The edition of Octave Mirbeau’s Diary of a Chamber Maid (or Le Journal d’une femme de chamber)that I picked up was a pulp-era publication that sought to exploit the sexual undertones of the novel by wrapping it up with a titillating illustrative cover that featured a chambermaid in short skirt with the garter of her stocking exposed and the skirt riding high on her thigh. It is not surprising that the novel might appeal to readers of sexploitation, given that at the time of its original publication it was consider quite scandalous, but the work has far more to offer than scintillating and seductive servants seducing and being seduced by their masters. It is a complex and layered work that illustrates how brutally the French Revolution failed by offering satirical criticism of class and religion that frames Mirbeau as a 19th century, French incarnation of Chaucer. The work, then, far from being an instance of sexploitation or unoriginal erotica, is a novel that appeals to reader’s baser instincts in order to satirize social conventions of the era with commentary that in many instances remains relevant today.
SERVANTS AS A SLAVE CLASS
In the novel, the servant class is framed as a kind of slave class in several ways, one of which is the process of naming. When, for instance, Célestine, the novel’s titular character and narrator, arrives at a new employer’s home, she recounts that she is asked her name. Her new ‘monsieur’ responds in and odd fashion: “Célestine? The devil! That is a pretty name… but… I will call you Marie” (10). This is not an islated incident either, as Célestine notes that the aristocracy/bourgeoisie “all have this queer mania of never calling [servants] by [their] real name” (11). This practice of name-changing may seem innocuous, but it does two things. One, it dehumanizes servants by framing them in a category and suggesting their name is replaceable with a title or name that is universally applied to all servants, and therefore defines them through their position and not through their humanity. It also implies that the bourgeoisie have the authority to define and categorize the working class, usurping that right from them. This is akin to how enslaved people were renamed upon being sold into slavery, as slavers would reject their given name and given them a new signifier, thereby asserting their authority over the enslaved people. Though the brutality of slavery was far more overt and violent, the renaming of the servant class parallels one of the ways in which slavers would assert their authority over those they exploited.
The aristocracy also asserts authority by dictating what servants can and cannot do in their social life, illustrating that the working class had little control over any aspects of their life. After coming home from her afternoon off, Célestine is told by Mrs. Lanlaire, her new mistress, that she is forbidden from seeing Rose, the servant woman from the abode that buttresses the Lanlaire property (42). Reasons are not given for this instruction, though it later turns out that the two property owners have a feud. Though Célestine ought to be the master of her own time when she is not at work, the narrative demonstrates how servants were not only required to obey the commands of their employers while working, but also during their private time as well. In this way, the servant class was placed under the perpetual authority of the aristocracy.
Though the servant class was given wages, unlike enslaved people, they did not have ownership over their work in many respects, as demonstrates by Mirbeau’s account of the nunneries that took in unemployed women, and the employment bureaus who found servants work. In the nunneries, for instance, the women would be charged for room and board, but would also be compelled to work from dawn until sunset without wages, earning the nunneries far more than their keep. The unemployed servant women, then, we in essence paying to work. Though, again, the brutality of slavery was far more overt and violent, slaves, at least, were never in debt to the people who usurped their freedom, while the servant class in France was, in some instances, compelled to pay to work. A similar scenario occurs with the employment bureaus, who find work for the servant class, but also charge them money. Though a finder’s fee for such a service may seem reasonable, Célestine notes that when she receives her “first month’s wages”, she has “to pay the employment bureau” the entire sum (60). Working for an entire month for free hardly seems like a fair and equitable arrangement.
The link between the working class and slavery becomes more overt when Célestine is informed that Mrs. Lanlaire’s family came into their wealth through trafficking humans. During the Franco-Prussian War, aristocratic and bourgeoisie men were at risk of being drafted into the war, and when they were, the government allowed them to find a replacement should they not wish to go. Because so many working-class men were destitute and in need of money in order to provide for their families, many were willing to offer themselves in place of their aristocratic counterparts. This was done at a fee, of course, and so the aristocracy would pay for such replacements. In seeing this emerging market, though, Mrs. Lanlaire’s father opened and agency that collected the fees, kept an overwhelming percentage of the money paid, and gave the working-class men a pittance before sending them off to war. Though some might argue that these working-class men at least chose their course in life, this cannot be argued with any form of sincerity given that the families these men belonged to were often on the brink of starvation, and with no job prospects, they had little recourse but to sell themselves into military service, or else see their parents, siblings, and/or children starve. Mrs. Lanlaire’s money, it is concluded, “is money that can hardly be called clean, if indeed, there be any clean money” (27), much like the money garnered through the slave trade.
