• 2003: Germinal’s Forbears


    Germinal’s Forbears: Some Fictional Representations of Nineteenth-Century French Miners

    Published in the Bulletin of the Emile Zola Society, No. 33-34. 2006. Originally presented as a paper at a conference of the London Socialist Historians Group in 2003 to mark the twentieth anniversary of the 1984-85 miners’ strike.


    Emile Zola’s Germinal occupies a peculiar position in world literature. It is recognised as part of the literary canon, one of the ‘great novels’ of European literature. Yet, almost uniquely among such novels, it depicts manual workers and a characteristic form of proletarian struggle, the strike. At the same time it has won an audience among working-class readers and especially miners. At Zola’s funeral in 1902 a delegation of miners chanted ‘Germinal! Germinal!’

    These readers have found in Germinal not merely the depiction of the terrible sufferings resulting from exploitation, but even more significantly, the way in which miners became conscious and organised the strategies of their resistance. The book thus had direct relevance a hundred years on. A British metal‑worker, reviewing Germinal in the early seventies at the time of the successful miners’ strikes, pointed to the importance of flying pickets in the narrative, bringing out a detail ignored by most literary critics.1 During the 1984‑85 strike a militant miner found parallels between the novel and the current struggle: ‘In both cases management provoked the strike deliberately, confident that the miners would lose, in order that they could reinforce their power. Both sets of miners put too much faith in one man, Etienne and Scargill.’2

    Academic critics have done their best to argue that the book is really about something other than class struggle. One leading British authority, writing of Germinal, claims that ‘…the dark, airless galleries below ground were the perfect symbol for the deep‑buried corridors of the unconscious mind.’3 A student guide to the same novel tells us that ‘the strike is a virility drama’.4 Another critic tells us food is ‘a prominent sex‑substitute in Zola’.5 There is in all conscience enough sex in Zola without making the references to food sexual as well. One can only assume that since literary critics suffer from sexual frustration somewhat oftener than from hunger pangs, they find Zola’s obsession with food rather hard to cope with. Such absurdities cannot detract from the power and veracity of Zola’s novel.

    The factors underlying Zola’s achievement are complex. Part of the story was his own political development; just after completing the novel he wrote ‘Every time I undertake a study now I come up against socialism.’6 In the summer of 1884, when he was writing the novel, Zola had long conversations with a former communard, Jules Vallès. Nearly twenty years earlier Vallès had published in Le Figaro a ground‑breaking piece of reportage on the lives of French miners in the Saint-Etienne area.7

    But Zola was not the first French novelist to make the life and struggles of miners his subject. In the decade before Germinal at least six novels were published which dealt, in whole or part, with aspects of mining life. The pioneer, even earlier in 1866, had been E. Berthet’s Les Houilleurs de Polignies. This deals with mining mainly from the viewpoint of the mine-owners, though there are some references to miners’ grievances, and a scene with characters trapped underground. It ends with a vision of benevolent management and social harmony ensuring the prosperity of miners and owners alike. In 1877 came Les Indes noires by Jules Verne, the science fiction writer, who set his story in Scotland; there is detailed treatment of mining techniques, but no reference to social conflict. In the same year was published Hector Malot’s Sans famille, of which one episode – five chapters out of forty-two – is set in a mining context; there is an account of miners trapped underground by a flood, but again nothing on social conflict.

    In 1878 Paul  Heusy published Un Coin de la vie de misère, a collection of four stories,8 dedicated to Flaubert, E. de Goncourt, Daudet and Zola. [Interestingly, the story dedicated to Zola is overtly political and profoundly bitter; it tells the story of a woman whose father had been an active revolutionary in 1789, whose husband was killed resisting the coup d’etat in 1851 and whose son was arrested after the defeat of the Commune. She dies of hunger. Heusy seems to have detected the revolutionary potential in Zola’s work at a very early date.]

    The longest of the stories tells the story of the life of a miner: Antoine Mathieu: Etude de Pauvre.9 Antoine becomes a miner, gets married and has a son. One of the mine supervisors makes advances to his wife; Antoine hits him and is jailed for a year. Subsequently his wife dies. Later, when he is working at another pit, it is discovered that one of the supervisors is stealing from the workers’ wages. The mine-owner refuses to take action. The miners strike – Antoine is among the leaders; the owner brings in mounted gendarmes, and after ten days the miners are starved back to work. Antoine is jailed again; on his release he cannot find employment, and has to walk to another area. Later he is killed in a pit disaster. His son becomes a miner.

    Heusy is distinct from virtually all his contemporaries in the sympathy he shows for Antoine and the miners in general. The strike – as far as I know the first depiction of a miners’ strike in French fiction – is presented as fully justified. But the strike is only a minor episode – taking up about five pages out of some hundred, and while Heusy gives a convincing account of the initial spontaneity which produced the strike, he has little to say of the subsequent dynamics and organisation of the strike.

