Extract from Chapter 28From Nettles to Nightingales
As any gardener will tell you, autumn is bulb-planting time. I will go further and argue that those possessing the merest smidgeon of British DNA are driven to plant bulbs each autumn in the same way swallows wave ‘Bye Bye’ and head back to Africa. UK supermarkets are full of special offers, gaudily-illustrated catalogues from Holland drop through British letterboxes like bonbons, and Britannia-en-masse gets out trowels and kneeling mats. Why? Because for us northerners, bulbs are the eagerly-awaited signs of spring, bright harbingers after dark winter days.
I remember the whole Yorkshire family longing for spring. As early as February we would go outside and sniff the air, hoping for that faint delicious draught that heralds winter’s close. The change from light to dark, from death to rebirth, could be summed up by the biannual pronouncements of my maternal Grandmother. In autumn she would glumly observe ‘th’ neets are drawin’ in’ (trans: the nights are drawing in) while spring merited the cheerful pronouncement ‘th’ neets are drawin’ out.’ In neighbouring houses every scrap of garden, no matter how humble, would celebrate the event with a joyful show of snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, narcissi, tulips and primroses.
In Cambridge, where I later lived, one of the most iconic sights was ‘the backs’ of the colleges, in particular King’s. Every March, these placid green swathes of sheep-and-cow-dotted meadowland sloping gently to the River Cam and extending beyond as far as the road with copses of tall trees, would be invaded by camera-clicking tourists, angling for the perfect shot: in the foreground, the explosions of thousands of crocuses, daffodils and narcissi, in the middle, the river, bridges and willows, and topping it all off like a spun sugar wedding cake ornament in the background, the magnificent cathedral of King’s College.
In Toulouse, we’d always had spring pots of tulips on the terrace. At The Cowshed it was a different story. Some of our most spectacular garden failures had been bulbs. In 2013 we eagerly awaited the results of the ‘Buckingham Palace Tulips’ project. Envisioned as an arresting double row of proud, letter-box red blooms lining the north wall like guardsmen and causing farmers passing by on tractors to shout ‘boudiou!’ and doff their caps, the reality was a handful of thin-stemmed droopers falling nose first into the grass. Ditto for the drifts of crocuses (a grand total of 9 huddled in misery down the side of the slope) and snowdrops (what snowdrops?)
So, with my genetic heritage, why was the bulb initiative a total flop? Was it the climate? The terrain? Or could it be the past catching up with the Head Gardener, making her pay for former sins…was it, in short, Tulip Karma?
The awful truth was that, as a child, I had committed a flower crime. The shameful story was handed down from generation to generation, and the experience remains imprinted on my mind in lurid technicolour. The drama occurred at my grandparents’ house. My paternal grandparents, as recounted in an earlier chapter, lived in a one-up, one-down rented terrace property with their six children. My maternal grandparents on the other hand, by dint of scrimping, saving and only having one child, had risen in the world, finally able to buy a small terraced house with the luxury of an indoor bathroom. Along with the other families who had bought in the same street, this was the equivalent of reaching domestic Nirvana. Thirty-odd identical houses ran up the left-hand side of the street, another thirty-odd ran down the opposite side. At the back of each house were long, narrow gardens separated by low rustic fences, and which were on a par, Nirvana-wise, with the indoor bathrooms. In Grandad’s well-tended plots, not a weed dared to poke its head through the abundant clusters of flowers characteristic of the English garden – marguerites, hollyhocks, lupins, poppies – ending in a rustic arch covered in roses. The rectangle of lawn in the middle was cricket-pitch smooth and weedless. This garden was my kingdom: I was its miniature tyrannical ruler with two slaves. My mother being an only child, logic decreed that, as first grandchild, I should be hopelessly spoiled, cossetted and indulged, an angel who could do no wrong. At the bottom of the garden, next to the shed, Grandad had erected a swing; one of his jobs was to push the young angel up and down until his arms dropped off.
When Grandad wasn’t on duty, it was Grandma’s turn, telling stories as she sat in her chair on the lawn. In my earliest memories she is wearing dark glasses and a green eyeshade, like the ones worn by 19th C telegraphers. Born into a large family, she had contracted a lethal combination of chicken pox and diphtheria which left her with scarring on both retinas. Although kept off school for long periods, she was a smart, intelligent child who loved to read whenever her damaged eyesight permitted. By the time I came onto the scene, she was undergoing treatment with a specialist involving the application of drops and creams to burn off the scars. The results were variable; at times she was able to see well enough to read and write; on other, terrifying, days, she would wake up to find her world had dimmed to vague shapes and faded colours. It was only as I grew older that I understood what an indomitable spirit she had, living not only with this physical handicap but also the fear that one day a final darkness would descend and the colours would never return.
