Madame Michelet, Child Life
FRENCH AUTHOR, WIFE OF THE WELL-KNOWN WRITER, MICHELET.
Among my earliest recollections, dating (if my memory deceive
me not) from the time when I was between the ages
of four and five, is that of being seated beside a grave, industrious
person, who seemed to be constantly watching me. Her beautiful
but stern countenance impressed one chiefly by the peculiar expression
of the light blue eyes, so rare in Southern Europe. Their
gaze was like that which has looked in youth across vast plains,
wide horizons, and great rivers. This lady was my mother, born
in Louisiana, of English parentage.
I had constant toil before me, strangely unbroken for so young
a child. At six years of age, I knit my own stockings, by and
by my brothers' also, walking up and down the shady path. I did
not care to go farther; I was uneasy if, when I turned, I could
not see the green blind at my mother's window.
Our lowly house had an easterly aspect. At its northeast
corner, my mother sat at work, with her little people around her;
my father had his study at the opposite end, towards the south.
I began to pick up my alphabet with him; for I had double tasks.
I studied my books in the intervals of sewing or knitting. My
brothers ran away to play after lessons; but I returned to my
mother's work-room. I liked very well, however, to trace on my
slate the great bars which are called "jambages." It seemed to
me as if I drew something, from within myself, which came to the
pencil's point. When my bars began to look regular, I paused
often to admire what I had done; then, if my dear papa would
lean towards me, and say, "Very well, little princess," I drew
myself up with pride.
My father had a sweet and penetrating voice; his dark complexion
showed his Southern origin, which also betrayed itself in
the passionate fire of his eyes, dark, with black lashes, which
softened their glance. With all their electric fire, they were not
wanting in an indefinable expression of tenderness and sweetness.
At sixty years of age, after a life of strange, and even tragic, incidents,
his heart remained ever young and light, benevolent to all,
disposed to confide in human nature,—sometimes too easily.
I had none of the enjoyments of city-bred children, and less still
of that childish wit which is sure to win maternal admiration for
every word which falls from the lips of the little deities. Mother
Nature alone gave me a welcome, and yet my early days were not
sad; all the country-side looked so lovely to me.
Just beyond the farm lay the cornfields which belonged to us;
they were of no great extent, but to me they seemed infinite.
When Marianne, proud of her master's possessions, would say,
"Look, miss, there, there, and farther on,—all is yours," I was
really frightened; for I saw the moving grain, undulating like the
ocean, and stretching far away. I liked better to believe that the
world ended at our meadow. Sometimes my father went across
the fields to see what the reapers were doing, and then I hid my
face in Marianne's apron, and cried, "Not so far, not so far! papa
will be lost!"
I was then five years old. That cry was the childish expression
of a sentiment, the shadow of which gained on me year by year,—the
fear that I might lose my father. I desired to please, to be
praised, and to be loved. I felt so drawn towards my mother,
that I sometimes jumped from my seat to give her a kiss; but
when I met her look, and saw her eyes, pale and clear as a silvery
lake, I recoiled, and sat down quietly. Years have passed, and
yet I still regret those joys of childhood which I never knew,—a
mother's caresses. My education might have been so easy; my
mother might have understood my heart,—a kiss is sometimes
eloquent; and in a daily embrace she would perhaps have guessed
the thoughts I was too young to utter, and would have learned
how faithfully I loved her.
No such freedom was allowed us. The morning kiss and familiar
speech with one's parents are permitted at the North, but are
less frequent in the South of France. Authority overshadows
family affection. My father, who was an easy man and loved to
talk, might have disregarded such regulations; but my mother
kept us at a distance. It made one thoughtful and reserved to
watch her going out and coming in, with her noble air, severe and
silent. We felt we must be careful not to give cause for blame.
My mother could spin like a fairy. All winter she sat at her
wheel; and perhaps her wandering thoughts were soothed by the
gentle monotonous music of its humming. My father, seeing her
so beautiful at her work, secretly ordered a light, slender spinning-wheel
to be carved for her use, which she found one morning at
the foot of her bed. Her cheek flushed with pleasure; she scarcely
dared to touch it, it looked so fragile. "Do not be afraid," said
my father; "it looks fragile, but it can well stand use. It is
made of boxwood from our own garden. It grew slowly, as all
things do that last. Neither your little hand nor foot can injure
it." My mother took her finest Flanders flax, of silvery tresses
knotted with a cherry-colored ribbon. The children made a circle
round the wheel, which turned for the first time under my mother's
hands. My father was watching, between smiles and tears, to see
how dexterously she handled the distaff. The thread was invisible,
but the bobbin grew bigger. My mother would have been
contented if the days had been prolonged to four-and-twenty
hours, while she was sitting by her beautiful wheel.
