A Memory

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A Memory:  On the First Anniversary of the Death of Jules Vallès[1]

When he fell back with a heavy sigh and I knew that death, that wretch, had just taken him, I cried out in revolt against anyone who tried to comfort me. “Leave me alone! Ah, you don’t know what he was to me. He was my father… He was my child!”

My father! He did, indeed, instruct my mind and form my convictions. He pulled me out of the middle class muck. He took the trouble to knead and shape my soul in his own image. He made a simple and sincere creature out of the doll I was. He gave me the heart and mind of a citizen.

Ah, yes, dear father!

All those people who whispered to each other when they saw us passing by or who smiled seeing my twenty springtimes next to his fifty autumns do not know how unimportant their ironies and innuendos were to my utter indifference or to the deepest joys I experienced in the role I accepted by his side.

It would be easy to laugh at Antigone if she were not Oedipus’ daughter—and especially if Oedipus’ eyes were still young under his helmet of white hair. But how little did I care! And what sweet revenge for me when we sat at his desk and he sketched the legend of the proletariat, perpetually wounded, perpetually defeated. His style was visual, to create images—beautiful images always tinted with red… the blood of the oppressed that has run for centuries without its source ever drying up. And then he cradled my young beliefs with the carols of Dupont, the songs of Clément and the refrains of Pottier![2] And at his side, like a good little girl, I recited the alphabet of the Revolution.

My father, certainly, yes! And yet, how much better the second word: my child.

Ah! I am fully aware that for anyone who does not care or who disapproves this motherly name sounds funny coming from a young woman talking about an old man more than a quarter of a century her senior. But it is not for the indifferent or the hostile that I am writing this. Those who are reading me today on this anniversary are those who were part of Vallès’ funeral procession a year ago and escorted me in my grief. This is the family I have chosen as my own, the anonymous relations of the lower classes, the great crowd of sufferers to whom I give all my heart and for whom I hope, one day, to give my life!

To them I can tell my sorrow—they respect tears.

But they only knew Vallès when he was rowdy and full of life, loud and spirited, when his voice filled up the room, his laughter shook the windows and his grip crushed, though it was the grip of such a warm hand.

I did not know this Vallès very well. My Vallès is the one with whom I fought through sickness for three painful years and the one for whom I grappled with death for six dreadful weeks.

In his life, which was almost happy and fiercely free of the old resistance, I was just some fun, some glitter, a common tease, a socialite signed up by his talent, as he strolled around the suburbs with his new recruit. I smiled at this sometimes, when he looked so naïve showing off and his eyes sparkled with cheer in front of the scandalized astonishment of the bourgeoisie yelling, “We’ve been robbed!”

Except, I also felt good that I was such a little thing to him, that I had missed his vagabond years and that our literary collaboration—the strong bond between us—which was developed with so much appreciation on my part, was for him merely a master patronizing his apprentice. I was an extra in his life—nothing more.

But after!

When the sickness cast him down and hounded him like a vulture circling battlefields to finish off the wounded; when it tore off his flesh and gnawed at his lungs with its claws and beak; when nothing remained of the Hercules of old but a kind of ghost, thin as a skeleton and weak as a child, oh, then I was needed in his life and I was, I can say with pride, life itself for him!

In his old Christ’s face, whose skin was as frightfully thin and pale as wax, his eyes burned warmly, full of tenderness and pain, as they followed me around the room. And I found the energy to laugh and cheer him up and distract him, all the while talking his ear off about the coming spring, about getting better, about the hot sun and the green grass that we would go find far away, very far away…

And while his face lit up, he huddled in my arms almost in fear and I felt It prowling around us—That which we cannot avoid—implacable Death waiting for me to let go of him so It could steal him away.

My child! I will never take that back.

He weighed less than a child when I carried his poor, wasted body from bed to bed. He called for me like a child, day and night, every minute, just to see me leaning over him and to feel me near. And I buried him myself like the brave mothers who sew the flesh of their flesh into a shroud.

I am saying all this, I swear, not to talk about what I did. We do not deserve praise for doing our duty when we get such bitter joy from it. And again it is not an “article” I am writing—it is my grief that I express, good or bad, come as it may!

But today on this anniversary there will be no shortage of people screaming out about the selfishness and inhumanity of Vallès…

Well, do you really believe that he was so selfish, cruel and inhuman? He who was able to inspire such motherly and daughterly tenderness and passion? He whom we keep in memory like a religion?