One of her favourite expressions, much-used to express her amazement and gratitude at having risen to the heights of a two-up-two-down residence with indoor toilet and garden, was ‘Ee! We live like fighting cocks!’ I had no idea what a fighting cock was, but dimly grasped that these farmyard creatures were living the high life, like their cousins, the pigs in clover. It was only later I found out the terrible truth–they were being fattened up and cossetted in order to take part in gladiatorial combats similar to those in the bloody arenas of ancient Rome! Much later I learnt that their French cousins didn’t fare any better, being fattened up with the express intention of ending their days in a pie, the French equivalent of Grandma’s exclamation being ‘nous vivons comme des coqs en pâte.’
Grandma was a wonderful story teller. All the old favourites – Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Bears, were recounted in dramatic detail, with different voices. She also invented tales of her own, inspired by her new garden where she would sit in a chair, narrating wondrous events like a Celtic bard, while I sat on the grass, spellbound. As she nudged my imagination into realms of beauty and magic, flower kingdoms with fairies, princes and princesses, witches and wizards, all of these imaginary journeys became linked to that unique, grounded feeling of love and security imparted to children by the presence of a beloved human story-teller. Listening to Grandma’s voice, I could look around at the enclosed world of marguerites and Michaelmas daisies, all taller than me, and feel safe and happy.
So, Reader, what then possessed the little angel, that fateful day in the spring of her fourth year, to embark on a campaign of carnage and destruction?
A better question would be ‘who’? Also visiting his grandparents that day was a certain Brian, a year older than me and obviously destined to become a future leader of a satanic cult. As the grownups were busy preparing Sunday lunch, the devil-child Brian lured me away from the fairy kingdom and led me up and down the backs of every house in the street where we gleefully nipped off the tops of every blooming tulip in every spring garden. A red and yellow trail of disaster lay in our wake.
Naturally, the crime was discovered. The entire street came out to witness our walk of shame, marched along by outraged grandparents (the first time I had ever experienced their wrath) to apologise to every scandalised householder and injured gardener. As I sobbed out a litany of ‘sorry-I-promise-never-to do-it again’, the spawn of Satan trailed behind, bottom lip thrust out. His parting shot, accompanied by a look of false righteousness and a pointing finger was:
‘She told me to do it!’
Thus concluded my first life lessons about the wickedness of destroying beautiful things and the inconstancy of the male species.
‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’
Joyeux printemps to all, hoping for brighter days ahead!
(Since writing this, Storm Eunice has battered the UK, 1 million people without power and gusts of 122 mph wind have been recorded 🙁 so extra-special thoughts go to those across the Channel.)
Looking for something to read?There’s a treat in store with Sheila Patel’s latest book in her Aunt Sheila’s Pandemic Diaries Series: The Vaccine Strikes Back : ”the writing sparkles…” “genuinely funny but also touching in places…” “Brilliantly written account of the madness of the pandemic.” What are you waiting for?
Meanwhile, not far from the Singh’s corner shop in Bradford is Haworth, home of the Brontës and the setting for The Passage of Desire, which is FREE to download February 19, 20 and 21. Enjoy!
Last Monday, November 18th, a little book came up for auction in Paris; a VERY little book, one and a half by two and a half inches. The author was Charlotte Brontë, aged 14, and the tiny volume is one of six miniatures written in the Yorkshire parsonage where the Brontë children grew up. A campaign was launched by The Brontë Society to buy it, and a huge wellspring of public goodwill enabled the organisers to reach, and go beyond, the crowdfunding target of £80,000 showing just how much value we still place on the world of books and literature, and how the amazing Brontë story resonates not only for locals but also for readers all over the world.
‘Go, litel book!’ Go back to Haworth and do homage to thy mistress. According to the latest news it is still in Paris, but has its passport (!) and will head off shortly, hopefully going on display in February 2020 after renovations at the Museum are completed. 2020 will also celebrate the bicentenary of Anne.
