Actress and author Sheila Hancock has owned a house in Vaucluse for two decades. She talks to Zoë McIntyre about her love of France and the inspiration behind her debut novel.
In your new novel Miss Carter’s War, why did you decide to cast the protagonist Marguerite as half-French?
I wanted to write about an idealist and I also wanted to write about the effects of war on generations. But then she became her own thing. I was in France when I wrote the novel and I know the war history in my particular area of the Vaucluse has not been written about much and is fascinating.
Marguerite is an SEO agent in southern France. Were you knowledgeable about this part of French history beforehand?
We had to do loads of research. I did it with a dear friend of mine called Liz Evans who lives over there and she did most of it in my absence. She delved in to all the archives and talked to people. It’s quite difficult to get information because a lot of people don’t want to think about it. But we eventually got verbatim reports on actual incidents. I thought they were quite remarkable and right for the character.
What French characteristics did you choose for Marguerite?
I wanted her to have style. I know it’s a cliché but I do think French women have it. Where I live their hair is always done and their nails are immaculate. And my area isn’t high fashion at all. It’s the ordinary woman in the street. Unlike me who, an English woman, who doesn’t care what I look like. I wear jeans and a sweater. They wear stockings and high-heeled shoes. I sit in cafes and marvel at the way they look.
What is your house like in France?
It’s very primitive. I only recently had a couple of radiators put in. It’s got great big thick wall and is surrounded by cherry orchards and vineyards. There is lavender and the seasons change with the crop. It’s lovely.
What do you like about living in Vaucluse?
I wrote another book called Just Me when John [the late John Thaw] died and I was contemplating selling up. And then the book shows how I couldn’t because, for me, I just love the way of life too much. It’s a bit like 50s England. It’s slow-paced; the sun slows you down. Where I live is very unsophisticated; it’s a small hameau and no-one knows who I am. I can sit in cafes for hours, and maybe in August an English person will says ‘hello, you’re Sheila Hancock’ but not often.
What do you do in France when you’re not writing?
I go to the local lido which is a glorious old-fashioned swimming pool – I do that most days and meet the same group of people every morning. It was built in the 1970s and is a magnificent building of modernist architecture.
Do you get on with the locals?
The people took a long time to accept me as I am an outsider and some of them have lived there all their lives. But they now do. They’ve event taught me how to play boules with them.
Do you speak French?
I do, but it’s not good enough! Some of the people down here speak Provençal and the pronunciation is quite difficult to understand. The problem is, when everyone gets together and starts gabbling, I can’t be subtle. I know they are all making lovely subtle jokes and I miss not being able to make the odd sardonic remark. At the moment I’m using an app called Duolingo to brush up on vocabulary. But I am fluent – I’ve lived there for 20 odd years and people don’t speak English so I have to be.
Are you interested in French literature?
I’ve just read Thérèse Raquin in English and I’m going to read it in French now having got the gist of the book. I read French newspapers and I’ve read French children’s books to French kids in the village. I do love French literature in translation but it’s never the same is it.
Are there any other areas of France you like?
I love Paris with a passion. My sister lives in Antibes so I go down there. And then I just like to drive around. I am really a Francophile. I absolutely love France.
Sheila Hancock’s novel Miss Carter’s War (Bloomsbury, £12.99, hardback) is out now.