A batch of seven letters caused this book to be written: six love-letters and one letter home from a brother in the Army. They are the only remaining personal papers of a French-woman called Célestine Chaumette, and Gillian Tindall found them in an otherwise almost empty house in the village of Chassignolles in Central France, where she and her family have had a summer home for more than twenty years. The little box containing the letters had been overlooked by whoever had cleared the house: Tindall read them, found one date – 1862 – then another, noticed the very different hands and some quirky archaisms, and began to speculate. ‘Once ephemeral as butterflies, they had been cherished and kept for reasons of obscure pride, comfort or regret; messages from a life already past to Célestine, they had undergone a long hibernation.’ From this fragile remnant, she started to reconstruct the life of the village and its inhabitants at the time of Célestine’s birth a hundred and fifty years ago.
Tindall began her search for facts in the graveyard, and continued it in the Mairie, the local library, records offices and regional archives, up through the ever-widening circles that characterise modern French bureaucracy. Célestine Chaumette was born in 1844 and lived on until 1933, a period of massive change as the state struggled to define itself in the wake of the Revolution, the Empire, the Restoration, and the 1848 revolution. Even the name of the main street in La Châitre, the nearest town of any size to Chassignolles, reflected instability, changing from rue Nationale to Royale to Egalité, then back again to Nationale. Chassignolles itself, which had still had one foot in the Middle Ages in 1789, and was locked in by dialect and customs to its immediate pays, was by the time of Célestine’s death integrated not just with France, but with the wider world. The wolves which used to roam the forest had been chased away by the coming of the railway, money and commerce had displaced barter and self-sufficiency, and the inhabitants of the village were no longer peasants but citizens.
The place and period will be familiar to readers of George Sand, ‘La Bonne Dame du No-hant’, who lived only ten miles away, and created a timeless portrait of la France profonde based on the region, though writing the railway out and standardising her peasant characters’ French to make it comprehensible. The multiplicity of dialects was a problem which the new bureaucracy had overcome by insisting that patois was kept out of all written records. Consequently, anyone able to write even approximately standard French became indispensable in local administration, and Célestine’s father, the innkeeper at Chassignolles, became keeper of the local birth, marriage and death registers, and later a councillor and the village ‘secretary’.
The divide between the lettered and unlettered is of central importance in this book. The former are seen as agents of the brave new world of the state, promoting literacy through its bureaucracy, which in its turn would demystify the written word, show it to be functional rather than decorative. The latter remained part of a vivid, tight-knit communal life. ‘We all spoke the same language,’ the writer Marcel Jouhandeau wrote of his country upbringing, ‘and hardly needed to speak because we understood one another anyway. Everyone shared more or less the same ideas about what mattered.’ This idea of language – and specifically literature – as an index of distance, foreignness and disunity, is clearly what kept the state at bay in the provinces for many decades longer than in the towns, even when the structures of administration had already penetrated the wolf-haunted forests of the Berry. Gillian Tindall suspects, very plausibly, that the local mayor was illiterate; certainly a large majority of his councillors ‘declared themselves unable to sign’ in the minutes – and these, as Tindall points out, were obviously shrewd, competent and successful men in their own right, the local élite.
When Tindall turned to the Chassignolles birth-registers, she found ‘real thumb-marks’ all over them, ‘the insignia of people whose hands were permanently impregnated with wood ash and cow dung because opportunities for washing were so few’ – a detail nicely suggestive of the transition from marking to writing. The batch of letters to Célestine have to be read in this context, for in mid-19th century rural France it was significant that they could be sent, or read, at all. At the time when Célestine was receiving her love letters, the form was just beginning to have some currency in ordinary courtship, but was still ‘a sign of serious intent commensurate with the effort it cost most of the writers to put pen to paper’.
The first of the letters was from a young farmer called Baptiste Aussourd, and is an intriguing example of one early use of literacy – for secrecy: ‘I would like it very much, when you have got this letter, if you would send me an answer at once,’ he wrote to Célestine. ‘You don’t need to be afraid that anyone but me will see your reply for theres no one else in my house who knows how to read, and you can trust me’. But if the written word can conceal his meaning from some eyes, it also allows Baptiste the freedom to speak very plainly to his beloved: ‘I’m just writing from warmth of feeling. If that doesn’t work, at least I will know [...] Ill close now, as I don’t have anything else to note for you today. Except I am hoping to be your dear one for life.’ The addressing of the letter gives a brief indication of Baptiste’s local accent, for he spells Célestine Salestine, and Tindall’s rendering of his semi-literate style brings out both his confusion and his confidence. Célestine waited before answering, presumably in an equally plain manner, for his second letter is hurt, humiliated and noticeably more incorrect:
I can find myself a wife anytime I want. I dont say this to boast but just because these days I can hold up my Head wherever I go [pour le momen je peutpassé le tete Levée]. I dont think youll meet anyone anywhere to say Ive behaved badly, I think Ive acted as right as any other tom-dick-or-harry who might be keeping company with you [aussi onnaitement que lepremier garconvenu qui pourrate frequente] but I wont say anything about that forthemoment.
