I wouldn’t usually write a book review for the weekend (although this self-imposed rule might well be something nobody notices?) but today I am seeing a couple of lovely ladies from the internet, in beautiful Malvern, and one of them gave me A House in Flanders – thank you Carol! (The other is Barbara, of Milady’s Boudoir, so I expect to see a post about a Malvern trip there, in due course.) Since I’ll be seeing Carol, I thought I should write about the book she gave me about this time last year – which would mean it was during our trip to Chatsworth, I think. The edition I have is from Souvenir Press, but it has also been reprinted as one of the lovely Slightly Foxed editions.
Although this book qualifies for my Reading Presently project (I never did write an update on that… well, I’ve read 29/50, which is a super quick update, and shows I have a little way to go) it would also cover a tricky year for my Century of Books, being published in 1992 – and since it is about the author’s experience as 14 year old boy in 1951, that indicates quite how long his memory has had to stretch itself.
In that year, Jenkins spent the summer with his ‘aunts in Flanders’ – although they were no blood relation, they were mysteriously called aunts by his parents; all is revealed in the book – and, despite being without young companions, experiences the sort of halcyon summer I didn’t realise existed outside of fiction. Most of the other residents of the beautiful Flanders house are elderly women – sisters, sisters-in-law, nieces and the like – with the odd man thrown in, and chief amongst these is Tante Yvonne. Although she hardly leaves the house and garden any more, and scarcely moves around those, she is a force of kindness and strength that holds the household together. Everybody – even her intimidating sister Alice – bows to her natural authority, and a rather moving closeness develops between Yvonne and Michael.
I am always dubious about autobiographies which claim to recall verbatim conversations which happened years earlier – I can’t remember conversations I had ten minutes ago, let alone forty years – but I suppose that is necessary in order to have any dialogue in the book at all. What is more revealing is the way in which the characters – from happy-go-lucky, slightly downtrodden Auguste to glamorous Mathilde, and everyone in between – are drawn with a curious mixture of the fourteen year old’s perspective and the adult’s reflection. A boy of fourteen is certainly capable of compassion and empathy, to a certain extent, but Jenkins’ understanding of age and weariness seems insightful for a man of 55 (as he was at the time of publication), let alone a teenager.
It was a very busy summer. And when I say busy, I mean busy – in fiction he wouldn’t have got away with the number of significant incidents that happened, from a legal tussle to helping the local madwoman to the return of a German soldier who had occupied the house during the Second World War. I kept forgetting that it was all over the course of a few months. As though to draw attention away from this whirl of action, each chapter focuses on a different person in the milieu (or arriving from outside it), which certainly helps bring the people to the fore, rather than the events.
Jenkins’ nostalgia silently permeates the book, and that is another factor which could only (of course) have come with time and reflection. As he writes towards the end: “I was surprised by how passionately I wanted this world I had so recently discovered to stay intact.” That hope was, of course, impossible – and the book closes with the death of Yvonne, some time after Jenkins returned to his everyday life. But in the affectionate and moving portrait he put together of his summer in Flanders, and the ‘aunts’ he met there, he has created a way to keep that world intact, and it is beautiful.