My name is Louise Duval. I was born on November 19, 1768 to a family of farmers. Though I was named Louise, everyone called me Lou. My sisters think that it’s just a cute nickname, I think I did too but looking back, I think my parents were trying to give our neighbours the impression I was a boy. The thing was, I was the fourth girl born to a family that needed a boy to work the farms. I had three older sisters, Renee, Gabrielle and Adeline. My mother, Mirabelle was in no shape to have a fifth child.
We lived in a very small town called Pettigrew, in a very secluded part of France. We probably wouldn’t even be on a map. Within this town, we had one of the biggest wheat crops and were a main supplier for the bakery. My father, Théo, started the farm with his two brothers but they had both gotten married and moved to bigger, better known towns to start “real lives”. We had a few cousins that helped us during the off seasons, but they had their own farms to tend to during the harvests. The same went for our neighbours, they had their own jobs.
Renee was eight when she started helping out our father on the farm. Sure she just helped with setting up the equipment and hand tools to Papa when he would fix the fences, but it wasn’t something that happened in France at this time. I was four, and even I noticed the sewing groups getting smaller, less people stopped in, and that there were glares sent our way when we attended services at church. The only reason that we weren’t shunned was probably because our farm was such a big contributor of wheat.
Gabrielle started helping out on the farm the following year. I would have thought that the isolation would have intensified but if anything it lessened. Maybe they just got used to there being girls on the farm. Maybe they realized my father needed help and had no other place to get it.
Adeline and I started helping our mother with the mending and the cooking when I was 6. Even at 7, Adeline was almost as good of a seamstress and mender as my mother. I was much better at baking, always helping Mother prepare the bread. Though personally, I couldn’t wait for Father to see me as old enough to care for the horses and cows.
Because my father had so much help with Renee and Gabrielle, it wasn’t until I was 10 that I started to help with the farming. I adored it and always volunteered to help. The people of the town didn’t seem to mind me helping as much as they did my sisters. Whether it was because this was the 6th year of girls working on our farm or because they called me Lou and tricked themselves into thinking I was a boy I don’t know. All I knew was that the town dynamic was going back to normal.
And then 1782 came. I was almost 14 at the time. I knew the farms well. I was out watering and feeding the crops. I noticed that some of the seeds hadn’t spouted. This far into the season, the wheat should have been way farther ahead than they were. I asked my father about them and we started walking the rows of wheat, analyzing it. By the end of the day, we had come to the conclusion at least a quarter of our crops were failing. And they did. We lost a quarter of our crops that year. This didn’t just happen to us either. This was happening to all the crops. The following year, Gabrielle helped as well. Renee would have helped too but she had gotten married and moved away. The atmosphere of the town had changed. Our neighbours no longer cared that we would work on the farm or wear pants around the house and fields. Even some of the other farmers were asking the females of the families for help with the crops after last harvest. It wasn’t uncommon for people to stop by and ask about the crops either.
Alas, this year was as bad as the last, with the following maybe worse. But we definitely grew closer as a town. When Gabrielle married and left after the second year of bad crops, it was just me and Father. Adeline hated working on the farm and helped mother instead. The town people knew of our predicament and wasn’t unusual for us to come back to the barn and find mucked stalls or filled feed buckets. But it was no use, by the time I was 16 we were producing half the wheat we used to. Our town was dying. We were malnourished, lacking money and running out of jobs. That is why, on April 15 1785, my father went up to my mother and said “Mirabelle, we are moving to Paris.”
It was a logical choice. There were going to be a lot more opportunities in Paris. So we sold the farm and packed up. The journey took about two weeks. In that time, my mother got very sick. She died the day before we arrived it Paris.
Though suffering from the loss of Mother, we were able to start to integrate ourselves into Paris life. Paris was so much different than Pettigrew. While our father got a farming job just before the season, Adeline and I were forced to get female jobs. I guess after 12 years of having girls on the farm, I forgot that the rest of France ran differently. I ended up getting a job at a bakery and Adeline got a job as a seamstress.
Between me and Father, we got a lot information about the food situation. The crops in Paris were doing better than ours were however with the size of Paris, the people weren’t that much better off.
As the years passed, the crops got worse. The bread prices started going up because of lack of wheat. By the time I was 20, riots were happening because prices were so high. Paris was in poverty. Maybe people thought rioting would lower the prices, maybe they knew it wouldn’t but just needed to express themselves. Hostility towards the king started to grow as people saw that he had money. He could help us, but he didn’t. He sat in his palace while his people starved. Things needed to change.
At this time, Adeline had moved in with her new husband, but we still met up to talk every week. Things were moving quickly. The Estates General was called then the Tennis Court oath was signed. In November, my boss and a bunch of other women from the market marched on Versailles. I didn’t feel very strongly about the cause because I understood why the bread prices were growing so high, but I almost lost my job because I didn’t participate.
Things started to get out of hand. A lot of people shared the same state of mind as Bastien, Adeline’s husband. I agreed with him as well by now but some people took things to an extreme. There were many people who wanted the king’s head.
Events started to take place and drastic decisions were being made. The king was executed, much to my dismay. This signified the start of a change. People said that they didn’t want a king and now there was no way for France to have one. But, no one realized that the alternative could be worse. At King Louis’ execution we were left with power head, no one to lead France. And the alternative was worse. When Robespierre took over, a reign of terror begun. People were being guillotined for no valid reason, but no one argued because they would have been guillotined as well. My father and Bastien both were guillotined.
I was upset but Adeline was beside herself with grief. We decided to move back to Pettigrew to escape this madness.
The madness did disappear. Adeline and I both got married to people we knew when we were younger. We started up the farm again. The crops improved. Even though I didn’t need too, I helped our husbands with the farm work. The people of the town didn’t bat an eye. Even after we had left Pettigrew, females still worked and did men’s jobs. We started corresponding with our older sisters again and filled them in on our endeavours. I stopped helping on the farm when I had my two children, Xavier and Carine. Adeline had two boys as well, Eugène and Léon.
Many years past. I now write this from my bed as I am sick and clearly dying. Adeline past a few years back with both her and my husband gone as well. Xavier and Carine both care for me while they take turns helping Léon with the farm. Eugène has moved to America. He often sends me letters speaking his explorations. He has met this local group of native people and has started to hunt with them. He finds them to be skilled yet very primitive. They were shocked to see that he hunted with a gun but I hear that they are starting get used to the idea. I’m told that females also don’t hunt in America. Will that change as generations pass or will it always be seen as a despised thing for women to do men’s work? I wonder if females will still work on the farms in Pettigrew after this generation is gone.