Making Sense of Misery: The Dialect Notebooks of a Teenage Breton Farm Servant

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by David Hopkin, Associate Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford. David explores another life story, that of a nineteenth-century female Breton farm servant, through a combination of historical records and three remarkable novellas written by his subject. The result is not only a fascinating examination of an individual life, he argues, but an insight into a collective commentary on the first-hand experience of hardship in the past. David has also written a book entitled Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France, from which this symposium borrows its name.

David Hopkin

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.

In 1881 she came into contact with Oscar Havard, a Conservative, Catholic journalist. Havard spent that summer in his native Granville reviewing books, and was intrigued by a collection of Breton folk tales. He set out to see, in the age of railway trains and paraffin lamps, whether anything remained of the storytelling tradition in his own region. He had no luck on the Normandy side of the Couesnon, but when he crossed into the Breton village of Pleine-Fougères, by the simple expedient of asking in a bar, he was directed to some matronly storytellers. Havard published some of their tales along with an account of his ethnographic holiday. At the same time he recruited a number of teenage girls to write down stories. Whether their manuscripts represented their own repertoires or whether they were employed as subsidiary collectors we cannot be sure. Of this group Virginie was the most profuse: over the next few years she would send him eleven school exercise-books containing the texts of ninety-four songs, thirty-five more-o-rless traditional tales (local variants of Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella…) and three novellas. The manuscript is now housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and is consultable online.

We don’t know what the nature of the relationship was between collector and informant – was Virginie paid for her contributions? That seems likely. Was she enticed by the possibility of seeing her name in print? If so, she would be disappointed: Havard quoted some of her songs, but never their source. However, the only surviving letter from her to Havard is silent on these issues.

Virginie’s texts are not unknown to specialists: her songs are listed in the Coirault catalogue of French folksongs, and her tales in the Delarue-Ténèze catalogue of French folktales. The latter have also benefitted from an excellent modern edition by Jean-Louis Le Craver (Contes populaires de Haute-Bretagne notés en gallo et en français dans le canton de Pleine-Fougères en 1881 [2007]). Havard wrote of the folklorist as a hunter-collector, out on the open road recording the words of those he encountered. But in fact many collections of songs and tales were assembled from this kind of self-penned manuscripts written by singers and storytellers directly. Folklore collecting in France coincided with the early impact of rural education: Virginie’s parents were illiterate, but most of her generation could read and write. Hence her demographic – all but invisible in the archives usually consulted by historians – is actually rather well represented in the folklore archive. However, there are still some features of Virginie’s manuscripts that make them stand out.

The first is the language. 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.

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.

However, not all elements in the stories can be matched to parts of Virginie’s biography: the fictional Jeanneton Barbot and Cacherine Leloup both grow up, marry, are widowed, have children: Virginie would not live to do any of these. Nor would she become a female serial killer, which is Cacherine Leloup’s fate. After an insult in the street (for consorting with a much younger man) leads to a fracas and a court-case, Cacherine attacks, in turn, the magistrate, the gendarmes, fellow prisoners and is finally guillotined for murdering the prison chaplain. While some of this may reflect Virginie’s knowledge of the workings of the law, and perhaps an antipathy towards authority figures as a result of these encounters, it is impossible to identify a real-life parallel for these episodes of violence.

Nonetheless I use elements of Virginie’s biography to make sense of her fictions, while simultaneously using her fictions to understand her biography. The two, I contend, have a relationship to each another. Sometimes this method pays dividends: for example, Le Craver states in his edition of Virginie’s texts that she was an only child. However, Virginie wrote a large number of stories in which a brother and sister are the protagonists (and sometimes antagonists). These are traditional tales, and one can find versions of them recorded not only elsewhere in Brittany but all over the Eurasian landmass. Obviously they cannot be a direct reflection of, or comment on, Virginie’s circumstances. Yet it has often been observed that oral storytellers have a preference for narratives that relate to their own lives, and so I believed it likely that Virginie did have a brother, and finally I found him, born in his paternal grandfather’s house. Virginie’s story of Suzon Deslandes contains a long account of the heroine’s journey with her brother to Granville where he would join a fishing brig bound for the Banks of Newfoundland. The narrative gives a lot of detail concerning the equipment needed by a sailor, so I surmised that Virginie’s brother had also followed this trade, and indeed a trawl of the naval archives revealed that he had journeyed from Granville to Newfoundland in the spring of 1883 when Virginie was fourteen, the same age as Suzon in the story.

