Academic journal article Essays in French Literature and Culture

'Mon Cher Papa, Ma Chère Maman': The Drôle De Guerre of Madeleine Blaess

Academic journal article Essays in French Literature and Culture

'Mon Cher Papa, Ma Chère Maman': The Drôle De Guerre of Madeleine Blaess

Article excerpt

J'ai reçu une lettre du 'C.F' me demandant d'écrire un article en français sur "Paris en guerre". Je le ferais si j'ai le temps. Dites-moi qu'est-ce que je pourrais mettre pour intéresser - parler des alertes? que sais-je!! (Blaess, 17 November 1939)

Born in France to French parents Madeleine Blaess was raised and educated in York, England at the Bar Convent and at the University of Leeds from where she graduated with a first class honours degree in French in 1939. Her exemplary achievements as an undergraduate earned her a university bursary to research a doctorate in Medieval French at the Sorbonne in Paris. After some hesitation over the wisdom of heading to France after the allied declaration of war on Germany on 3 September 1939, Blaess set out in late October 1939. Between 25 October 1939 and 1 June 1940, she wrote, in the imperfect French of a non-native speaker, 38 letters to her parents in York, England. The unpublished letters run to approximately 75,000 words, written in miniscule longhand script on foolscap sheets (11" x 8" - 28 cm x 21 cm) of which there are an average of four per letter. They offer both a fascinating insight into the period as well as a number of methodological challenges.

How can one make historical sense of letters which, because susceptible to censorship, Blaess in turn has to censor to ensure that they are allowed through? How do we know that Blaess is not distorting facts to reassure anxious parents? How selectively does Blaess assemble the anecdotes in which she figures in view of reception by her parents? There are, however, a number of redemptive features about Blaess's letters. Their intensely descriptive narrative is consistent, in broad terms, with existing historical accounts. They appear to conform to what Martha Hanna identifies as a pedagogically inculcated epistolary protocol characteristic of letters written by French servicemen to their families during the Great War which, as Hannah puts it 'emphasized the importance and affective power of regular, honest correspondence: during extended absences families could sustain pre-existing bonds of affection by engaging in "conversation from afar"' (Hannah, 2003, 1339). Blaess's French parents would have been formally schooled in this practice of letter writing and her father was a veteran of the Great War. It is not unreasonable to suppose that vestiges of the protocol described by Hanna were maintained in parental letters and viewed as an exemplary model by Blaess. Hanna examines the Manuel général de l'instruction primaire and the Revue de l'enseignement primaire et primaire supérieur for the period 1880- 90 which show that 'the curriculum stressed that a letter was a substitute for a face-to-face conversation, and children should think of it as "a written conversation". These conversations were, writes Hanna, driven by moral imperatives. The qualities of thrift, diligence and punctuality, identified by Hanna are returned to time and again by Blaess as are compassion and stoicism which come to the fore as France teeters on the brink in May (ibid, 1344-1347). Above all, the curriculum cherishes honesty as fundamental to the maintenance and reinforcement of the familial bond over distance and it is this, claims Hannah, which drove soldiers, in defiance of the censor, to disclose to their families the true horror and misery of the trenches. It would seem that a letter writing protocol that required an imagined 'face-to-face' conversation demanded a repudiation of the dissembling possibilities open to the letter writer. If Blaess self-censors, she says so. If she reassures her parents, she provides evidence to assert the honesty of her representation. When she errs from thrift, stoicism, industry, she adopts another trait of the protocol, one not unfamiliar to a convent educated jeune fille, she confesses.

Whilst letters have been largely overlooked by researchers of French public opinion during the Phoney War, historians in other fields have used letters to corroborate or illustrate established historical facts. …

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