French History @ IHR: David Hopkin, Cinderella of the Breton Polders


Date & Place: Monday 3rd October, Wolfson Room NB02, IHR Basement, North block, Senate House

Speakers: David Hopkin (Oxford)

Paper Title: Cinderella of the Breton Polders: The Stories of a Teenage Farm Servant

Chair: Iain Stewart (UCL)

Click HERE to listen to an mp3 recording of the paper (right click to save).

Virginie Desgranges was born in August 1868 in Saint-Georges-de-Gréhaigne, a poor commune on the Breton polders, where the flat land, criss-crossed with drainage ditches, slopes gently towards the Atlantic. The Mont-St-Michel looms out of the sea in the near distance. Virginie spent her life in sight of it. She died aged 18, a poor landless agricultural worker in a France of railways, arc lights and the loi Jules Ferry.


As far as the French state archives are concerned, Virginie barely existed. She appears at her birth and death, and once in her early teens when she and her brother were put under the guardianship of an uncle – their mother being deemed unsuitable after her conviction for stealing sheets from a neighbour. There are other clues to her life story. Both of her grandfathers were customs officers in the region, a job requiring literacy and carrying some social status, but her parents’ generation were on a rapid social descent. Her mother was a servant, then later a day labourer, and her father a rag and bone man then a barkeeper. He died in 1879. The following year a forced sale of the family possessions raised a measly 62 francs. The year after that Virginie’s mother and her older brother were convicted of the theft of the sheets, and spent several weeks in prison.


In some cases historians have made much of lives like these, that skim across the surface of state bureaucracies barely leaving footsteps. In his Le monde retrouvé de Louis-François Pinagot. Sur les traces d’un inconnu, 1798-1876 (Flammarion, 1998) Alain Corbin told the story of a person who had left little trace, bringing to life the clog-maker Pinagot by reconstructing the world in which he lived: its language, its affective conventions, the sounds and smells of the landscape, the forms of sociability. Though this work of “invisible biography” has a hole at its centre – the actual mind and personality of Pinagot never takes shape – Corbin makes a valuable intervention into the field of biography of the poor and marginalised by deliberately upending its conventional focus on the few exceptional individuals who produced abundant written material.


Virginie is no Pinagot though, at least not in Hopkin’s project. He pursues something different, as he outlined in this fascinating paper. Hopkin’s story begins with Oscar Havard, a right wing Parisian journalist of Norman origin. In September 1881 when he was in his late 30s, inspired by the folklorist Paul Sébillot, he sought out the traditional songs and stories of the Normandy-Britanny border, spending about a week visiting cafes and bars along the Breton side of the Couesnon river.


Most of what Havard collected came from women in their 50s or 60s. But he also collected various manuscript notes from other sources, some of whom continued to write to him in Paris over a couple of years. One of these was the 13 year old Virginie Desgranges, who provided Havard with a total of 35 folktales, 94 songs, and 3 purportedly-true ‘histoires’, written in  a careful, neat hand in school exercise books. She wrote almost entirely in the local Gallo dialect, an exercise which Hopkin explained must have required the invention of her own orthography, there being no significant tradition of written Gallo. While the use of dialect by a low-status or ‘rustic’ character was an established convention in popular stories and songs of the time, Desgranges’ was unusual: all of her characters spoke in dialect, regardless of their status or the theme of the story.


Though Virginie could clearly write, and presumably read, she seems to have acquired her stories and songs orally, perhaps when she worked in her parents’ bar, a place not only where one might meet strangers, but share moments of collective song or storytelling with them. Many of the recurring themes in her songs evoke such occasions: there are songs about weddings, conscription rallies, and the gathering of family and friends before the departure of deep-sea fishermen to Newfoundland. For a person whose life was as bound to one place as Virginie, oral transmission of course means local transmission.


That is not to say, however, that Virginie’s songs and stories were parochial. A few were originally written for the Paris stage. Many more are derived from tales spoken and sung in hundreds of versions across the Eurasian land mass. Each acquires markers of the locality in references to topology, people or working life, and is told in a realist style, even when the genre suggests the story is not really ‘true’. A recognisable ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ story, for instance, has the goblin helping a housewife to do her day’s spinning so that her husband won’t beat her. That such casual violence is a constant feature of Virginie’s fictional world, Hopkin argues, reflects her own experiences. For instance, just a few years after she laboriously transcribed a song about infanticide, a neighbour was sentenced to 10 years hard labour for the same crime, committed in an unusually brutal manner.


Virginie’s three histoires, presented as the true stories of three young women called Jeanneton Barbot, Cacherine Leloup and Suzon Deslandes, seem most closely to reflect her experiences, and perhaps her hopes and dreams. “La pauvre Jeanneton” marries a rag and bone man, while Suzon Deslandes grows up in a bar, before her father dies. Suzon’s brother, like Virginie’s, becomes a fisherman. The stories hum with a background buzz of misery, hunger, violence, and physical discomfort: the three women suffer horribly. What way out is there? Cacherine beats up a judge and stabs a chaplain in prison. Is this wish-fulfillment? Suzon meanwhile wants to leave the farm where she lives with her uncle to become a seamstress, but her mother can’t pay for an apprenticeship.


Though she was a prolific correspondent, Havard never used any of Virginie’s contributions. Her values and life experiences didn’t fit with his idealised visions of the dignity of labour, the security and sanctity of the family, the naturalness and benignity of gender roles, the centrality of religion. Labour was hard, the family was abusive and gender roles suffocating: while her brother sailed to Newfoundland, Virginie stood all day in mud and her feet swelled up. Though she saw herself matter-of-factly as a Catholic, she did not especially articulate piety.


Perhaps it is not surprising that Virginie’s world-view should differ from that of her wealthy, educated, male, Parisian correspondent. But Hopkin argues that she is also difficult to place with reference to the familiar themes of the historiography of the period. She makes only two references to France, one of which is a patriotic song. But neither does she articulate any Breton identity. The transformations of the polders landscape and the railways don’t seem to register in terms a historian would recognise. She evinces no sense of geography beyond the very local, and makes almost no reference to history. Besides learning to write, has this peasant been made into a Frenchwoman? Hopkin argues that the insight into Virginie’s world we gain from her writings should trouble the categories with which the historiography of the Third Republic tends to operate – even if recent scholarship has already gone some way towards breaking these down. In the sense that Virginie is both utterly rooted in her micro-region and connected to cultural traditions that circulate beyond the nation – the Cinderella of the polders, indeed – her story might help us to think past national historiographies.


Much of the discussion of this absorbing paper revolved around the question of its wider relevance: the “so what?” factor. The answer may not be sufficiently clear at this point, as Hopkin conceded himself. For what its worth I was most struck by the fact that the most important relationships of power and status in Virginie’s life were familial and labour-related; the two often intersect. As much as this might be a drama of a life lived not touched by Jules Ferry or whoever, it might more productively be a story of a child, a female child, trapped in the violent psychodrama of a family. Whether this approach would ultimately make any difference to the paper I don’t know, but it’s from this perspective that it moved me.

– Harry Stopes



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