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France — Then and Now

by Jane Shortall

Nancy Mitford's books and the characters in them, become, over the years, like old friends. The kind of friend one is comfortable with. Friends who travel with you through calm and commotion alike.

She kindly said of E.F. Benson, when describing the Mapp and Lucia books, "his characters are real, and therefore timeless." This line could equally apply to Nancy's own creations. She did of course admit that many of her characters were based on family and friends. She writes side splittingly funny stories we can all identify with, since most families contain some or all of the characters portrayed.

Who hasn't experienced moments like Fanny Wincham, heroine of Don't Tell Alfred, when it has seemed the better plan to say and do absolutely nothing, but just to wait and see if a problem will resolve itself? Very cleverly, Nancy has almost given us the only answer to the approaching chaos. Do not panic.

Reading The Pursuit of Love, what animal lover would not sympathise with the romantically minded children of Uncle Matthew? His large ugly country house, Alconleigh, described as having been built for the sole purpose of sheltering its owners when they were not out of doors shooting animals; its walls hung with the heads of beasts shot in many lands, nevertheless provided the perfect background for the incredibly fertile imaginations of his children.

To me, Uncle Matthew was the very epitome of a man's man, and indeed a woman's, come to that. Look at all those children he and Aunt Sadie produced? And we know he always gave in to Sadie's wishes in the end. We felt safe with Uncle Matthew, complete with his rages and his 'blue flashes'.

And the marvelous dragon, alleged friend of only those in high places, that supreme snob, Lady Montdore. One in every family. Own up. Which of us hasn't had to deal with someone with those frighteningly real characteristics of that super creation? Think. Obviously in most families she will not be a titled Lady or a Duchess, but usually an old great-aunt, and wasn't she always a frightful snob? And yet, weren't we just that tiny bit anxious to stay in her good books?

Who could not love the character of Uncle Davey, that wonderfully eccentric gentleman, obsessed with his health to the point that it became his hobby? Devoted Uncle to our heroine Fanny, he was the man she always called upon in times of true crisis. Uncle Davey never failed to solve the problem. He is particularly wonderful in the novel set in Paris, the earlier mentioned, Don't Tell Alfred. This is a superb novel, and stands up even today, for anyone visiting, living in France or just wishing to understand the French! Uncle Davey's stock saying was always, 'Never forget, I understand the French, so leave everything to me.' Nancy put a lot of her experiences of French life into her novels. But it is her own observations and understanding of the French through her journalism that I consider here.

I moved to France last year to live for good. To the south, close to the Pyrenees and to a tiny historic village. In the mayhem of the first few weeks, whilst unpacking boxes of possessions, a very tattered copy of A Talent to Annoy, Nancy's collection of journalism, some of it written when she lived in France, fell out of a box of books. All work stopped, when that well known scourge of the book lover, the inability to just put book on shelf and carry on, took hold.

'I'll just have a little look', I thought, 'it's been ages since I read this'. Comparing life in France today with her clever and witty observations of life here over fifty years ago, it is quite remarkable to observe just how many things have remained unchanged. My first weeks in France were enhanced and enriched by reading these wonderful pieces again. I was completely fascinated by the countless similarities of over half a century ago with today's France and its people, the whole experience enhanced, of course, by Nancy's legendary and razor sharp wit.

Just as Nancy described being woken up by a noise that 'sounded like pistol shots', as wooden shutters were flung back against walls, so I awoke to this most unfamiliar sound each morning. These traditional French shuttered windows, which Nancy describes as 'marrying a house to the firmament instead of dividing them, like the stuffy sash does' are indeed a bit special. There is something about shutters. One closes them at night and the house is cocooned and private, and in the morning one flings them back and welcomes the day, and greets any passers by.

The aroma of good strong coffee is in the air, now just as in Nancy's day. Big breakfasts may not be popular, but coffee and croissants are essential. 'Bonjours!' all around as people greet each other on the way to the Boulangerie to buy freshly baked breads and croissants. Everybody greets everybody else, including any strangers in the queue. Handshakes or kisses are exchanged between friends. This happens no matter how many times a day they meet. Indeed, when one goes into any shop the conversation begins with 'Bonjour Madame.' I reply with a positive Bonjour and the transaction gets off to a good and friendly start.

