An exceptional recreation of la France profonde of the 19th century. Novelist and biographer Tindall (The Born Exile: George Gissing, 1974, etc.) begins her journey into the past of Câ€šlestine Chaumette and her village in central France when she stumbles upon seven letters lying long forgotten in a cupboard in the home of Câ€šlestine's granddaughter. The letters date back to when Câ€šlestine was a young woman in the mid-19th century; most are from thwarted suitors who courted the innkeeper's refined daughter before she wed the oil-presser Pierre Robin in 1865 and settled down to the difficult life Of a married woman in the French countryside. From this slight bit of physical evidence, Tindall delves into Câ€šlestine's life, speculating about what she and those around her might have thought, eaten, and worn, how they might have been born, married, and died. Tindall also describes her own experiences as a part-time inhabitant of the village, her research, and the unlimited access she is given to village records dating as far back as the French Revolution. With her eagle eye, the author gleans a miraculous amount of information from this cryptic material. She then colors her portrait with details from contemporary newspapers and memoirs, interviews with residents of the area today, and fictionalized descriptions of the region in the 19th century, including some set down by George Sand, who lived nearby. Tindall also sketches portraits of some of the village's other residents, past and present, from Câ€šlestine's grandfather Franâ€¡ois, born before the Revolution, to the Australian painter who lived with Câ€šlestine's granddaughter Zâ€šnaâ€¹de in the house where the author would later find the seven well-worn letters. The result is an example of excellent social-historical detection written with a novelist's feel for character and place.