Chantemesle is a lyrical evocation of growing up on the banks of the Seine. In this minutely observed landscape, where even the wind is a character in its own right, we meet Battouflet, the singing hermit of the hillside, solemn Clotilde, who lives in a château in the heart of the forest and a desiccated and disturbing spinster, Mlle. Firman.
Fedden writes with preternatural clarity, taking the reader with him into a long-forgotten yet echoingly familiar world. When Fedden finds himself expelled from this realm by his emerging sexuality, he leaves us reeling with nostalgia for that timeless sense of the present that is the magic of childhood.
‘... an almost Proustian fidelity.’ - New York Times
‘... clear and beautiful as a painting.’ - Chicago Tribune
‘... a minute distillation of landscape and feeling.’ - New York Herald Tribune
Chantemesle: A Normandy Childhood
Format: 154pp demi pb
Robin Feddon was brought up largely in France, the son of water-colourist Romilly Feddon and his American wife, the novelist Katherine Waldo Douglas. Educated in France and England, he went to Cambridge to read English, though his outlook was deeply influenced by his continental childhood.
He travelled widely in the Middle East, serving briefly as Cultural Attache at the British Legation in Athens. He then took up a post as lecturer in English Literature at Cairo University where, with Lawrence Durrell and Bernard Spencer, he edited Personal Landscape, one of the few literary periodicals of interest to appear during the war. After the war he worked for the National Trust and served as Historic Buildings Secretary and then Deputy Director-General until his retirement in 1973.
His eclectic nature is reflected in the books he left behind, which range from a study of suicide, a book of poetry and a paeon to mountains and mountaineering, The Enchanted Mountains, to several books on the National Trust and the English country house. Those who read his books on skiing are unlikely to know of his work on the crusader castles of Syria and the Lebanon. In The Enchanted Mountains and Chantemesle he shows his crystalline, poetic prose at its height.
He had passionate admirers and life-long friends in a variety of disparate disciplines. Like the mountains he so adored, he had a craggy sculptured face and a strong, wiry physique which allowed him to explore their remotest slopes with hair-raising aplomb. As well as sitting on the committees of ski clubs, he was an eclectic connoisseur of antiquities and a father to two daughters.
Extract from Chapter One
The feel of the air that moves through the house, stirring the curtains, is the feel of June. The doors are open, and whichever way I look the garden is a continuation, a green room beyond. There
is neither in nor out: not for me or for the bees that take short cuts from window to window. Even the birds sometimes make no distinction, and a nightjar blinked throughout a summer morning from the top of a bookcase beside an image of the aged St Anne. The flowers in bowls, cool as those in the garden beds, stir like the curtains. Dry lavender and curled rose-petals smell as they once did out of doors. A vine, breaking against the house with the slap of a wave, throws its tendrils upwards, and gouts of green foam lie on the windowsills. Even the light is garden light. Reflected off the tiled floor, it makes patterns like lace, like rippling water, on the ceilings. The light is above you.
Looking out through the windows, I find more rooms: terraces and plots of green, walled with box hedges. To each terrace-room an inhabitant: on this, a taciturn apricot tree that speaks, giving fruit, once in five years; on that, a smooth-stemmed catalpa, like a reserved person in a green panama. Farther off, keeping their distance, are poplars, and they also stir like the curtains, the flowers in the bowls and the light on the ceiling. They rise haphazard; this from behind a wall of stone, that from behind a wall of lavender. The house is ringed with green spires. Their trembling confuses. Sometimes you hardly know from which window you are looking.
Beyond the green spires the first landscape waits. It seems a landscape in two parts: on one side, meadows and the river with its islands; on the other the abrupt hill, the côte as the natives called it, sinewy and dry. The house itself is a tidemark; the river-meadows lap to the garden wall and no farther. We are the frontier between the water-land and the chalk-land, and there is little natural movement across the border. If a stray bird, skimming the roofs, drops from the spare hillside into the green of the river-country, it drops into another world, like a stone into a pool.
