Tag Archives: co-operative women’s guild

Thérèse Raquin and her overactive woman’s conscience

110871I have never read Zola. Well, that’s not quite true, I read about 40 pages of Germinal  years ago. It has traveled house with me twice. Thérèse Raquin is both shorter and about Paris, so it seemed a better place to start. Maybe end.

More than anything it’s about being trapped.

But first to satisfy my urbanist soul, it gives you a better idea of what those beautiful arcades of Paris — the ones softly lit and glowing along which the flâneur would stroll at his ease beneath vaulted glass ceilings — it gives you a sense of what those could mean to those who lived within them.

At the end of the Rue Guenegaud, coming from the quays, you find the Arcade of the Pont Neuf, a sort of narrow, dark corridor running from the Rue Mazarine to the Rue de Seine.

While the arcade is fictional, nothing else is, highlighted is the Rue Guenegaud:

Map of Rue Guénégaud, 75006 Paris, France

If you substitute all the words of romance and beauty for adjectives you would use to describe a graveyard in gothic style, you will arrive at Zola’s view of arcades, at least this one:

This arcade, at the most, is thirty paces long by two in breadth. It is paved with worn, loose, yellowish tiles which are never free from acrid damp. The square panes of glass forming the roof, are black with filth.

On fine days in the summer, when the streets are burning with heavy sun, whitish light falls from the dirty glazing overhead to drag miserably through the arcade. On nasty days in winter, on foggy mornings, the glass throws nothing but darkness on the sticky tiles—unclean and abominable gloom.

To the left are obscure, low, dumpy shops whence issue puffs of air as cold as if coming from a cellar. Here are dealers in toys, cardboard boxes, second-hand books. The articles displayed in their windows are covered with dust, and owing to the prevailing darkness, can only be perceived indistinctly. The shop fronts, formed of small panes of glass, streak the goods with a peculiar greenish reflex. Beyond, behind the display in the windows, the dim interiors resemble a number of lugubrious cavities animated by fantastic forms.

To the right, along the whole length of the arcade, extends a wall against which the shopkeepers opposite have stuck some small cupboards. Objects without a name, goods forgotten for twenty years, are spread out there on thin shelves painted a horrible brown colour. A dealer in imitation jewelry has set up shop in one of these cupboards, and there sells fifteen sous rings, delicately set out on a cushion of blue velvet at the bottom of a mahogany box.

Above the glazed cupboards, ascends the roughly plastered black wall, looking as if covered with leprosy, and all seamed with defacements.

He makes the same distinction that I do about space — this is not one of those places you enter to enjoy:

The Arcade of the Pont Neuf is not a place for a stroll. You take it to make a short cut, to gain a few minutes. It is traversed by busy people whose sole aim is to go quick and straight before them.

It is in this place that Thérèse is expected to live the rest of her days.  She interests me, this woman, a woman of colour really, half Arab and half French…or is her mother a pied noir?

…her brother Captain Degans brought her a little girl in his arms. He had just arrived from Algeria.

“Here is a child,” said he with a smile, “and you are her aunt. The mother is dead and I don’t know what to do with her. I’ll give her to you.”

The mercer took the child, smiled at her and kissed her rosy cheeks. Although Degans remained a week at Vernon, his sister barely put a question to him concerning the little girl he had brought her. She understood vaguely that the dear little creature was born at Oran, and that her mother was a woman of the country of great beauty. The Captain, an hour before his departure, handed his sister a certificate of birth in which Thérèse, acknowledged by him to be his child, bore his name. He rejoined his regiment, and was never seen again at Vernon, being killed a few years later in Africa.

She is abandoned as an orphan at her aunt’s, given no love for herself, no education or training or play with other children, as she grows up there are no parties, dances, church socials. She has no friends. Instead she is made rather to attend on her sickly cousin, take care of his needs, be slotted into his same limited routines, to always be quiet and good and to always put him first.

Her only taste of freedom is when they live briefly in the country, she can be by herself outside, touch the earth, lie in the grass. And then her cousin takes that away as well, and demands they move to Paris.

She marries him by the way, it was always planned that way.

I cannot express the horror such a life gives me. She sits there in the shop in this dingy arcade with her great mass of hair and her face that could be beautiful but remains ugly with no light inside of it, and there is nothing else before her. So it’s a little perplexing to me that it should be the aunt who is described as good and kind and becomes the victim, while Therese is on the wrong end of every adjective. The word sanguineous is very heavily used.

