Courage and Resistance Among the Champagne Bubbles: The Winemaker’s Wife by Kristin Harmel
Whether going about our lives in our own cities or visiting a place for the first time, it’s often difficult to visualize the events that unfolded in a particular area in times gone by. In the case of France, where many of the battles and tensions of the two world wars played out, it can seem almost surreal, unless you are travelling there specifically to commemorate an event, to carry out research or to focus on an aspect of the past.
This is where historical fiction can make all the difference—by illuminating for us what life must have been like for ordinary people during cataclysmic periods of history.
Kristin Harmel’s latest novel, The Winemaker’s Wife (Gallery Books, August 2019), shines a spotlight on Champagne, featuring three couples whose lives intertwined on the eve of World War II and as the war progressed. Michel inherited the champagne house Maison Chauveau when he was still in his twenties and Ines is charmed into marrying him by the promise of a fairy-tale existence on the estate. However her move there means she rarely sees her best friend Edith and Edith’s husband Edouard, who manage a cafe in Reims. Instead, Celine—the winemaker’s wife, who is part Jewish—and Theo—the winemaker at Maison Chauveau—become Ines’s regular companions and as war descends on the Champagne region, these relationships are tested and loyalties fall into question.
Meanwhile, in the 21st century, Liv travels to Champagne with her elderly grandmother, who is on a mysterious quest to connect Liv to the past. As the quest becomes clearer, the reader begins to see, through Liv’s eyes, the historical events that underlie present-day Champagne.
I asked Harmel why she chose Champagne as a setting for this novel and she shared that she fell in love with the region during her honeymoon there in 2014.
“When I first visited the Champagne area, it captured my heart; the resilience of the people through multiple wars was astonishing, and the beauty, majesty and history of the area were breathtaking. I loved that it was so different in so many ways from Paris, where I had already set two World War II-era novels. Yet Reims in particular is still a large city with cosmopolitan ways and it had a significant Nazi presence, so there were some parallels there. I particularly liked the idea that we think of champagne (the beverage) as magical and celebratory, but the history of the region is actually quite difficult and fraught with danger. The idea of there being courage, bravery, and resistance among all those sparkling bubbles really appealed to me.”
The inspiration for the story stemmed from what Harmel calls her “affinity for France and its 20th-century history”. France because she lived in Paris in her early twenties and as for World War II and the Holocaust, she credits her reading of Anne Frank’s diary during her preteen years for that focus.
“It’s been a true joy to combine two of my deepest interests in three novels (The Sweetness of Forgetting, The Room on Rue Amelie, and The Winemaker’s Wife) with a fourth (The Book of Lost Names (coming summer 2020)) in the works,” she says. “While researching the Resistance during the writing of my 2018 novel, The Room on Rue Amelie, I began to wonder whether the movement had been very active in Champagne, too. I looked into it and discovered that, in fact, the picturesque area had been a hotbed of Resistance activity, and the idea for The Winemaker’s Wife was born!”
She goes on to explain that while Champagne experienced turmoil at other periods of history (fodder for a historical novelist!), World War II is her favourite time period to write about and read about.
“I know that I’ll venture out of that era in the near future, but for now, I think it still appeals to readers because it connects them with a recent past (and their own parents or grandparents who were alive in the 1940s) and because the lessons learned during that war still feel very current today,” she says. “In addition, as I mentioned, the idea for this novel grew naturally out of the research for my previous novel, The Room on Rue Amelie, which was also set during World War II, so it wasn’t as if I chose Champagne and then chose the time period; rather, the idea came to me all at once and just made sense.”
Harmel provides readers of The Winemaker’s Wife with some interesting details around life on a champagne estate, particularly the limestone caves used for cooling the wine, which the characters of the novel use for a variety of purposes during the war (including champagne-making, because, as Harmel’s story makes clear, the industry did continue, despite the conflict).
When I asked her about her research she explains: “I returned to Champagne for a whirlwind trip of champagne house visits, winemaking tours, and meetings with historians and winemakers, which helped me add a ton of detail to the book. I also did a lot of reading about the era (and I mention all the books I used for research in the author’s note at the end of the book), including having some French-language texts translated for me, because they filled in blanks in both the champagne-making process and the 1940s history that I wasn’t able to find in English-language books. It was fascinating to learn about the process of making champagne, and I tried to insert some of that in the novel.”
And despite the upheavals of World War II and previous eras, the vineyards of Champagne are still thriving today. As Harmel writes in her author’s note, it’s “a region that has triumphed time and again over almost unimaginable odds.”
About the contributor: Claire Morris is the HNS web features editor. She served as the managing editor of the HNS journal, Solander, from 2004 to 2009, and helped to start the HNS North American conferences.