wife beaters and amazon hooligans

Tracing the rise of the culture of happiness, one can too easily forget the reality of, one can too easily become nostalgic for, the sweetness of life it replaced – the ancien regime, panned with a camera lens suitably vaselined over.

But this nostalgia is shot through with bad faith. Although I am determined to show the price we have paid for the triumph of happiness, I want to make sure to make clear that I am not tracing some vast mistake or horror. It is the dialectician’s curse to be mealy mouthed – but too bad. I’m not going to try to avoid that fate by creating a bunch of rigid oppositions, negation pitted against affirmation, antithesis pre-loaded. Fuck that.

So – on to women. Women as they were routinely treated in the ancien regime. And into the nineteenth century.

Let’s start with Zola, always the most … registering of nineteenth century novelists. He was attacked for his ‘disgraceful’ representation of the working class in L’assommoir – and in a letter in defense of the novel, he surveys the truth of it, touching lightly on two characters, Bijard and Lalie: “Bijard is only one face of alcohol poisoning. One dies of delirium tremens or one becomes a furious madman like Bijard. Bijard is crazy, the kind that the correctional institutions have to often judge. As for Lalie, she completes Nana. The girls, in the bad worker’s households, either succumb to blows or turn bad.”

Here’s a long quote from the death of Lalie, a little different from a Dicken’s death scene.

“She started at the sound of a heavy step on the stairs. Her father noisily pushed open the door. As usual he had drunk too much, and in his eyes blazed the lurid flames kindled by alcohol.
When he saw Lalie lying down he walked to the corner and took up the long whip, from which he slowly unwound the lash.
“This is a good joke!” he said. “The idea of your daring to go to bed at this hour. Come, up with you!”
He snapped the whip over the bed, and the child murmured softly:
“Do not strike me, Papa. I am sure you will be sorry if you do. Do not strike me!”
“Up with you!” he cried. “Up with you!”
Then she answered faintly:
“I cannot, for I am dying.”
Gervaise had snatched the whip from Bijard, who stood with his under jaw dropped, glaring at his daughter. What could the little fool mean? Whoever heard of a child dying like that when she had not even been sick? Oh, she was lying!
“You will see that I am telling you the truth,” she replied. “I did not tell you as long as I could help it. Be kind to me now, Papa, and say good-by as if you loved me.”
Bijard passed his hand over his eyes. She did look very strangely–her face was that of a grown woman. The presence of death in that cramped room sobered him suddenly. He looked around with the air of a man who had been suddenly awakened from a dream. He saw the two little ones clean and happy and the room neat and orderly.
He fell into a chair.
“Dear little mother!” he murmured. “Dear little mother!”

This was all he said, but it was very sweet to Lalie, who had never been spoiled by overpraise. She comforted him. She told him how grieved she was to go away and leave him before she had entirely brought up her children. He would watch over them, would he not? And in her dying voice she gave him some little details in regard to their clothes. He–the alcohol having regained its power–listened with round eyes of wonder.
After a long silence Lalie spoke again:

“We owe four francs and seven sous to the baker. He must be paid. Madame Goudron has an iron that belongs to us; you must not forget it. This evening I was not able to make the soup, but there are bread and cold potatoes.”

As long as she breathed the poor little mite continued to be the mother of the family. She died because her breast was too small to contain so great a heart, and that he lost this precious treasure was entirely her father’s fault. He, wretched creature, had kicked her mother to death and now, just as surely, murdered his daughter.”

This translation stays demurely away from Zola’s text. If you want to know where Celine got it, read Zola. Her's the argotic French for what Bijard really says:

" Ah ! nom de Dieu, c’est trop fort ! nous allons rire !… Les vaches se mettent à la paille en plein midi, maintenant !… Est-ce que tu te moques des paroissiens, sacrée feignante ?… Allons, houp ! décanillons ! "
Il faisait déjà claquer le fouet au-dessus du lit. Mais l’enfant, suppliante, répétait :
" Non, papa, je t’en prie, ne frappe pas… Je te jure que tu aurais du chagrin… Ne frappe pas.
— Veux-tu sauter, gueula-t-il plus fort, ou je te chatouille les côtes !… Veux-tu sauter, bougre de rosse ! "

Which you have to translate into something a lot more gangsta to get the full poetry of it.

In the English 19th century novel, as is well known, there is a certain gap when it comes to sex. But there is another gap when it comes to wifebeating. Edward Shorter, in Women’s Bodies, his gruesome history of the encounter of women with marriage, hospitals and pregnancy in the 18th and 19th century, devotes a section to the thesis that, in the very recent past, wife beating was universal. He recounts a lot of anecdotes (“Johann Storch of Gotha, investigating the cause of a maternal death in 1724, found that the mother had a broken rib, probably ccaused by a kick from her husband sometime during the pregnancy. (Storch thought that the broken rib had made the placenta grow fast to the womb, thus killing her in childbirth.”) He adduces proverbs, ethnographic studies, doctor reports, and occasionally, but just occasionally, a court document. Eugen Weber, in his book on Fin de Siecle France, writes that there must have been many women such as those in L’assommoir, for whom a pleasant dream was often that of not being beaten.

