Flora Tristan (1803-1844) is half vile aristocrat and half tireless feminist fighting in the face of tremendous odds — I know, I know those aren’t exclusionary things, but their combination left me continuously unsettled. It explains why this book is strongest in its description of conditions, weakest in its exposition. Her life, too, makes for alternate feelings of pity, admiration and a spitting reflex.
When I say vile aristocrat, I mostly mean in some of her views when she wasn’t being a socialist or feminist, but she was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic and very wealthy Peruvian family and a French woman. After a trip to Peru she was not recognised as a legitimate heir, but was made an allowance. Admirably, this did not stop her public criticism of them — yet I couldn’t help feeling that was a bit mad as well. Part of me feels as though perhaps it is bourgeois to be that impractical about these kinds of money matters. Deborah Epstein Nord wrote:
The tension between Tristan’s intrepid, defiant nature and her horror of social ostracism pervades her written work and gives particular force to her London journal.
I think this is part of it…perhaps I would say a theatrical personality and a deep insecurity on a range of levels. I’m deeply skeptical of the way she saw change, and the way that she worked for it. From the lovely introduction by translator Jean Hawkes comes this revealing quote from a letter she wrote to Charles Poncy, recent recruit to her cause:
I’m very interested … in taking possession of your soul, your heart and your mind, because I want to use everything that is fine and good in you to help achieve my great and beautiful work (xxxv-xxxvi).
A bit vomitous. Did I say she was also beautiful? You can really tell. Throughout.
She had a strange messianic belief in herself and her role to reveal the goodness and cooperative spirit in humankind and lead them to a socialist future. Like Joan of freaking Arc. That kind of movement isn’t really one I’m interested in being part of, myself, but she was by no means unique in that idea of struggle. A peculiar mix of supreme self-centeredness and insecurity and belief in a better future. That she thought deeply, however, occasionally shines through in reasoned argument:
However, take care that you look upon political rights as only the means which will enable you to strike, through the law, at the evil roots of society and at the abuses which dominate the social order today: abuses in the organization of government and politics, commerce and agriculture, the family and religion. It is the social system, the base of the structure, which must concern you, not political power, which is but an illusion, supreme one day and overthrown the next, restored in a new form only to be overturned once more (3).
I don’t fully agree of course, and it’s curious that the economic is entirely missing here. What I loved most were her descriptions of England, her inability to escape a French nationalist fervour and her confidence in making snap judgments can be immensely amusing, but also quite perceptive:
England’s important position in the world makes one wish to know the country better, but as it is not at all an agreeable place to live in, most travelers are satisfied with a superficial glimpse, and, dazzled by the luxury of the wealthy and by the might of England’s industrial power, they never suspect the wretchedness of the poor and the hypocrisy and selfishness of the upper classes, or the price paid for the immense riches they have acquired (8).
What an enormous city London is! Its huge size, out of all proportion to the area and population of the British Isles, simultaneously calls to mind the commercial supremacy of England and her oppression of India! (16)
This is quite brilliant…I am writing this blog at the end of just such a day in fact, they still hang heavy I think:
In London melancholy is in the very air you breathe and enters in at every pore. There is nothing more gloomy or disquieting than the aspect of the city on a day of fog or rain or black frost. Only succumb to its influence and your head becomes painfully heavy, your digestion sluggish, your respiration laboured for lack of fresh air, and your whole body is overcome by lassitude. Then you are in the grip of what the English call “spleen”: a profound despair, unaccountable anguish, cantankerous hatred for those one loves the best, disgust with everything, and an irresistible desire to end one’s life by suicide (22).
There is the most extraordinary section where she dresses as a Turk to attend the House of Commons (women not being allowed). Part of me applauds, but then she writes this:
Although the Turk and I outwardly maintained the calm bearing of the true Ottoman, they must have guessed how distressed and embarrassed we were feeling. Yet without the slightest respect for my status as a woman and a foreigner, or for the fact I was there in disguise, all these so-called gentlemen passed in front of me, staring at me boldly through their lorgnettes and exchanging remarks about me in loud voices (60).
Her comments are choice on the old House of Commons (that one what burned down):
In appearance nothing could be meaner or more commonplace; it puts one in mind of a shop (60).
Her comments seem a bit harsh. Then she heads over to the House of Lords and writes:
I saw that I was in the presence of true gentlemen, tolerant of a lady’s whims and even making it a point of honour to respect them. The English nobility, despite its aloofness, possesses an urbanity of manner, a politeness one seeks in vain amongst the overlords of finance — or in any other class (63).
We all know which side of the barricades she will be on come the revolution. She did visit a brewery though, which I applaud her for:
Beer and gas are the two main products consumed in London. I went to see the superb brewery of Barclay Perkins which is certainly well worth a visit. This establishment is very spacious: no expense has been spared in its equipment. Nobody would tell me how many litres of beer it produces each year, but to judge from the size of the vats, it must amount to an extraordinary quantity. It was in one of these vats – the largest, it is true – that Messrs Barclay and Perkins once invited a member of the English royal family to a dinner at which more than fifty guests were present. This particular vat is 30 metres high! (72).
But again and again you butt up against the prejudices of her character, as in this description of the inmates of Newgate Prison (I will say that she was very thorough in her investigations, and these descriptions are fascinating):
Nearly all the women I saw there were of the lowest class:
prostitutes, servants or country girls accused of theft. Four on charges carrying the death penalty for crimes classified as felonies under English law. Most of them seemed to be of low intelligence, but I noticed several whose tight thin lips, pointed nose, sharp chin, deep-set eyes and sly look I took as signs of exceptional depravity. I saw only one woman there who aroused my interest. She was confined with six others in a dark, damp low-ceilinged cell; when we entered they all rose and made us the customary servile curtsey which had embarrassed and irritated me from the moment I set foot in the prison. One alone refrained and it was this sign of independence which attracted my attention. Picture a young woman of twenty-four, small, well-made and tastefully dressed, standing with head held high to reveal a perfect profile, graceful neck, delicate well-formed ear, and hair a model of neatness and cleanliness. My readers have already had occasion to remark the effect that beauty has upon me and will readily understand my feelings at the sight of this pretty creature; my eyes filled with tears and only the presence of the governor prevented me from going up to her and taking her hand so that she might understand my interest in her fate and so that my sympathy might calm for a few moments the sufferings of her heart (115).
Such descriptions infuriate me, inflected as they are with intense class prejudice and the equation of beauty with goodness. I can have no sympathy with her from this point on.
Still, I did enjoy reading things like this, on England’s stand on the slave trade:
So the great act of humanity that the English have boasted about for thirty years was nothing but a carefully calculated financial transaction — and for thirty years the whole of Europe has been deceived! The fraudulence of the honourable members of the English Parliament has persuaded us to put our trust in the philanthropy and altruism of a pack of traders! (161)
Ha, her disgust at a pack of traders! I’ll be coming back to her marvelous descriptions however, putting them alongside other narratives and photographs old and new, this book is truly a marvelous resource for such things as the Horseferry gas works, the Irish quarter off Oxford Circus, Holborn, Field Lane, and interestingly, pockets. Look for upcoming blog posts. The final interesting fact is that Paul Gaugin was Tristan’s grandson…I’m not sure if this helps explain him at all, but it just might.
Another post examining her brilliant descriptions of the gasworks in Horseferry Road can be found here.
( 1982) Virago Press