Style and the art of writing in France
Helena Frith Powell moves beyond beauty and chick-lit with her latest novel - and tells Jessica Knipe how moving to France has changed her life forever
Matching bra and knickers – check. Daytime-appropriate lipgloss – check. Driving through the picture-perfect vineyards of the Languedoc on my way to Gabian should be relaxing. But the only thing on my mind as I prepare to meet beauty journalist, four-time novelist and anti-ageing guru Helena Frith Powell is whether or not my skin looks sufficiently cleansed.
Gracefully brushing past the olive branches and lemon trees of her impeccable French country home, Frith Powell is manicured and blow-dried to perfection. I shouldn’t be all that surprised, since the concluding words of her successful guide to being stylish Two lipsticks and a lover are that the foremost thing to do to become more French (read 'more elegant') is to get a good hairdresser and manicurist. She wrote the book, and eight others, while bringing up three children, writing columns for The Times and the Daily Mail, and running a blog reviewing beauty products (www.beautyorbeast.uk).
As it happens, today her hair is glossy and bright from the addition of “silverlights”, a peppering of grey streaks and the latest of her anti-ageing experiments for the Daily Mail.
The theory is that there comes a certain age when it defies belief to have a head of perfectly coloured hair. Grey streaks provide the transition to the day the grey naturally takes over entirely. Frith Powell knows all about these techniques – her mastermind topic is beauty, elegance and that je ne sais quoi that French women seem to be born with. After many years spent in the heart of the French countryside, around 45 minutes from the nearest city, Frith Powell has become a veritable expert on French style, and especially on the difference between French and English women.
From chick-lit to art history intrigue
Her novels (Love in a Warm Climate, The Ex-factor) could be described as easy-going chick-lit, but Frith Powell’s latest novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, has a lot more to it than the usual “woman meets man and falls in love”.
This is more “50 shades of the Da Vinci Code”: the attractive man here is more of the thinking woman’s crumpet, and although the same usual topics abound – women scorned, adultery, passion reborn – a generous dose of added intellect and art history intrigue have been thrown in to the mix.
“I’m not sure anyone would ever describe me as intellectual, ever!” laughs Frith Powell. “I would say that The Arnolfini Marriage is more faux-brow than intellectual. It was a book that took a long time to write, because I had the luxury to think about what I was writing. Other things were more stable in my life, the children were older... I remember when I first started writing books and the children were tiny, every half hour was so precious. If I travel by train now I think ‘good chance to have a kip’, but back then I wouldn’t waste a second.”
Now working on another departure, a thriller, as well as having applied to study for an MA in Creative Writing at Oxford, Frith Powell is slowly shifting her focus to more serious writing. “It’s time now to really concentrate and get on with it,” she says. “If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen; but we’ll see.”
As I speak to Frith Powell about The Arnolfini Marriage, I realise that she is everywhere in the book. Each page echoes the script of her life, from the pair of trousers that her villainous husband character puts on over his trousers because he thinks his legs are too thin (something Frith Powell used to do as a child) to the matching underwear that the protagonist's mother feels she should wear at all times after reading a book about being more French...
The other omnipresent force in the book is Frith Powell’s own father, to whom to book is dedicated. Frith Powell was born to a Swedish mother and an Italian father, although she was raised in England from the age of two after her parents separated. Still, winks to her “biologico” abound, from the protagonist’s quirk of solving any particularly challenging problem by “asking Bach” to her love interest quoting Dante’s fifth canto to her, in Italian of course. “La bocca mi bascio tutto tremante” sounds so much more romantic – and erudite – than its English equivalent would have been.
The novel covers love, yes, but also art, and motherhood and how strange it is to use your brain again through the fog of exhaustion... There’s football (“because I’m a mad Chelsea fan”), and there’s the husband, William. “I might have to write a book just about William,” says Frith Powell, pensively, adding with a grin: “My husband kept saying, ‘I seem to bear a huge resemblance to the evil husband...’ Well, I’d answer – write what you know!”
The book certainly covers what Frith Powell knows. And the places she has been – it takes place between Oxford (which happens to be Frith Powell’s UK base) and its boarding schools and libraries, Lille and its windy train station, and even Pézenas, a neighbouring village to Frith Powell’s French home, from where the heroine’s husband brings back a bottle of wine from producer Jean-Claude Mas.
A man on a boat
Oddly, the decision for Frith Powell and her family to move to France stemmed from a trip to Thailand. “My husband, Rupert, met this guy on a boat. Which sounds vaguely dodgy!” she laughs. “But this man, who is now our neighbour and very good friend, was already living near Pézenas. Rupert happened to be going there for some other random reason, so he went to see his new friend, phoned me up and said, ‘you won’t believe what an amazing life this is, it’s incredible... The way he lives, the way they eat, the culture, the lifestyle, it’s all amazing. We should think about this seriously.’ That was in 1999.”
