A voice against the cur­rent – Séver­ine

Jour­nal­ist, an­ar­chist, fem­i­nist Séver­ine was one hell of a woman, Marie Benoît re­minds us

Malta Independent - - LIFESTYLE ON SATURDAY -

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.”

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