it through her plastic gloves. Le patron is doing well.’
Madame, on her raised platform, was playing the crowd. She spread her arms theatrically and apologised graciously to the steadily growing queue.
‘They are busy with the orders,’ she said, indicating her husband and a team of assistants who were cutting, sawing and packing meat into Styrofoam boxes.
The way she imparted this information indicated the customers should be honoured there was any meat left for them at all. They nodded respectfully, an eye on her flashing knives.
Finally it was their turn.
Claudie began to order.
‘What are you making?’
‘A tagine.’ (NB: Or, for today’s dish ‘un navarin’ -Ed)
‘I will choose the meat,’ she said, putting away the cuts that Claudie had asked for. Her manicured hands in their plastic gloves hovered over a tray of shoulders. She paused, dived on one piece of meat and held it up for Claudie’s inspection, turning it from side to side like a jeweller showing a rare gem.
‘Perfect,’ said Claudie.
They watched as Madame selected a long thin knife and deftly removed the bone, holding that up for inspection too.
‘This will be good. For the flavour.’
She made a neat wax paper package.
Her eyes travelled over the other trays. ‘The fat.’
She chose three pieces of neck and weighed them.
‘Perhaps one more?’ ventured Claudie.
Madame complied graciously.
Caroline looked behind her at the waiting customers. They all had solemn expressions on their faces. No one moved or complained.
Five minutes later they had a basket full of packages and Claudie had handed over a lot of money.
‘Bon appétit,’ said the patronne. ‘And give my regards to your mother.’
She tilted her head in a nod of acknowledgement.
‘She knows the family,’ said Claudie under her breath, adding ‘Merci Madame. Bonne journée.’
‘Merveilleux, truly merveilleux,’ said Caroline as they left.
(Biarritz Passion: French Summer Novel #1)
After the lamb, a visit to the veg stall to buy the tenderest baby carrots and turnips, tiny onions, dwarf green beans, spring potatoes (grenailles) and peas. (OK, I cheated. The peas were frozen). All the vegetables must be lovingly prepared and added to the lamb for the last hour of cooking, then left overnight so that the flavours mingle. NB don’t forget to treat yourself to bouquet of spring flowers along with the dwarf beans.
For the recipe*, I use a combination of Julia Child’s classic and the inspiration du jour , but an essential thing to remember is that the lamb, as you are browning it, must be caramelised with sugar in order to acquire the beautiful amber colour typical of the dish.
For amateurs of the French Summer Novels, Caroline and Claudie will be at the market again, discussing life, love and the best olives in town in ‘Villa Julia’, the last book in the series, currently under, ahem, revision. Imagine a vast shapeless onesie with long arms and short legs being painstakingly unpicked, re-cut, tucked in here, let out there; add a few sequins, a flounce, a bow and with a bit of luck it might end up as a haute couture ballgown on next season’s catwalk…But while ‘Villa Julia’ is being cut to ribbons in the atelier, you can always hop over to the beautiful Basque country for less than a fiver! Let yourself be carried away to the Atlantic rollers via Biarritz Passion and Hot Basque . Go on, you’re worth it… 😉
On February 14 2016 I published ‘Love Story… or the big doggy poopoo’. This was a billet doux to the newest member in our four-house hamlet in the Tarn, Indie (or Indiq in Breton), a small black and brown puppy with a lolling pink tongue and caramel eyes.
This tiny waif, whose mother had died, had been abandoned by her step-mother, a farm dog. After roaming the countryside in search of a crust and a kindly word, her little paws were worn and bleeding (talk about Dickens…) But Sirius, her own special star 😉, had been watching over her. She ended up winning the jackpot – her very own 5-star hotel and restaurant, otherwise known as ‘the neighbours’.
We watched her grow from a cute little waif into a Very Large Dog. Fortunately, as her size increased, so did her affection. Indie was a dog with a big heart. But just over a year ago, on a routine visit to the vet, it was revealed that Indie’s big heart was not perfect. Last month, after a short life in which she enslaved us all, she left us. The neighbours, her beloved Maman and Papa, are bereft, and so are we all.
Indie was a great hostess who loved having lots of humans and animals visit her home; she was an inveterate socialite, dropping by the other houses in the hamlet to check everyone was up and dressed and ready to throw sticks (or, even better, frying up a bit of Toulouse sausage); she was a nature lover, fond of sniffing the flowers and watching the sunsets. She tripped us up, stood on our feet, bruised our shins and made us laugh. She brightened our days and enriched our lives and we miss her.
Au revoir Indie, maybe one day, passing by Sirius….
Her full story can be found below, in the February 2016 blog.
For this first piece of 2018, I’d like to wish a very sincere Bonne Année to all readers. The year started with a wonderful surprise…
On January 8thareadersreviewblog published their list of Top Reads of 2017. Included was ‘The Passage of Desire’. Tina Williams had already reviewed the book, and I’d said a word or two about why her comments had touched me so deeply. But the real answer is longer and more complicated.
