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justice_turtle ([personal profile] justice_turtle) wrote in [community profile] readallthenewberys2017-10-09 11:39 pm

Newbery Honor: A Daughter of the Seine: The Life of Madame Roland (Jeanette Eaton), Part 1

Gods damn it, I don't want to have opinions about the French Revolution. I'm totally unqualified -- I've just about grasped that Jacobins are to be contradistinguished from Jacobites, for chrissakes. And I took an earlier stab at this book, which my iPad somehow ate, and I really don't want to have opinions on a condescending view of the French Revolution tailored for Philadelphia private-school girls in 1930!

*sigh* But the book is due in a week, I've been trying to get to it off and on since 2013, and I suppose needs must when the devil drives. Or when my own past overoptimism about the average quality of Newberys drives, in this case. :S

* Frontispiece: a profile etching of our subject, Mme Marie-Jeanne Roland, "Manon" to her friends and biographers. This is unsigned, but I'm just about convinced by the expression and the distinctive shape of the nose that it was done by a young Robert Lawson; the timing is right for when he dabbled in etching. But I can't prove it.

* Seriously. "Edited by Mildred Dunlap Williams, Head of the English Department, The South Philadelphia High School for Girls", and the table of contents ignores the actual chapter divisions in favor of "Chronological Table", "Suggestions for Special Projects", "Suggestions for Additional Reading", and so forth. This is a School book.

* An unsigned introduction, probably by the editor, tells us that Mme Roland -- of whom I never heard before this book, but then she wasn't in The Scarlet Pimpernel -- is, present tense, "so great a force in the period in which [s]he lives that [s]he seems the personification of that period". It briskly spoilers every event of Mme Roland's life, then -- oh my. I can't quote the entirety, but just... just look.

* "As you read A Daughter of the Seine, you will need to keep in mind all that you know of the history of this period. The following summary will help you to recall it. The eighteenth century was marked by a growth of the spirit of democracy, a limiting of the power of kings." Charles I, absolute monarch, beheaded; Oliver Cromwell; Charles II, limited monarchy. American Revolution. French peasants in terrible conditions; extremes of wealth and poverty. French Revolution "controlled" by moderate Girondins. "The principle of revolution once started, however, the moderate leaders were no longer able to hold back the ignorant mob of Paris, which had felt its own strength." Enter Danton, Marat, Robespierre -- guillotine ALL the people!

Better not encourage reforms for the poor, girls. They'll cut off your heads.

* (You see how unqualified I am to talk about the French Revolution. It's arguably the most picturesque example in history of how the great unwashed really need to be sat on, for everybody's sake. Which gets extremely awkward when I aggressively oppose squelching the poor, but do not by and large support guillotining the rich. It wants nuance, which is not a thing I can get from Wikipedia. :P)

* We're not nearly to the book proper yet, though. First we require a biography of our author, again supplied by the English teacher. Ms Eaton was a tomboy, of course, for the feminine cannot be intellectual. After a page-long discursion on the skill of writing, we get a quote from the lady herself -- "To place a character in its setting one has to make an entire period come true" -- and a concluding epigram from the teacher: "That she has achieved this goal you will know when you read A Daughter of the Seine." I've never read anything that made me feel less disposed to read the book that follows; I feel like our English teacher must have been of the type who, by assuming her girls will only read when and what is assigned to them, causes that belief to come true. Look, I'm doing it: my grammar has gone all stuffy. Pbbbbt.

* Oh look. Now we have a Chronological Table, four pages long, which might tell me some stuff if I already knew most of it. As matters stand, it is unhelpful.

* Finally, the book begins. Baby Marie-Jeanne Philipon is baptized. She is the only surviving child of eight total pregnancies. She spends her first two years with a wet-nurse in the country. When she returns to the city, we get a lesson on the Pont-Neuf, near which she and her parents lived.

