Real History, A Life of Her Own

IanHunter N. Thorpe

Carles, Emilie. A Life of Her Own: The Transformation of a countrywoman in Twentieth-Century France. Translated by Avriel Goldberger. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

A Life of Her Own

Emile Carles life as a French peasant gives great insight into an old way of life that was facing a changing world. The peasants of Carles’s village had never in their life times encountered the world in the way in which it was going to start intruding in their lives. The two great wars that ravaged France from 1914 to 1945 would have a drastic impact on the lives of the French peasants. The impact of the wars would not just be on the quality of their lives but the level in which the peasants became connected to the rest of France.

When the First World War erupted it was a great surprise to everyone in author’s village. The war at did not seem to be real. The village was so far away from such maters that the word war almost did not have a meaning. “It did not seem real, the word itself did not sound real, we have to say it over and over among ourselves until it became a word that held some kind of shape “War. War.” We looked at each other, we were so far away from such a thing” (41) The war was the outside world coming into the village. The prior isolation of the village was no defense against the military and nationalistic machine that needed them for the conflict.

The last generation to experience such a conflict was the Author’s father who lived through the 1870s but that war was so long ago it was from a different era. The First World War impacted the village in a few ways. The first way in which the village was affected was that the war meant separation. The conflict required every able bodied French man for the war effort. Each able man received traveling their orders to leave the village. The normal internalized nature of the village had been interrupted by many villagers standing outside their homes asking questions. “It was the world inside out” (42) The larger world was staring to impact the lives of peasants like it never had before.

The peasants of France had not faced a conflict of this type ever before. The war demanded a great deal from the villages. Carles’s own family had to send sons off to fight in the war. The author’s brother Joseph was called to serve. Joseph had to leave Catherine which put considerable strain on their lives. The war even impacted the way in which the war was perceived. Joseph before leaving for the war had thought that “ Duty is Sacred” (51) but the war changed his out look. Joseph’s first hand experience with the war made it more than an abstract idea for Carles.

The conflict going on in the outside world was starting to reach in and drastically impact the families of the peasants. Joseph was later capture by the Germans making the conflict considerably grimmer than it had been. Joseph wrote letters asking for food because the Germans had no supplies to spare. Joseph later died from the lack of food and the poor living conditions of the prisoners.

The impact of the First World War on the lives of the peasants was more separation from loved ones and live stock than suffering any serious war time combat. Many of the men who returned home from the war were scared for the rest of their lives. The war represented more than just a conflict it also meant the end of the Villages isolation from the rest of France. The village and the peasants became more affected by outside events with each passing year. The Second World War had an entirely different set of events than that of the first.

The First World War was a far away event to many peasants but the Second World War came to their very homes. The general feeling among many of the WWI veterans was one of bitterness about the conflict. The author’s husband Jean had a rather abrasive view of WWII. Jean called the war a “Phony War”. (195) The Village was not surprised by about the conflict. The world was becoming smaller and the village had been becoming more plugged into world events.

France was not completely ready for a return to war. Parts of France were quickly over run. The Village was full of French soldiers who were drawing fire from the Germans and Italians “We were literally invaded.” (195) The war was not a faraway thing this time it was actually happening outside their homes in their fields.

The French Peasants were becoming more plugged into the outside world. WWI and WWII demonstrated that the village was no longer isolated from world events and was becoming more connected to France as a whole.

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