This third book in the series is different from the first two. As a prequel, it’s meant to tell the story of Alexandra’s secret affair, revealed at the end of ‘Hot Basque’. Who was the mystery man? How did their paths cross? What were the consequences? In line with the French theme, I’d envisioned a passionate meeting between strangers in a foreign hotel, a Brief Encounter à la française. It would be in novella form, a quick write.
That was the plan. But alien forces took over. A part of my own life sneaked in and I found myself abandoning the pays basque in favour of my own purple-blue remembered hills, tipping my hat to the places, the people and experiences that helped to shape me. The Muse, ready for another holiday in the Basque country morphed into a wing-flapping Raven. ‘Be afraid,’ she croaked ‘be very afraid…’
When I started this blog in January 2015 I asked readers ‘Can you remember the first book that really captured your imagination as a child?’ I didn’t actually have any readers at the time, but a few friendly bookworms wrote in enthusiastically to share memories of ‘Heidi’, ‘Bunny Blue’, ‘Phantom Tollbooth’, ‘The Story of Ferdinand’, ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, ‘Where’s Wumpus’, ‘The Faraway Tree’, ‘Little House in the Woods’…
Writing today, I’m thinking about books that marked me as an adolescent. I’d devoured ‘Jane Eyre’, shaken by the heroine’s suffering at Lowood School, thrilled by her meeting with Mr Rochester, shocked by the secret wife in the attic. Then I read ‘Wuthering Heights’. It was like undergoing an anaesthetic. I lost consciousness and emerged completely disoriented, unable to put the experience into words. It was as though there were two books in parallel, one a passionate tale of doomed love set on the Yorkshire moors, and a second, more subterranean, full of shadowy elements which I only half-intuited. (It was much later that I read that even greater shocker, with its domestic violence and desertion, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, but some of its themes would creep into my novella.)
For many born in Yorkshire’s West Riding, the Brontë legend enters our lives as naturally as the air we breathe. It’s not the most picturesque part of England, no honey-stoned thatched cottages in bucolic villages, but it has its own unique, strong personality, its culture, its ‘folk’, with their keen sense of humour, ‘independent, ready ever to resist authority which was conceived to be unjustly exercised’, as Elizabeth Gaskell* put it .Crucially, although the former mill towns were grim-looking places, they were a mere hop and a skip away up the hills to something else: the spell-binding, other-worldly landscape of the moors. It’s hard to explain the fascination of these ‘high, wild, desolate’ places, chillingly bleak in winter when ‘the four winds of heaven seemed to meet and rage together’, but which, in late summer, are transformed into ‘long swells of amethyst-tinted hills’, ‘all glorious with the purple bloom of the heather’ contrasting with ‘the tawny golden light…of summer evenings’.
Inseparable from the fascination is the haunting story of that family, who came to live in the village of Haworth in 1820: the Reverend Patrick Brontë, his wife Maria, and their six children, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne.
The moorland landscape ‘sloping upwards beyond the parsonage’ was to become an essential part of their lives. For one of them, Emily, it was literally vital; on the rare times she was forced to leave it, she became physically ill. ‘I felt in my heart she would die, if she did not go home’ wrote Charlotte when the decision was taken to remove Emily from Roe Head school.
Illness and suffering were things the Brontës knew well. The list of family deaths on the memorial plaque in Haworth church is sobering: Maria Brontë, the mother,1821. The two oldest girls, Maria and Elizabeth, 1825. Branwell and Emily 1848, Anne, 1849.
Charlotte, the last surviving child and the only one to marry, died nine months after her wedding day, taking her unborn child with her. The villagers, who in the June of 1854 had flocked to congratulate the bride, looking ‘like a snowdrop’ in her white muslin gown and bonnet decorated with green leaves, would return the following March ‘thronging the churchyard and the church’ to see her ‘carried forth’ to lie ‘beside her own people’.
Only the father and the husband remained.
Trying to put everything I’d like to say about the Brontës into one short(ish) blog is like Jill trying to squeeze into her Speedo in ‘Hot Basque’. There are bulges and bits hanging out. I’ve put some of them into footnotes for readers interested in knowing more. The basic facts of their story are well-known. Thousands of visitors travel to Haworth each year, visiting the moors and the museum, reading about the Dickensian childhood of the six little Brontës, their ailing mother confined to bed, their remote father working and eating alone in his study or out visiting his flock. The children were left to their own resources, with seven-year-old Maria making sure her younger siblings made no noise to disturb the invalid upstairs, taking them out for walks ‘hand in hand, towards the glorious wild moors, which in after days they loved so passionately.’ They inhabited a self-contained world, mixing rarely with others, drawing, sketching, inventing plays and fantasy worlds. Voracious readers of whatever they could lay their hands on from contemporary magazines to the poetry of Wordsworth and Byron and the novels of Sir Walter Scott, they created stories and poems of their own, their fertile imaginations fed by the written word and the ‘purple-black’ moors. Patrick Brontë observed ‘I frequently thought that I discovered signs of rising talent, which I had seldom or never before seen in any of their age.’
