Christmas Book Flood!

The prize draw has now taken place. Congratulations to Crystal, Lesley and Nicky, who each win an e-copy of Augustine.

This post is taking part in the Historical Writers Forum Christmas Blog Hop. This year, we’re celebrating the delightful Icelandic tradition of giving books and reading them while eating chocolate on Christmas Eve, called Jolabokaflod (Christmas book flood). And there’s a giveaway of one of my books to go with it. More of that below.

Today would have been my mother’s 99th birthday. She was a book lover and a history lover, and I inherited both of these passions from her. She would have dearly loved to go to university, but World War II and then marriage intervened. Instead, she lived the university experience through her children.

It’s a great regret that my mother didn’t live to see her daughter become a published author. She would have been inordinately proud. And no doubt she would have been my greatest marketing campaigner!

For a history nut like me, the area of Southwest France where we live provides enormous inspiration for my writing. The perched hilltop villages and market towns are steeped in the essence of the past [the village of Najac, Aveyron is at the top of this post]. My mother enjoyed seeing some of these places during her only visit.

The market town of Villefranche-de-Rouergue, which appears in some of my books.

Augustine and Overture

I have always been fascinated by the lives of ordinary people, those “mute, inglorious Miltons” who formed the backbone of rural society here. Some of them accepted their destiny, others actively strove to improve their lot. All were profoundly influenced by the culture, customs and history of this part of France.

I’ve chosen to follow some of them (fictional but based in part on real people) in my Alouette series, which will stretch from the 1880s to 1945. A novella prequel, Augustine, and Book 1, Overture, are already published.

Augustine tells the story of a romance between a young woman and Joseph, a tenant farmer. They must surmount numerous obstacles, not least Augustine’s parents’ fierce opposition.

Here’s an excerpt from Augustine set just before Christmas at the market in Villefranche-de-Rouergue (a real place where one of the best markets in the region takes place every Thursday.

The week before Christmas, the market was at its busiest, with everyone stocking up for the dinner. The stalls were heaped with capons and foie gras, cheese and fouace cakes. We never had much when I was young, but Mère and Père made sure each of us boys had something to wake up to on Christmas morning. We left our clogs by the fire and a bite to eat for le Père Noël. The next day, the food had gone, but we each had an orange tucked into a clog and a present that Père had made. One year, he gave me an ox and cart that he’d fashioned out of wood. I’ve kept it, somewhere.

“Good morning, Joseph.”

I jumped.

“It’s me surprising you for a change,” Augustine said, with a small smile that flickered in her eyes.

I felt the grin spread over my face and the warm feeling move under my ribs.

“Good morning. It’s cold, isn’t it?”

“I was. About twenty years away, thinking about Christmas when I was a boy.”

I told her about the orange and the cart.

“What a lovely present! Your father must have been good with his hands.”

“He was. He could make anything. Could have set up as a carpenter, but farming was in his blood.”

We were silent for a moment, and the flush on her cheeks deepened. She rummaged in her basket and pulled out a package wrapped in brown paper.

“I brought you a Christmas present. I made it myself.”

She thrust the parcel into my hands. I turned it over. It was soft and springy. For a few seconds, I couldn’t say a word.

“Thank you. But you shouldn’t have done. I…I don’t have anything to give you in return.”

I looked down at my boots. What a fool I was!

I sucked my teeth, feeling sheepish. The package was still in my hand.

“Can I open it?”

Augustine pressed her lips together and thought for a second. “Well, you really ought to keep it until Christmas morning, but seeing as I won’t be there, I suppose you can.”

I undid the string, careful not to tear the paper. I shook out a knitted muffler and a pair of mittens in a matching dark green. She craned forward.

“I hope the gloves fit. I didn’t know what size your hands are, so I just went by Père’s.”

I pulled on the mittens and wound the scarf around my neck. The soft warmth against my skin made me long to kiss her. I even took a step towards her, but no; it wasn’t the right moment. Instead, I held up my hands and moved the fingers.

“Just right,” I said. “Now I’ll be warm on market day.”

Her forehead smoothed out, and she gave one of her bright, fleeting smiles.

“I’m pleased you like them. I had to knit them at night in my room, otherwise Mère would have wondered who they were for. I did make some for Père, too, but his are brown.” She paused and made a face. “Sorry, I’m babbling.”

I shook my head. “No. I’m honoured that you made them specially for me.”

The idea of her sitting in secret in a poor light doing that just for me made my heart turn over.

The market was winding down, and I had sold everything I’d brought. The coins chinked in my pocket. Maybe I could still find something for her, but I didn’t want to go into the haberdashery again in case it caused difficulties for Augustine with her mother.

“I’ll walk you to the station.”

“I’d like that.”

We passed a stall selling trinkets. Most of the objects were cheap and gaudy, but my eyes lit on a dark red velvet pincushion in the shape of a heart. Just the right thing.

My fingers fumbling the coins, I paid the woman and handed it to Augustine.

“I’m sorry it’s not wrapped.”

“I don’t mind,” Augustine said, looking at it in her hand. “That would have been a waste. I do like the colour.”

She looked up, and the light was in her eyes and little blotches of red on her neck. She had surely noticed the shape. I was just a simple farmer, not given to romantic gestures, and certainly not used to making them. We never spoke about that sort of thing in my family. But I wanted her to have an idea.

“What will you do on Christmas Day?” she said, and then gave me a quick look, as if she’d said the wrong thing.

“My neighbours, the Lagardes, have invited me to their place. They’re good folk. Monsieur Lagarde has helped me a lot. What about you?”

Her shoulders lifted and fell. “I think it’ll be a rather sad Christmas this year. Berthe and Henri won’t come back. It’s too far. Well, here we are.”

She held out a hand. I took it, pulled her towards me and kissed her three times on the cheeks. The pulse beat in my neck.

“Joyeux Noël, Augustine.”

She stepped back and put her hand to a cheek before looking around at the passers-by, who didn’t glance at us twice.

“And to you, Joseph.”

Giveaway contest  

Now for the giveaway. I have three e-copies of Augustine for three lucky winners. All you have to do is leave a comment:

You only need leave a comment in one of those places. Three comments do not equal three entries!

I will draw the winners from a hat on 23rd December, so there’s still time to enter up till then. Good luck!

Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop

Until 24th December, you can read great posts and take part in other giveaways in this blog hop. Here’s the full list: 

Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2020. All rights reserved.

Published by Vanessa in France

We moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I'm fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs. I also write historical novels and short stories.

9 thoughts on “Christmas Book Flood!

  1. Enjoyable post, Vanessa – thank you.
    (I’ve already had the wonderful opportunity to read Augustine so don’t need to be added to the draw! 😉 )

    Liked by 1 person

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