[1] February 14 1886, include in Pages Rouges, 1893.

[2] Pierre Dupont (1821-1870), socialist songwriter; Jean Baptiste Clément (1836-1903), writer of “Le Temps des Cerises”; and Eugène Pottier (1816-1887), writer of “L’Internationale”.

3-Jules Vallès

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He was fifty years old. His hair and beard white like a biblical patriarch. Deep wrinkles slashed across his forehead above his bushy eyebrows. He was ugly, gruff and grim with the voice of an ogre, constantly grumbling about all kinds of tyranny… family, school, police, empire… and he was sick to boot, diabetic. The trials and tribulations of his life had taken their toll. But the gaze of his dark eyes was as hard as nails.

Jules Vallès was one of the lions of the newspaper jungle, an incorruptible fighter of the good fight, a horror for editors who had to answer to Anastasie (the name given to official censorship). He was an honest writer, sincere, ardent and full of striking images—he cried real tears and bled real blood. He was not one of those stuffy, pretentious, literary types: “Too bad for the barbarisms, I don’t claim to be a man of letters.” He was also independent of any particular school of thought. All forms of organized action by committees, parties, societies, etc. repulsed him. He wanted nothing to do with ideologies. He was unclassifiable, even among the rebels. Moreover, he was one of the most outspoken of the dissidents, having spent years founding short-lived newspapers that were seized by the police, fined by the government and ultimately responsible for his frequent visits to the prisons of Paris. He paid a high price for his audacity to be free.

The 19th century in France saw many, often contradictory laws and regulations limiting freedom of expression under the various political regimes. Although most journalists tended to accept the restraints, there were always those who shook off the muzzles. In 1870 after years of repressive laws under the Second Empire that gagged and governed the press, journalists got drunk on the expectation of freedom that the Republic could offer. But even the Paris Commune forbade the publication of newspapers that were hostile to it. Vallès was there, elected to the council, and was one of the few to oppose this: “I’m for the absolute, unlimited freedom of the press. Freedom without boundaries!” This was his attitude when he founded Le Cri du Peuple, one of the most influential papers of the period, which achieved the success he had been waiting for. 100,000 copies in Paris under seige. But it was a brief triumph. While a young Caroline Rémy was watching Paris burn from the Charenton Bridge, Jules Vallès was escaping the flames to spend the next ten years in exile. The amnesty granted on July 10 1880 freed 541 men and 9 women, including some of the most popular figures of the time, like Louis Michel, Henri Rochefort and, of course, Vallès himself.

“The Commune was a great big celebration that the people of Paris first offered to themselves and then to the world,” he told Séverine. Through Vallès she met many of the old Communards who would sit around and talk for hours on end about the Ideal, reliving history, their history. They brought the Commune to life, from the taking of the cannons in Montmartre to the final hours in Père Lachaise cemetery. Also through Vallès she discovered the Revolution through hearing about his life and the life of common people. She learned how to listen, understand and sympathize with the poorest of the poor. And she learned the business of the press.

In the 1880s the heart of the press beat on the Boulevard des Italiens, near the luxury shops, banks and theaters, where almost all of the newspapers had their offices. The nerve centers were, of course, the editorial rooms. But maybe more instrumental were the cafes on the boulevard where the journalists met to drink and discuss politics, culture and the scandals of the day.

At Tortoni’s in the autumn of 1883 the men sat agape and astonished when they saw Jules Vallès enter. Badly shaven, in his old clothes, lumbering around, grouchy and rude, holding the arm of a blue-eyed, copper-haired beauty, half his age, elegant and reserved, but a little wild at the same time. He looked daggers at you when his hackles were up; she stared like a child, brazen and serious enough to embarrass you with those piercing green eyes that refused to turn away. He introduced her as his secretary. She was still Caroline, not yet Séverine but no longer Line who had been born around the corner in a house that was demolished in 1868 to make way for Baron Haussmann’s grand boulevard. And they accepted her in this exclusively male milieu, which had never before admitted a female among their company, because she was sponsored by Vallès, whom they dared not refuse. Soon, however, she would be accepted in her own right, the first woman to be so “honored”.

