Long ago, a few steps from this grand Normandy manor house in Bellou, stood a tumble down cottage, the smallest in the village. In this modest home Rose Harel was born to a mother but no father, on 9 April 1826. Nothing about Rose’s start in life suggested she would be remarkable, but as Raymond Bazin would later sing;
‘Poor daughter of the fields, an invisible fairy
Stunnedly laid on her frail cradle
The art of making verses …’
There was no money or thought to send Rose to school, she had to earn her keep. Her mother worked in the fields but little Rose with her nimble child’s fingers was sent to work in the Livarot weaving sheds, to make white canvas for layettes and for shrouds. The factory was over an hour’s walk from Bellou.
Long days in dark, noisy rooms breathing air filled with fibres did nothing for Rose’s health. Her lungs became weak and would never recover.
Toil to drudgery
Age just 12 or 13 and increasingly unwell, Rose looked for a different kind of work. She became a household servant, first in Vimoutiers then Lisieux.
Rose’s life was not unusual in Normandy at that time. The revolution in 1789 had done little to help people like her, and anyway there was a king again on the throne of France.
One day in a forgotten corner of an attic in the house where she toiled, she came across some tattered pages. Fascinated by the etched letters and intricately scratched images beside them, she stuffed the papers into her apron.
She had found pages from an old Telemaque de Fénelon, a famous old tale of heroes, wars and wood nymphs, first written in 1699 to amuse and educate children of the aristocracy. Rose stitched the tattered pages together and a fellow servant kindly helped her to read the story.
As she learnt to read, a deeper, richer world opened up through borrowed books and pamphlets. Tucked away in the attics and basements of bourgeois Normandy homes, the little grey servant spent her precious private hours studying histories, reading Greek myths and devouring literature.
Famous Normandy writers Flaubert and Maupassant have written about poor servants and convincingly guessed at their thoughts and dreams. But Rose Harel was soon speaking for herself. From reading it was a natural step to create and Rose was blessed, perhaps blighted, with a poet’s soul.
A song of servitude
The little maid found her voice as a poet goguettier. Goguette was the name of a singing society and this is how Rose’s poetry became more widely known. Through her songs we can see very clearly the hard world of Rose Harel and how her gift was not always welcome;
I lived for a long time poor, but without pride,
In a humble retreat with which I cherished the threshold;
Alas! I had one day to leave my solitude.
I needed bread! … the hard servitude
offered Me, I accepted: but God, how bitter!
To obtain it, it is necessary to drag a yoke of iron.
And when my wounded heart utters a cry of distress
and I raise my voice in a song of sadness,
I am talked down; You comment and say:
She is mad, proud and wants to play the spirit!
Rose Harel wrote about the world she knew; the ill-used peasant, abused servant, of love unrequited, celebrations and disasters. All bought to life with her insight and delicate prose. One (very long, highlights only below) poem, a tragedy of love denied and lost, gives us this a portrait of the local beauty Suzanne;
The boys of the hamlet said, in speaking of her
We would not dare to love her, she is too beautiful,
with her big black eyes, her complexion of lilies in bloom,
a breath and kiss would tarnish her pallor.
The poem’s hero agrees to marry a wealthy, plain girl rather than his love, poor Suzanne. Is his sacrifice reflected in this description of their country wedding?
We immolate sheep, lambs, little pigs,
After the black turkeys, pleasing chickens,
The fat hen with the cooing pigeon.
Calves were slaughtered …. Everywhere blood flows,
The rabbits, by dozens, expired in their turn,
Then the ducks, and all the poultry-yard.
During the wedding Jean cannot forget Suzanne and reminisces;
And in the heart of Jean, sang the days of the past.
He saw Suzanne again, at the time of the harvest,
So charming under her peasant’s hat.
His mind recalled their plans for the future;
His promises to her that he could not keep.
While working in Pont-l’Eveque Rose became acquainted with the poet Adolphe Bordes, a member of the Société des Gens de Lettres and of the Académie de Caen. He encouraged her and helped compile a collection of her work into a slim volume ‘L’Alouette aux Blés’. He wrote the preface and arranged for the work to be published by means of a public subscription in 1863.