When we rose in the morning, we said a prayer. We knelt together;
my father standing, bareheaded, in the midst. After that,
what delight it was to run to the hill-top, to meet the first rays of
the sun, and to hear our birds singing little songs about the welcome
daylight! From the garden, the orchard, the oaks, and from the
open fields, their voices were heard; and yet, in my heart, I hid
more songs than all the birds in the world would have known how
to sing. I was not sad by nature. I had the instincts of the lark,
and longed to be as happy. Since I had no wings to carry me up
to the clouds, I would have liked to hide myself like him among
the tall grain and the flax.
One of my great enjoyments was to meet the strong south-winds
that came to us from the ocean. I loved to struggle with the
buffets of the blast. It was terrible, but sweet, to feel it tossing
and twisting my curls, and flinging them backward. After these
morning races on the hills, I went to visit the wild flowers,—weeds
that no one else cherished; but I loved them better than
all other plants. Near the water, in little pools hollowed by the
rains in stormy weather, on the border of the wood, sprang up,
flourished, and died, forests of dwarf proportions; white, transparent
stars; bells full of sweet odors. All were mysterious and
ephemeral; so much the more did I prize and regret them.
If I indeed had the merry disposition of the lark, I had also his
sensitive timidity, that brings him sometimes to hide between the
furrows in the earth. A look, a word, a shadow, was enough to
discourage me. My smiles died away, I shrunk into myself, and
did not dare to move.
"Why did my mother choose three boys, rather than three
girls, after I was born?" This problem was often in my mind.
Boys only tear blouses, which they don't know how to mend. If
she had only thought how happy I would be with a sister, a dear
little sister! How I should have loved her,—scolded her sometimes,
but kissed her very often! We should have had our work
and play together, thoroughly independent of all those gentlemen,—our
My eldest sister was too far from my age. There seemed to be
centuries between us. I had one friend,—my cat, Zizi; but she
was a wild, restless creature, and no companion, for I could scarcely
hold her an instant. She preferred the roof of the house to my
I became very thoughtful, and said to myself, "How shall I get
a companion? and how do people make dolls?" It did not occur
to me, who had never seen a toy-shop, that they could be purchased
ready-made. My chin resting on my hand, I sat in meditation,
wondering how I could create what I desired. My passionate
desire overruled my fears, and I decided to work from my
I rejected wood, as too hard to afford the proper material for my
dolly. Clay, so moist and cold, chilled the warmth of my invention.
I took some soft, white linen, and some clean bran, and
with them formed the body. I was like the savages, who desire a
little god to worship. It must have a head with eyes, and with
ears to listen; and it must have a breast, to hold its heart. All
the rest is less important, and remains undefined.
I worked after this fashion, and rounded my doll's head by
tying it firmly. There was a clearly perceptible neck,—a little
stiff, perhaps; a well-developed chest; and then came vague
drapery, which dispensed with limbs. There were rudiments of
arms,—not very graceful, but movable; indeed, they moved of
themselves. I was filled with admiration. Why might not the
body move? I had read how God breathed upon Adam and Eve
the breath of life; with my whole heart and my six years' strength
I breathed on the creature I had made. I looked; she did not
stir. Never mind. I was her mother, and she loved me; that
was enough. The dangers that menaced our mutual affection only
served to increase it. She gave me anxiety from the moment of
her birth. How and where could I keep her in safety? Surrounded
by mischievous boys, sworn enemies to their sisters' dolls,
I was obliged to hide mine in a dark corner of a shed, where the
wagons and carriages were kept. After being punished, I could
conceive no consolation equal to taking my child to bed with me.
To warm her, I tucked her into my little bed, with the friendly
pussy who was keeping it warm for me. At bedtime, I laid her on
my heart, still heaving with sobs; and she seemed to sigh too. If
I missed her in the night, I became wide awake; I hunted for
her, full of apprehension. Often she was quite at the bottom of
the bed. I brought her out, folded her in my arms, and fell asleep
I liked, in my extreme loneliness, to believe that she had a living
soul. Her grandparents were not aware of her existence.
Would she have been so thoroughly my own, if other people had
known her? I loved better to hide her from all eyes.
One thing was wanting to my satisfaction. My doll had a
head, but no face. I desired to look into her eyes, to see a smile
on her countenance that should resemble mine. Sunday was the
great holiday, when everybody did what they liked. Drawing
and painting were the favorite occupations. Around the fire, in
winter time, the little ones made soldiers; while my elder brother,
who was a true artist, and worked with the best colors, painted
dresses and costumes of various sorts. We watched his performances,
dazzled by the marvels which he had at his finger-ends.