    Then came the three novels to be discussed below: Maurice Talmeyr, Le Grisou (1880), Yves Guyot, La Famille Pichot (1882), and G Maisonneuve, Plébéienne (1884). This was the period after the amnesty of the communards (July 1880), which saw the beginning of the revival of the French working-class movement; significantly all these novels feature strikes.

    Long out of print and read only by literary historians seeking, vainly, to find ‘sources’ and ‘influences’ for Zola’s work,10 these books may seem obscure and irrelevant. Yet their interest is in some ways complementary to that of Germinal. Zola aimed to shock and arouse to awareness his middle-class readers, while giving a voice to his working-class audience. Talmeyr, Guyot and Maisonneuve all wrote primarily for a middle-class readership and aimed, in ways that differed somewhat according to political perspective, to comfort and reinforce their prejudices. The all too obvious limitations of their literary creations expose the limits of their understanding of social struggles – limits which have been apparent in much more recent conflicts.

    The tradition of novels about the working class was less developed in France than in England, perhaps reflecting the rather slower pace of industrialisation and the absence of any durable working-class mass movement analogous to Chartism. There are no novels that bear comparison with Disraeli’s Sybil, Gaskell’s Mary Barton or Kingsley’s Alton Locke. While George Sand made a brave attempt to confront proletarian subject matter, her works were irredeemably Utopian, lacking any verisimilitude in their treatment of the class struggle. In La Ville noire (1861) she portrays the misery of factory workers – eventually a beautiful young woman inherits the factory and turns it into a ‘model workshop’.

    In 1864 the Goncourt brothers published Germinie Lacerteux, in the preface of which – despite their own profound conservatism – they invoked the principle of democracy to justify extending the scope of the novel:

    Living in the nineteenth century, in a time of universal suffrage, of democracy, of liberalism, we wondered whether what are called ‘the lower classes’ did not have a right to the Novel … whether, in short, the tears shed below could make us weep just as much as those wept above.11

    The novel itself, dealing with the sexual and financial misfortunes of a domestic servant, made no attempt to deal with the new realities of class in nineteenth‑century society.

    Elsewhere Edmond de Goncourt made an acute observation about the development of fiction dealing with the working class:

    Why, you may ask, choose these milieux? [...] Perhaps because I am a well‑born writer, and the people, the rabble, if you like, has for me the attraction of unknown, undiscovered populations, something of the exotic, which travellers go to seek at the price of much suffering in distant lands.12

    The audience for the novel was still primarily middle class, and the working class, whose life and sufferings were largely unknown to such readers, could replace the flora, fauna and strange customs of distant lands.

    The mining milieu was a particularly suitable source of such exoticism. Even the most elegant Parisian might occasionally catch a glimpse of a factory chimney, or cross the path of a factory-worker in the street, but coal-mining took place in distant provinces which were like a foreign land. The pervasive blackness of the environment meant that ‘le pays noir’ (the black country) became the standard name for mining districts. As Yves Guyot wrote: ‘The water is black. The houses are black; and in the black faces all you can see is the sparkle of white teeth and the flash of the eyes.’13 By the very colour of their skins, the miners thus acquired the same sub-human status as was attributed to colonial subjects. The underground world of the miners seemed like a different universe, and the entry to the mine – the lift scenes in Germinal and elsewhere – resembled a transition to the underworld.

    The mining milieu offered other features appealing to the writer of fiction. Firstly, the profession was extremely dangerous. The annual percentage of fatal accidents in the decade 1850-60 was 3.47 per thousand workers; by the 1880s this had fallen to the only slightly less appalling 1.82 per thousand workers. 8.5 % of deaths were caused by grisou (firedamp). Huge explosions were all too common; in the Saint‑Etienne coalfield an explosion in the puits Jabin killed seventy in November 1871; in February 1876 another 186 died in an explosion in the same pit.14 Such disasters were, unsurprisingly, a standard feature of novels about mining life.

    The other stock theme was the strike. Here reality was inflated by class-based fear. On average strikes in the mining industry in the 1880s were shorter than those in industry as a whole – a duration of nine days as against 11.8 days. Yet there were prolonged, epic struggles of the sort featured in Germinal and other novels, notably the fifty-six day strike at Anzin in 1884.15

    Thus the mining environment provided an ample source of exoticism and melodrama. It is noticeable that when Zola wrote his novel about the railways, La Bête humaine (1890), he found it necessary to spice the narrative up by making his engine‑driver into a psychopathic killer; but in Germinal all the drama flowed directly from the situation of the miners.

