There are some books, not necessarily the longest, in which the author’s intention is so perfectly realized, a seminal experience of life so beautifully recorded that the book becomes a small icon to be treasured not only on the shelf of a personal library, but in the mind. A House in Flanders by Michael Jenkins is such a book.
The story it tells is simple. Shortly after the Second World War, Michael, a 14-year-old boy, intelligent, sensitive and solitary, is sent by his parents to spend his summer holiday with a French family in a large house on the edge of the great Flanders plain. His school has been temporarily closed due to infection and this summer break in France will last for several months. He isn’t told what relationship, if any, exists between this unknown family and his own parents, and as he travels alone by boat and train he is naturally apprehensive about what he may find. But he is received with an unostentatious but genuine welcome, an unquestioning kindness, as if he were a valued member of the family returned home.
He becomes absorbed into the life of a self-contained household of elderly aunts each of whom has her jealously guarded field of responsibility. Tante Florence supervises the kitchen, Tante Alice organizes the fruit-picking and the making of jams and preserves. Tante Thérèse and her companion Mathilde work together in the garden. Deaf Tante Lise guards her eldest sister with jealous care and has domestic animals to care for. Also living in the house are Tante Alice’s henpecked husband, Oncle Auguste, who is still fighting the First World War and from whom no harmless German tourist is safe, and Florence’s beautiful daughter, Madeleine, with whom Michael has his first experience of falling in love. And at the heart of this household of six strong-minded women is Tante Yvonne, in her mid-eighties, who from her sitting-room controls and preserves not only the house, but also its inhabitants with an unquestioned authority.
The great house with its long history becomes Michael’s home. His favourite place in the early morning is sitting on the steps down from the dining-room to a gravel terrace which runs along the whole south side of the building, with the black Labrador, Mardi, stretched beside him. Beneath his feet a roughly carved swastika is a perpetual reminder of the tragedies and horrors of the recent past. From this vantage point he can look out over the fields gradually sloping to the plain, the trees, the grazing animals and a cluster of farms, while hearing at his back the small but familiar domestic sounds of the house waking to a new day. Later every morning he is called by Tante Lise to join Tante Yvonne in her salon from which, in a chair by the window, she can look out over the plain and keep an eye on the activities of family and tenants. Ostensibly he has been summoned to perfect his already adequate French, but in reality he receives a more fascinating and lasting education as Tante Yvonne indulges in reminiscences about the history of the house and the family.
The large house, survivor of two world wars, is a house of secrets. As the young Michael becomes part of the daily domestic routine and the timeless pattern of country life, he is used as a confidant by members of the family and becomes privy to old tragedies and half-acknowledged pain. It is as if this solitary and sensitive boy who has come so unexpectedly among them and will in a few months leave them, is a repository for dangerous memories which it would be safer not to bring into the light of day. As he lives in happy contentment through long sunlit days he becomes partly a messenger, partly a confidant, partly an amateur detective. He is privy to Tante Florence’s successful negotiations with the local mayor about the compulsory purchase of one of the family’s farms. He accompanies Oncle Auguste on one of his drinking sprees, accompanies Madeleine as support when she breaks off her engagement to her long-term fiancé, and is initiated into the age-long procedures of the hunt. And in the end, among many revelations about the family members and their history, he learns why he was so warmly welcomed among them.
In essentials this is a memoir, a true story told, not contemporaneously by the boy himself, but by the man he became. With him we relive that long-ago summer, in memories sometimes detailed, sometimes more fleeting. We have therefore not only the immediacy and freshness of a boy’s reaction to this new world, but the resonance of an adult sensitivity to pain; the abandonment of love, the unborn child who might have been, the detritus of war and German occupation, the struggle to maintain a large family house and the way of life it enshrines while knowing that, for a new generation, such security and values could be seen as a prison rather than a refuge, as it is for the restless and frustrated Madeleine.
So involved are we in the house and its inhabitants that we long to know from what home in austere post-war England Michael was so mysteriously sent abroad, and what happened in adult years to the boy whose life was so shaped by those months in Flanders. Happily, for a new edition Michael Jenkins has provided a fascinating and elegantly written epilogue which tells us something not only of the adult that Michael became, but of the life in England which he had left behind when he made his solitary journey. We learn that it was not only in Flanders that the war was a destroyer of love.
The book ends as it begins, with Tante Yvonne. When Michael next visits Flanders it is in response to a message from Madeleine saying that Tante Yvonne is gravely ill. He returns in time to see her shortly before she dies. Despite Yvonne’s dying request Madeleine, who has earlier escaped this loving but claustrophobic prison, will only briefly return to take on Yvonne’s role of family guardian and preserver. We learn from the epilogue that ultimately there is a happy but unexpected fulfilment of that request. The house and the family will endure through the pages of this absorbing and beautifully written book, as they will endure in the minds of everyone who, with 14-year-old Michael, lives through that seemingly perpetual golden summer.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 26 © P. D. James 2009
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 10: Michael Jenkins, A House in Flanders