In Brittany, by Louisa Alcott

from Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag

She [the writer, L. M. A.] soon ceased to be surprised at any demonstration of feminine strength, skill, and independence, for everywhere the women took the lead.

They not only kept house, reared children, and knit every imaginable garment the human frame can wear, but kept the shops and the markets, tilled the gardens, cleaned the streets, and bought and sold cattle, leaving the men free to enjoy the only pursuits they seemed inclined to follow,óbreaking horses, [Footnote: Breaking horses: training horses to work, an expression familiar to every country child.] mending roads, and getting drunk.

The markets seemed entirely in the hands of the women, and lively scenes they presented to unaccustomed eyes, especially the pig-market, held every week, in the square before Madame C.'s house. At dawn the squealing began, and was kept up till sunset. The carts came in from all the neighboring hamlets, with tubs full of infant pigs, over which the women watched with maternal care till they were safely deposited among the rows of tubs that stood along the walk facing Anne of Bretaigne's [Footnote: Anne of Bretaigne: the daughter of Francis II, duke of Brittany; born at Nantes, 1476.] gray old tower, and the pleasant promenade which was once the fosse [Footnote: Fosse: a moat; a ditch.] about the city walls.

Here Madame would seat herself and knit briskly till a purchaser applied, when she would drop her work, dive among the pink innocents, and hold one up by its unhappy leg, undisturbed by its doleful cries, while she settled its price with a blue-gowned, white-capped neighbor, as sharp-witted and shrill-tongued as herself. If the bargain was struck, they slapped their hands together in a peculiar way, and the new owner clapped her purchase into a meal-bag, slung it over her shoulder, and departed with her squirming, squealing treasure as calmly as a Boston lady with a satchel full of ribbons and gloves.

More mature pigs came to market on their own legs, and very long, feeble legs they were, for a more unsightly beast than a Breton pig was never seen out of a toy Noah's ark. Tall, thin, high-backed, and sharp-nosed, these porcine [Footnote: Porcine: relating to swine; hoglike.] victims tottered to their doom, with dismal wailings, and not a vestige of spirit till the trials and excitement of the day goaded them to rebellion, when their antics furnished fun for the public. Miss Livy observed that the women could manage the pigs when men failed entirely. The latter hustled, lugged, or lashed, unmercifully and unsuccessfully; the former, with that fine tact which helps them to lead nobler animals than pigs, would soothe, sympathize, coax, and gently beguile the poor beasts, or devise ways of mitigating their bewilderment and woe, which did honor to the sex, and triumphantly illustrated the power of moral suasion.

One amiable lady, who had purchased two small pigs and a coop full of fowls, attempted to carry them all on one donkey. But the piggies rebelled lustily in the bags, the ducks remonstrated against their unquiet neighbors, and the donkey indignantly refused to stir a step till the unseemly uproar was calmed. But the Bretonne was equal to the occasion; for, after a pause of meditation, she solved the problem by tying the bags round the necks of the pigs so that they could enjoy the prospect. This appeased them at once, and produced a general lull; for when the pigs stopped squealing, the ducks stopped quacking, the donkey ceased his bray, and the party moved on in dignified silence, with the youthful pigs, one black, one white, serenely regarding life from their bags.

Another time, a woman leading a newly bought cow, came through the square, where the noise alarmed the beast so much that she became unruly, and pranced in a most dangerous manner. Miss Livy hung out of the window, breathless with interest, and ready to fly with brandy and bandages at a minute's notice, for it seemed inevitable that the woman would be tossed up among the lindens before the cow was conquered. The few men who were lounging about, stood with their hands in their pockets, watching the struggle without offering to help, till the cow scooped the lady up on her horns ready for a toss. Livy shrieked, but Madame just held on, kicking so vigorously that the cow was glad to set her down, when, instead of fainting she coolly informed the men, who, seeing her danger, had approached, that she "could arrange her cow for herself and did not want any help," which she proved by tying a big blue handkerchief over the animal's eyes, producing instant docility; and then she was led away by her flushed but triumphant mistress, who calmly settled her cap, and took a pinch of snuff to refresh herself, after a scuffle which would have annihilated most women.

When Madame C.'s wood was put in, the newcomers were interested in watching the job, for it was done in a truly Bretonesque manner. It arrived in several odd carts, each drawn by four great horses, with men to each team; and as the carts were clumsy, the horses wild, and the men stupid, the square presented a lively spectacle. At one time there were three carts, twelve horses, and six men all in a snarl, while a dozen women stood at their doors and gave advice. One was washing a lettuce, another dressing her baby, a third twirling her distaff, and a fourth with her little bowl of soup, which she ate in public while gesticulating so frantically that her sabots [Footnote: Sabots: wooden shoes.] clattered on the stones.

The horses had a free fight, and the men swore and shouted in vain, till the lady with the baby suddenly went to the rescue. Planting the naked cherub on the doorstep, this energetic matron charged in among the rampant animals, and by some magic touch untangled the teams, quieted the most fractious, a big gray brute prancing like a mad elephant, then returned to her baby, who was placidly eating dirt, and with a polite "Voila, messieurs!" [Footnote: Voila Messieurs: "There you are, gentlemen."] she whipped little Jean into his shirt, while the men sat down to smoke.

It took two deliberate men nearly a week to split the gnarled logs, and one brisk woman carried them into the cellar and piled them neatly. The men stopped about once an hour to smoke, drink cider, or rest. The woman worked steadily from morning till night, only pausing at noon for a bit of bread and the soup good Coste sent out to her. The men got two francs a day, the woman half a franc; and, as nothing was taken out of it for wine or tobacco, her ten cents probably went farther than their forty.

This same capable lady used to come to market with a baby on one arm, a basket of fruit on the other, leading a pig, driving a donkey, and surrounded by sheep, while her head bore a pannier [Footnote: Pannier. Panniers are a pair of baskets slung across the back of a horse or donkey.] of vegetables, and her hands spun busily with a distaff. How she ever got on with these trifling incumbrances, was a mystery; but there she was, busy, placid, and smiling, in the midst of the crowd, and at night went home with her shopping well content.

The washerwomen were among the happiest of these happy souls, and nowhere were seen prettier pictures than they made, clustered round the fountains or tanks by the way, scrubbing, slapping, singing, and gossiping, as they washed or spread their linen on the green hedges and daisied grass in the bright spring weather. One envied the cheery faces under the queer caps, the stout arms that scrubbed all day, and were not too tired to carry some chubby Jean or little Marie when night came, and, most of all, the contented hearts in the broad bosoms under the white kerchiefs, for no complaint did one hear from these hard-working, happy women. The same brave spirit seems to possess them now as that which carried them heroically to their fate in the Revolution, when hundreds of mothers and children were shot at Nantes [Footnote: Nantes: a town near the mouth of the Loire River.] and died without murmur.

óLOUISA ALCOTT.

[Footnote: What traits does the author find most admirable in the women of Brittany? Show how these traits are brought out by contrast with the behavior of the men. Do women in this country do the same kinds of work as the European peasant women? What other things might the descriptions have included if the author had not been so much interested in the people? What parts of the sketch are humorous? Point out passages that are effective through contrast. Show how the women of Brittany are made to seem womanly and dignified in spite of the amusement they furnish us.]

Louise de la Ramee