* Her mother, whose name I'm not seeing given, is gentle and pious. Her father, Gatien Philipon, is "a rough, commonplace man who had but a crude appreciation of his sensitive and precocious daughter". At age six, Manon refuses to take a bad-tasting medicine; Gatien beats her for this, and she tells him with immense dignity, "You may beat me as much as you like, but I shall never yield." Somehow this challenge to his dominance overwhelms Gatien with his child's noble superiority and he never lays a hand on her again, instead of getting her beaten to a pulp and her will broken for life, like a real person. :P Ahem.

* "Yes, there was always something of the self-satisfied little prig in Marie Philipon. But even great heroines must be permitted a few faults. ... Furthermore, she really tried hard to be good..." Dear god, this is aimed at high-schoolers? The vocabulary is high-school level, but the tone is addressed to maybe second-graders at the very highest, and even they might rebel. Depends on what they're used to, which admittedly in this case is probably 1920s Newberys, so they've heard worse. But if you're giving this sort of moralizing to teenagers, no wonder they only read what you assign them to. O_O

* ...wot thee fock. Little Manon discovers that having good manners is "the very best way to demonstrate her superiority over the rough little gamins of the neighborhood". Gag me with a brick, I'm going to want to guillotine this insufferable bundle of bourgeois snobbery pretty soon, and I'm not even a bloody street-urchin.

* This leads directly into an essay on the state of French civilization in 1760-whatever -- the preindustrial city, the three main social classes. "The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, had many social grades", in opposition to the peasants. Then we hear about the young prince who will become Louis XVI... what. What the fuck.

* I swear to god I'm not making this up, okay? "He... felt superior to nobody. This was a great pity." Was the fucking King of France supposed to save his own life and prevent revolution by FEELING MORE SUPERIOR TO EVERYBODY???!!!!????

* I can't. I just bloody well cannot. WHAT. IS. HAPPENING?!?!? I live in some fucking alternate reality where feeling superior not only makes you a worthwhile person but keeps you from getting GUILLOTINED by the people you're sneering at. Is this where Republicans come from? Am I going to get an infestation? O_O

* "[A]s long as people actually believed that the king's power came directly from God and had no idea they possessed any right to change conditions, they naturally submitted to every royal outrage." Suuuure. You tell yourself that, babe. Tell yourself it's got nothing to do with the ability to change conditions. Tell yourself that if "the good, stupid artisans like Monsieur Philipon" -- I cannot bloody make this up -- had just been properly informed about the Rights of Man at some unspecified previous time, everything would've been hunky-dory. WHAT THE SHIT AM I READING.

* Marie is educated to some extent at home by tutors, learns Latin and religion from an uncle who is a priest, and is in general a most learned young genius. She reads everything she can get her hands on, including the books her father's shop-clerk brings to read on his lunch break.

* We get a couple pages' digression about the super-fancy clothes young Manon wears to church on Sundays and other festive occasions. Perhaps this is meant to humanize her or something? It gets really detailed.

* Manon, like her mother, is intensely religious, and when she is eleven, at her request, her parents scrape together the money to send her to a convent school for a year. She promptly becomes the "teacher's pet", quote marks original, but everybody loves her anyway because she's just such a perfect little sweetheart and so "genuine about all her emotions". We hear at length about one of the convent's novices "taking the veil" or becoming a full nun, which was a hella elaborate ceremony involving a wedding dress and a funeral pall, among other things.

* Manon makes a friend, Sophie Cannet, a real person with whom she later corresponded. We hear about the death of Louis XVI's father, which makes him Dauphin i.e. heir to the crown. Then we get another essay on how the majority of French children were extremely poor peasants and how Manon and Sophie are unaware of their good fortune. We also hear about Manon's special friendship with one of the nuns, which reads to me as pretty damn skeevy although it's not at all meant to.

* After her year at the convent, Manon goes to stay with her grandmother Philipon. One day, the pair go to visit a noble lady for whom Grandma Philipon once worked as maid and governess, a Madame de Boismorel. You can just assume there are essays on daily life and the city's geography interspersed with all this. Mme de Boismorel is fat, loud-voiced, red-faced, and addresses Grandma Philipon as "Mademoiselle Rotisset" -- nobles did not address their social inferiors as "madame" (my lady) and "monsieur" (my lord). We are informed that Mme de Boismorel is making "snobbish distinctions". Of course, the Revolution will replace all these titles with "citizen", so presumably we're being primed here to welcome that change.