However, not every element in the stories can be cross-checked in this way. Suzon Deslandes story seems closest to Virginie’s experience (Deslandes sounds like Desgranges, and Suzon was one of her mother’s names): the parents of Suzon and her sailor brother ran a bar (as did Virginie’s parents) until a fire and their father’s death (when Suzon was ten, the same age as Virginie when she lost her father). Again the description of the fire and the losses incurred is detailed and plausible, but so far I have found no evidence that the Desgranges business suffered this way.

There are elements in the stories that make this procedure – confirming the biography with the fictions and the fictions with the biography – ethically suspect and frankly appalling in terms of what it might reveal about the circumstances of Virginie’s life. Her heroine Jeanneton Barbot marries a rag-and-bone man who beats her so badly that the neighbours want to call in the gendarmes. Is one entitled to see in this a memory of her parents’ relationship? Domestic violence is one of the recurrent themes in Virginie’s narratives, where it is treated very matter-of-factly: there is little doubt that it formed part of her world, but can one make a specific accusation on the basis of a story? In the episode that immediately precedes this marriage, Jeanneton is robbed of the sheets from her bed by her brother, an episode that clearly refers to real-life events; but on the other hand Jeanneton has a nun for a sister, and I’ve found no trace of such a relationship in Virginie’s biography.

In the story of Suzon Deslandes, once her brother sails away, the heroine stays on in Granville with her uncle and aunt. The dramatic heart of the story is the moment when Suzon tells her mother about her uncle’s sexual advances and her increasingly desperate resistance. All of Virginie’s heroines are sexually harassed, if not by family members then by employers – and of course incest and sexual violence are common tropes in the oral tradition on which Virginie drew to shape her more personal narratives. Given the ubiquity of these tropes, and the fictionality of the text, I have no grounds for suggesting that Virginie suffered a similar assault. I don’t even know if Virginie had an uncle in Granville. However, even if Virginie did not experience such abuse first hand, it is clear that it is something she knew of, and which young women in her world might expect to encounter.

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.

Perhaps the virtue of this confrontation of a young woman’s biography with her fictions is less to round-out our knowledge of Virginie’s specific life-story than to suggest what was typical of the experience of people from her class and her situation. The three novellas are clearly the most personal of her texts, the ones in which she could reflect most directly on her own experience and also explore how she might escape through her dream of an apprenticeship that would offer her security and status in the long term. (It seems particularly cruel that when she died she was sharing a house with her cousin of the same age, an apprentice seamstress.) But the same themes recur in Virginie’s other narratives, the ones which formed part of a more collective oral culture of storytelling in the village. There we also meet suffering heroines, beaten wives, brutal fathers and sexual predators: Virginie acknowledged the similarities herself, for example describing her heroine Jeanneton Barbot as like Cinderella. These elements are part of a narrative tradition that extended both chronologically and geographically well beyond Virginie’s Breton village. Because of their ubiquity they can become so divorced from the circumstances in which they were originally narrated that they become narrative archetypes, with no necessary concomitant in the real world. But Virginie and the other contributors to Havard’s collection told these kinds of stories because they were socially relevant to them – young women in a patriarchal society, indigents in a society without support – they encapsulated the circumstances they would likely encounter as they tried to make their own way through the world.

This conclusion, of course, was already reached by an earlier generation of historians searching for ‘voices from below’ such as Eugen Weber, Hermann Rebel and Robert Darnton, as well as by folklorists such as Bengt Holbek and Tim Tangherlini (among others). However, given the renewed interest in the concept evidenced in this series, it’s useful to be reminded of the potential richness of the folkloric archive for historians, not only for the many individual voices, like Virginie’s, that it contains, but also for what amounts to a collective commentary from the poor of past societies on the experience of misery.

2 thoughts on “Making Sense of Misery: The Dialect Notebooks of a Teenage Breton Farm Servant

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