She was a good student; she learned fast. At first she recopied his manuscripts, corrected faults, proofread, and learned the subtleties of style, the art of dipping the pen in caustic ink. But she was more than just a copyist; she had to sort and order his scattered thoughts, make his hasty writing consistent and logical: unity, clarity and coherence. Her gave her advice that she appreciated, but her master was demanding and passionate; he could be excessive, impatient and hard on her, pressed as he was for time by publishers or by the need for money. Her sweet smile did not always tame the old lion. He was at his worst when she made a mistake, which was unforgiveable, but she rebelled against any criticisms she felt were unjust. It was more than just a collaboration, it was a communion of souls, acknowledged on both sides. At the end of 1883 a collection of his articles written during his years of exile in London, La Rue à Londres, was dedicated to her, the “beautiful comrade in whom I found the tenderness of a daughter and the ardor of a disciple.” She, in turn, dedicated her first collection of articles in 1893, Pages Rouges, to his memory: “The little that I know, the little that I am, I owe to you, my unforgettable Master.”

With the same passion and diligence that she devoted to his writing she took on her boss’ new project: he intended to launch a new paper or rather revive an old one, Le Cri du Peuple.   “It’s only the pursuit of a goal that makes life ‘alive’,” he wrote to her, “We will pursue it together.” So she became, in many ways, his partner. For one because he saw in her a kind of sister soul, a dissenter, a misfit—her wild seed. He trusted her. More importantly, perhaps, at the moment, was that she could finance it. Adrien Guebhard was easily convinced to furnish most of the money, though it was hardly a profitable investment—the press of opinion, the political press normally cost more than it brought in—but giving a paper to Vallès was like giving one to her. Although she had not yet published a single article, she had already proven herself capable of doing so by rewriting Vallès.

The first edition of Le Cri du People appeared on October 28 1883. There were twenty people on the staff around Vallès, who was grumpier than ever, and Caroline, who had chosen to wait to take the plunge into journalism, but not for long. Her first article came out on November 23, signed Séverin, the masculine form. The second article used the same male name. To appease the editorial team? To justify her writing? There were, of course, deep-seated prejudices against women writing substance despite such famous predecessors, mostly under male pseudonyms, such as Olympe de Gouges, who was guillotined during the Revolution, or Delphine Gay who signed Vicomte Charles de Launay to her influential articles on Parisian society in La Presse; Marie d’Agoult, the aristocratic lover of Liszt, wrote under the name of Daniel Stern; Victoire Léodile Béra called herself André Léo; and Aurore Dupin who took the name George Sand to publish her writings. But none of these women had to make a living off their publications like Séverine would soon have to. Nevertheless, whatever the reason for these first two male masks might have been, on December 15 1883 she published her third article and Séverine was born.

While Séverine was embarking on her journalistic career, Vallès’ diabetes got worse. At first he had to stop working so hard and soon he had to stay home entirely. Séverine took care of everything: his work, food, health and comfort. She brought him his papers and acted as agent between him and the editorial staff, which had not developed into what he had dreamed of. By the beginning of 1885 he was bedridden. For six weeks she practically did not leave his side. He became so thin and frail that she had to carry him in her arms, like a child, from the armchair to the bed and back again. He was virtually helpless and Séverine had to be mother, daughter, friend, collaborator and nurse all at the same time.

But his reputation as a troublemaker did not decline with his health. In Le Cri du Peuple was a column entitled “The Political Police” that denounced the corrupt agents of repression, gave their addresses and named them for public condemnation. A scandal broke out over the death of Madame Ballerich, the mother of two policemen, whose murderer, Gamahut, was sentenced to death. The author of the column claimed that the chief of police himself had sent Gamahut to kill her so as to distract public attention away from the budget deficit. The two police brothers invaded the offices of Le Cri demanding the identity of the writer, but almost all the staff claimed authorship to cover him. The office was sacked and shots were fired. There was blood everywhere; Duc-Quercy had been stabbed under his arm before shooting one of the drunken Ballerichs. Afterward more than a dozen policemen invaded Séverine’s apartment where Vallès had moved, forcing him out of his deathbed to conduct their nine-hour search for documents about the real identity of the “slanderer”. In fact, they knew perfectly who the author, Chastan or Chastenet, was—it was rumored that he was an informant planted by the police—but used the opportunity as a pretext to harass Vallès and Le Cri. The following day Vallès received two death threats, one of them from a police officer who, as fate would have it, did not have time to make good on it.

