What do nineteenth-century French novels teach us now?

mcd

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/nov/30/class-war-is-back-again

Think of the number of times you’ve said: I just can’t do that! Really, I can’t. You’d expect a Noel Edmonds-like figure to pop up on your shoulder, although perhaps not with a gingery beard, to tell you off for being negative. Give some advice about having the right mindset and some superbabble about if you want something enough the universe will provide it. I love that kinda crap. In the nineteen-century novel such dreams are anchored in reality. It’s all about the money.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Set you back straight against the chair take deep breathes. I want you to imagine you work in McDonald’s. Open yourself to the universe. You’re a male worker. You’ve been working for the same company for three years. You work over fifty hours every week. Even when you were sick you never phone in for a sick day. You’re positive about that.  Imagine what the CEO of your company makes. Shorten the gap in your mind so it doesn’t take you 864 years on the wage you now receive to what he makes in a year. Lighten up. You’re obviously doing something wrong. The universe hates you.

The universe hates everyone equally. You’ve got to laugh at some of those nineteenth-century nostrums and notions.  Look at the way Pere Goriot is cured enough to die properly. The universe doesn’t care.  Tisane. If it tastes of bitter herbs and is awful it must be good for you.  Mustard poultice from neck to spine. Bloodletting. Leeches. Moxas. I admit I didn’t know what moxas was. It’s rolls of cotton set on fire and applied to the skin, a jump up from mustard baths. Pere Goriot dies penniless grateful that his two daughters have finally visited him, but he is delusional. He clasps instead the heads of the two penniless students that stay in the same boarding house and have helped ‘treat’ him. He is buried in a pauper’s grave.  The service costs 70 francs, but it is not a Mass, that is too expensive, but Vespers. One of the students Eugene de Rastignac pawns his watch to pay for the old man’s burial, but has to borrow five francs from a servant that works in the boarding house they live in to give to the grave diggers. Lesson learned, even having God and the universe on your side costs a minimum of 75 francs. But that was then. Now it’s Noel Edmond prices.

Honore de Balzac precisely quantifies in terms of the food the lodgers ate, drink, furniture, clothes and past-times of the poor and idle rich in monetary terms. An old man dying in poverty alone in a foul-smelling garret room is only part of the story. He also shows that the rich were rich not because of innate superiority but because after a certain threshold of wealth only a true imbecile could not remain wealthy and watch their wealth grow and multiply—much as it does today.

Balzac does this through the cynical Vautrin who lodges in the ‘Family Boarding House’ run by Madame Vauquer who has seven guests who stay in the house with her and another 18 who paid 30 francs a month for dinner in a dining room that can hold 20. Pere Goriot pays 45 francs a month, for board and lodgings, as does the law student Rastignac. Vautrin who pays 72 francs a month but has special privileges that allow him to come and go as he please is an interesting character. He is amoral in the way that  Jean Valjean in Les Misérables cannot afford to be and flits in and out of upper-class and lower-society in a way that Edmond Dantès, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo cannot, and he is more homosexually inclined than many of Shakespeare’s best love sonnets, but with no softness.  The best apartment is occupied by the widow Madame Couture and her young charge Victorine Taillefer who pay 1800 francs a month. Looking at these figures it’s easy to see who is whom. The rooms at the top, occupied by the hired help, is the working class at the bottom.

Gustave Flaubert’s, A Simple Heart, is set around the same period 1809 (give or take ten years). Here Madame Auburn has married a ‘comely youth’ who just as promptly dies, leaving her with two young children, debts and an annual income ‘which barely amounted to 5000 francs’. Rastignac’s family income in Pere Goriot, for comparison is around 4000 francs, which leaves after paying his digs,  130 francs a quarter for education and personal needs. His father mother, brother, sisters and aunt make do with  200 francs a month. His two sisters are unmarried for whom a marriage dowry must also be found.

