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Guests round the swimming pool at the Hotel du Cap Eden-Roc, Antibes, France, August 1976. Photo: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

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A Place in the Sun

Our French Riviera reading list, inspired by the Crawleys' travels in the new movie, "Downton Abbey: A New Era,” features 18 titles set in the summer playground of the rich and famous / BY Nathalie Atkinson / May 26th, 2022


In the new movie Downton Abbey: A New Era, the dowager countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith) mysteriously inherits a villa in the South of France. To evoke the glamorous milieu, the cast filmed on location at Villa Rocabella, an opulent Belle Époque mansion in the hills above St. Tropez. As his Lordship (Hugh Bonneville) details in the film, the travel itinerary from England to the breathtaking enclave on the French Riviera – the Côte d’Azur, as it’s known in France – involves crossing from Dover to Calais and a stint aboard the luxurious Blue Train. By 1928, the year of the Crawley family visit and the publication of The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie, the Riviera was a summer playground for bohemian artists, writers, royals and the just plain rich.

This wasn’t always the case. In the 1830s, British politician Lord Brougham made the temperate South of France into a winter escape from the dreary English weather. That seasonal migration grew to include Queen Victoria, who fell in love with Menton on her first visit in 1882 and returned to the winter resort area often over 20 years.

It took a wealthy American ex-pat couple, Gerald and Sara Murphy, to create the vogue for summers on the Riviera. In the early 1920s, during construction on their new villa, the charismatic pair convinced a nearby hotel to stay open for the “off” season. That remote hideaway (with its pool dynamited out of a basalt cliff above the bay) is now the exclusive Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, which has since welcomed the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, Ella Fitzgerald and the Kennedys.

The Riviera was also the scene of the romance between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson and, post-war, became the favourite vacation spot of Hollywood celebrities (and, in 1946, home of the annual star-studded spectacle of the Cannes film festival) as well as of European royalty.

Between the sun-drenched landscape and breathtaking views, it’s easy to see what has captivated everyone from Queen Victoria to the fictional Crawleys. Lest there be any doubt, here are 18 titles that capture the glamour and allure of the French Riviera in its heyday.

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1Villa America by Liza Klaussmann

This historical novel by a former New York Times journalist was my No. 1 summer read when it appeared in 2012. It paints a gorgeous portrait of the Murphys, the sybaritic Americans credited with inventing the Riviera’s summer season. They hosted the Fitzgeralds, Hemingways, Cole Porter and Picasso at their Cap d’Antibes villa; this novel will make you want to seek out Living Well is the Best Revenge, the classic 1971 chronicle by New Yorker staff writer Calvin Tomkins about the glamorous couple (whom he met and befriended) and their Lost Generation friends.


2Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The above-mentioned Murphys were Fitzgerald’s model for this novel about a sophisticated couple with a strained marriage. As A Gentleman in Moscow author Amor Towles points out in his introduction to the recent Scribner edition (which reprises the elegant original 1934 cover illustration): “Fitzgerald revisits the socioeconomic milieu of The Great Gatsby, but in a manner more intricate, more intriguing, and in many ways more rewarding.”


3Perfume from Provence by Lady Winifred Fortescue

Before Peter Mayle (A Year in Provence) was even born, there was this instant 1935 bestseller by Lady Fortescue. The actress-turned-writer married into courtly circles and lived with her husband, John, the Royal Librarian and Archivist, at Windsor Castle before they relocated to Provence for health reasons. The chronicle about gardening – and being at the mercy of local builders during endless renovations on their “little golden house” in the hills near Grasse – has witty illustrations by E.H. Shepard (best known for Winnie-the-Pooh), and was republished in 1992 to similar acclaim.


4The French Riviera in the 1920s by Xavier Girard

This splashy visual history from French luxury publisher Assouline is worth the splurge. Girard, a French art historian and Chevalier of Arts and Letters, has compiled the ultimate escapist photo biography – a curated selection of graphics and vintage images (like photographs by Jacques Henri Lartigue and Slim Aarons of boldface names splashing in the Mediterranean and lounging in the sun) – that perfectly conjures the period’s legendarily stylish decadence.


5The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway died in 1961, but left behind this uncompleted novel, set in the Côte d’Azur of his 1920s youth, which was published in 1986. Covering a few sun-dappled months of the lives of a newlywed couple in an intense love triangle, it’s a modern psychosexual drama. There are distinct autobiographical elements – like the husband, a young American writer, whose machismo mirrors Hemingway’s own celebrity persona.


