The Family

The Family

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Life of Her Own

Emilie Carles’ remarkable life as a French peasant reads like 18th Century fiction. If it was fiction, it would be classified a tragedy.

Her book, “A Life of Her Own,” was required reading for Open Yale’s France Since 1871 online class. While there were many required readings for the class, this is the only one I actually read.

It’s rare that an autobiography can evoke a breadth of emotions, but the author's storytelling makes her life story all the more fascinating. Early on, Carles shared tales about wolves attacking villagers that literally had my hair standing on end. The stories felt like creepy Grimm fairy tales.

There were times when reading the book, especially when she re-tells the story of her six-year-old daughter's death, I was questioning right along with her. This story comes after reading about the loss of her mother, who was struck and killed by lightning when Emilie was four, the death of her younger and favorite sister in childbirth because she was too modest to allow a midwife or doctor to assist in the delivery (you have to read it to get the full understanding of how senseless it was) and that of her brother who starved to death as a German prisoner of war in World War I. 

Her story is beautiful, yet profoundly sad and haunting.  Even in the midst of all this despair, she managed to write an eloquent and moving story that didn’t seek pity. There was plenty of injustice, sorrow and hardship, but there was nothing but love and goodness emanating from her words.

So much of this book is philosophical, but the following portions near the end give a better sense of its spirit: 

1. In this passage she describes her feelings for her husband, even though her father and her husband's mother didn't want the two to marry:
"Jean was authentic wealth, the only kind I had always wanted and never had. A head full of dreams, a smile laden with promises, a heart heavy with all the goodness on earth, such was the wealth offered and given me. Material wealth cannot compare. That is why I was opposed to marriage contracts. When you love someone, you share everything, and if you part, the contract will not cure the pain. It is nothing but a matter of sous, and for me there is not a shadow of doubt that money soils whatever it touches."
2. This next passage is an explanation of things she tried to teach her students - things they would never find in textbooks:
"The most important thing for a young person is to choose a trade he likes and enjoys, otherwise he will be a slave, unhappy and consumed with rage. To conclude this line of argument, I always spoke to them about liberty, repeating that our famous Liberty should not simply be a word inscribed on pediments along with Equality and Fraternity - those basic Rights of Man, an abstract and illusory liberty - but rather that it should be a reality for each one of them. Beware of politicians, beware of silver-tongued orators, do your utmost to judge for yourselves, and, above all, take advantage of the beauty life offers."
3. I loved her philosophy on raising children:
"Faithful to our ideal of liberty, neither Jean nor I ever interfered with our children's choices. At the risk of repeating myself, let me say that my husband always said that children should be allowed to live in freedom; and when the time for decisions came, we let them do as they wished. When the second wanted to leave school, my husband did not tell him that he was wrong and that one day he would be sorry. He had always said that a man did not need school to do what he wanted, on the contrary. And so he allowed the boy to choose."
4. This last passage is Carles summing up some of her thoughts on life at the end of the book:
"Let us learn to live very simply: one table, four chairs, a bed: that's all we need, let us learn to make use of our leisure time, get as close to nature as possible. Let us learn to read, because reading means strengthening our minds through the minds of others, steeping our hearts with feelings that please, and struggling with an author according to whether our ideas and feelings agree with his or diverge. Learn to live by knowing how to live and let live. Never take anything in life but flowers, and from flowers, only the perfume; drop the religion that has the largest number of followers: I am talking about the religion of money."
In the end I was hoping she would make her peace with God. That did not appear to happen, which is the saddest part of her story.

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