Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Seven

Plans for an early return to Bel-Air that summer were postponed by my having what, in the theatre, is known as ‘a spit and a cough’, in the very first episode of the successful TV comedy series ‘The Brittas Empire’. It was high summer, real swimming pool weather, but instead of setting off down the long straight roads of northern France, I was commuting to Acton. I must admit that I wasn’t exactly sorry not to have a larger part, and by the second week in July, we were packed and ready to go. Although we had somehow fitted half a pine kitchen, an electric cooker and a ten foot worktop into our estate car we were determined not to put the car on the train this time, but to take several days over the journey and enjoy some as yet unexplored parts of France. The first place I wanted to visit was the Château of Nohant, the home of George Sand.

When we had first bought Bel-Air in 1976 I had soon realised that I would have to do something about my extremely limited French. I started in a beginner’s class at Morley College in South London and, thanks to imaginative teaching, made progress. The class which I subsequently joined had by now transformed itself, first into a French history class, then, leaving the college altogether, into an Anglo-French group of friends. For the last ten years we have much enjoyed studying, in both languages, the history of England and of France. That winter we had concentrated on the first half of the nineteenth century through the literature of the time and I had been completely captivated by George Sand.

My vague memories of a pallid Merle Oberon gazing languidly at the young Chopin in an old Hollywood film were quickly effaced. George Sand’s portrait showed a strong beauty with great heavy-lidded eyes and her writing revealed a brilliant, feisty, and incredibly hard-working woman. She spoke with a frankness and an immediacy which delighted me. The famous relationship with Chopin was but one episode in an extraordinary life.

She was born in Paris as Aurore Dupin in 1804. Her father had aristocratic connections being the illegitimate grandson of the Maréchal de Saxe; her mother however was a camp follower, and the daughter of an itinerant bird seller. At the age of four, the little Aurore was dragged across war-torn Spain by her pregnant and impulsive mother, who was unable to wait for the return of her handsome soldier husband, fighting for Napoleon.

With her parents she came back to live with her grandmother in the family home at the Château of Nohant, which I was planning to visit. Within a year of their return, both the new baby and Aurore’s father were dead, and the two bereaved women began their battle for the upbringing of the child. The mother, poor and uneducated, and with an earlier illegitimate daughter to support, was no match for her formidable and wealthy mother-in-law. In spite of many broken promises to come to collect her daughter she left for Paris and virtually sold the little girl for an allowance of 1000F a year to her cold and correct paternal grandmother. George Sand wrote of her grandmother later ‘I had a terrible fear of becoming like her and when she made me sit at her side without moving it seemed as though she was commanding me to die.’

Aurore’s education was entrusted to her father’s old tutor, Deschartes, who had been chosen for him by Voltaire and was himself a formidable person. He made no differences for her sex and taught her Latin, history and mathematics. But as she grew older she would escape and run wild with the village children, and her love and understanding of the countryside was to inspire much of her writing. Her grandmother, worried that she would be unable to make a good marriage, sent her to be educated at the English Convent of the Augustins, which had been established in Paris since the time of Cromwell. Some two thirds of the boarders were English, French was not to be spoken at certain hours and the predominantly Irish nuns drank tea three times a day. At first it was simply yet another traumatic change in her life, but she soon made friends and, having her own room, began the habit of writing and dreaming rather than sleeping at night. All her life she needed very little sleep. She described her time at the convent as being ‘the most perfect happiness I had ever tasted in my life’.

At seventeen she was brought back to Nohant. Her grandmother was becoming old and infirm and it was now the task of Deschartes to instruct Aurore on the management of the estate. Wearing her father’s riding clothes she would accompany Deschartes when he went to administer medicine or practise minor surgery in the nearby villages. She devoured the vast library reading at night to her grandmother with whom, at last, she established some rapport before the old lady died.

At eighteen she married Baron Casimir Dudevant and had two children but her unconventional behaviour and conversation outraged local society. No one thought it odd when her husband took mistresses but when she demanded the same sexual freedom it caused a scandal. After eight years of an increasingly unhappy marriage she left for Paris taking her daughter with her. She began to dress like a man simply for economy and for the freedom it gave her. The fashion at the time for young men was a long squarish ‘sentry-box’ coat which reached to the ankles. Under this were worn trousers, a waistcoat and what she enjoyed most of all, boots.

‘I can’t convey how much my boots delighted me: I’d have gladly slept in them,’ she wrote. ‘With those steel tipped heels I was solid on the pavement at last. I dashed back and forth across Paris and felt I was going around the world. I was out and about in all weather, came home at all hours, was in the pits of all the theatres.’ These were all adventures which wearing women’s clothes would have made impossible.

