Historical Novel-Writing: Throwing Open the Shutters

What can the historian learn from writing fiction? Lisa Hilton, whose first novel is set in south-west France, discovered revelations about the area as well as her approach to interpreting the past.

My novel, The House with Blue Shutters, is set in a fictional department of France, based on the Tarn-et-Garonne, where I have lived, on and off, for the past 12 years. It is one of the most rural and least fashionable parts of the country. Indeed our local village, Cazes-Mondenard, last year achieved the dubious distinction of being France’s officially poorest village. The region was most prosperous from the 13th to the 15th centuries, when the pilgrim routes to Compostela converged here before turning south-west to the Pyrenees. The pilgrims’ legacy can be traced in the white-walled hill villages of Lauzerte and Castelnau-Montrattier, with their fine churches and arcaded squares, and in the façade of the abbey at Moissac, considered by the art historian Kenneth Clark as one of the seminal architectural achievements of the 12th-century renaissance. But the region now depends predominantly on agriculture and there are no smart restaurants or elegant shops to lure wealthier tourists west from Provence.

When I began the novel, as a comedy of manners set among a family of ex-pats living in a converted farmhouse, it was this I wanted to capture, the disparity between the English ideal of the French countryside and its reality, the resistance of the local characters to allowing themselves to be made picturesque. But as I worked on the book I began to think about resistance of a different sort. I needed to ground my modern day story in something richer, to find a way into the soul of the place, and I began to think about the Second World War. The people I saw every day represent the last generation for whom this war is a reality, a memory, and I wanted to find a way of including their experiences in the novel.

I began my research in the New York Public Library, where I read up on the Vichy regime and the events in the Unoccupied Zone between 1939 and 1943, before returning to France to work at the departmental archives in Montauban and the Museum of the Resistance in Cahors. Looking through newspaper reports and Pétainist education directives the first thing that struck me was how incredibly cut off people were from the events of the war as they unfolded in Europe, Africa and Asia. Listening to broadcasts by the BBC was banned, public information strictly controlled and communication outside the large towns was virtually impossible.

Telephones were extremely rare, there were few vehicles available and petrol was rationed. Moreover, the 20th century seemed barely to have arrived in rural France. The pace of life and its psychological compass were still governed by the physical realities of pedestrian and horse traffic. I realised that it was important to keep this in mind as I began to interview my neighbours in Cazes-Mondenard and the hamlet of Trejouls. What seemed at first a rather shocking and, to me, frustrating ignorance of the context of wider events was to some extent governed by the fact that, to many of my interviewees, a trip by ox-cart or bicycle to Lauzerte 10 kilometres away was remembered as a rare and significant undertaking. In addition, many people simply refused to talk about the war at all, claiming that they couldn’t remember, or often that ‘nothing happened here’. A 21st-century reaction to this would be the temptation to assume that some collective trauma had occurred, a group memory which was too painful to be spoken of; but the reality was both more and less mysterious.

When General de Gaulle repudiated the authority of the provisional government at the time of the Franco-German armistice in June 1940 and began gathering the first of the Free French Forces around him in London, much of the potency of his campaign was derived from his sense of a wound to French honour, of a loss that had to be appeased. This concept, l’honneur, still runs powerfully through the French psyche and has become embalmed as a national myth. National pride is predicated on a belief that the Nazis were resisted from the beginning and that the process of evicting them from France was part of a coherent and patriotic effort. The intricacies of what actually happened were much less important to my interviewees than their faith in this idea, while even 60 years on the scars of collaboration were still surprisingly raw. I not only had to respect this, but contend with the proud, self-sufficient culture of the rural poor for whom minding one’s own business to an almost secretive extent is considered a virtue. I didn’t have many ways of making them talk.

This was to be fiction, after all, and there was nothing to stop me from making use of a huge range of primary sources to help me build my characters, but as the summer of 2005 burned on I became obsessed with making my story as real as possible. My 83-year-old neighbour, Andrée Pouchet, became key to the project. With some trepidation, she accepted my offer to join me for coffee at the café where we went to fetch the bread each morning. She had never sat in the café, as it was considered a place for men but, after she had got over her fears that the neighbours would think she was a fallen woman, she began to call over her friends to join us. From the first I noticed an odd linguistic quirk – the Germans were never referred to as such, or even as the ‘Boche’, so beloved of English war films, but only ever as ils – they. At first, food and transport were preoccupations. ‘They’ had commandeered someone’s father’s oxen, ‘they’ had rounded up the pigs and taken them away. Bicycle owners acquired new status, vegetable plots were dug in secluded clearings in the woods.

There seemed little distinction made between German soldiers and the forces of the Milice, the military police of the Vichy regime, who enforced initiatives such as the STO (Service du Travail Obligatoire), whereby men were conscripted to work in German factories. Many subsequent maquisards were draft dodgers, men who put themselves on the wrong side of the law by going into hiding rather than be shipped off to work in munitions.

Gradually, over many weeks, I could begin to assemble a tapestry of impressions. Resistance and collaboration were not clearly demarcated, but existed side by side. Was someone who gave their cows to the occupiers but kept one back for black-market butter aiding and abetting? Women who slept with Germans were spoken of with disgust, but what of those who laundered and cooked and cleaned for them? Several women spoke of husbands or brothers who had gone to work in Germany, but they were viewed more as prisoners of war than (as was often the case) willing participants in Vichy’s support for the Nazis. Here in the south redemption on the battlefield was a sacrifice few men were in a position to make – Trejouls lost only one man in the Second World War, as opposed to nine in the First. I began to see that here, unlike in Britain, the narrative of war was much less unified, much more morally complex. For all of the people I spoke to, with the exception of two men who had fought under General Leclerc, who led the French 2nd Armoured Division after D-Day, the war consisted of a series of sharply-weighted individual decisions, often insignificant in themselves, but collectively forming a history too delicate for written sources to convey.

It was this, eventually, that I tried to evoke in The House with Blue Shutters. The maquisards who blow up a railway to impede the movements of the SS Das Reich regiment in 1944 are not heroic freedom fighters, the collaborators are rewarded with medals and honours and the commemorative photograph of the liberation of the fictional village of Castroux is a fake. The experience of researching the novel orally made me appreciate how clumsy written source material must of necessity be, how easily individuals can become lost in history’s grand narratives and how our retroactive need for orderly stories overpowers the finely calibrated personal choices of which history is ultimately formed. It was a challenging and humbling experience, one which made me reconsider the validity of my use of personal accounts in my historical writing and one which, I hope, will succeed in conveying to readers of the novel the difficulty of casting judgement on a situation which lends itself too easily to pompous historical moralising. The novel is my first attempt at fiction, but I believe the experience of speaking to those members of the last generation to recall the war will make me a much more careful and much more gentle historian.

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