A Cultural History
By Wendy Mewes
Published by Signal Books 2014
If you have ever done the gite thing, or dreamt about owning a home in Brittany, or even just popped across to Roscoff to buy a trolley full of wine, then I warmly recommend that you read this book. It was given to me as a present and at first I used it as a guide book, dipping in to read about places we might visit. But this sadly underestimates the character and purpose of the book. The author is not just writing about tourist spots, she is explaining the power of the landscape over the lives of the Breton people throughout history, their struggle to be recognised as a region with an independent identity, and the inspirational effect of Brittany upon poets, writers and musicians.
The book manages to be both scholarly and gossipy at the same time, re-telling old legends and confiding snippets about famous people, as well as describing in detail the geological make-up and political history of the region.
And the author clearly knows what she is talking about. Many of the descriptions were obviously written while she was actually standing on the spot, which makes the reader feel that he is standing there with her. My favourite example of this is Chateaubriand’s childhood bedroom in the fourteenth century tower of the castle at Combourg…
“It is certainly a Spartan space, dim and remote, now with the histrionic addition of a mummified cat in a glass case…”
The book is beautifully written with a powerful mixture of passion and humour, bringing Brittany to life on every page. The chapter on towns begins with Rennes:
“Rennes is a visually intense and demanding place, full of relatively large buildings in relatively small spaces. Walking around can feel like observing an architects’ orgy at close hand, as the streets rattle off period detail like machine-gun fire, a volley of half-timbered beauties of wondrous dimensions followed by a blast of grand neoclassical homes of seventeenth century bigwigs.”
I was fascinated by the poignant story of the pilhaouerien – the rag and bone men forced to make a living from travelling far and wide to collect rags to sell to the paper mills, or bones, bristles and fur for glue making, because of the harsh conditions in the Monts d’Arree where they lived. And the Icelandic fishing operations from Paimpol in which two thousand men lost their lives, leaving the widowed women to scrape a living alone.
The book is packed with interesting explanations about the history of wolves in Brittany, the connection with King Arthur and Merlin, the origins of the megaliths and standing stones, the strong women on the island of Ouessant, and many, many more.
I particularly liked the funny, enticing sub-titles and the grainy black and white photographs (many taken by the author herself) which seemed to transport me back through the years to the history that Wendy Mewes was describing. Reading it has certainly made me want to visit lots of places I have not explored before, and I will now view Brittany with a lot more knowledge and a deeper understanding.