Less than a month later, on February 14 1885 Jules Vallès died at the age of fifty-three. The official estimate said that 15,000 people gathered in the streets for his funeral procession two days afterward. Just as he had always opened his papers to men of all faiths and ideals, so too at his funeral could be found socialists, communists, guesdists, possibilists, anarchists, collectivists, workers, freethinkers and the survivors of the Commune. But the hatred he had attracted during his life broke out one last time over his coffin: a group of German socialist students started yelling and shouting and started a violent brawl that the police had to break up. Finally the eulogy was given by Edouard Vaillant[1] who recalled the duty Vallès had fulfilled until his dying day: to serve the cause of the suffering and oppressed, to call for revolutionary action in order to install that Republic with no God and no Masters, which he had fought his entire life for.

And he had passed the flame to Séverine. She was his living testament, his posterity. And she was ready to fulfill the hopes he had placed in her. She may not change the world with the stroke of a pen, but she could die trying. For Jules Vallès, the most important thing was that she never give up the fight.

[1] A Communard who died in 1915.

The Eternal Masculine (III)

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Charles Marville-Cloud Study over Paris 1850s

The Eternal Masculine[1]

Part Three: The End

I lived. I suffered. At seventeen I had to start my life over, even earn a living. And I was unfit for it, with my idle hands only used to the piano, my shiny silks and soft wool—a stranger to the most insignificant errand in the workshops where you get an apprenticeship and the habit of working.

They had never made me think of it.

And, except for the toil of the university for which I was not prepared—fought so hard for, by the way, that the most diligent and the most deserving died of hunger, their hands outstretched, without receiving even a scrap—except for this toil, what could I do?

Individual labor remained a closed book to me: they had not shown me the great mechanism wherein every being is one of the active, positive wheels, the millstone where they grind the bread of humanity.

My father went to his office while I worked on my classics. I know that we were living on his salary. I also know that Lucretia spun linen, that Philopoemen sawed wood and Cincinnatus pushed a cart! I know, too, that we give rent to the landlord and wages to the servants, that everything is bought and paid for—but that is all I knew! No one ever explained to me that mighty and tremendous law of exchange, of balance between effort and result, the purpose of life for creatures down here; the sovereign morality that shames the useless and gives the idlest hands a feverish activity.

To produce is to live—to be worthy of living, rather. It is paying for one’s part of the picnic and for the cost of one’s fantasies. Even more it is the revelation of a force, the market listing of one’s capacities—affirming one’s will before oneself, like the unit before zero; multiplying by ten the sterile number, awakening the dormant value, fertilizing the dead soil.

No one ever taught me this. I had to learn these things on my own. Although no one ever told me, “You should work,” when the time came they told me, “You have to work.” I resigned myself and considered it—and it was the serene notion of duty that helped me get through this painful obligation.

My fingers were pricked while sewing and my eyes grew weary under the lights—but I was free, with no cravings, no regrets… feeling sorry for the idle.

#

Free, yes. Happy, no! At every step in the battle, nothing but deception and strain. They will never know how rocky is the hill of the feminine ordeal! Before reaching the top, in torture or triumph—usually both—there is nothing but tears and bruises, slips and sometimes falls.

The weak and frail drop to their knees as much to ask forgiveness as because fate bends them down like branches in a windstorm. The strong stagger but resist; many fall on the road like they were hit by lightning and do not get up again. And the rare survivors follow their dream to the heights, leaving bloody footprints on the path.

You have to fight for your bread. You have to fight for your honor! And for the woman, isolated, weak, without support or resources, the man stands eternally before her—for the competition or the conquest!

Many give in, out of hunger; many give up, out of fear, tired of being insulted on the street, suspected by their neighbors, leered at by their apartment managers. It seems paradoxical and yet it is true. Scripture says, “Woe unto the man who is alone!”[2] But for a woman alone it says nothing… words fail it!

And the years passed—years so sorrowful, so dull and dreary that I prefer not to mention them, not to count them. And everywhere, always, the enemy: cruel and selfish man. So full of himself, so convinced of his omnipotence that today, like in the stone age when the Troglodytes lay in wait at the caves mouths, many of them try to get a female by starving her out.

Although I personally only had to put up with a little of this shameful self-interest, many around me suffered from it and died from it! And mourning them is painful and bitter for me. Purposefully parodying that ancient adage, I said, “I am a woman, nothing feminine is foreign to me.”[3]

Moreover, I feel even more sorry for those women who shut themselves up in their pride and for those who asked love for comfort and hope!

