29/03/2004

Perfume from Provence (by Lady Fortescue)

What writer would term herself 'Lady Fortescue', I wondered?! No first name is evident on the front cover of this book at all.

'Perfume from Provence' is a semi-autobiographical account told in the first person by Lady Fortescue. It covers different aspects of their new life, told with gentle humour and clever observation. Each chapter is complete in itself, and yet each one gradually builds up the characters of the Fortescues and the people around them, making me warm to them more and more.

Lady Winifred Fortescue and her rather older husband John move to Provence in the early 1930s, to escape Britain between the wars. This book opens with a delightful chapter describing the building work which they had done on a house they bought in the days when sterling was a strong currency.

The workmen are a mixture of French and Italian: hot-tempered and yet loyal, hard-working and yet taking lengthy breaks for every possible reason. Inevitably there are many delays, so the furniture shipped from England arrives long before the house is ready. All the workmen help in the various crises that arise, such as a large olive branch blocking the path, and a wall being knocked down by the huge delivery van. When, at last, the roof is on the house, the entire work-force has a celebration meal with wine and biscuits, music and dancing.

I very much enjoyed reading about some of the local customs. Having lived in Cyprus for the past six years, amidst another Mediterranean culture, I could appreciate some of the astute observations from a personal perspective, such as the family-oriented culture, and quickly-erupting tempers followed by shaking hands and hugs, with no grudges held.

There are some charming line drawings scattered through the book by EH Shephard (best known for his similar drawings in the 'Winnie-the-Pooh' books) which complement it perfectly. The feeling of the book is relaxed, gentle, laid-back. It's not the great struggle and activity of - say - 'Driving over Lemons'; at no point does Lady Fortescue even hint at feeling in despair, or worried that things will not work out. I can almost feel her shrugging with a smile as she writes about the way things happens slowly, according to the local traditions and culture.

Different from the norm, this is an honest and sometimes humourous account of ex-pat life in the days when it was much more difficult to move abroad than it is now. I was surprised at how much I liked reading it, since I'm not generally a fan of biographical writing.

(My longer review of Perfume from Provence is at the Ciao site)

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