When we were travelling to Figueira da Foz recently, on the day that all our timings went haywire and we missed the train we had planned to catch, we spent a while sitting on the platform at Porto’s Campanhá station. Long enough to eat our packed lunch. The train came in all in a rush with very little prior announcement (or maybe we just didn’t hear it or failed to understand the Portuguese over the public address system) and loads of people who had been sitting around all got up at on e and surged towards the train.
As we followed suit I spotted a book on the ground, clearly dropped by a hasty passenger. It was a French book. There was nobody obvious to return the book to and so I stuffed it in my bag. It did cross my mind that I could walk up and down the train as we travelled, asking in my best French if anyone had mislaid a book. But then I thought better of it.
During our week in Figueira I started reading it and finished it when we returned to Vigo after the tournament. The book is called “La Berthe” written by Joëlle Guillais, the edition I found published in 1988. More of a sociological study than anything else, supposedly based on the author’s interviews and conversations with Berthe Perrier, born on the 28th of May 1896. It recounts the life of peasants in France in the first half of the 20th century.
Berthe’s father, Jean-Marie Perrier, was born on the 25th of November 1867 and married on the 3rd of August 1895. His daughter was born in May of the following year, much to his delight. Apparently he had prayed for a daughter. His delight in her was mirrored by ber admiration for him. The first half of the book has Berthe describing her father’s life. Like many French peasants of the time he wanted to own land but first he had to be a “fermier”, not just a farmer but a tenant farmer, renting the land from a rich person, probably of noble family. Despite the snobbery of the rich folk, who really do not want the peasants to own too much land and get above their station, Jean-Marie acquires a good deal of land and makes money, initially by selling potatoes and later breeding and selling livestock.
He passes on his love of the land and his passion for his animals to his daughter and leaves his lands to his three children, divided between Berthe and her two brothers. But Berthe is clearly his favourite and inherits the prime piece of land. She refuses offers of marriage, both before and after her father’s death, and runs the farm herself, buying and selling livestock, attending agricultural fairs, dealing with German occupation during the World Wars and proving to be an unusual woman all round -fiercely independent in a man’s world.
Although this has been described as something of a feminist tract, Berthe is not above using her feminine wiles to get her own way and to make deals that might not otherwise have happened. And she gets a lot of criticism from her brothers and from society at large. A later section of the book sees things from the viewpoint of one of her brothers, clearly somewhat resentful of their father’s favouritism and his sister’s lack of family feeling.
She seems to have lived to a ripe old age but at the end she was decidedly odd, living in a large house almost completely empty of furniture, refusing to have her dairy business inspected or her animals vaccinated and gradually becoming more and more eccentric.
An interesting bit of serendipitous reading matter.