#

Love!

There is where manly egoism shines brightest. There is where the bitterest, most incurable wounds are inflicted. Ah, the romantic visions of youth, that dream of spending your life together, staring into each other’s eyes, hearts beating together, hand in hand! And the music of sweet nothings and that hymn of heavenly souls in springtime!

Souls? Ah, yes, well. We do not have time to have them anymore—it is old-fashioned. You look good to me, I look good to you, let’s get on with it. Let’s rent a room somewhere—and play house or have an affair.

There is no more gallantry. There are no more charming preludes where budding traps hide in the flowers. There are no more valiant passions that surmount all obstacles and break chains. Already in the time of Perrault[4] it was the brothers and not the lovers who went to free the wife of Bluebeard.

Man loves for himself, for his flesh, his vanity, his self-interest or his habit. He adapts his heart the best he can to the future—for love just like for war. Chivalry is a thing of the past.

And our sons frighten us when we think they could be worse than their fathers!

So? So, nothing. Here comes the dawn whitening my windows and my lamp is flickering, out of oil. Go out, little flame—you did your job. So clear and peaceful at first, a light as big and bright as the eyes of a child; and then steady and strong, drying the ink under your flame like dew in the sun; and finally lower and sad like the old people in the back of the chapel, on the threshold of the grave.

Go out, fragile lamp, without a flash, without revolt, in joyful peace—here comes the dawn!

[1] Signed Jacqueline in Gil Blas, September 2 1892.

[2] Ecclesiastes 4:10

[3] cf. Terence, Heuton Timorumenos, v.77: I am human, I consider nothing human foreign to me.

[4] Charles Perrault (1628-1703) who wrote many famous fairy tales, like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots.

The Eternal Masculine (II)

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The Eternal Masculine[1]

Part Two: The Day After the Wedding Night

This, huh? So, this is it? This despicable action, this bruise, this stain, this crushing of the weak by force, of the will by violence, this torture, this profanation of the entire physical being while the brain is still working but the heart falters—this is marriage?

So that is why they taught us modesty and kept us chaste; why no rose was white enough, no lily pure enough for our eyes to look upon and no poem innocent enough to let them beat its wings, like a dove, in our immaculate room; why no collars were high enough, no skirts long enough, no eyes closed enough—it was for this, to come to this thing, for the “delivery” to be full and entire and for the soul to agonize in a wounded body!

And those people, all those people yesterday who surrounded me and hugged me and congratulated me. They knew, all of them knew! Women who saw me born were smiling tenderly as they watched me. Old friends of my father and uncle stared at me with funny faces, totally amused, and whispered jokes that I did not understand.

“Shush! Shush!” my father said. But his voice belied his attitude. Some gratification, some satisfaction showed through his scandalized mask. If he had not had an official role in the ceremony, I believe he would have dropped his usual discretion and willingly joined in with them. I hated him yesterday, all day long, him, my uncle, their chums… without knowing why. They, on the other hand, were very proud—especially of my ignorance and how calmly I listened to things that would probably make me cringe today.

Ah, I hold it against all of them! Really, what customs and traditions are these to gather around a virgin to celebrate her lawful disgrace—a poor child who makes a better laughing stock the more naïve she is and the less she knows!

Everyone laughed at me. Not one man or woman took pity or sensed my coming horror—and that my life might be spoiled forever because I was raised almost always in the house, without sisters, without friends, having heard nothing, read nothing, learned nothing… I was too pure coming into the marriage bed.

No, I do not remember any hug that resonated with mercy, not a single glimmer of pity in those eyes lit up with crude cheer. Completely the opposite. A burst of laughter when I answered mama, who wanted to go with me to my new home, offering my forehead like usual for a goodnight kiss, with my big, sleepy eyes, I answered, “Don’t you worry about it, you’re so exhausted! I’ll undress myself just fine.”

It is true: I was really an idiot… Thinking about it now, clasping my hands, the tears will not stop flowing…

#

But it is a crime, a true crime, in the name of I don’t know what custom, that they committed against me. Yes, marriage is an abuse of trust, an abject and despicable trap.

I did not give myself; I did not give my consent; it is not true! They stole me from myself; they deceived me; they lied to me. I promised obedience—I did not know to what! I swore to be faithful—I did not know why!

