Review of ‘Célestine: Voices from a French Village’

Célestine: Voices from a French Village
By Gillian Tindall
Henry Holt
Henry Holt/Owl

The letters seemed innocent enough: seven slips of paper tucked into a cardboard case in an abandoned farmhouse. Others who had come to collect items left to them by the late owner of the house in the tiny French village of Chassignolles had overlooked the box. Historian and author Gillian Tindall, who had come for a footstool promised her, was more curious. ". . . I creaked open the shutter over the stone sink in the smaller room," she writes, "dusted the long-dried surface with my handkerchief and carefully spread the letters out."

The letters, she discovered, were written in the early 1860s to Célestine Chaumette, daughter of the local innkeeper and grandmother of the most recent owner of the now-deserted farmhouse. All but two were proposals of marriage. Staring at the "soft wads of paper delicate as old skin," the author made a decision about Célestine, her suitors and the people they had known: "I would bring them to life again."

To accomplish her mission, which she does admirably, Tindall spent years poring over minutes of the municipal council dating back to the early 19th century. She studied ancient archives, census records, old newspapers. With gentle tenacity, she pried loose memories of long-gone ancestors from elderly villagers.

The coaxing was not always easy. "Even folk memory, so durable, eventually blurs and fades, conflates two people into one, telescopes generations and at last extinguishes," she writes. "The most colourful, long-mythologized figures pass in the end into the great, quiet dark, becoming as if they had never been born. . . ."

Though willing to be helpful, the locals were sometimes confused by this Ètranger from England who had bought a house in their village and was so fascinated with a past which they saw little point in examining. In response to a question about an ancestor, one farmer "remarked gently that it was a good long time ago, wasn't it, and that in those days people were different. Weren't they?"

Because of Tindall's determination to discover "every single person they [Célestine and her suitors] knew and most of those they were ever going to know," there are moments when reading the book is like wading through the begats in Genesis. To add to the confusion, the citizens of Chassignolles had the unsettling habit of changing their first names or varying the spelling from generation to generation. There are Silvain-Germains and Silvain-Bazilles and Apères who sometimes appear as Apaires.

Conjuring the Past

Though it is not always easy to keep the characters straight, in the end it doesn't matter, for it is the recreation of a forgotten time that is the essence of the book--the awareness of change and the certainty of continuity. "It has been the unbroken threads between the Chassignolles of the past and that of the present that have drawn me into the web of its history in the first place," writes Tindall, "and it is on these threads that the story is strung."

Tindall's history is most alive when the present-day citizens of the village recount their memories of days long gone. Célestine's mother, the author learns from one Mademoiselle Pagnard, died of breast cancer, which she treated--apparently unsuccessfully--in the accepted manner of the time: the application of raw steak to the affected area to draw out the cancer. "I don't know . . . how long the meat was supposed to stay there," the old woman muses. "Perhaps it had to be renewed regularly? Expensive, if so."

On another occasion, when Mademoiselle Pagnard reminisces about her great-grandmother's cooking, Tindall writes, "And I too tasted in my imagination the creamy potato-cakes of a woman born around the time of the Battle of Waterloo."

Tindall's quiet humor enriches her text throughout. Noting the people's deeply held conviction that after death they surely would be reunited, she writes, "No wonder the Catholic Church in France at this period rather discouraged second marriages: the practical problems posed in Eternity by such temporal readjustments would hardly have been manageable."

And when she reads a 19th-century mayoral pronouncement that the church was "in a state of dilapidation . . . which might not only have an evil influence on the religious sentiments of the population but also endanger their security," Tindall writes, "In brief, the old, squat belfry looked as if it was going to fall down."

The author's lyric style brings past and present alive and unites them as one. Writing of a rural winter wedding: "I see it as one of those very cold, absolutely still days in central France when hoar-frost outlines every leaf, stem, twig and spider's web beneath a grey sky from which the sun does not emerge all day to break the spell on this petrified landscape."

Once, spotting Tindall looking through old minute books in the town hall, one of the villagers commented, "You've taken over one of our houses. Are you taking over our past too?" Tindall protested. "But you didn't want it! You could have done this research. But you haven't." The man relented. "Maybe we need you," he conceded. "Maybe you are giving our past back to us." And indeed she has--not just to the people of Chassignolles but to all who read her book.

Freelancer Emily d'Aulaire writes reviews from Connecticut. She and her husband, Per Ola, travel the world on assignment. They reported recently for Smithsonian on pastry chef Jacques Torres.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.