On the first of June 1905, the 18 year old Henri-Alban Fournier (pen-name 'Alain-Fournier') saw a woman with a white parasol on the steps of the Grand Palais. He took a riverboat down the Seine, following her to her lodgings and for the next week he tried to attract her attention but a week later, by the church of Saint-Germain des Près, Yvonne de Qui退vrecourt dashed his hopes of a romance saying "we are children...what's the use ?"
A month after this encounter, Fournier's parents sent him to London, where he worked at Sandersons wallpaper factory for the grand father of the DJ Annie Nightingale. The letters he sent back to his childhood friend Jacques Rivière explain why he found English women shocking and show him working out what kind of writer he wanted to become. They exchanged views about Wagner, Dickens, the pre-Raphaelites and eventually both got jobs at the Nouvelle Revue Française.
8 years later, after tracking her with a detective, he met up with the now married Yvonne, just as he was about the publish Le Grand Meaulnes. In the novel she is re-imagined as Yvonne de Galais, first seen by the adventurer Meaulnes at a fete in a house in the woods - the lost estate.
Alain-Fournier began work on another novel and a play but war broke out and on 22 September 1914, having fought for only a few weeks, he was killed in action south of Verdun. Reported missing with 20 of his comrades-in-arms, his body was found in 1991 in a mass grave where German soldiers had buried him.
Producer: Robyn Read
Readings by Philip Franks from a translation by Frank Davison.
Julian Barnes and Hermione Lee visit locations that inspired Henri Alain-Fournier's work.