We were pacing the espace d'attente, or waiting area, of our bank the other day, up and down in front of four uncomfortable plastic chairs. We picked up each of the tattered magazines and each of the shiny brochures encouraging us to mortgage our heart and soul, flipping the pages, trying so hard not to show impatience, for that begins the wicked French game of "Torment the Client, (who is the enemy, always in the wrong and must be ignored or humiliated)". Also on the table was a thick book about local vintners and another book, not quite so thick, left there by a local history society. We snapped through the pages of beaming vintners, dropped back that tome and picked up the local history volume. We began flipping through those pages as well, then slowed, then read, then were pulled in by the compelling story of a young man who emigrated to Buenos Aires.
In the 1880s, Martial Eynard was a poor young man from the countryside, trying to make his way in Paris. He had been born in Cherveix-Cubas, in Dordogne, in 1866, to an extremely poor farming family struggling with debt. Though he was recognised as being quite bright, he received only the most basic, rural education. Many years later, he looked back upon his childhood as a time of suffering. Misère in French is usually translated as "misery" but in modern usage, it means not unhappiness but "grinding poverty" (recall Hugo), and this was the state of young Mr. Eynard's life until he was sixteen. Then, it got worse.
He worked in a fabric shop, some forty kilometres from Cherveix-Cubas, in Périgueux. This would have meant that he left home and probably lived above the shop. We have seen the grim boxes in which lived shop workers and apprentices of nineteenth century France. They were in the attics above the shops. Up, under the eaves, with no ceiling to hide the underside of the slate or clay roof tiles and certainly no insulation, were dozens of tiny cubicles with higgledy-piggledy walls made of unpainted scrap wood, each cubicle no more than six or eight meters square. The inhabitants pasted newspapers to the walls, possibly for insulation, possibly for monotonous erudition. Furniture was a bed and a box. Light was a single candle. Martial Eynard endured that life for a year, then left for Paris when he was seventeen.
There, he found work in a wholesale fabric shop. Life was still hard, but he was in Paris, which his letters home showed that he enjoyed as much as he could afford to do so. He was a tireless correspondent, writing to his parents and to his younger sister. They saved every one of his letters, the marvellous primary source of the article. He attempted to enter a training programme but failed the entrance exam. Then, in 1886, at the age of twenty, he was conscripted. He was selected for "long service". He was still quite poor, his belovèd grandmother had recently died, his employers -- knowing of his conscription -- had let him go months before he was due to report for service. Indeed, he was very low. He got himself to Marseille and, under an assumed name for he was evading his compulsory military service, worked his passage to Argentina, sending letters home from every port.
There, he stayed, becoming Marcelino Eynard. He had many ups and downs but eventually did become financially successful. He built a company, learned Spanish, German and English, voyaged back to Europe and then to New York, but most enjoyed long stays in Paris. He was a misanthropic and solitary man -- in his letters -- who married late in life, without telling his long suffering sister, Marceline, whose many offers to come live with him were sadly refused. It would seem that, when he died in 1921, she had told all the village that she would be rich. She sailed to Buenos Aires to collect her fortune, only to discover that she had a sister-in-law and infant niece to whom her brother had left all. Perhaps Marceline's remaining years were vengeful and after she returned home she sat by the ancestral fire and cursed the shade of her brother or perhaps not. In any case, the chronicler must say with gratitude, she did not burn his numerous letters.
This is a tale that, at least in its beginnings, cannot be very different from that of many young men who left France during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, seeking to escape poverty and compulsory military service. How many others wrote home as did Señor Eynard? Perhaps your ancestor's story appears in some obscure local history publication on a waiting room table in France. To find it, look not only at Gallica, the website of the Bibliothèque nationale, but at the websites of Departmental Archives (listed in the column to the left on this blog), where some local history publications have been put online. We note that the website of Cherveix-Cubas has uploaded a number of texts relating to local history, and surely other towns may have done the same. Check also the list of Associations for the relevant department to find the websites of all those relating to local history and genealogy.
The wonderful article on which this post is based is entitled:
"Marcelino, émigrant périgourdin en Argentine: quarante années de témoinage 1889-1921" by Pascale Laguionie-Lagauterie in Recueil de documents sur l'histoire locale, collectés et présentés par l'Association Hautefort, Notre Patrimoine, tome 6, April 2016, pp. 125-169.
©2016 Anne Morddel