“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.
Professor Smith’s research has been carried out with considerable care and imagination, including a series of personal interviews with ladies, most, one suspects, from Roubaix-Tourcoing, though some from Lille—in their seventies and eighties, as they evoke, always with nostalgic affection and in minute detail, their own childhoods, their mothers, and their grandmothers. This is an area of France in which family memories are particularly intense and in which knowledge of genealogies is fully shared between the sexes. Bonnie Smith’s book is a convincing contribution to the still little explored history of the family and the home, as illustrated by the experience of women, and as measured in the private calendar of female domestic and biological cycles.
Perhaps some of Professor Smith’s conclusions are overstated. As she shows, both in the late eighteenth and in the early nineteenth centuries there still survived in this part of France some quite formidable femmes d’affaires: Madame Veuve Une Telle. But I do not think that they entirely disappeared, as it were at the command of Professor Smith, from 1850 or thereabouts, though there may well have been a general retreat into the more stable, more feminine world of domesticity. Nor would I follow her when she emphasizes the contrast between female piety and masculine impiety, religious indifference, and anticlericalism. That women received more consolation than did men from the ministrations of the clergy cannot be doubted; but in the 1900s there were a number of very pious wool barons, and before 1914 Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing offered the most promising terrain to le Sillon and to Social Catholicism.
Often the patrons seem to have been as pious as their wives. Indeed, with their direct encouragement, Jocisme spread downward, at least in Roubaix, to bring in a broad section of mill workers of both sexes. After the Liberation, Roubaix represented one of the most promising growth areas of the newly founded MRP. And I do not know on what evidence Professor Smith bases her assertion that, while husbands will now read Le Monde or Figaro, their wives would fall back on Jours de France. I think it much more likely that both would read La Croix du Nord or Nord-Eclair.
Professor Smith has an excellent subject, and she has made the most of it. However, her book often makes very hard reading. It is extremely repetitive, sometimes long-winded. She is at pains never to leave the reader to his own devices; and he is lectured to at great length even on such subjects as Myth. An attachment to sociological jargon continually intrudes between what is perfectly obvious, what could be expressed quite simply, imposing a language both obscure, ungrammatical, and wooden. Her quiet, well-organized homes drip with “artifacts” and swim steamily in “symbolism.” Even the simplest acts are heavily “symbolic” of something or other. Sometimes one has the impression that she is dealing with a tribe and that she is borrowing the crude tools of the anthropologists. In her text, there are seventy-five references to the “women of the Nord”; “women in the Nord” score twenty-one, “northern women” get eight points, “business women of the Nord” get two; “ladies of the Nord” get only one (a bit hard), so do “women from the Nord,” and “girls in the Nord.” The bludgeoned reader might well end up feeling rather like old John Knox when he evoked the Monstrous Regiment of Women.
It is in Part II (“the Domestic System”), and more especially in Chapter 4, “Domesticity: The Rhetoric of Reproduction,” that Professor Smith displays herself at her most tiresome, particularly in the elaborate illustration of the absolutely self-evident. She seems to have made it a rule that when faced with a choice between what is simple and clear and what is obscure and complicated, always opt for the second. It is a shame, for the chapter gets off with a brilliant start:
By 1870 her portrait is finished, revealing a carefully corseted lady in a plaid taffeta dress, slightly gathered across the stomach, full in back, her lacy shawl arranged to display a white collar attached with a cameo; a small veiled hat on her head, a plush purse dangling from her gloved hands. She is about to make her afternoon visit—in fact, several of them. The children have been dispatched, some to school, some to the care of servants; she has drawn up an ordre du jour for the household staff, attended mass, written letters and entries in her diary, presided over the noon meal. In the evening she will sit with her family to listen to one of the children read from the Comtesse de Ségur’s Evangile d’une grand’mère; while listening she will embroider a cushion and eventually summon the servants for evening prayers. This daily routine is punctuated by visits from the seamstress, knitting for the poor, mending, making lists of repairs, purchases, and projects, and preparing an occasional lavish entertainment at which she and others of her female guests will play the piano and sing.
It all seems plain sailing and one awaits the rest with interest and the promise of enjoyment. But Professor Smith is a stern teacher. Enough of that.
She is going now to take us into the home, and the home, she relentlessly reminds us, is “the arena of reproduction.” “Arena” does not suggest fun, and, sure enough, we are in for a bad time, a proper trouncing. We are reminded, not just once, that women are biologically different from men and that their biological time cycle is not the same as that of men. As she hammers away determinedly on the subject of the reproductive role of women, she manages to reduce the whole varied and comforting area (“arena”?) of domesticity to the single function of reproduction—fair enough perhaps when applied to mothers of eight or more, and with possibly a couple of children stillborn or dying in infancy, but nevertheless almost comically restricting. Women employ “a language of reproduction,” not of course in so many words, for they have been well brought up, as by gesture and hidden signs. The house glitters and glimmers with “domestic symbolism.”
“The bed,” she informs us gravely, “lay down hallways, under canopies and drapes, and behind closed doors. Women sought to erase that centrality of the natural by placing water closets severely out of view.” (Did they indeed!) “Sexual life,” she pronounces, “was confined to the central bed, in a specified room. So too the water closet had its own fixed location.” Well, she must know, for she has been inside, and must have noticed things that I failed completely to spot: “As we enter the Northern bourgeois home,” she says, adopting the voice of an Intourist guide to the Hermitage, “and observe its daily life, we can regard its operations as part of a symbolic system.” (She certainly seems to have somewhat abused the proverbial hospitality of the inhabitants of the Nord, in such earnest sniffings upstairs and downstairs and in my lady’s chamber; one would have to think twice about having her again.) Where should the marriage bed have been? In the salon? Would it not have been more “natural” to have the water closet in the hall?