    There were other factors drawing the attention of writers and of the reading public towards coal-mining. The industry was in rapid expansion; In 1859 production at Anzin was no more than 907,000 tons per year; thirty years later it was almost three million tons. In 1850 France had some 33,000 miners; the figure reached 82,673 in 1870, and 108,712 in 1875, before levelling off in the 1880s. Hence there was  rapid recruitment of new miners, mainly from among the peasantry.16 Coal was the essential basis for other sectors of the economy, notably the railways. Moreover miners were concentrated into pit villages – corons – rather than being dispersed among the rest of the population, making the strike a confrontation in the community as well as in the workplace. The mining strike stood as a distillation of the class struggle in its purest form.

    All this in the shadow of the Commune. Despite the best efforts of revolutionaries in various provincial cities,17 the Paris Commune remained confined to the capital. But the fear that the radical democracy and demand for workers’ power that characterised the Commune could spread to the rest of the working population persisted. Germinal ended with Zola’s hero leaving the pit village to go and work for the First International in Paris and help prepare the Commune. What Zola depicted as hope, other novelists depicted as fear.

    Maurice Talmeyr was the pseudonym of Marie-Justin-Maurice Coste (1850‑1931).18 The name came from a village in Burgundy; he claimed that Victor Hugo himself had advised him to add an ‘r’ at the end to make it more euphonic.19 As a young man he served in the army, and in March 1871 he was among the troops who tried to seize the cannon paid for by the people of Paris – the incident which sparked the Commune. Many years later he described his experience:

    Women grabbed us by the legs to make us break ranks, while others thrust children between our legs to stop us advancing, and others again clutched on to us, speaking disgusting words in our ears to persuade us to follow them.20

    A few weeks later he was among the troops who crushed the Commune. His sympathies were not with the thousands of communards massacred, but with the priests who had been killed: ‘Not even the bodies of these martyrs had been respected, and terrible shrews had engaged in unspeakable ferocities’.21

    Under the Third Republic Talmeyr worked as a journalist, also dabbling in a few novels. He frequented left-wing circles, writing for socialist or republican papers. In his memoirs he described his various acquaintances in this milieu without hostility, but with a certain patronising humour, seeing most socialists as well‑meaning, but not very bright. For a time he collaborated with the veteran of 1848 Louis Blanc on his paper L’Homme libre; he described Blanc as being a man of ‘old-fashioned honesty [...] painfully comical in the world where his opinions condemned him to live’.22 Talmeyr was a member of the Association of Christian Journalists, and gave various lectures in Paris and Brussels to argue that the events of 1793 were not to be explained as a popular movement, but rather as the result of the activity of the Freemasons.

    In 1880 Talmeyr published his novel Le Grisou23 (Firedamp). The tale is a melodramatic one. A miner called Jacquemin rapes a young woman in the mine, and in doing so, he pushes over a lamp, thus causing a firedamp explosion. He is believed killed in the explosion, but in fact survives and leaves the area. Some thirty years later – in 1874, a year of high unemployment in the mining industry – he returns to his native territory, to find the woman he had raped is insane and the son born of the encounter mentally handicapped.

    Jacquemin now seeks atonement, but becomes caught up in a strike. This is clearly included in the interests of the plot, and its details and dynamics are given scant attention. The whole thing occupies only a couple of pages. [207-8] The company, taking advantage of the current unemployment, provokes it by attempting to impose a wage-cut. The strike spills over into violence; three people are killed, including the local mayor. Jacquemin is accused of his murder, and despairing of the situation, commits suicide.

    The melodramatic story and the psychology of Jacquemin are constantly in the foreground; the life of miners forms merely a background which is not much developed. Talmeyr manifests some sympathy towards the miners, yet does so in such a condescending manner as to deny their basic humanity: ‘The labour of miners is merely a labour of vermin, and yet it is a colossal labour.’ [2] He recognises the dehumanising effects of exploitation, yet sees the miners as so dehumanised that they are utterly incapable of self-emancipation:

    Men, women and children wear the same clothes. They have, moreover, the same appearance, the same manner, the same voice and often are of the same height. Gin, brandy, promiscuity in drunkenness, promiscuity in the dirt, and poverty far from the sun have given the women the same cynical attitude as the men, have given the children wrinkles like old men, and have given the men the feeble demeanour of children. [12]

    One of the few concrete proposals comes in Jacquemin’s final confession: ‘Yes, I’m a criminal  [...] So why, in this accursed country, do you send women down the mines?’ [326] Jacquemin continues by stressing the problem of drunkenness; this was certainly an aspect of mining life, but to foreground it in this way puts the focus on the wild and violent behaviour attributed to the strikers – doubtless the memories of 1871 were still haunting Talmeyr’s brain:

    We drink! We drink so as not to have to say that death is our atmosphere, that the earth beneath our feet is the ceiling above our heads. We drink so that we never suspect that there are such things as the family, domestic bliss, well-lit repose, the soul, love, the spirit, virtue, conscience and freedom! [326]

    It seems inconceivable that Talmeyr’s miners could organise a serious strike, as opposed to a brawl, let along struggle for their own self-emancipation.

