I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in France since I was a child, and have always been drawn to memoirs of those who have swapped their busy lives for a slower existence in the beautiful country. Lady Winifred Fortescue’s Perfume from Provence had been high on my rather large memoirs list for quite some time, before I caved and ordered a secondhand copy; reading it on a warm afternoon was bliss when I was unable to travel myself.
In the early 1930s, alongside her husband Sir John Fortescue, Winifred left her home in Hertfordshire, England, and ‘settled in Provence, in a small stone house amid olive groves’. Their new abode, named the Domaine, was very close to the world-famous perfume making town of Grasse. They made the large move partly for health reasons, but also because between the wars, France was a far more affordable country than England in which to live. As soon as the pair arrived, they were ‘bewitched, by the scenery, by their garden – an incredible terraced landscape of vines, wild flowers, roses and lavender – and above all by the charming, infuriating, warm-hearted and wily Provençals.’
When it was first published in 1935, Perfume from Provence was a bestseller. It rose to the top of the lists again when it was reissued by Black Swan in 1992. It is not difficult to see why. Although the book seems to be relatively forgotten nowadays, it presents a wonderfully slow, amusing, and warm slice of life, which transported me entirely from the crazed modern world. Fortescue’s prose is so vivid and sumptuous that I could almost feel the golden sun upon my skin, and hear the thousands of cicadas chirping in the fields. She writes: ‘Here there is a lovely leisure in all our doings. The sun shines so gloriously, the sky is so incredibly blue, and the scent of flowers, warmed by the sunshine, so drowsy and intoxicating that there is every inducement to be lazy and leisurely.’
From its very beginning, Fortescue writes with such ambiability, and a wonderful sense of humour. She tells us about the motley crew of workmen who are extending their small house: ‘Hardly a day passed without a visit from one or other of them: the electrician with a finger cut by wire; a mason with a smashed thumb; various blessés with casualties greater or less, all howling for “Madame” and tincture of iodine.’ The house also came with a rather beligerent gardener named Hilaire, who continuously ropes both Fortescues into helping him with garden tasks. To escape this, Sir John often feigns deafness. Many of the neighbours, too, shoehorn the Fortescues into assisting them – lending their car for a local wedding, or guilt-tripping them into buying up ‘several hundreds of logs’ in the heat of summer, as the seller insists that ‘wood was very scarce, and customers who were late with their commands would not get served at all.’
Perfume from Provence has been split into sections, all of which deal with one aspect of life in Provence, and range from ‘Building’ and ‘My Garden’, to ‘Marriage’ and ‘Housekeeping’. In each chapter, seemingly endless mishaps occur: a garden wall crumbling, and ruining a recently planted rose garden; a gentleman comically slipping on a banana skin on market day, and upending a ‘heap of oranges, some of which scatter under the stalls and are swiftly prigged by alert urchins, while other marketeers roller-skate on the remainder’; and the ‘gesticulating little creature’ of the local barber dropping all of his tools over the market square, and making ‘himself an amusing nuisance’ in the aftermath. There is so much evocative detail here about customs unique to Provence, and the lively book is full to the brim with memorable characters and encounters.
There are some lovely moments here too, many of which come from their rural neighbours. One of these, Monsieur Pierre, reflectively tells Fortescue: ‘He sweeps a brawny arm out towards the majesty of mountains rising above a sea of grey-green olive foliage, and asks me why people spend their lives striving to make money when Le Bon Dieu gives them all this beauty for nothing? Is not health, and the life of a peasant in the open air, better than riches and a dyspeptic stomach in a city? The world has grown too restless and discontented, and men have forgotten that peace and happiness can still be found in woods with birds and flowers and bees.’ One night, Fortescue relays that when went to be early one night, ‘… I lay luxuriously staring out of my windows at a mass of mountains gradually fading away into opalescent dusk…’.
I am always delighted when I pick up books of this kind, and am thrilled that I have discovered a new author to enjoy in Lady Winifred Fortescue. Her account of life in France is delightful, as ‘warm and witty’ as the book’s blurb promises. Fortescue lived in Provence until her death in 1951, and released more reflections of her beloved life there, which I am most looking forward to reading. Next for me will be Sunset House: More Perfume from Provence. There is so much to like in Perfume from Provence, and I have high hopes for the rest of Fortescue’s oeuvre. Of course, this volume has made me want to book a very long holiday in France, but until I can get there again, I will read the rest of her books with joy.