Late on a summer afternoon in the very heart of rural France, in a small, centuries-old house newly abandoned to its ghosts, Gillian Tindall came upon a cache of letters dating from the 1860s. Neatly folded and carefully tucked away, all were addressed to the village innkeeper's daughter, Celestine. All but one were proposals of marriage. Celestine Chaumette (1844-1933) was to reject each of these suitors to wed another; yet she preserved the letters, keeping them throughout her long life. Something about the letters, about the woman who had so clearly cherished them, fired the historian's curiosity and the novelist's imagination. With a house in Chassignolles, Celestine's village, Ms. Tindall would spend years searching in dusty archives and farmhouse attics, probing the memories and myths of the men and women from the village and the surrounding countryside. The treasure she unearthed reaches far beyond the mystery of Celestine to tell of a vanished way of life, of a century of revolutionary change - and of the strange persistence, despite all, of the past.