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La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock. Part I

October 17, 2011 30 comments

La Belle Epoque. La France de 1900 à 1914.  by Michel Winock. 2002. 387 pages. Not translated into English.

I’m not a great reader of non-fiction; somehow I just have difficulties to concentrate on non-literary books. I hesitated before buying La Belle Epoque, wondering if I’d manage to read it. I’m happy I gave it a try, it’s a wonderful book, full of useful information about the society, the political forces and culture in La Belle Epoque. Most of all, it gave the right level of information to me: it’s detailed enough to teach me many things I didn’t know or to help me pull together pieces of knowledge I had grasped through literature but not too detailed. And, last but not least, Michel Winock often illustrates his speech with literary examples and compares France to other European countries, mostly England and Germany. It’s a gold mine for me, always in search of bridges between history and literature.

Michel Winock considers that La Belle Epoque corresponds to the years between 1900 and 1914. It had to be after the Dreyfus Affair and before WWI. He often needs to come back to the preceding decades to explain the events of these years, which is even more interesting. The book is divided in four major parts: the economy, the society, the politics and culture. I’m not going to summarize everything. Although I found the parts about economy and politics really interesting and enlightening regarding the roots of French unions and the DNA of our political parties, I’ll skip on these ones here. I’d rather share social and cultural elements because I thought they might be useful to you too, reader of French literature. I’ll need two posts and this one will be a hodgepodge of facts I gathered about the mores.

Marriage / Adultery / Divorce / Babies.

Marriage is seen as a financial and social decision. Love has nothing to do with it and love life is often outside of marriage. So is sex, especially for men who go to brothels; it sounds very common when you read In Search of Lost Time, as if it were a part of a boy’s education. The basis of Civil Law in France lays in the Code Civil, which dates back to Napoleon. The law punished differently adultery for men and women. A woman risked from 3 months to 2 years in prison when a man risked a fine from 100 to 2000 francs. Divorce wasn’t possible under Napoleon, it was restored by the Third Republic in 1884. These juridical elements might explain why writers drew so many portraits of miserable marriages and doomed destinies of people attached to the wrong person.

The husbands keep the money from dowries. Women can’t work without their husband’s consent. 38% of married women had a full time job, when we consider all social classes.

France’s birth rate was low compared to other European countries. People had already started to have fewer children to give them better chances  to climb the social ladder. There’s a sort of concentration of financial means. Looking back on history, France was ahead of its time but it wasn’t analyzed that way at the time. The contemporaries were afraid of a “degeneration of the race”. Zola himself wrote a novel about it, Fécondité. The idea of decadence is also in Huysmans’s books. You can imagine all the stinking ideas that can stem from such disputable concepts.

We don’t know what kind of birth control was used, probably abstinence and coitus interruptus. As a consequence of political concern – without immigration, the population declines in numbers, which is not good for the Revanche, i.e. the next war with Germany that will erase the shame of the debacle of 1870 – the State strengthens the repression of abortion and puts into trial the “faiseuses d’anges”.

Women

I had gathered from different books (Like Madame Bovary by Flaubert, Une Vie by Maupassant, Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal, Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées by Balzac) that girls from the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie were educated in convents, with disastrous results. Michel Winock confirms my impression. The Third Republic changes that as it starts offering another alternative to convents. As a result, women’s education will be more republican and separated from religion.

Winock explains that the model for a woman is to be a stay-at-home mother. In the good society, girls are kept at home and don’t have a lot of freedom. It confirms my impression of Albertine in Proust: she’s far too free to be considered as a good match.

Some lesbians stand out, have famous literary salons and try to promote the feminist cause. The period offered small victories to women (1907: the right to keep their wages and spend it without their husband’s consent) but they’ll have to wait until 1945 for the right to vote. Indeed, in these years, women were considered as an ally to the Catholic church. After the separation between the State and the Church in 1905, the fight was hard between the clerical and anti-clerical sides. It didn’t help the feminists that the députés feared that women would support the clerical candidates.

Death / illness / doctors.

In these years, the attitude towards death shifted. On the one hand, dead people are worshipped and on the other hand, cremation was authorized in 1889. In 1907, the Préfet Lépine closed the morgue to visitors: it’s no longer a Sunday promenade. Death becomes hidden.

The government took seriously tuberculosis, syphilis and suicides. The tubercle bacillus was discovered in 1905. Health and hygiene campaigns were launched, it was a time of progress for medicine. At the end of the 19thC, there were still weird prescriptions, such as “spend the rest of your life on a steam boat commuting on the Rhône between Lyon and Avignon and eat in time with the orchestra” to heal …stomach cancer. Unbelievable. Monsieur Diafoirus and Monsieur Purgon had an offspring.

Syphilis was a great fear and a political concern as a proof of that “degeneration” I mentioned earlier and because, like AIDS, it passes from mother to child during pregnancy. If baby boys die or are in poor health, who’s going to fight the Germans? Humanism has sometimes twisted roots. According to estimations, 13 to 15% of adult males in Paris had syphilis. It seems a high percentage to me.

Suicide was a hot topic in that period, following a series of suicides among students and Durkheim’s work on suicide, which was published in 1897 and was much discussed.

That was the elements I thought relevent to better understand books regarding mores. In the next post, I’ll write briefly about social classes, the founding of a republican identity and a little about culture. I’m afraid my style is really clumsy, I lack the English words for that kind of posts. I did my best.

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