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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?