Hot milk and billets-doux

CELESTINE: voices from a French village Gillian Tindall Sinclair- Stevenson £17.99

Many writers introduce their work with cautious disclaimers apologising for the uncertain status of what follows, but the novelist Gillian Tindall, fired by the incontrovertible power of fact, begins her tender exploration of French rural life with the bold assertion: "The book is all true."

Certainly, we can share the excitement she feels when she discovers some 150-year-old love letters to a woman called Clestine, and it is easy to be won over by the revelations she makes as she doggedly sifts municipal records and local memories. Some might imagine her work belongs to the embarrassing tradition inspired by Peter Mayle - let's all have a good laugh at French plumbers - but this is not Toujours Chassingolles. It is something more serious and more touching: a devoted record of unsung lives in 19th-century France.

In concentrating on a small patch of land, Tindall covers an awful lot of ground. In 1844, the year of Clestine's birth, French rural life still had a 14th-century flavour: subsistence farming for bread, cheese and vegetables, no news from afar, long nights and hard, hard work. By the year of her death, Clestine had witnessed films, planes and phones, not to mention cars, tractors and new medicines. Unlike some of her interview- ees, Tindall does not sentimentalise the old ways: "steam-powered threshing machines were delivering the earth's bounty more reliably than religious processions."

There are some painful hard-luck stories. When the forge went bankrupt the owners had to spend their whole life savings in gold to repay debts. In old age they finally managed it, and a few weeks later France came off the gold standard, causing a sharp devaluation of the franc - they could have been rich. There are, too, some telling social details. After giving birth, Clestine's mother was given a bowl of hot milk; had it been a boy she would have got mulled wine.

Nevertheless, Tindall's opening claim to total truth is a bizarre one. For one thing, the book is full of out-and-out guesswork. As in much biography, the key phrase "no doubt" alerts us to those moments when we can no longer be sure of our ground. "When Clestine appeared," we read, "she was no doubt placed ceremoniously in the arms of her great-grand-father." Really? Tindall is even confident enough to speculate about her subjects' clothes. "I see Sylvain Germain in my mind's eye clad in the wool and goat-hair breeches that were by then obsolete wear." And when one of Clestine's brothers disappears, Tindall remarks: "His very existence had been forgotten . . . no doubt they had long ceased to mention him." Can we be certain of this? Is it "all true"? It seems at least possible that the conversation turned, every now and then, to the brother who went away to war and never came back.

Fortunately, none of this matters much. The virtues in Tindall's account are almost exactly the opposite of those she claims for it. It reads like a novel, and a novel of a rather traditional sort, relying for its effects on a settled, well-behaved grammar that suggests an all-comprehending author. Ordinary lives are given a modest glint of significance. "One autumn day," it begins, "an old man left his small house in a village near the geographical heart of France and caught the weekly bus into the nearby market town."

Tindall was obviously pleased by the sheer weight of statistics and genealogical information she was able to uncover, and has a bibliophile's fondness for old books of rural records - all those years of ash and dung and thumbprints. But the reader is more likely to be impressed by the slightness of the historical database and to feel that the truths she exposes are even more shaky than they appear. There are just seven letters in the original cache, and we have no way of knowing whether they represent a brief highlight in a life of drudgery, or just the surface trace of wild days and nights in dark, wolf-surrounded countryside.

Still, they are moving stuff. As the daughter of an innkeeper, Clestine attracted a wider audience of potential admirers than was perhaps common; and the letters carry a poignant charge of ancient, long-dead hope. "I am hoping to be your dear one for life," writes a neighbour called Baptiste. "I can hardly write at all," writes another suitor (a schoolmaster), "when I remind myself that when I was with you I could barely speak on account of the state of my heart." A fellow from the next village declares: "I cannot keep silent any longer without making known to you the desire I have to love you"; a young baker contents himself with repeating "Oh Mlle Clestine"; and a commercial traveller goes for a humble plea: "the man who has the luck to marry you could have no other desire but to work and love you." We do not have Cele-stine's replies, but we know she rejected all these unlucky suitors.

In the end, though, it is not so much the letters themselves that are stirring - on the contrary, they are fairly humdrum - as their own history, and the idea of Clestine hoarding them for the rest of her 90-year life.How many times did she take her letters out of their slim case and read them to herself, these luminous trophies of her youth and beauty? Did her hand ever hover over the waste paper bin? No doubt we will never know.

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