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Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve

It is October 1918, the final months of the First World War. In Paris Jeanne Caillet is waiting for her husband to return. He has been wounded and in hospital for several months. Life is hard for Jeanne and the women who live near her: shortages of fuel, and food, and work. This novella reaches deep into the destructive power of war and looks at the damage it visits upon a small web of relationships surrounding Jeanne. 

Originally written in French, here translated by Adriana Hunter for Peirene Press, the publication date for Winter Flowers is 7th October 2021.

Winter Flowers

In some ways Jeanne is lucky. She has a job making artificial flowers by the gross to a tight schedule and exacting standard. The work brings in just enough to support her and her daughter. Her neighbour Sidonie sews aprons. Jeanne and her Sidonie support each other by taking turns to deliver the finished articles and collect the parts for the next batch. 

Jeanne’s hands are dulled with work, her back is stiff. And as she closes her eyes, and relaxes her head and shoulders, all her in-held breath comes out at once in a hoarse cry that would leave anyone who heard it struggling to say whether it expressed pleasure or pain. (7)

Sidonie’s only surviving son Eugène left for the war at the same time as Jeanne’s husband Toussaint. Eugène has not been heard from for months, but Toussaint is in hospital having been wounded in the face. 

As soon as he was admitted to Val-de-Grâce military hospital, Toussaint sent his wife a brief letter.
‘I want you not to come.’
Those were his words.
It was clear, definitive. It invited no reply, and Jeanne sent none. (29)

Jeanne, and the reader, learn indirectly of the dreadful injury to Toussaint’s face from a report from his father. It is as if the damage cannot be approached directly. But Jeanne does not know what to think of her husband’s message, and of what will happen when the war ends.

Meanwhile she has to keep on making the flowers, often far into the night. The flowers have several functions within this novella. To start with, they provide the only colour in a relentless grey and dismal time. The red poppies, of course, came to symbolise the dead soldiers of the Western Front. And Jeanne is making these for the luxury market, for those who have power and influence, and who still value the display of wealth and unnecessary objects. 

At the heart of this novel is this contrast: Jeanne is involved in the delicate work of creating artificial flowers and at the same time living in near destitute conditions and caring for a husband seriously damaged by the war. 

When Toussaint returns there is an intensification of the hardships of the Caillet family: another person in their small flat and another mouth to feed. Toussaint’s face is badly injured so he wears a mask. He may have lost the ability to speak, and he won’t go out or interact with his family. 

The Caillet family are by no means the only ones damaged by war. When Sidonie is told by the Special Messenger Service (women volunteers who inform families that soldiers have been killed) that Eugène has been dead for eighteen months she is devastated. Invited to the town hall to a ceremony at which she is given a certificate, Sidonie is accompanied by Jeanne. Here are the people who pronounce empty and vacuous platitudes to those who lose people.

Up on a rostrum, flanked by his deputies, the mayor with his tricolour sash over his barrel chest gives an interminable speech, and there’s a pomposity in his voice and his words for which they are quite unprepared. (79)

The reader learns that the Jeanne and Toussaint had a good and loving relationship before the war, even surviving the death of their first child. The novel follows Jeanne’s attempts to reunite with her husband, bridge the years of the war, their different experiences, the maturing of their surviving child. How can they keep the family together, as Léo has grown up? How can Jeanne support Sidonie when the last of her sons is declared dead, and the official response is so lacking?

The flowers represent so much: they show up the dreariness of Paris; they indicate the suffering of the women; they are destined to be bought by rich people not directly involved in the war; and they represent the dead.

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve, first published in French in2014 and the English translation by Peirene Press in 2021. 117pp

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.

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