Today, you’re invited to meet Rachel Swift, who tops and tails The House at Zaronza by Vanessa Couchman, another great Crooked Cat read. Here is her letter to Maria Orsini, whom she never met but who had a great influence on the lives of Rachel’s family.
You died long before I was born and I really wish I had had the chance to meet you.
I came to Corsica wanting to find out more about my ancestors. This was my first visit and, as soon as the plane touched down, I had a sense of coming home. Somehow, the rugged but magnificent landscape and the perched villages seemed familiar. And that scent of aromatic herbs from the mountain scrub they call the maquis was almost intoxicating.
My search led me to the beautiful village of Zaronza, where I stayed in the house you once lived in. I discovered that my grandmother, also called Maria, had lived there as well for a while, although you weren’t related. There is still much more to find out about my grandmother and my other relations and that quest will take me to other parts of Corsica and to the French mainland.
But I became intrigued by you, because of the framed love letters addressed to you that hung on the walls of the house. As I discovered later, you had hidden them in the attic and the present owners found them when they broke down a wall. You never married your schoolmaster, the author of the letters, because of something terrible that a person close to you did. And you spent your life regretting it.
What an extraordinary woman you were! From a sheltered upbringing in a quiet backwater, you left Corsica in 1917 to nurse at the Western Front, something that would have been unthinkable for a Corsican woman a generation earlier. But you were always deeply attached to the island and now I understand why. I feel something of that bond myself.
You had a huge influence on my grandmother, who also left Corsica in search of her dreams. One day, I will piece together the jigsaw of my family’s history. In many ways, although you are not my ancestor, you are a key part of that puzzle.
With love and thanks,
About The House at Zaronza
Set in early 20th-century Corsica and at the Western Front in World War I, The House at Zaronza is loosely inspired by a true story. Maria Orsini, the daughter of a bourgeois family in a Corsican village, and the local schoolmaster carry on a secret romance. Maria’s parents have other plans for her future and she sees her dreams crumble. Her life is played out against the backdrop of Corsica, the ‘island of beauty’, and the turmoil of World War I. This is a story about love, betrayal, loss and reconciliation in a strict patriarchal society, whose values are challenged as the world changes.
About Vanessa Couchman
Vanessa lives in France and is passionate about French and Corsican history and culture, the inspiration for her writing. The House at Zaronza is based on an intriguing true story that she came across when holidaying on the beguiling Mediterranean island of Corsica.
She is working on a sequel, set in World War II, and another novel set on Corsica during the 18th century.
Vanessa has been writing fiction since 2010. Her short stories have won, been placed and shortlisted in creative writing competitions and published in anthologies and online.
Vanessa has a degree in history from Oxford University and an MBA. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, ex-pat writing community Writers Abroad and the Parisot Writing Group.
Find Vanessa at: