Cart 0

A personal account

The following is an exclusive account by writer Gillian Tindall, who met Norman Lloyd personally in the 1970s in France and without whom we probably would not know anything about Lloyd's life in France. We are vey grateful for her personal contribution.

Gillian Tindall has had a long career, initially as a novelist and journalist, but also as a biographer and, in the last twenty years, as a specialist in `micro histories’ centred on place. Her prize-winning work Celestine also won her the award of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government, and she has won other literary prizes for earlier books including the Somerset Maughan Award. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.


Norman Lloyd was over eighty when I first got to know him in central France, in the early-to-mid 1970s. His first contact with France was as a soldier in the First World War in 1916. I believe he was wounded in that war, though not to any lasting ill-effect. He seems to have retained an interest in France, and some contacts there, probably through his career as an artist, since he was apparently in France late in the Second World War: at any rate he was in Paris after the Liberation (ie in the autumn of 1944) in what has been described to me as a 'liaison job'. This can hardly have involved much linguistic skill, since his French was learnt entirely by ear and was always rudimentary.

However, it was in Paris that he met a lady, no longer in the flush of youth herself, with whom he formed a lasting attachment that was to shape the course and setting of the rest of his life. This was Marie-Zenaide Robin, always known as Zenaide. She had a secretarial or clerking job in Paris in the vast, all-pervading French civil service that is known collectively as The Administration. She had been living for many years in a little flat overlooking the Place Dauphine on the tip of the Ile de la Cite by the Pont Neuf, in the heart of ancient Paris.

Displaying an artistic bent which seems curiously modern for the times, she decorated her eyrie with bits of antique furniture picked from flea markets
and with little patterns of mirror glass set into plaster - or so I was told by a childhood friend of hers who visited her once on a memorable trip to the capital. For Zenaide had not been born in the Paris but in a village called Chassignolles, near la Chatre in the Indre - the Bas-Berry, in terms of an older France. Born in 1895, she was the only child of an inn-keeper, the third in a family line of succession.

The inn, located in an old house in the centre of the village, had been started by Zenaide's great-grandfather about 1840. Her grandparents, Pierre Robin and Celestine, nee Chaumette, had run the place successfully in the later part of the nineteenth century. If the business had continued to go well, one can imagine that Zénaide herself might have stayed at home, since inn-keeping in rural France was traditionally a female occupation, with the males of the family doing other work on the side. 

However, by the time Zenaide was in her teens, the inn had fallen on hard times, apparently due to her father's laziness and fondness for his own drink and her mother's eccentricity and intermittent breakdowns, which we would now diagnose as schizophrenia. To keep her away from these influences, her grandparents arranged for Zenaide to be sent to boarding school in Bourges. There were hopes that she might become a teacher, the classic route into middle class society for the bright boy or girl, but evidently the life in a country school that would probably have been her lot did not appeal to her, and it was Paris, with all its possibilities, that claimed her.

I know all this and more about Zenaides family of origin because her grandmother, Celestine Chaumette (1844-1931), became the central figure in a historical study I made of Chassignolles, using one archetypal French village and a handful of people to give local habitation and a name to a general examination of France's nineteenth century emergence from the medieval world into the modern one. See Celestine: Voices from a French Village, published in the UK in 1995, in the USA in 1996 and in France, as Celestine, memoir d'une femme du Berry in 2000.

Zenaide herself was someone that people remembered. The country friend who visited her in Paris had always admired her and described her to me as 'a nice person - kind, warm, good fun but abit dotty. Not really a good-wife-and-mother type. More of an intellectual. 'It was this woman who told me, in a tone of some admiration, that Zenaide and Norman had 'met each other in Paris in Bohemian circles'. A young cousin, who also stayed briefly with her in Paris as a schoolboy, said to me 'she was a dreamer, affectionate and dynamic, a person out of the ordinary. I was very fond of her. Her open-mindedness was like a breath of fresh air to me… She let me go about Paris on my own just as I wanted to.' A different view was expressed by a member of the rural bourgeoisie, who recalled as someone who dyed her hair ridiculous colours and was known to have 'gone to the bad'. Certainly, when Zenaide appeared for holidays in Chassignolles, she was accompanied over the years by a number of different gentlemen. She never married - but then she was of the generation in which so many potential husbands died in the slaughterhouse of the First World War.

By the early 1930s her grandmother, the family member to whom she was most attached, was at last dead, and so, not long afterwards, were both her parents. From them, she inherited a small house in Chassignolles - a much more modest dwelling than the inn, which had long since passed into other hands. It was this house which had become the repository of all that remained of the genteel furnishings, linen and mementoes that had been accumulated by the family in more prosperous days. It was here that Zenaide retreated from Paris in 1940 when, along with a many other Parisians, she fled the approaching Germans. On this occasion she brought with her a little girl, characterised by some as 'a refugee', of which there were many in the area, but also reputed to be the daughter of Zenaide's current 'gentleman friend…He was a foreign gentleman. Not a native French speaker, no.' What became of that friend is unknown, but whatever the course of Zenaide's subsequent moves in the course of the war the child survived. One day about forty-five years later the Mairie in Chassignolles received a visit from a lady 'of a certain age… very well dressed' according to the Mayor's secretary. This person explained that she had stayed in the village as a young child. Passing through the area now with her husband, she hoped to find again the house, which she could only locate by describing its owner - `Zena, I called her. A wonderful person, so kind and such fun… I really have a golden memory of those months.' It seems evident that Zenaide was one of those largely anonymous French citizens to whom a number of France's Jewish children owed their lives - and indeed Norman Lloyd, in old age, used to tell a rather garbled story of her having carried a number of refugee children off into the safety of the woods, when the Germans were visiting retribution on central France after the Normandy landings of 1944.

In the twelve years between the end of the war in Europe and the mid-1950s, Zenaide and Norman made a habit of spending the long summer vacations together in her little house in Chassignolles. I think they spent whole summers there once she had retired from her job. Certainly, through her contacts and despite his inadequate command of French, he became a well-established figure in the village and in the surrounding countryside. There, he was often seen painting, in his cream flannel suit and his old straw hat with brushmarks on it. A number of his pictures of local scenes were given away as presents to friends and neighbours, and are prized objects in houses to this day. Others must have disappeared.

Norman also got to work on the house, changing it in appearance from a very plain, slate roofed, two-roomed French rural dwelling into something resembling an English cottage orne of the Edwardian period. He put up a trellis-verandah along the front, painted the shutters and the gate blue, converted the grain-loft into two bedrooms reached by an inside, boxed-in ladder, and build on a kitchen and bathroom in a lean-to, with a soakaway to a covered pit beyond the apple trees. (This was at a time when hardly another house in the village had plumbing.)

Within, he and Zenaide lived in the decor of her vanished family's past lives. I visited the place a number of times while he was there and it was still full of carved oak cupboards, embroidered stools, lace chair-backs and the like. There was a photo of Zenaide displayed on a small table: a full-bodied, lively looking woman, in middle age, with dark curling hair. I wish I had paid more attention to it at the time - but then I was not to know how significant the house and everyone connected with it were to become to me.

It seems to have been known in the village that 'Monsieur Norman' had an English wife and a whole other life in England, but all that was too remote and theoretical to bother the citizens of Chassignolles. When Zenaide died of colon cancer in 1956 she left the house and all its contents to him en usufruct, that is to say for his own lifetime but not to pass on to anyone else, quite a common arrangement under French law. Though she was gone and much missed, he continued to come there every summer and gradually extended his stays there over much of the year. When I and my family appeared in the village in 1973 and people ascertained that we were English, they declared that we must make Monsieur Norman’s acquaintance. (His exact identity as an Australian citizen was beyond their ken). By and by we did, and though he was getting rather old by then and inclined to tell one long stories of which the point became obscured half way through, he was always very kind.

Once, when we invited him to dinner, he turned up with six large French table napkins as a present for us. Much later, I realised that these napkins, each embroidered with an R and a D, must have formed part of the trousseau of Zenaides ill-fated mother when she married the charming but lazy Charles Robin. We have them still.