Madame Bovary begins with a dowry. Charles Bovary’s father, retired assistant-surgeon major, ‘compromised’ in 1812, about some conscription scandal, marries a hosier’s daughter with a dowry of 60 000 francs. For 200 francs a year he shuts himself, his wife and son in a kind of half house, half farm.

Goriot’s daughters of a vermicelli maker are, in comparison, each given a dowry of 800 000 francs by their father so they can make a proper match. Goriot rises from his death bed and sells all he owns to pay off a 1000 franc debt owed to a dressmaker by his daughter La comtesse Anastasie de Restaud who needs it paid immediately, her credit is not good, so she can be seen at a socially important ball, an occasion that demands the best – and the worst.

Jump forward fifty years into the coal mines of newly industrialised France in Emile Zola’s Germinal. Money still does all the talking. Maheu is a model worker, widely respected in the Montsou colliery. He works for the Company and mines coal at a rate set by the them. He is paid three francs a week for price work and employs Zacharie his twenty-one year old son, who is also paid three francs (but he has a partner who lives next door and they are parents to two children). Catherine who is fifteen, when the story begins, works as a putter, pushing the underground trolleys full of coal along a line, much like a pit pony, only cheaper and more adaptible, is paid two francs.  Maheu’s father, Bonnemort (named after the good death that has chased him all his working life) is an old man, who works above ground as a banksman. He’s fifty-eight and near retirement age, but the reader understand spitting up an ink-like soot and with dropsy and rheumatics he’ll never retire. Jenlin aged eleven makes one franc. The pit boss, Hennbeau has a frigid relationship, but loves his wife despite being continually cuckolded by her. Hennebeau, on a salary thousands of times greater than his lowly workers. Here it’s easy to look at his and make comparisons with McDonald’s worker and the CEO of his company. But Zola takes the analysis further. The Gregoires have a share in the Company. It was once worth one million francs but the share price has fallen to around 600 000 francs, less than the dowry Pere Goriot offers for his daughters. Gregoire is almost the same age as Bonnemort, but the former is content for those scuttling below ground for him and his family. It takes 10 000 Bonnemorts working together below ground to make one Gregoire.

All money flows to Paris. Vautrin’s education of Rastignac (4000 francs a year) is increasingly relevant.  ‘Love and church,’ declares Vautrin, ‘demand fine cloth on the altar’. He breaks this down for the reader. A young man needs at least three horses and a tilbury for the day, and a brougham for the evening. 9000 francs for your carriages. 3000 francs for your tailor. 600 for the perfumer.  300 for hats. Laundry 1000 francs. Gambling/walking-about-money 2000 francs, basic necessities 6000 francs. Not be the laughing stock requires 20 000 francs a year. When Rastignac visits on foot his distant cousin La vicomtesse de Beauséant her lover’s carriage and horse is estimated to be worth over 30 000 francs.

Vautrin contrasts this with the salary the young student can expect to make when he qualifies from his studies. By the age of 30, possibly a judge, with an annual salary 1200 francs. If he finds a political patron a royal prosecutor 5000 francs, if he does a little dirty work for his political masters prosecutor general by the time he is 50, but with 20 000 applicants for such a position his chances of getting it are slim. And in the meantime he must spend 1000 francs a month to have any chance of getting the lowest office. His answer is to marry one of the potentially richest woman in Paris with a dowry of over 1 000 000 francs, which offers an annual income of over 50 000 francs. The rule of patrimony applies. Mademoiselle Victorine who shares a boarding house with them has a brother who shall inherit, but for a man like Vautrin that is a quibble that can easily be erased – for a small cut.  It does come as a surprise when Noel Edmonds appears on Rastignac’s shoulder.

At today values, it would come to around 100 000 000 euros (over £125 million) which would be something of an underestimate, but it’s still not enough, he would probably want McDonald’s tomato sauce and chips with that. Dream on for that pay rise. Dream on equality.  McDonald’s workers unite. The nineteenth-century novel teaches us twentieth-first century readers. Voila! plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole

 

 

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