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.

Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
    Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

    Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

    David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
    Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

    Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

    A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic