• Stephanie Brown

48. What the archives tell us

Marie Henry was born in the provincial town of Moëlan, in the region of Pont-Aven, the administrative district of Quimperlé, in the département of Finistère--at the end of the world. At the western end of France, at any rate. She came into the world at half past five in the evening on January 25, 1859. Little Marie-Jeanne was born at home, which is where nearly everyone was born in those days; hospitals were only for the indigent and friendless. Her parents kept a sort of inn in the center of Moëlan, in the neighborhood that locals called

Finistère Departmental Archives, Etat-civil, naissances, 1853-1862


the Bourg, the center of the city, near the marketplace. On January 26, her father Philibert--"36 years old, cabaretier"--carried the infant to the town hall to register her birth. His younger brother François, a sailor, and his friend Yves Caëric, who had a bakery (unless it was a butcher shop; the archives tell different tales), came along as witnesses, attesting that Philibert's wife, Marie-Anne Daniel--"aged 37, cabarétière"--had been delivered of a daughter. Marie-Jeanne was the couple's second child: they had a six year old son called Julien.


Six years later, on December 28, 1865, Caëric, identified this time as a butcher, went back to the town hall to register the death of Marie-Anne Daniel the day before . And two months later, Caëric was back again on business for the Henry family: he came to witness Philibert's second marriage. Philibert's second wife, Marie-Louise Gléren, was 23, sans profession, living in Moëlan. Marie-Louise was the daughter of farmers in another part of Brittany, and we can piece together that she had moved to Moëlan after her father died the previous August. Philibert's second marriage was cut short by his death later in the year: on August 25, two of the Henry family's neighbors went to the town hall to report that Philibert had died the previous day, at home. Twelve-year-old Julien and seven-year-old Marie Henry had lost both parents in less than a year and were left with a young stepmother.


Secondary sources tell us that Julien was put to work with a shopkeeper in the village, while Marie became a boarding student at the Ursuline Sisters' convent in Quimperlé, six miles away. Julien reappears in the archives when he marries, on New Year's Day in 1877, the daughter of local farmers; Julien is 23 and lists himself as a sailor. Marie, when she turned 18, was apprenticed to a baker in Quimperlé. It seems that a few months later she handed in her apron and went to Paris to seek her fortune.


A young working-class woman on her own in Paris is a risky proposition for a story. There are whole novels about the ways that things can go wrong. In Les Misérables (1862), Victor Hugo

introduces Fantine as a young woman without a family who, "at fifteen, had gone to Paris 'to seek her fortune.' She was beautiful and had stayed pure as long as she could..." When we meet her, she works as a seamstress who has fallen in love with a student who, within a chapter or so, abandons her. Fantine bears his child, cannot find work, and begins her descent into misery. She sells her "all her possessions, which produced two hundred francs" and pays off her debts of one hundred twenty francs. Fantine places her daughter Cosette in the care of the Thenardiers--who run a cabaret in Montfermeil--and goes to seek work in a factory. The rest of the story you probably know and might even be able to hum.


Frontispiece, Victor Hugo, Les Misérables,

trans. Isabel Hapgood, 1887.


Zola, in L'Assomoir (1877), tells a similarly grim tale of a young working-class woman in the Capital. His Gervaise has come to Paris with her lover, Lantier, and their two children, wanting to escape her abusive father. In the first chapter, she talks about her situation at the neighborhood laundry:

He [Lantier] used to behave very well in the country; but, since we've been in Paris, he's been unbearable. I must tell you that his mother died last year and left him some money—about seventeen hundred francs. He would come to Paris, so...I consented to come away with him. We made the journey with two children. He was to set me up as a laundress, and work himself at his trade of a hatter. We should have been very happy...On arriving, we went to the Hotel Montmartre, in the Rue Montmartre. And then there were dinners, and cabs, and the theater...he went in for everything, and so well that at the end of two months we were cleaned out. It was then that we came to live at the Hotel Boncoeur [in a lower-working-class neighborhood], and that this horrible life began.

André Gill, "Gervaise carrying a bucket,"

frontispiece for Emile Zola, L'Assomoir, 1878.