Weber claims that it was the penetration of bourgeois values that made violence against women in the household more shameful as the 19th century went on. According to this view, both the peasant and working classes lagged behind the ‘civilizing process.’ In the twentieth century, Franz Biberkopf, in Berlin Alexanderplatz, who beats his fiancé to death in a scene that seems to as though it were refracted through one of George Grosz’s more lurid paintings, does go to jail for it: four years. And Biberkopf is haunted by that death. As he says, he never meant to murder Ida. (Ironically, or rather not so ironically, come to think of it, Biberkopf’s great defenders are women – he is a semi pimp, and a certain type of indulgent woman does seem to find him, in Berlin, after he gets out of the Tegel prison).

Here’s Ida’s death – one that strips out even the pathos that Zola left in:

All he had taken in his hand was a small wooden cream whipper, for he was training then and had recently wrenched his hand. And with a twice repeated, terrible lunge he had brought this cream-whipper with its wire spiral, in contact with the diaphragm of Ida, who was the second party to the dialogue. Up to that day Ida’s diaphragm had been entirely intact, but that very small person, who was very nice to look at, was herself no longer quite intact – or rather: the man she was supporting, suspected, not without reason, that she was about to give him his walking papers in favor of a man recently arrived from Breslau. The diaphragm of this dainty little girl, at any rate, was not adapted to contact with cream-whippers. At the first blow she cried ouch and no longer called him ‘you dirty bum’, but ‘oh, man,’ instead. The second encounter with the cream-whipper occurred with Franz holding an upright position after a quarter turn to the right on Ida’s part. Whereupon Ida said nothing at all, but merely opened her mouth, puring her lips curiously, and jerked both arms in the air.

What happened to the woman’s diaphragm a second before, involves the laws of statics, elasticity, shock and reistance. The thing is wholly incomprehensible without a knowledge of those laws. We shall therefore have recourse to the following formulae:”

What follows is a formula for the magnitude of the blow impressed by Franz, f = c lim delta v over delta t = cw.

In other words, Ida’s death is absolutely dehumanized, made into a specimen defined by filling in the variables in a formula.

Two cheers for the bourgeoisie, then. If they raped the servant girls, they rarely kicked their wives to death, at least by 1850. However, it would be unfair not to exhibit another tableau showing a typical response to working class women as agents of violence. Camille Mendés, a sensitive sort, a poet, remained in Paris during the Commune and wrote a book about his experience there, entitled: Les 73 journées de la Commune. I can’t believe the echo of Sade is wholly absent from that book. Anyway, Camille was able to observe that thing which shocked the respectable in the 1870s, the amazons-voyous – amazon hoodlums. Women from the working class armed themselves and fought alongside another communard. Mendés compares them to the famouse tricoteuses – the women who knitted while the guillotines fell. Except these were cantinieres – cafeteria workers. Waitresses, you might say. Never underestimate the waitresses!

‘There was not enough men with holes poked in them by bullets or cut up by the machine gun. A strange enthusiasm took hold of the women in their turn, and thus they fell on the field of battle as well, victims of an execrable heroism. Who were these extraordinary beings, who abandoned the household broom and the working woman’s needle for the cartridge? who abandoned their children to go to be killed by the side of their lovers or husbands? Amazon hoodlums magnificent and abject, they held their own with Penthesilia or Theroigne de Mericourt. One saw them pass, carrying canteens, amongst those going into combat; the men are furious, the women are ferocious, nothing moves them, nothing discourages them. A Neuilly, a food and drink seller, wounded in the head, had her wound bandaged and returned to take up her combat post. Another, of the 61st bataillon, bragged of having killed a score of police and three guardians of the peace. At Chatillon, a woman, remaining with a group of national guardsmen, charged her rifle, fired and recharged without ceasing; she was the last to retreat, turning around at every instant to return fire. The woman who dispensed food in the 68th bataillon fell, killed by a mortar blast which broke her ladle and projected it in pieces into her stomach. … Thus, what is the furor that has carried off these furies? Do they know what they are doing, do they understand why they are dying? Yesterday, in a boutique, rue de Montreuil, a woman enters, rifle on her shoulder, blood on the bayonet – shouldn’t you be home cleaning the faces of your brats? said a peaceful bourgeois. A furious altercation broke out; the virago was so carried away that she leaped on her adversary, bit him violently on the neck, then, falling back a few paces, grasped her rifle and was going to fire when suddenly she grew horribly pale, let fall her arm, and collapsed; she was dead, the anger had caused an aneurism to rupture. Such are, at this hour, the women of the people.”


Anonymous said…
Concerning 20th century French wife beating...

My grandfather was one of those Irishmen who found it convenient to emigrate to France just after the First World War, and accordingly my mother was brought up in a small French village near Paris. One of the things she told me was the counter-productive effect of laws against wife beating. The women of that village frequently tried to provoke their men into beating them so they could appear later with a black eye, proclaiming "il m'a battue!" The thing was, it showed how much he cared since he risked the force of the law - which made it worth the women's while accepting the pain for such a concrete proof of affection. I need hardly add, this ingrained culture was one of the things that made my mother emigrate from France in her turn.
Anonymous said…
Drat - that's anonymous. 'Tis I, P.M.Lawrence.