Flora Tristan's London Journal, 1840

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Although she is almost unknown today, Flora Tristan was one of the most famous—some would say notorious—women in France in the 1830’s and 1840’s. Her reputation rested both on her colorful private life and on her work as a writer and a defender of the rights of the poor. She was a friend of George Sand and the Abbé Constant, a self-educated feminist and socialist, and a student of the theories of Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. As William Darr notes in his Introduction to this volume, her extraordinary career can be traced to her unusual heritage. She was the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Peruvian aristocrat and a young Frenchwoman. Her father died suddenly when Tristan was a child, and from the time she was fourteen she supported both herself and her mother. At seventeen she married André Chazal, an artist, and later bore him three children. The youngest, Aline, was the mother of the painter Paul Gauguin.

Tristan left her husband shortly before Aline’s birth and began the travels that brought her eventual fame. Early in the 1830’s she entrusted her two surviving children to others, resumed her maiden name, and went to Peru to seek support from her father’s family. They refused to accept her as his heir, but they did make her an allowance and allow her to stay with them for long enough to make her sympathetic to revolutionary causes. Their support and approval were rapidly withdrawn, however, when she returned to Paris and in 1838 published her autobiography, a highly embroidered account of her life that she called Peregrinations of a Pariah. Here her Peruvian uncle found himself described as a greedy old man, descended from the Incas; he learned, too, that his spinster niece was in fact married and a mother. He cut off her allowance, had sales of her book forbidden in Peru, and burned it in the street. Her husband reacted even more angrily to her characterization of him as a gambler and a drunkard—he waited outside her home and shot her.

Tristan survived this attack and used the publicity accompanying it to make herself a successful author, bringing out new editions of Peregrinations of a Pariah and publishing a novel. From this period until her death in 1844 she concentrated her energies on improving the lot of the laboring classes. Darr comments that she was a person who craved love and needed to see herself as a persecuted but undaunted romantic heroine. Her work as writer and socialist allowed her to fulfill these needs as well as to act on her strongly felt principles. Her own poverty as a young girl had made her deeply sympathetic to the needs of others.

Flora Tristan’s London Journal, 1840, originally titled Promenades dans Londres, grew out of her concern for the well-being of the poor. A collection of essays based on her four visits to England between 1826 and 1839, it can perhaps best be described as investigative journalism. Tristan visited prisons, slum neighborhoods, insane asylums, experimental infant schools, and saloons frequented by prostitutes and their clients. She even persuaded an acquaintance to disguise her as a Turkish gentleman to win her admittance to the House of Commons, then open only to men. Her observations, coupled with what appears to have been an instinctive dislike of the English, made her an impassioned critic of the upper classes and a staunch defender of the workers.

Many of the conditions she describes will seem familiar to readers of Charles Dickens, who grew up in the London Tristan visited. She piles detail upon detail to communicate the unbelievable squalor of the Irish settlement in St. Giles parish—the street full of pools of greasy water, the asphyxiating stench, the rags that served as clothing hung on poles across the street to dry. She shows men, women, and children squatting outside the buildings, lying in the mud, and crowded into the windowless, doorless hovels that served as their homes. Prison, she says, would have been a radical improvement for the sickly, dirty, listless inhabitants of such areas, and she finds it inevitable that most of them turn to thievery before they reach their teens.

Equally striking is her description of the working conditions of many factory employees, doomed to early death by twelve- to fifteen-hour shifts in poorly ventilated, dark rooms where they breathed in fibers or metal particles. She was particularly appalled by what she saw at a Westminster gas plant, where she watched twenty men stoking the furnaces for hours at a time in a room almost too hot for human survival. What disturbed her most was that when these men finished their day’s work, they simply threw filthy coats over their grimy shorts and lay down exhausted, still covered with perspiration, in a drafty, damp shed. A foreman informed her that most of the men died of consumption in seven or eight years—because they did not take proper care of themselves. His comment led Tristan to conclude:So, men’s lives can be bought, and when the required task is one that will lead to their death, the manufacturer’s obligation goes no...

(The entire section is 2086 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Choice. XVIII, July, 1981, p. 1599.

Library Journal. CVI, January 15, 1981, p. 146.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, February 15, 1981, p. 14.