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Sometime in 1999 a light editing job dropped through my letterbox – ‘a new edition of a memoir by the Duchess of St Albans’, the publisher had said on the phone. Preparing myself for some gently rambling aristocratic reminiscence, I made a fresh cup of coffee and sat down to take a look.

Hours later I was still sitting there. This magical memoir, first published in three volumes in the 1970s and now condensed into one, is, as far as I know, the only book this author has ever written. But from the first page I knew I was in the company of a natural writer and a most unusual and lovable human being – someone with a sense of fun and adventure, and an affectionate eye for human (and animal) eccentricity. I constantly wanted to be reading bits out loud to whoever was around.

In some ways it is surprising that Suzanne St Albans – or Suzanne Fesq as she then was – learned to write at all, for her childhood was distinctly light on education. Her parents, both of French origin, had met in Malaya, where her father had inherited a plantation called Assam Java. But soon after the First World War this strangely assorted couple – she emotional, impulsive and sociable, he virtually a hermit who would hide in the basement when anybody called – were overcome with a longing to put down roots in France. So they took over an old farmhouse near the small town of Vence, at the foot of the Alpes Maritimes, and named it Mas Mistral. From then on the family – which included Suzanne’s younger brother and sister and her father’s old Swiss nurse Marie – moved restlessly back and forth between Malaya and the South of France.

Life with Marie, however, was an education in itself, for she was a passionate naturalist. The nursery shelves were packed with jars of pickled spiders and scorpions, and at Assam Java – where they were forbidden to run about upstairs since the house was riddled with termites (it eventually collapsed) – the ground floor was given

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Sometime in 1999 a light editing job dropped through my letterbox – ‘a new edition of a memoir by the Duchess of St Albans’, the publisher had said on the phone. Preparing myself for some gently rambling aristocratic reminiscence, I made a fresh cup of coffee and sat down to take a look.

Hours later I was still sitting there. This magical memoir, first published in three volumes in the 1970s and now condensed into one, is, as far as I know, the only book this author has ever written. But from the first page I knew I was in the company of a natural writer and a most unusual and lovable human being – someone with a sense of fun and adventure, and an affectionate eye for human (and animal) eccentricity. I constantly wanted to be reading bits out loud to whoever was around. In some ways it is surprising that Suzanne St Albans – or Suzanne Fesq as she then was – learned to write at all, for her childhood was distinctly light on education. Her parents, both of French origin, had met in Malaya, where her father had inherited a plantation called Assam Java. But soon after the First World War this strangely assorted couple – she emotional, impulsive and sociable, he virtually a hermit who would hide in the basement when anybody called – were overcome with a longing to put down roots in France. So they took over an old farmhouse near the small town of Vence, at the foot of the Alpes Maritimes, and named it Mas Mistral. From then on the family – which included Suzanne’s younger brother and sister and her father’s old Swiss nurse Marie – moved restlessly back and forth between Malaya and the South of France. Life with Marie, however, was an education in itself, for she was a passionate naturalist. The nursery shelves were packed with jars of pickled spiders and scorpions, and at Assam Java – where they were forbidden to run about upstairs since the house was riddled with termites (it eventually collapsed) – the ground floor was given over to an animal hospital, where an assortment of patients, with wings and legs bound in bandages and splints, received expert attention: ‘Marie said that the proper way of preparing worms was to chew them up first and I actually saw her put this into practice herself when dealing with a baby owl who was being difficult about his food.’ A rescued stork, who enjoyed fielding the shuttlecock when they played badminton, usually joined them for elevenses, and on their daily forays with Marie into the jungle, Suzanne and her sister each held the hand of their devoted little household monkey, while John brought up the rear, pushing his pet hen Titi, tucked up in a doll’s pram with her head on the pillow. Lizards nested undisturbed in the nursery keyhole, and a ‘small ladder’ was used by Titi for climbing into the children’s clothes cupboard where she laid her eggs. Back in France, their father decided to open a bookshop in Vence. But he couldn’t bear to sell the books – ‘to sell anything would have broken up the collection. With a little badgering you could sometimes borrow one, but you were never, never allowed to pay.’ Unfortunately, rather too many people ‘forgot’ to return the books they borrowed, and the cost of replacing them every few months became prohibitive, so the bookshop idea had to be shelved. The evocation of both these childhood worlds is wonderfully fresh and vivid – the pulsating heat of Assam Java, where strange creatures peered down from the palm thatch above the children’s heads at night and ‘frequently crashed to the floor with a thud and a squelch’, the holiday expeditions to Bukit Fraser, a hill station where ‘huge warm clouds of steam rolled out of the jungle, and the air was so sodden with mist you could almost scoop up the moisture in your hands’; the dreamy garden created by her parents at Mas Mistral , with its vine terraces, overloaded strawberry beds, peach, fig, pear, cherry, pomegranate and persimmon trees, and its convivial if eccentric household – almost as big as the one in Malaya, what with Rubio the houseman, a Spanish Basque with ‘bright red hair and bright red political views’, ‘Pauvre Claire’ the depressed housemaid, who had a ‘forehead all crinkled with worry and a mouth pursed up like a hen’s bottom’, and others, alas too numerous to mention. Equally vivid is the author’s description of her relationship with Jacques, the son of a family who became the focal point of their annual holidays at St Georges, a little resort on the Atlantic coast – ecstatic summers on white beaches that ‘started at the Spanish border and reached uninterruptedly northwards for hundreds of miles’ – an idyll marred only by the dreaded gym lessons their mother insisted they take with a martinet called M. Dupont. By the time war threatened in 1939, Suzanne was becoming a young woman, and Jacques was beginning to want a different kind of relationship. When war did come the Fesq family was scattered to the winds. Suzanne ended up in Algiers among the hard-drinking journalists at Basic News , an English-language news service run by the Psychological Warfare Branch. By 1944 she was back in Europe, still working for PWB, wiser and a lot more worldly but still with her sense of humour intact. Here she is, reporting for duty at the Palazzo Morosini in Venice on a warm day in June:
A huge room, with painted ceiling and frescoes, opened up in front of me. A small kitchen table stood in the centre, and against the wall was a camp-bed covered with an army blanket, from beneath which a couple of faces peered out. ‘Come in, come in,’ said one of the faces in welcoming tones. The Captain, who was tucked up in bed with his secretary, hopped out, fully dressed in shirt and shorts. ‘We felt a bit chilly, so we got under the blanket to warm up,’ he explained.
It would be hard to better her descriptions of the atmosphere in the great cities of Europe in the aftermath of war – the moment in Venice when the façade of St Mark’s was uncovered and the lions and horses restored to their rightful places, the violence in the air of partitioned Vienna where Graham Greene was even then at work on his film-script for The Third Man. And then there was the moment . . . but no . . . space has run out, though I’d love to quote more. As I say, it’s that kind of book.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Hazel Wood 2004


About the contributor

Hazel Wood detested gym and was a founder member of the Anti-Games League at her girls’ boarding school. She works in journalism and publishing, and is co-editor of Slightly Foxed.

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