The hillside with its combes stretches for many miles, overhanging river and meadows. I knew it first as an extension of the garden, entered through a gate beyond the orchard, where wasps crawled among the fallen fruit. The slopes were rough with scrub, and in the dips and sheltered places grew copses of wild cherry, red-berried ash, and birch. Anemones and orchids flourished on the chalk soil, and through thickets I stalked birds that to my imagination were more brightly coloured than flowers. Near the crest of the hill, where you could hear larks singing over the cornland above, the slope was broken by chalk bluffs and escarpments. Mysterious caves lay at their base, whose entrances were shadowed by trees and overhung by creepers. Owls and the black redstart nested there.
The hillside was wild. Adders basked in the sun and badgers outside their setts made mounds like miniature earthworks; in a sheltered combe I once startled a hind. It was on autumn mornings that the hillside felt most remote. A river mist, risen in the night like a tide, obscured the valley below and crept to the bases of the chalk bluffs. These were transformed into gleaming sea-cliffs, whence I looked over a tumbling white ocean. The fossil shells embedded in the chalk escarpments became sea shells, as it seems they once were, and the crows and hawks, sailing on the air-currents that eddied round the bluffs, became gulls and petrels, stooping as sea birds do into the troughs of the waves but rising with mist dripping from their wings. As the sun rose, the mist receded, leaving the hillside wringing wet. Rocks and shelving beaches emerged from an ebb tide. The trees glistened as though washed, and drops pattered from the leaves.
The hillside never lost this mysteriousness of autumn mornings. It was always other than might appear to a stranger scanning it from the valley below. Even its history was not immediately apparent. Though abandoned, it had been until a century earlier planted with vines and shored with dry walls whose lapsed remnants were here and there visible. It had known a regimented life. Husbandmen had dug, pruned and sprayed, moving month after month waist-deep among maturing grapes. Along zigzag paths children had carried up the midday meal, and down the same paths peasants at evening had returned. Nothing survived of this lost activity.
Apart from myself, only a blind man was familiar with every copse and cave and with the passage of days and seasons on the hillside. Old Battouflet had taken to the côte many years earlier and lent it his protection. With his mongrel bitch and his stick, he was there in all weathers and seemed part of it, an ambulating tree. Settling in a sheltered place, where a path took a turn below the ghost of a wall or to leeward of a clump of wild cherries, he would seem by the hour to scan the tide of air that washed over the valley. From such silent scrutiny he would break without warning into scabrous songs, his hoarse voice echoing along the slopes. Hearing his chants on summer afternoons when only the crickets competed, I made wide detours to avoid him – yet, when I thought myself undetected, he would hail me from the far side of a copse, as though effortlessly aware of my movements. He seemed to have uncanny knowledge of the côte and missed nothing that passed there. In time, as its only inhabitants, we became close friends in spite of the fifty years between us.
Though he was always out of doors, Battouflet’s skin, seen usually through a grey stubble (he was shaved by a neighbour once a week), looked unhealthily white. Its pallor owed something to the high- domed, wide-brimmed straw hat that he wore summer and winter. It kept the light from his eyes. The latter had a detached look, contrasting with the sudden violence of his language and movements. In more than their blindness they were remote from the twitching grimaces that twisted his features. The eyes both fascinated and embarrassed me. Sometimes as I surreptitiously examined them they turned on me like burnt-out moons and I had the sensation of being intensely perceived.
The time came when I sought Battouflet daily on the côte. We greeted each other as partners, the sole proprietors of a large demesne, and I commonly began by giving him the latest news of our property. I spoke with conscientious detail; he listened and asked questions. The ravens, I said, were nesting as usual on the face of the big bluff and I judged the hen bird was sitting; a new badger sett was under construction below the hanging copse where I had seen a stoat the week before. The cave that we called the Owl Cave was unsafe; water and the ensuing frost had got into the massive lobe of chalk that overhung the entrance; it might come down at any time. When Battouflet talked it was little of his day’s blind happenings. The hillside of which he spoke was something between the one I knew and the hillside he had once seen. He reverted to a vast oak which grew in his imagination. Rooted in a chalk escarpment, it leant into space, throwing shade on a copse far below. I searched for the tree; when I found its wreck, fallen years, perhaps decades, earlier, I dared not tell him. He also believed there were still bustard on the upland and that they sometimes strayed down the côte. He described them how they would run and then turn with an affronted stare and spread their tails. Each year he marvelled I had not seen them. ‘You wait,’ he said, ‘autumn’s the time; they’re less wary then.’
