-7-On The Frontlines

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Séverine by Meyer-1890

Séverine’s charity for the miners was not her only activism. She was more often called “Our Lady With A Tear In Her Eye” for what today we would call her humanitarian relief, or just simply “Our Lady of My Carnet”. The “Carnet” was a recent invention of Séverine. Being buried by all the mail and visits she received from people asking for her help, she decided to open a call for donations in the newspapers that she was writing for. Every week she presented her readers with a cause in need of their charity and every day she appended a postscript to her articles enumerating the donations and exhorting the rich to help the poor. Whether workers on strike or a sick boy needing an operation or a mother of six abandoned by her husband or a jobless, desperate old man wanting to turn on the gas stove and blow it all away, there was no end to the distress and misery that was devouring the lives of the poor.

She, for one, could not remain deaf, dumb and blind to the death that stalked the streets of Paris. She rose up against the apathy and indifference through her Carnet. It may have been only a drop in the bucket and far from solving the real social problems, but how could she let people starve to death and wallow in misery while waiting for the Revolution. For this she was criticized and ridiculed and accused of anti-socialism. She did not care and did not give up. And it was a success. So many requests and donations came rolling in that she had to hire three assistants to help with authenticating the cases and distributing the funds, which was all done strictly by the book.

We must remember that this was the Golden Age of Journalism. The press in Paris nearly tripled its circulation between 1880 and 1914. There were daily, weekly and monthly publications, not to mention all the pamphlets and flyers. What was said in the press was spread everywhere and to everyone. So if you were on the front page you were guaranteed attention. Séverine was on the front page and besides the content of her articles her postscripts became the talk of the town.

The fact that she was not always Séverine did not change a thing. For, in Le Gaulois she signed her articles Renée (with a nod to Chateaubriand) and in Gil Blas Jacqueline (in homage to Vallès’ semi-fictional hero Jacques Vingtras). Each had their own character: Renée was reserved and moderate; Jacqueline a little frivolous and fun-loving; and of course Séverine was always in trouble, sometimes out of control, the eternal rebel. So she could be at the same time the revolutionary from Le Cri, the worldly socialite of Le Gaulois and the smiling Parisienne of Gil Blas. She had fun playing with these personalities, writing to and about each other in a drama that was constantly invented by each other. But no one was fooled. Even when she used the pseudonym Credo, her readers recognized her unique lively style and sharp tone.   And no matter what name she signed she always placed Humanity above all parties and schools of thought. Whatever their own political opinions her readers saw this and had to respect her frankness and sincerity.

“What are you doing for the poor, you who claim to be their defenders?” She wrote in Le Cri on April 14 1888. People, especially politicians, do not like this kind of question because they know only too well the answer: nothing. Faced with the hungry, weak, sick and wounded, she did what she felt was her duty. Her duty also included defending rebels of all sorts, revolutionaries, militants and inveterate anarchists. By coming to their rescue she undermined society, order and the bourgeois morality. The real criminals in her eyes were not the ones being chased by the police and the press but rather the police themselves and the ministers, judges and company bosses. She became the queen of provocation and had to defend against attacks from every quarter. No matter how successful or famous she became, however, she always remained true to her humanitarian convictions. But before she could change the world, she did what she could to relive its suffering, both at home and abroad. Example: she spent every Christmas in Les Halles in front of Saint Eustache church distributing warm soup to the homeless before going home to prepare her articles for the next day’s papers. Example: the Armenians who resisted the Turkish invasion at the end of the 19th century were being slaughtered by the tens of thousands and very early on they wrote to Séverine to ask for her help and protection. They overestimated her influence, but she was one of the first to raise her voice in support of the Armenians against the Turkish massacres.

Winters in Paris are generally hard, but the winter of 1890-91 was one of the worst Paris had seen in a long time. The Seine froze. Almost all of the deer and buffalo kept in the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes perished. Braziers were set up in the streets where poverty-stricken crowds flocked to the shelters and soup kitchens. The Welfare services had to add 1,200 extra beds for the homeless, but even that was not enough. Séverine went into action. By means of her Carnet she set up a “Press Shelter” in an old swimming pool on Rue Rochechouart and went every night to help give food and clothes to the 300 beds that were never empty. During this particularly wicked season the authorities tread lightly on the homeless, which was not their usual policy. A law passed on May 27 1885 targeted repeat offenders (like in today’s three strikes policy) who were to be sent to the penal colonies for crimes that were considered a danger to the social order, such as theft, fraud, outrage to public morality, pederasty, vagrancy and begging. So, being homeless now was a crime. But in spite of their efforts to rid the country of “undesirables”, the problem grew.

Paris of the “Belle Epoque” was a grand illusion, attracting people from all over France and from all corners of the globe with its picture of a Promised Land whose streets were paved with gold. Thousands migrated there every year looking for jobs and a decent life but finding only poverty and resentment, a reality far different from the postcards of progress—then they crashed, some for a while, others for life.

Séverine was extremely popular and not a small part of her celebrity in the suburbs with the struggling workers was due to her Carnet and her activism for those in need. If you had a problem, just write to Séverine because if she talked about it, it was sure to get attention. And the people applauded her for it. She, of course, was asking for more than applause. But still she must have been proud when sometimes under the balcony of her fourth floor apartment on Boulevard Montmarte, some passer-by would look up and cry out, “Vive Séverine!” A result of her profound integrity was that she could raise hope in the hearts of the hopeless.

 

Next:  Against the Winter

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