Between 1940 and 1944, France was partly ruled by a new regime established in the town of Vichy, under the presidency of WWI hero Marshal Philippe Pétain.
The Vichy government collaborated to a considerable extent with Nazi Germany, thus securing a degree of independence for the Free Zone. Pétain's government had some theoretical authority in the northern Occupied Zone as well, but the German Army were the primary governing and policing power north of the demarcation line.
Vichy was chosen for the seat of the new government for its proximity to Paris, its modern telephone exchange, and its abundant availability of hotel accommodation. The town has never quite shrugged off the collaboration stain.
Much of the book takes place in the fictional town of Lavaurette, described as "a place that would not die": "In the years since the Great War it had declined from the character and status of a small town to that of an overgrown village."
We are told that the hôtel de ville (town hall) is "an ambitious Second Empire building with fine tiled eaves", and that "a plane-flanked avenue led to the station".
The only reason Lavaurette is of any interest to British Intelligence or, later, the German army, is its proximity to an important rail junction leading to Bordeaux and Clermont-Ferrand.
From September 1940 until May 1941, London was bombed almost daily by the German Luftwaffe in what came to be known as the Blitz. Although by 1942 the pressure was off, as Hitler focused his firepower on Russia, the capital in which Charlotte arrives was in a terrible state.
London had by then suffered intensive bombing on a scale never seen before, during which 60,000 people were killed and two million homes were destroyed. The inhabitants of London had grown used to the nightly rush to an air raid shelter whenever a siren sounded, often in an Underground (subway) station.
By 1942, life was returning to a kind of normality. The air raids were over, but conditions remained very difficult. People lived crammed together in shared flats and houses, due to the loss of so much housing stock. Unexploded ordnance remained a significant danger, despite the efforts of army bomb disposal experts.
The Massif Central is situated in south central France and makes up 15% of the total land mass. It is an elevated area of mountains and plateaus, which has seen volcanic activity over the last 10,000 years. It is cleaved from the Alps by the Rhône River.
Clermont-Ferrand is one of France’s oldest cities, known to the ancient Greeks, Gauls and Romans. The first Christian crusade to free Jerusalem from Islam was launched from Clermont-Ferrand in 1095 by Pope Urban II.
The city is surrounded by the La Chaîne des Puys (Chain of Volcanoes) and is renowned as the birthplace of Blaise Pascal.