Tag Archives: France

La Fantôme Grise


A short piece of fiction to mark ANZAC Day:

The Grey Girl from Kojonup

 

They called her “La Fantôme grise”. One of the first acts of the new French government in 1946 was to award her France’s highest honour, la Croix d’or, the golden cross.

Emily Louise Brown was born at Katanning in 1918 and grew up near Kojonup in Western Australia. She attended the one-teacher school at Brokerup. If you visit there today, you will see only a few acres fenced off and a plaque. The little school was Emily Brown’s window onto the wide world beyond her father’s farm.

Her reading developed early, and by age 10, she was enjoying Gulliver’s Travels, and A Tale of Two Cities. The worlds depicted in Oliver Twist drew her imagination. Not only did she want to see the vast, teeming cities of old Europe and the mother country, but she wanted to change the world. She knew that living on their tranquil farm, with plenty to eat, safety from violence and freedom to dream and choose was a privilege, and she wanted every child to enjoy the same abundance that she experienced.

In 1928, Mr Trevelyan, a Cornish veteran, arrived at Brokerup to teach in the one-teacher school. He boarded with the Browns and guided young Emily’s reading, telling her a heady mix of stories of Cornwall and King Arthur and Celtic mystics.  At her parents’ church, Father O’Reilly woke in her a sense of mystery, and introduced her to the concept of God’s care for the poor.

The only high schools were in Perth. Perth Modern awarded her a scholarship, and Emily excelled in her studies. Perth Modern was probably the only school in Perth in the 1930s that took seriously the teaching of languages, and Emily loved Monsieur Roland, the old eccentric Frenchman who taught her French and Latin. On the netball and tennis courts she showed a fierce determination.

Three years at The University of Western Australia followed. The University’s motto is ‘Seek Wisdom’ and its message seemed to be as engraved on Emily’s heart as it was on the stone near the Reflection Pond. Emily graduated with a degree in French and Modern History. Young women in 1936 could then become a monitor in a school for a year before returning to the Teachers’ College in Claremont to complete their training.

Emily, strong-minded as ever, had another plan. Her parents did their best to dissuade her from setting off for Europe on her own, but she got her way, as she usually did, and her parents supported her financially. After the war she learned how much they grieved when the steamer left Fremantle. On the wharf that day they had a premonition that Emily was going into a war-ready continent to her death.

Paris delighted her, but she wanted to see where the real poor people of France were, so she set off south to Marseille. She stayed with a welcoming Catholic family, the Germains, from where she devoted part of her time, like a missionary, to helping the poor.

Emily was only eighteen. The vibrant night-life in Marseille drew her to clubs and parties. Older men introduced her to the private dance clubs which only the very rich could afford. Her life became a contradiction: by day, devout Catholic volunteering in soup-kitchens; at night, the wild, out of control socialite. It couldn’t go on.

One night, in the Club de Danse de Marseille, Jean-Laurent Renoir asked the young Australian girl to dance. Renoir was 28 at the time, absolutely wealthy, but a steady and thoughtful man. He liked what he saw.

Emily fell in love with Jean-Laurent, just as she had fallen in love with the Marseille‘s poor. Emily and Jean-Laurent married in August 1938, just before the Germans turned their greedy tanks towards Paris.

Emily’s French by this time was excellent. She spoke with the twang of Marseille, called herself Emilie-Louise, but could easily switch to the deep tones of Paris and then to the rolled r’s of the Riviera. She was, in short, a linguistic chameleon.

Jean-Laurent’s house had always been a centre for parties. Emilie-Louise had a talent as a hostess, and all Marseille rhapsodised about the glittering soirées at the Villa Renoir and the sparking Mme Renoir at its heart.

Jean-Laurent and Emily both watched with horror the events in Europe in 1939 and 1940. The Renoir family had deep roots in the Midi, and Emily had come to love the French people, especially the poor she had met in her role as a Catholic volunteer. When Paris fell to the Germans in June 1940, this young couple were ready to resist however they could.

The Germans occupied only the northern part of France, and so in Marseille, they were in Free France. They seized opportunities for resistance knowing that they would be different from those trapped in Maréchal Pétain’s Nazi-controlled France.

The Renoirs’ war began with channelled large sums of money to the displaced and hungry in occupied France through Catholic Aid agencies.  Then, as intelligence about incipient Resistance groups in Paris arrived at the Villa Renoir, they began financing them.

A Tract Society in Marseille called La Société Catholique de la Vérité distributed devotional tracts through the south of France. Emilie contributed to these, especially those with cleverly disguised addresses of safe houses. What would Pope Leo XIII have thought of a footnote in a small devotional tract referring the reader to “Section 10, paragraphe 12, vers 42” of his encyclical on Unity, if he knew that the numbers combined to give 10-12-42, the phone number of Villa Renoir!

