2-From Marriage to Suicide



“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.


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.


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