6The Riviera Set by Mary S. Lovell

The famous Modernist villa near Cannes formerly known as the Château de l’Horizon may now be the property of the Saudi royal family, but it was originally designed for retired American actress Maxine Elliott, a prolific and generous hostess to guests such as Edward VIII and Noël Coward. The 1932 villa, which sits on the rocky shoreline and has a swimming pool chute that disgorges into the sea (frequent visitor Winston Churchill went down it backwards), was later owned by Aly Khan – the Pakistani prince and playboy son of the Aga Khan – who vacationed there with wife, Rita Hayworth. Oh, the stories the walls could tell! And British biographer Lovell does, complete with glittering parties, up to the present day.


7The Rock Pool by Cyril Connolly

The famed English literary critic and essayist’s only novel is a satire of the dissolute and aimless British upper-class inhabitants of the fictional resort town of Trou-sur-Mer (a stand-in for Cagnes-sur-Mer, between Cannes and Nice). It’s a fitting antidote to the envy-inducing titles on this list, as well as a notable cultural artifact: due to its brazen queer content, it was considered obscene when it was published in 1936.


8Chanel’s Riviera by Anne de Courcy

A few years ago, the company Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel founded purchased her 1929 villa, La Pausa, near Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. One of the 20th-century fashion pioneer’s several homes, the streamlined, all-white villa is an exemplar of minimalist Art Deco purity and the only one designed and decorated to her specifications. De Courcy, a prolific journalist and socio-cultural historian, not only recounts Chanel’s lavish lifestyle of the 1930s, but charts the shifting mood of summers as the Second World War steadily approaches and British nationals flee the Riviera, and what the war was like for the denizens who remained.


9To Catch a Thief by David Dodge

The delights of watching Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in a coy cat-and-mouse game in the hills and beaches of Nice are undeniable, but so is the pleasure of reading the original book. American ex-pat Dodge’s 1952 novel is the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s breezy 1955 caper about dashing former circus acrobat and jewel thief John Robie, known as Le Chat (the Cat), who has a meeting of the minds with a visiting heiress. Though it differs from the movie adaptation in several key ways, it still takes you beyond estate gates and into high-stakes casinos.


10Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

Opening in 1956 against the backdrop of Grace Kelly’s impeding fairytale wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco, this romantic historical novel imagines an unlikely decades-long friendship that forms between Kelly and a young perfumer after the Hollywood icon ducks into her Cannes shop to evade an aggressive paparazzo. With plentiful descriptions of vistas, scents and the glamorous milieu, it’s a feast for the senses.

 


11The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr

This 11th instalment of the late Scottish-born crime writer’s acclaimed Bernie Gunther series has the world-weary former Berlin detective working under an assumed name as a Riviera hotel concierge in the 1950s. Think: The Night Manager, only it’s more hard-boiled, post-war intrigue that rewinds to the late 1930s and features both Cambridge spies and literary luminaries like W. Somerset Maugham (whose Villa Mauresque figures as a location).


12Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Most of my selections are of the area’s earlier heyday, but I make an exception for Levy’s Booker-nominated novel, because the British author turns the bourgeois vacation drama on its head. Published a decade ago, and set in the early 1990s French countryside, it’s about a shared villa rental holiday with friends that goes awry. As these things often do.


13August is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brien

For other notable reads from the past, I recommend Irish writer O’Brien’s lesser-known novel, August is a Wicked Month, a gem from 1965 about a disenchanted London housewife, searching for her authentic self, who embarks on what she thinks will be a sexually liberating summer holiday to the South of France. Cooking for Picasso by Camille Aubray, about a young woman who works as a cook for Pablo Picasso in 1936, is such a delectable read that none other than beloved chef Jacques Pépin blurbed it when it came out in 2016. Resistance is futile when it comes to whodunnits set in this luscious locale, whether it’s Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train or Death on the Riviera, John Bude’s golden age detective novel that sends his London DI to the sunlit region (recently reissued in the British Library Crime Classics series). For books of a more recent vintage, try Not Quite Nice by British actress and Riviera resident Celia Imrie of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel fame, who talked to Zed Books about her foray into novels. Similarly, Akin is Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue’s cross-generational adventure set in Nice and, as she told Zed Books when it came out in 2019, is about family history and long-buried secrets.


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