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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