Jennie Mayle on Peter Mayle, his books and their life together
Updated: May 27
Jennie Mayle, widow of beloved author Peter Mayle, is on a mission. She wants to introduce his works to a new generation of fans and armchair travelers. Peter’s books range from the groundbreaking “A Year in Provence” to his Caper series, which chronicles everything from vintage wine theft to unsolvable diamond heists.
Jennie was by his side and was a prominent figure in several of his books, as he single-handedly created the travel-inspired novel writing category.
His timeless storytelling, set from Paris to the French Riviera, whisks us away to sun-drenched destinations with blue skies, blue seas, chilled wine, and wonderful food. I spoke with Jennie recently from her home in southeastern France.
SWO50: How did the two of you meet?
JM: We met in London when Peter was creative director for an ad agency, and I was working for a production company. He stopped by to see my boss and I thought my God, he’s drop dead gorgeous and absolutely charming.
We met again a few years later when I was running my own business. He still had the same effect on me. It was our first lunch together and I later found out that my feelings were reciprocated when he confided that he fell in love with me during our meal. I still have a plate from the restaurant that I kept as a memento.
SWO50: What prompted you to move to Provence?
JM: We kind of ran away from England. We both had failed marriages, so we headed to New York for three years where Peter continued to work in advertising. He gave it up to write full-time and we decided to relocate to the south of France. We had spent time there separately over the years and we appreciated the slower pace. I think it took us about five minutes to adjust upon arrival. We absolutely loved it and never wanted to leave.
SWO50: Besides the slower pace, what was the region’s appeal?
JM: Neither Peter nor I were painters, but I would have to say it was the light. You cannot explain it really, but when you go somewhere else, you realize what you are missing.
Peter’s favorite thing in life was being in Provence, sitting in the sun under an olive tree with me and our dogs, enjoying a glass of Rosé. We lived in enough places in the world to know that Provence is special.
SWO50: We know he never expected “A Year in Provence” to be a bestseller, did you?
JM: Certainly not, no. I did suggest that he change the names and disguise the village, but because they were only printing 3,000 copies, he did not think it was necessary. And we were almost proven right. It started out very slowly. It was the first of its kind for a long time. Booksellers did not know which section to put it in, so they put it in travel, and it rather languished there. That changed when it was serialized by BBC Radio 4. The Sunday Times also excerpted one chapter each month for a year, and those two promotions made the difference. It took off with readers. Since then, it has sold more than six million copies in 40 languages. Peter got a lot of letters from fans asking, “what is your wife’s name, and why don’t you ever tell us.”
SWO50: As the book’s popularity increased, how were you and Peter impacted?
JM: Fans of the book flocked to Menerbres. They walked and cycled along the footpath behind our home and didn’t hesitate to come in for a look. I think they felt they knew Peter. We found people in our pool. Tourists drove up the driveway for autographs. At the height of the book’s fame, tour operators put up billboards in nearby towns saying their tours included a stop at our home. It was quite impossible, but we never resented it. How could we when people just adored Peter and his books.
SWO50: Besides “A Year in Provence”, your husband wrote many more books. His Caper series is great fun to read. Peter’s roguish sleuth, Sam Levitt, has a lot in common with your husband. Do you think that was intentional?
JM: I must say that I rather fancied Sam. It didn’t occur to me until sometime later that perhaps he was Peter’s alter ego. They did share much in common, but I don’t know if it was conscious on his part or not. The first book, the “Vintage Caper”, was my favorite. I absolutely loved it and can see it as a film. It was meant to be a standalone, but so many people weighed in and asked him not to kill off Sam, so the series came to life.
SWO50: Is there something that is not widely known about Peter that you would want people to know?
JM: He was a very humble man. He believed it was pretentious of us to think we were anything special.
SWO50: What do you miss most about him?
JM: (Chuckles) His sense of humor, and, of course, his affection. He was terribly affectionate. I was happy that I had our two dogs when he died because I don’t know how I would have gotten over those first six months without them. Once I got over the worst part, I felt terribly lucky. I couldn’t go on grieving knowing we had had nearly 40 years together. Many people don’t find a love like that in their entire lives. I met my prince on the white charger. How many people can say that?
The photo of the Diamond Caper book and the glass of champagne was taken in the bar at the Hotel Montalembert, in Paris.
The photos taken by Jennie Mayle are from her personal collection. The image of the young Peter Mayle was taken on their first day in Menerbres, just after arriving.
The photo of Peter, Jennie and Nelly was taken on Peter's 60th birthday. Nelly was a gift from Jennie.
The photos of Jennie and Gyp were taken by Marcus Barthod-Malat. Gyp is a nine-year-old Briard that Jennie adopted in last December.
A version of this story is published in The Good Life France.