A Life of Her Own

A Life of Her Own: the Transformation of a Countrywoman in Twentieth-Century France.
Emilie Carles, © 1991
Penguin Books — Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

This book came to me through one of my university courses. I picked it up on Tuesday intending to get a head start on it, but I was so enthralled by the story of this French woman that I continued reading it, and I finished it early this morning. A Life of Her Own is the story of a French woman who lived in a small village in the mountains near the French border with Italy. Her village is thoroughly agricultural, and for most of her life she knows nothing but the farm. Her life is harsh — the environment unforgiving. Her mother is struck by lightening at the age of 23 as she works in the fields, and her unread and patriarchal father must raise his large family alone.

For most people in the village, the village itself is all they know. Their lives are controlled by the weather and by the fickleness of their mayor, who seems to rule without concern for his people. For the people of Val-des-Prés, their lives are literally not their own. But Emile yearns for something more, even as she assumes her place in the valley as a good daughter. She witnesses the young men of her valley march off to war — but sees precious few of them return. For Emilie, the war is an enormous waste — the result of French and German autocrats fighting for a scrap of land and glory, with no regard to the workers, whose lives they ruin.

Emilie develops into an independent thinker, remarkable given her surroundings. While education is scoffed at by the farmers — do books bring in the harvest or repair the leaky roofs? — books become an early passion for Emilie. Her intelligent is recognized by the prefecture, and her teachers persuade her father to accept a scholarship so that Emilie can continue her education into what we would call “high school”. Emilie’s family seems to be singled out by the gods, as death claims nearly all of her brothers and sisters save one — and the one sister is committed to an institution. The sister’s husband is irresponsible drunk, and so Emilie and her father take care of four young ones.

As Emilie continues her education with aspirations of becoming a teacher, her mind continues to grow. The Great War ends any trust she has in the government or religion. She realizes the injustice of everything — the millions of farmhands dying for the sake of aristocrats in Paris. She remembers a conversation with her brother, one that had a profound impact:

“You’d see,” he’d tell me, “All that stuff the teacher told us, about patriotism and glory — well, it’s nothing but nonsense and lies. He had no right to have us sing ‘Wave little flag’. What does it mean, anyway! Can you tell me?”

I did not know. I did not see.

“Emilie, if you do teach some day, you must tell children the truth, because it’s very simple; the guy on the other side, the German, certainly has a plow or some work tool waiting for him back home. After the war, he and I, if we’re not dead, if we haven’t lost every shred of our human dignity, we’ll have to get back on the job fixing up the ruins left by the war. But the war, well, neither he nor I will get anything out of it. When it’s all over, the profits will be in the hands of the capitalists and the guys rolling in money from selling their weapons, the career soldiers will have the stripes and promotions they’ve won, but not us, we won’t have anything to show fir it, we won’t have won anything. You understand?”

So many words, so much rebellion left me dumbstruck. I had never seen him like that, he’d been gentleness incarnate.

“You understand, Emilie? When all is said and done, what’s going to happen when they decide it’s enough? We’ll be the turkeys, us in the trenches, me and the man on the other side. No, war is not what they told us, it’s monstrous. I’m against it, a thousand percent against it. I have not killed anyone and I am not going to kill, I won’t have any part of it, and the only thing I ask is that they don’t kill me either because I didn’t do anything to them.”

She also has a cousin, a ‘libertarian draft evader’, who introduced her to anarchism.

“You know, Emilie, most people don’t know what it means to be a deserter. They think it’s cowardly, and if they think so, it’s because they don’t know any better and they haven’t thought it through. How can you expect them to think when society doesn’t give them the means and even does everything possible to keep them from thinking? From childhood on, their heads are stuffed with false ideas; they hear about heroism and patriotism, but it’s all hot air. Emilie, when you’re in the classroom, you’ve got to remember, the civics lessons and all the baloney are put in to lull the conscience. Nothing is as vulnerable as a kid; he believes everything you tell him, too bad if it’s a pack of lies. Desertion is to refusing to say yes to human stupidity. Sure, they all went off to war, they fought in the trenches, and they risked their lives. […] You are refusing the system when you desert, you are saying no to the whole setup. You are saying no to the rich guess who decided on the war, you are saying no to the arms dealers, you are saying no to the colonels who play servant to the rich, and you are saying no to the priests who give them their blessing. War is state-sponsored savagery, and its first victim is the man who goes off to serve, the workers and the peasants, the people like your brother who go off to fight because they do not understand.”

Realizing what mental stagnation had wrought to her country, Emilie does teach her children to question, to think. She teaches them to question racism, and nationalism, and all these other systems of ideas that take hold of young people’s minds and never let go. Between teaching and caring for her aging father and her four nieces, her life becomes full of service to others. And then one night she encounters a man named Jean Carles, who tells her, “At your age, it would be a crime to sacrifice yourself for your family, and you don’t do anyone a favor when you slight yourself. Imagine giving your father the poisoned gift of telling him at the last, “I sacrificed my life to you’. That would be so sad. No, you should help others, but you have to think of yourself, too. Otherwise, it’s no good. You will be better armed, you will have more strength to do what you have to do.

