A Hamlet in the Luberon
Almost ten years ago, we bought a run-down house in the Luberon. Actually, it was rather more than a house: it’s un hameau, a hamlet of several buildings overlooking the long sweep of the Luberon hills and the valley.
‘It has a very special atmosphere,’ said the agent who took us to see it. ‘Though it also has problems,’ she added ominously. At that stage, we were just curious to see it. We knew the eastern end of the Luberon well. My father-in-law had owned a house in the village of Viens for decades, though that had been sold many years before. We’d often joked that our dream house would be a ruined hamlet in exactly the location we were now visiting. So when we discovered there actually was such a property, we weren’t about to pass up the chance of seeing it.
We bumped down a badly maintained country track in our hire car. The main building, a three-storey farmhouse surrounded by a grassed courtyard and winter trees, looked imposing and stark in the cold February light. I hadn’t seen any details about it, no brochure from the Immobilière. In my mind, it wasn’t really a serious option. It was just the first on a list of places we were seeing, from the Luberon down to the Var.
But by the time we had seen the sitting room in what had once been a small barn attached to the house (“Music room!” said Rob) and the spacious bergerie cottage – and then turned around by the old fountain and cistern under imposing plane trees to discover a row of small cottages that had been converted into two charming apartments, and another small house for which no key could be found, there was no going back. Or rather, there was – after we’d been south to Bargemon and Fayence and seen nothing to compare.
The purchase was by way of a celebration, and a homecoming after the loss of the Viens house. We’d weathered a few grim years but, with determination and optimism, everything had come good. My husband had retired from the stressful job that had given us the means to do it, and the first item he bought for the house was a piano. It was placed by the window in the barn sitting room, and when he played, the notes floated over the wild hillside garden.
That first summer we, our eleven-year-old daughter and a friend of hers camped on stone floors and hoped for the best. The hamlet had been abandoned for several years and the problems alluded to by the estate agent were manifest in the missing roof tiles and cracks in the walls. But the buildings were at least three hundred years old and we put our faith in old stones. We cleaned and filled an old swimming pool. I re-read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and wondered . . . what if I had come here, to this rather overwhelming place, knowing less about the man I was with?
The main house was pretty much uninhabitable, and we lived in one of the apartments for the first two years. The renovation project started. I began to think about a subject for a new novel. It was impossible to keep the two separate. House and new novel seemed to merge until both took on a dream-like quality, and that novel turned into The Lantern.
The Lantern explores the timeless fears of the unknown, the uncertainty when the first stages of an idyllic romance are over and real life begins, in this case Eve and Dom settling down to a life together in Provence. It’s also a novel of the senses. As well as vivid visual descriptions of the local landscape, I’ve tried to evoke smells, tastes and sounds with a nod to the Provenҫal writers I admire so much, Giono, Pagnol and Pierre Magnan, who make the country setting an integral, living part of their stories.
Several events in the novel are true. A ceiling did collapse. The mysterious perfume is real in that I often smelled it, especially when we first arrived, but never found the source. The light that flickers disconcertingly, the discovery of rooms we didn’t know were there, the making of the walnut wine, the man who composes music: none of these are invented either.
When I started writing, the novel was going to be ‘a modern Rebecca set in Provence’, the suspenseful story of a young woman who meets an older man by chance abroad, their whirlwind romance and subsequent relationship which is unbalanced by their gothic surroundings and the shade of his first wife. It soon evolved into more than that, but the connection remains in that this is also a novel about reading and the overwrought imagination: how the sensitive bookish Eve sees parallels with Rebecca in her own life, but is never sure how much of that can be true and how much a product of her own fears.
The Lantern is a novel about the histories all around us, whether in the run-down old house, or the ghosts of Eve and Dom’s own past that will not settle. Is their hamlet Les Genévriers haunted, or are these psychological manifestations of uncertainties they have both brought with them? Eve reads the Brontës too, as the autumn cools into winter. Remember Mr Rochester’s request of Jane Eyre (which she refuses) that they live together as man and wife in the South of France, even though they cannot be legally married? There are parallels with that story in The Lantern too, across the two time frames.
Now that nearly a decade had passed since first sight of the real ‘Les Genévriers’ and the spark of the idea for my novel about it, I can see clearly that my own fears were woven into it. Would we be happy in this rambling, crumbling pile – or would we be driven crazy by it, or find some terrible history, or be beggared by unforeseen expenses?
I am very happy to report that we have never for a moment regretted buying it, despite the cracks which return however much money and plaster we throw at them. We consider it the greatest luck to have stumbled upon this little hillside hamlet that February morning in 2007. The large summer gatherings here of family and friends have provided some of the best times of our lives and the word most often used by departing guests when they write a few words in our visitors’ book is ‘magical’.