One of the blockbusters of late 19th-century France was a book of instruction for young women who were urged to abandon their ambitions of marrying a rich lawyer, industrialist, or man of letters and throw in their lots with a farmer, embracing the healthy, rewarding and beneficent life of the fields.
Whatever you think of that suggestion, its success depended on much learning and a great deal of explanation: hence the two fat volumes of Maison rustique des dames (The Ladies’ Country House) by Cora Millet-Robinet, first published in 1845, with its 21st – and last – edition appearing in about 1925.
Advice is offered for almost everything: childcare, education, reading matter, musical taste, entertaining, hiring and keeping staff, cookery, interior design, architecture, heating, lighting, laundry and cleaning – and that’s before the farmer’s new wife has stepped outside the house to learn all there is to know about the garden, the poultry-run or the farm. It is a wonderful guidebook for self-sufficient living. Along with all this good counsel, the author was an advocate of women’s proper status and self-reliance – a refreshing tendency in 1845.
Elizabeth David once remarked that ‘judging from the manner of its arrangement and content, [this book] may well have had some influence on our own Mrs Beeton’, but there were many differences between the two.
The most obvious is that Mrs Beeton’s was a recipe book with tips on household management, Cora Millet-Robinet’s was a handbook of domestic economy with cookery thrown into the mix.
Although both women were mindful of the need to instruct readers on ways to better themselves, Mrs Beeton addressed a largely urban audience while Millet-Robinet speaks to country-dwellers – the fact that these may well have been city-bred neophytes to the world of ditch and hedgerow merely added spice to her comments.
But while Mrs Beeton gathered her recipes from hither and yon then fleshed them out with advice, Cora Millet-Robinet’s work feels grounded in personal experience. She certainly did draw on other people and authors, but an arid repertoire of facts is not her style. Her book is a manifesto of right-living, proved by example.
It is unfortunate that we know almost nothing about the author’s early years, beyond the dry facts of parentage and place of residence. She was born in Paris at the end of 1798 to Joachim and Laure Robinet, both of whom had been involved in the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti – her father as a businessman, her mother because she belonged to a powerful clan of Nantes merchants and planters, the Millets. After the successful colonial revolt that saw the creation of the republic of Haiti, they and many other French settlers were forced to return to their homeland.
We may be in the dark about Cora’s education, but we do know that when she married in 1823, her husband was, rather unexpectedly, her uncle on her mother’s side. He was François Millet, 21 years her senior, a divorcé with two sons, a serving officer in the military administration, with a country property in Poitou.
This fact is so arresting that it demands explanation. My suggestion is circumstantial at best but may have some truth to it. Cora’s mother died in 1810, meaning she became titular head of the household at a young age. As she grew up, presumably she took on more household responsibilities. Some time towards 1820, Cora, her father and sister moved into the same house as her uncle and his two male children.
It seems possible that the two sisters split responsibilities for the two old men. The younger, Marie, looked after her father (who was indeed to live with her until his death in 1858) and Cora took
on her uncle, whom she married. Who knows? There was never a breath of public scandal or discord between the unlikely couple. Such marriages were illegal in Britain, but could be fixed in France with royal and ecclesiastical dispensation.
After their marriage, the couple moved to a small estate just south of Châtellerault, in the commune of Availles-en-Châtellerault, called La Cataudière. Some 30 years later, they moved north to an estate near Loches, the Château de Pont in Genillé, which they rescued from dereliction and rebuilt as a comfortable house for themselves.
Their constant mission was one of agricultural improvement: France had a long way to go to catch up with developments in Germany, Holland and Great Britain, and the farming world was full of enthusiasm and ideas in the mid-century.
Cora was fully involved in all of this, corresponding and reporting to her local agricultural society with vigour and aplomb, developing, for example, her own breed of silkworm, and advocating better education for young women to fit them for the agricultural life.
Cora did not start on the writer’s life until she was in her 40th year, as the 1830s drew to a close. The early years after her marriage saw her give birth to and raise a handful of children and set about learning the business of farming. Her husband was still active in the military, so it fell to Cora to manage the estate until he retired in about 1840. Then, perhaps, Cora decided her most productive role would be that of writer: pouring all her experience of both motherhood and running house and farm into instructions for the next generation.
She did not merely wish to purvey information, however, but to impart a love of a whole situation: ‘[I will] try hard to portray both the charm and powerful appeal that I have found in my new way of life. I will tell of my activities, my pleasures, the duties I have mapped out for myself.’
Never does she prefer the charms of urban society over country pursuits: ‘The pleasures of the summer months are so varied: walks, meals taken under spreading boughs in a beauty spot, rides out in a carriage, on a horse, even on a donkey; fishing, shooting: all these diversions, so costly to townspeople, can be had for next to nothing if you live in the country. Village fiestas, where you go to dance, rackety country weddings, celebrated in the midst of plenty, are sweet delights to be savoured with friends and relations. If these affairs have none of the show of those in town, nor do they have their stiffness and ceremony.’
Her book is an astonishing trove of information about running a household in the French countryside, in some areas as relevant today as it was all those years ago. It was the invariable resort of countless French women needing advice on making jams and preserves or guidance on the best flowers for a border. No more eloquent a fan could have been found than the novelist Colette – and this was nearly a century after its first publication.
Yet I have been surprised at how few French men and women know of her today, although her name should be shouted far and wide for just the same reasons as a canny English women essayist remarked in the 1890s: ‘I have a French domestic book which I think fascinating and instructive, just because it is French, and much less showy and more primitive than English books of the same kind. It is in two volumes, is called ‘Maison Rustique des Dames’ and is by Madame Millet Robinet. It has had an immense sale in France, and all the little details of household life seem more dignified and less tiresome when read in excellent French.’
Tom Jaine is the author of The French Country Housewife, Prospect Books, £35.