Three years after Mrs Brontë’s death, Maria, then Elizabeth, died from tuberculosis contracted at the school they attended. Maria’s sufferings there made a lasting impression on younger sister Charlotte, feeding her imagination for the Lowood scenes in ‘Jane Eyre’. The children were looked after by Aunt Branwell, the late Mrs Brontë’s sister, an unwilling expatriate from the tropical climes of Cornwall. There was also 53-year-old Tabby, servant, cook, confidante, story-teller, and honorary grandmother. Nine-year old Charlotte took over as eldest of the little community of four who drew together even more closely.
All would become famous, the sisters as novelists, the brother for his tragically wasted life of debauchery, alcoholism and opium addiction. But literary fame came late, after bitter struggles, keen disappointments, the exhaustion of constant ill health and persistent worry over the uncontrollable Branwell.
The sisters’ first literary venture was a collection of poems put together under the pen names of Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell. Failing to find a publisher, Charlotte took matters into her own hands, establishing what might be considered as the first Indie Writers’ Co-op. She managed to ‘pitch’ her idea to the firm of Aylott and Jones in 1846, proposing to meet the costs of publication herself, but giving specific details about the format. Having bought ‘a small volume from which to learn all she could on the subject of preparation for the press’, she sent her instructions: ‘one octavo volume of the same quality of paper and size of type as Moxon’s last edition of Wordsworth’, ‘a duodecimo form… with CLEAR type.’ If Amazon self-publishing had been around in 1846, Charlotte would have been the first client.
The little volume of poetry, though it had no commercial success, was the first step on the road to fame. It was, however, a road full of obstacles, which are sometimes forgotten today. For Charlotte, Emily and Anne, writing was as essential as breathing. But for some time, ‘an indistinct dread…was creeping over their minds’. They were living with a ‘Shadow in the house’. Branwell, that ‘boy of remarkable promise’, the former hope of the family, was entering his final decline. The sisters needed to write, needed to earn a living, in order to stay together and keep the family going.
For the next three years, until Branwell’s death, they would continue to work while witnessing the details of his descent into hell. His attacks of delirium tremens were so frightening that ‘he slept in his father’s room, and he would sometimes declare that either he or his father should be dead before the morning.’ Patrick Brontë’s health was poor, he’d only been saved from blindness by a cataract operation, but he undertook his responsibility as a father with stoicism. The sisters, ‘sick with fright’, ‘listen(ed) for the report of a pistol in the dead of night.’
Another obstacle they faced was their sex. Like others, such as George Eliot, they felt they would be taken more seriously if they adopted ‘the sheltering shadow of an incognito’. ‘Authoresses are liable to be looked upon with prejudice,’ wrote Charlotte. She had previously entered into correspondence with Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, sending him some of her poems. He replied in a courteous and kindly manner, praising her ‘faculty of verse’, but also, suspecting she was a woman, urging her to seriously consider ‘whether literature was, or was not, the best course for a woman to pursue’…‘literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.’
The three were also up against literary conventions regarding subject and style. When their first novels were finally published in 1847, one reviewer commented:
‘It is not only the subject of this novel, however, that is objectionable, but the manner of treating it. There is a coarseness of tone throughout the writing of all these Bells [Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë], that puts an offensive subject in its worst point of view….’
Things only got worse when their identity was discovered, and the ‘great unknown genius’ behind ‘Jane Eyre’ turned out (shock, horror) to be a woman. Victorian political correctness stipulated that women, if they did take up the pen, should write about ‘proper’ subjects. ‘In certain instances, authoresses (have) much outstepped the line which men (feel) to be proper’ was one comment, while a fellow author confided to Charlotte: ‘You know, you and I Miss Brontë have both written naughty books’
A worthy model was to be found in ‘Miss Austen’. But the Brontës were not Miss Austen*** They came from a different world. The accusations of coarseness continued. When in 1858 ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ was published, the esteemed Charles Kingsley praised it as ‘powerful and interesting’, but noted ‘the fault of the book is its coarseness’.
Charlotte suffered keenly from such criticisms of her work, or that of her sisters. She felt they were unjust and in this she was warmly defended by her biographer and friend, Mrs Gaskell. ‘(The Sisters) could not write otherwise than they did of life’ she says, noting Charlotte’s strongly-held principle concerning. ‘the duty of representing life as it really is, not as it ought to be.’ Anne was even more explicit, saying:
‘When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear.’
In particular Mrs Gaskell launched into a rant against the ‘stabbing cruelty’ of an article about ‘Jane Eyre’ in The Quarterly Review of December 1848. ‘Everyone has the right to form his own conclusion respecting the merits and demerits of a book’ she says, but when an anonymous reviewer ‘desirous of writing ‘“smart articles” which shall be talked about in London’ (ouch!) starts to make conjectures about the author, she lets rip with the following:
‘Who is he that should say of an unknown woman: “She must be one who, for some sufficient reason, has long forfeited the society of her sex?” Is he one who has led a wild and struggling and isolated life–seeing few but plain and outspoken Northerners, unskilled in the euphemisms which assist the polite world to skim over the mention of vice?’
Go, Mrs G, go!
And she does, alluding to the terrible trials of the preceding years, which ended with Emily’s death in that very month, and which left Charlotte bereft***. ‘Cowardly insolence’ is her verdict on the unknown reviewer, who was by then probably skulking round the capital in a false beard and dark glasses.