She had promised her husband’s parents that she would not use her married name if she intended to do anything as vulgar as be published. Once again it was more convenient to take on the guise of a man and so ‘George Sand’ was born – a woman who would have many lovers, befriend many artists, support many causes and still find time to write over thirty novels and countless articles. As for her lovers she maintained…‘pour être romancier, il faut être romanesque, comme il faut être lièvre pour devenir çivet’ which very roughly translated means ‘to make a novelist one needs romance as to make a casserole one needs a hare!’

After her busy life in Paris George Sand returned to Nohant and there she entertained by day such distinguished contemporaries as Flaubert, Balzac, Delacroix, Liszt and Turgenev while writing each night from midnight until four a.m. to support an increasing group of friends and family…

Mike and I stayed the night at Les Andelys, a sort of backwater loop of the Seine, in an old fashioned hotel. It made up in romantic charm and with the most delicious ‘oeuf en cocotte au Roquefort’ for its lack of modern plumbing, having at that time, many quaint bedrooms but only one lavatory; and the next day we drove on. Nohant is just north of La Châtre. You must walk the last distance for no cars are allowed into the hamlet. It was a hot still afternoon. A dreamy young man was playing Chopin on a grand piano in the coach house and a great catalpa in flower towered over the Château. It is unpretentious, an elegantly proportioned stone manor house, with its fourteenth century church and small cottages. The house is preserved much as it was in George Sand’s lifetime. Her granddaughter lived there until she died in 1961 at the age of ninety-five.

The rooms in which George Sand wrote, slept and entertained still enshrine the piano at which both Liszt and Chopin composed. Her collection of the works of Voltaire, her books on geography, philosophy and her filing cabinets of fossils were all fascinating. Alas, the young guide had learned his lines and was eager to say them as fast as possible. I would have liked to stay and wander at my will, especially in the theatre where, often with Chopin’s help, George Sand would try out her plays, casting them from friends, family and anyone she could persuade to take part. There is also a puppet theatre with one-hundred-and-sixty marionettes which her son Maurice made, and for which she designed and sewed most of the costumes. One leaves Nohant with an overwhelming impression of a life of such creative energy and yet, especially toward the end, an acceptance of its limitations. Content at last to write when she felt like it she amused herself by playing with and teaching her granddaughter, strolling in her garden and, until the year before she died, by swimming in the river.

We drove slowly away from Nohant through the peaceful countryside and spoiled ourselves by finding a hotel by the side of a lake and eating the 180F menu. We drooled over a terrine de légumes avec mousse de foie, followed by a wonderful entrecôte, a salad, and then the best chocolate ice-cream I’ve ever tasted. It was almost black and covered in chocolate sauce in which were strips of caramelised orange peel. As we gazed out at the lakeside terrace with its elegant recliners and umbrellas, its small tables, and the lights reflecting in the moonlit water, we wondered exactly what we would see when we arrived at Bel-Air the next day.

I wrote in my journal – field a disaster, pool a triumph!

Mike went straight to telephone M. Bourrière to congratulate him on the immaculate sparkling blue rectangle in our devastated meadow, before we stripped off and enjoyed this first swim in our own pool. Now I was pleased that we hadn’t been here to watch every stage as the surprise was so much a part of the fun. We spread towels on the concrete surround and dried off, but it was too hot to lie there for long without shade of some kind. We had always used the ash tree whenever we needed shade – now we would have to think about umbrellas.

We gazed around at the bare dusty earth, the heaps of stones and the once muddy tracks, now baked into solid ruts. Would the grass ever grow again? What on earth would Anaïs have thought of this extravagance, when she wouldn’t even have a tap installed? Even as she and her son Aloïs grew increasingly old and frail they still drew all their water from the well in the porch. And the meadow? I knew how she had loved her garden. I was always finding odd little plantings, roses and lilac down by Raymond’s pond, which had once been a part of our property, and irises by the barn wall. I resolved to make the ugly brown devastation into a beautiful garden even if it took me the next ten years.

It grew hotter. It was a perfect summer for swimming pools. Claudine came to give us a lesson in the necessary pool cleaning, hoovering, back washing and treating with chemicals. ‘It’s easy,’ she reassured. ‘Il faut aller doucement, doucement,’ she instructed as Mike wrestled with the long-handled brush. The cows in the next field were very interested in all this activity. There were nine heifers and an older cow, who was in charge. They stood in a row gazing over the wire and from a distance looked as though they were lining up to swim.

M. Gibelou returned in a few days to smooth out the tracks and to discuss the rearranging of the piles of earth. I wanted to protect the pool from the north wind in some way.

‘You need a low wall,’ he said. ‘I know just the chap to do it for you. He’s a bit…’ he spread his hands and shrugged, ‘but he understands stones. He’ll do you a really good job…un joli petit mur. Then I can bank up the earth to the wall and you can begin to plant.’

That was what I wanted to hear.