It was during this time of general preoccupation that my
daughter, carefully hidden under my apron, arrived among her
uncles. No one noticed me; and I tried, successfully, to possess
myself of a brush, with some colors. But I could do nothing
well; my hand trembled, and all my lines were crooked. Then I
made an heroic resolution,—to ask my brother's assistance boldly.
The temptation was strong, indeed, which led me to brave the
malice of so many imps. I stepped forward, and, with a voice
which I vainly endeavored to steady, I said, "Would you be so
kind as to make a face for my doll?" My eldest brother seemed
not at all surprised, but took the doll in his hands with great
gravity, and examined it; then, with apparent care, chose a brush.
Suddenly he drew across her countenance two broad stripes of red
and black, something like a cross; and gave me back my poor
little doll, with a burst of laughter. The soft linen absorbed the
colors, which ran together in a great blot. It was very dreadful.
Great cries followed; everybody crowded round to see this wonderful
work. Then a cousin of ours, who was passing Sunday
with us, seized my treasure, and tossed it up to the ceiling. It
fell flat on the floor. I picked it up; and, if the bad boy had not
taken flight, he would have suffered, very likely, from my resentment.
Sad days were in store for us. My child and I were watched in
all our interviews. Often was she dragged from her hiding-places
among the bushes and in the high grass. Everybody made war
upon her,—even Zizi, the cat, who shared her nightly couch.
My brothers sometimes gave the doll to Zizi as a plaything; and,
in my absence, even she was not sorry to claw it, and roll it about
on the garden walks. When I next found it, it was a shapeless
bunch of dusty rags. With the constancy of a great affection, I
remade again and again the beloved being predestined to destruction;
and each time I pondered how to create something more
beautiful. This aiming at perfection seemed to calm my grief. I
made a better form, and produced symmetrical legs (once, to my
surprise, the rudiment of a foot appeared); but the better my work
was, the more bitter the ridicule, and I began to be discouraged.
My doll, beyond a doubt, was in mortal peril. My brothers
whispered together; and their sidelong glances foreboded me no
good. I felt that I was watched. In order to elude their vigilance,
I constantly transferred my treasure from one hiding-place
to another; and many nights it lay under the open sky. What
jeers, what laughter, had it been found!
To put an end to my torments, I threw my child into a very
dark corner, and feigned to forget her. I confess to a shocking
resolution; for an evil temptation assailed me. But, if self-love
began to triumph over my affection for her, it was but as a momentary
flash, a troubled dream. Without the dear little being, I
should have had nothing to live for. It was, in fact, my second
self. After much searching, my unlucky doll was discovered. Its
limbs were torn off without mercy; and the body, being tossed
up into an acacia-tree, was stuck on the thorns. It was impossible
to bring it down. The victim hung, abandoned to the autumnal
gales, to the wintry tempests, to the westerly rains, and to
the northern snows. I watched her faithfully, believing that the
time would come when she would revisit this earth.
In the spring, the gardener came to prune the trees. With tears
in my eyes, I said, "Bring me back my doll from those branches."
He found only a fragment of her poor little dress, torn and faded.
The sight almost broke my heart.
All hope being gone, I became more sensitive to the rough treatment
of my brothers; and I fell into a sort of despair. After my
life with her whom I had lost; after my emotions, my secret joys
and fears,—I felt all the desolation of my bereavement. I longed
for wings to fly away. When my sister excluded me from her
sports with her companions, I climbed into the swing, and said to
the gardener, "Jean, swing me high,—higher yet: I wish to fly
away." But I was soon frightened enough to beg for mercy.
Then I tried to lose myself. Behind the grove which closed in
our horizon stretched a long slope, undulating towards a deep cut
below. With infinite pains, I surmounted all obstacles, and gained
the road. How far, far away from home I felt! My heart was
beating violently. What sorrow this would give to my dear
father! Where should I sleep? I should never dare to ask shelter
at a farm-house, much less lie down among the bushes, where
the screech-owls made a noise all night. So, without further reflection,
I returned home.
Animals are happier. I wished to be little Lauret, the gold-colored
ox, who labors so patiently, and comes and goes all day
long. Or I'd like to be Grisette or Brunette, the pretty asses who
are mother's pets.
After all, who would not like to be a flower? However, a
flower lives but a very little while: you are cut down as soon as
born. A tree lasts much longer. Yet what a bore it must be to
stay always in one place! To stand with one's foot buried in the
ground,—it is too dreadful; the thought worried me when I was
in bed, thinking things over.
I would have been a bird, if a good fairy had taken pity on me.
Birds are so free, so happy, they sing all day long. If I were a
bird, I would come and fly about our woods, and would perch on
the roof of our house. I would come to see my empty chair, my
place at table, and my mother looking sad; then, at my father's
hour for reading, alone in the garden, I would fly, and perch on
his shoulder, and my father would know me at once.