Of course, it wasn’t just women writers who came under attack. Across the Channel, the great Flaubert was put on trial for offence to public morality after the publication of ‘Madame Bovary’. His scorn for society’s self-appointed ‘correct thinkers’, ‘les bien-pensants,’ is set out in deliciously satirical form in his ‘Dictionary of Received Ideas’ where ‘Imbécile’ is defined as ‘ceux qui ne pensent pas comme vous’ (those who don’t think the same way you do).
‘Wuthering Heights’ received even greater censure than ‘Jane Eyre’. It ‘revolted many readers’, it was hardly respectable. Charlotte knew only too well ‘the dark side of respectable human nature’, she’d seen enough of it as a governess, as had Anne, and their own ‘dark side’ was living in the parsonage. ‘Who is without their drawback, their scourge, their skeleton behind the curtain?’ she asks. She leaped to her sister’s defence, but Emily, that ‘free, wild, untameable spirit’ was in any case ‘impervious to influence’, a creature of passions, true to herself. (Monsieur Hegel’s remark**** ‘She should have been a man’ is telling in more ways than one.) ‘A spirit more sombre than sunny’, Emily drew her inspiration from what she saw around her–‘natures so relentless and implacable…spirits so lost and fallen’, blending the rhythms of her dramas with the rhythms of the landscape she herself was so attuned to. Charlotte, in the preface to the second edition of ‘Wuthering Heights’ after the death of the sister she called ‘the nearest thing to my heart in the world’, said the book’s ‘power fills me with renewed admiration’.
‘Wuthering Heights’ is still revolting readers today. The biggest internet site in the world for readers, writers and reviewers is Goodreads. Launched in 2007, its stated mission is ‘to help people find and share books they love’. It has a staggering 65 million members, 2 million books listed, and 68 million reviews rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars.
Wuthering Heights has 27,202 reviews and 1,042,590 ratings (i e number of stars awarded without giving a review). Its overall rating, combining the two, is 3.8 stars. Below is a link to an interesting review which awards the book 5 stars, describing it as ‘epic’:
but which begins with the words: ‘I understand why so many people hate this book. Catherine and Heathcliff are monstrous. Monstrous.’
When I’d finished ‘The Passage of Desire’, the Muse’s dire warnings were still ringing in my ears. The book was too personal. It was an unabashed, chauvinistic Hymn to Yorkshire. It was a blatant publicity campaign to ‘Like’ those sisters, ‘coarse and revolting’ to some, but an inspiration to many; feminists before the hour, independent, principled, who overcame suffering and prejudice to follow their vocation. My characters, frail, innocent, vulnerable creatures, had somehow got involved with them, read their books, fallen victim to moor-fever, been buffeted by the winds of fate. Wanting to protect them, had I laid them open to ‘stabbing cruelty’?
Moreover, the innumerable re-writes had given me a constant headache, indigestion, and mouse elbow. Spiders had taken up residence in the dust-covered house, the garden was full of weeds, the lavender needed cutting back. All that was left was to emigrate to Outer Mongolia.
How wonderful then to read in the first review: ‘…imbued with the dark passions of Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’. Indeed the Brontës float in and out of the story, both literally and metaphorically, and the tale is something of a homage to romanticism’.
Others followed, of a mixed nature. I intoned Charlotte’s words ‘Censure, though not pleasant, is often wholesome.’ But some, like the first, spoke of reactions that made me cancel the ticket to Outer Mongolia:
‘Spellbound and lost in the beauty of Long’s words, the picturesque moors and passion of the characters, transported me to another time. Her writing made melancholy feel dreamlike, passion feel like a burning fire, and friendships feel like a shady oak.’
‘If the human heart has a voice, it is certainly portrayed through the lovely words author Long has set to the page.’
‘This reminded me of reading the classics in high school and not really understanding the emotional drama of the story, then re-reading them as an adult and thinking, wow, because Long has captured that ‘WOW.’.
Those reviews were my highlights of 2017.Thank you to those who took the time and trouble to write them. Thank you again to Tina Williams, working indefatigably with her fellow-elf, Caroline Barker, to ‘help people to find and share books they love’
*Mrs Gaskell’s biography ‘The Life of Charlotte Brontë’, 1857. Many of the quotes in the blog come from this fascinating book; which includes numerous letters written by Charlotte.
**Charlotte wasn’t a fan of Jane Austen. She wrote in a letter to G. H. Lewes ‘I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.’ However, she agreed to think about Lewes’ advice about writing in a more ‘subdued’ manner, but without making any promises since she believed that authors did their best work while under ‘an influence… which becomes their master, which will have its own way…dictating certain words…whether vehement or measured in their nature…new-moulding characters…rejecting …old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones.’ ‘Can there be a great artist without poetry?’ she asked.
*** After the death of her sisters, Charlotte suffered from acute loneliness. Writing of her solitary walks across the moors she said ‘everything reminds me of the times when others were with me… My sister Emily had a particular love for them, and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry leaf, not a fluttering lark or linnet, but reminds me of her. The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon.’
