Marx, Engels, and Christmas at Villa Julia (or: why you’re not going to be reading my next book with your turkey and mince pies)

The reading room, John Rylands Library

On a recent trip to Manchester the MDM and I visited the altogether incredible, stunning and awe-inspiring John Rylands Library. I’ll be raving enthusiastically talking more about this astonishing building and its history in a later blog, but, as we stood amazed in its cathedral-like reading room, my mind wandered to other reading rooms, and things that had been written there, and their consequences on an unsuspecting world.

So dear readers, here’s a little reading room quiz:

Question 1: Who wrote The Communist Manifesto?

Answer: Right! It was indeed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Question 2: In which reading room did they work together in the 1840s?

Answer: Wrong! It wasn’t the Rylands (I thought it was until our visit). However it was in Manchester, at another famous library, the Chetham, the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. (See why we like Manchester?)

Question 3: In the year The Manifesto was published (1848), how many revolutions took place in Europe?

The window alcove at Chetham’s where Marx and Engels worked Courtesy of user KJP1 Wikimedia Commons,_Engels_alcove.jpg

Answer: Wrong! There were 603 million. (OK, I’m lying, just wanted to check you were paying attention). It is however true that during that momentous year (known also as The People’s Spring) populations all over Europe took to the barricades in an unprecedented wave of revolutionary fever (most of them hadn’t heard of the Communist Manifesto).  Not just France, but Poland, Austria, Germany, Italy, Sicily , Denmark and elsewhere, people rose up demanding the downfall of traditional rulers and the implementation of social reforms such as the right to vote, to strike, the freedom of speech and the press etc.

Final Question: what on earth has all this got to do with Villa Julia?

Answer: It all started with Jacqui Brown...

When this admirable Francophile bookworm and blogger reviewed the final volume in the French Summer Novels Series, Biarritz–Villa Julia, back in May, she wrote:

‘I was sad to get to the end and realise there will be no more,’ (Aw!) ‘What next, Laurette?’

I hesitated to reply with the unvarnished truth–‘I intend to assume a recumbent posture on the terrace, a chilled margarita to hand, and listen to the song of the nightingale.’ It didn’t sound very professional. Also, she had touched a chord. I too was a bit sad. I opted for a cagey response:

‘What next? Well (coy smile) it was supposed to be The End, but lately I’ve been wondering what that first Christmas in 1899 would have been like at the Villa, with the arrival of the young Provençale bride for whom it was named, Julia herself…

The terrace beckons the Mollusk

Even as I flopped on to the chaise longue and the first notes of the nightingale reached my ears, its melody was drowned by a nasty creature that popped into my head waving a placard and shouting ‘Don’t forget the Protestant Ethic!’ before continuing a rant about hardening arteries, belly fat, safe alcohol guidelines, and dying brain cells ‘Get back to the computer and do some work, you mollusk!’ it finally shrieked.

Though I womanfully ignored it, a little seed had been planted. Soon the seed sprouted leaves. Olive leaves. In its branches, insects sang (crickets and cicadas) A perfume rose up, wild thyme, lavender, juniper and sage, suspiciously like the Mediterranean garrigue.

Everyone to the barricades! The Cambridge Illustrated History of France by Colin Jones

And so the Mollusk arose, trudged off the terrace, fired up the laptop and started reading all about France in the 19th century. The word ‘revolution’ appeared on virtually every other page, interspersed with monarchy, republic, and Empire, rinse and repeat.

What a joy to put aside the history books and re-plunge into the wonderful world of fiction. I dusted off my paperback copy of Volume 1 of Les Gens de Mogador (why has this never been translated into English??) Elisabeth Barbier’s thrilling saga of a Provençal family from the Second Empire to WW 2.

Though years had passed since I first read it, the heroine, Julia Angellier, had stayed in my mind inspiring the name of the first mistress of Villa Julia, carried over the threshold in 1899 by her mustachioed Basque Beau, Raoul Etcheverria.

I began to hit the keys.

At the end of Chapter 1, I was in a sweat.  Did I seriously think I could write a historical novella without mixing up all those kings and emperors called either Louis, Philippe, or Louis-Philippe? Not to mention bringing to life a bunch of characters wearing cache-corsets and redingotes, who, instead of saying ‘See you later, babes,’ intoned ‘Alas, Mademoiselle, I must take my leave, my cousin is expecting me for luncheon and I have matters to attend to before my departure for the capital’? Said characters would then give a deep bow, stride across the creaking parquet in glossy riding boots and jump on foam-flecked stallions/mares/geldings/fillies, which were either bays or roans or chestnuts or greys.

Heroes (mustachioed) and heroines (crinolined) of Elisabeth Barbier

According to my coffee stained synopsis, the story would begin in 1898, with the thirteen desserts of Christmas Eve and Provençal santons under the tree, to end triumphantly with the usual champagne and candlelight in 1899, under another Christmas Tree, this one in the pays basque.