Part of the beauty of Mirbeau’s work is its impartiality; though he supported the working class, he was not afraid of illustrating how they had internalized and participated in their own oppression. Célestine, for instance, knows of the means by which M. Lanlaire came by his money, but she still empathizes with him, suggesting that he “sees, hears, and suffers all sorts of things” (22), rather than noting the ways that he has exploited others and has tried to exploit her. She even complains when he speaks socially with working-class people, claiming that “Monsieur is wrong in talking to people who are too far below him” as “It is not dignified” (49). In this way, Célestine accepts her own oppression and reinforces the dehumanization of her fellow working-class peers. Likewise, when Célestine is considering leaving the estate to run a tavern with the Lanlaire’s manservant, she expresses concern that she will “suddenly miss the spectacle of bourgeois luxury” and that her “mediocre life” will deprive her “of all these pretty things” (170). This passage demonstrates how the bourgeoisie is able to maintain their authority. By offering the servant class some degree of comfort and security, servants become complacent, and when faced with freedom (albeit freedom earned after 40 years of wages have been saved), there is the threat of incertitude and poverty. The absence of any comfort, then, compels the servant class to see their oppression as superior option to their freedom. This causes them to internalize and justify their own exploitation.
One of the hegemonic tools that subdues the working class and encourages the internalization of oppression is religion, which serves as a social sedative that keeps the working class compliant. When speaking to her personal discontent, for instance, Célestine notes that “if it were not for the Holy Virgin” the servant class “should be much more unhappy” (14), framing religion as a kind of antidepressant that allows the working class to see their exploitation as more palpable. Mirbeau’s commentary on religion becomes Chaucerian when Célestine speaks to a priest about a ‘monsieur’ who expressed a sexual interest in her. The priest replies that “it is better to sin with your masters, when they are pious persons, than with people of [her] own condition. It is less serious less irritating to the good of God. And perhaps these people have dispensations. Many have dispensations” (140). The irony of a priest suggesting that an aristocrat who commits the same sin as a member of the working class is somehow more ‘pious’ is overt, at least to a layperson, but it is not without its theological basis. As Chaucer was sure to note in The Canterbury Tales, the church would sell indulgences, meaning wealthy people could buy the right to sin. Dispensations work in much the same way in that they exempt certain people from their obligations to certain laws. The bourgeoisie, then, are not less pious than the working class, they are just given allowances to violate the laws of the church. The ultimate irony, though, is that biblical evidence frames wealth as that antithesis to virtue, as Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a wealthy person to enter the gates of heaven. Though Mirbeau does not create caricatures with the kind of biting satire that Chaucer employed, his work touches on the same themes and shares similar observations.
THE INHUMANITY OF THE RICH
In making the wealthy exempt from laws of morality, the church serves to facilitate the wealthy’s inhumanity, which is effectively documented throughout Mirbeau’s novel. This inhumanity is linked with religious notions as Célestine notes that where she lives, “one begins to be a soul only with an income of a hundred thousand francs” (64), implying that having a soul, which in theological terms is believed to be the quality that separates humanity from the animal kingdom, is only achieved when wealth is achieved. Until such a time, a ‘person’ is not a person at all, and is treated as something less than an animal. This is demonstrated when Célestine visits the local butcher, who cuts “off two long slices of good red meat” and throws them to his dogs (116) after intentionally giving an inferior cut of meat to a working-class woman, illustrating that animals are treated better than the working class. This leads Célestine to conclude that “The dogs of the rich… are not poor” (117). It is noted by the butcher, though, that the poor are more important to him than the wealthy, for without their ‘willingness’ “to buy inferior parts, [butchers] should not make enough out of an animal” (116). The burden of the aristocracy’s indulgences place a further weight on the poor when Lanlaire’s father declares bankruptcy, but is sure to save money for his family while leaving the poor he essentially robbed with no money. This cuases Célestine to conclude that “it is no trick at all to be rich” (26), implying that all one needs is a lack of both morals and empathy for the damage that one’s wealth causes others in order to become wealthy. The novel is filled with such instances, demonstrating how the poor are a class to be abused to ensure the comforts of the wealthy, and that the aristocracy views the poor as something less than human.
Though the titillating and scandalous nature of the narratives helped to bring the novel infamy, and thereby significant attention, it sadly has overshadowed the social commentary present in the novel. Given that Célestine recounts how she lost her virginity as an adolescent to a beast of a man in exchange for oranges, and then went on to have an affair with a many dying of what seems to be tuberculosis (a scene which included her consuming the bloody phlegm of her lover), it is no surprise that pulp-era publications saw fit to sell the book with the promise of a clichéd affair between master and servant; however, the spirit of the book is far more compelling than the premise of a bad erotica novel. Diary of a Chambermaid frames the capitalist system as one that treats the working class like slaves, while highlighting the inhumanity of the system and the hypocrisy of a society that outwardly claims to prize Christian morality, but practices something resembling its antithesis, and ultimately demonstrating that the French Revolution was a failure. Though the novel loses its direction in certain places, flirting with a murder mystery at one point, amongst other possible genres, it serves as a work that deserves to be read alongside other socially conscious works that share a Marxist spirit.
Words I thought I’d look up:
Haberdasher: A dealer in men’s clothing.
Curmudgeons: Bad tempered people.
Mirbeau, Octave. Diary of a Chamber Maid. Trans. Unknown. New York: Avon Publishing. n.d.
Note: The featured image is a painting by Gil Elvgren.