Happy in Heaven

Patrick O’Brian

  • Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: The Life and Death of the Little Prince by Paul Webster
    Macmillan, 276 pp, £17.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 333 54872 8

In France there have been many studies of Saint-Exupéry since his death in 1944; the five books he published are continually kept in print; and Le Petit Prince is to be found everywhere. In England his following was never so great, and although he remains a very well-known name he has not attracted anything like as much critical or biographical attention: this book, however, provides a full account of his life, with a good deal of information that is not to be found elsewhere.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was born in 1900, the eldest son of a considerable southern family with offshoots and connections, some of them very grand, all over France. These particular Saint-Exupérys were somewhat reduced (Antoine’s father worked in an insurance office), but they and their relations still owned estates and large country houses with plenty of servants to look after them. Monsieur de Saint-Exupéry died of a stroke in 1904 and his young widow and five children went to live with her great-aunt at the château of Saint-Maurice-de-Rémens, thirty miles north-east of Lyon, a house with an immense garden, mountains in the distance and country all around. This was the true home of Saint-Exupéry’s childhood, and in retrospect the happiest, perhaps the only happy, time of his life. He was the heir, the little prince, with an adored and adoring mother and no male authority nearer than a grandfather in Lyon. Madame de Saint-Exupéry was far more highly cultivated than most country gentlewomen of her time (or of ours), and she sang, played and read to her children, and told them stories: she was certainly the strongest influence in her son’s life.

This paradise was lost when the two Saint-Exupéry boys were sent to school, first to a cold, harsh establishment at Le Mans, run on Jesuit lines, which prepared boys for the Army with some success: a traditional, right-wing, royalist place, with anti-semitism taken for granted. Antoine was unhappy there, and he did badly. Still, there were the holidays at Saint-Maurice; and in the nearby town of Ambérieu a pioneer had laid out an airfield. This was at the time of the great national enthusiasm for flying after Blériot’s crossing of the Channel; and in 1911 the airfield became a flying-school, whose proceedings were watched by the fascinated local boys, none more fascinated than Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Soon he was taken up for a joy-ride – never was the word so utterly appropriate – and his fate was sealed. Then came a school in Switzerland, still Catholic, of course, but much kinder, and by 1917 he had passed his baccalauréat. After that, since his family wanted him to have a career in the Navy, always something of a royalist preserve, he went to Paris to cram for the entrance examination. He studied at the Lycée Saint-Louis, a state school, but boarded at Bossuet, a private Catholic place, where he became much attached to the Abbé Sudour, one of the outstanding masters.

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