This location amounted to a group of four old buildings on a hillside overlooking Opio, in the Alpes-Maritimes near to Grasse, which were colonised by Elisabeth Starr (in fact an American who later took on French nationality) and some of her friends. All these were restored and established in the first half of this book. This leaves the relationship between Elisabeth and Peggy as, supposedly, the key focus, and that identifies the main problem confronting its author. For, though near contemporaries (Elisabeth born in 1889 and Peggy a year earlier), the two women did not meet until 1933 and did not become neighbours until the following year. Peggy left France at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1940 and, although she kept up correspondence afterwards, by the time she returned in 1945 Elisabeth had already been dead for two years. Seven years of close friendship out of lifetimes of 63 and 54 years respectively is a rather slender basis for a book even of this relatively modest length, so Ms Emerson has allowed herself to expand the subject matter to cover the whole lives of both the principals as well as a great deal of information about other members of their families, their friends and even people who seem to be little more than mere acquaintances. This permits the publishers to claim that the book is also ‘a portrait of an era’ – a description that, as we shall see, involves air-brushing out huge numbers of people.
On the other hand, the sheer numbers making up the cast of characters are so vast – the six page index has 404 entries, every one of them a name – that it makes it extremely hard for the reader to keep track of them all. As a ‘portrait of an era’, this is a very particular one since it sees the period exclusively from the point of view of a group of people who are almost without exception aristocratic, wealthy or of celebrity status or any combination thereof. Ordinary people get hardly a look in, though Peggy’s extraordinarily loyal maid Irma, who kept her Provençal establishment up and free from vandals and requisition throughout the war years, rates five mentions in the index. Otherwise they are simply cast as extras: the anonymous beneficiaries of Elisabeth’s and Peggy’s charitable work in two world wars. The players of the two leading roles seem to have been interesting women, but we see them somewhat at arm’s length, so that the reader is tempted to accord the occasional comment that gives a greater insight into their characters may greater significance than it truly warrants. Peggy’s complaint about the ‘semi-nude modernity’ of foreign visitors to St-Tropez in the ‘30s, for instance probably is just the attitude of a woman born too early to have been a flapper, rather than evidence of innate prissiness. That term may, however, apply to one aspect of this book: although a number of male characters are unequivocably said to be homosexual, despite heavy hinting that some at least of Elisabeth’s relationships were to some degree lesbian that word never appears in these pages.
Whether you will enjoy this book or not will probably depend on how you like your social history. The context overlaps with that of two books previously reviewed in this series, Villa Air-Bel and Americans & the Making of the Riviera, and if you found either of these interesting, this one will probably also appeal. One thing I learned from it was that Peggy Fortescue had already covered the stories of the Colline des Anglais and her friendship with Elisabeth Starr in books of which I had not previously heard. It would be interesting to compare her first-hand account with this version – though, judging from her earlier works, her story of her friend is unlikely to be any less discreet than Ms Emerson’s.
Review by Martin Hills.
Published 2008 in paperback by Chapter & Verse 248pp ISBN 978-0-0558321-0-9 £9.99
(You may also like to take at Peter Riley's website called Perfume From Provence which was developed from a love of Lady Fortescue's books, France, and in particular, Provence and the Alpes-Maritimes)