He was versed in the lore of weather and of plants. Foretelling storm and calm, he could pronounce in February on the anemones, the fleurs de Pâques, and in April estimate the apricot harvest of June. Once in early summer I was bird’s-nesting in the thickets below the bluffs when I heard the yapping of his mongrel Marguerite. Peering between the bushes, I saw him deep in conversation with one of the duke’s keepers, a vacant boy. High in one hand he held a hare by the ears, while Marguerite kept jumping and barking. Cursing the dog, he struck at her vainly with his stick. The interruption barely broke the flow of his talk. Nodding his head for emphasis, he was giving instructions. The youth solemnly listened. Suddenly Battouflet turned in my direction and, as plainly as though he had seen me, shuffled the hare into his poacher’s pocket. Marguerite sat back on her haunches puzzled at the sleight of hand. As I came into view, the boy eyed me uncertainly and turned to go. I heard Battouflet say, still nodding for emphasis, ‘Broie le fin et assure-toi que le foie soit celui d’un daim.’ It was the prescription for some charm or love philtre. Once when I had been stung by wasps, he led me to a patch of herb and told me to rub the stings. It worked.
Battouflet’s chief concern was the vegetation on the ghostly paths. Cutting and thrusting impatiently, his stick kept open a vestige of the vineyard tracks which would otherwise have been overgrown and lost. It was his single self-imposed task. His brown studies were often broken not only by raucous songs, but, more formidably, by his violent labours. Marguerite and I learnt to sit some feet away to avoid the stick which, without warning, would lacerate the air. Features and stick blindly working, he would ask, ‘How is the path here, Robin, is it clear?’ A stretch or two, once beaten hard by the husbandmen, he succeeded in keeping open, but often he would question me in some dell where barely the hint of a track remained. Torn and weeping suckers, trampled old man’s beard and bruised bushes alone showed his handiwork. High summer, the time of his despair, was the time of his greatest activity. Day after day he would be out fighting the rank encroachment. The pressure of the flowing sap filled him with urgency. Slashing at the green, at the encircling tendrils and the advancing suckers, his stick worked like a scythe, mowing down the enemy.
Our hillside was limitless. Though I pushed far beyond Battouflet’s territory, through trackless thickets and down tangled tracks where his flail had not fallen, it was never wholly explored. From copses of alder and birch that speckled me with shade and sun, I stumbled on unfamiliar places. From scrub where my head barely bobbed above a green surf, I emerged cocooned with gossamer and bindweed, decked with burrs and twigs. For assurance the valley was below. Lying on the smooth fringe of the bluffs, I saw the shrunken companionable fields that you could have ploughed with a toy, the motor-dot drawn as though without choice along the white road, the string of barges faintly chugging on the river, the hamlet that in perspective had only roofs, and our house itself, the talking poplars foreshortened and silent. Beside me, at eye level, insects laboured through grasses that seemed taller than the poplars and a purple anemone stretched ten miles across river and plain.
