Emile Zola and the thyme border.

I’ve talked before about how Gustave Caillebotte (1848 –1894), the French impressionist changed my attitude to Dahlias and how Beverly Nichols’ the English between-the-wars writer turned me onto Heliborous. Well this is another literary reference for the garden – this time homage to the French writer Emile Zola.

I love Zola and the slightly earlier Balzac and about this time of the year usually read something by one of them, a couple of years back it was The Fat & the Thin (Le Ventre de Paris) – set in part in the Paris vegetable markets at Les Halles designed by the French architect Victor Baltard in the 1870s but long since demolished (see below)

Zola is remarkably descriptive but perhaps not so often read today. Therefore in order order to encourage a summer Zola revival – the opening of The Fat and Thin (condensed) goes like this:

Madame Francois’s horse, Balthazar, an animal that was far too fat led the van. He was plodding on, half asleep and wagging his ears, when
 suddenly, on reaching the Rue de Longchamp, he quivered with fear and
 came to a dead stop.

The horse has stopped in front of what seems to be a body lying in the middle of the road – he is assumed to be either drunk or dead and Mde Francios is contemplating how to haul him into the gutter so that she might pass with her cart of vegetables.

Meantime, the man on the road had opened his eyes. He looked at Madame
Francois with a startled air, but did not move. She herself now thought
 that he must indeed be drunk.

“You mustn’t stop here,” she said to him, “or you’ll get run over and

Then, with an effort and an anxious expression, he added: “I was going
to Paris; I fell down, and don’t remember any more.’

Madame Francois could now see him more distinctly, and he was truly a
 pitiable object, with his ragged black coat and trousers, through the
 rents in which you could espy his scraggy limbs. Underneath a black
cloth cap, which was drawn low over his brows, as though he were afraid
 of being recognised, could be seen two large brown eyes, gleaming with
 peculiar softness in his otherwise stern and harassed countenance. It 
seemed to Madame Francois that he was in far too famished a condition to
have got drunk. “My name’s Florent, I come from a distance,” replied the stranger, with 

Florent, the hero of the novel, eventually gets a job at the market and it is when Zola describes a later meeting with Madame and conjuours up the promise of a rest in her herb garden

Those rainy mornings greatly worried Florent, who thought about Madame 
Francois. He always managed to slip away and get a word with her. But 
he never found her at all low-spirited. She shook herself like a poodle,
 saying that she was quite used to such weather, and was not made of
 sugar, to melt away beneath a few drops of rain. However, he made her
 seek refuge for a few minutes in one of the covered ways, and frequently
even took her to Monsieur Lebigre’s, where they had some hot wine
 together. While she with her peaceful face beamed on him in all 
friendliness, he felt quite delighted with the healthy odour of the
 fields which she brought into the midst of the foul market atmosphere. She exhaled a scent of earth, hay, fresh air, and open skies.

“You must come to Nanterre, my lad,” she said to him, “and look at my
 kitchen garden. I have put borders of thyme everywhere. How bad your
 villainous Paris does smell!”

There it was. I went out and planted a border of thyme around the central part of my vegetable garden. It grew quickly, flowers well, responds to a trim and until the chickens grew large, protected my lettuces from harm. Now there is layer of netting as well.

Every time I’m in the vegetable garden, I think of the unfortunate Florent and of Madame Francois’ kind offer and then breathe in the aroma of thyme.


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4 Responses to Emile Zola and the thyme border.

  1. graciouslyyours says:

    Dear Decor Extremus

    What type of thyme do you recommend for such an orderly border? My thyme, while looking lucious and gorgeous, is very much a rampant happy ground-cover. Is there a ‘special’ type?

    Wishing you all the best for the New Year
    Graciously Yours

    • Editor says:

      Ah – good question. I suspect that most thyme variants are recent – I cant imagine Zola or Madame Francois having access to such things a ‘pizza thyme.’ Nope this is the standard upright thyme – not the sprawling ground cover. I was fortunate that the garden centre I went to was selling it in punnets of six and not at per herb price.

      Some thymes I’ve had in the past seem to have been quite short lived – in this case I think the shearing it gets helps longevity

      • graciouslyyours says:

        I see. While not a post-modern ‘pizza thyme’, mine is definitely a sprawling thyme, indeed rabidly so. Did Zola or Madame Francois have anything to say about the suitability of sage for borders?

  2. Editor says:

    Well no. However I think there is an important distinction to be made between a border and a hedge. I could’ve sworn Madame F had a thyme hedge – but when I went back to the original text to write the posting – I noted it was a border. Now I’m not sure that you could hedge sage – in terms of any clipped architectural form. However a sage border – yes – indeed I have 3 sage bushes in a short row – so these could easily be a border.

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