Jean was a workingman, but an intellectual. He read voraciously, enjoyed talking about ideas, and liked to express himself in poetry to add to the beauty of life. Carles said he was ‘head over heels in love with liberty’. The two soon wed and began to raise a family. They raised their children with the principles of liberty — “You have to let [children] live free; children are not property, so people do not have the right to decide for them,’. Misfortunes continues to follow her, as she loses one of her children under the wheels of a troop transport vehicle as France readies itself for the Second World War.

Once and for all, I lost my faith and i broke with the church. It was impossible for me to accept the idea of such an unjust God. If I had abandoned my nieces to Public Assistance, Nini’s death might have been a kind of punishment from heaven. Imagining a God of vengeance is harsh; but even so my case was the opposite, […] and when I saw my little girl dead, right away I said: but there is no God of goodness, and if there is, where is He? What is He doing? It’s not be true, it can’t be true, that god is a monster.

War comes to France again, but her village is scarcely bothered. It is a world unto itself, and the rest of France might as well not exist. So disconnected are they from the national identity that life doesn’t seem to change under the rule of Vichy: food is not as abundant, but life goes on, and they call it the “Phony War”. Then her husband is put on a list of potential hostages in case someone from the valley was to assassinate a German soldier. In that case, hostages would be round up and shot to intimidate the townsfolk. The mayor, quite supportive of Vichy, is all too eager to list Jean Carles — an anarchist, an atheist, and probably even a Commie — at the top of the list. Consequently, Jean Carles goes on the run and remains away from the village until war’s end.

After the war, she continues to take her job as teacher seriously.

Teaching youngsters to read and write is one thing, it is important but not sufficient. I have always had a loftier notion of school — the role of the school and teacher. In my view, children take stock of the world and society in the communal school: Later on, whatever their trade, whatever direction their lives take, it is too late, the mold is already set. If it is good, so much the better. If not, nothing further can be done.

In a backward region like ours, considering the life I had led, what seemed indispensable to me was opening their minds to life, shattering the barriers that shut them in, making them understand that the earth is round, finite, and varied, and that each individual, white, black, yellow, has the right — and the duty — to think and decide for himself. I myself had learned as much through life as through study. That is why I could not judge my pupils solely on the basis of their schoolwork, and why I also took into account they way they behaved in their daily lives. For example, I never hid the fact that every last one of them would have to face social reality, and that when all was said and done, they would have to work for a living. But at the same time, I put them on their guard against abuses. I told them that a man must defend himself against exploitation and the stultifying effect of work. I also told them:

‘The most important thing for a young person is to choose a trade he likes and enjoys, otherwise he will be a slave, unhappy and consumed with rage.”

To conclude this line of argument, I always spoke to them about liberty, repeating that our famous Liberty should not simply be a word inscribed on pediments along with Equality and Fraternity — those basic Rights of Man, an abstract and illusory liberty — but rather that it should be a reality for each one of them.

‘Beware of politicians, beware of silver-tongued orators, do your utmost to judge for yourself, and above all, take advantage of the beauty life offers.”

As life wears on, Emilie speaks of the war between Algeria and France, of her children growing up, of her husband dying, and of life gradually changing. Even after her retirement, she continues to work on behalf of her community — leading an association of citizens to stop a freeway from passing through their valley and destroying it. Despite this victory, she remains pessimistic about her government.

“Whatever the results may be, I am afraid there won’t be much change. It is a harsh thing to say, but you’d have to be crazy to believe otherwise. Around me, in the papers, on television, the only thing I see and hear are men solely concerned with success and power. What sickens me the most is the blablabla, the eternal blablabla rising up from all sides: from the center, from the right, and from the left. What these men want is to win votes, get elected, and trumpet everywhere that there are the strongest and best. They are far from sharing the true interest and deep wishes of the people who work and produce. In my opinion, the big guys, the ones they call the big politicians, do nothing but repeat the same words , Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; the worst thing is that with many people it works: they’re such practiced demagouges that many believe them and follow them.

With people repeating those words ever since 1789, we should certainly found out what they mean someday. But we don’t. They make promises, they get themselves elected, and then they forget, or Else they use lack of funds as an excuse. I think those professional politicians ought to be set to work in a mine a thousand meters down, if only for a day; maybe then they would understand what it means to be a worker, what it means to be a miner, spending one third of his life underground: maybe then they would understand that a four-hour day is sufficient for an underground worker! But they don’t, the men who run the show, the money men, do not know what it is to sweat.p…] I’d like them to know what a worker’s or peasant’s day means. Once they have felt it in their flesh and in their minds, perhaps they would be the first to shout: “That’s enough!” And perhaps they would favor reducing the length of the working day.

As the book ends, she comments more on life. Emilie emerges as a magnificent human being: someone who is passionate about enjoying life, who cares for others, who helps them and who lives freely — free from consumerism, free from being manipulated by those who abuse their power over others. She seems to have been an extraordinary woman, and I loved reading her story. There is so much more to share from her memoirs, but this is long enough.

“I believe it is splendid to leave life with the thought that you have done the maximum possible to defend the ideas you believe just and human, and to help those who need to be helped without discrimination. For me, that is a wonderful feeling.”

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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