You can find out more about the Brontës and even join the society (one of the oldest literary societies in the world) here. There are also numerous videos on YouTube about them (one I particularly like is listed in the links at the end of the blog). But as part of my own personal homage to those sisters, in 2017 I wrote a novella, The Passage of Desire, set in Haworth in the early 1990s. It’s FREE to download this weekend, Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th November, here and here. (Kind) reviewers have commented:
‘I loved the rich descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside and how the passion evoked in Wuthering Heights is intertwined with the story.
…the Brontë landscape is beautifully described; clearly the writer knows it very well. There are some pleasing literary references which Brontë fans will enjoy…..
…the Brontës float in and out of the story, both literally and metaphorically, and the tale is something of a homage to romanticism.’
I hope those floating Brontë spirits, wherever they may be, are celebrating this weekend. Youpee!
Read on for an extract from The Passage of Desire, in which 7-year-old Caroline, one of the narrators, visits the parsonage museum for the first time with her mother, Alexandra, and their hosts, Juliet and Oliver, and is struck by the miniature booklets.
Chapter 13 The Brontë Museum
“Caroline had been pestering for a visit to the museum. And so, one bright morning, they found themselves in the shade of the village churchyard on their way to the parsonage. The tower of St Michael and All Angels was just visible as they stepped into a forest of graves, wedged into every available inch of space, the headstones standing shoulder to shoulder like chessmen, some with pointed tops, some shaped like mitres, others representing stars or fleur-de-lys, or crowned with ornate pediments. Some were upright, others listed to the side. Moss and lichen had blurred the blackened inscriptions but it was possible to make out the words if you looked closely. Thousands of bodies, it was said as many as forty thousand, lay together in this confined space, a reminder that the now pretty village of Haworth had once been a grim and insalubrious place, home to workers in the textile mills that spread across the valley, fed by the plentiful water pouring down from the rain-soaked moors. Tuberculosis and other diseases stalked the village streets, carrying off the weak. Sometimes, stopping to look, you would see the names of entire families marked on the headstones. Juliet always got the shivers when she passed through.
Caroline danced from one grave to another squatting down to decipher the words.
‘Here lies Martha, be…love…beloved daughter of James and Eliza…died in the ten, the tenth, year of her age…Luke, in the 2nd year of his age, Mary, in the 6th year of her age.’
She stopped short and slid her hand into Alexandra’s.
‘Why did all these children die, Mummy?’
Alexandra too was feeling uncomfortable. This was not a peaceful resting place, like some she had visited. In spite of the fine day it was dark and chilly under the tall trees where rooks cawed. The graveyard was full of rustlings as the wind passed through the high branches and shook the stands of yew and ibex. White dandelion clocks floated in the unkempt grass.
‘Remember what Daddy told you? In those days, that was Victorian England, the people who lived here were very poor, they didn’t have warm houses and good food. They worked long hours in the mills. Remember when Juliet told you about Wuthering Heights? How cold it gets in winter? People got sick, children died, babies died.’
‘Come on, let’s go look at the museum,’ said Juliet, taking Caroline’s other hand. ‘I bet you’d like to see the room where those sisters used to write their stories, wouldn’t you? And the kitchen where they sat by the fire on winter evenings when the wind was wuthering and shaking the window panes.’
She gave a scary ‘whoo’ and Caroline’s anxious frown was replaced by a tentative smile.
‘Whoo,’ she echoed and gave a little skip, swinging her arms between the two women.
Oliver brought up the rear.
The parsonage reminded Caroline of Juliet and Alan’s house, it had the same big windows with twelve panes of glass exactly the same size surrounded by white painted frames. It stood on a small rise, with grass and flower beds sloping down from the foundations into a flat garden planted with shrubs and flowers.
‘See these?’ said Juliet. ‘They’re called Canterbury bells. And these are hosta. They’re all plants you could find when the Brontës lived here.’
‘That was when Victoria was the Queen?’
They climbed the steps and passed into the hallway. The furniture was old and the walls were hung with dark oil paintings. A grandfather clock ticked. A curved staircase with a polished wooden banister rose to the upper floor.
The first room they visited was Reverend Brontë’s study.
‘Patrick Brontë came to work here as curate in 1820.’ Oliver took over as guide, pointing to a desk covered in books and papers. ‘So, Princess Whatwhyhow, how many years ago was that?’