The nature of the circumstances seemed to have made this woman for this man, and to have thrust one towards the other. The two together, the woman nervous and hypocritical, the man sanguineous and leading the life of a brute, formed a powerful couple allied. The one completed the other, and they mutually protected themselves. At night, at table, in the pale light of the lamp, one felt the strength of their union, at the sight of the heavy, smiling face of Laurent, opposite the mute, impenetrable mask of Thérèse.

An interesting sidelight on the ghoulish nature of Parisians:

The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.

Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common.

You can imagine that once Thérèse starts reading it’s all over, any life would be better than the one she is given. All my feminist hackles rise at this of course, as they do at any mention of ‘nervous sensibility’. But god, the idea she should just content herself with her lot, with a putty face and lifeless attitude, makes me die inside.

This sudden love for reading had great influence on her temperament. She acquired nervous sensibility which caused her to laugh and cry without any motive. The equilibrium which had shown a tendency to be established in her, was upset. She fell into a sort of vague meditation. At moments, she became disturbed by thoughts of Camille, and she dreamt of Laurent and fresh love, full of terror and distrust. She again became a prey to anguish. At one moment she sought for the means of marrying her sweetheart at that very instant, at another she had an idea of running away never to see him again.

The novels, which spoke to her of chastity and honour, placed a sort of obstacle between her instincts and her will. She remained the ungovernable creature who had wanted to struggle with the Seine and who had thrown herself violently into illicit love; but she was conscious of goodness and gentleness, she understood the putty face and lifeless attitude of the wife of Olivier, and she knew it was possible to be happy without killing one’s husband. Then, she did not see herself in a very good light, and lived in cruel indecision.

Not that she has chosen her lover well. Nor did she have to kill her husband. There’s all this crap about instincts (as woman? As Algerian?) that the higher sentiments of books cannot save her from. I feel for Laurent a little as well. Zola refuses to allow him to leave his brutish peasant nature behind him for most of the story, describing his thick neck and his huge hands and his laziness…it’s often hard to remember he’s become a clerk.

For several months, he proved himself a model clerk, doing his work with exemplary brutishness.

I don’t even know what that means.

I also hate this definition of women:

But, in her terror, she showed herself a woman: she felt vague remorse, unavowed regret. She, at times, had an inclination to cast herself on her knees and beseech the spectre of Camille to pardon her, while swearing to appease it by repentance.

And god, the creepiness of this, fuck this moral, how can this be what we aspire to? And another use of the word putty, as though that is all we are, to be moulded by our environments:

The wife of Olivier, with her putty face and slow movements, now pleased Therese, who experienced strange relief in observing this poor, broken-up creature, and had made a friend of her. She loved to see her at her side, smiling with her faint smile, more dead than alive, and bringing into the shop the stuffy odour of the cemetery. When the blue eyes of Suzanne, transparent as glass, rested fixedly on those of Thérèse, the latter experienced a beneficent chill in the marrow of her bones.

Poor Laurent only gets to escape his peasantness through the murder, before he was too full of life to be a proper artist, too much the peasant, but he is transformed — a fellow comes to see his work and is amazed by the sudden appearance of talent:

The artist had no idea of the frightful shock this man had received, and which had transformed him, developing in him the nerves of a woman, along with keen, delicate sensations. No doubt a strange phenomenon had been accomplished in the organism of the murderer of Camille. It is difficult for analysis to penetrate to such depths. Laurent had, perhaps, become an artist as he had become afraid, after the great disorder that had upset his frame and mind.

Previously, he had been half choked by the fulness of his blood, blinded by the thick vapour of breath surrounding him. At present, grown thin, and always shuddering, his manner had become anxious, while he experienced the lively and poignant sensations of a man of nervous temperament. In the life of terror that he led, his mind had grown delirious, ascending to the ecstasy of genius. The sort of moral malady, the neurosis wherewith all his being was agitated, had developed an artistic feeling of peculiar lucidity. Since he had killed, his frame seemed lightened, his distracted mind appeared to him immense; and, in this abrupt expansion of his thoughts, he perceived exquisite creations, the reveries of a poet passing before his eyes. It was thus that his gestures had suddenly become elegant, that his works were beautiful, and were all at once rendered true to nature, and life-like.

So yes. Surprising more artists and poets don’t kill people.  Both Thérèse and Laurent are trapped, inside of their natures, and inside crippling social mores, and inside this gloomy arcade. They were already buried alive in a way, even before they took the final step.

I was pretty happy when this book came to an end. But God, you can see what people are fleeing from as they run to Algeria, to America, to anywhere they can breathe freely, try to make of themselves what they can, live unfettered. You can see where the violence might come from that drove the terrible, unforgivable things that they did to make this new life for themselves.

A lot to think about here…Apparently for thinking about development and cities I really should have read La Curée and L’Argent, we shall see if I am able to face them. Germinal might go on the life-is-just-too-short pile, however.


