I’ve been under the weather for a solid month. Going back to teaching after a couple of years out of the classroom has been a real assault on my immune system. I’ve gone from being teflon when it comes to illness - nary a sniffle, nary a day off - to a hollow-eyed hag with a hacking cough and perpetual sore throat, crawling into bed at 8pm every night exhausted and waking up in the morning feeling no better for it. However, my two-week bout of laryngitis has finally abated somewhat, leaving me with just a tickly cough rather than a throat like sandpaper, and my voice has finally returned to its usual pitch. Here’s hoping it’s going to be uphill from now on. Just keeping it real, everyone! Life in the land of Book Snob is not always full of fun. But we soldier on regardless. And the one benefit of illness as far as I am concerned is that it justifies otherwise unnecessary purchases of books in order to lift the spirits. A particularly serendipitous purchase over the past couple of weeks was Family Album by Antonia Ridge, which I plucked from the shelf of a charity shop on Marylebone High Street, largely because I liked the look of the dust jacket. All it took was a glance at the blurb - a spinster English teacher in middle age decides to go on an adventure to find her long lost family in rural France! - and I was trotting off to the counter to hand over my two pounds. The man serving me was very jealous - ‘I wish I’d spotted that!’ - and I went off to get my bus home feeling very smug indeed.
As I lay on the sofa coughing up a lung and feeling sorry for myself that evening, I picked up Family Album and fell into that midcentury world of wonderfully restful and undemanding charm and whimsy that readers of Miss Read and D E Stevenson will know and love. Dorothy Durand is a no-nonsense woman who has reached middle age having travelled no further than her industrial midland town. Brought up by her beloved Aunt Kate after the tragic early death of her parents, she had a simple but loving childhood, and after a not particularly illustrious schooling, unthinkingly followed her aunt into the teaching profession. Then follows two decades of dedicated hard work teaching the ‘remedial’ class at the local high school, alongside caring for her ageing Aunt Kate, with little excitement or promise of any to come. The only magic in Dorothy’s life is the legend of her parents, kept alive through the family album of photographs her father brought with him on his marriage. Aunt Kate has told her of her handsome French father, who swept her mother off her feet and married her despite his family’s objections. The Durand family cut off their son after his marriage, and there has been no contact with them since, but Dorothy has never stopped wondering about the other side of her family living across the Channel. From a young age, she has diligently studied French and keeps up an impressive fluency to maintain a connection with the father she never even knew. Dorothy has a fancy that she will go one day to find her family when she is retired, but when her Aunt Kate dies suddenly, she realises that life is short, and the time for adventure is now. Much to everyone’s shock, Dorothy hands in her notice, lets out her house, and sets sail for France, with no plan other than to go where her heart leads her.
Needless to say, that through a series of wonderful coincidences, Dorothy finds her way to her family, and finds a whole new world of love and possibility as she travels in the footsteps of her father. Ridge’s portrait of France and the French is informed by her own experiences, and it shows; her lovingly detailed descriptions of the beautiful, historic streets of Arles and Nîmes, of the conviviality of a French restaurant at lunchtime, of Provençal markets and rackety train journeys across the lavender-scented countryside, all transported me back to places where I have spent many a happy summer. However, Ridge really excels in her characterisation; she brings every one of the locals Dorothy meets to vivid life, and I fell in love with all of them. Their excitement at meeting Dorothy and the warmth with which they welcome her into their lives is a testament to the goodness at the heart of humanity, and a message I’m sure Ridge was keen to send so soon after WWII ripped Europe apart.
The dust jacket blurb tells me that this was the first ever radio-serial to have been written for the BBC Radio show Woman’s Hour, which is still going strong today, and was enormously popular when broadcast in 1952. Much of the novel takes place in the French town of St-Etienne, and the book was given out as a school prize to the best students of English in all the Lycées in town when it was published! I can see why it brought much joy to the post-war housewives of England and France, and can’t understand why it has fallen by the wayside; it is a charming indulgence of a book that demands nothing of the reader other than to sit back, relax and enjoy. I highly recommend you getting hold of it and giving it a go. It’s the perfect book for this time of year; amidst all the rush, bustle and sniffles, it will provide the precious moments of stillness we all need to get through the festive season.
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