(I'm not saying it shouldn't be changed. I'm just saying that having a horrible rude FAT person be the exponent of privilege does not encourage your young readers to consider whether quite nice people such as themselves might be unthinkingly following hurtful customs such as this one. :S Fucking early Newberys.)

* Manon continues seething about this perceived slight. In detail. "What reward, then, was given to true merit? What use to study and achieve if a coarse and ignorant member of the noblesse could treat one as an inferior?" I'm not quite managing to articulate my feelings on how the "true merit" of intellectualism is just as out of reach for the peasantry as the blood-merit of the nobility -- how this train of thought just substitutes one sort of hierarchy for another and keeps the same people pretty much on the bottom.

* Talking with her uncle the priest, Manon now discovers that the Church is also corrupt. "In a burst of bitter protest all the religious emotionalism which had filled Marie's heart escaped like so much steam." She will now become a proper little humanist, aided by the middle-aged son of Mme de Boismorel, a kindly man who "based his judgments not on conventional, but on real standards" -- that is, he visits Grandma Philipon, calls her "Madame", sounds off about "Reason before everything" (quotes original again), and lends Manon his books. "At thirteen years of age she had become an agnostic and a potential revolutionist."

(The best I can tell from Wiki, which is obviously not much, Ms Eaton may be overstating the case. Mme Roland reportedly supported a constitutional monarchy with limited powers, which doesn't particularly accord with the complete overthrow of social structures necessary to get rid of a hereditary nobility and their titles. Or I could be totally off target.)

We hear, again at length, about an aristocrat Manon loathes, one Mademoiselle de Hanaches, "whose speech was incorrect, who couldn't write a decent letter, who dressed like a frump, and had the grace of a giraffe". Both these women pop up in my googling, referenced in various older (thus public-domain) biographies of Mme Roland, so one presumes that they are mentioned in the lady's own memoirs and/or letters. Still and all, unless the criticism is of squandering one's (presumed) opportunities, I'm not sure what sort of moral deficiency is supposed to result in frumpy dress or awkward posture. :P

(Hell, I grew up among people for whom frumpy clothing was a sign of moral rectitude. Nothing says holiness like a shapeless denim sack dress. o_O)

* Ahem. Anyway. We get another extended anecdote about how Mlle de Hanaches, on a visit to Versailles, offends Manon's delicate sensibilities with her "grotesque face" and "uncouth voice". Then a passage about how she writes to Sophie Cannet about all these incidents, and how these letters survive. Baby Manon, if your goal for social reform is merely to establish a prettier and more intellectual aristocracy of the mind, it's not going to work. Social change is a rough goddamn business. It's never going to be couth.

* When Manon is sixteen, Louis XVI -- still Dauphin -- marries Marie Antoinette of Austria. There is talk of marrying off Manon as well. Her family is fairly well-off, so her dowry is good, making her a desirable match. She absolutely refuses to consider the hand of any tradesman, saying "They are always greedy and some of them are cheats"; she demands a husband as intellectual as herself. The author tries to hint there is some doubt about whether Monsieur Philipon will accede to this demand, but of course he will in the end.

* Manon comes down with a form of non-scarring "smallpox" called Ravaglioni, which I think from googling is better known today as chicken pox. She recovers and is fine, but while staying in the country with a retired aunt and uncle to recover, they and she visit another noble house -- where they had worked -- and are seated for dinner at the servants' table. Which to me seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do with retired servants, but of course Manon takes offense again that nobody is noticing her own special perfection.

* Maybe I'm overrreacting. I just feel like little Manon is being a snit about the wrong parts of pre-Revolution French society; she wants status, not reform.

* A young Dr Gardanne is a suitor of Manon's. The book draws out the circumstances, but we know she's going to marry a Monsieur Roland, so there's no suspense.