Caroline’s lips moved silently.
‘Quite a lot,’ she said, eventually.
‘Good answer,’ said Oliver.
‘Patrick was a good man in many ways,’ said Juliet, ‘He did a lot of things for the village, worked hard for the people of his parish, set up a Sunday school, tried to improve their standard of living and health care.’
‘Was he a saint?’
‘Well I suppose some people called him that. But it was hard on his children. Because he had a lot of work, they were usually left to their own devices. Which was lonely for them, but lucky for us, because this house is where the sisters wrote their books. Maybe, if they’d lived in a big city with lots to do and people to visit, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights would never have seen the light of day.’
In the dining room stood the table where the three sisters sat to write.
‘Charlotte and Emily were the famous ones, but Anne wrote two fine books as well. They were all talented. They used to sit here and work together, then walk round the table reading out what they’d written that day.’
‘They really loved each other, didn’t they?’
‘They did. And their brother too, in spite of his problems. He was a talented artist and a poet. We’re going to see some of his paintings.’
Juliet decided to omit the part of the story where three of the siblings had died in quick succession, Branwell and Anne in 1848, Emily in 1849. Nor was she going to recount the sad reminiscences of Tabby, their faithful servant, describing how, after the other three were dead and buried, she used to listen with an aching heart to the footsteps of Charlotte in the room above, ‘walking, walking on alone’.
‘Right. The kitchen.’
Juliet ushered Caroline towards the door. Alexandra paused in front of a sofa that stood against one wall.
Oliver came across to stand behind her.
‘This is where she died, Emily. According to Charlotte. She’d been having pains in her chest for several weeks but wouldn’t see the doctor.’
She turned to look at him.
‘How old was she?’
‘Thirty. Only a few years younger than Mum.’ He shook his head. ‘Charlotte was devastated. She wrote ‘moments so dark as these I have never known’. She’s my favourite one of the sisters, Emily.’
‘Because she died so tragically?’
‘Huh, there was no shortage of tragic deaths. But she was the most solitary of all of the children, shy, didn’t get on easily with people though apparently she was very kind-hearted. She was a creature of the moors. There are stories about how she could talk to animals, she used to bring them home, rabbits, birds, tend to their injuries. Like a vet. She reminds me a bit of our Cath, she used to be out of doors all the time when she was younger, we both did. Mum and Dad named her after Catherine, in Wuthering Heights, did you know that? Along with hundreds of other parents round here. Lots of Cathys in Yorkshire.’
‘I’ve got a copy of Emily’s poems back at the house if you want to read them?’
‘I’d like that. It’s a while since I’ve read any poetry. I used to be quite a fan. Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats.’
He hesitated, then began to recite, his voice little more than a whisper:
“…I am not doomed to wear
Year after year in gloom and desolate despair;
A messenger of Hope comes every night to me,
And offers, for short life, eternal liberty.
He comes with western winds, with evening’s wandering airs,
With that clear dusk of heaven that brings the thickest stars;
Winds take a pensive tone, and stars a tender fire,
And visions rise and change which kill me with desire.’
He stopped, flushed, gave an embarrassed shrug.
‘She called that one The Prisoner.’
‘Yes…are you OK?’
Alexandra had gone deathly pale. She stared at Oliver. In the dimness of the room his eyes were a blazing blue. His jaw was shadowed by stubble, his curly hair sprang up from his head in darkly gleaming spirals. His face could have adorned a Renaissance painting, an angel bending over the manger, a nobleman hunting with his hawk in the Tuscan hills.
As though in a dream, she reached up and gently touched his cheek. The contact lasted less than a second, then she turned abruptly and left the room.
Oliver stood quite still.
Juliet and Caroline were in the kitchen. Caroline was frowning at the table where Emily used to bake at the same time as she studied her German lessons and made notes for her poems. She decided when she got back to school she was going to learn lots of foreign languages and write poetry.
‘Over here there used to be a window,’ said Oliver, coming up behind her and pointing. ‘It’s blocked up now, but you could look out of it, across the moors. Imagine what it was like on a winter’s night, everything outdoors covered in snow, the fire crackling in the hearth, Emily making bread, Tabby telling stories.’
‘Did they have a cat?’
‘Ah,’ said Juliet, looking helplessly at her son. ‘I’m sure they did. Maybe Alan knows, lovey, we’ll ask him when we get back.’
