What poor and uneducated brilliance looks like

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

There must be a lot of this now, and it must have been much worse in the past, people of intelligence who lived without education, and died in poverty:

Unlike all of Havard’s other correspondents Virginie wrote almost entirely in the local langue d’oïl dialect, Gallo. This may have been a daily language of communication in the region but there was almost nothing in print available at the time. In effect Virginie had to invent her own orthography and grammar which, for someone who left school around the age of ten, is a quite remarkable achievement.

Here life sounds remarkably unhappy:

Virginie Desgranges, born 1868, lived a short, peripatetic life along the Normandy-Brittany border. Her frequent moves were the result of her family’s rapid social decline. Her grandfathers were customs officers but her own father, who died when she was ten, was a rag-and-bone man, while her mother was first a servant and then a day-labourer. For a while the couple ran a bar. Virginie had one older brother, who briefly followed his father’s profession before joining the Atlantic fishing fleet. In 1881 he and his mother spent a month in prison for robbing a neighbour of her bed-sheets. By that time Virginie had already left home and was working as a farm-servant. When she died, aged eighteen, she was employed as a servant by her uncle and aunt in the village of Pleine-Fougères, about ten miles from Mont Saint-Michel.

Poor, rural, young, female, mobile – by every measure Virginie’s is a voice from below. Given her social marginality it’s debateable whether she could make that voice heard in her lifetime, let alone in the historical record. Back in Pleine-Fougères her voice would have been in dialogue with others – her family, her neighbours, her employers, the marketplace singers and the various other people she encountered. Some of the parameters of that discussion were set by what we might call, for want of a better term, the oral tradition. It was because she was a participant in and recorder of that tradition that her voice has been preserved.

…The other original element is the three novellas. Although these drew on the same traditional motifs that found expression in her songs and tales, each is unique, a personal voice among the more widely circulating songs and tales. Despite some being labelled ‘true stories’, I have found no obvious sources for any of them, not in local news nor in school books. I therefore assume that they were products of her own imagination. At the same time, all three appear to draw on aspects of her life. They each relate the misadventures of an eponymous heroine — Jeanneton Barbot, Cacherine [sic] Leloup and Suzon Deslandes – following her from a poverty-stricken home into even worse experiences as a farm servant. Her repeated descriptions of ill-health with a ‘chest complaint’ (often a reference to tuberculosis) also feel true to life: this may have been her own cause of death. Her heroines yearn to escape through a job in town, ideally as an apprentice seamstress, but this dream is thwarted by their mothers’ desperate need for an immediate income from their daughters’ labour. I suspect the tense mother-daughter relationship in all three stories is also an echo of real-life conflicts: certainly there was some sort of crisis affecting parental authority because in 1882 both children were placed under the tutelage of a ‘conseil de famille’, an arrangement more usually made for orphans.

…Perhaps the most striking thing about this reported conversation is her mother’s response. She is, of course, shocked to learn of her brother’s behaviour, but adds ‘I am poor and poverty sometimes causes misery as it sometimes causes happiness – if I had any means I’d take you back with me now but seeing as you are happy at your uncle’s and you are so firm [stay here] and God will bless you.’ Given that Suzon has just described an attempted rape and murder, one might be surprised at the use of the word ‘happy’ for her present circumstance. But in fact Suzon has already stated, more than once, that ‘I am really happy at my uncle’s’, because she has only has to clean the boots and gets meat or fish to eat every day. The opposite of ‘bounheur’ in Virginie’s lexicon is ‘ennuyail’, which is what Suzon experiences at her placement as a farm servant, with employers so avaricious that they keep the bread cupboard locked while her legs swell from having to guard the animals in waterlogged pastures. The standard translation would be ‘boredom’ but it clearly has stronger connotations: it is the word used to describe the feelings of a woman beaten every day by her husband because she was not spinning enough. It’s one of the most frequent words in Virginie’s vocabulary and she used it to cover numerous experiences from having no one to play with, to exhaustion, homesickness, and above all hunger. Although Virginie treats sexual predation as a real threat, it is striking that for her that it was more bearable (and she was explicit on this subject) than the chronic condition of poverty and its most pressing symptom, hunger.