Escape to Provence by Maureen Emerson

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Escape to Provence by Maureen Emerson

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The story of two women, one American, one English, who settled in Provence during the inter-war years, their friendship and that of the expatriates with whom they came into contact.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 260 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Chapter and Verse
ISBN: 978-0955832109

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In the 1920s two women, one American, one British, settled in the south of France, both for different reasons. Elisabeth Starr had left her home in Philadelphia after an unhappy childhood and the death, possibly suicide, of her fiancé, a nephew of the American President. Drawn to Paris, the chosen European city for the sophisticated and well-heeled of the New World, she worked as a nurse during the Great War, then moved to Provence where she made her home in an ancient stone house, the Castello, and took French citizenship. Winifred (Peggy) Fortescue was the wife of the Royal Librarian at Windsor, who retired in 1926 with a knighthood and became a renowned (though hardly successful in financial terms) military historian. After the fall of the pound, it was hard for them to make ends meet in England, and they were drawn to find a property in Provence partly by the lifestyle, partly by a favourable exchange rate.

Twenty eight years older than his wife, Sir John Fortescue died in 1933. Shortly after this, Elisabeth and Peggy met for the first time. They were quite different in temperament and character, especially with Peggy being more at her ease in male company while Elisabeth, the author tells us discreetly, preferred other women. Whether lesbian tendencies were involved, she does not speculate. Nevertheless, both had been lonely and soon became firm friends. Between them they established a loose community of expatriate British people that became known locally as 'La Colline des Anglais' - English Hill. It was based around their homes in the arrière-pays, or 'back country', based in the buildings on the lavender-scented slopes overlooking Opio, in the Alpes-Maritimes near Grasse.

Peggy followed her late husband's lead in turning to writing to supplement her small income. Her first book Perfume from Provence sold well, and was followed by five more similarly autobiographical titles, also favourably received. For a few years, they enjoyed an almost idyllic existence as they gathered friends around them, most of whom had moved to France for similar reasons. Among the major personalities were Lady Caroline Paget, daughter of the Marquess of Anglesey, and the artist Rex Whistler.

This life was soon to be shattered by the approach of war. After general mobilisation in France, they founded an aid programme, Les Foyers des Soldats de France, as their homes became a base for the defence of the Alpes Maritimes. As the threat of occupation of France drew closer, Winifred fled back to England, spending the next few years giving lectures to raise funds for the Free French and befriending the wounded Spitfire pilot Richard Hillary, encouraging him as he was to begin writing his acclaimed war memoir 'The Last Enemy'.

Meanwhile Elisabeth stayed behind in Provence, working with a refugee programme and hiding displaced children. Although only in her early fifties, she suffered from increasing ill-health. After a particularly harsh winter she died in 1943, weakened by anaemia and chronic skin disease, exacerbated by malnutrition. When she heard the sad news Peggy, who was in north Devon, looked sorrowfully at a sunlit bank of early daffodils. In them she saw the lovely little head of Elisabeth – and she was laughing for joy.

As a memorial to her friend, she launched a memorial fund for the relief of children in Provence. She returned to her home and her possessions after peace was declared in 1945, coming back briefly to England two years later for an operation but thereafter spending the rest of her life back in Provence, where she died in 1951.

The two chief protagonists of this book only knew each other for about seven years. It is therefore less a dual biography, more a portrait of an era seen largely through their eyes. As well as the differing personalities of each woman and their closest friends, there are evocative portrayals, rich in detail, of life during one major conflict, then the more relaxed setting of 'the back country', followed by the outbreak of another war. There have been many books about life in Britain during the same age, and I for one found it fascinating to read about a group of English people (and those of other nationalities) who chose to live elsewhere at such a time. The illustrations, of persons and also watercolour paintings, complement the text well too.

Our thanks to the author and to Chapter and Verse for our review copy.

If this appeals to you, for a look at the same era why not also try We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh, or for the same place but different time, A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle.

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