Ah, Provence! The tuneful fountains of Aix, the scented valleys of Luberon, the lanes of old Nice, the radiant Mediterranean, the lavender fields of Vaucluse. Memory wallows in soft focus and the Verdian soundtrack of Jean de Florette, the ineffably Gallic locals of Peter Mayle, the perfumes of Occitan, John Keats’s narcotic conjuring of Provençal song.

This is exactly what the tourist board wants. But there’s another Provence, older and harsher, the heart of the original Provincia of the Romans, where the land collapses into a boulder-strewn plain, bounded to the north by the white eruption of the Alpilles, bursting through the plain like the fossilised backbone of some monstrous mythical beast.

The sun rebounds blindingly off white limestone, and in winter a frigid north wind sweeps down the Rhône valley for days on end. Arles, the local town, closes up its shuttered houses and hunches its shoulders against the blast. Across the river, the land dissolves into the malarial marshes of the Camargue, where in summer it’s too hot even to swat the squadrons of mosquitoes. The department of Bouches-du-Rhône is where to find all this, and it’s no chocolate box.

Beyond the Roman remains of Arles, the cute town of St Rémy and the rocky tourist hell of Les Baux, there lies a curious attraction, amid the bluffs between the Alpilles and the plain: the windmill where Alphonse Daudet – a writer curiously forgotten by the world but dear to French hearts – lived in the 1860s and wrote his best-loved work, Letters from my Windmill, vignettes of life in these elemental landscapes.

Except he didn’t. Despite the tour buses vomiting out their contents for a five-minute tramp around an obligingly attractive mill, billed as the ‘Moulin de Daudet’, the author never owned, rented or otherwise inhabited any such edifice. True, he would often stay with cousins in the neighbouring village of Fontvielle, and the mill now bearing his name is much like the one he described in the stories. But Daudet was a writer of fiction, a story-spinner of twinkling charm and genius, dreaming up his doppelgänger Parisian exile sauntering through the heat and light of Provence, collecting the tales he would dispatch with an envelope of southern sunshine to his friends in chilly mists up north. Actually, most of these stories were written on a commuter train in the Parisian suburbs.

The 28 short tales of the Letters are even now instilled into French children as the bedrock for their love of the language: unhurried, ruminative, with an elegant handling of the ‘sequence of tenses’ so prized by schoolteachers, the little postcards are models of unshowy economy, novels in five pages, a seamless mixture of fantasy and reportage, understated masterpieces of observation and sympathy; a cold eye and a warm heart were Daudet’s weapons. The French learn about the sadness of life when barely off all fours, in the tragic tale of the goat Blanquette who abandons kind old Mr Seguin for the freedom of the mountains, even though it means she will be devoured by a wolf.

Even the little whimsy of Blanquette is set off against the implacable land, though that can soften to a background haze in Daudet’s humane eyes. His friend Émile Zola, the unsparing realist, was critical of the easy delight of the stories, but Daudet’s generous nature could see more than the awfulness of life. Though Giovanni Verga, writer of Cavalleria rusticana, was certainly influenced by the Letters, there is a layer of detachment in Daudet that Verga discarded, to plunge amid the harshness of Sicilian peasant life; his stories are written from inside the lives of his laconic, suffering protagonists, whereas Daudet’s are always observed by his watchful, amused, compassionate Parisian.

L’Arlésienne is typical: a quiet, lapidary tale of heartbreak and despair under the sun. Fashionable Arles, with its farandoles, false hearts and flashing eyes, is five miles from Fontvieille, but it might be a thousand leagues for the gulf that gapes between country and town. And it wields a baleful influence throughout the Letters. In another story, an innkeeper’s wife stands sobbing by the window of her crumbling, empty relais while sounds of revelry come from the rival inn across the street, newly opened by a fancy woman from Arles – who has also captured the woman’s husband. Daudet expanded the story of L’Arlésienne (with admixtures from other Letters) into a play (which would be forgotten except for the music Bizet wrote for it in a trial-run for the exoticisms of Carmen), diluting the story to insipidity, but like many other now-unwatchable French plays of the 19th century, from Hugo to Sardou, it provided the basis for a longer-lived Italian opera.

