Reviewed by Helen Parry
In the extreme northern part of France lies the plain of Flanders, a great fertile expanse rolling inland from the sea until it meets a chain of conical hills which, strung out like a necklace of beads, run north over the frontier to Belgium and southwards in the direction of Picardy. The plain is liberally dotted with prosperous-looking farms, whose thatched roofs and brick walls merge easily into the landscape while villages with massive church towers look down from the hills over woods and carefully husbanded fields. The magnificent skies remind you that if you are in France this is at the same time the Low Countries. […]
For many years I have felt the need to write about my experiences of that summer. The memory of them has lain in the recesses of my mind, slowly taking shape like a piece of coral under the sea, and occasionally brought to the surface by some chance phrase or encounter. Then a letter […] persuaded me that I should delay no longer. But as soon as I started to relive those days I realised that I had been composing this book off and on for more than half of my life, and the past and the present became one.
In 1951, aged fourteen, Michael Jenkins ‘first came to the house on the edge of the plain’ to stay with ‘the aunts in Flanders’ and their household and family. The aunts are not actually his aunts, but they immediately embrace him and over the course of the summer he discovers his connexion to them. From the very first, as soon as Michael glimpses the house, ‘I believe I had some premonition that a new life was about to unfold’, and thus begins a summer very different from ‘the coldness and austerity of my existence in post-war England’. Like so many of the best memoirs, it is infused with deep affection and tinged with regret for a vanished way of life:
This was not the last occasion in my life when I would have given everything for time to stand still; and although I knew that such a state of permanence was unattainable, this realisation only led me to desire it all the more passionately.
Tante Yvonne, now in her eighties, presides over the house benevolently but firmly (sometimes rather manipulatively). This strong sense of noblesse oblige extends to the estate’s half dozen or so tenant farmers and to Jenkins himself. When the son of her old friend, Agathe, plans to sell his mother’s house and move her away from the village to somewhere he considers more appropriate, Tante Yvonne does not hesitate to interfere and prevent it. Everyone has their place: Tante Lise takes care of Tante Yvonne, Tante Florence supervises the kitchen, Tante Alice is in charge of fruit-picking and preserving, Tante Thérèse gardens. Jenkins notes that even by the standards of the day, the household is old-fashioned, religious; its pace, as the long hot days slide by, is leisurely, marked by mealtimes, turns on the terrace, afternoons reading and dozing. The house is on a hill on the edge of the plain of Flanders, and something about the wide expanse of sky and land finds itself into the generosity of Tante Yvonne’s world view and her protectiveness of her more vulnerable siblings and friends. But still:
Only at the end did I come to understand that a world so complete and self-contained can be made to seem both an Elysium and a place of confinement; for one person a source of security and love, a shelter from outside, while for another giving rise to feelings of frustration and claustrophobia.
The memoir is divided into chapters which focus on individual characters. Each of them has their own secrets, many of which are gradually revealed to Jenkins. This structure emphasises Jenkins’ sense that:
the long days ran into each other, forming a seamless web of time. Indeed, when I look back from this distance, it is as if everything had happened at once, a distillation of place and people never to be repeated.
Yet the magic of this golden summer is a fragile magic, threaded with something darker: the memory of two world wars, one of which not long over in 1951. Letters in the attic, a cross carved in the stone of the terrace, a tower in the woods, all bear witness to the horrors of the past and remind us of the reason for Oncle Auguste’s erratic behaviour and violent distress upon hearing German. When these revelations of the past come, they are all the more shocking because of the gentle domesticity of the aunts’ present, which seems so idyllic and timeless.
Jenkins lacks a novelist’s ear for speech yet is able to bring people convincingly to life and give them depth and mystery. In fact, I don’t want to write too much about them because one of the pleasures is experiencing how people’s characters unfold as you read. His evocative descriptions of the estate are enhanced by Catherine Jenkins’ line drawings, which decorate the opening of each chapter. All in all, it is unashamedly nostalgic and sometimes a little too charming, but I don’t think that it romanticises everything and it does not shy away from Tante Alice’s brutality or Madeleine’s involuntary cruelty. Jenkins himself, innocent and perceptive, must have been an exceptional boy to be so trusted and confided in. It is a great shame that he did not write more.
Helen Parry blogs at a gallimaufry.
Michael Jenkins, A House in Flanders, illustrated by Catherine Jenkins (Souvenir Press Ltd, 2017), 978-0-92-28564360-4, 171 pp, paperback
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