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The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century

by Bonnie G. Smith
Princeton University Press, 303 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Madame va descendre à l’instant: elle vous prie de l’attendre,” said the neat servant, in her immaculate black and white uniform, as she showed me into the salon of the enormous red-brick house. It was a familiar opening, almost a ritual; and I knew, from previous experience, that “à l’instant” could be extended to ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, while Madame tarried in the mysterious rooms upstairs, engaged in whatever strongly feminine activities that kept her on the higher stories of the silent house.

Preparing for a long wait, I took in the details of an equally familiar salon: a heavily waxed and polished parquet floor, covered in rugs, on which were placed a semicircle of identical faux-Louis XV chairs, lined in silken floral patterns. I sat bolt upright on the edge of one of them toward the end of the semicircle, so that I would not have my back to the door when Madame eventually came down.

Everything seemed to be in place: above the mantelpiece there was a recess, painted in blue and edged in white, that contained a small statue of the Virgin holding the Child Jesus, both in white. A huge clock in a glass case ticked loudly in the silence of the still house. On side tables and marble-topped consoles there were nine photographs in heavy silver frames of children, five girls and four boys, the former in white dresses and with floral arrangements in their hair, the latter in black suits and Eton collars, with large white bows on their right arms, all holding white-bound missals, a range of premières communions extending over a dozen years. There were three more photographs, framed in dark wood, two of them of nuns, the third of a rather startled looking young priest in heavy glasses.

A glass-fronted corner cupboard, well stocked with colored bottles bearing familiar labels, the Dubonnet cat to the fore, seemed to smile at me, spelling out a message less austere and more laical. And on a, small and highly decorated round table, placed in the exact middle of the motionless semicircle, was the usual talisman of local rank and hierarchy, a volume bound in rich red marocain and carrying in golden letters on its spine the proud title: Les Grandes Familles de Roubaix-Tourcoing, a volume, always as prominently displayed, with which I had filled in the gap of a great many “à l’instants,” up and down the boulevard de Cambrai, the boulevard de Paris, and the leafy avenues off the Parc Barbieux.

It was a volume that gave much greater weight to the second half of the alphabet than to the first, as if there were more virtue in a name beginning with an M or a P, or a W (unique to this area) than to one beginning with an A or a C or a D: Masurel, Motte, Prouvost, Tiberghien, Toulemonde, Wibaux. The book was like a pack of cards that, constantly reshuffled, endlessly turned up the same variety of combinations: Wibaux-Prouvost, or Prouvost-Wibaux, Motte-Masurel, or Masurel-Motte, Glorieux-Pierrepont, or Pierrepont-Glorieux, Tiberghien-Toulemonde or Toulemonde-Tiberghien, Wibaux-Florin, or Florin-Wibaux, the male always taking precedence over the female. Better still were those that left it open to doubt: Prouvost-Prouvost, Wibaux-Wibaux, Toulemonde-Toulemonde, or Motte-Motte. The book spoke eloquently of the endlessly repeated patterns of intermarriage between a dozen or a score of families of the Roubaix wool barons. I would still be plunged in these wonderful combinations, this or that way round, or the same both ends, when a light step would bring me to my feet: “Quel bon vent vous amène, Monsieur Cobb?” asked Madame. It was only a matter of time, and after the usual formal verbal sparring, until the glass-fronted corner cupboard would be opened.

This was in 1944 and 1945. Professor Bonnie Smith, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside, has enjoyed a number of similar entrées, often no doubt to the same ladies, thirty years after my visits, though her territory has also been extended to include the cotton families of Lille, the sugar merchants and industrialists of Valenciennes and Douai, the biscuit manufacturers and shipowners of Dunkirk, a range well beyond the carefully limited horizons of the Roubaix-Tourcoing marriage network. But to judge from her abundant and intelligently used statistical evidence, it must have been the Families of the Book that provided her with the most eloquent examples of a society already enmeshed in innumerably repeated marriage links, and constantly reinforced by battalions of children (an average of eight) throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, at a time when patterns that till the 1950s, at least, remained almost immobile, were in the process of being established.

Already, in her book, it would have been almost unheard of for a girl from a Roubaix mill-owner’s family to marry into one from Tourcoing, although the two towns ran into each other: to have married into a family from Lille would have been a sin against collective solidarity. And there was consternation when a Roubaisienne married into one of the leading silk families of Lyon, even though it was of equivalent wealth. It was something even worse than marrying for love. For nearly all such marriages as described by Bonnie Smith were arranged, generally through negotiations between both sets of parents, sometimes through the bons offices of a priest or a monk, the brother or the uncle of the bride-to-be. Girls would be married off, in strict order of age, at twenty-one; four months after marriage there would be some alarm if there were no signs of pregnancy.