    Yves Guyot (1843-1928) was both a more serious and a more well-known figure. A prolific writer on economic matters, he was also a practising politician, who served in parliament for several years and was, from 1889 to 1892, Minister of Public Works.24 In both political and economic terms he was a liberal; in the journal he edited, Le Siècle, he set out his fundamental position as follows:

    Defence of freedom, of property, of legality, of social peace, of the homeland, against anarchy, against socialist tyranny, against collectivism, against social war and against revolutionary internationalism.’25

    Several of Guyot’s forty-odd books were devoted to the denunciation of socialist ‘sophisms’ and socialist ‘tyranny’ as contrasted to the principles of 1789.26 He resisted any form of state intervention in economic life, opposing laws which limited the working hours of teenagers and forbade women to work in the last four weeks of pregnancy.27 For him, any attempt to interfere with the laws of supply and demand led to the slippery slope of collectivism and, ultimately, communism.28

    Yet Guyot was a liberal of a sort that can scarcely be imagined one hundred years later. He did genuinely believe in the possibility of social reform. His book La prostitution (1882) was dedicated to Josephine Butler, whom he praised highly.29 His belief in free speech was also authentic. In 1910 he defended Gustave Hervé, at this time still on the extreme left of the Socialist Party and an ardent anti-militarist, who was being prosecuted for his insurrectionary journalism, because he saw it as an issue of free speech and freedom of the press. When Paul Lafargue, France’s leading Marxist theorist, took his study of the origins of private property to the publisher Charles Delagrave, the latter was so shocked by Lafargue’s communism that he refused to publish it unless it was accompanied by a refutation. Guyot obliged, and the two studies were published bound together.30

    As an advocate of the free market, Guyot believed that the market worked in the interests of all and was therefore opposed to any doctrine of class struggle. During the Commune, he remained in Paris and was involved with two ‘republican leagues’ which tried to establish contacts between the communards and the Versailles government with a view to reconciliation.31

    Quite logically, therefore, he was opposed to all strikes. In accordance with free market principles, he recognised that workers had a right to stop work, individually or collectively, but by doing so they forfeited all previously acquired rights and benefits.32 He argued that ‘the strike is an act by a small group of people aiming to obtain advantages at the expense of all their fellow-citizens’ – for example a strike in the public sector would increase wages for workers at the price of a tax rise for all. He even claimed that violence in strikes resulted from the fact that the government was afraid of killing strikers and was therefore reluctant to take strong measures.33

    Guyot’s anti-strike feelings were not merely theoretical. In 1884, on the Paris Municipal Council, he vigorously opposed a resolution to send money to the striking Anzin miners, and succeeded in getting it defeated.34 A tone of near-paranoia crept into his claim that strikes were not wanted by workers, but were imposed by ‘outsiders’:

    And who decides who leads? Who is at the head of a strike? Forty-seven men met in Lens, on 26 October 1893, and decided to continue the miners’ strike; these authorised representatives of labour included 23 inn-keepers, one former inn-keeper, 15 workers who combine the functions of inn-keeper with their normal occupations, one draper and seven workers in the strict sense.35

    This Daily Mail style exposure was based, wilfully or in ignorance, on a half-truth. It was common for militants in the mines who had been sacked for their organising activity to become inn-keepers; those referred to above were doubtless such victimised militants (a phenomenon Zola recognised in his depiction of the character Rasseneur, based in part on the former miner Emile Basly).36

    Guyot went so far as to argue that public opinion was excessively biased in favour of striking miners:

    However, the miners have long profited from the idea of their exploitation held by the majority of people, who have never been down a mine; they imagine that these dark holes, several hundred metres deep, lead to hell; they fancy that miners live amid perpetual firedamp explosions which massacre them; they imagine them in poverty, failing to enquire why, if their labour is so hard, so dangerous, so badly rewarded, it exercises such an attraction that the number of miners keeps on growing, and that an agricultural worker who has become a miner never returns to his previous job.37

    [This is highly reminiscent of certain arguments heard during the recent fire-fighters’ dispute. Reactionary myths have a remarkable capacity of persistence.]

    Guyot published three novels between 1882 and 1885; one dealt with mental illness, one with an ambitious young politician, and the first, La Famille Pichot, (The Pichot Family), written in 1873 [1] and also known as Scènes de l’enfer social (Scenes of the Social Hell).38

    The novel deals with a mining family of which the daughter, Fanny, has become mistress to the mine-owner. The story begins with a pit disaster; this is followed by a strike, over the issue of the control of a mutual aid fund, that is, who should determine who is entitled to benefits, the management or the workers who pay contributions. The strike ends in total failure when the workers are forced back to work by hunger. Yet no alternative route to progress is shown. Fanny reflects the morality of the unbridled market when she decides at the end to remain with the mine‑owner, having earlier suffered a conflict of loyalties; she affirms: ‘In this world you must either eat or be eaten. My teeth are too good not to be used.’ [376] Guyot stressed that the work was set in 1868, under the Empire, thus creating a vague suggestion that things were now better under the Third Republic, although the continuing miners’ struggles of the 1880s gave the lie to any such claim.