* First, though, the dramatic revelation that the family is going broke, that Gatien has been gambling away their money and having an affair, and that these stresses have ruined Mme Philipon's health.

* Then Louis XV dies of smallpox, to great rejoicing, and Louis XVI is king. There are attempts at social reform. In 1775 there are riots over the price of bread, as bakers are paying less tax on flour but have not lowered their prices; Louis XVI orders free bread given out and does not have the rioters arrested. Soon afterward, Mme Philipon dies of a stroke. Manon is twenty-one.

* At age twenty-seven, Manon meets a friend of the Cannet family, Monsieur Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, whom she will eventually marry. He is "twice her own age", physically unattractive, "domineering", but he's at least as smart and well-read as Manon herself.

* Uhhh. The author compares Monsieur Roland to Benjamin Franklin, who was then in Paris as ambassador from the United States. It's meant as a compliment. Nobody mentions that Franklin was a lecherous old pain in the ass who preferred being lionized in Paris to dealing with political wrangling in the newly formed States, which is where my brain goes.

* There is another long essay on the intermittent publication history in this era of the French Academy's Encyclopedia, "a typical contest between progress and medievalism". Yeah, yeah, onward the course of whatever takes its whatnot -- out with the old, in with the new. Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change, and so forth. Am I being too bitchy? I have issues with the cult of inexorable Progress. I might be able to articulate them more coherently if it wasn't three in the morning, but gods dammit, I've been trying to get through this book since 2013!

* We hear some of the rumors about Marie Antoinette's extravagance and partying. I think we're supposed to take all these reports as accurate? It's hard to tell, since they're all put into the mouths of innkeepers and so forth, but the author doesn't expound to the contrary.

* Monsieur Roland proposes, and after warning him that she has only a tiny dowry (he doesn't mind), Manon accepts. However, Gatien refuses his permission. Manon therefore leaves his house, takes a room at the convent school, and writes to Monsieur Roland, who is in Amiens on business, to tell him the whole story. In early 1780, he returns and they are finally married.

* The Roland de la Platière family are nobility, or something in that vicinity -- Ms Eaton is fairly cagey about it. Monsieur Roland is the only son who did not become a priest. Manon has a baby daughter, Marie-Eudora, and apologizes to her in-laws for it not being a boy to carry on the family name.

* We're getting name after name of people the Rolands befriend -- one Louis Bosc d'Antic, a François Lanthenas -- but not knowing the history of the era already, this tells me fuck-all about what things are building towards. I'm sure if I knew the story I would feel the ominous progress building.

* Or maybe not. I'm only a quarter of the way through the book, though god knows how much of that is lesson plans and addenda. *pokes* Okay, a third of the way through the actual book. It's 1784. I think I will go to bed and tackle the last ten years of Mme Roland's life later.
bookblather: A picture of Yomiko Readman looking at books with the text "bookgasm." (Default)

[personal profile] bookblather 2017-10-10 10:13 pm (UTC)(link)
I mean, the Reign of Terror wasn't really supported by The Masses the way pretty much every depiction of that period has it. It also died down more or less immediately after Robespierre got his head cut off. So it's more of a "fuck this one guy in particular" lesson than "squelch the poor..." idk and then there's this whole historiography question about how celebrated the French Revolution is, all "yay the poor rose up and ate the rich but don't do that really" so... idek, we probably want shadowsong and her knowledge of French history for this. All I know is that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette didn't really deserve it and Robespierre was a dick whose name, nevertheless, is good for lizards.
bookblather: A picture of Yomiko Readman looking at books with the text "bookgasm." (Default)

[personal profile] bookblather 2017-10-10 10:17 pm (UTC)(link)
OKAY having actually read the entry in full, this is nothing at all like the actual French Revolution and is didactic as hell. Fuck you, author lady.
bookblather: A picture of Yomiko Readman looking at books with the text "bookgasm." (Default)

[personal profile] bookblather 2017-10-11 01:05 am (UTC)(link)
There were lizards living outside my house in Palm Springs, so we named all of them Robespierre. It just sounded like a good name for lizards. And it was!