But this is only a beginning. Every object is exclusively designed to express woman’s reproductive function, her domestic power, and her fragility and imprisonment (under house arrest in “the arena”). Women “saw themselves in the glazed salmon and in the carefully chosen strawberries that graced the table.” Professor Smith has a thing about “glazed salmon,” as well as about “truffles,” for both turn up several times. “Reproductive contours distributed themselves…” (all over the place, you could not escape them, they turned up even in table legs and velvet cushions); “the dining-room contained a buffet along the walls with the table and the chairs at the center…” (well, I have met that sort of layout, and not just in the Nord; it had seemed to me a perfectly reasonable arrangement for eating in comfort and talking to one’s neighbors; but I have missed the point, it is designed of course to emphasize reproduction.
“A bed [here we are again] occupied the focus of a bedroom”; and, later, she observes sagaciously, and apparently quite unaware of the suitability of the phrase: “our women of the Nord [speak for yourself, they are not mine] led lives embedded in reproductive functions.” The bed, in her account, certainly does not seem to offer much fun. But even minor objects—indeed all minor objects—are regimented to illustrate her implacable thesis. Women “saw themselves in a waxed buffet.” Is this why it was waxed? Did they literally catch their reflection in it?
Fashion, too, has only one function: “the higher waistline…metaphorically accommodated the elongated and impregnated uterus….” (not the sort of remark, to judge from my own experience, that would have gone down well on the boulevard de Cambrai).
If a woman favored a floral design, it was because flowers too symbolized reproductive functions. A woman could not just be allowed to like flowers; and if she preferred green to pink, brown to blue, yes, you can see it coming: the old functions. Even when she indicates, either by pressing an electric bell under the table, or by a sign with her lips, or by a look, that it is time to bring in the next course, the lady of the house is expressing herself in “preverbal signs.” “Women saturated the social space with the color and volume of their clothing”; and there is a further reference to “the symbolic refurbishing of the female space.” We hear too of “the undifferentiated encapsulation of the self in nature”; we are informed that “the notion of fashion in any genre of domesticity could only arise at the intersection of reproduction and the market.” Which market? La halle aux poissons?
Even the poor domestics are dragged in. Servants of course are to be pitied, because they are victims of exploitation. “The personal nature of the bonds sometimes alleviated the worst features of this authoritarian structure,” primly states Professor Smith, resuming her In-tourist tone. Of course it would never do if servants actually became attached to their mistresses. But she has not finished with these poor victims of capitalism yet: “The household staff projected her presence in all their activities, including their incapacity in the sexual and reproductive sphere. The servant, in the long run, was not just functional; she served as the negative metaphor for reproduction.” I do not know what we are to make of this bold statement. It would be unlikely that living-in servants would have children, for part of their duties would be to look after the younger children of their mistress. But this surely does not imply that these healthy peasant girls from the villages of French Flanders could not have children? And, no doubt, the dailies, such as the cook or the washerwoman, often had children of their own.
All in all, there does not seem to have been much joy in the Roubaix bourgeois home. Or perhaps, if the maîtresse de maison really did derive great joy and contentment from the domestic scene, from her children and her relatives, from the comforts of her home, and from the regular and reassuring routine of a private calendar, she was merely displaying her ignorance of her unliberated state. That is what Professor Smith seems to imply, in a throwaway remark that comes at the end of her book: “the story of the reproductive past is unpleasant for its revelation of women’s primitivism and antirationalism.” I found this chapter both unpleasant and vulgar and crude.
It is a pity, for elsewhere she writes well and displays a very sharp insight. She has a brilliant chapter on the family novel of the Joséphine de Gaulle vintage: a moral tale in a straight fight between good and evil, in which the heroine often has an alter ego, a female doppelganger, whose role is to lead her into temptation, and in which men are generally dangerous intruders. Such stories are motionless, entirely predictable, and so boring, but reassuring. They were not to be read for enjoyment, but for edification. Elsewhere there is a wealth of information and observation.
Perhaps Chapter 4 is just a lapse into some ill-digested pseudo science that excludes all human qualities. Certainly, elsewhere, Professor Smith reestablishes women both in their dignity, their simplicity, and their diversity. She offers some marvelously evocative accounts of how the ladies of the Nord were likely to spend their day (once they escaped from the “arena”), hour by hour, when they would go on visits, how they would behave, what they would say, and where they would sit on visits, what they would do on Saturdays and Sundays, how Mondays would be employed, what would be the correct attitude to adopt toward an older woman, how to design a menu, when to spring-clean, when to change the covers, how carefully to walk, amid tight social conventions, in order to retain respect; and respect was everything in this private world.
This is a major contribution to the history of leisure; it also represents a very original incursion into the still largely closed areas of private, as opposed to public, history. What a pity Professor Smith could not have omitted all the sociological twaddle! Perhaps it is too late. One fears so, for, in her last paragraph, she pays a tribute to Simone de Beauvoir as to one “who breathed new life into twentieth-century feminism.” She certainly has not breathed any life into anything else.
December 17, 1981