Roast Beef and Frogs' Legs

Michelle is the perfect combination of the British and the French. In France, the British are described derisively as rosbif ("roast beef") because they go bright red in the sun. The French are despised by the British as "frogs" because the national dish is a subtle delicacy of frogs' legs fried in butter. In fact, although both countries have made war consistently over the last 1,000 years, the European Union and the horrors of the two World Wars have brought the French and British much closer together. Michelle, of course, is a confirmed European and when she was younger, was proud to wear a T-shirt emblazoned "Yes to Europe."

Michelle was born in Quimper, historic capital of Brittany, and home of Arthurian legend. Her mother, a Breton lady who had been raised in the French colony of Madagascar, married an Englishman of Irish descent with a Breton name: Geoffrey Elcoat. Elcoat in Breton and Welsh means "of the woods." In fact, the name came via Ireland. One of Michelle's ancestors is an O'Neill of Kinsale, who is said to have been a princess of Ireland, also had descendants whose familiarity with Irish whiskey imposes upon us the silence of discretion.

On both sides of the family, Michelle is descended from strong women. Both her grandmothers had degrees from universities at a time when few women had any education at all.


Marie Garin, seen here with her parents in 1918 when her father was still in uniform from the First World War, became principal of the women's teacher training college in Tananarive, capital of Madagascar during the French colonial period

Marie Garin married a very brilliant but somewhat introverted mathematician and natural scientist called Emile Duval. "Mimile," as his elder brother Tonton Maurice used to call him whenever he wanted to annoy him (which was every time they met), was always extremely conscious of his social status. He never left the house without shirt, tie, suit and felt hat, all in exciting shades of gray. This was partly a function of his introverted personality but mainly represented the leap accorded by universal primary education in France, which allowed people like the Duval family to rise from the working class to the educated class during the early twentieth century.


On the sixth of April 1921, Emile Duval married Marie Garin in Lorient, a port on the south Breton coast where Emile had recently been elected the youngest local councillor in Brittany.

Both Emile and Marie were working as primary school teachers, Instituteur. This was an occupation which carried immense social prestige in those early days of universal primary education. However, Emile was constantly seeking greater social status and respect, and this he found by joining the colonial service and moving to Madagascar. When he retired at the early age of 55, he was the running the island's entire elementary education system in a very colonial way. They had one daughter named Yvonne.


Yvonne and her parents, with friends, on a picnic in Madagascar in 1934.

Yvonne's parents retired to Morgat on the coast of Finistere, where their two grand-daughters, Suzanne and Michelle, knew them as "Pépé" and "Mémé." Emile never forgave his elder brother Maurice - who had been a commander in the French navy - for being awarded the ribbon of the French Legion d'Honneur, which Emile coveted and failed to win because Madagascar came under Vichy control during the war. Madagascar was liberated by British forces including the Kenyan African rifles. Lt. Geoffrey Elcoat of the KAR found the young and virginal Yvonne Duval having tea with her mother in a cake shop in Tamatave. She became his war booty and they married in the north Breton city of St. Brieuc in June, 1946.


The marriage took place at the end of the war while Emile was still in Madagascar, and the whole family signed him a letter.

Geoffrey and Yvonne had two daughters. Suzanne is head of Modern Languages at the Queen Elizabeth School in Faversham, Kent. Like her father (who wrote a Ph.D. thesis for Leeds University on Medieval French and Breton Literature and the Arthurian Legends), Suzanne is a gifted linguist and brilliant teacher of French and German. The second daughter, Michelle, inherited a love of travel and a love of Africa. Michelle and her sister provide an ideal synthesis of French culture, language and cuisine with British rational education and phlegmatic approach to life.


Four generations of strong Breton women in Finistere beside a sacred Celtic sanctuary

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