    In his preface, Guyot justifies his decision to write about social questions in a work of fiction:

    It is not without value to deal with social questions elsewhere than in didactic works. The novel, abandoning abstraction in order to make concrete with passion social errors and injustices, prejudices and predispositions, and the reciprocal vices which are an obstacle to finding solutions, thus prepares the work of science; for it triumphs over this first obstacle to all progress: ignorance and the indifference of the complacent. [1-2]

    The novel is scarcely a literary masterpiece. The scenes dealing with working‑class life are sentimental, and little is shown of the miners’ life and work, other than the dramatic details of the pit disaster. The scenes of upper-class life, meanwhile, are satirical, but often verge on caricature and do not go beyond stereotypes.

    Guyot does make some telling criticisms of the social order. In his description of the house provided for Fanny by her protector, he draws out the theme of conspicuous consumption:

    On all the walls, at the windows and on the chimneypiece, in every nook and cranny, there was something which caught the eye and impudently displayed itself, proclaiming: ‘I’m here because I’m expensive’.

    This charming little blond woman, so frail, so sweet, herself seemed, amid all her wealth, covered in satin and lace, to be there merely so that someone could show her off and say: ‘I can afford this!’ [21]

    The letter written by the chief engineer, de Torgnac, after the disaster, has a sharp resonance today:

    You know that this pit was in a very bad state. All the precautions we could have taken would have cost more than the money it would have been able to bring in in the future. So the interests of the shareholders will in no way suffer from this accident. [27]

    But though he shows some sensitivity to the abuses of the system, Guyot has no proposals for how they might be set right. The strike is shown as doomed from the start. The case against direct action is stated by Ravaner, a skilled engineer; it is significant that Guyot put his own position into the mouth of such a man, rather than an ordinary working miner, clearly believing that the latter category were too unintelligent and inarticulate to formulate a coherent position.

    Ravaner warns the miners that any excesses will be used to turn public support away from the miners; rather than offering a strategy for winning support, he takes public opinion as a fixed given:

    If you are guilty of the slightest excess, if among you there is not even the semblance of an excess, but merely the semblance of a threat; if a single rash word is spoken; this semblance and this word will be seized on; they will be turned back against you; people will repeat them endlessly, and exaggerate them, and they will do it so effectively that the justice of your demands will be completely forgotten about. They will only talk about your excess, your misdeeds, your crimes. Perhaps they will provoke repression even before they are committed. [154]

    But the only positive advice Ravaner has to offer is of extreme generality:

    It is not force which triumphs, but organisation; and that’s why the very day after revolutions made with the blood of the people, it is always the bourgeoisie which triumphs. [160]

    Without such organisation, of which the miners as depicted by Guyot are patently incapable, there is nothing but unplanned, disorganised violence. Jérôme Pichot is shown as engaging in a violence fantasy:

    The machines smashed! The factories in flames! The big house at Carboville looted! All this whirled vaguely before his eyes, on a horizon that was dazzling with storms and rages. He seemed to himself greater than he had ever believed himself to be. He was becoming rich from all the wealth he could destroy. [216-17]

    The inevitable theme of women abandoning the passivity appropriate to their sex and becoming violent appears; a mob of women kill Pierre Consigne – a grocer and assistant to the boss of the mine – and tear out his eyes. [235]

    For Guyot the enemy was ‘ignorance’ and the solution must be enlightenment; he remained steeped in the values of the eighteenth century. As both sides became better informed, conditions might improve; till then any attempt to remedy them must be counter-productive.

    The third author is more obscure; I have not been able to find him (or conceivably her, since no forename is given, only an initial) in any of the reference works covering writers of the period in either the British Library or the Bibliothèque Nationale.39 All I know is that G Maisonneuve was the author of at least one other novel, 1893 – Moeurs de demain.40 This was a dystopic novel of the near future, set on the hundredth anniversary of 1793, depicting a society in which the separation of church and state (actually not to be achieved until 1905) has led to the repression of Christianity – religion is excluded from school syllabuses, or made optional like music and dancing, religious funerals are banned and the mother of a drowned lifeboat-man is told she will not get state assistance unless she agrees to a non‑religious funeral. The main protagonist is a state official who has divorced his wife because of her religious observances. In the final scene, believing he has killed his own daughter, he renounces his anti-religious activity, is shot by a rioter and dies affirming belief in God. His devout wife and daughter live happily ever after.

