Voices From A French Village
Late on a summer afternoon in the very heart of rural France, in a small, centuries-old house newly abandoned to its ghosts, Gillian Tindall came upon a cache of letters dating from the 1860s. Neatly folded and carefully tucked away, all were addressed to the village innkeeper's daughter, Celestine. All but one were proposals of marriage. Celestine Chaumette (1844-1933) was to reject each of these suitors to wed another; yet she preserved the letters, keeping them throughout her long life.
Something about the letters, about the woman who had so clearly cherished them, fired the historian's curiosity and the novelist's imagination. With a house in Chassignolles, Celestine's village, Ms. Tindall would spend years searching in dusty archives and farmhouse attics, probing the memories and myths of the men and women from the village and the surrounding countryside. The treasure she unearthed reaches far beyond the mystery of Celestine to tell of a vanished way of life, of a century of revolutionary change--and of the strange persistence, despite all, of the past. The result is both moving and profound. It is, as M.R.D. Foot wrote in the London Spectator, "a touching picture of a world we have lost [and] social history at its best."
In a deserted house near her own in the French village of Chassignolles, Tindall found four carefully preserved old letters, each from a different man, proposing marriage to 19-year-old Celestine Chaumette, the long-deceased grandmother of the last resident of the house. The young woman had accepted none of these suitors. Her curiosity piqued, British historian/novelist/biographer Tindall, who has been a householder and part-time resident of the community for 20-odd years, set out to discover more about Celestine. She queried neighbors and relatives, explored the local cemeteries and pored over musty 19th-century archives. But the search for Celestine led her to a many-layered study of nearly a century of agrarian life in the region of Berry, in central France near Nohant, where George Sand lived and wrote. Here, life centered on the seasons, the land, births, marriages and deaths-the rhythm of life remained much as it had been for centuries. That rhythm is caught in Tindall's imaginative prose, as are the generations of village characters she brings to life. The coming of the railroad, electricity and, above all, roads and highways significantly altered the way of life there, and the young, as they do everywhere else that family farms give way to technology, moved off to jobs elsewhere. In her search for Celestine, Tindall has also drawn a remarkable picture of the agricultural heart of France.