As I grew older summer became the season of the river. In the heat I deserted to the islands and the water. Seen from the côte, the river, placid and assured, curved in a generous horseshoe to the horizon; from the meadows you sensed rather than saw it. Tree-fringed and parcelled into channels between islands, you pieced it together from fragments, a whiteness under the willows, a vista between branches, a glint or a dark smoothness, now there, now gone. The volume of water in summer moved unobtrusively, and seemed not the same river as in the spring floods. Then it rose, almost as you watched, between denuded banks, submerging the islands, staining the fields a dirty brown. At full flood it swept through devastated root-crops and brought down poplars. On the islands, where the trees waded knee- deep, you heard woodpeckers laughing like water-birds. Sinking, the flood left jetsam and a film of mud. Branches, hung with battered tins, rags, long rubber fingers and scraps of paper, became hideous Christmas trees. Staves, bottles, and even chairs, were stranded in the fields. March was desolation. But as spring advanced the scars were hidden: at first barely veiled with decency under April gauze; later obscured by a new flood, the summer green. In June, the banks disappeared, and the river moved subdued between velvet curtains. The islands became jungles, and the voices of the cuckoos pulsed across the water on a medium denser than air. Sounds were muted. This was the real river, the timeless summer flow, on which my blue canoe floated out.
As my paddle bites into a smooth surface, circling eddies hurry downstream. The greenish water is deep and opaque. Shafts of sunlight falling between the trees explore only a foot beneath the surface, and show the water, like the air, full of wavering motes that drift out of sight. My hand trails in the river, submerges the round disc of a water-lily, and the water-boatmen skate away. The inside of the canoe is diapered with the shadow-pattern of leaves. In the sinuous channels that lead from one island to another, where the leaning trees meet above, it is still. There is only a private movement, cautious yet steady as a flow of traffic, a quiet coming and going: a snake crossing from island to island makes a wake like a toy boat; a butterfly wanders, yet purposefully, over the water; a moorhen paddles towards a patch of rushes, scrambles up the bank and disappears. As I ground on a sandspit, the canoe slews round and I am aware of the steady tug of the current. It keeps the scarves of river-weed in motion, and it draws gurgling and swelling off the prows of the islands. It seems as though the islands are thrusting upstream.
No one visits the islands, and after midsummer I force my way, as though storming a vessel, on to the tangles of floating green. Thigh-deep through the growth, where no one has been and no one will come again, I make my own path and leave a wake behind me. As I land, the nightingales and a single woodwarbler high above my head stop singing. I push into the silence. And then, for no reason, the birds begin again. I am cat’s-cradled, threaded and cross-threaded with their songs; and I listen. I am threaded and cross-threaded by the sunlight falling through the leaves; and alone. Sometimes there are pauses, spaces, where the trees and vegetation hold back and the sunlight falls straight and deep as into a green well. Here I also pause, and at my feet am aware of a small traffic, smaller than the river traffic but as steady. I am aware of the beetle’s dark forest and the centipede’s precipice, and of pauses and spaces smaller than the still space in which I stand. Moving onward into the green, parting the green wall, I am lost again. The glint of water comes suddenly. I have crossed an island.
Beyond the last island lies the main stream, a languorous expanse, where the swallows scud and soar. This is not a private river. On the far bank at Moisson the washerwomen thump their boards, and in midstream strings of barges move slowly to the monotonous ‘chug, chug’ that makes the rhythmical burden of summer days at Chantemesle. Brown fishing boats, moored between stakes, rock as the barges pass. The straw hats rock, and the rods, and the maggots in the tins, and the luncheon baskets. When things are going well, the fishermen shout to each other, ‘Ça mord, hein!’ At other times they sit a long day in silence, only moving, with the same gesture and the same concentration, to cast afresh. Their rods make thin grey shadows on the water. If they look up, it is vaguely, as though dreaming. They do not see the sunlit stretches of the river or the polished launch with fluttering pennon. The girls in the rowing boat are half a mile away, and now they have drifted round the bend. The blue canoe has also disappeared.
It has turned with a long curved sweep of my paddle into channels behind the islands. It has left the barges and the fishermen, the deep current and the Moisson shore where the baker early on a Sunday morning waded out with his pockets full of stones. The blue has moved into the green and is lost. The blue is only visible to the moorhen peering from the banks. But down the quiet reaches it drifts a whole summer; and a whole summer the kingfisher pretends to doze on the dead branch. Below the sandspit, the scarf of weed swims, yet never moves. No other craft, it seems to me, floated in those waters.