Everyday the courts annul commitments that were entered into more consciously than the one I am enslaved in. They declare them besmirched with immorality if it is proven that one of the parties was exploited in ignorance. The men declare this—the ones who make the law!

For me, my life is lost. The life of the “other”, too, undoubtedly. Because being so unfamiliar with the obligations that the wedding entails, I married without love. I would have taken the first comer, the first partner, the first friend who offered to share my life and help me in my honorable escape from a suffocating environment. I did not want to run after certificates and diplomas. I did not want to be a teacher—a hand reached out, I grabbed it without stopping to consider that my fifteen years knew nothing, were completely oblivious, I understand today about the fate of a marriage, but they made the decision.

If I had known, I would not have married, since I was not haunted by dark thoughts: I was as ignorant as on the day I was born about carnal acts. I was so romantic that that it was enough for me to revive ancient loves, dead lovers lying in the tomb.

Anyway, if I had known, I would have refused. I would have done what, in my opinion, an honest girl should have done: not “honesty” in the sense that my parents give—I know now what that “honesty” is worth!—but in the sense of uprightness, integrity and loyalty.

I would have waited to love someone before offering myself to him. At least this someone would be sure of my consent, it would be me myself who gave myself to him and not paternal authority or the law! And maybe I would not have wept all night long. And certainly my flesh would not be trembling in terror and disgust.

To love someone! That is gone forever. I am one of those whom destiny has robbed of their share of paradise. Even from afar I will not see the promised land. I am bound for life, my whole life, to this man I saw for the first time two months ago, who courted me for six weeks, sent a dozen bouquets, sang a dozen ballads—the number of his visits—who married me yesterday, took me tonight and has still not given me anything—not even a kiss!

#

My husband! At first he was rather nice, otherwise I would not have accepted his company—today I hate him!

In spite of myself, in this strange room where they did not even think of bringing my personal knickknacks or my favorite books, a little of that fatherland that is the maternal home, in this strange room, I see him again and I will always see him as he appeared to me out of the dark, with his beastly grin and his raised fists. Oh, the well-behaved fiancé was long gone. His blissful smile and smooth voice—finished! The image is frozen in the horror of my soul, like they say that you can see the image of the murderer reflected in the pupils of the victim.

When I knew from his heavy breathing of a sated animal that he was asleep, I jumped out of bed and opened the window. It is high. I bent over the railing ten times wanting to leap into the void, into the purifying darkness.

I am not sixteen years old. I am scared.

This morning he left. To leave me alone, I think. While I was getting ready, he came back and looking contented, happy with himself, almost a victor, he said, “My dear child, get your hat on quickly and let’s go see your parents. Today is the day your father is supposed to give me the dowry. Business is business.”

It is true—he had won!

 

[1] Signed Jacqueline in Gil Blas, August 30 1892.

2-From Marriage to Suicide

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“You will be a teacher or we will marry you off!”

Even at sixteen years old Séverine was too much of a rebel to enter the world of civil service, like her father, with all the bosses and schedules to obey. Teaching was far from her dream of a happy life. Directors, inspectors, ministers, parents—they had to be obeyed. Timetables, meetings, social gatherings, obligations—they had to be respected. You could beat your head against the wall, but you had to conform. There was no place for freedom. And she wanted none of it.

Therefore, she had to risk taking a husband. Her parents were not rich, but had managed to save up a 30,000 F dowry. As was customary at the time, it was her father who was responsible for finding a husband. He found Henri Montrobert, an employee of the gas company[1], originally from Lyon, a serious, earnest man, and not bad looking. He courted the beautiful young lady like a gentleman for six weeks. Her knight who would steal her away from her repressive parents. The dream was short-lived.

On October 26 1872 they celebrated the wedding in Creteil. She was seventeen years old; he was thirty. The wedding night was a violent, dirty, shameful disgrace for her. A legalized rape. And she wanted to leave right away and run back to her parents, but there was an issue—she was pregnant.   Nine months later on July 28 1873 their son was born, Louis, whom she immediately left with his father to go back to her parents. For the next five years she did not see Louis since she felt incapable of showing him any signs of motherly care. For one, she was never really comfortable with or interested in children until they could hold an intelligent conversation. Furthermore, her life was headed elsewhere.

