We have just taken the children to France for the first time, and aside from the laundry we’ve returned with, and wheeling the buggy through the inevitable dog turd, and Dulcie’s uncontrollable tantrum about what constitutes a real meal and what is just eating patisserie, and Himself the Elf’s insistence that he will sleep badly anywhere and pull over an unfeasible amount of fire irons, pot pourri, and umbrella stands, a fabulous time was had by all.
We ate like French kings and meandered around the boulevards and rues, with Dulcie gradually bon jouring away quite happily, and Himself the Elf developing his palette to the extent that any baguette he saw was greeted with the expressive ‘Nom nom nom’ sound that is, I believe infant French for ‘That looks delicious. Pass me a chunk, won’t you?” and accompanying mouth movements. We are now all suffering terrible post-holiday comedown, so I shall keep this brief. There have been tantrums galore and we’ve been back for about fifteen hours. “Everybody had to cry/Not a single eye was dry.” What is on the bookcase to help us recover and feed our passion for France? Madeline!
Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
I was struck by this book in a Barnes and Noble in Miami when Dulcie was, I thought, far too young for it. The cover illustrations showed a saucy, piquant little girl, nose in the air and with a headful of red curls under a jaunty hat. The story inside, (actually stories, as this is a collection) was not aimed at a child of 22 months, clearly. But I did rather covet it, and so in spite of it not really being quite the thing, we suggested it as a present to someone for her second birthday, and – good girl – she loved it. The delightful hardback, with over 300 pages, might have been too heavy for her to pick up but she valiantly dragged it off the bookcase to be read.
In the first month, I read the initial Madeline poem to her so often (I think hourly) that I was soon able to recite all seventy-odd pages of it to her on car journeys, and any picture of a tiger was meet with a defiant ‘Pooh, pooh!’ I actually don’t know how it is so captivating, as the story in essence is: a little girl at boarding school suffers an appendicitis (instant recall of Sally in the first Mallory Towers book, and my mental countdown to when I can introduce Dulcie to that delight), and then gets better. But it is the character sketch of Madline, both how she is drawn and how she is described, that sets this apart.
‘In an old house in Paris/that was covered with vines/lived twelve little girls/in two straight lines’, but although Madeline is the smallest of the twelve, she is feisty and has bit of moxy about her. She knows how to wind up Miss Clavell, which as Dulcie has grown older, is greeted with an appreciative eyebrow raise and little smirk of admiration. Madeline stands out from the twelve other girls, not only because of her red hair (facially the simple drawings show all the girls looking basically identical with pinprick eyes and mouth that are simple lines) but because she is animated and nearly always apart from them, engaged in some daring pursuit.
And oh, the delight, how French it all seems! Children educated by nuns, rainy days in front of the Notre Dame and sunny ones in the Luxembourg gardens. We see smudged flashes of the Eiffel Tower, and the Tuilerie gardens, and the little girls skate next to the Sacre Ceour. They wear chic school coats and break their bread at meals. Exquisite.
It might not be as good as a proper French holiday, but as our last baguette turns stale and the Lux biscuits dwindle, it is a whiff of Gaelic life and just what we need…