He returned that evening with the new maçon, M. Duparcq. He extolled his friend’s skill at building les jolis murs while M. Duparcq shuffled his feet and said nothing. It reminded me of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, for M. Duparcq was a giant of a man. He had the longest legs I’d ever seen and wore the shortest shorts. A small, grubby white cotton hat shaded his eyes which peered out from a face as shapeless as a potato. A rough moustache hid his mouth. M. Gibelou encouraged him.

‘It’s not difficult, is it. You could soon get it done, eh?’

M. Duparcq surveyed the scene.

‘I would like the wall made with old stones and perhaps curved at this end,’ I said hopefully. There were already enough straight lines with the pool.

He nodded slowly. ‘Oui,’ he said at last, ‘la semaine prochaine.’

The weather grew even hotter. The last few days of that week we wondered how we had ever managed without a pool in which to plunge every half-hour. The maize in the grand champ seemed to be fainting in the heat in spite of being watered and there was almost no water in the pond for the cows. Normally they trek down the field several times a day led by ‘mother’ but now each evening Raymond had to fill a trough under the ash tree with water for them to drink.

On Monday we saw our first cloud. It was a bit like the scene in Jean de Florette for it floated slowly over but dropped no rain and it was ninety degrees Fahrenheit under our north-facing porch.

‘C’est la canicule!’ yelled Grandpa as he drove past in his battered van. We hardly needed telling that there was a heatwave! Shopping had to be done in the early morning and our nearest town Monflanquin was full of music. This year was to be the sixth year of Musique en Guyenne, ten July days of study, by musicians of all ages and from all regions, who stay locally and have daily master-classes in guitar, brass, strings and woodwind. There is also a choir of 120 singers and each year the programme becomes more ambitious with recitals in nearby châteaux by international soloists. The standard of the students is extremely high and the final concert in the church at Monflanquin is always thrilling. The soloists that year for the Brahms Requiem included an American soprano with a wonderfully sure technique and a glorious voice and the church was packed to the roof.

On Sunday we went down to the farm for lunch. We only discovered when we got there that it was the anniversary of two weddings. Philippe and Corinne, was it a year ago already? And Raymond and Claudette too. They had kept very quiet about that the previous year. Although it was scorching outside we started as usual with soup, a light consommé, which never fails to whet the appetite and then tasted the first melons.

‘There won’t be many this year if it doesn’t rain soon,’ said Claudette.

She cut more bread and Grandma carried in the next course, a plate of thinly cut smoked salmon, a rare treat here. Next came a dish of baked courgettes farcies and roast guinea fowl. There was much reminiscing about past weddings, in the middle of which Grandpa announced that he and Grandma were married in 1931. If he said, he was still alive next year, they would be celebrating their diamond wedding. None of us could compete with that!

The next morning we were still in bed when M. Duparcq arrived to begin the wall. It was seven a.m. We were paying him ninety francs an hour and it certainly looked as though he was going to put in a long day. He unloaded a cement mixer and a pile of breezeblocks. ‘C’est pour l’autre côté,’ he said stolidly. ‘You won’t see them at all.’ I hoped not!

He had to hose the baked ground the length of the proposed wall several times before his pickaxe could make any impression and a trench could be dug. He curved it elegantly at the end and I began to have more confidence. Over the weeks we would learn that he was a very skilled and conscientious craftsman and his taciturnity was simple shyness. By Wednesday he had almost finished facing the breezeblock wall and it was looking really good. When we had first bought Bel-Air I had had a try at building the odd small stone wall to edge a flower bed. Now I watched a professional. He would sort out the stones from the surrounding heaps, weigh them in his huge hands and place them in exactly the right way. He inserted the odd piece of red tile here and there ‘pour faire plus joli’ he said, and brought flat stones for the top of the wall. He told us that what we needed to finish the end nearest the house were several large blocks of stone which had already been cut. ‘Les pierres d’angle, bien taillées,’ he explained, adding that there were several such stones lying in a heap by the ruin down past the pond. As these belonged to my neighbour M. Ablard I asked Raymond for advice.

‘I’m sure he’ll sell you a few,’ he said. ‘Il est bien gentil.’

We walked across the dried-up fields full of grasshoppers. I had met M. Ablard once or twice, his wife never. The house was silent and shuttered, the yard shimmered in the heat. I called, ‘Il y a quelqu’un?’ and heard a voice inside. We waited under the porch which was mercifully shaded by trees. M. Ablard staggered out closing the door behind him, not so much to keep us out as to keep out the fierce heat, or perhaps both – I think he’d been having a late siesta. He was very gracious and told us to take whatever we wanted. No, he did not want any money. ‘Pas du tout!’ His brown leathery face creased into a smile, he coughed horribly, re-lit a roll up and disappeared indoors.

