Historians have dismissed as naive and sentimental The Lowell Offering, the periodical published between 1840 and 1845 by and for the “mill girls” of the first planned industrial community in America. But in a succinct introduction and afterword to this selection from The Offering’s pages, Benita Eisler sees the mill girls as “the last WASP labor force in America” bent on self-sacrifice and self-improvement through honorable industry. Theirs was the last “idyll of work” before the irreparable social rifts of industrialization that made factory work the ignoble, unbearable fate of immigrants.

We see it all coming in The Offering. Selections describe steadily worsening working conditions (seventy-five hours per week, half an hour to run home for lunch and back, sealed windows, declining wages) and life in the overcrowded corporate boarding houses (“instruments for surveillance and ‘moral policing’ “). One can see the passion of these New England girls for “mutual self-help” in essays from The Offering on Joan of Arc and mineralogy and a lachrymose funeral verse for President Harrison: “Who dreamed in grief like this to share?” Caught in the “relentless world,” the mill women are filled with nostalgia for the quiet life of their farm homes, the quiltmaking and sugaring parties among family and loved ones. They refuse to be looked down upon, vigorously defending mill women as “virtuous, intelligent, &c.” Under the editorship of Harriet Farley—who may have been management’s tool—The Offering combats “the spirit of discontent.”

Still, some write of the ten-hour-day movement, equal pay for women and men, the suicide of workers, and “the miserable, selfish spirit of competition, now in our midst.” For the most part they find consolation in “devoting the avails of…labor to a noble and cherished purpose,” most often support of a mother and younger children (after father’s death from alcoholism), or a brother’s education. Today they seem naive largely because competitive industrialization smashed their ideals. This valuable collection shows their difficult position. Their “fierce aspirations,” Eisler argues, “shame our failed promises.”

“Instead of chapters,” the author promises “sequences,” with “a desire to enter into the psychology of each person—whatever his role in the Revolution,” that is, the 1774-1778 prelude to the French upheaval. In ninety-eight chronological vignettes, Manceron examines the ancien regime and some of its challengers. Civic life has definitely deteriorated in 1774; Jean-Paul Marat is thinking of taking British citizenship and, though the Abbée de l’Epée has founded a school for the deaf and dumb, the Court enjoys torturing lame dogs. Louis XVI, it appears, is ill-trained for government and resentful of his Queen, not genitally impaired; his brother-in-law Joseph of Austria, the enlightened despot, thinks he simply “needs to be beaten.” The whole of France reeks of “rotting flesh,” gibbets, sodomy, riots.

Benjamin Franklin arrives, but he and the young Lafayette turn out to be lukewarm republicans and the American Revolution is excessively concerned with the stodgy mechanics of “sharing power, wielding influence.” On the perimeter are Goethe and lesser literary figures, while the pedigree and undertakings of de Sade, along with the escapades of Mirabeau and his lover, Sophie, appear in regular installments. Manceron’s chic, hectic, staccato style would become insufferable during this first volume of his 5,000 pages on the French Revolution, if a certain good humor and subtlety did not redeem his stripped accounts of gory episodes; but the line of vision, however extended, remains on the level of a hairdresser’s aperçu, and so the psychological insights are limited, not to mention any interpretations of all this decadence. A French best seller.

(Notice in this section does not preclude review of these books in later issues.)

Copyright © 1978 by Kirkus Service, Inc., a subsidiary of The New York Review of Books.

This Issue

February 9, 1978