Wherever I go, I find out so much more if I speak to the locals. This was certainly so during our recent – fourth – visit to Corsica, where we always find new things to see. We would not have unearthed the story in this post if I had not asked about it.
On our second night in Corsica we ventured into Cap Corse, the finger-like part that sticks up from the NE part of the island. We had spent a lovely day walking along a coastal path from Saint-Florent at the foot of Cap Corse and bathing in the warm, turquoise waters of the Med. From Saint-Florent – once an important port – we took the winding road into the western side of Cap Corse.
We stayed at Nonza, a typical Corsican village perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. This is a site classé. They don’t seem to have the same plus beaux villages accreditation in Corsica as they do in mainland France. In summer it is no doubt absolutely heaving with tourists; it was bad enough in late September.
Our destination was Casa Maria, a delightful chambres d’hôtes in the old part of Nonza. The house is a typical granite-built construction, which could be fortified in times of need. The owner smilingly showed us to our room with views over the village and the sea. We noticed some framed, handwritten documents on the walls of the corridor and in our room. I started to read them and realised they were love letters – “Ma toute belle”, “Adorable Marie” etc.
However, our immediate concern was to shower, eat and sleep. Relatives of the owners run a restaurant in the ruins of the old château and in the shadow of the watch tower built on the orders of Pascal Paoli, ruler of Corsica during its short-lived republic in the 18th century. Next morning, we had breakfast on the terrace under a trellis of vines and bougainvillea.
“Please tell me about the letters on the walls and in our room,” I said to the owner.
He didn’t need to be asked twice. When they were restoring the house, the builder broke through a wall in the attic and found a small case containing the yellowed, flimsy letters. The builder was disappointed that no money was in the case and lost interest. But the owners were intrigued by the documents. They researched their history and discovered that the local school teacher wrote them to Marie, the daughter of a bourgeois family of Nonza during the 1890s.
It turns out that they carried on an illicit love affair. They hid their letters in a secret hiding place – alas, Marie’s letters have not survived. The school master had a good turn of phrase, as you might expect, and an elegant, if occasionally illegible, hand. He didn’t sign his letters, no doubt for fear of discovery.
Marie seems to have doubted his love for her and most of the 10 or so letters try to persuade her of his sincerity. She appears to have accused him of being a womaniser. “Why do you doubt my love for you?” he writes. “I have never looked at any woman but you.”
Marie and the teacher never married. It is unlikely that her parents would have sanctioned the match. French school teachers were trained in left-wing, anticlerical attitudes. While bourgeois families appreciated them as intellectuals, they certainly didn’t want them marrying their daughters. Marie and the schoolmaster might have met on social occasions, but her parents would never have allowed them to frequent each other. In Corsica, especially, a strict code of behaviour was in place for young women.
Marie married another man who went off to Puerto Rico at some point and never returned. She remained in the house in the village and was served by one of the owner’s grandmother, who had lost her husband during World War I and had three children to support. The two women sustained each other in their mutual woes. When Marie married, the school master went back to his own village.
The house is named Casa Maria, after Marie. Why did Marie wall up the letters? When did she do it? Did she forget about them after she had married the other man or did she read them en cachette? What was her relationship like with her husband? Did they marry for love or was it an arranged dynastic marriage? Did she spend the rest of her life pining for the schoolmaster? Did he pine for her or was he really the womaniser she accused him of being?
This is the stuff of novels. Who knows, maybe I’ll write up the story myself someday.
Guess what – I did! The House at Zaronza was first published in July 2014 by Crooked Cat Books. It was reissued in April 2018 in paperback and Kindle versions. Click the book cover to find out more.
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