Over the years, once his English wife was dead too, there were apparently one or two holiday visits to Chassignolles by nephews- and nieces-in-law. Later again he took to inviting various ladies on visits from England, each one increasingly elderly as he was himself. Then, when we returned one spring (this would have been towards 1980) we found that the long, solitary winter had taken its toll on him. His memory seemed very poor and his speech was becoming incoherent. The village people were worried about him too – though their approach to aging seemed curiously individual: they tended to attribute his deterioration to one or other external cause according tho their own preoccupations. He did not eat enough, said one, or wear warm enough clothes in cold weather, said another, while others were sure he had suffered some specific blow: a piece of bad news, perhaps - maybe a financial set-back? Two kind teachers from the school became so convinced that he was suddenly impoverished that each used some of her own modest savings to buy a picture from him.

In the summer he was no better, and the Mayor asked us if we could not help find Norman's 'family in England' to come and rescue him? We knew he had no family, as such, but recollected that he had liked to talk about his friendship with a well-known member of the British judiciary. We accordingly wrote to this gentleman, care of Who’s Who, to see if he could provide a name or address for any relatives of the late Mrs Lloyd. It was some time before a reply came back to us, and meanwhile Norman had disappeared from Chassignolles.

One early autumn day he had been seen getting onto the weekly bus to the local town 'with his little suitcase and a roll of painting stuff.' Since then, there had been no news.

Three weeks later, the Mayor received a call from a social worker in a Parisian public hospital. They had had for some days on one of their wards this old gentleman who had been found wandering and incoherent in the Métro. He had no belongings with him and no identifying papers, but patient conversation with him had eventually elucidated 'Chassignolles' as an address.

Fortunately I was in Chassignolles at that point and so could undertake to seek Norman out in the hospital one my way back to England, which I did. He was loquacious, and did not appear particularly unhappy, but very confused. He claimed to have been attacked in the street, but the medical staff thought that he had had probably a stroke - une attaque, indeed, in French, since that is what a bad stroke can feel like to the sufferer. Meanwhile, my husband had at last had a reply from the elderly judge. He had not, he wrote, seen his old friend Lloyd for many years, but recalled that Mrs Lloyd had had a nephew called Farrer who was a General Practitioner in Ribblesdale on the Lancashire-Yorkshire moors.

Since doctors can be located just as judges can, at last the piecemeal contact was made with what turned out to be a kind and competent country doctor. Dr Farrer (right, Norman Lloyd left) and his wife travelled to Paris, took charge of this distant-relative-by-marriage (since there was no-one else who could) and carried him back to an old people's home in their part of the country. Some months later, after lengthy to-ing and fro-ing between an English lawyer and a French one, each side uncomprehending of the other’s language and legal system, it was agreed that, though the house now belonged to distant cousins of Zenaide, it was for the Farrers to deal with the contents.

So Dr and Mrs Farrer travelled again to France and confronted a house which had been left untouched, with the bed made and packets of food in the cupboard, for a whole winter, and in which mice, spiders, moths and damp had begun to do their worst. They spent several long days emptying the place, arranging for the sale of what was saleable, and consigning great masses of paper to a garden bonfire. Among these, apparently, were a complete set of letters, all those that Norman had written to Zenaide over the years of their liaison and all she had written to him, along with many, many photos.

Afterwards, Mrs Farrer wrote to me: "A real love story had gone on there, it was very touching, all their private world. But for that very reason it seemed right to burn the lot and so that was what we did."

Very fortunately for me, as it turned out, the one thing they did not burn was a little card case with a religious cross on it, probably because they did not quite like to. They did not realise that what it contained was not baptismal and first communion cards but a collection of half a dozen love letters dating from the mid-nineteenth century which had been written to Zenaide's grandmother, Célestine Chaumette, when she was a young girl in her father’s inn. It was these letters that later formed the essential core of my book on the village and its past.

The reason I found the letters was that the Farrers were grateful to us for various services rendered (mainly the translation of lawyers' letters) and wanted to offer us something from the house as a keepsake. Remembering a footstool with a cat embroidered on it, I asked for that, and so they left it in the otherwise empty house for me to collect. When I did so the following spring, there too was the small card-case of unsuspected letters - an extraordinary treasure for me - lying in a corner.

Norman remained in the old people's home, regularly visited by the Farrers, and died there some years later. He was never to know what a great gift he inadvertently gave me – any more than my husband and myself could possibly have guessed that the modest practical help we had provided in his time of need could have born such significant fruit.

It is because of this circumstance that I feel I owe a great debt of gratitude to him, and, through him, to Zenaide, and this is why I have laid out in some detail this story of the late love of his life and of his final years.