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IN BRITTANY

IN BRITTANY

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Written by Hunter   
Wednesday, 08 October 2008 00:51

She [the writer, L. M. A.] soon ceased to be surprised at any
demonstration of feminine strength, skill, and independence, for
everywhere the women took the lead.

They not only kept house, reared children, and knit every imaginable
garment the human frame can wear, but kept the shops and the markets,
tilled the gardens, cleaned the streets, and bought and sold cattle,
leaving the men free to enjoy the only pursuits they seemed inclined to
follow,--breaking horses, [Footnote: Breaking horses: training horses to
work, an expression familiar to every country child.] mending roads, and
getting drunk.

The markets seemed entirely in the hands of the women, and lively scenes
they presented to unaccustomed eyes, especially the pig-market, held
every week, in the square before Madame C.'s house. At dawn the
squealing began, and was kept up till sunset. The carts came in from all
the neighboring hamlets, with tubs full of infant pigs, over which the
women watched with maternal care till they were safely deposited among
the rows of tubs that stood along the walk facing Anne of Bretaigne's
[Footnote: Anne of Bretaigne: the daughter of Francis II, duke of
Brittany; born at Nantes, 1476.] gray old tower, and the pleasant
promenade which was once the fosse [Footnote: Fosse: a moat; a ditch.]
about the city walls.

Here Madame would seat herself and knit briskly till a purchaser
applied, when she would drop her work, dive among the pink innocents,
and hold one up by its unhappy leg, undisturbed by its doleful cries,
while she settled its price with a blue-gowned, white-capped neighbor,
as sharp-witted and shrill-tongued as herself. If the bargain was
struck, they slapped their hands together in a peculiar way, and the new
owner clapped her purchase into a meal-bag, slung it over her shoulder,
and departed with her squirming, squealing treasure as calmly as a
Boston lady with a satchel full of ribbons and gloves.

More mature pigs came to market on their own legs, and very long, feeble
legs they were, for a more unsightly beast than a Breton pig was never
seen out of a toy Noah's ark. Tall, thin, high-backed, and sharp-nosed,
these porcine [Footnote: Porcine: relating to swine; hoglike.] victims
tottered to their doom, with dismal wailings, and not a vestige of
spirit till the trials and excitement of the day goaded them to
rebellion, when their antics furnished fun for the public. Miss Livy
observed that the women could manage the pigs when men failed entirely.
The latter hustled, lugged, or lashed, unmercifully and unsuccessfully;
the former, with that fine tact which helps them to lead nobler animals
than pigs, would soothe, sympathize, coax, and gently beguile the poor
beasts, or devise ways of mitigating their bewilderment and woe, which
did honor to the sex, and triumphantly illustrated the power of moral
suasion.

One amiable lady, who had purchased two small pigs and a coop full of
fowls, attempted to carry them all on one donkey. But the piggies
rebelled lustily in the bags, the ducks remonstrated against their
unquiet neighbors, and the donkey indignantly refused to stir a step
till the unseemly uproar was calmed. But the Bretonne was equal to the
occasion; for, after a pause of meditation, she solved the problem by
tying the bags round the necks of the pigs so that they could enjoy the
prospect. This appeased them at once, and produced a general lull; for
when the pigs stopped squealing, the ducks stopped quacking, the donkey
ceased his bray, and the party moved on in dignified silence, with the
youthful pigs, one black, one white, serenely regarding life from their
bags.

Another time, a woman leading a newly bought cow, came through the
square, where the noise alarmed the beast so much that she became
unruly, and pranced in a most dangerous manner. Miss Livy hung out of
the window, breathless with interest, and ready to fly with brandy and
bandages at a minute's notice, for it seemed inevitable that the woman
would be tossed up among the lindens before the cow was conquered. The
few men who were lounging about, stood with their hands in their
pockets, watching the struggle without offering to help, till the cow
scooped the lady up on her horns ready for a toss. Livy shrieked, but
Madame just held on, kicking so vigorously that the cow was glad to set
her down, when, instead of fainting she coolly informed the men, who,
seeing her danger, had approached, that she "could arrange her cow for
herself and did not want any help," which she proved by tying a big blue
handkerchief over the animal's eyes, producing instant docility; and
then she was led away by her flushed but triumphant mistress, who calmly
settled her cap, and took a pinch of snuff to refresh herself, after a
scuffle which would have annihilated most women.

When Madame C.'s wood was put in, the newcomers were interested in
watching the job, for it was done in a truly Bretonesque manner. It
arrived in several odd carts, each drawn by four great horses, with men
to each team; and as the carts were clumsy, the horses wild, and the men
stupid, the square presented a lively spectacle. At one time there were
three carts, twelve horses, and six men all in a snarl, while a dozen
women stood at their doors and gave advice. One was washing a lettuce,
another dressing her baby, a third twirling her distaff, and a fourth
with her little bowl of soup, which she ate in public while
gesticulating so frantically that her sabots [Footnote: Sabots: wooden
shoes.] clattered on the stones.

The horses had a free fight, and the men swore and shouted in vain, till
the lady with the baby suddenly went to the rescue. Planting the naked
cherub on the doorstep, this energetic matron charged in among the
rampant animals, and by some magic touch untangled the teams, quieted
the most fractious, a big gray brute prancing like a mad elephant, then
returned to her baby, who was placidly eating dirt, and with a polite
"Voila, messieurs!" [Footnote: Voila Messieurs: "There you are,
gentlemen."] she whipped little Jean into his shirt, while the men sat
down to smoke.

It took two deliberate men nearly a week to split the gnarled logs, and
one brisk woman carried them into the cellar and piled them neatly. The
men stopped about once an hour to smoke, drink cider, or rest. The woman
worked steadily from morning till night, only pausing at noon for a bit
of bread and the soup good Coste sent out to her. The men got two francs
a day, the woman half a franc; and, as nothing was taken out of it for
wine or tobacco, her ten cents probably went farther than their forty.

This same capable lady used to come to market with a baby on one arm, a
basket of fruit on the other, leading a pig, driving a donkey, and
surrounded by sheep, while her head bore a pannier [Footnote: Pannier.
Panniers are a pair of baskets slung across the back of a horse or
donkey.] of vegetables, and her hands spun busily with a distaff. How
she ever got on with these trifling incumbrances, was a mystery; but
there she was, busy, placid, and smiling, in the midst of the crowd, and
at night went home with her shopping well content.

The washerwomen were among the happiest of these happy souls, and
nowhere were seen prettier pictures than they made, clustered round the
fountains or tanks by the way, scrubbing, slapping, singing, and
gossiping, as they washed or spread their linen on the green hedges and
daisied grass in the bright spring weather. One envied the cheery faces
under the queer caps, the stout arms that scrubbed all day, and were not
too tired to carry some chubby Jean or little Marie when night came,
and, most of all, the contented hearts in the broad bosoms under the
white kerchiefs, for no complaint did one hear from these hard-working,
happy women. The same brave spirit seems to possess them now as that
which carried them heroically to their fate in the Revolution, when
hundreds of mothers and children were shot at Nantes [Footnote: Nantes:
a town near the mouth of the Loire River.] and died without murmur.

--LOUISA ALCOTT.

[Footnote: What traits does the author find most admirable in the women
of Brittany? Show how these traits are brought out by contrast with the
behavior of the men. Do women in this country do the same kinds of work
as the European peasant women? What other things might the descriptions
have included if the author had not been so much interested in the
people? What parts of the sketch are humorous? Point out passages that
are effective through contrast. Show how the women of Brittany are made
to seem womanly and dignified in spite of the amusement they furnish
us.]


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