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La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock Part II

October 22, 2011 7 comments

La Belle Epoque. La France de 1900 à 1914 by Michel Winock. 2002. Not translated into English

This is the second post about La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock. The first one is here. In that one, I wanted to share elements that either surprised me or seemed important to explain France in that time.

Social classes.

The aristocracy defines propriety, good taste and remains a model for the bourgeois. Michel Winock explains that the aristocracy remains important but loses its power in favour of rich bourgeois, a turn Proust describes well in the rise of Madame Verdurin. They played an important role in literary life with famous salons.

On another place of the social ladder, I was surprised to read that most employees worked in small “companies”. Only 10% of industry workers work for companies employing more than 500 people. So Germinal isn’t the rule for workers of that time in France. It existed of course but was limited to a small number of big firms. They develop though as new industries boom in that period, like the car industry. Renault had 6 employees in 1898 and 3936 in 1918.

40% of the working population were peasants, it’s five times more than in Great Britain at the time. The other difference between France and other Western countries is that most peasants own their land. 53% of the fields are cultivated by their owners and the estates are small, with an average of 4,3 ha. As a result, there was less emigration, less mechanization and less departures to cities.

The founding of a republican identity

In 1901 was voted the law on Associations. It’s an important part of France’s cultural life even today. It’s a legal device, like companies, with memorandum of association but it’s dedicated to non-profit organizations. At the time, it was used against the churches. They had to become associations.

In 1905 was voted the law that separates the State and the Church. The country became secular, detached from the Catholic Church. The State can’t support churches or pay for priests anymore. It’s a founding law, often referred to even today. It cuts the State apparel off its Catholic roots. It also means that civil servants must be religion-neutral when they work, even in their appearance. (no kippa, veil, cross or “Jesus Loves You” badges allowed)

The Third Republic relies on a new kind of army: the school teachers. They are 120 000, all trained in the same schools and coming from different social origins. The best students in middle school are oriented in these schools (Ecole Normale) and it’s a social elevation to become a teacher. They are the armed arm of the Third Republic: they promote republican values and build the attachment to this political system. The Republic struggled to impose itself after 1870 as a lot of people would have wanted a monarchy. The teachers are on a mission, which is more important than learning how to write or how to calculate. They are here to educate citizens of a Republic, detect talents and push forward brilliant students. This is exactly how Camus could study despite his poor origins.

A transition from an oral to a written culture.

Two elements coexisted and pushed toward a written culture and an abandon of the oral culture. In the 1880s, school became free, secular and mandatory. As a consequence, twenty years later, illiteracy was reduced. At the same time, the free press exploded (The freedom of press was voted in 1881). As a consequence, people started to read more and newspapers became a real power. Popular novels spread in the country thanks to newspapers and progress in publishing. New techniques appeared and resulted in lower production costs.

Writers and literature.

The beginning of the 20thC was favourable to literature. In 1903, John Antoine Nau won the first Prix Goncourt for his book Force ennemie. (Don’t ask me who he is). The NRF (Nouvelle Revue Française) was founded in 1909; it will discover most of the great authors of the time, although Gide refused to publish Proust, something he would regret later. The publisher Gallimard was founded in 1911 as well as Grasset.

Michel Winock reminds his readers of the literary talents of the time but doesn’t explore literature according to literary merits of the books or the writers. He looks at writers with the eyes of the historian and sheds some light on writer with a social or political aim. He mentions a lot Maurice Barrès, a writer I’ve never read despite all the streets named after him in my region as he was from there. I don’t think he’s much read now. He had really conservative and nationalist views so I’m not much tempted by his books. Same thing for Paul Bourget who was acclaimed in his time. The last writer is Anatole France, who had national funerals when he died. He was an early Dreyfusard and he inspired Bergotte to Proust and his mistress Léontine Arman de Cavaillet inspired Madame Verdurin and her salon. Honestly, he was just a street name to me. (Yes we have a lot of streets named after writers here.) I had to look on Wikipedia to know what he had written. I’m currently reading The Gods Are Thirsty, so I’ll let you know in an upcoming review what I think of him. Fame is a whimsical mistress: you can’t predict if it will last and turn into immortality after you’re dead.

Even if it took me a lot of time to read La Belle Epoque – I’m incredibly slow when I have to read non-fiction – I enjoyed that book and I found it enlightening. I’ve ordered another book by Michel Winock: Les voix de la liberté : Les écrivains engagés au XIXe siècle. (The voices of liberty: Politically committed writers in the 19thC) It sounds fascinating but I won’t have time to read it before next year, with the month of German literature coming, my book club and the readalong of Our Mutual Friends by Dickens hosted by Himadri at The Argumentative Old Git.

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