During the summer 1864 La Société d’Emulation de Lisieux awarded Rose a medal for her poetry. Briefly happy she celebrated with the peom ‘To my Medal’;
I live without support on the land
Without good, without credit and without gold,
But are not you worth a treasure,
O shining medal and dear!
You brought me a day of happiness A
blessed pledge of sympathy,
You will remain all my life
The most dear good to my heart.
Unfortunately the resulting notoriety didn’t do Rose any good at all.
No respectable Normandy housewife wanted to employ a servant who may take out any grudge with a long poem sung at the local Goguette society or worse, in print. It would be easy to identify the subject in the small towns of Normandy. Some lines from a poem dated 29 January 1867;
Under the sharp nail of pain,
One day I became indignant.
I said to the lot with haughtiness:
To your blows, I am resigned!
It didn’t help that while Rose had an exceptional memory for her poetry and the literature she devoured, she was apparently a rather distracted servant. One of her mistresses (with questionable affection) recalled that when Rose Harel had a moment of creative inspiration she would stop everything for her ‘dear poetry’ and let more than one stew burn…
Her mind was mostly elsewhere, darning words together rather better than she did stockings. Just a verse from the long poem ‘Seasons’ articulate a powerful image;
Snow has whitened the countryside,
Covered the thatch of our roofs;
The burning cold pursues and wins
The child who blows in his fingers.
In the Return to the Village, she sings about the beautiful countryside of her childhood:
I have just seen them again, embellished by absence,
Dressed in all the gifts of a rich and beautiful spring,
These places where the time of my childhood passed,
Those places which I wept and long regretted.
L’Alouette aux Blés was republished by popular demand in 1865. Her poems often featured in Normandy news and journals; The Lexovian, the Pays d’Auge. She received in 1867, in Paris, an award from La Société d’Encouragement au Bien. But her daily life was the drudgery of a servant, made worse by the increasing weakness of her body.
A friend indeed
By 1880 Rose Harel was a servant in a Lisieux cheese shop. She lived in the cellar, cleaned floors, cooked, did whatever was asked of her. One December day while scrubbing cobbles she was introduced to Mme Marie de Besneray, a well-known local novelist. Mme de Besneray became a great admirer of her work and was horrified at her lowly situation. A friendship began that would last for the rest of Rose’s life.
Rose was becoming increasingly unwell but Mme de Besneray was a true friend. She rented a small apartment on Boulevard Saint-Anne in Lisieux for Rose and provided her with a small income. For the first time in Rose Harel’s life she knew security and independence. For the first time since she was a very young child, she could rest.
Flowers of autumn
This new freedom was celebrated with Rose’s second volume ‘Fleurs d’Automne’. Madame de Besneray wrote the preface, referring to the creative gift that had caused Rose as much difficulty as joy;
“It has been a long time since she wrote her first verses; Lost in the crowd of those who struggle, obliged to win the daily bread, she would perhaps have done without the strange gift a fairy had slipped into her cradle…”
The volume was published following a public subscription in the popular Normandy journal The Lexovian whose editor-in-chief Alphonse Lemerre was one of the many who paid to request a copy.
Inside the front of Fleurs d’Automne Rose had printed;
“To Madame Marie de Besneray, allow me Madam to offer you this book; I have put my whole soul into it, your name will bring it happiness.
Choosing her own ending
Rose enjoyed the security of her little home for just a few years.
As she reached the very end of her life, the cathedral priest was called for, but stubborn to the end she refused this grand gesture, preferring the ‘good God of the country’ to the ‘good God of the cathedral’. The village priest from Beuvillers was called for her. Mme Besneray filled the the room with sweet smelling roses and finally her friend, the poet servant, died in her arms on 4 July 1885.