The next day was market day and we left our gentle giant to heave the great cut stones into place and enjoy his radio. He was a fan of Radio Monte Carlo which I could barely endure for half an hour before asking him to switch it off. Apart from the distortion on his cement spattered transistor, Lulu singing ‘Shout!’ is not my idea of suitable background music on a still morning in high summer.

As soon as the wall was finished, M. Gibelou returned, and in two days the transformation was complete. Back and forth he went until all the top soil was pushed in close behind the wall. Next he transferred the remaining chalky soil into a gently sloping bank behind it. It was immensely skilful work. The digger was often at a crazy angle, and he would adjust the stabilisers and swivel his seat round and round, to control first the scoop and then the bulldozer. When he had finished, there was not a breezeblock to be seen and the wall looked as if it had always been there.

True to his word Raymond did come up to swim nearly every day. We bought a couple of umbrellas, for even though he would not arrive until about seven in the evening, once he was dry he always sought the shade. We were sipping an aperitif one evening when I noticed a strange little bird on the telephone wire.

‘C’est quoi, ça?’ Mike demanded, glancing up. Raymond got up to look.

‘C’est un oiseau bleu,’ he pronounced solemnly, shading his eyes. We laughed. We could see that. It flew away and Raymond began to talk about the seriousness of ‘la sécheresse’, the drought, and said that many young farmers who had large loans would go under. The bird flew back. It was a budgerigar. It did a few alarmed sideways sallies along the wires, a less than confident somersault, and dropped down onto the cement mixer which M. Duparcq had not yet taken away. I grabbed a few biscuit crumbs and he fed from my hand nervously then flew back up onto the wire. Raymond laughed and went to get changed. The bird was still there when he climbed up onto his tractor.

‘You’ll never catch it,’ he said. ‘And it won’t last long with the kestrels about.’ Then starting the engine he added, ‘But if you do, we’ve got an old cage somewhere.’

The budgerigar was thirsty. He took little sipping dives into the pool and then, perched once more on the cement mixer, allowed Mike to pick him up. We put him gently in a bucket with some food and a net over the top and took him down later to the farm. Claudette hunted out the old cage and everyone came to look.

Il va languir seul,’ said Grandpa. ‘They pine alone.’ There wasn’t much I could do about that. And in any case someone might report him missing and I would have to hand him back. For days he was silent. But one morning about a week later he began to chatter and trill and we became very used to our unexpected guest. We christened him Biggles as we reckoned that with so many predators around he had been pretty intrepid to fly abroad. And no one claimed him.

The heatwave continued, day after day of fierce, unbroken sunshine. The kitchen, still flat packed, reproached us. I cooled my wrists under what should have been cold, but was, in fact, lukewarm water coming straight out of the ground and, shielding my eyes against the light, left the cool of the house for the oven outside. I suddenly thought of those television images of African women walking for hours with water pots on their heads. I had seen but not, until that moment, understood.

We eventually decided that it was no use waiting for the weather to change and our friend Hugh, who had offered to be in charge of the kitchen conversion, was anxious to get started. One more visit to Electricité de France and we were upgraded to a higher wattage. We would have liked to have power points put in every room but that would have to await more funds. Out went the detested old gas cooker, and our new kitchen corner in the big living room began to take shape. M. Albert came to relieve our lovely, hand-cut, granite arch in the corridor of the ancient gas geyser he had so unfortunately sited many years before. I was surprised when he proposed to put the new electrically heated water cylinder directly above the refrigerator in the chai but it was completely different from my eiderdown jacketed cylinder in London which heats an airing cupboard. This gleaming enamelled tank was not even warm to the touch. By midday it was too hot to work even indoors and the pool was in constant use. Raymond would come up every evening but Claudette, ever practical, had decided that the best way to learn to swim was to enlist professional help. Her second cousin Roland and his wife Nicole, who is also a teacher of gymnastics, soon started a school of swimming. Several times a week they would come with their three beautiful children. They would patiently coach the beginners and then, as we lay exhausted, would put us all to shame, diving and weaving through the water with grace and style. Our younger son Matthew arrived from London. He found a few lengths quite taxing to begin with but soon improved, and astonished us by spending hours at the typewriter, a side of him we had never seen before. We bought more chairs and tables to accommodate the alfresco meals we enjoyed. We were fifteen around the pool for supper one evening, including Granny and Grandpa who had come to see what was going on. I made the salads and provided the cheeses. Roland brought freshly slaughtered veal to barbecue. Hugh, his wife Sally and his children arrived with chocolate mousse and lemon tart and Claudette brought up a couple of kilos of strawberries. I watched the children laughing and talking a mixture of English and French, and any last, lingering doubts about the wisdom of having a pool vanished with the smoke from the barbecue, as it drifted upwards in the still evening air.

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