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A Parisienne in Chicago by Marie Grandin

January 19, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

A Parisienne in Chicago by Marie Grandin. 1894. French title: Une Parisienne à Chicago.

Voyager. Ce mot devrait se pouvoir définir ainsi « Voir avec intérêt pour se souvenir avec bonheur et profit » To travel. This world should be defined as such : “To watch with interest in order to remember with happiness and profit”

Marie Grandin (1864-1905) went to Chicago in 1892 with her husband Léon Grandin who was a sculptor. He was hired to work on a fountain for the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. This exposition was to celebrate the fourth centennial of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. When she came back to France, she wrote the memoir of her trip in the USA. It was rediscovered in the 21st century thanks to the work of two academics from each side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Marie Grandin starts her memoir with her trip on the boat from Le Havre to New York. Lucky her, she wasn’t sea sick. She first spends some time in New York before taking the train to Chicago. Here’s her arrival in New York and her description of the Manhattan skyline:

Au réveil, un radieux et féérique décor s’étalait devant nous. En face, la terre bordée de chalets qu’ombrageaient de luxuriantes verdures ; dans la baie immense que formait l’océan, une multitude innombrable de bateaux de toutes espèces qui se croisaient en tous sens et, sur le côté dominant la mer, la colossale statue de « la Liberté éclairant le monde », du sculpteur Bartholdi. When we woke up, we saw a glorious and fairy landscape. In front of us, the land was lined with cabins in the shadow of luxuriant greenery. In the immense bay formed by the ocean, there were lots of ships of various shapes cruising in every way. On the side towards the sea, there was the colossal Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World by the sculptor Bartholdi.

Grandin_françaisIsn’t that incredible? With the image of New York we have now, it’s quite difficult to imagine cabins and greenery. Her stay in New York is interesting to read. I didn’t know there used to be overhead trains in the city. She says it was quite dreadful for the people living by because of the noise and the fumes of the locomotives. On her way to Chicago, she visits the Niagara Falls. I never imagined that it was so touristy at that time. She pictures rentals of rubber boots and coats and locals making money out of tourism while tourists are herded through a defined path. The only different thing compared to nowadays was the absence of tourists shoving other tourists out of the way to take pictures.

Then Chicago. The couple lived in several boarding houses, which allowed her to share the life of the average American from Chicago. She describes everyday life like cooking, washing clothes and shares all kind of details. For example, she says that men and horses used to put wet sponges inside their hats to fight against the heat and the risk of sunstroke. I enjoyed reading about shops, life insurances, travel insurances, food safes. She was in America during the campaign of the presidential election. (Hamilton vs Cleveland) and she was surprised by the way the campaign was done and how citizens were involved in it. There were a lot of meetings, door-to-door visits to convince electors and parades to promote the candidates. She visited schools, slaughterhouses, went to Milwaukee when it was on fire.

Grandin_EnglishShe needed to adjust to the cold and the snow in winter, and she tells us about skating on Lake Michigan and how inhabitants coped with snowy and slippery roads. I loved the description of street merchants selling pop-corn and peanuts and how she had to explain carefully what it was to her French readers. That was totally unknown in France and if peanuts were common when I was a child, we still didn’t have pop-corn. I don’t think they sold popcorn in French cinemas before the mid-1990s.

Apparently, the population of Chicago being composed of a lot of German immigrants, French people weren’t that welcome in the city. She makes comparison with Paris, of course, and it’s even more interesting for a Frenchwoman. It counterbalances Edith Wharton’s blind Francophilia in French Ways and their Meaning. She compares the educational system and notices how the philosophy of teaching is different from France. I believe it’s still the case. She’s astonished by the relationships between masters and servants, servants having too much freedom in her opinion.

She observes relationships between men and women and assesses that men marry women for love and not for money whereas the French looked at the bride’s financial prospects and her dowry. Perhaps it’s right, I think I remember Sándor Márai mentioning the same thing about the Parisian society. Marie Grandin marvels at the kindness of American husbands. She finds them more caring than the French ones, more participative in housework. Personally, I thought that what she describes sounded more like treating women as fragile little flowers who shouldn’t be burdened by anything. I understand better Wharton’s flamboyant plea for a more equal partnership in marriage.

An anecdote. Once, a burglar broke into the boarding house she was living in. The men of the house managed to frighten him and he flew out of the premises. Nobody was injured and nothing was stolen. Marie Grandin says:

D’ailleurs, aucun des survenants n’était armé, et la surprise que j’exprimai parut les surprendre à leur tour.« Etre armés ? Pourquoi ?- Mais pour tirer sur cet affreux coquin !La notion scandalisa tout à fait ces braves gens. Le voleur n’ayant pas paru en vouloir à leur vie mais simplement à leur bourse, ils ne se jugeaient pas en droit de l’atteindre dans son existence. Quant à s’en rendre maîtres autrement pour le livrer à la justice, cela ne leur semblait guère plus utile, ledit voleur, dès le lendemain, pouvant être sous caution rendu à la liberté. By the way, none of the men was armed and the surprise I expressed seemed to surprise them too:“To be armed? Why?”Well, to shoot at this awful scoundrel!”The notion totally scandalized these brave people. The burglar never intended to harm them; he only wanted their money. They didn’t consider that they had a right to kill him. To get the better of him and bring him to the justice didn’t seem more useful as the said burglar could be bailed out the next day.

I found that passage really interesting as the situation would probably be reversed now. The right to have a weapon and use it for self-defense didn’t seem that necessary at the time in that part of America. Today, these men may have a weapon and the Frenchwoman would be, if not surprised, quite frightened by it.

I also liked the description of the exposition and like her, I marveled at American pragmatism. They organized day-care for children so that they could play with nannies while their parents visited the exposition. That was something completely new to her.

