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London Caller

February 20, 2011 16 comments

Promenades dans Londres, by Flora Tristan. (122 pages)

Flora Tristan (1803-1844) was a French activist. She was a feminist and a socialist. Her life was a novel in itself. She is the daughter of a Peruvian officer and a French woman. When her father died, her mother wasn’t able to prove that they were legally married. As a consequence, Flora Tristan became an illegitimate child and could claim no inheritance from her father’s fortune. She married young, in 1821. Her marriage was a failure as her husband, André Chazal, was a violent man (1). In 1839, he was condemned to 20 years of hard labour, after he tried to shoot her. They had three children, the youngest one, Aline, will be Paul Gauguin’s grand-mother.

Flora Tristan got involved with people defending the cause of workers and women and was against slavery. She travelled a great deal, considering her time. She travelled to South America, to meet her father’s family and claim some financial support and to Great-Britain, several times. She travelled all over France to spread her ideas. She was restless and eventually died of exhaustion in 1844. Nowadays, we would call it a burn out.

In 1839, she was in London again and wrote chronicles about her trip. This edition of Promenades in London is a selection of these chronicles. England was ahead of other European countries in many ways at the time. The industrial revolution had started earlier and Flora Tristan was prejudiced against England’s economical system. Her ostensible aim was to warn people on the continent against the effects of the industrial revolution. She wanted to let people know what was happening in England behind the curtains in order to prevent the same things to happen in France. Futile effort. In the second part of the 19th C, industrialisation in France will have the same consequences as in England. (cf Zola’s Germinal) All this to say that she didn’t go to London to marvel at the gas lit streets – even if she actually did – but to visit the darkest sides of the largest city in the world.

 She started by describing the size of the city and the time lost in transportation for any minor errand. Follow the inevitable chapter on the climate (“so irritating that many Englishmen cannot get used to it”) and one on the Londoner, that I didn’t like because generalizing about so many people without even living in the country can only lead to absurdities, such as:

Le Londonien est très peu hospitalier. La cherté de la vie, le ton cérémonieux qui règle toutes les relations s’opposent à ce qu’il le soit. The Londoner isn’t very welcoming. The cost of life, the formal tone which rules all relationships prevent them from being so.

I don’t like those kind of gratuitous assertions. Edith Wharton didn’t do better with French people in 1917 after living 12 years in France, but that will be another post.

I enjoyed her account of how she entered into the Parliament dressed as a Turkish man because women weren’t allowed. Of course, she was irritated by this, “half of the Nation is deprived of his civic rights”, she said, but the situation wasn’t better in France at the time. MPs quickly discovered she was a woman and she was outraged by the way they treated her.

I was more interested by her industrial tourism. Since “beer and gas are the most important parts of London’s consumer society”, she visited the brewery Barclay-Perkins. Her description of the machines, the noise, the danger and the poor working conditions in the factory are breathtaking. She couldn’t help marvelling at the mechanisation of the activity and already imagined how it could be profitable for the workers:  

Si d’abord je ressentis de l’humiliation à voir l’homme annihilé, ne fonctionnant plus lui-même que comme une machine, je vis bientôt l’immense amélioration qui ressortirait un jour de ces découvertes de la science : la force brutale anéantie, le travail matériel exécuté dans moins de temps, et plus de loisir laissé à l’homme pour la culture de son intelligence ; mais pour que ces grands bienfaits se réalisent, il faudra une révolution sociale. Elle arrivera! At first, I felt humiliated to see men annihilated, only working as machines. Then I quickly grasped the huge improvements that these scientific discoveries would bring one day: the destruction of brutal strength, material work accomplish in less time than before, more time left to improve one’s mind. But, these great benefits will only happen thanks to a social revolution. It will come!

 I don’t know how things went in England, but in France, her wish will eventually come true in 1936, a century after she wrote these words.

 She also visited the Irish and the Jewish neighbourhoods. She walked into the poorest places, describing an unbearable poverty and an appalling stench. She was outraged by the cynicism of merchants and captains of industry. Her analysis was that the workers had worse living conditions than slaves. Indeed, slaves had a value for their owner, who’d rather have slaves in good health to maintain the value of the capital they invested. But workers were provided for free by the Nation. So why should the employer bother to give them decent wages? When they died, they were replaced by others, always for free. Contrary to slaves, workers were free but this freedom is of no use to them as their wages didn’t make a living. (And here we find again the Maslow pyramid of needs : as long as the basic needs aren’t covered, men can’t reach the next stage).

After a little research, she wasn’t as objective as she should have been. For example, according to Wikipedia, a law was voted in England in 1801 regarding children at work. A child had be 8 to work. The same kind of law was be voted in France in … 1841. Maybe the delay between the two laws was only due to the fact that England was more industrialized and the problem occurred earlier. But maybe not. 

The section about Ascot Racecourse is priceless. She marveled at how the traffic was perfectly smooth despite the incredible number of carriages.

J’étais stupéfaite et ne pus m’empêcher de réfléchir que, si de pareilles courses avaient lieu en France, trois compagnies de gendarmes à cheval ne suffiraient pas pour maintenir l’ordre parmi ces trois mille voitures. I was flabbergasted and couldn’t help thinking that, if such races took place in France, a great number of mounted gendarmes would be necessary to to police these three thousand carriages.

I suppose it would still be a terrible mess in France today. Is queuing quietly and orderly an English quality? She pictured the social event that these racecourses were (still are, if I’m right).

As a feminist, she couldn’t not write a chapter about the Englishwoman. “One only needs to live a few months in England to realize how intelligent and sensitive Englishwomen are.” despite their education and living conditions. I’m not sure that what she described (impossibility to do anything without their husband’s consent, social life in a limited circle) was really different in France at the time. I was more interested in her thoughts about female writers:

Il y a en Angleterre plus de femmes auteurs qu’en France, parce que les Françaises ont une vie plus active et sont moins exclues que les Anglaises du mouvement social. There are more female writers in England than in France because French women have a more active life and are less excluded from social life than English women.

I always wonder where the French Jane Austen, Brontë Sisters or Mary Shelley were. This is Flora Tristan’s explanation. The French women who were educated enough to write were too busy running their salon to have the time to write. If she is right, then it’s a shame. All the witty words they must have told and the brilliant ideas they may have had have vanished in the air of their salon or – who knows – have been plagiarized by the male writers who visited them frequently.

Flora Tristan had quite a temper. Her prose is full of exclamation marks, O!s and Ah!. She was fighting for a cause, so you can’t expect her to be neutral in her account of what she witnessed. Even if what she says is only half true or exaggerated, it’s still interesting to hear.

I admire her for standing against what society expected from her. She had the courage to live according to her convictions, sacrificing her comfort and her health to her fight. I learnt something about London in that time. It was an agreeable and interesting read.

I’m a little uncomfortable with writing this post because I can imagine her thinking isn’t flawless. It’s difficult not to be on such a matter and with such a goal. But I’m not educated enough to contradict her point by point and I honestly don’t have time to study, even if it would be really interesting. So readers who know better will probably be irritated by this post but instead of ranting about my ignorance, I’d be grateful if they took time to share their knowledge in the comments.

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(1) Louis XVIII had abrogated the law allowing divorce in 1816 previously voted in 1792. Divorce will be impossible in France until 1884.

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