Caroline’s favourite room was the children’s study where they played when they were little. Branwell had a box of toy soldiers that looked like old-fashioned pegs painted red, blue and black. The four children used to make up fantastical stories about them, inventing an imaginary kingdom called Angria where the Duke of Wellington was the hero, fighting wars with different enemies. He and other characters had lots of adventures which the children wrote about in tiny books, using even tinier writing which needed a magnifying glass to read. It must have been nice to have sisters and a brother. But Teresa Knowles had three sisters and two brothers and they were always fighting with one another and getting punished by Mrs Knowles who sometimes ran after them with a rolling pin.
She was still thinking about brothers and sisters later that day. Picking up her pen she began to write in her notebook:
‘Today we visited the Bronte Museum. It is in the old Parsnidge next to the graveyard. There are a lot of babies and other children buried in the churchyard. It was the Victorian age. You could die at any moment. The toilet was outside and you had to queue even if it was snowing. The best thing was the childrens notebooks. Aunt Juliet bought me a postcard of the Bronte sisters in the museum shop like the picture that you showed me. It was painted by Branwell he was not just a drunkerd but also a nice person. Everybody had a lot of brothers and sisters in those days. If I had a brother I would like him to be the same as Oliver. Arnie is a very nice baby but we haven’t seen him this week. On Sunday Frank was cruel to him and pulled his arm and made him cry. Cath has promised to come over and put some desperate damson on my nails. She has rings on all her fingers even her thumb and in her nose and ears and is pretty. I would quite like her for a sister. The problem with having a brother and sister is they could get a disease and die at any minute. Perhaps it is better just to have a dog or a cat. I am really missing Rusty. Thank you for getting me this notebook Daddy.’
This weekend my feet may be in the Tarn but my head (and heart) is in northern England, more particularly in West Yorkshire where, 200 years ago, one of the greatest British writers was born. Wuthering Heights, her only novel, marked me profoundly as an adolescent and has continued to mark me ever since. She was one of the first feminist writers I read, along with her sisters, and George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell; she was an unrepentant rebel (Wuthering Heights hit the literary scene like a bad smell, it ‘revolted many readers’, was criticised for its ‘coarseness of tone’) and she wrote a stunning, tempestuous, enigmatic love story with the kick of a triple Moscow Mule on an empty stomach. Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that when Cathy cries ‘I am Heathcliff!’ she is uttering the cry of every woman in love.
‘For many born in Yorkshire’s West Riding, the Brontë legend enters our lives as naturally as the air we breathe.’
Inseparable from the Brontës and their writing are 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’.
After the death of all her siblings, Charlotte suffered from acute loneliness. Writing of her solitary walks across the moors, she said ‘everything reminds me of the times when (the) 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.’*
In my last book, The Passage of Desire, there’s a scene where Juliet and her son Oliver take their guests, Alexandra and seven-year-old daughter Caroline, to visit the Brontë Museum
“Caroline had been pestering for a visit to the museum. And so, one bright morning, they found themselves in the shade of the village churchyard on their way to the parsonage. The tower of St Michael and All Angels was just visible as they stepped into a forest of graves, wedged into every available inch of space, the headstones standing shoulder to shoulder like chessmen, some with pointed tops, some shaped like mitres, others representing stars or fleur-de-lys, or crowned with ornate pediments…..Thousands of bodies, it was said as many as forty thousand, lay together in this confined space, a reminder that the now pretty village of Haworth had once been a grim and insalubrious place, home to workers in the textile mills that spread across the valley, fed by the plentiful water pouring down from the rain-soaked moors.
This was not a peaceful resting place, like some (Alexandra) had visited. In spite of the fine day it was dark and chilly under the tall trees where rooks cawed. The graveyard was full of rustlings as the wind passed through the high branches and shook the stands of yew and ibex. White dandelion clocks floated in the unkempt grass. “
Fortunately, beyond the churchyard is the parsonage itself. It may seem rather cramped and primitive by today’s standards, but it is a magical place, full of history, enchantment, inspiration, compassion, imbued by the spirit of those children who lived there and who gathered in the dining room to create their own imaginary universe.
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…
When Branwell’s decline into alcoholism and dementia forced the three sisters to find a way to maintain the family finances, it was in this same room that they sat to work on the novels of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell:
“In the dining room stood the table where the three sisters sat to write.