Outcast from Struggle: Virginia Woolf and Christopher Isherwood

Literature is mostly written from the upper stratospheres of class looking down, so it is often bewildering reading it from the bottom looking up. Frustrating. Enraging. Sometimes sad.

SRB_0004I was struck once again, reading this passage describing Virginia Woolf‘s feelings sitting in a meeting of a working women’s guild, how terrible capitalism is for the wealthy as well as the poor. How unhealthy.

If every reform they demand was granted this very instant it would not touch one hair of my comfortable capitalistic head. hence my interest is merely altruistic. It is thin spread and moon coloured. there is no lifeblood or urgency about it. However hard I clap my hands or stamp my feet there is a hollowness in the sound which betrays me. I am a benevolent spectator. I am irretrievably cut off from the actors. (148)

But the barrier is impassable. And nothing perhaps exacerbated us more at the Congress (you must have noticed at times a certain irritability) than the thought that this force of theirs, this smouldering heat which broke the crust now and then and licked the surface with a hot and fearless flame, is about to break through and melt us together so that life will be richer and books more complex and society will pool its possessions instead of segregating them–all this is going to happen inevitably, thanks to you [Margaret Llewellyn Davies], very largely, and to Miss Harris and to Miss Kidd–but only when we are dead. (153, ‘Memories of a Working Women’s Guild’)

Margaret Llewelyn Davies and her assistant in the Guild’s office at Kirby Lonsdale


Being a great reader of Mark Bould’s blog (because I like him so much), this immediately resonated with a quote he had posted from Christopher Isherwood — which I shall steal without compunction because life is too short for me to ever read the book:

The hall was very full. The audience sat there in their soiled everyday clothes. Most of the men wore breeches with coarse woollen stockings, sweaters and peaked caps. Their eyes followed the speaker with hungry curiosity. I had never even been to a communist meeting before, and what struck me most was the fixed attention of the upturned rows of faces; faces of the Berlin working class, pale and prematurely lined, often haggard and ascetic, like the heads of scholars, with thin, fair hair brushed back from their broad foreheads. They had not come here to see each other or to be seen, or even to fulfil a social duty. They were attentive but not passive. They were not spectators. They participated, with a curious, restrained passion, in the speech made by the red-haired man. He spoke for them, he made their thoughts articulate. They were listening to their own collective voice. At the intervals they applauded it, with sudden, spontaneous violence. Their passion, their strength of purpose elated me. I stood outside it. One day, perhaps, I should be with it, but never of it. At present I just sat there, a half-hearted renegade from my own class, my feelings muddled by anarchism talked at Cambridge, by slogans from the confirmation service, by the tunes the band played when my father’s regiment marched by the railway station, seventeen years ago. And the little man finished his speech and went back to his place at the table amidst thunders of clapping. (Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories. New York: New Directions, 1963. 48-49)

At least Virginia Woolf recognises, with sadness, that she and the women like her are part of the structure that oppresses. ‘…the thought that this force of theirs, this smouldering heat which broke the crust now and then and licked the surface with a hot and fearless flame, is about to break through and melt us together … all this is going to happen inevitably … but only when we are dead,’ she writes. There is no such recognition in Isherwood.

Does this knowledge appear in Woolf’s fiction? What struck me most about The Years was the silences, the things that could not be expressed. Her characters danced around issues of class and oppression and Empire. There is another revealing passage about this to be found here:

But the great obstacle to asking questions openly in public is, of course, wealth. The little twisted sign that comes at the end of a question has a way of making the rich writhe; power and prestige come down upon it with all their weight. Questions, therefore, being sensitive, impulsive and often foolish, have a way of picking their asking place with care. They shrivel up in an atmosphere of power, prosperity and time-worn stone. They die by the dozen on the threshold of great newspaper offices. They slink away to less favoured, less flourishing quarters where people are poor and therefore have nothing to give, where they have no power and therefore have nothing to lose. (161, ‘Why?’)

It is an interesting displacement to people in poverty, the power and ability to ask questions. If only wealthy people would yield the power of creating solutions to them as well. It is a strange (and not entirely praise-worthy) yielding of responsibility, but yet an unexpectedly honest one. Woolf doesn’t go into what she has to lose, but clearly this is part of what stops speech, prevents full expression and I can imagine the pain of that. It is what oppressed in the streets of Kensington, and Bloomsbury does not escape it. Perhaps this is part of her withering, and her death.

The Co-operative Women’s Guild still exists, you can find them here. Really the point is, I think, that it is in struggle and in speaking  that a hope of full life lies.