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BOOKS; On the trail of the walnut presser's wife

CLESTINE: Voices From a French Village by Gillian Tindall, Sinclair- Stevenson pounds 17.99
IN the early 1860s, various young men in the remote Berry region of central France wrote to Celestine Chaumette, an inn-keeper's daughter in the little village of Chassignolles. Literacy was uncommon and the French postal system in its cumbersome infancy, so almost any letter was an event. These, testifying as they did to the recipient's charms, had added sentimental value and were carefully preserved. For 60 years after her death they lay forgotten, until chanced upon by a writer with the keenness of a truffle hound and, cynics may think, an eye for a publishing fashion.

Gillian Tindall has a holiday home in the Berry, but if this book is a manifestation of the Mayle Tendency it's a very superior one. Its evocation of an intimate and still little-known landscape is suggestive and tender, but the book's real subject is time. Armed with those letters and an ancient map, Gillian Tindall goes sleuthing. What emerges from her meticulous labours, beyond innumerable vivid glimpses of a highly particular lost world, is a sense of the slow, indifferent motion of history and of the threads of continuity traceable through generations of the obscure individuals caught up in it.

Tindall herself is properly self- effacing, but it is hard not to develop a mental picture of her: a determined Englishwoman bearing down upon the mairies of the region demanding to see the hand-written records that will reveal a date of birth here, a connection by marriage there, scouring antique newspapers for reports about a long-ago but still-remembered murder, poring eagerly over yellowed scraps produced by her elderly and phlegmatic Chassignolles neighbours. "It took some perseverance to establish the facts", she will say briskly, or "I laid further siege to Vincennes", and you realise she is not a person to be trifled with.

Gradually and piecemeal, links and patterns and narratives emerge. It is not just names that are inherited in this tight-knit community where some still see a trip to Paris as eccentric behaviour. A way of walking, an angle of the chin, a talent for mental arithmetic, a disposition to suicide - all linger in the genes, much as the local linen, precious because the product of back-breaking labour, has always been passed down through families.

Often the stories are tantalisingly incomplete, but admirably - given that she is herself no mean novelist - Tindall resists the temptation to invent facts, or put words in the characters' mouths, or speculate on their feelings. She allows the dead the dignity of their secrets. Just occasionally she can't hold back from a little pleasant surmise. Pleased to discover that Celestine had a soldier brother, she pursues him back and forth to war, only to lose track of him in Algiers. Military men have an unfortunate habit of getting killed, but Tindall chooses, on scant evidence, to imagine him settling happily in Africa. It's an endearing moment.

As for Celestine, it's not just her letters but her dates that matter. When she was born in 1844, most of the Berry was still essentially medieval in character. Elemental things - charcoal, iron, droughts, storms, wolves, legends and hard grind - had for centuries been the stuff and extent of life. The intricate web of footpaths shown on Gillian Tindall's map would have taken you as far as you ever aspired to go. Railways, proper roads, trade and education were at last to implicate the Berry, if only intermittently, in the broad sweep of national life. She survived until 1933, so some of the Great War veterans whom Tindall has seen assembled each November at the war memorial would have known her.

All the same it's those letters, when we finally get to read them, that steal the show. Three were marriage proposals, one in almost impenetrable patois from a suitor clearly beneath her, the second, all stiffly florid prose and careful curlicues, from a lonely schoolteacher, the third a last-ditch plea from a boy begging her to call off her imminent wedding to a presser of walnut oil. They cut no ice. Celestine married her walnut man, took over her father's inn and lived less than happily ever after, thanks to a mad daughter-in-law who brought ruin on the family.

It could have been worse. She died a pauper, but she had her moment - young, hopeful, the object of no less than four men's fierce desire. And this book's affectionate commemoration is more than, even in her wildest girlish dreams, she could have imagined.