‘Charlotte and Emily were the famous ones, but Anne wrote two fine books as well. They were all talented. They used to sit here and work together, then walk round the table reading out what they’d written that day.’
‘They really loved each other, didn’t they?’
‘They did. And their brother too, in spite of his problems. He was a talented artist and a poet. We’re going to see some of his paintings.’
Juliet decided to omit the part of the story where three of the siblings had died in quick succession, Branwell and Anne in 1848, Emily in 1849. Nor was she going to recount (to seven-year-old Caroline) the sad reminiscences of Tabby, their faithful servant, describing how, after the other three were dead and buried, she used to listen with an aching heart to the footsteps of Charlotte in the room above, ‘walking, walking on alone’.”
Today the memory of the Brontës burns bright through the work they left behind, but also through the remarkable efforts of one of the world’s oldest and proudest literary societies, the Brontë Society, celebrating its 125 birthday this year, responsible among other things for running the fascinating 91-year-old Brontë Parsonage Museum.
This year the focus is on ‘Brontë 200: Emily 1818-1848’, with a rich and diverse programme of literature, music, visual art, exhibitions, talks, children’s activities, workshops, author interviews, walks, films and numerous other events.
And so, dear readers and fellow-passionates, to finish today’s blog, I’m going to put on my commercial hat and invite book lovers and especially Brontë lovers to think about joining The Brontë Society (no, I don’t get a discount or a free bag of chips), and of taking advantage of the numerous perks that membership confers: free admission to the Museum for one year, regular issues of the members’ magazine, priority booking for events, access to the dedicated area of the website and access to many Brontë-related documents (not to mention a warm glow as you sign the cheque). Yearly membership is between £12.50 and £25 depending on age… how many skinny lattes is that exactly? ) And if you’re feeling generous you can add a donation and the glow gets brighter.
Best of all, take a trip to those ‘glorious wild moors, which in after days (the children) loved so passionately’ and see for yourself what it’s all about.
Let’s keep those literary lights burning!
*many quotations in the January blog exerpts (in blue) are from the wonderful Elizabeth Gaskell
The Passage of Desire is the prequel to The French Summer Novels, and is set in Haworth.
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.
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…”
First, my own (better another one than the alternative, as the saying goes), plus that of my one-and-a-bit-year-old bionic hip. Twelve months ago I was in rehab, lying on my back with one leg in the air attached to a pulley.
There was a lot of moaning, whining and feeling generally ill-done by, particularly as I didn’t get the morphine pump I’d been expecting and had to make do with paracetamol. Now, October 2016, I’m scrambling up the garden like…um…a mountain goat (?), hanging onto gorse bushes with one hand and yanking out bindweed with the other, or jumping up and down in the aquagym class with-if not grace-a solid two-legged enthusiasm.
What would Hippocrates have made of the marvellous technique whereby the removal of an old body part and insertion of a new one, a bit like taking the car to the garage, has changed the destiny of those who would otherwise be limping around with the help of sticks or confined to wheelchairs? Hip hip hooray!
What a wonderful world.
This month also sees the birth of my third book. After more moans and wails the novella has finally made it into cyber-print, thanks to another astonishing invention, the e-book. This allows aspiring authors to bypass the traditional publishing route and, with the click of a button, see their magnum opus available to all who possess a computer, tablet, smartphone, Kindle and (in my case) £0.91p.
On February 10th, 1898 in Villa Clara, Argentina, Joseph-Elie Ressel was born, the son of Russian Jewish emigré doctors. Except that he wasn’t. He had been born 11 days earlier, but his absent minded-father forgot to register the birth. And his name wasn’t Ressel. The clerk made a mistake. So began the extraordinary life of one of my mega-heroes, Joseph Kessel, actor, journalist, WW1 aviator, WW2 war correspondent, aviator with the Free French squadron of the RAF, co-composer of the ‘Chant des Partisans’, the stirring anthem of the French Resistance, writer of screenplays, and internationally famous author. He was a dreamer, a humanist, a man of integrity, a loyal friend, a patriot, a gambler, a drinker, an opium-smoker, a timid lover of women, an inveterate traveller, an adventurer, a nighthawk, a lion. His life, which spanned most of the 20th century, took him all over the world and brought him into contact with a staggering range of people–politicians, prostitutes, criminals, Hollywood stars, Bedouin chiefs, gypsy musicians, slave-drivers. You would need a thesaurus to do him justice, a man who was simply larger than life, making Hemingway in comparison look like a neophyte boy scout.
