I’d like to tell you about Gabrielle.
I never met her because she died, aged 92, before we moved to France. So how do I know her?
Well, we bought her house and from the moment we first saw it, we knew it was right for us. It hadn’t been modernised and apart from electricity, one tap and the loo, was as it had been more than 150 years earlier when it was first built. Over the years that followed, our neighbours told us about Gabrielle, and now I think I know more about her than any other person that I’ve never met. Since she was such a character, I’d like to share her story.
Gabrielle had an illustrious ancestor, Jean Baptiste de la Quintini, who was born in Chabanais in 1626 and became a lawyer, agronomist and gardener. He is most famous for creating a potager for Louis XIV, which you can still see in the grounds of Versailles. My neighbours told me about a magnificent bonnetier which once belonged to Jean and which Gabrielle had inherited. When we bought the house we could see the outline on the wall where it had once stood, it seems the notaire took a shine to it….
Her parents were farmers – “very hard working but lacking common sense,” is how my neighbours put it. They had two children: Gabrielle, who was born in 1899 and her brother Gaston, who became the village postman. When the parents died, the property was split according to French law and brother and sister lived next door to each other. Apparently, there was a falling out and Gabrielle and her brother stopped speaking. My guess is that they fell out over the new house which her brother had built….right in front of Gabrielle’s house, blocking what had been an uninterrupted view across the valley and plunging her house into almost permanent shade.
Gabrielle never married; she said that she had been engaged to a young man who was sadly killed in the First World War but the local opinion was that she was so ugly that nobody would have married her anyway! So Gabrielle earned her living any way she could mainly by running a tiny farm. She had sheep which were kept in an ancient dry-stone walled pen, chickens, rabbits and at least one pig. She also looked after Nuchette’s pig. Nuchette ran the village épicerie when we first arrived and her husband was the local baker.
As well as the farming she operated a taxi service to the local market by horse and cart – and here’s an example of the lack of common sense: although there was a large barn, they couldn’t keep the cart in it because they’d built the washhouse too close to it and made the entrance too narrow. So the cart was stored on the other side of the village. She reseated rush seated chairs. She did catering for weddings and baptisms.
When we first visited the house, I saw her notebooks filled with recipes, beer for 30 people, for example. The notebooks were thrown away by her relations; if I’d known, I would have stuffed them in my handbag. Further evidence of her catering activities was scattered all over the house and outbuildings:several hundred bottles, some of them clearly very old, bearing the names of long gone local breweries.
Gabrielle was also famous locally as a guérisseuse or healer. Her speciality was baby thrush, known as “muguet”, which manifests itself as little white ulcers on the inside of newborn babies’ cheeks. I am told that she treated herself for skin cancer by applying a solution of her own urine. My favourite tale though, is that she once kept the local doctor waiting outside, when he came to treat her, because she was dealing with her own patient inside.
Until she was around ninety years old she had never seen the need for a lavatory, preferring to use a bucket in the barn. But when she became too infirm to totter out there, she had an electric toilet installed in one corner of the one room which served as kitchen, living room and bedroom. The pipe from the loo went through the wall and out the other side into a huge pile of stones, which must once have been some sort of outbuilding. Later, when we began to clear the pile, we wondered what lay beneath it….a grisly bottomless pit perhaps, but no, when we finally cleared the last few stones, there was nothing beneath them at all, just earth.
If you’ve ever read Lark Rise to Candleford, you might remember the part about how far behind the rest of the world the village women were when it came to fashion and how the bustle was worn for so many years that Laura’s younger brother Edmund “was old enough in the day of their decline to say that he had seen the last bustle on earth going round the Rise on a woman with a bucket of pig-wash.” Well, Gabrielle must certainly have been the last woman in Poitou Charentes, if not the whole of France to wear a quichenotte, a sort of bonnet with a very broad brim, which protected the wearer from the sun. Its name is said to derive from the phrase “Kiss not” because it also helped repel amorous English soldiers during the Hundred Years War.
The only heating in the house came from the open fire which filled the one room with smoke, so Gabrielle had removed a pane of glass from the back window to let it out and also to let her many cats come and go as they pleased. One neighbour said it was the draught from the window that finally did for poor Gabrielle, but I like to think of her tucked up snugly in her cherry wood lit bateau surrounded by her cats.
I really wish we’d moved to the village a few years earlier; I would have loved to meet her and ask her about her life, maybe even learn some of her recipes. When we restored the property, we tried to keep as many of the features as possible, beams, fireplaces, built in wall cupboards and so on. If we had over-modernised it, it would have been disrespectful to her somehow. Even these few fragments of her life bring alive a lost era of country life. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them as much as I have writing them down.All Images © Wendy Wise