*** ‘I think, however long I live, I shall not forget what the parting with Monsieur Heger cost me,’ wrote Charlotte. At the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, Charlotte fell in love with her teacher Constantin Heger. She was there with Emily (one of the rare times that Emily managed to overcome her ‘moor-sickness’ and ‘rallied through the mere force of resolution’). Heger considered both of them to be extraordinarily gifted though ‘he seems to have rated Emily’s genius even higher than Charlotte’s’. ‘Her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty’ he said, obviously regarding such qualities as being of a ‘masculine’ nature.
It’s one of those days when you’re driving home through a countryside washed fresh by melting frost, the sun just starting to pierce the mist. The narrow road dips into hollows shrouded in swathes of dense, rolling fog, then rises, emerging into uplands of sparkling brilliance under a sky so blue you make a grab for your sunglasses. Across the valley a curl of smoke floats above the chimney of a house perched on a hilltop. Inside the car, the classical music station has decided to go Nordic in celebration of the wintry morning and a blast of fjordian Grieg makes the windows vibrate. There’s a faint smell of chlorine, you’ve spent an hour jumping up and down in a swimming pool with a group of aquagym friends, somehow managing between puffs and pants to argue the relative merits of Guinea fowl versus capon for the traditional Reveillon meal on December 24th.
It’s one of those eureka moments when you suddenly realise you’re happy.
Happiness is a warm puppy, Lucy famously told us, while Charlie Brown went for jelly babies (no green ones) and going to the pictures to see films with cowboys and Indians and no kissing. Socrates (like many other Big Thinkers) said the secret to happiness was not seeking for more but developing the capacity to enjoy less. Buddha said it was the journey and not the destination. ‘There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path.’ Thoreau (or was it Nathaniel Hawthorne??) used the image of a butterfly: ‘The more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.’
The main protagonist in ‘The Passage of Desire’, Alexandra, is an unhappy person. Emotionally distant from her six-year-old daughter and her devoted husband, she’s not an immediately sympathetic character. If asked to explain this lack of feeling, she’d probably struggle to put it into words (if she ever understood its nature and the possible reasons for it in the first place). But in the magical grace of a summer holiday with an old friend, the mist rolls away and for a brief interlude Alexandra is transported to the sparkling uplands of happiness and emotional connection. Those who have read the book know what happens next. Those who haven’t – wait for it – it’s FREE, yes FREE to download this week: 21st, 22nd and 23rd December (starting as always at midnight Pacific Standard time). Take that, Grinch!
Yesterday I was the one behind the wheel of the car, getting my very own Son et Lumière fix to add to the aquagym endorphins, joining my dum de dums with the rhapsodic piano of Mr Rubinstein, recklessly braving the hasards of veering into roadside ditches in return for the inestimable rewards of staring at the dramatic spectacle outside the window, light and shadow flitting across the undulating hills of ‘little Tuscany’. Definitely a Buddha’s path moment in more ways than one, and though I couldn’t see the butterfly, I could definitely feel its wings caress my cheek.
Ours was the house on the hill, with the smoke curling from the chimney; when I finally got back, came down to earth and checked my emails it was to discover a cherry had landed on top of my happiness cake. ‘Areadersreviewblog’, run by Tina Williams and Caroline Barker, is one of my favourite haunts when looking for new books to read. Their banner proclaims ‘To read is to escape, to write is to release!’ And yesterday the book they were reviewing was my very own novella, yes, dear readers, ‘The Passage of Desire’, which, as recounted in previous blogs, had given me such birthing pains it almost joined the smoke going up our chimney. It’s always a huge thrill to get a good review, but the thing that struck me about this one in particular was that the author, Tina Williams, seemed to know intuitively what I’d been struggling so hard to write about:
‘The author delves deeply into the emotions of two women and their families…It touches on all which makes us human; the different stages of life; family dynamics; intimate relationships and unexpected desire…The setting…the wild and untamed Yorkshire moors… is a metaphor for the tale itself.’
Ouf. Thank you so much, Tina. The things that make us human, and the ‘life-changing repercussions’ that ensue when those very human hearts of ours become a battlefield. In the words of William Faulkner:
‘…the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself…only that is worth writing about.’
Joyeuses fêtes to booklovers everywhere, and may that butterfly land on all your shoulders!
I have yet to read the series of contemporary romances that comprise the French Summer Novels, but having read the observations of Caroline, my co-blogger, I jumped at the chance to review this prequel. The Passage of Desire is the story of Alexandra, the mother of the sisters, Caroline and Annabel, of the later novels Biarritz Passion and Hot Basque.
In the book Juliet, Alexandra’s childhood friend invites her and her daughter Caroline to stay with her in her family home on the Yorkshire moors. Alexandra, whose husband is away on business, is going through a low point in her life but soon begins to bloom again and under the summer sun, with her friend’s easy going attitude and the healthy country air, she begins to heal herself.
Indeed, there is much to distract her with Juliet’s own offspring: Cath, who has a young child and a volatile partner and Oliver who is about to leave the family home and go away to study. Alexandra’s own daughter is also deeply absorbed by the tangled relationships she witnesses as their visit draws to a close – I loved how the author reflected what is going on through her young eyes.