The Letters were published in 1869, when Daudet was nearly 30. From 1875 to 1890 he was the most successful author in France, the centre of a remarkable circle that included Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant and Goncourt – as well as Ivan Turgenev, the Russian novelist cosily ensconced with the opera singer Pauline Viardot and her husband. Maybe the qualities that endeared his work to contemporaries – a raconteur, seducing, charming, holding his audience – now stand in the way of his resurrection, but such works as the picaresque Tartarin de Tarascon, the doomed contemporary love stories of Fromont and Risler and Sapho, the sarcastic anti-establishment polemic of L’immortel, are a substantial and less grim counterpart tot he darkening realism of the late century, and were hugelya dmired by the likes of Dickens, Henry James, even Joseph Conrad. The strain of allegory that began with the Letters (even with poor Blanquette) continues throughout: there is a marvellous, grimly hilarious scene in Sapho where the narrator playfully gathers up his beloved and bounds up the stairs to their flat; by the third floor he is wheezing like a piano-mover, while the girl dreamily murmurs her delight, and the last few steps ‘seemed like a gigantic staircase whose walls and narrow windows turned in an endless spiral; it was no longer a woman he hefted, but something crushing, horrible, suffocating…’ It’s like Zola, but with laughs.

After moving to Paris from the south as a shoeless 17 year old, Daudet had a remarkable success with a poetry collection – Les amoureuses– which caught the fancy of the Empress, resulting in a useful secretarial job with the Duc de Morny. He plunged into the regular libertine life of the Second Empire and, like most of his friends, caught syphilis. At the age of 45 the disease suddenly resurfaced in its ghastly tertiary variety as tabes dorsalis, a crushing affliction of the spine and nervous system. Daudet said he aged 20 years in a week – the years from 45 to 65, just gone! – and over the next years, in atrocious suffering, he made notes for a book he never wrote called La Doulou– the Provençal word for pain. Even though these notes and observations never became more than that, they form an unsparing, unsentimental, sometimes even comic account of slow death, written without a trace of self-pity, a testament to an extraordinary lovable and generous character.

It is a chronicle of suffering borne with immense grace. Daudet said ‘suffering is nothing, the point is to prevent those you love from suffering’. Intensely aware that while pain is always surprising, always new to the patient, it is immensely repetitive and tiresome to everyone else, he would rouse himself from the stupor of endless agony (and the constant injections of morphine and chloral he needed for momentary relief and sleep) to charm and entertain his family and guests. One must treat pain like an unwelcome house-guest, and pay it as little attention as possible; in some ways, pain is actually preferable to the racking thoughts that beset the sufferer in moments of reprieve: ‘I prefer simply to suffer – pains stops me thinking,’ he writes. The treatments he underwent at the hands of the pioneering neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot were as much torture as the disease, notably the ‘Seyre suspension’: being repeatedly hung up, in Daudet’s case by the jaw, for several minutes (this was intended to stretch the spine and allay the ataxia); ‘…a terrible pain in my back and neck, as if all the marrow was melting… No observable benefit…’

He called himself ‘a machine for feeling’, and Daudet’s unsparing eye, the same eye he brought to the sunlight, scents and sounds of Provence, remains undimmed and merciless. (Actually the diminutive writer was severely myopic, once talking for half an hour to a chair with a coat thrown over it which he mistook for his friend Goncourt). What comes over most strongly is the degree to which Daudet was ‘heroically unheroic’, as Julian Barnes, who translated La Doulou, puts it, and how his already sweet nature took on almost angelic qualities during this martyrdom. The young Marcel Proust was awestruck by the saintly goodness of ‘the beautiful sick man’, ashamed of his own paltry sufferings that made him deaf and blind to life and other people.

But even Daudet – although he never succumbed to the insanity that possessed his brother sufferers like Maupassant – gave up writing these notes in his last couple of years, part of the invisible martyrology of the disease. He died at the age of 57, and his last months were dedicated to his quest to cheer and hearten his family and fellow-patients at the sanatoriums where he was treated – to remain as his Letters had first revealed him: ‘a vendor of happiness’.