Séverine was born Caroline Rémy on April 27 1855 into a typically middle-class, bourgeois family in Paris. Her father, Onésime Rémy, had worked his way up through the ranks of bureaucracy to become the head of the Wet Nurse Department within the Prefecture of Police. From eight in the morning until six at night he trudged through the muddy suburbs of Paris to check on the women breastfeeding the children of the petite bourgeoisie and of mothers who had to work. Babies often died in unhealthy conditions and it was his job to prevent such tragedies. He was an honest, hard-working man, but at home he was strict and demanding on Line, as she was called.
It was a sad and solitary childhood. Being an only child and educated at home, Line had few friends and had to learn how to get by on her own in the world of adults and at the same time at an early age discovering her precociousness and rebellion. She taught herself to read using her father’s newspaper, Le Siècle, and her favorite books of Comtesse de Ségur. When she asked to have a pet—a dog, a cat, even a bird—to share her solitude in the second-floor apartment, her father came home with a goldfish. “Are you happy? You’ll have fun with it?” Staring at the bowl to hide her disappointment she answered, “Of course. And we won’t make any noise when we argue.”
In her simple but severe upbringing, she had to steer prudently between her father’s thunderous wrath and her mother’s rigorous austerity. She was dressed in dark clothes so as not to show the dirt and her golden red locks were cut short like a boy (or a prisoner) for tidiness.
One glimmer of light in the middle class gloom was Clementine, the maid. Line admired her pretty brown hair, bright clothes and even brighter laugh. A kind of complicity developed between the two of them. When she ended up leaving to get married it was a bitter tragedy for Line. But she still had her grandmother, cheerful and intelligent, who, being a widow, had come to live with them. She seemed to see more shrewdly than others. “My poor child,” she said, “if you don’t learn how to snuff out your passion, you will be ever so unhappy!” (because Line had slapped a boy who was torturing a bird), which was nicer than what others told her: “You’ll end up on the gallows!”
Yes, she was different. This “wild seed in the family garden” hated her bourgeois upbringing, the hypocrisy and conformity that was meant only to break a child’s will and remold the nascent personality.
Nevertheless, her parents loved her in their way, saving every penny for her dowry and tutoring her in Greek, Latin, music scales and how to act like a lady. Her father took her to the Louvre where he liked to visit the antiquities, the classics—Line preferred Rembrandt. But her mother brought her to the theater, which became a lifelong passion. She dreamed of becoming an actress, one of those grand women in revolt on stage. Her father would have none of that nonsense. He had destined her for teaching. Or a wealthy marriage. As she grew older, marriage looked more and more like her way out. Anything to get away from home.
At fifteen years old in 1870 Line was imprisoned… in a house left emptier by the death of her grandmother and bleaker by the siege of Paris (remember the Prussians). Line went out to help the wounded and dying. She came home with brains and blood on her schoolbooks. War, like the police, she hated from childhood. In the spring the Paris Commune bloomed. Still wearing skirts, she lived through it in a fog. Her parents feared the rebels more than the Prussians; they preferred military discipline to the insecurity of the Communards—those men and women drunk on blood and wine—so they moved out of Paris. Not for long, however, because everyone knew, soon enough, that the end was near. Line heard all kinds of horror stories about the atrocities committed inside the city walls, but she was no longer a little girl; she was already a dazzling beauty and she knew fully well that adults did not always speak the truth.
They spent two months outside Paris, safe from the “Communard Rabble” (as her parents called them) until the end finally came. That last week of May 1871 is graphically and accurately called The Bloody Week. The barricades of the Commune were broken. The rebels were summarily executed or put to flight. The dead and wounded were piled in the streets. The Revolution had dried up, but it watered the seeds of revolt in Line as she watched Paris burn in that surreal fair on the Charenton Bridge.
And the Rémys were safe now to return home.