Tuesday Book: From Le Creuse to Lancashire

Click to follow
ONCE, IRISH labourers used to commute across to England every summer to help with the harvest. In the local post office, you saw them gumming the flaps of registered envelopes, which held most of their weekly wages. In today's France, many migrants from North or West Africa follow the same pattern. But in the hidden recesses of 19th-century French history, which Gillian Tindall delights in bringing to light, such migrants came from within France, in particular from the impoverished uplands of the Massif Central: la France profonde.

Each nook had its speciality. The wind-swept hills of the departement of the Creuse specialised in stonemasons. Every spring they went out to build the great monuments of Paris - the Pantheon, the mayoral offices, eventually the apartment blocks of Louis Napoleon's new boulevards. Every winter they went back.

The only place in the Creuse familiar to anyone in Britain (and many in France) is Aubusson, famous for its tapestry works. But out of this hidden tract, Gillian Tindall has evocatively plucked one man, Martin Nadaud.

Nadaud was born in obscurity into a peasant family in 1815, the year of Waterloo. He died in 1898, a solid citizen of the Third Republic, in whose parliament he sat for many years. Impressed with the London Underground, he constantly argued for France to emulate it. The Metro was begun the year of his death. One station, in working-class Paris, was named after him. It is a story straight out of Samuel Smiles: how to rise through self-help and honest toil.

Gillian Tindall's curiosity was aroused by coming across "a worn edged, red-bound incomplete edition of 1912" of Nadaud's long-forgotten memoirs. At the time, she was delving into the life of a Frenchwoman, Celestine Chaumette, who never rose into any kind of public prominence. Through her life she movingly portrayed, in 1995, the closed world of the French peasantry. Now we have Nadaud, a generation before Celestine. Through him we follow the trail of one who tried to get away.

As Nadaud was growing up, a French finance minister complained that half the population "seemed lost in the 14th century and content to remain there". From such a background, young Martin, his father and hundreds of other men of the Creuse tramped seasonally into Paris.

Fleshing out Nadaud's often unreliable memoirs with family letters and a deep knowledge of French social history, Gillian Tindall brings to life the working-class neighbourhoods of Paris, where Nadaud lodged and then settled. (Kicking matches, with clogs on, were a favourite street sport.) He spent his spare time in libraries, be coming an active republican and a night-school teacher of other ambitious working men.

When Louis-Philippe's bourgeois monarchy was overthrown in 1848, Nadaud became the first working-class member of parliament in the short-lived Second Republic. After Louis Napoleon's 1852 coup, Nadaud fled to England, returning for good only after the regime fell in 1870. Briefly, he became prefet of the Creuse, a prophet honoured in his own country.

His English exile makes fascinating reading. At first, at almost 40, he was plunged back into working as a mason (he later gave French lessons); he had to learn the language and, even harder, get to grips with the strange, unrevolutionary ways of the English. Busy, sooty, world-conquering London was infinitely vaster than Paris. Nadaud moved in the twilight world of political exiles. Shown around the marvels and horrors of industrial Lancashire by Friedrich Engels, he also goggled at the Crystal Palace.

Nadaud took back to Paris much more than a passion for underground railways. He admired the aspirant working-class institutions, the co-ops and building societies, and in Anglicanism found a form of religion mild enough to temper his republican anti-clericalism. He quoted, with approval, the historian Michelet's remark: "A Protestant country is a country where everyone reads." At their marriage, his wife had had to sign with a cross.

Martin Nadaud was stubborn, didactic, honest, irascible and, finally, rather sad. His life was lived at arm's length from the people of the Creuse, including, much of the time, his wife and daughter.

The book jacket reproduces a Courbet painting of a mid-19th century French peasant breaking stones. The work no longer exists, destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in 1945. Gillian Tindall, equally, has recreated a world that no longer exists. In Nadaud's hometown, in 1942, the invading Germans even demolished his statue.