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Review: Fields of Orange – A True Welsh Love Story by Johanna Francis

19 Jun 2022 5 minute read
Fields of Orange: A True Welsh Love Story is published by Y Lolfa

Jon Gower

This is in part the tale of that moment when two people fall head over heels in love in an instant and of its many consequences.

She was younger by far and from a very different background as Johanna (Hanny) Dooyeweerd was a beautiful Dutch girl while Robert Francis was a stony broke south Wales farmer with whom she would share a hardscrabble life as well as enormous happiness.

The differences in background went way beyond language.

Hanny lived a well heeled life with her family in a baronial, six story house in Amsterdam which was home to nine children and several grand pianos .

Here they hid Jews during the war when all of the city went through the hardships of what was known as the Hunger Winter – weh. The entire city was deliberately starved.

There was also the fear of the dark attention of the Gestapo – whose headquarters were directly opposite – the family taking great risks to support the Dutch resistance to the Nazi grip on the country.

Jewish people were forced to wear the yellow Star of David and were sometimes arbitrarily shot in the street, which the children witnessed on their way to school.

Stave off hunger

It was a testing upbringing for all the Dooyeweerd’s material wealth. People ate tulips to survive or boiled beetroot in water or worms from the garden to stave off hunger.

A beggar at the door slumped down dead before they had time to give him anything.

They lived in fear of German raids, with three lads hidden in one place as well as a Jewish lady and her 13 year old daughter in another.

Hanny’s aloof and studiedly distant father, Professor Herman Dooyeweerd was one of the best respected philosophers of his day and the author of 20 books.

So it was little wonder he raised more than a quizzical eyebrow when presented with his daughter’s beau. Neither of them knew how impecunious he truly was, nor that he only chose to have a bath once a year.

The two lovers first met when Hanny was staying with her sister and her husband. The man who would be her future husband was selling eggs, and she saw ‘a rather scruffy and dishevelled tall man with jet black hair and a tanned outdoor face’ but  ‘Oh boy was he handsome.’

He asked her out for the following day and so the 18 year old girl’s life-path with the 33 year man was mapped out for her, unbeknown to both.

Deprivations of war

But after a wedding as high end and high profile as the deprivations of war allowed the two of them moved to the farm originally known as ‘Persondy’ near Mamheilad, Pontypool. Where. The place was very old, ‘very dark and musty, a biyt like an old church.’

There was a sulphurous smelling Rayburn and no curtains, the antithesis almost of a country idyll, a place of cow mud and muck and where tadpoles sometimes came through the cold water tap, or, worse, tasted of the dead sheep that had fallen into the well which supplied the house. It wasn’t the ‘Good Life’ but love helped them deal with the tests and trials.

As she got used to the place she met local characters such as Dai Mountain, who was as ‘strong as an ox’ who dug out a vegetable plot for them which they later referred to as ‘Wembley.’

There was harvest and therefore Harvest Suppers and Hanny learned to make home-made wine. But there were financial worries galore that bred more of the same so they sold some cows only to find that was far from enough.

They then sold their land, which gave them a financial cushion until they started raising chickens, at one point keeping 1000 chicks in the hall!

They later kept pigs, gathering left-over school food by way of swill and eventually they got into the mini-bus business, which happily succeeded.

Zest for life

Theirs was a happy marriage which only ended when Bob’s health failed and he eventually passed away. But as her daughter Jantien recalls, her mother’s zest for life continued unabated:

Even when she was 83 years old she could drink us all under the table and never had a hangover, and was then always up early for breakfast. She was an amazing woman of two worlds, a tough and hardworking farmer’s wife and, when the occasion arose, she would crack open the wine, put on the high heels and glamopur and dance the knight away. She was a knockout.

Despite all the hard graft, the knockbacks and tribulations Hanny managed to write a private account of life even as she was living it, on which this book is largely based.

It introduces us to a spirited, beautiful and resourceful woman who fell in love with a Welshman and very much stayed in love.

This honest, crisp and clear autobiography gives us their lives in telling detail and is itself an unshowy, late celebration of the ample joy they found together.

Fields of Orange: A True Welsh Love Story by Johanna Francis (with Jantien Powell and Alan Francis) is published by Y Lolfa. It is available through all good bookshops or you can buy a copy here.

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