A Frenchwoman's story

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The Independent Online
The life story I am about to tell could not, I think, have happened to an Englishwoman. It concerns a good friend and near neighbour of mine in the Dordogne, a gentle, soft-spoken and contented woman in her fifties, called Josette.

She was born in a small village in south-west France in 1933 or thereabouts. Her father was a senior local government official in the nearest town, so Josette was definitely more than a peasant girl; she was, if it matters, une bourgeoise.

She turned out to be bright and grew up to be pretty. She was also lucky. Had she been 10 or even five years older, she might have suffered at the hands of the occupying Germans during the war. Many did: the Dordogne is marked by dozens of wayside crosses, erected to commemorate Resistance fighters, or just ordinary civilians, fusilles par les Allemands. The stories of what happened to attractive young women still fester in the minds of local people. But Josette got through the war relatively unscathed.

A local farmer's son remembers her at 14, on her confirmation day. 'She was the best- looking of all the village girls. I fancied her like mad.' But at the age of 16, Josette was married to a doctor 25 years older than herself. I do not know the story behind this marriage. It was certainly advantageous in terms of wealth and status, and took Josette far from her childhood friends and away to Paris. There she had two children, a boy and a girl.

Eight years later she divorced her husband. A story of pain and misery may lie behind this early separation (she was still only 24); or it may be that the marriage simply failed to work, for all the usual reasons. I have never felt that our friendship was quite intimate enough to permit me to ask. A few years later Josette married again: another doctor. Another child was born. That marriage was evidently more successful, but after 18 years, Josette was once more on her own.

By now in her mid-forties, she went to former French colonial Africa where, single-handed, she ran a school for 64 children for several years. The work was fascinating and she loved teaching, but the climate was too much for her, and Josette returned to France. Returned, furthermore, to the village of her birth, where she took a job as a local government official like her father before her. By now, she had travelled all over the world and learned a great deal about how it turns.

Seven years ago, the peasant farmer who comes twice a year to cut the grass in my meadow announced one afternoon, with some pride, that his fiancee would be coming to collect him later; he would introduce her. And thus I met Josette for the first time. She was still a highly attractive woman and a cultured, sophisticated one as well. I wondered why she had chosen to marry this decent, hard- working but simple peasant farmer, with his hands and face black and rough from work and weather, and his almost impenetrable Dordogne accent.

He was the same boy who, nearly 50 years ago and despite the solemnity of his confirmation day, had noticed that she was the prettiest of all the white-robed confirmation candidates. Within months of our meeting, they were married.

We, my partner and I, had dinner with them 10 days ago. This was a great honour: in 20 years of having a home there, it is only the third time that I have been invited into someone's house to dine. Josette cooked an astounding, eight-course meal that took three hours to eat. The food was the best, the very best, that the Perigord can produce: smooth, rich goose-liver pate, fresh salad tossed in home- made walnut oil, and gamey wild mushrooms found in their own fields. Honour demanded that we eat it all, right down to the moist chocolate cake served with tiny, lethal cups of black coffee.

He still watches her with the same fond pride as he did when he first introduced her. They call each other lapin - rabbit. Josette, now nearly 60, seems genuinely, deeply contented.

Could it happen here: that a woman who had so elevated herself through the professional classes, acquiring education and culture far beyond that of her original schoolfriends and village contemporaries, could yet return to her origins to marry a peasant; and be happy with him?

The flexibility of the French class system permits this. The British one, I think, would not.