Escape to Provence is the true story of two remarkable women who, with style and energy, in the tremulous peace between two world wars, carved out new lives for themselves in a village in the South of France. An American from Philadelphia, Elisabeth Parrish Starr a heroine of the Great War, and an Englishwoman, the author Winifred (Peggy) Fortescue, whose memoir Perfume from Provence became a best-seller of the 1930s and '40s, both escaped to Provence for quite different reasons. Elisabeth as the result of a personal tragedy involving the nephew of President Theodore Roosevelt, and Peggy because she and her husband felt that in Provence 'one could be poor with dignity'.
After dangerous aid work on the Somme, for which she was decorated by the French government, in 1921 Elisabeth bought an ancient house in Opio, a hill village high above Antibes and Cannes. She called the house the Castello. Here she slowly drew other expatriate friends around her, and, with the now widowed Peggy, lived a bucolic existence. Their hillside would become known to the local people as La Colline des Anglais. The women far preferred their life among the flowers and animals of the hills to the razmatazz of the glittering Riviera, far below. During the years between the wars interesting friends visited Opio. The poet John Betjeman; Eddie Sackville-West, cousin of Vita, stayed with Elisabeth both in Opio and at her coastguards' cottage near St Tropez, and the beautiful and enigmatic Caroline Paget, the eldest daughter of Charles, the 6th Marquess of Anglesey also came to stay for a short while. Elisabeth fell deeply in love with Caroline, a love which would eventually change the story of their hillside. But Caroline had a very different life in England and would return there to many lovers over the years, including the artist Rex Whistler who was both inspired and tormented by his infatuation with her.
It was at the end of the 1920s that Peggy Fortescue came to Provence, with her husband John, to live in a neighbouring village to Opio. John Fortescue, a younger son of Earl Fortescue of Castle Hill in North Devon, had recently retired as Royal Librarian at Windsor, for which he received his knighthood. But John's great work, which brought small remuneration, was the thirteen volumes of the History of the British Army. Although he was 28 years older than Peggy, the marriage was an extraordinarily happy one. Peggy herself was the eldest daughter of the Rector of Great Bealings in Suffolk. As a young woman needing to earn her living, Peggy's path crossed that of Consuelo Vanderbilt, then Duchess of Marlborough, who became her 'fairy godmother' and suggested Peggy become an actress to which everyone, rather surprisingly, agreed. Although she had some success with Sir Herbert Tree's company, her marriage to John curtailed her career on the stage. In order to provide funds to enable John to continue his writing, Peggy began an initially successful couture business in London. Due to the reluctance of the women of high society to honour their bills in good time, this failed after several years. Always plagued by lack of funds, in spite of Peggy's various energetic efforts to supplement their income, they eventually decided to move to Provence, where life was cheaper and more relaxed. That is until, a year after they had bought their property Britain came off the gold standard and their money problems began once again. John Fortescue was able to enjoy his Provençal home for only about three years for he died as the result of an appendix operation, performed too late.
It was around 1934 that Peggy met Elisabeth Starr, and eventually moved to Opio. By now she had written Perfume from Provence, illustrated copiously by the artist E.H. Shepherd, which would sell over 43,000 copies by the end of the 1940s.
Her next five books would be about her life and friends in Opio, but particularly about Elisabeth and their adventures together. Like so many of their generation, Peggy and Elisabeth had moved, over a relatively short space of time, from a decorous world of floor-length, corseted dresses, where good behaviour was paramount, to a life in casual trousers, and a fondness for cigarettes and drinking cocktails in hotel bars. In spite of their friendship, they each lived and faced the world virtually alone. In 1939 their strong characters were put to the test as the world crept nearer to another conflict, France mobilised and their tranquil hillside became the Etat Major for the troops defending the frontier with Italy. Prompted by Elisabeth, the women founded an ambitious aid programme for French mobilised soldiers, Elisabeth often setting off into the mountains with her skis in order to set up yet another rest centre in the High Alps.
In June of 1940 as the Germans swept through Holland and into Belgium, Peggy raced to safety in England, where she spent the war years raising funds for the Free French. Here she encouraged the damaged Spitfire pilot, Richard Hillary, to write his acclaimed book The Last Enemy, while Elisabeth fell under the oppressive Vichy regime that affected everyone in the region during the dark years of war. In the early months of 1943, exhausted, she died in her Castello of anaemia and malnutrition, for Provence was the region that suffered most from lack of food during the years of war.
In her Sussex village a distraught Peggy founded an aid programme in Elisabeth's name: The Elisabeth Starr Memorial Fund for the Children of Provence.
When the South of France was liberated by American and French forces, Peggy returned to a Provence that would never be the same again.Copyright Maureen Emerson 2016
Maureen Emerson, from an Irish-Austrian background, grew up in London - for which she is eternally grateful. She brought up her family in North Africa, Lebanon, Dallas and Singapore, before settling in Provence for twenty-two years. There she worked as a local co-ordinator for CBS and NBC at media festivals in Cannes. During her years in Provence Maureen became enthralled with the stories of those expatriates who lived on the Riviera in the 1920s and 1930s and how the Second World War affected their lives. Her second book, 'Riviera Dreaming' is due to be published in 2018. While still harbouring a strong affection for Provence, Maureen has now settled in Sussex with her husband. Her book, Escape to Provence, is published by Chapter & Verse Books and is also available as a Kindle e-book from Amazon.
Click here to learn about the new book; 'Riviera Dreaming.'
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