Lantier abandons her; she remarries; her second husband becomes an alcoholic after falling from a rooftop; her hard-earned laundry business falls apart. Gervaise finally is left to shelter under a staircase in a run-down apartment building:


It was inside there, on some straw, that her teeth chattered, whilst her stomach was empty and her bones were frozen. The earth would not have her apparently. She was becoming idiotic...Death had to take her little by little, bit by bit, dragging her thus to the end through the accursed existence she had made for herself. It was never even exactly known what she did die of. There was some talk of a cold, but the truth was she died of privation and of the filth and hardship of her ruined life...One morning, as there was a bad smell in the passage, it was remembered that she had not been seen for two days, and she was discovered already green in her hole.


Zola, man.


Why this excursion into French realist novels? Marie Henry's story could have looked like the stories of Fantine and Gervaise. She could have taken a low-paying job (the only sort of job available to a young woman). She could have fallen into a relationship that left her pregnant and abandoned, or pregnant and tied to a husband who, like Gervaise's husbands, made her life more unstable. Women had few legal rights and fewer economic options. They were paid less than men, and fewer jobs were open to them. Research in this area is dense and specific, and I am sparing you a lot of demographic data. I promise: Marie Henry was a statistical anomaly.


Instead of vanishing into the maw of the city, Marie Henry came home to Brittany and bought land. She paid 350 francs (about $2000) cash for a sixty-six square meters of land, a little more than 700 square feet, on the coast near where she was born on June 28, 1886, when she was 27, nine years after she first went to Paris. In August 1887, she came back and bought an adjoining twenty-two square meters (about 200 square feet) for 110 francs ($670)--again in cash. What do these sums mean? Average per capita income in France at the end of the 1800s was 600 francs. Middle class apartments in Paris rented for between 300 and 1000 francs annually. Zola's Gervaise and her second husband pay 150 francs for "a large room with a small closet and a kitchen" over a hostelry that rents out carriages. Later in the novel, Gervaise adds up what it would take to set up her own laundry business: "two hundred and fifty francs for the rent, one hundred and fifty francs for utensils and moving, one hundred francs in hand to keep them going for a fortnight—in all five hundred francs at the very lowest figure." Gervaise reckons she will have to work for "four or five years"to save that much. In L'Assomoir, Gervaise finances her business with a loan from a friend and--spoiler alert--it doesn't go well. How did Marie Henry manage to put aside the money?


The archives do not tell us what kind of work Marie Henry did those nine years in Paris. Paris' city archives tell us about births, marriages, divorces, and deaths. They tell us about property changing hands and police arrests. They tell us about auctions of art and furniture and fine tapestries. They do not tell us much about working-class individuals. That is, in the aggregate we can use them to render gallons of information about groups of Parisians across all classes. But tracing the path across space and time of a single woman, not in possession of a fortune, who does not fall foul of the law, does not marry or give birth, and stays alive, is beyond the archives' scope.


I have not found where to ask the question that will uncover Marie Henry's years in Paris. I don't know if she had friends or was lonely. I don't know where she lived or worked, or what she did on her few precious days off. I don't know how often she made the long journey to visit her brother and his wife, or the Ursuline sisters, or maybe her father's old friend Yves Caëric. I don't know when she first spent a day at Le Pouldu, or why; it wasn't a tourist site in the 1880s so much as it was a place where locals harvested seaweed to sell. Did she have a friend from the convent who lived there? What drew her to the spot?


The archives don't answer those questions, but that doesn't mean they're not worth asking. Marie Henry listened to the rain on her Paris rooftop and decided she wanted to listen to waves instead. She imagined that she could change what her life looked like. The distance from Paris to Le Pouldu was significant both geographically and metaphorically, but she covered it. One day she must have met local farmers Joseph Portier and his wife Anne Even, who owned land along the chemin des Grands Sables, Sand Dunes Street, in Le Pouldu. She asked if they would sell her a little, and they agreed. And then she built an inn.


The Buvette de la Plage, Le Pouldu, during Marie Henry's time, 1889-1893, conceptualized by Jean-Marie Cusinberche and drawn by Daniel Fort, 1992





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