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Childhood Experiences in Mark Traugot’s The French Worker

Adrienne Ellis

    From the perspective of the era of prosperity we live in, reading Mark Traugott’s collection of autobiographies of French early industrial era workers is an eye-opening experience. Readers are reminded of how fortunate they are to live in a society where individual freedoms are more expected and realized. Unlike the chair makers in Jacques Bédé’s account, today’s French workers would not be expected to perform dangerous, physically exhausting work without compensation. But something perhaps more important than the progress of workers’ rights is that of children’s rights, which readers also appreciate from Traugott’s work. The majority of Traugott’s autobiographies show children forced, by difficult economic circumstances and/or lack of care by their parents, to become adults far before their time, and sometimes be abused. The childhood experiences of the workers in Traugott’s book tell us who these people were and the type of society in which they lived.

    In the first autobiography we read, Jacques Bédé tells us in a rather matter-of-fact tone that "as I was the fourth child overall, I was not loved by my mother" (48). When he was nine, his father died because of lightning striking his windmill. As a result of this catastrophe, and the fact that he was "detested by [his] unhappy mother and mistreated by [his] older sister," Bédé was eager to get away from home (50). His mother showed no sadness or disappointment in sending away her 9 year-old son to begin his life as a worker in his uncle’s home, and she was no doubt relieved to have one less mouth to feed. He worked there for three years without his mother ever asking about his welfare (52). But rather than becoming bitter because of the lack of love he received, Bédé’s experience seems to have made him a stronger person. When he decided to enlist in the army, he told his sister that he could never abandon his mother and that "neither my mother’s mistreatment nor her indifference prevented me from respecting and cherishing her." (53) He went on to become a successful chair maker and a leader of his fellow workers in demanding more rights and refusing to perform unpaid tasks. In fact, one could conjecture that the hard experiences in Bédé’s life pushed him to be a better person than his abusers and discover his talents and rights, and spread his findings to others.

    Suzanne Voilquin gives quite a different picture, and offers a view into the world of children raised by strongly religious parents. Her childhood was rather safe economically, and she didn’t have to work outside the home until she was in her twenties. She began going to confession when she was seven (93) and began attending a convent, where she "would pray, then sing hymns, … learn to read and write a bit, and on Saturday recite the day’s gospel…." (94) When she was 9 years old, her mother gave birth to another girl who she entrusted completely to Suzanne to keep as a daughter (95). Voilquin confesses that this responsibility taught her about duty, and even saved her from suicide by "forcing [her] to live for this child." (95) She, like Bédé, was forced to become an adult in this sense while she was still a child. She eventually became a certified midwife, and undoubtedly her early experiences of caring for others (she also was her mother’s nurse when she became deathly ill) helped influence her choice of career.

    From Agricol Perdiguier, we see a childhood experienced on a farm with relative economic prosperity. He nonetheless knew the meaning of work. He walked the streets looking for manure left behind by horses and other animals, filling his basket with the "treasure" and then mixing it with straw (120-121). When he was seven or eight, he began working the land by hoeing, harvesting grapes, and reaping olives (121). His family life seems rather good and fair compared to some of the other accounts (he was even paid a weekly wage by his father). This no doubt helped mold his desire for workers to treat each other with respect when he left home to learn his trade of a joiner. Eventually, he became a First Fellow, or president of his compagnonnage.

    The most difficult childhood experience from the collection is described by Norbert Truquin, who lived a life trying to scrape his way out of the depths of poverty, but never quite succeeding. He describes his life until age 5 as "spoiled" (251). But when his father went bankrupt and his mother died, we see a child facing the harsh realities of life. He went with his father to Reims, where his real trials began. His father dropped him off with a harsh elderly wool comber. His new master never held back the strap from the 7 year old child, "putting all his strength" into beating "the rascal" whenever he happened to make a slight mistake (253.) Truquin was forced to sleep in a coal cellar under the stairway of the house where he would wake at three in the morning to light the furnace, starting work at four, and continuing until ten at night. If the young child ever succumbed to drowsiness, the round of beatings would commence again. Truquin was only saved from this miserable life when his master died, and he was forced onto the streets. He was taken in by two prostitutes, and served them doing domestic tasks. This comfortable job didn’t last for long, and Truquin was forced again to find various jobs throughout his adolescence, struggling simply to survive.

    Finally, towards the end of the century, Traugott shows an improvement in the childhood experiences. Jean-Baptiste Dumay describes a much more normal childhood, attending school (when he didn’t skip) until the age of thirteen, when he left to become a machinist. Jeanne Bouvier describes a happy childhood life on a farm, helping her mom tend to the cows and other chores (340). At age ten she went to a nunnery to make her communion. She escaped her childhood unscathed until age 13, when her family went bankrupt and she was forced to start her working life in a factory.

    In conclusion, the childhood experiences recorded in Mark Traugott’s The French Worker, regardless of the child’s gender or geographical origins, were never the carefree days of growing and learning most parents would hope to offer their sons and daughters today. At best, children were able to live in a financially stable household where they were expected to contribute monetarily or through their labor, such as the experience of Perdiguier. The happiest childhoods, toward the end of the era, accounted by Dumay and Bouvier, ended at the beginning of adolescence, much earlier than today’s typical age of 18. Because of these two accounts however, we do see an improvement that progresses with the century, as standards for educating children improved. Life was not easy for any of the children in the collection, yet all of the workers were able to improve their situation to some extent, with the least able worker being Truquin. Even though Truquin lived his life struggling in poverty, he was able to educate himself and become literate, and he contributed to societal thought through his writings. Others became stable, literate and contributing members to society. None of them were completely destroyed by their difficult childhoods; on the contrary it seems that their past struggles made them more understanding to the plights of their fellow workers, and perhaps gave them some kind of drive to succeed.

 

 

All design copyright Sara Hinds 2002

All essays copyright students of History 541,  University of Kentucky 2002

Comments? Comments on this site should be sent to Professor Jeremy D. Popkin, 

Department of History, University of Kentucky, email popkin@uky.edu.