    Maisonneuve shows the decline in religion as being accompanied by a rise of what he called the ‘socialist‑anarchists’ (to distinguish the two currents was apparently beyond his mental abilities). The exoticisation of the lower orders also appears when a priest, who has formerly been a missionary in Madagascar, is attacked by a mob; the author comments ‘in truth, the savages were not overseas’.41  The novel ends with what is described as ‘the socialist orgy’ when a revolutionary mob sets fire to Notre‑Dame and the Sacré‑Coeur (the latter so recently built to atone for the Commune):

    All the hatred, accumulated for over twenty years in the depths of the souls of the proletarians by unhealthy excitements and the ever-growing audacity of the socialist agitators, burst out in fearful imprecations, in foul, terrifying insults [...] women were there in large numbers. They recalled the odious shrews of the Terror or the furies who served as canteen-women to the forces of the Commune [...

    They were indeed mad, the gaunt, ragged proletarians, soldiers of the great demagogic army; but mad with drunkenness poured into their veins by poverty, unfulfilled promises and blasphemous lies.42

    All the clichés come together here - the irrational, violent mob, the outside agitators, the unsexed women, and the awe-inspiring historical precedents.

    Maisonneuve also wrote political pamphlets in which his defence of monarchy and Catholicism was quite explicit.43 In one of these he argued that only a monarchy could defend the interests of the working-class:

    .... none of our French republics has been able, not to solve but even to confront the problems of workers. They have neither the time, nor the stability, nor the dispassionateness necessary for such a solemn task. Only a monarchy can undertake this work and bring it to a satisfactory conclusion.44

    So when Maisonneuve turns his attention to mining, in the novel Plébéienne,45 the stereotypes are all too predictable. The story is set in the 1880s, in the mining area of Saône‑et‑Loire. While Maisonneuve notes that the miners’ work is hard, and that there are many itinerant workers with no attachment to the job, readers are assured that true miners love their work:

    The workers of the area, those who so to speak were born in the mine or who have settled alongside it, are the most highly regarded and the best. They love their profession and would be reluctant to live far from the deep galleries whose twists and turns have been familiar to them since childhood. [11-12]

    There is, therefore, no objective reason for social conflict, which can only be explained by the intervention of outsiders, and the whole narrative is built around the story of such an agitator, Julien, alias Jonathan and assorted pseudonyms. As soon as he arrives in the mining town of Ville-noire, he stands:

    … stretching out his hand towards the valley, in a rather theatrical pose:

    ‘So here,’ he said in a low voice, ‘is my battlefield!… I shall stop all this movement … I shall silence these machines … I shall make production in these workshops dry up … I shall put out the fire in these furnaces … these pits, now full of life and wealth, will be deserted because of me…’ [6]

    He subsequently claims to have formerly worked as a miner in ‘Yorksire’ [sic] under the very Yorkshire-sounding name of ‘Scipion Verdier’. [25-26]

    In a chapter entitled ‘How to become an anarchist’ we learn how Julien Marvaise, a spoilt child, has become jealous of his younger brother and turned vicious. [28-35]. Maisonneuve did not have the advantage of Freudian terminology to play with, but he was already rooting political behaviour in the psychology of an individual. The real disaster comes when Julien goes to Geneva in the 1870s and finds that

    … the fighters of 1871, having escaped the guns of the Versailles troops and the sentences of the courts-martial, had come there, assembling together their rancour, their desires for revenge and their unassuaged hatreds. [38]

    For Maisonneuve the shadow of the Commune lies over social conflict; he insists that it was after the amnesty of the communards in 1880 that ‘the big strikes broke out, the working-class riots, the formidable alliance supported by dynamite’. [41]

    Jonathan becomes involved in some sort of mysterious organisation and receives instructions from one called simply ‘The Master’.

    Take care, brother! The task we have given you requires unceasing, ruthless hatred! You must not be stopped by tiny scruples or vague feelings of compassion. If humanity still speaks deep inside you, stifle its voice! If love smiles at you, turn your head away. [52]

    But if Jonathan is well-trained in hatred, his competence is rather more questionable; in one grotesque scene he is sitting talking to his fellow-conspirator in a café with a bomb in his pocket – a new model he wants to try out! – which he accidentally drops on the floor. [55]

    In his task of corrupting the basically innocent miners, Jonathan has the assistance of a female agitator, who revives the myth of the unsexed woman revolutionary. To stress the point, she is presented as:

    Rose Marion … one of the four or five famous warped women, harnessed to the chariot of Revolution, priestesses of anarchy and sybils of social cataclysm, eager for the work of hatred, marked with the fatal seal of hysteria, inheritors through history of the tricoteuses of 1793… [120]

    Happily, Rose Marion has been created ugly, in stark contrast to the innocent beauty of the heroine, Marie, the ‘Plébéienne’ of the title. As Rose Marion telle her bitterly:

    God does not exist; for if he does, why has he made me ugly, tormented, scorned and hateful, when he created you beautiful, peaceful and happy in your humble condition? [134]

    Here Maisonneuve confronts the fundamental contradiction at the heart of his analysis; if the agitator is so self-evidently evil, while the miners are equally self‑evidently good, how can the agitation work? He can only extricate himself from this problem with some implausibilities and hostages to fortune:

    Her style was incorrect, the tone was monotonous, despite the violence of her thoughts and the brutality of her expressions; her gestures were cold and cramped, under the cape draped over her outstretched arm, like the gnawed wings of a bat; but this anarchic pathos responded to the bad instincts of her audience, it stirred up in their souls a whole host of rancour and hateful desires; it expressed their grievances against the manager, their inner anger against the necessity of daily toil, their jealousy against those who possess, and above all, their hunger for emancipation and prosperity to be acquired in a single day, a single hour, by the overthrow of the social edifice. [143-4]

    Here Maisonneuve is forced to admit that the miners do have some grievances, though it is implied that they spring primarily from idleness and greed. The beautiful Marie adds her thoughts on the roots of social conflict in a conversation with the mine‑owner’s daughter:

    Look, mademoiselle, the workers, the poor devils are often what they have been made into; if they hate their bosses, their masters, it’s because they live too far removed from them and they don’t sufficiently feel the necessity of staying on good terms, of working together, without ill-feeling, without antagonism, without quarrels on either side. And then, you see, these weak‑minded people have been much harmed by being robbed of belief in God and hope of a future life; their brains get filled with a mass of dangerous dreams, and fluent speakers find it easy to lead them to commit stupidities. [87]

    The miner who most meets with Maisonneuve’s approval is Marie’s father, Jean Seguin, a fifty-year-old who is regarded as a father-figure by the workers, and by the management as their ‘most precious collaborator’. That such a person can exist is proof that there are no irreconcilable conflicts of interest. And reconciliation is the message of the rather grotesque conclusion. Rose Marion’s agitation provokes a strike; troops are brought in following various acts of terrorism. But when the beautiful Marie is killed as she tries to save someone from a bomb planted by the anarchists, the strikers are so shocked that they seek reconciliation. At her funeral a former strike leader declares: ‘To strike is a right. But revolt is ungodly. [...] On the grave of the angel whom we are mourning let us abjure the discords and arguments of the past.’ [385]

    Feeble and even absurd as these novels may be, they belong to a long literary tradition. Thirty years earlier Charles Dickens had faced the problem of how to explain the fact that evil agitators could so easily pervert naturally good workers, and, being rather more honest than Maisonneuve, he had neatly deconstructed his own work and exposed its internal contradictions:

    Strange as it always is to consider any assembly in the act of submissively resigning itself to the dreariness of some complacent person, lord or commoner, whom three-fourths of it could, by no human means, raise out of the slough of inanity to their own intellectual level, it was particularly strange, and it was even particularly affecting, to see this crowd of earnest faces, whose honesty in the main no competent observer free from bias could doubt, so agitated by such a leader.46

    In other words, Dickens did not believe the scene he was himself describing.

    The novels of Dostoevsky and Conrad may be incomparably better written, and the psychology rather more subtle, but the corrupt, bloodthirsty and mentally unbalanced fools and knaves who people the pages of The Possessed, or the stupid and malicious agent provocateur who passes for an anarchist in The Secret Agent, basically embody the same myths as the wretched Julien/Jonathan. Richard Allen’s Demo,47 in which a single agitator in the late 1960s incites violence across three continents, is a fitting sequel to Plébéienne.

    More seriously, the same stereotypes which appeared in these minor novels from a hundred years ago re-emerged in the press coverage of the 1984-85 miners’ strike. On the one hand there was the constant refrain of irrational violence. Pickets – but never police – were labelled ‘pit head thugs’ and described as a mob. But this alleged mass brutality was the other side of the coin to the myth of the agitator, the sinister figures in balaclavas (presumably left over from the riots of 1981) who infiltrated the ranks of miners to stir up trouble.48 (Those of us with some experience of trade unionism or revolutionary propaganda may marvel at how easy the mythical agitators seem to find it.) An academic – Professor Frank Musgrove of Manchester University – was found to theorise the link between the innate brutality of the miners and the activity of the outsiders:

    In the past thirty years two social processes have siphoned off men of initiative and ability: educational selection has left a residue of D and E stream Secondary Modern school pupils for pit work – there has been a massive haemorrhage of talent from mining communities … which have drained away the most enterprising men from the more northerly fields. IT IS THE DILUTED HUMAN RESIDUES THAT REMAIN especially in Yorkshire and Durham that have been most effectively manipulated.

    They … have learned to repeat slogans “No pit closures on economic grounds”, “Cowards hide behind ballots”, whose horrendous implications they do not begin to grasp.

