Our book today is Frances Noyes Hart’s 1931 charmer Pigs in Clover, which purports to record a roundabout journey by car through France that she took one holiday season with her husband Edward Hart, the son of the man who was present at the creation, so to speak, of the Associated Press.
Long before that trip, Frances Noyes Hart had been a working freelancer of indomitable industry and a great deal of effervescent talent. She wrote for anybody who was paying, doing theatrical reviews, book reviews (some under – gasp – assumed names), humorous squibs, and short stories for a long list of American venues, including the wonderful old Scribner’s magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Washington Post. She serialized a book called The Bellamy Trial in The Saturday Evening Post, and in 1927 it won the Pulitzer Prize (which caused positively everyone, including God in His Heaven, to take a deep breath and ponder for a moment the inscrutable ways of Fate and the Prize Committee). By the time she and her husband hit on the idea of travelling France not as dutiful momument-watchers but as “gypsies,” they were well able to afford some non-gypsy luxuries.
Their goal was to enjoy themselves in what we would today call an “unstructured” way, and her goal – ever the inventive hack – was to use the experience to write a kind of travel book that wasn’t yet invented yet: a combination of practical (she’s religious about meal costs and room rentals) and the impressionistic, designed not only to advise prospective travelers on how they should negotiate the pragmatic landscape of France but why they should want to. The resulting book, Pigs in Clover, is a classic of travel-writing and one that knows very well its own defiance of expectations:
It isn’t at all the kind of book that I meant it to be. I had planned something highly sophisticated and faintly ironic, with plenty of good active verbs, a liberal scattering of sinewy adverbs, and not more than two severe and lapidary adjectives to a page. I know just exactly how it ought to have been done, and I’m pretty contrite about not having done it. But as long as moonlight is silver and sunlight is gold and roses are red, I’m lost and undone. I’ll et someone else think up better colors for them, and I won’t even bother to put quotation marks around “gallant” and “magical.” Someone else will have to go in for irony.
Even though the couple stressed their carefree attitude (very appealingly different from the package-tour mentality that rule the industry at the time), they couldn’t help themselves when it came to that most pleasant of all traveller’s daily duties, making itineraries:
We left Paris not a minute later than half-past twelve, which was pretty good for us, considering that we had intended to start not a minute later than half-past nine. Now that I look back on the elaborate time schedules that we drew up, and remember what happened to them, I find them as touching and idiotic as Baby’s first shoes.
In one quick chapter after another, we follow the Harts from Versailles to Chartres to Poitiers to Bayonne and Biarritz to Carcassone and Nimes, always stopping in quaint villages, always savoring the food and wine and hospitality. The effect is so hypnotic that those of us who’ve had less than perfect encounters with France and its people may begin to feel that perhaps we missed something while complaining about the rampaging heat and the obnoxious dog-hating locals. Certainly despite her hard-as-nails contract-negotiating with that grand, penny-pinching old publishing house of Doubleday, Doran & Co. Fanny Hart weaves a very elegant spell in these pages. And despite a certain road-weariness (and a strong but scandalously intermittent longing to return to their own “two smallest cares, that had blue eyes and golden topknots”), her sorrow at leaving is completely honest:
Lovely Paris – lovely, lovely France – how could we leave you, you who had been so ineffably kind to these two alien children? … And suddenly we knew that we couldn’t really leave her; we knew that no one who has loved her ever quite leaves Paris. Some part of us we each leave behind as hostage, waiting for our return.
And quite suddenly we didn’t have to pretend to be gay; quite suddenly we were. E lifted the frosted glasses and smiled across them, clicking the brims together, as we drank a toast to the lovely lady smiling up at us through the summer night.
“To our next dinner in Paris! Hasten the day!”
Hasten the day, kind gods! For we have left hostages in France.
It’s impossible to read that final chapter without recalling that only a few years after the Harts left their beloved France the whole country would suffer conquest and devastation on a scale that would dwarf that seen during the First World War; the sunny, green-shaded French countryside always and paradoxically feels far away from war and violence – and in these pages, it always will be.