Inevitably, Emily’s role became more personal and more dangerous.

Escape routes like that through the Château de Chenconceaux across the Loire River began to deliver downed airmen to Marseille. Shortages meant that these aircrew would arrive in the south exhausted and famished.

Most of them were determined to return to England. The port at Marseille was blockaded, and the Germans controlled all the Atlantic coast of France. Their only escape route was over the Pyrenees into Spain and onto neutral Portugal. Their lack of condition meant that they would never make the journey. Emilie-Louise took them in and fed them.

This became more and more dangerous as German officers searched houses regularly. Emilie-Louise decided that the best way to hide them was in plain sight. She invited the Germans to lavish parties, encouraging them to drink the best wines and liqueurs. They obliged by dampening any suspicions they may have had of the taciturn waiters.

On one occasion, an RAF pilot dressed in the Renoir livery was serving drinks. A bellicose German was demanding more whisky. It was clear that the “waiter” didn’t understand the officer’s accented French, and the demands became more insistent. The attentive hostess noticed that the pilot’s hands were shaking with fear, so she pushed past, sending the tray flying, and apologising profusely in the ensuing embarrassment all round. She saved the pilot.

The Germans ferreted out the large sums of money coming to the Resistance. They began to suspect Jean-Laurent and began watching his movements. A series of betrayals brought tragedy to Emily’s door. In the local parish church, one of the priests had been helping channel some funds to Paris; another had begun collaborating with the Germans. To his shame, he was identifying to the SS Jewish families from the area. Jean-Laurent realised that there was a blockage in getting the money out of Marseille, so he chose to test the possibility of carrying the cash himself.

He and Emily said their emotional farewells at home. He caught the Paris train.  When the train arrived at the Gare de Lyon Jean-Laurent was found alone in his first-class compartment with his throat slit. The French police found a huge number of francs secreted in his overcoat and suit.

News got back quickly to Marseille to Emily. Her life in danger, she searched for a way out.

One of the RAF pilots was due to make the crossing to neutral Portugal across the Pyrenees. Emilie persuaded her resistance colleagues to let her take on the tough role of guide. Three months later, London was briefing her for a mission with the Special Operations Executive. Emilie’s perilous journeys into occupied Paris as a clandestine wireless operator are now well-documented, as is her escape from Paris after she seduced a suspicious German officer, and then shot him.

La Fantôme grise was not able to return to Paris until after the war, but for the remainder of 1944 and 1945, her voice on the wireless from London steadied many S.O.E. operatives and saved many lives.

Emily Louise Brown stands alongside Nancy Wake, “the little white mouse” as a great Australian war hero. She claimed that she only did what she had to, and followed the values she had learned on a farm near Kojonup in Western Australia. We call her bravery stupendous.

 

  • Ted Witham

 

 

Saint Louis – patron saint, not patronising


Jacques LeGoff, Saint Louis, University of Notre Dame Press 2009, Hardcover (ISBN 9780268033811) $80 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The name of Saint Louis is often evoked as a patron saint of the Third Order. I realised this year that I had been a tertiary for 30 years and have a rough knowledge of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary and perhaps a better knowledge of the Mother of our Lord, but knew almost nothing about our third patron saint.

France’s finest medieval historian Jacques LeGoff was director of studies at l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He has a particular interest in Saints Francis and Clare and the spread of their movement through Europe in the 12th Century. His studies into money and Saint Francis and medieval culture and the church not only provide new insights into Francis, but are also inspirational for Franciscan living. Surely, I thought, from his ten year-long study of Saint Louis, which resulted in this book of nearly 1,000 pages I would both learn more and be encouraged in my Franciscan journey.

Saint Louis is a fascinating book to read. In the first Part, Professor LeGoff draws on all the evidence at his disposal to lay out the life of Saint Louis: he covers his childhood, the influence of his grandfather Philippe Augustus, the early death of his father Louis VIII, his co-regency with his mother Blanche de Castille, Louis’ piety and close circle of advisers, his departure on two crusades, the better organisation of his kingdom under the principles of justice and peace, and his death in Libya.

The king was deeply influenced by the new religious orders. He founded a Carthusian monastery called Royaumont. There were always friars in his retinue, including the Franciscan Geoffroy de Beaulieu, one of his confessors whose biography was instrumental in the king’s candidacy for sainthood. At this time in history the Preaching Friars and the Friars Minor were popular with royalty everywhere. Louis’ brother-in-law Henry III of England also included mendicants in his entourage.

Part II of LeGoff’s book interrogates the evidence at greater length to explore how much can really be known about Louis Capet as an individual, given that many 12th Century writers attempted not to write accurate portraits of public figures but to delineate ideal princes. LeGoff concludes that we can dig through the flattering surface of the documents and find an individual.

