I would normally avoid reading books described smugly as ‘a gem’ or ‘like Alain-Fournier’. I once tried Les Grand Meaulnes, universally worshipped as a perfect evocation of a boy’s coming of age in rural France, and could not get into it at all. I also don’t much care for ‘gems’ of books, since the word suggests hard, cold, sharp-edged objects of no warmth or use, uselessly decorative and desired by greedy people. Calvinists R Us. So thank goodness the title of Michael Jenkins’ A House in Flanders drew me in before my prejudices about its blurb got the better of me. I loved it, wanted to read it all over again when I’d finished, and (since it’s a fictionalised memoir) wish I could have known those French aunts and uncles too, in the house on the edge of the great plain of Flanders in northern France. I drive through that vast open space often, two hours of flatness between Calais and Brussels, and love its huge skies, its light and the sense of an intensively inhabited landscape.
Michael Jenkins was a British diplomat, an ambassador, president of Boeing USA, Chairman of the Marylebone Cricket Club and the nephew of the novelist and biographer Elizabeth Jenkins. He died in 2013. One year in the 1950s, when he was aged around fourteen, he was sent from his English school to France for the summer, to stay with a family of elderly ladies and gentlemen he had never met. His mother had French connections, and no doubt she wanted him to polish his French by immersion. So Michael travelled alone by train and boat and train to be met at the station by Joseph the gardener who drove the big black Citroën. He was brought to a large French country house on the edge of a village near the Belgian border, where he was welcomed and lovingly cared for by the family of elderly brothers and sisters, their equally aged servants and one or two children of the next generation. The charm of the novel is in meeting the aunts and uncles, one by one in each chapter, as if accidentally passing them in the corridor or finding them in the garden. The wartime history of the area has affected all their lives, and the village still has strong feelings for this family, not always positive.
Tante Yvonne runs the family, and rarely leaves the house, since she walks slowly and with difficulty. She turned down an offer of marriage from a handsome English officer who was billeted in the house during the First World War because as the eldest sister it was her duty to take care of the house and its land for her young brothers. And so she never left. Oncle Auguste returned from the war, but with some strange and distressing new habits that the village have adjusted to, though visiting German tourists do not. The youngest son, Antoine, did not return from that war, but Tante Yvonne made sure that his illegitimate son Christian, himself rather damaged, had a home on the estate. Tante Alice married, but lives in the family home with her siblings rather than with her husband in their apartment in Lyon. She is rich and spectacularly mean, and brutally demanding of her tenants. Tante Thérèse is widowed, courted by a pompous professor of law whose tedious prolixity is in the tremendous tradition of French verbosity. Tante Florence’s son François is persuaded by his mistress to install her in a cottage on the estate for the summer, but Tante Yvonne makes sure that his wife is also invited for a visit.
Michael’s presence at the family conferences and interesting encounters with the neighbours and tenants is explained by the family taking him to their hearts. He is practically one of the family, since his grandfather is the man whom Tante Yvonne might have married, and they accept him immediately as a very useful and helpful boy around the house, assisting with gettings into and out of cars, carrying of delicate messages, finding things out by observation. When he learns how Mayor Remy was persuaded to back down from his campaign of antagonism against the family, we uncover another layer of French social history and class. A House in Flanders is a lovely read, absorbing and full of light, with a suggestion (I was going to say soupçon but that would have been predictable) of hard-edged French stubbornness that is always apparent to the foreigner.
Michael Jenkins, A House in Flanders (1992), available in several editions, mine is the Minerva paperback, ISBN 0 7493 9886 8.