Célestine’s next letter was from a schoolmaster called Allorent, in copperplate handwriting and a very different style, addressed correctly but toadyingly via her father. It is tortuous and formal (possibly owing a debt to the letter-writing manuals which were becoming popular at the time) but there are also outbreaks of feeling: ‘My hand trembles as I trace these few lines. I can hardly write to you at all when I remind myself that when I was with you I could hardly speak – hardly stutter a few phrases, on account of the state of my heart. I felt you must have a bad impression of me.’ He, too, was rejected by the innkeeper’s daughter and this letter is his only memorial, but Tindall, in one of her highly effective shifts of focus, opens out from it onto ‘the self-conscious world just being born: that of the rentier and the white-collar workers, of the ladylike wife and the jeune fille bien élevée, of trains and newspapers and morning coffee; a world in which elegance was to be cultivated and yet where taboos and reticences unknown in simpler days were cultivated also.’
Two more proposals the next year, from a commercial traveller and a cousin in La Châitre respectively, testify to Célestine’s attractiveness both sexually and socially, and to her unusual freedom of choice. The man she married, in January 1865, was a local oil-presser. If he ever wrote to her– he had little reason to– the letters have not survived, and although Tindall chases the couple through censuses and registers right up to their deaths many years later, the emotional base of the marriage remains obscure. What evidence there is suggests that Célestine’s later life was difficult and unrewarding: her only son had only one child, her daughter-in-law suffered from mental illness, and Célestine herself ended her days impoverished and in the care of nuns, not in the bosom of her family.
The survival of the letters, as tangible witness to les plus beaux jours, enhances the pathos of Célestine’s life. The fact that they were love letters explains Tindall’s motivation in resurrecting the dead of Chassignolles: if she had come upon bills of exchange hidden in the box behind the shutters, it would have been quite otherwise. The element of personality is essential, but by fixing on the life of a woman who, in the world’s terms, did very little, it is also muted. By the end of the book, one has very little sense of Célestine Chaumette as a character; her tastes, opinions and priorities remain obscure. Tindall is too conscientious a historian to sentimentalise the many facts she uncovers, and too experienced a novelist not to know where the line falls between invention and imagination. What is most interesting to her is that Célestine remains unknowable – that you can sense her presence but never define it.
So when Tindall declares in a Preface that ‘this book is all true,’ a wrong note is sounded. The idea of ‘all true’ sits oddly in a work which relies heavily on the interpretative power of imagination and which uses many of the (essentially fictional) techniques of autobiography. Here, for instance, is Tindall’s description of inspecting a hand-drawn map of the local Commune, dating from 1843:
Each time I looked at the old map I felt myself being drawn into it, possessed by the feeling that if I studied it hard enough it would, like a photograph gradually enlarging and enlarging under my gaze, carry me deeper into those narrow lanes, allow me to see the small oblongs transformed into the shapes of roofs and doors, eventually revealing the trellises of vines, the tracery of the plough, every tree, every stone, every dung-heap ...
‘Was it something particular you wanted to find out?’ said Monsieur Pirot.
This dramatising of the very act of fact-gathering reveals the extent of Tindall’s imaginative engagement. It is unusual to have a subject so poor in literary sources – no published memoirs or diaries, and few personal letters. Sometimes the only way she is able to evoke historical truth is through suggestive fiction, a method she adopts enthusiastically to illustrate, for example, the baker’s social function in the French provinces today: ‘It is the baker who finds yesterday’s bread still in the bird-proof box by the farm gate, penetrates the unlocked kitchen and discovers the owner incapacitated beside the stove, or ranges the barns and orchards calling a name till a feeble voice responds from beside a fallen ladder or a toppled straw stack.’ This level of elaboration is only tolerable as part of Tindall’s own appearance in the book as the necessary outsider, the historian/biographer with her godlike knowledge of, control over and pleasure in other people’s lives. For all her tenacity in research and determination to uncover the past, she retains this sense of the oddity of her position, and her relating of an incident where she tracks down a member of the Chaumette family who is running a shoe business, and, to his amazement, rattles off six generations of his own family tree, is gently ironic and self-critical.
The only letter of Célestine’s cache not from a suitor was one from her brother in the Army. It is inconsequential and mean-minded, and Tindall suggests that it may only have been kept because it was the last surviving message from the boy. Her investigation of his life leads to the discovery of yet another brother, called Ursin. The mysteries surrounding both remain impenetrable, and at a certain point Tindall has to give up ‘in the interests of my own sanity’, although by doing so she draws attention to the arbitrariness of the whole project. Tindall is fully aware of herself both as a foreign writer colonising a subject, and as an incomer in the village. ‘Are you taking over our past too?’one local asks acidly, hearing of her researches.
If Tindall’s foreignness is the enabling factor in both the choice of subject and the writing of the book, it also accounts for a great deal of the book’s subtlety, for she is particularly sensitive to language, noting how her neighbours adjust their vocabulary according to their audience, and how archaisms such as ‘mort à présent’ and ‘vieux à présent’ richly suggest ‘a more temporary state’. One of the greatest pleasures of this Francomane book is that it is written in unobtrusively elegant English. ‘In the closed attic that we left swept bare, where the summer heat is trapped, a miniature drapery of cobwebs has grown, powdered with the dust of the outer air: leaf and blossom dust, pollen, the spoil of the occasional woodworm. Fresh droppings are scattered on the boards, and when we open a shallow drawer a terrified dormouse, with the black-and-white striped face of a mime artist, leaps out and runs for her life.’ The eye that can detect different qualities of dust in a cobweb can be trusted to give us as clear and complete a picture as possible of whatever it chooses to fix on. From one unpromising bundle of letters, Gillian Tindall brilliantly re-creates a mostly unrecorded world. Its inhabitants were not really dead, as it turns out, only mort à présent.