The legal separation was declared on December 31, 1873. At that time divorce was illegal: in 1816 the Restoration forbade divorce, which had been allowed by the Revolution in 1792. So, in the eyes of the law she remained Caroline Montrobert for more than ten years until the Naquet Law was passed, legalizing divorce, which she was quick to take advantage of.

But now back at home she had to start her life over again, to earn a living, and she was ill prepared. She gave piano lessons and did some embroidery work, paid her board and managed to save a little money to go to the theater. She even did some acting under the name of Evans Montrobert on a small stage. But the inconsequential work and the typical poverty of unmarried, middle class girls were difficult to bear.

“Free, yes. Happy, no.”

Then one fine day her uncle told her about a widow, Madame Guebhard, who lived in a huge apartment in Neuilly, but spent much of her time in her native Switzerland, in Neuchâtel, as well as vacationing on Lake Como in Northern Italy. The aging woman loved to read but her sight was declining so she was looking for a young companion to read to her, go to the theater and concerts and maybe travel with her. What a windfall—to pursue her love of reading while working at the same time. Caroline went to see her, was hired right away, packed her bags and went to live in the house in Neuilly.

Madame Guebhard had two sons. The older, Adrien, was studying literature and science to become a doctor. He was gentle and shy and seduced by the red-haired beauty at first sight. But Caroline paid him little attention. When he finally graduated in 1878, he declared his love. She took her time to respond. He bade his time and gradually won her over, not by passion, maybe not completely by love, but certainly by affection.

Madame Guebhard was enamored of Caroline, too, and accepted the affair between the two young lovers. And she accepted the unexpected pregnancy. There would be no question of abortion. It was still only 1880 and they could not be legally married, so the child would be illegitimate, born in secret, in Brussels, but only six hours from Paris by train. She organized everything. Roland was registered at the French consulate with the father as Adrien Paul Emile Guébhard and “mother unknown”. But Séverine did not want this second child any more than she did the first, so after his birth Roland was handed over to his grandmother.

Unbeknownst to her at the time, it was not her clandestine relationship with Adrien or the baby born under wraps that shook up her life. No, it was a chance encounter that would cast her headlong into her future. One evening at the doctor’s house in Brussels, she met Jules Vallès, that old Communard bear who was living in exile in London and happened to be visiting Belgium while waiting to go back to Paris—amnesty was in the air—still writing and now tutoring in his banishment, still chased by creditors for lack of money or by the authorities for lack of holding his tongue. And they hit it off right away.

On July 11 1880, after years of dispute over closing the wounds left by the massacres of the Bloody Week, the republicans finally capitulated and granted amnesty to the Communards. The following day Vallès was back in Paris and he and Séverine were together again. He had told her, “You have to work, girl!” and asked her to be his secretary. Which meant? Make him sound good. Read and correct his articles, recopy his chicken-scratch handwriting for the printers, in short an apprenticeship in writing and journalism, not only his occupation but his passion.

She was ecstatic about it. But Jules Vallès was a fanatic, a homeless convict sentenced to death, a seditious upstart with blood on his hands, lawless and faithless, who respected nothing, who hated everything and everyone, Church, State, family, the bourgeoisie… her parents could not accept it—they threatened to lock her up. Even Madame Guebhard was against it. Only Adrien was not scandalized… anything if she was happy. Such fierce resistance from almost every side, however, was too much for her. She wrote a note to Vallès, went to the little corner dresser, pulled out a revolver that was kept there and shot herself in the chest.

“I die of what makes you live: revolt. I die of being a woman while a virile and ardent thought burns in me. I die of being defiant.”

A spoiled child? A drama queen? A sudden impulse? A sincere desire to end it all? Certainly there is spite, rage, hatred and desperation in the act. A slew of hazy motives jumbled together, which remain hers and hers alone. Luckily, the bullet missed her heart. After she recovered there was no question of standing in her way. She went to Vallès’ apartment every day to work in his shadow, to learn and to accompany him on his evening walks. Seeing them together, people talked, especially since Adrien was rarely with them—late nights in theaters, restaurants and cafes did not interest him—but she did not care. Between this grizzled old bear and the pretty young diamond in the bourgeois rough that she was, there was only deep tenderness and affection, and maybe a little flirting on the side.

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As she learned under Vallès and as her grandmother had pointed out, she had a hard time snuffing out her passion.

[1] Paul Coutiau (L’Insurgée, p. 53), however, notes that their great great granddaughter claims he was a very successful owner of a lumber company.