Part III includes family trees, charts, bibliographies, extensive notes and the text of Saint Louis’ letter to his subjects after his first crusade. Gareth Evan Gollrad has done a mighty job in translating Saint Louis into English. Rarely are you aware that you are reading a translation. I was a little disappointed that maps and charts were not completely translated, so would not be accessible to all English readers. There were occasional surprising non-translations, for example, Saint Benoît is not translated when referring to the Benedictine monastic tradition.

Louis IX is the first person recorded speaking French. He was in the habit of sitting on the ground, partly as a disposition of prayer in his chapel, and partly to put people at ease in the presence of the king. He enjoyed laughter and jokes with his close friends, and in fact, liked laughing so much that he tried to fast from laughter on Fridays!

His personal practice including hearing as many offices recited during the day as possible, adjusting prime to 2 a.m. rather than midnight so he had enough energy to govern the country during the day. His confessors often thought him excessive in his asceticism and talked him out of fasting from meat on Mondays as well as Wednesdays and Fridays. Friar Geoffroy cautioned him to be gentle with flagellation.

He gave alms to the poor. He knew it was his duty to do this publicly in procession, but he also privately fed the poor from his table, feeding the handicapped with his own hands. (These were the days before kings were sequestered from their people in lavish palaces.) Louis was privately generous with money not only with the poor, but with close friends like the knight Joinville who lost everything in the crusade.

He believed he was called to go on crusade: even though a little late in crusading history he was a Christian king of his time. He was a fighting knight but he had learned from St Francis, and his strategy included converting the Muslim leaders. He wasn’t successful, but in captivity he was allowed to keep his breviary. His captors respected his faith as the Sultan had respected Francis’s.

In preparation for the Crusades, King Louis did what no king before had done: he actively sought the forgiveness of his people, sending agents throughout his lands and making good any injustices that he had caused.

Returning from his first crusade, he spent time with the Franciscan Hugh of Digne, and was so impressed with Friar Hugh that he begged him to come to Paris to join his retinue. Hugh refused, but Louis implemented Hugh’s ideas.

The Franciscan’s biggest idea was that everything in the kingdom’s administration should serve justice and peace. In a feudal world, this was radical. It meant, for example, that Louis took direct control of the growing towns, because without his authority, the poor and the lesser people would never see justice. Hugh also apparently persuaded the king to tone down his dress and personal style.

Sainte-Chapelle. Built to house the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the Holy Cross

Louis considered one of the great acts of his reign buying the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the Holy Cross from Constantinople. The purchase price was so high Louis had to raise cash to secure them and have them escorted back to Paris. To house and expose these relics he built the exquisite but also expensive Sainte-Chapelle primarily as his private place of meditation.

In the coronation liturgy, Louis was crowned “the most Christian” king. His aim was to live out that promise. By the standards of the day, he was a holy man as well as a monarch who was wise enough to guide his people on the transition from feudalism to a more central society.

But strangely, for this reader at least, Louis was not a tertiary. He gave equal favouritism to Carthusians, Dominicans and Franciscans. Though critics taunted him by claiming he was a secret Franciscan friar, LeGoff decides there is no possibility of the king belonging to any Order.

Jacques LeGoff concludes that as he came to know Louis Capet, as family man, Christian and king, he

“came to understand why many people had a desire to see him, to hear him, and to touch him, A personal charisma was added to the prestige of his function…This was the charisma of a king who did not need to wear the crown … to impress anyone, the charisma of a tall, thin handsome king with the eyes of a dove whom Salimbene of Parma had seen coming barefoot through the dust on the path to Sens. He was an impressive character regardless of his appearance…. I heard him laughing, joking, teasing his friends, making simple gestures, like sitting down on the ground, with a minimal amount of affectation… And I began to conceive a mixture of friendship and admiration for him, as the historian’s impertinence and distance in time allowed him to forget his position.” (pp. 726-727)

As a Frenchman, LeGoff has a particular interest in Louis’ nation-building; however, for me, as a Christian, the strength of the book was in the sympathy with which LeGoff explores the details of the Saint’s life. Some aspects make us cringe because we live in a different world. Some, like his indifference to his wife, make us cringe in any era.

So while the “real” Louis IX may not have been a Franciscan tertiary, his emphasis on peace and justice and his adaption of the values of poverty and joy make him an appropriate Franciscan patron. Jacques LeGoff has given us a clear and complex portrait of a man of his time authentically living out his vocation. As Franciscans, we may not be able to claim Saint Louis as one of “ours” in any tribal sense, but as a Christian learning from Saint Francis and living a complex life, Louis can be for us a paradigm of embodied Christian living in all its richness and ambiguity.