There is still an astonishing politeness about French society. They have not let go of those formalities that Nancy applauded them for. One knows exactly where one stands; everyone has a title, be it Madame la Concierge or Madame la Duchesse. As Nancy explained, the rules, the handshakes, the titles accorded to people, the introductions; they all come from the school of manners founded at Versailles by Louis XIV, one of the most polite men who ever lived. They are really court manners, formal, leisured and intended to underline the fact that every human being has his own respectable place in society. These rules, even if they may seem a little outdated certainly do oil the wheels of social life.

No one would dream of casually calling to one's house without telephoning in advance. Nor would most people invite you into their house should you happen to meet in the street. One is invited for an aperitif, lunch or dinner. One is given a time to arrive, one arrives, has a lovely time and leaves at the appointed time. I have noticed that things are exactly the same as in Nancy's day with regard to social gatherings. The French love coming together, eating, drinking their amazing wine, or the very popular Pastis from Marseilles. They appear always to be very relaxed and ready to enjoy themselves. I can understand why Nancy described some evenings as being a bit like a ship slipping smoothly down the launchway and out to sea, as a party takes off with that effortless French capacity for enjoyment.

As in Nancy's day, the French do not like their government ministers making sudden announcements. Last summer there had been whispers about people having to either take out seriously expensive pensions of their own to supplement the state pension, or continue to work until they reached their seventies. Uproar followed. There were strikes and stoppages for some weeks as huge demonstrations were held. Demonstrators waved banners and caused traffic chaos in all the major cities and towns. But even strikers must eat. And this is France.

Vans with supplies of food and wine would arrive at the picket lines at about twelve noon. All would stop for a big jolly lunch and photographs would be taken for the newspapers, the strikers enjoying delicious food and a glass of wine. It all seemed terribly good-humoured. Strikes here seem to be directed more at the government, as opposed to striking against employers. They never, ever, intend to forget that this is a republic, with a capital R.

Taxes are quite high in France, and are grumbled about a bit. The health contribution is particularly high, but all agree that French health care is second to none. Every chemist's shop appears full of people getting what looks like sack loads of pills. The French have been called the hypochondriacs of Europe, (how well that suited Uncle Davey!). But in my short time here this seems most unfair, as preventative medicine seems to be the order of the day, and everyone, in this village at any rate, seems to live to a great age. I regularly meet Mesdames thirty years older than myself out taking a last walk around the village in the evenings. They are up and at it again early next morning, off to the Boulangerie or the open-air food market, waving greetings and walking sticks, while their little white woolly dogs yap at each other.

The observation made by Nancy that French towns are far better visited on foot remains absolutely true. So many unexpected treats result from a glimpse into a courtyard, seeing what lies behind the seemingly ordinary straggly creeper clad wall and the big, frequently peeling, ancient wooden gate. Superb gardens with perhaps an elaborate fountain, fabulous marble or stone statues hidden among lush, tropical growth such as the popular banana tree, often surprise. A detour up a narrow laneway has revealed magnificent, intricate but unpainted ironwork on balconies; ancient, peeling shutters, but fabulous lace on windows and terracotta pots filled with jewel coloured flowers. The building may look like it's ready to fall down but it will undoubtedly turn out to be preserved.

A few overall things occurred to me after just a few months here, things which seem not to have changed since Nancy lived here over fifty years ago. Artists, sculptors and writers are still revered. There are exhibitions on every week, even in the smallest village and they are so well supported I could hardly believe it when I first came here. Food is the number one topic between people, and gets amazing coverage on radio programmes. The Mesdames appear to have the same knowledge of cooking as top class chefs, many of whom mention their mothers and grandmothers as the inspiration for their dishes.

Hairdressers are permanently busy, even in the tiniest of villages. I had to make three appointments coming up to Christmas and New Year holidays, as Michelle was so busy. In the hairdressing salons everyone talks to everyone else, and should a child be brought in, the entire salon greets it with cries of 'Cou-Cou!' Often the child will be passed around for hugs and kisses. There is something, to me, timeless about these scenes.

I hope to be here for a very long time.

A Talent to Annoy
Nancy Mitford
Essays, Journalism and Reviews 1929 -1968
Published by Oxford University Press 1986
Edited by Charlotte Mosley


Jane Shortall was born in Ireland and now lives in a tiny mediaeval village in a remote part of the South of France, close to the Pyrenees.

She has had various careers, including the Aerospace business - tough but lucrative and, nearer to her heart, some years with the Equestrian Federation of Ireland.

Interests: writing, reading, history of art, music, nature, food & wine, horses. She loves New York, North Africa and Italy and would live in a matchbox in Florence if she could afford it!

She intends to write full time and can be reached by email.

©2004 Jane Shortall for SeniorWomenWeb
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