On her way back to France, she visited Washington DC and I can’t resist quoting another passage:

Le palais de la présidence, White House, la Maison Blanche, est une construction assez simple et dont l’accès est des plus faciles. Il suffit de demander la permission d’entrer, et l’on passe successivement dans différentes pièces qui n’ont en somme rien d’intéressant. Une fois par semaine, régulièrement, le Président reçoit toutes les personnes qui veulent bien lui rendre visite. The palace of the presidency, the White House is quite a simple building; it’s easily accessible. You only need to ask for permission to get in and you stroll through a succession of rooms which are not that interesting. Every week, regularly, the President welcomes all the people who kindly call on him.

Isn’t it incredible when you know how things are now?

All in all, Marie Grandin thought that the Chicago society was way more relaxed than the French one and that women had more freedom. She portrays a dynamic city and today’s reader can discover that part of today’s American way of life has its roots in that time too.

The only flaw of the book is its style. Marie Grandin is not a great stylist from a literary point of view. She candidly describes what she sees and sometimes it sounds great, and sometimes not so much. She probably paid more attention to what she wanted to say than to how she was going to say it. She has a style mannerism, which consist in putting long adjectives before nouns. In French, adjectives can be put before or after the noun they refer to. Most of the time, they are after the noun. Usually, the adjectives put before the noun are short ones. (Une petite fleur) but it’s not a rule (une fleur bleue). Marie Grandin repeatedly put long adjectives before nouns. (un funéraire parpaing, un monumental escalier, d’enfantins cerveaux, féminins talents) It sounds weird and heavy and there were too many of them. Good thing for English speaking readers, this is lost in translation!

I suppose it seeps through my words but I can’t tell you how much fun I had reading this. I love learning about the living habits of the past and particularly about how people like you and me used to live. I’m more interested in these everyday details than in political strategies and this book was fascinating to me. It points out differences between the way the French envision life and social rules and the way the Americans do. Sometimes what she describes is still true.

  1. January 20, 2014 at 1:13 am

    glad you liked it, I thoroughly enjoyed it myself, and I think we already talked about it somewhere in cybersphere

    • January 20, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      Yes we did.
      I enjoyed myself too.

  2. January 20, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    It does sound fascinating. It’s curious how much things transform. Some of these details, the cabins, the White House, if put directly into a novel would sound quite unlikely and might even dent the reader’s suspension of disbelief which is funny given they’re true.

    • January 20, 2014 at 10:11 pm

      I just love reading about those details. (just as I thoroughly enjoyed What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. From Fox Hunting to Whist – The Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England by Daniel Pool)

      She didn’t know what to expect, I think. The description of the campaign for the presidential election was fascinating and I thought it was more modern than what I’d expect for the time.

  3. January 20, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    Foreigners always have a unique perspective on a society that is not their own, so there’s an argument for reading a book by a non-native–although of course, they don’t always get it right.

    The gun perspective is interesting. I would expect, though, given the year, that it would be entirely different in the West.

    • January 20, 2014 at 10:16 pm

      Foreigners have a way to marvel at simple things or to note details that would escape a native. That’s the fun. Plus she’s French.

      The gun anecdote is interesting, isn’t it? I think you’re right: the perspective would have been different in the West. That’s why I wrote “in that part of America”. Zane Grey mentions in Riders of the Purple Sage that lots of guns came in the hand of ordinary people during the Civil War. Still, in my imagery, Chicago is linked to Al Capone, so hardly a gun-free place.

    • January 21, 2014 at 10:30 pm

      I think the whole cowboy thing never really went away…

      • January 21, 2014 at 10:50 pm

        So, no Adieu Gary Cooper?

  4. January 21, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    I didn’t picture New York, even at the time, with cabins and greenery.
    I does sound interesting, I like memoir anyway. A real trip back in time. I wonder how that rediscovered.

    • January 21, 2014 at 10:49 pm

      Me neither to be honest. It’s close to the Statue of Liberty though, so where can it be?
      Her memoir was rediscovered thanks to two academics. Françoise Lapeyre wrote a book about French woman travelers and mentioned Marie Grandin. Mary Beth Raycraft, who’s a teacher of French literature translated Marie Grandin’s book into English. Thanks to them, the book was re-published.

  5. February 5, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma! This looks like a wonderful book. I didn’t know that you didn’t have popcorn in French cinemas till the middle ’90s. I thought popcorn and cinema always went together :) It was also fascinating for me to read your thoughts on what Marie Grandin thought about relationships between men and women in America and how it was different in France. It was also interesting to know that you differed with her point of view in a subtle way. It is interesting to ponder how when the same thing is looked at from two different perspectives, we see that it has different facets. When I read your comments on Grandin putting so many long adjectives before the respective nouns, it made me smile :) During my French class in school,our teacher made it a point to tell us repeatedly that except for a few adjectives which are exceptions, most adjectives in French are placed after the noun. We had to learn those exceptions by heart. It looks like Marie Grandin took the easy way out. I don’t know why, because she is French, and only a non-French writer might have needed this shortcut.

    Thanks for your beautiful review of this interesting book, Emma. I enjoyed reading it.

    • February 5, 2014 at 10:49 pm

      It’s a truly entertaining book. I kept talking about it and reading passages to my husband while I was reading it. It’s full of anecdotes and she explored every aspect of life in Chicago. That’s why her memoir is so fascinating. She didn’t stay in her cozy bubble, she experienced, she visited places and engaged relationships with different people.
      There’s a funny passage where she teaches American women who live at the same boarding house how to cook a French meal.

      I imagine you had to learn all these adjectives by heart. We have to learnt verbs with postposition by heart. (to wait FOR someone, to talk TO…) I don’t know how it is for you with adjectives but I still pick the wrong postpositions…

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