Against the Winter


Frozen Seine-1891

Against the Winter[1]

The date of October 8 took its toll: the close of autumn, which opens the season of all suffering! The old clothes are worn out—and the cold is coming! The home is being threatened—and tomorrow is winter: the bitter streets, the pitiless skies and the brutal winds!

All night long, with my eyes wide open, I thought about the shivering families that are wandering around, not daring to stop.   The fathers and mothers taking their kids from bench to bench, from doorway to doorway, under the discomforted eye of the police, some of whom are good and despite the threat of reprimand they let fatigue rock the poor to sleep, let them have a taste of much needed rest.

But other cops harass them and revel in the hunt. They chase their human prey without mercy, moving them on constantly from one stop to the next. The quarry does not fight back. They obey the orders, stand up, stagger, and then hunched over on their weary legs, dragging their ball of fatigue after them, their ball of misery, all of them go to run aground somewhere else. The woman carries her infant, the man in front and the two, sometimes three older children—if not four—scamper along holding onto their father’s hand or their mother’s dress.

What thoughts could be brooding in the mind of this male seeing his female and his children homeless and hungry like this, hunted by some, hounded by others, rejected by all? If he is a hard worker and intelligent, who is only lack Girls Like Us ing a job and a little luck in spite of his sincere efforts, what must he be telling himself? And if he is an old man, succumbing to age after half a century of labor? And if he is sick with an incurable disease like I know so many of them are, or disabled or crippled?

And if it is one of those women who are alone and defenseless and without resources, from the young, sixteen-year old, unmarried mother bearing her mistake to the old lady who has survived all her children; or one of those widows, one of the abandoned, whose offspring prove the lack of social equilibrium—seeing that they urge the poor to reproduce but guarantee nothing for raising these productions?

What wild fears, what fits of madness, what anger and despair must be sprouting in their minds, burning up their souls, guiding these beings toward the worst excesses!

But who will admit it, who will think of it, who would even deign to condescend to envisage the problem? A restrictive law suffices: the prisons still have bars and the jails have guards. As far as searching for the source of the problem, dauntlessly, giving it over to fear and compassion, proclaiming, before everyone, that revolt is born of poverty, that it is the logical, inevitable result and that those who want to get rid of the one must be forced to alleviate the other—these are the words of utopists and the evil-minded!

And, well—this is horrible to say—but, perhaps, they speculate on the sheeplike gentleness of these wolves of Panurge[2] who would be a force, since they are a multitude, if they did not persist in their resignation. For every one who rebels, how many are there who submit? And the dynamic ones find refuge in death! Then they pity them afterward, they pity them a lot—but do they help the others any more? Because that is how the regret and remorse of the favored would really show itself in its most ethical conclusion.


Nothing! Neither foresight nor invigorating energy! And yet they know that winter, the dreadful winter, comes back at the same time every year, that the date of October 8 brings disaster and that in September they should have prepared to fight the elements and prevent calamity.

Ah, well, yes! This Welfare system, which is criminal—because to hoard money in the face of famine constitutes a despicable act—this Welfare system lying in ambush in their offices continues its normal daily routine like every season. If it has to force out a little of its natural generosity, it will be in January because that is the ad-min-is-tra-tive date when the cold is officially recognized… and when the days are getting longer!

I remember one year when wool items were handed out to schoolchildren almost in February. The spring that year came particularly early and the trees already had beautiful little blossoms.

So what is this hapless Welfare thinking? What does it do with the money? I do not believe it is fraud, even though, more often than should be, scandals break out and suspicions take deeper and deeper root among the people. But I believe it is a deplorable organization, an unintelligent and routine management and a profit-driven mentality that is incompatible with its mission.

When a donation of 100 sous is given to it, it snatches it up and closes its fist. It is like tearing out its soul to claim that it should always keep its hands open, lavishing good deeds everywhere.

That would finish badly for it, I have been warned! It is the greedy old lady, the penny-pinching millionaire who sows refusal and harvests hatred. Not to mention that they abuse the poor in its name. What’s more, there was never an institution made to be blessed that has been more cursed or that has aroused so much bitterness and loathing!

Can it last? Shouldn’t it be well aware not only of the suffering that harks back to it, but also of the suffering that the good people point out to it in the hope of being heard?

Should a city like ours, “the capital of the civilized world” as the biased say, should it be registering ten suicides out of poverty in the same day? In Petit-Montrouge, on Rue Reganult, there are the six Hoffmanns: the mother and five children whose deaths the public’s pity has been talking about for four days. I would like to give as many gold coins to the grieving survivors as there have been “It’s dreadful!” offered over these four days—we would avoid repeating such tragedies.

In Grenelle, on Rue Fondary, there is old Chapuis, a seventy-year old woman who gassed herself and her two grandchildren. Here again the landlord was being kind! The old lady and the little girl are dead; the little boy is not much better off.

In Folie-Méricourt, on Rue Morand, there is the Blosson couple, almost eighty-years old, unable to earn a living, they also lit a few sous worth of coal and went to sleep for the last time together, hand in hand—Philemon and Baucis[3] of misery!


But what is the point of these thoughts, these words, these phrases penned without the shadow of an illusion regarding their effect on official services? It is better to do something. You readers, do you want to help me? In two newspapers for two years running, with relatively pathetic amounts, I have managed to save around 300 families from both voluntary and involuntary death. Do you want to try again this year to save as many—if not more?

I hesitated. I procrastinated. Not because of the trouble it takes (I am somewhat used to that), but because of the agonizing heartbreak in case of failure. Then the ridicule of dear comrades and skeptics: “Séverine? She’s annoying us with her filthy flea-bags!” I was cowardly in the face of possible disappointment and certain irony. And I want to confess this out loud because I am ashamed of it and because I am bitter and hurt from it—because these people, these ten unfortunate people might have come to us and might still be alive…

This thought gave me courage. Make fun if you want; refuse if you can! The call Against Winter is open and I am donating as much as I can: 100 F. Who wants to go next!


My Carnet: District of La Folie-Méricourt—All the furniture is two chairs, a little table, a bed for three children, 11, 6 and 3 years old and a fourth on the way; the husband died a few days ago, which means grief is making the hunger worse; late on the rent (80 F) and threatened with eviction; such is the current situation of the widow Lecompte, 7 Passage Vaucouleurs. During her poor husband’s illness, she had asked the city hall for assistance. It replied to her six weeks later… sending 5 F. My visitor cried out to me, “She doesn’t have a sous to eat. I gave her everything I had on me, a few francs, but it’s not nearly enough.” That was two days ago…


Next:  Among the Poisoned

[1] L’Echo de Paris, October12 1894.

[2] Reference to the “sheep of Panurge” from Rabelais, i.e. blind followers or lemmings.

[3] In Classical mythology they were an elderly couple who were the only ones in town to welcome Zeus and Hermes into their home despite their poverty. They were granted their wish to die together and then changed into two intertwining trees.


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