Throughout the read the author delves deeply into the emotions of two women and their families. It touches on all which makes us human; the different stages of life; family dynamics; intimate relationships and unexpected desire. The book is flawlessly written, with insight and sensitivity as the events, which will have life-changing repercussions for some, unfold.
The setting for the story, the wild and untamed Yorkshire moors, where emotions become freed and passions can often come to a head, is a metaphor for the tale itself. The reference in the book to Alexandra’s recollections of a teenage visit to The Passage of Desire in Paris is also allegorical, and its meaning reveals itself as the plot unravels. The descriptions of the various settings in the book, particularly the countryside, are vivid and beautifully written in a way that powerfully reflects the emotional journey of the characters.
I don’t want to reveal any of the plot as it would spoil the read, but suffice to say that I enjoyed the read immensely and thoroughly recommend it.
A sad week here in the Tarn after saying a long-distance goodbye to Stuart III, last in a line of feline companions who brought joy to my mother’s final years. He picked Mum out of a line-up at the RSPCA, delicately extending a paw through the bars of his cage. What was his history? No-one ever knew, but he had suffered multiple fractures to one of his hind legs, resulting in a stiff, retired-Colonel-type gait which went well with his laid-back personality.
No unseemly galloping about or jumping on and off things for Stuart. He was a mindfulness practitioner, sitting for hours in a trance in front of the window weighing up the pros and cons of staying where he was or strolling outside for a quiet nap underneath his personal bush. Indoors, his favourite position was horizontal. Chairs, beds tables – all the furniture belonged to him – and particularly the patch of carpet in front of the central heating vent where he liked to indulge in his personal invention, a home spa treatment for feline arthritic joints. He would lie on one side, clamp all four paws against the burning metal grill, and roast himself to a turn, fur streaming out behind him in the hot air flow like a comet’s tail.
When Mum died, he was adopted by his wonderful Auntie Jo who took him from Yorkshire to begin a new life as a Cheshire cat. He loved being at his Auntie’s. In the evening they would cuddle together on the sofa watching nature documentaries. He also helped out on the days she worked from home, warming up the computer by draping himself across it and re-arranging piles of important documents into better positions. She took him for weekend breaks to visit his other Auntie and Uncle, who had a terrace looking out over treetops from which, in Attenborough mode, he could observe the habits of birds and squirrels. He got a bit grumpy when Auntie Jo abandoned him to go on holiday, but could be mollified by a stay in his favourite luxury senior citizen apartment at the Best Exotic Marigold Pet Hotel. Downstairs he was able to catch a few rays undisturbed on his private patio while from an upper mezzanine he could look down on the lesser fortunate guests in the communal dorm.
His health had been declining steadily for some time. I last saw him two months ago, at my birthday party in Yorkshire. His Furness processed from Cheshire in Auntie Jo’s car and took up his role as Guest of Honour with a modest miaow. On Monday this week he died peacefully in the arms of his beloved auntie. We shared tearful memories of his many sterling qualities in a lengthy phone call, at the end of which she pronounced a fitting epitaph:
Today I’m re-blogging an article by Tina Williams, one of the two co-founders of “areadersreviewblog”, a mine of treasure for those who love books. The other co-founder, Caroline Barker, gave me a wonderful leg-up with ‘Hot Basque’ (does that sound right??) in 2015. Anyway, today’s blog is under the heading ‘Author Spotlight’ and it spotlights…this author! The very same, herself.
How did I feel when I read it? About seven and a half feet tall.
Thank you so much, Tina. Your reviews are always such a pleasure to read, and I’ve discovered many new authors thanks to your enthusiasm.
I remember (how could I forget, I’m still having flashbacks) the night I uploaded ‘Biarritz Passion’, my first novel, to Amazon. It was March 2014, I had no idea what I was doing, and only got through the ordeal with the help of the Maître De Maison and a bottle of sauvignon blanc. Since then three other books have followed, but getting them on to the pages of Amazon’s catalogue is only the first step. They may be out there, but how do you get people to read them?
This is where a bunch of incredibly generous people come in. They are called reviewers and bloggers, and if you pluck up the courage to ask them nicely, they might – at no charge – read your book, review it and even invite you on to their blog to talk about it!
Why do they do it? Because they love reading. And never mind the fact they have jobs, families, and cleaning out the gerbil cage to keep them occupied, they still manage to find time to share their enjoyment of a new book with their fans.
May they continue to boldly go, and may their paths be strewn with stars!
Here’s the first paragraph, click on the link below to read the rest, then click the little button that allows you to follow a readersreviewblog, that way you won’t miss any goodies:
“We are THRILLED to be featuring Laurette Long’s latest release, The Passage of Desire. We have been a fan of Laurette’s work since Caroline, my co-blogger reviewed the sweet romance Hot Basque, book 2 in the French Summer Novels(click on the title for review). We also love reading Laurette’s entertaining and inspiring blog where she not only shares excerpts from her writing but also snippets from her life in the beautiful South of France, a place which has inspired her muse on many an ocassion. The Passage of Desire, a prequel to the French Summer Novels, is a family drama which I am looking forward to reviewing very soon. Tina 🙂”
On this gloomy November weekend when we remember those who died in the Great War, and when France gets ready to mourn the victims killed and injured in the terrorist attack on the Bataclan, November 13th 2015, I’ve chosen to write about a story of hope, of not giving up, a love story. A true one. One with a happy ending.
