Welcome back, Angela Wren, this time to talk about the settings for her books. I am looking forward to my first visit to France later this year. In the meantime, it is interesting to have a preview from such an expert source.
Hello Jane, thank you for inviting me onto your blog.
As my books are set in France, I thought I’d take you and your regular readers on a visit to Mende. But, before we set off, I probably need to supply a few facts and a bit of history.
Sitting on the southern edge of the Massif Central, Mende is the préfecture – principal administrative city – for the département of Lozère. With a population of around 12,000 and an area of 14 square miles, the town sits in the high valley of the Lot about 30k due west of Mont Goulet and the source of the river. It is also the principle setting for my second Jacques Forêt novel, Merle, and a favourite place for me to visit whenever I am in the area.
Using a real place as the setting for a novel brings both advantages and disadvantages. For my story, I sited two new office blocks on either side of boulevard Théophile Roussel. It’s a busy thoroughfare that links with three other boulevards and surrounds the old heart of the city. So, there is always going to be someone who says, ‘well that’s not right.’ I agree, but then I write fiction, and the power of being a writer is to invent. As a writer I am able to walk the streets of Mende, see what is actually there and then place what I need in appropriate spots so that, hopefully, it will seem as real to the reader as it does to me in my imagination.
But, let me tell you about the city. There has been habitation on this spot for over 2,000 years and the history is varied and complex. Raided and sacked on numerous occasions – not least during the Religious Wars – Mende has survived to be the prominent town that it is, centred around it’s old medieval foundations with the modern city surrounding it. In the middle ages, Mende became a centre of culture and civilisation, a focal point for trade, art and craftsmen with a notoriety that stretched as far north as the Auvergne.
Let’s begin in Place Urbain V (a square that I use for a scene in my first book in the series, Messandrierre) with a look at the cathedral. The Basilica of Notre-Dame-et-St-Privat is striking because of its mismatched towers. Begun in the 14th Century, under the auspices of the then Pope Urbain V, the cathedral was partially destroyed during the Religious Wars of the 16th Century – hence the odd towers. The original bell ‘Non Pareille’, then the largest bell ever to have been cast, was melted down for bullets so that Capitaine Mathieu Merle (and yes it is his surname that I have borrowed for my fictitious suburb in Mende) and his Huguenot soldiers could continue the fight.
Out in the sunshine again and we are going to take a right, past the préfecture building into the narrow streets of the old medieval town. With houses of three and four stories high, so close that neighbours could almost shake hands above the cobbles as they reached out of their open windows, the shade is welcome and necessary in the mid-day heat. This part of the city became the home to hundreds of Jewish traders and remained their domain right up until the 20th century. And it is in one of these streets that I have set the location for the Photographic Studio and shop for my character Beth. And the pâtisserie that she sometimes looks across too in the book? Yes it really does exist and it is that window that I can see in my imagination whenever I refer to it in my story.
Let’s walk back to the préfecture building, which stands magnificently beside the cathedral. It was in this building, during the 1939/45 war that the Mayor at the time, Henri Bourrillon, defied the Vichy regime. Bourrillon objected to the internment camp that was built close to the town and, his words, actions and further objections caused him to be removed from his position of authority in 1941. Henri took this in his stride and joined the Resistance and Mende, and some of its bravest people, took on a new role in support of the Jewish community within the city. One of the boulevards that surrounds the old city is now named after Henri.
That’s only a snippet of the history of Mende, but it is rich and varied, and as far as I’m concerned, a gift. In Montbel, book 3 in the series and due out later this year, Jacques finds himself battling with secrets and lies that began when the Vichy government was in power.
Angela’s website: http://www.angelawren.co.uk/
You can find her books on amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Angela-Wren/e/B01924M7DC/