Thursday, January 6, 2011

Book review: Auvergne and Its People

Is it any wonder why I bought this book? With Olympe Countess of the entire province (at least titularly); for a province it was prior to the Revolution, I am intrigued by this lesser-known area of France. I should do a post about what Auvergne is really about, but that's for the future.

Written and published in 1911, I was fortunate enough to find an original copy with illustrations. I love old books, and I found that there were two ways to enjoy this one; as a description of the still very peasant-based society of this region, or as an early twentieth-century travelogue. Indeed it stopped me in my tracks at times to note that when the author talks about young men storming the beaches, even WWI had not yet begun and she means something quite different. 1911 was the year of the Mexican Revolution, the foundation of the Republic of China, and Italy's war with the still-existant Ottoman Empire. It was also the year of the first Monte Carlo automobile race, and whenever the author refers to her own trip by car she uses the term "automobile" and speaks of people coming out to see it as the English couple cruises thorough towns and up and down mountains.

This alone would make the book worth reading to my mind, but add to that the endless list of little towns, churches, and dormant volcanoes which sculpt the region and you have a good picture of the landscape and the scope of people's lives. Mrs. Gostling does assume that her reader knows at least some french and the annecdotes, poems, and saying which infuse the book gave me a mental workout that I appreciated (though some are translated where deemed appropriate).

Clearly the author knows a great deal about French history, for she references and explains many both famous and obscure incidents and characters throughout, but her real passion seems to be for the saints, churches, and religious legends of Auvergne, and they abound. In fact, I found myself putting down the book on more than one occasion when I felt I could not take another miraculous shepherdess, or curiously-carved, black, wooden Virgin adapted from pagan times. Still, I was glad that I stuck it out, because it was like a vacation back in time and to another place, with a guide who was full of interesting asides, humor, and apreciation for the natural beauty and culture that surrounded her.

Don't pick this book up expecting it to be free of tendentiousness either, Ms. Gostling has her own opinions about the historical characters she mentions, as well as of the nobility and the revolutionaries. At times she was almost condescending towards the lives of the Auvergnat people, but always she pulled up just short and I found myself continuing to like her company. I think that this book is best understood in its own historical context, but I would be interested to know if things have changed dramatically in the last 100 years. Wow, it' easy to forget how long it has really been.

Have you read this book? Have an opinion about it's content, author, or style? I'd love to hear from you!

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