It starts in le Passage du Desir, in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, a street whose name inspired the title of my novella, ‘The Passage of Desire’. Part 1 ended with an invitation to step through the doors of the magical shop just round the corner, and to lose yourself in visions of the future arising from the dreams of past generations…
‘A La Source des Inventions’ was founded in 1904 by a certain Monsieur Michel, an inventor whose family continued to run the shop for almost a century until its closure in 1994. A well-known meeting place for early aviators and model enthusiasts from all over the world, ‘La Source’ lives on today in the memories of nostalgic fans sharing Internet stories of time spent in its hallowed halls, the thrill of discovering its myriad treasures, the hours spent poring over its famous catalogues, which were sent all over the world and have now become collectors’ items. How many noses pressed up against those window panes over the years? How many children grew up listening to their fathers and grandfathers telling the story of that wonderful shop on the boulevard de Strasbourg, whose potent magic could unleash a flood of memories worthy of Monsieur Proust’s famous madeleine?
Back in the 1950s, in le Passage du Desir just off the Boulevard, the children sat in Grand- Père’s apartment dreaming of ‘La Source’ and its amazing machines, dreaming of a future where men might even travel to the moon in rocket ships.
And the grownups – what were they thinking? Perhaps their minds were turned to the past, and the astonishing twists and turns of fate that had brought them all here: Grand- Père, from the Périgord, his son, Robert, ex-prisoner of war, and his daughter-in-law, Josefa, deported from a village in Poland.
Many years later Josefa would share her memories, shaking her head in wonder at the chain of events that had ended in a French country garden, opening out on to peaceful fields, where sweet summer breezes ruffled the long grass and in the sky above our heads giant aeroplanes floated down to the airport of Roissy Charles de Gaulle.
On September 1st, 1939 Nazi troops invaded Poland. On September 17th, Soviet forces marched in from the east, and one month later the country had been divided up between the two powers. Josefa was caught in that first advance; her village was raided and those who were able-bodied deported to do forced labour. She found herself a prisoner on a farm where the drudgery and inhuman conditions of her new and shocking existence became so unbearable that she decided it was better to risk death in an attempt to escape than continue as she was.
She put her plan into action one night, managing to slip away without waking anyone and raising the alarm. Her initial elation, however, quickly gave way to terror and despair. She was alone in a foreign land, in the pitch dark of unfamiliar countryside, with no idea of what to do or where to go, her sole possessions the clothes she stood up in. She stumbled on through the inky blackness, finally hearing the sound of a river. Instinct told her to follow it: rivers always led somewhere, and if the farmer discovered her escape and unleashed his dogs she could always take to the water to hide. Dawn began to break. She increased her pace, and saw, not far from the river, a railway line. In the distance, she made out a small station.
Now came another agonising decision. Two people waited on the deserted platform. With no other alternative, she approached. The couple turned round and addressed her in German.
Fifty years later she still recalled with amazement the kindness and courage of those strangers. Somehow, they managed to get her as far as Berlin, to a family with Polish connections who kept her hidden as long as they dared. But, as an escaped prisoner with a warrant out for her arrest, it soon became too dangerous for her to stay as she was. People were talked to, strings were pulled, arrangements were made. Josefa gave herself up; instead of being returned to the farm she had run away from, she was taken to a vast agricultural labour camp where the owner had a reputation for his relatively humane treatment of prisoners. There she was put to work in the fields, and there she stayed until the Liberation, when she would become part of the chaotic human tide flowing east and west as prisoners were repatriated. But by that time, her life had once again taken a dramatic turn.
Back in France, in 1940, Grand-Père’s only child, Robert, serving in an artillery division posted in Alsace, was taken prisoner at the fall of the Maginot line. He became a part of the estimated 1.8 million soldiers captured and taken to Germany. From the stalag where he was first held he was transferred to a Kommando, a work detail assigned to carry out agricultural labour. Like Josefa, he had one idea in his head: escape. After various unsuccessful attempts he was finally captured by the SS, saved only from the firing squad thanks to the intervention of a landowner where he worked.
Unknown to both of them, the trajectories of their lives were about to cross. One day Robert was sent to help with the harvest at a farm and it was there, working in the fields, that he and Josefa first set eyes on each other. And in the middle of devastation, death and hopelessness, a love story was born. At an age when young lovers are carried away by the thrill and promise of a budding relationship, the two faced a future that was at best uncertain. It would be years before they could truly be together; the complete story of their adventures, like so many others of that time, is the riveting stuff of novels (and long ones at that).
Josefa was a natural story-teller. Soft-spoken, with a gentle Polish accent, she recounted events which were still vivid in her mind, and which seemed scarcely believable in the context of her enclosed, sun-drenched garden where the distant ringing of church bells added the final touch to a scene of eternal tranquillity.