Ploughing on, heading deeper into the writing tunnel meant abandoning the outside world–family, friends, emails, favourite bloggers, social media, not to mention the MDM confronting single-handed the Napoleonic army of bindweed marching across the garden.

The history books piled up, full of interesting facts. Did you know that, after a late start, the French railway system covered 40,000 km in 1900? Julia had to get from Provence to Biarritz somehow. Also, that the ancestor of the nippy little Twingo in your drive was born in a garden shed near Paris in 1898, in the shape of a Voiturette Type A built by Lois Renault? (Raoul buys one of these).

But it was the fiction authors who brought to gorgeous, glowing life the Provence of the late 19th century.

Pagnol et copains

Marcel Pagnol’s memoirs of spending summer holidays as a boy in the hinterland of Marseilles were in the air as Julia’s father, Monsieur Peyrissac sets out at dawn to hunt. Pagnol’s version ends with the capture of the mythic bartavelle, a rare variety of partridge, bringing ‘the glory of his father’, but I kept Monsieur P’s catch to a couple of rabbits.

Describing Julia at her coiffeuse, I heard the singing syllables of Frédéric Mistral, iconic Provençal poet, describing his heroine, Mirèio, and her ‘beauteous hair, all waves and rings of jet’. Mirèio is an altogether entrancing creature who, at one point, tucks a brood of baby blue-tits into her bodice as she sits in a mulberry tree with her amoureux, but tempting though it was to embroider on that charming episode I decided to keep Julia’s bodice firmly laced up (most of the time).

Alphonse Daudet, in his Letters from my Windmill tells the tragic story of Jan, who threw himself off the roof of the family farm for the love of the woman he could not have, the coquettish Arlesienne (who inspired Bizet’s opera of the same name). Though my characters are somewhat more restrained, there’s a fair bit of emotional anguish about. Fortunately star-gazing has always been a consolation for the lovelorn, so Julia’s stable hand, young Loic, can sigh as he looks up at those same brilliant Provençal constellations– the Chemin de Saint-Jacques, the Char des Ames and the Trois Bêtes– which comforted Daudet’s lonesome shepherd dreaming of la belle Stéphanette.

How to do justice to the natural beauties of Provence, and Malaret, the family home of the Peyrissacs, with its extensive gardens and park? Writing of a house further north, Colette’s idyllic descriptions of her mother’s garden in Saint-Sauveur inspired the wanderings of Julia through the family domain, where the delicate perfume of roses and lilies gives way to the aromatic onslaught of the shrubs and bushes of the garrigue.

More goodies

The big guns of the literary world at that time–Hugo, Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Proust and company–provided innumerable dazzling frescoes of Parisian life  necessary for the creation of Harald, the blond, curling-lipped Cad from the Capital who seduces Julia with his cosmopolitan ways and penchant for Symbolism, ending with…well, I’m not going to tell you, am I ? Roger Martin du Gard recounts in painstaking detail the tortuous machinations of the Dreyfus Affair. (For those interested in finding about more about this crucial period in French social history, read Paulette Mahurin’s brilliant To Live Out Loud.)

But, leaving the world of fiction, back in real-life October 2019 in the Tarn, I am gradually waking up to the fact that it ain’t gonna happen. No way can I write the remaining forty thousand words in time to meet the Christmas deadline, let alone tackle the revision (i.e. deleting half of what’s already been written and writing it again).

So, what now, dear readers/fellow authors? Should I wait for Christmas 2020, and get back to the margaritas (though it’s now too cold to lie on the terrace and the nightingale has gone to Greece)? Should I set a new deadline, and modify the title–Easter Eggs under the Christmas Tree at Villa Julia? Maybe I could write to the matières grises in Brussels, still debating the thorny issue of whether the clocks go forward 2 hours in summer or not, and ask them to move Christmas to March while they’re at it?

All suggestions welcome (no more than 140 characters please), and the lucky winner will receive a packet of pine nuts and a garden gnomette wearing a Provençal skirt.

Wishing you all a wonderful weekend reading lots of good books, perhaps some mentioned above?  And for those who haven’t got it, Biarritz-Villa Julia is FREE to download on the 26, 27 and 28 October here and here.

Biarritz-Villa Julia

PS While in Manchester we called at M and S for our usual teatime treat of their lemon drizzle cake. Alas the restaurant was closed for renovations But as we left I was reminded of Karl and Friedie once again. In an apocryphal story about the famous Leicester University Sociology Department in the nineteen sixties and seventies, it is said that one of the essay topics proposed for students sitting their final exams was the following:

‘Marks and Spencers has done more for the working classes than Marx and Engels’ Discuss.’ 😉