Rose Harel’s funeral was celebrated in the church of St. Peter before a great crowd of friends. Mme de Besneray used the money from a second edition of Fleurs to pay for a plot with a memorial of Belgian granite for her dearest friend. On it she had carved at the top with a lark bearing an ear of corn, below a bouquet of Christmas roses and in the centre a lute with two lines extracted from Rose’s autobiographical poem L’Alouette aux Blés;
‘It is a strange fantasy of fate
To have near a spindle put a lute in her hand’
Two poems by Rose Harel, the servant poet
After the Prussian invasion of France in 1870, known as the ‘Terrible Year’ Rose wrote about the suffering of a young soldier:
Dans la Dernière Faction
He thought of the endless horrors of the battle, Of
those scattered limbs, crushed by grape-shot,
To these mutilated bodies calling for help,
To the groans of the dying, desolate and deaf sounds,
To the prisoners delivered to German hatred,
Holding his whip lifted soon it controls,
and which for a look, a word or anything,
Strike like a drunk huntsman who beats his dog! ….
now he mourned for all this suffering
useless, now at Salvation of France;
Without seeing anything, he remained motionless, distracted,
no longer feeling the snow and melted frost.
He was crying, this Frenchman, for he had just heard
these words: tomorrow, Paris will have to surrender!
Although roughly translated, the beauty and sorrow of her writing shines through in this poem; Richesse, as she sings of a dream shared by many:
“With three hundred crowns of rent
I know what I would do:
On the bank of a river
My cottage I would build.
For me, it would be wealth
And, of all free concern at last,
I would rest my old age there:
Quiet, I would expect the end.
There, my friends would find
In the sun, in the shade, in the hearth,
On the rustic bench
Honeysuckle with chestnut,
To sleep, they would still have
The white room where climb
At the window, instead of a blind,
A rosebush that would shade it.
To who suffers and dies in silence,
Without appeal to charity,
I would give care, assistance,
Without ever hurting his pride.
I would also, as long as
The winter that froze our tiles,
On my threshold give the pasture,
Every day, small birds.
The weak being who suffers or cries,
The child, the bird, the old man, all
Would have in my humble home
Fire, bread, or a few sous.
Finally, I could, doing truce
At all times,
To realise my sweetest dream,
Step by step follow the spring;
See the awakening of primroses,
Listen to the sound of streams,
The wild voices of the heather,
And the wind speaks to the reeds.
Often I would say to the muse:
Let us go into the great woods;
In my days, whose weft wears,
Spread the charm of yesteryear.
Come and teach me everything
The hidden meaning, so far from the word.
Let’s look for the perfume of the rose
To the bitter fragrance of the flood;
Let us seek, from the germs to the atoms,
From the tiny blue butterfly
To the stars of the celestial dome:
Come to enlighten me the work of God!
Under the poplar, under the aspen,
Furtive, I would slip
At the moment the leaf trembles,
To see if I would guess
What a lip so prompt
To the winds, to the heavens, to infinity,
Day, night, she tells
On this poor world punished.
Perhaps faithful souls,
Seeking those they loved,
From the branch that borders their wings
These unnamed noises are born
Who in the evening, when we listen to them,
Seem a huge sigh,
Or the sob clearing the way
In a voice that moans.
Or, it is a murmur hardly,
A whisper, a kiss,
The Sursaut of a heart that is chained
Mysterious and mild cause …
With three hundred crowns,
Yes, that’s how I would live …
But having nothing, I content myself with
To dream what I would do! “
One of many poets inspired by Rose, Raymond Bazin succinctly describes her life in this sonnet;
Poor daughter of the fields, an invisible fairy
Stunnedly laid on her frail cradle
The art of making verses and her dream impossible,
She pursued him to the threshold of the tomb!
In the lost crowd and the laughter of the target,
She found then a new happiness,
Despising mockers the irascible critic
To gently sing good, love, beautiful
She emptied gaily the cup of ambrosia;
Instead of abandoning her dear poetry,
she would rather have guarded the oxen and swine.
She often suffered, she was unhappy,
But she was an ardent and courageous woman
Who always disdained the judgement of fools!
More about Rose Harel on the Lisieux library website (Fr)
On the Vimoutier’s town pages (Fr)