Arlette Farge, La Vie Fragile (1986)

In retrospect I wonder how I came to this book, because it was pure luck. I browsed the shelf of local history and I took it on a whim. “La Vie Fragile” is about working class life in Paris in the 18C. Right, it’s the kind of books that nobody reads. There’s nothing about rich people (or a complete picture of society), nothing about other cities than Paris, and nothing from an earlier or later period. Definitely unsexy. Yet it was interesting, because it’s about the city I live in (and places have not changed that much) and I learnt many facts that went against the common assumptions I had ever since school. Like those:

1-marriage in the lower working class was a lot more equal than in other ranks of society. There was no dowry because the spouses were poor to begin with, so the idea of selling a daughter, of getting money through marriage, of finding a suitable match in financial terms didn’t exist. Men and women in lower ranks of society were quite free to meet up and date. To get married under these circumstances becomes more comparable to our modern way of thinking, as a step to make a relationship official with the hope of a future establishment (settling down with a steady job, home etc.). Living together without being married was common, and within marriage, spouses were a lot more equal than imagined as they both worked and got their own money.

2-children in an age of high infant mortality. It had been said that the lower classes didn’t love their children because so many of them died or were abandoned. Arlette Farge doesn’t deny the harsh realities of being a child in a poor family Paris in the 18C, but she denies the lack of feeling. She says that people dealt differently with the fear of death, with the uncertainties of money, situation, migrations and contraception, but children were always seen as a hope for life. A lot of them worked outside or within their families, but people still cared. Children reflected on their family’s status and honor. One surprising proof of that can be found in 1750, when the royal police was ordered to kidnap poor children to send them away to Louisiana (back then it was French), in order to fill the land there with young workers.

3-mobs and crowds as a collective phenomenon representing “the people”. “The people” is regularly invited by the king to witness important events, like royal weddings, victories. By attending the manifestation, crowds are expected to rejoice, bless the king with its assent and confirms its loyalty to the regime. Farge shows that after 1750 this conception becomes less and less convincing, especially after a famous incident where people were crushed to death due to negligence at the wedding celebration for King Louis 16 (the one who later beheaded – obviously a bad omen). Same goes with crowds coming to public executions, that were supposed to be ritual reaffirmation of royal absolute power. Although death was a lot more present in life than today, the public show of death always stirred strong feelings of fascination. But by the end of the 18C, people’s sensitivity evolved to find executions barbaric and horrible, so the demonstration of power was more and more fragile.

I liked it a lot, especially as it makes 18C Parisians a lot more alive to me, but it’s been more than one month since I finished it, so I must face the truth: I lack enthusiasm when it comes to review books here that will probably find little echo in the blog-world. A small fragile voice for a delicate, sensitive picture of history.

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2 thoughts on “Arlette Farge, La Vie Fragile (1986)

  1. This sounds like a fascinating book! If I knew French I’m sure I would enjoy reading it 🙂 Please do review books even if you don’t think there is much interest for them. You never know, it could end up being something lots of people would love to read if they knew about it.

  2. Pingback: Jean-François Parot, Le Fantôme de la Rue Royale (2001) « Smithereens

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