A voice against the current – Séverine
Journalist, anarchist, feminist Séverine was one hell of a woman, Marie Benoît reminds us
Her real name was Caroline Rémy but to her family she was simply ‘Line’. Her readers however knew her as Séverine, the nom-deplume with which she chose to sign her articles. A courageous woman, a writer and journalist, she was born on 27 April 1855 – a contemporary of Camille Claudel. She was the first woman ‘reporter’ in the history of journalism, the first woman who managed to live by her pen. Her aim was always to tell the truth, putting herself always on the side of the weak. A visionary feminist she fought for human rights, denouncing in her articles every form of injustice.
She grew up in a lower middle class family. Her father taught her Latin and Greek to avoid sending her to school. Caroline torn between the impositions of her father and the weakness of her mother, crushed by her husband, began to rebel.
She was just 15-years-old when the Franco-Prussian war broke out. This instilled in her anti-military feelings which never left her. Only her grandmother in the family, understood her original temperament, her unique gift for communication and helped her avoid the rigid and oppressive ambience at home by taking her to the theatre. Line dreamt of becoming an actress, but her father made it known that he would rather have seen her dead than on the stage.
She was singularly beautiful, with blue eyes and splendid blonde-russet hair which her family made her wear almost shaven as, they said, “it was more hygienic.”
Once she left home she wore her hair long up to her waist, almost to the end of her life. The family gave her a choice: become a teacher or get married. She opted for marriage in order to get away from the suffocating ambience at home. At the age of just 17, without knowing anything of love or sex, she married Henri Montrobert, and related two years later her first night in marriage which she described as a nightmare. Exactly after nine months a son, Louis, was born. The child was given in the care of his father after the couple separated legally. Constrained to look for a job Line became a companiion to Madame Guebhard, mother of Adrien, a young professor of medicine who had a timid air and who fell madly in love with her. With him Caroline discovered love and they were married in 1885, after her divorce from her first husband. From this second union another son, Roland, was born. Caroline went to give birth in Brussels so there would be no scandal. The journey to Brussels changed her life completely. The doctor who was at her side when giving birth was a friend of Jules Vallès. At the age of 28 Caroline got to know the idol of the revolutionaries, the writer of the Comune and the anarchist founder of Le Cri
du Peuple, who was living in exile. The two fell in love, intellectually, and a great and profound friendship developed.
Vallès, who was 30 years older, taught her politics, anarchy, liberty: “Vallès was the tutor of my spirit; he made of the doll that I was then, a sincere and simple creature, he gave me the heart and mind of a citizen, he taught me how to think and from a small bourgoise that I was, to care for human misery and to measure how deep it was”, she wrote. Thanks to him she started writing. When Vallès finally returned from exile, they met at the Café Tortoni on Boulevard des Italiens, where the elite of the Paris culture gathered in the 19th century. Together they planned the birth of Le Cri du
peuple. Adrien accepted to finance the journal. This project determined his future.
The first number came out on 27 October 1883. Caroline wrote her first piece on 23 November of the same year. She signed it Séverin, not daring to reveal her identity publicly. Women journalists, at the time, were very rare indeed. After a few days her pseudonym acquired an ‘e’ at the end and became Séverine. Her column was entitled Les idées d’une Parisienne. From then on she became a femme-plume, a free and committed journalist involved in all social causes. Thanks to her wise pen, to her brilliant prose with which she was able to reach the hearts of her readers; of her awareness of the power of the pen and her sense of responsibility she became known, in spite of herself as “the queen of journalism” or “the princess of letters.”
At the death of Vallès, in 1885, she took over the direction of Le
Cri du Peuple until 1888, the year in which she left her post as the rest of the editorial team became “too Marxist and authoritarian”. So, having acquired a certain fame she started collaborating with the leading newspapers of the time: Le Gaulois, L’Ėclair, L’Écho de Paris, Gil Blas.In her column she commented on problems such as domestic violence and ‘crimes of passion’ which she said, were nothing but violence against women who were considered the property of the husband.
She defended the anarchists and fought against the death penalty. In order to give her readers as faithful a testimony as possible she threw herself in the flames of the terrible fire at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1887 under the scandalized eyes of her colleagues and of ‘high society’. There she got first hand comments of those who were hurt and still present in the building. She went down the mine of Saint –Etienne, after a firedamp explosion, to be able to write at first hand, about the sufferings of the miners. She wore workman’s overalls and went down into the street to explain why workers were on strike. She was convinced that “misery was responsible for more victims than a machine gun.”
Her articles were very well received by the public, but her male colleagues called her “our lady who cries easily.’ She, on the other hand, in 1897, started one of the most satisfying adventures in her life, when she joined La Fronde, founded by the feminist Marguerite Durand. It was the first daily newspaper “for every woman, directed, administered, written and edited by women.” The first number came out on 9 december 1897 and ceased publication in 1903, after which it became a monthly.
Marguerite Durand – intelligent, decisive and determined to fight for women’s rights – together with Séverine and the League for the Rights of Women, in 1914 promoted and pushed for the women’s vote. But it was not until 1945 that Frenchwomen obtained the right to vote.
In La Fronde Séverine had her own column. She followed with passion and courage the Dreyfus case by which time it had become a cause célèbre. Séverine was persuaded that Dreyfus was innocent. She followed the trial at Rennes in 1899 for the journal, sitting next to the great intellectuals of that period, Jaurès, Lazare and others. Finally in 1906 Alfred Dreyfus was rehabilitated.
After the publication of the famous J’accuse by Emile Zola in the
L’Aurore of 13 January 1898, she published once again in her column Zola’s denunciation, saluting his gesture as an act of moral courage. When Zola was accused of defamation, tried and condemned to avoid imprisonment he fled to Britain. Severine, who was in the tribunal with him, commented: “What is more beautiful
Her last years were spent in the village of Pierrefonds, in front of the medieval castle, in the company of a dog and a donkey.
In 1917 she turned her interests to the Russian Revolution. In her last writings she exorted women to safeguard the ‘dignity of beauty’ and not to fight advancing age. She kept her fascination, as her friend Sarah Bernhardt, testified. The latter gave her tips on what to wear and how to hold herself during conferences to which she was often invited. She was not afraid of getting old because she believed that beauty and youth disappear only in those who cease to fight.
Her last public appearance was at the Cirque de Paris on 24 July 1927 when at the age of 72 years, she attempted, in vain as it turned out, to save the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti from the electric chair. “This old woman graciously asks you to forget all that divides you and to devote yourselves only to that which unites you,” was her plea.
She died on 24 April 1929. “A free woman, an independent woman.” That was her epitaph. It was simple and true. In 1885 Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted her portrait which now stands in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Séverine: not one to mince words and always ready to give her opinion on the most controversial subjects of her time
Severine’s portrait by Auguste Renoir (1885). He drew her likeness on several occasions
than the triumph of a conscience.”