During the period of engagement, the two future partners might write to each other, addressing each other as Mademoiselle and Monsieur, and in the second person plural. Equally, when the female children were sent to the Sacré-Coeur, or to some other convent (and after 1905 it would be over the border in Belgium), it was quite likely that they would be taught by nuns who were their aunts, their first cousins, or one of their elder sisters, and would be watched over by a Mother Superior who was likewise a great-aunt. It is not surprising that those who had been through the convent, and had come out of it with recollections so loving, so affectionate, and so marked, when questioned in extreme old age by Professor Smith, should have described the Sacré-Coeur simply as an extension of family and home. It often was both.

It is unlikely that any other society, at least in Northern Europe, could have offered a better example of narrow clannishness and parochialism (in the most literal sense: paroisse Saint-Jacques, in Roubaix, paroisse Saint-Maurice in Lille) and of “keeping it in the family”; and certainly no other society could offer better opportunities both for the study of a matriarchy and for the reconstruction of the domestic world of the woman, the maîtresse de maison, in the home. The author has been particularly well advised in her choice of terrain and milieu. Having worked for long periods in the main towns of the Nord, she is well aware that she is dealing with family structures that are unique and that the bourgeoise du Nord of the second half of the nineteenth century, far from witnessing for the general condition of the married woman in the home, can only witness for herself and her female compatriots of the same social background in their often architecturally identical, enormous, brick-built homes.

A great deal more of what she has to say about the ladies of the upper-middle class of Roubaix-Tourcoing and of Lille in the period 1800-1914 would apply with equal vigor to the same milieu at the time of the Liberation. As Professor Smith stresses on a number of occasions, we are dealing with a domestic society immobilized in its ways, rites, and symbols, fixed in a sort of timelessness that separates it from the strident calendar of public events, and responding to a more intimate and ancient calendar of family pressures and responses. We encounter in the 1940s the same intense and yet unostentatious piety, the many family links with the clergy, the monks, and the nuns, the daily, weekly, and monthly routines of visits, pilgrimages, charitable activities, and domestic chores, the discipline, routine, and teaching methods of the convents (though carefully approved reading would certainly have extended from the accepted trio of entirely “safe” novelists—Joséphine de Gaulle, the General’s industrious and pious grandmother, Mathilde Bourdon, and Julia Bécour—to include a much wider range of improving novels emanating de chez Mame, Editions de la Bonne Presse, in Tours, or from Desclée & de Brouwer, the Franco-Belgian Lille and Tournai religious publishers).

In the 1940s, as in the 1900s, girls would be sexually innocent at the time of marriage. An active and sincere engagement in private charitable works, organized through the parish, would still distinguish the well-to-do womenfolk of the Franco-Belgian border from those of other parts of France; and the recipients of such charity would still have to prove themselves morally worthy of such help. Unmarried mothers and women whose homes were untidy or dirty would still be likely to be excluded from such solicitude. Here too godliness and cleanliness would still be firmly allied. Indeed, in the Nord, as in Belgium, the obsession with domestic cleanliness had long been communicated to the women of the working classes, the bright door-step witnessing for a virtuous interior as much in the rue aux Longues Haies as in the boulevard de Cambrai.

Likewise, an intense regional pride, coupled with a deep suspicion of Paris and its inhabitants, and even more of the Midi, would still characterize the chtimis (the slang word for the inhabitants of the Nord) of all classes and both sexes, even up to the present day, when M. Mauroy makes a point of spending more time in his Lille fief than in Paris. The wool barons might often possess subsidiary mills in Mulhouse or in Mazamet which they would have to visit at regular intervals, but they would not be accompanied by their wives.

For holidays, even the richest textile families would play it safe, opting for Wimereux and other places on the nearby coast of the Pas-de-Calais. When, for some exceptional reason—perhaps preparing a trousseau, with a visit to the Printemps or the Bon Marché—the womenfolk had to go to Paris, they would cling prudently to the Hôtel Terminus, at the Gare du Nord, or would stay with relatives in the quartier de la Trinité, a quarter regarded as relatively “safe” since it contained a sizable colony of Northeners. There was no question of such visits to the capital being enjoyable; and they would confirm and reinforce the accepted views on the subject of Parisian frivolity. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the descendants of Professor Smith’s bourgeoises would still be attached to the hopeless politics of royalism; and possibly even the maternal unity of these massive families may have been somewhat eroded since 1968.

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