The couple were already working from home as journalists, so it was an easy transition to move the office from Sussex to France. Not so easy to find the ideal home, however – they looked for a house for a long time, with a very specific idea of what they wanted in mind. “What we wanted was... this,” says Frith Powell, spreading out her arms to a horizon of rolling hills, devoid of any construction. The only sound is birdsong, and the happy chatter of Frith Powell’s children playing a game of Monopoly in the background. Although she had a daughter and two stepchildren in her care at the time of the move, as well as being pregnant with her second child, it’s this seclusion that Frith Powell was looking for. “I wanted to be completely in the middle of nowhere. It was probably a bit nuts... But we had this idyllic idea of it.”
After a year of searching, the family was about to compromise and get something just vaguely isolated. They drove up from Gabian to see the house that they now live in, and before even reaching the front door, they had a good feeling. The road that leads to it leaves the village before crossing a stream, at which point it is completely engulfed in nature. The house emerges, solitary and tranquil, from within the trees. “The French lady who owned the place was going about, showing me all of the cupboards,” says Frith Powell, “and I remember thinking, ‘Nothing will stop me buying this house now that I’ve seen it.’ It was real love at first sight, and we still love it as much today.”
Despite only knowing a little French when they first moved in, they never felt any antagonism from the French inhabitants. “In fact one of the first things that happened, when we were walking to the boulangerie,” recalls Frith Powell, “was that a man walking the other way came up to ask if we were the people who had bought the house on the hill. He asked where we were from, and when we said England, he just said ‘Oh! So, not from Paris!’ with a sigh of relief.”
The view from the inside
As a journalist, being in a new country provided Frith Powell with plenty of new observations. Her style and beauty background naturally made her gravitate towards French women, learning for example that “French women are thinner than UK women by at least 10 kilos (because they know when to stop, and never gorge on anything).”
Frith Powell also came to the conclusion that “French girls are innately (or educationally) elegant and perfect.” As a mother of two daughters herself, did she apply her findings to her own parenting? “I’ve tried,” she sighs. “They have their own style. They are in a hippy phase at the moment which is so unlike me. So far removed from me... But at least it is a style!” And what about the boy? “It’s interesting, it’s now becoming so much more important for men as well. I wanted to write a book about male beauty. I’ve taught him the basics, although he still never listens to me about sunscreen.”
Raising kids in the village helped them integrate into the local community. But Frith Powell’s writing career also gave the family a chance to find their place. “We were always known as ‘les anglais’, and geographically we’re slightly removed from the village. But, having the French Mistress column in The Times helped me to look at things in a different way.” Seeing a new culture through a visitor’s eyes made Frith Powell engage with it more and seek out and investigate the interesting quirks that everyone wants to read about.
In fact being an outsider helps both of the couple’s work. One of the first things that Frith Powell’s husband Rupert Wright did when he got here was write a book called Notes from the Languedoc. “It’s interesting to look at anything from a stranger’s point of view,” says Frith Powell. “We were very open to that coming here. As journalists we have always gone into places to learn and write about them. The journalism feeds the non-fiction.” The fiction, on the other hand, is completely separate. “If I had a choice, financially, to live just from the fiction, I would do that,” says Frith Powell, wistfully.
The fact that Frith Powell is still striving for perfection, in her beauty regime as well as her already well-established and successful writing career, betrays the almost obsessive nature that motivates her. Even in this completely secluded setting, where most of us would spend our days lounging around in our pyjamas, Frith Powell refuses steadfastly to let herself go.
“My husband jokes that he’s going to bury me in unmatched underwear as revenge,” she laughs. “I suppose I don’t really feel happy unless I’m feeling good within what I wear. I wake up and brush my teeth and go through the whole cleansing routine and I can’t really think until that is all done. It’s deeply superficial and I’d be the first to admit that I am quite obsessive about it. But that tendency is what drives me in all sorts of ways.”
Although now that the obsession has turned to fiction writing, Frith Powell’s morning cleansing ritual gets done to the sound of great literature on audiobook. “I’ve found that that has really helped my writing,” says Frith Powell. “If you listen, you can hear the sound of brilliance. First you think ‘I’ll just give up because I’ll never be this good’, but then you realise that you don’t have to be that good, but what you can do is recognise a good sentence. It’s an exercise.”
Perhaps it’s a sign that Frith Powell’s children are growing up. Perhaps it’s the tranquil French setting that has helped her centre her thoughts. But at the end of The Arnolfini Marriage, the narrator, who admits that “I just can’t bear not to be liked”, starts to realise that she is “getting in touch with my ‘so what if you don’t approve’ gene.” Maybe this is something for the novelist to bear in mind in order to progress into the next chapter of her writing career...
At this point in the conversation, Frith Powell calls over to her husband to say that she will join him on his walk. “Give me a minute, I just need to go and get my lipgloss...” Let’s not forget that this is a writer who penned a booked called To Hell in High Heels. Letting go of hang-ups in the name of her craft, yes, but a life without elegance? Jamais!