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A 1672 trompe l'oeil by Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts
A 1672 trompe l'oeil by Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts Credit: Getty Contributor/GETTY IMAGES

Gillian Tindall is the master of miniaturist history - but her meandering memoir The Pulse Glass and the Beat of Other Hearts left Francis Wilson cold

<br> Gillian Tindall has been called a “master of miniaturist history”, which makes her sound like Jane Austen, composing her novels on “little piece of ivory”. She writes about homes, hamlets and ordinary lives, and her books are carefully wrought acts of restoration.

Forty years ago, in The Fields Beneath, Tindall traced, with forensic accuracy, the history of Kentish Town, the north London borough that began as a pre-Roman packhorse track before becoming a medieval parish, a Tudor village, an 18th-century pleasure garden and then, in the 19th century, a working-class district populated by piano factories. Today, Kentish Town is solidly bourgeois, and Tindall, who has lived here for more than half a century, is regarded by the locals as royalty. So respected is she in these parts, where I too happen to live, that the vegan café at the bottom of my road is called, in her honour, The Fields Beneath, and copies of her book are propped up next to the plates of hummus and rocket on rye.

Tindall also owned, for 40 years, a house in a French village called Chassignolles, about which she wrote another much admired book, Célestine: Voices from a French Village. Célestine was born from the chance discovery of a cache of love letters dating from the early 1860s. Addressed to Célestine Chaumette, the daughter of a local innkeeper, the letters – from several different men – all proposed marriage. Who was this Célestine, and why did she keep these letters? Intrigued, Tindall recovered the story not only of the temptress and her suitors but of a now-vanished rural world.

In The Pulse Glass, Tindall, now aged 81, reflects on a lifetime’s interest in historical recovery. The book begins with the sudden death of her younger brother, whose ashes she scatters along the railway line, now disused, that he had once loved, and ends with an account of her mother’s suicide, 65 years earlier.

Tindall is hostile towards psychoanalysis, but it seems clear that her mother’s mysterious decision to take her own life (she left no note, no apology, no tokens of affection, no explanation) set in motion the daughter’s desire to recover hidden stories. Tindall’s mother, the novelist Ursula Orange, moves like a shade through these pages, and so too does Tindall’s childhood self. “What will survive of us,” wrote Larkin, “is love”, but, in Tindall’s case, “My love for Ursula has not survived. It died, I think, with her on that cold garage floor.” For Tindall, what survives of us is, at least for the moment, things.

Historian Gillian Tindall pictured at her home in Kentish Town Credit: Rii Schroer

Trading on the popularity of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, the publisher describes The Pulse Glass as: “A personal and global history in objects.” But there is nothing global about this book, which is rooted in England and France, and nor is it a personal history in objects. There is a good deal of personal history – Tindall’s mother, father, aunt, grandparents – but the objects that appear then disappear just as quickly, which is in keeping with her central trope.

Things, Tindall argues, are ephemeral: few have a lifespan longer than 150 years. The blanket in which her baby brother was swaddled, which Tindall wore as a shawl before wrapping around her own baby boy and, later, around her grandson, has now vanished. It may be lining a bird’s nest somewhere, it may have turned into a cleaning rag. What was once the best furniture will one day be firewood, and many a portrait of a much-loved wife is “reduced down and down the generations to a Lady Unknown”. In Mudlarking, a wonderfully fruitful book published earlier this summer, Lara Maiklem argues the opposite case. Nothing, in her experience, is ever lost: scavenging on the foreshore of the Thames, she finds Regency buckles, Roman pipes and Mesolithic flints. The river reveals, with every tide, the historical flow of the city.

“Notoriously”, Tindall writes, “people avoid thinking about the inescapable fact of their own death.” Not any more you won’t, once you’ve read this memento mori. Our lives, Tindall says, are built upon layers of loss, and those things that are not lost change their meanings.

The pulse glass of the title belonged to her great-great-grandfather, a Dublin doctor. A piece of medical equipment once used to measure a patient’s pulse rate, it now represents to Tindall the fate of an Anglo-Irish tribe “doomed to extinction”. The ugly religious effigies she finds on the mantlepiece of a 14th-century castle are, she says, devoid of any value other than the fact that they belonged to dead relations: “The only possible message they bore was the of narrowness of late 19th-century French provincial piety.”

Tindall reflects on lost railway lines, lost letters, and the bleakness of a future in which hard drives will provide historical evidence. She free-associates from purgatory to photographs, The Paston Letters, false memory syndrome, suicide, and population pressure – because chance connections are what interest her. “Even some of the names by which countries are commonly known today are as come-by-chance as if they themselves were broken shards, randomly picked upon the beaches of time.”

America, for example, is named after Amerigo Vespucci, who happened upon New England in the 16th century; Britain is thought to derive from the Phoenician word for tin. “I return to St Cuthbert,” Tindall announces, at the start of Chapter 5, having ended Chapter 4 despairing over the internet. “I have already mentioned”, she says in Chapter 11, having noted the disappearance of the Fleet river in Kentish Town, “that the decorative plate, valued and preserved in the Camp-Montague household because some forgotten forebear had given it to another, looks like a ‘fairing’ from the days when fields began just off the Mile End Road.”

The Pulse Glass Credit: Vintage Publishing

In passages like this, Tindall forgets that there is a reader at the receiving end, trying to keep up. And when she does remember us, the condescension is startling: “In an earlier paragraph I see that I have cited the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as if I assume that all readers will be familiar with it.”

Reflecting on her oeuvre, Tindall returns to Célestine and repeats the story of the chance discovery on which the book was based. She also describes her decision to sell their house in Célestine’s village. “But how”, one friend asked me, “can you bear to leave a place that has been so important to you – and you to us – a place that you have written about, have really put on the map?” She can bear to leave, Tindall loftily replies, because her work here is complete. “By my research and the publication and success of my book, Célestine, in French, as well as English, I knew that I had in a sense given people’s own fugitive pasts back to them… Time has, in its inexorable way, moved on.”

The same might be said of this chilly and elegiac volume. Tindall has returned to her family their fugitive pasts, and readers will return to Tindall’s earlier work.     

The Pulse Glass and the Beat of Other Hearts is available on the Telegraph Bookshop for £14.99