May 1945. The news arrived at the camp, a rumour at first, then growing louder and louder until the realisation hit everyone with the weight of a sledge-hammer. It was over. Was this the start of a new life for her and Robert? And, her deepest, most cherished prayer, could she now look forward to a future for the baby that was growing inside her, so big that she knew it was only a matter of weeks before it would be born into a world still reeling from the aftershocks of war?
Her hopes were dashed by a terrible decision. The camp was liberated by the Russians. Prisoners from the east would be returned to their country of origin; those from the west dispatched to join the Allies. In this long-awaited, bitter freedom, she and Robert were torn apart, neither of them knowing if they would ever manage to find each other again.
But the Robert whose one obsession whilst a prisoner was to escape now had another burning mission – to find Josefa, to get back to her and to their unborn child. How he would do it was not clear. But one thing was sure, he would move heaven and earth in the attempt.
He informed the authorities that a mistake had been made, that he was in fact of Polish nationality. In the prevailing chaos he was allowed to leave and set out in search of the convoy taking Josefa back to the east. And because, dear Reader, miracles do sometimes happen, he found her. Now all they had to do was hope for another miracle, where they would be travelling in the opposite direction, back to France…
Tensions between the Russians and the Allies were mounting: one final exchange of prisoners was agreed. Robert, switching nationalities yet again, persuaded the Russians he was really French and that he and Josefa were legally married. He found himself on his way back to the Allied zone, this time accompanied by a heavily pregnant Josefa, half-dead with exhaustion and terror, and ‘holding both arms over my stomach as tight as I could, and praying to the baby ‘not yet, not yet’.
It was in Prenzlau, 100 km north of Berlin, that on May 27th 1945, their first son was born. It was in Prenzlau that a shocked and dazed Josefa remembered being handed something by an American soldier: ‘C’étaitun chocolat chaud’. A steaming mug of hot chocolate. With tears in her eyes (and in mine), she re-lived the marvel of clasping her fingers round its warmth and breathing it in. ‘I can still remember it, everything, the heat of the tin mug, the smell of the chocolate, the first sip, the most wonderful thing I have ever tasted.’
Arriving in France, the couple went to live with Robert’s father. For more than two years, the small apartment in le Passage du Desir was home to Grand- Père, the young couple, and their first child. What must it have been like for a young woman exiled from her homeland, captive in a foreign country for six years, starting a new life where she knew no-one except the man she had fallen in love with, and with whom she could only communicate in the language of their captors?
Seeing her all those years later, surrounded by pictures of her children and grandchildren, in the village where she and Robert settled in 1948 and where they would live for the rest of their days, I was in no doubt that life had given her treasures she’d never imagined during those long years at the camp. The image she presented was of someone observant and curious by nature, keenly interested in the world around her, quick to laugh or cry, her generous and loving nature evident not only in her relations with family and friends but in the menagerie of stray cats living in her garden alongside the chickens and rabbits.
But I also wondered about her more ‘hidden’ side; the strength of character and resourcefulness of that person who, aged nineteen, was able not only to escape from the farmer and his dogs, but go on to survive, to endure day after endless day of backbreaking physical work, continuous hunger, and a monotonous, mind-numbing existence. A person intelligent enough to pick up three new languages with no formal instruction. A young woman who somehow managed to keep the stars in her eyes, and whose belief in the possibility of a future allowed her to find love and happiness in the arms of a French prisoner and to survive a first pregnancy in the most terrible of conditions. A young mother who, in the photographs from those days, is strikingly beautiful, with her wavy black hair, blue eyes and full lips. A fascinating woman, with a fascinating story, and probably much more complex than she appeared…
Looking at her, the picture of contentment amid the roses and hollyhocks of her wild and glorious garden, I once remarked that she must have been over-joyed to leave the cramped apartment in the 10th arrondissement to start a proper life with her husband and children in the peace of the countryside.
I was unprepared for her answer.
‘Ah, Paris…’ Her eyes lit up. ‘Vous savez, Paris, c’est autre chose…’
‘Paris is different,’ she told me. ‘In another life, I would have loved to live in Paris…’
Never under-estimate a woman. Never under-estimate Paris.
This blog is dedicated to the memory of Josefa and Robert.
“They had been on a school trip to Paris with the French Society, Mademoiselle Pinaud at the helm, chaperone and cultural guide. Paris, city of light, city of romance. All the girls had been so excited that they’d whispered and chatted the whole night long as the coach trundled through the darkness, its beams illuminating black roads and shadowy forests. The journey had seemed endless.
Then a new day was breaking, dingy suburbs appeared in the dawn; they had reached the outskirts and were soon travelling along tree-lined boulevards where water gushed from metal fire hydrants and shopkeepers rinsed down the pavements with old-fashioned brooms. As the sun rose, gilding domes and rooftops, they began the magnificent procession down the Champs-Elysées.
Those few days had been magical. The visit to the Louvre, the statue of Venus rising majestically at the top of a flight of marble stairs, the stunning rose windows of Notre Dame, Monet’s waterlilies, the huge canvases swimming in light and colour…”