When, in 1962, Kessel’s candidature was put forward to that nec plus ultra of the French linguistic and literary establishment, l’Académie Française, some of the august members had to reach for the smelling salts. One of them, Pierre Gacotte, is reported to have said:
‘Why Kessel? We’ve already got one Russian (Henri) Troyat. And a Jew (André) Maurois. And up until this year we’ve had two drunks, Marcel Pagnol and Pierre Benoit.’
(‘Pourquoi Kessel? Un Russe nous en avons un : Troyat. Un juif aussi : Maurois. Et des ivrognes jusqu’à cette année nous en avions deux: Marcel Pagnol et Pierre Benoit!’)*
In his acceptance speech, Kessel told the Academy: ‘You have shown, by the striking contrast implicit in this nomination, that it is not by a man’s origins that we should judge him.’ **
His astonishing life story is recorded in an equally astonishing 950-page biography, ‘Joseph Kessel ou Sur la Piste du lion’ (On the track of the lion) by Yves Courrière, journalist, author and close friend of Kessel. In one memorable passage he recounts the birth of ‘homo kesselianus’, the archetypal hero-adventurer, brave, noble-browed, athletic, resourceful, who finds himself caught up in incredible adventures. It was an archetype based on Kessel’s own experiences in 1919, in Vladivostok. When, at the end of WW1, the Allied leaders met in Versailles, one of the problems discussed was the anarchy in Russia where Reds and Whites were engaged in bitter conflict. The 20-year-old Kessel had already proved his courage and daring as a member of the 39th squadron (airborne) for which he received the Croix de Guerre. But he had another talent. He was a fluent Russian speaker. And so he found himself en route to the land of his ancestors, travelling first to the US, then across country to San Francisco and finally, after a 35-day voyage, sailing into the port of Vladivostok.
Washed up in this last outpost of the west, facing the Pacific Ocean, thousands of people were gathered, unable to go any further. The streets echoed with scores of languages; amid the babel roamed bands of soldiers, merchants, beggars, mercenaries, prisoners of war, ragged refugees, coolies staggering under immense loads, Cossacks brandishing terrible whips. It was like a ‘vast, filthy inn’. The orders of one army were immediately countermanded by those of another and the only thing preventing total breakdown was the presence of the Czech forces, holding the station, and the Japanese who held the port.
Kessel disembarked from the SS Sherman in February 1919. He was hungover and penniless, having just celebrated his 21st birthday on board and lost all his money in a poker game. Thanks to his fluency in Russian he soon found himself tasked with a strategically important ‘confidential mission’ for the French, involving the railway station. On his first reconnoitre he couldn’t believe his eyes. Thousands of homeless people were huddled outside the building, on the steps, dying of hunger, disease and cold. Inside, in overpowering heat, a scene from hell, a Breughel painting where ragged mothers nursed starving babies amid the vagabonds, drunken soldiers, deserters and madmen who occupied the vast hall, creating mayhem.
And the confidential mission? ‘Find a train. Find drivers and engineers to get it running. Fill it with food and munitions and send it off to Omsk, 4800 km away across Siberia, where the French forces under General Janin await.’
In this dark, freezing nightmare city where no train was to be had and all was chaos, Homo Kesselianus took shape. Armed with a revolver and a bag stuffed with roubles, 21-year-old Kessel completed the very first Mission Impossible, Russian style.
Joseph Kessel died on July 23rd, 1979 in the village of Avernes, his home for many years. In spite of ill-health he was still as interested in life as ever. He was watching television with two close friends, Georges and Liliane Walter, a reportage about a young speleologist shot in sumptuous colours in a deep grotto.
‘Le monde est extraordinaire,’ Kessel remarked to Liliane ‘Regarde comme c’est beau.’ These were his final words.
‘The world is extraordinary. Look how beautiful it is.’
A wonderful world. Sunset
*‘Joseph Kessel Sur la Piste du lion’ Yves Courriere, Ed. Plon, 1985
** ‘Vous avez marqué, par le contraste singulier de cette succession, que les origines d’un être humain n’ont rien à faire avec le jugement que l’on doit porter sur lui.’ Joseph Kessel, acceptance speech, Académie Française