    Five years in the E stream of a comprehensive school is an excellent training in sheer bloody-mindedness.49

    What is missing in the whole sad story of anti-socialist, anti-working class caricature is consciousness. The miners are deemed mere brutes, incapable of thought and hence unable to grasp the fact of their shared interests with the employers and easy prey to the manipulation of agitators. What any honest account of a strike shows is that when workers, despite the brutalisation imposed on them by poverty and working conditions, are able to think, to recognise their exploitation, and to plan their own strategy and tactics for emancipation; they begin, however tortuously, to try to change the world and in the process they change themselves. And that, completing the circle, brings us back to Germinal.


    This article is based on a paper presented to a conference organised on 1 November 2003 by the London Socialist Historians Group to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

    1           Eddie Tomlinson in Socialist Worker, 27 October l973.

    2           Norman Strike (Westoe NUM) in Socialist Worker, 21 July 1984.

    3           FWJ Hemmings, Emile Zola, Oxford, 1966, p. 193.

    4           C. Smethurst, Emile Zola : Germinal, London, 1974, p. 38.

    5           B. Nelson, Zola and the Bourgeoisie, London, 1983, p. 123.

    6           Letter to Van Santen Kolff, June 1886.

    7           Le Figaro, November 1866; see B. Plessey & L Challet, La Vie quotidienne des mineurs au temps de Germinal, Paris, 1984, p. 39.

    8           Paul Heusy, Un coin de la vie de misère, Paris, 1883. This, the second edition, which is the one I have consulted, contains two additional stories.

    9           Un Coin de la vie de misère, pp. 11-109.

    10        For a discussion in these terms, see Elliott M Grant, Zola’s “Germinal”, Leicester, 1962, pp. 34-9.

    11        E. & J. De Goncourt, Germinie Lacerteux, Paris, 1864, pp. vi-vii.

    12        E. De Goncourt, Journal, 3 December 1871, cited J.-H. Bornecque & P. Cogny, Réalisme et naturalisme, Paris, 1958, p. 19.

    13        Y. Guyot, La Famille Pichot, Paris, 1882, p. 3.

    14        Plessey & Challet, pp. 167-70.

    15        Plessey & Challet, p. 283.

    16        Plessey & Challet, pp. 31, 84.

    17        See J. Gaillard, Communes de province, Commune de Paris 1870-1871, Paris, 1971.

    18        Cuvinier, Dictionnaire national des contemporains, Paris, n.d. (1906?), tome V, pp. 236-7.

    19        M. Talmeyr, Souvenirs d’avant le déluge 1870-1914, Paris, 1927, p. 58.

    20        Ibid., p. 11.

    21        Ibid., p. 24.

    22        M. Talmeyr, Souvenirs de journalisme, Paris, 1900, p. 16.

    23        M. Talmeyr, Le Grisou, Paris, 1880. [Page references in square brackets in the text.]

    24        There are two published biographies of Guyot: L. Fiaux, Yves Guyot, Paris, 1921; J. Choleau, Un économiste breton – Yves-Guyot, Vitré, 1944.

    25        Choleau, p. 6.

    26        Y. Guyot, La Tyrannie socialiste, Paris, 1893; Y. Guyot, Les Principes de 89 et le socialisme, Paris, n.d. [1894]; Y. Guyot, Sophismes socialistes et faits économiques, Paris, 1908.

    27        La Tyrannie socialiste, pp. 121-2, 134-5.

    28        Fiaux, p. 36.

    29        Fiaux, pp. 74-5.

    30        La Propriété: origine et évolution. Thèse communiste par Paul Lafargue. Réfutation par Yves Guyot, Paris, 1895.

    31        Fiaux, p. 14.

    32        Sophismes socialistes et faits économiques, p. 256.

    33        Ibid., pp. 271, 275, 305.

    34        Sophismes socialistes et faits économiques, p. 267.

    35        Les Principes de 89 et le socialisme, p. 85.

    36        Plessey & Challet, p. 271.

    37        La Tyrannie socialiste, p. 200.

    38        See note 6 above. [Page references in square brackets in the text.]

    39        Maisonneuve is not mentioned by either Elliott Grant or Plessey & Challet, both of whom discuss mining novels of the period. I first read this novel in 1977, and cannot now remember where I originally found a reference to it.

    40        G Maisonneuve, 1893 – Moeurs de demain, Paris, n.d. [1882].

    41        Ibid., p 192.

    42        Ibid., pp. 281-2.

    43        G Maisonneuve, Sainte Germaine et le peuple de Toulouse, Toulouse, 1881; G Maisonneuve, M le Comte de Paris, Toulouse, n.d. [1883]

    44        M le Comte de Paris, p. 24.

    45        G. Maisonneuve, Plébéienne, Paris, 1884. [Page references in square brackets in the text.]

    46        C. Dickens, Hard Times, Part II, chapter 4.

    47        R Allen, Demo, London, 1970.

    48        See DJ Douglass, The Role of the Media in the Great Coal Strike of 1984/85, Doncaster, Cambridge & South London, 1985, pp. 7, 24-6.

    49        Sunday Times, 12 August 1984, quoted in Douglass, p. 5.