Wednesday, July 9, 2014

beach combing and digression: the white stone of happiness

Amédée Rosier, Mussel Picking at Low Tide, Environs of Trouville (or Shrimp Fishing, Sunset) 1868. Musée d'Orsay. Detail.
Walking a beach in Normandy and repeating what Agnès Varda termed the modest gesture of stooping to glean," a French peasant woman might be observed, painted and described by a visitor whose vacation there was defined by not working, by not looking at the shore for sustenance. 

Writing about a painting by Elodie La Villette recently, I suggested that a figure in the painting might be a female rock-picker, and this led me to further think about what it means to look and interpret, and misinterpret, and romanticize what you are seeing when you take the time to look at something new-- when you are away from your everyday existence and your only task for the day is to absorb new information.

Francis Tattegrain,  Wreck Scavenger, c. 1880.


A gleaner of the shore might be looking for shellfish, flint, or even -- as some folklorists described, looking for the elusive stone of happiness.

According to several 19th-century travel writers and folklorists, fisherfolk from the Le Pollet quarter of Dieppe believed that a certain white stone, found on the beach, might bring happiness and good luck.  

One of the earliest accounts of this, in Excursions in Normandy (1841) by travel writers Jacob Venedey and Frederic Shoberl, states that “the girls of Pollet have a superstitious notion of a different kind. These seek upon the beach a white stone of a particular shape, which they call la pierre du bonheur, and to which they ascribe the power of conferring prosperity, delivering them from danger, and bringing them in due time a good husband." As did many visitors to the Brittany and Normandy coast, Venedey and Shoberl interpret the popular practices of the nineteenth-century Normans they encountered as authentic remains of ancient culture, noting that "how many thousand years old this practice is the gods of Gaul might perhaps be able to tell.”  

Superstitions, costumes and religious practices were avidly collected and catalogued by 19th century travellers. Folklorists (like Anatole Le Braz, Charles Le Goffic and Paul Sébillot in Brittany) often read folk-belief as a form of resistance to the church's official control of belief: as an independent (yet superstitious and primitive) survival of local culture.

Portrait of Amélie Bosquet (source:

Amélie Bosquet was an ardent feminist and writer on folklore and regional culture in Normandy (she was a native of Rouen). She repeats Venedey and Shoberl's story of the white stone of happiness in her travel text, La Normandie romanesque et merveilleuse (1845). Bosquet was interested in the persistent cult of "Druidical" stones attributed to women in Brittany, who believed that certain dolmen, or standing stones, might confer fertility upon formerly sterile women who touched or danced around them.  For her, the recently collected Dieppe tale seemed to confirm the continuing validity of this association, noting that "It appears... that the gods embedded in the stone were favorable to marriage; here is a new proof" (176-7).
Dance around the Menhir at Plonéour-Lanvern on the Day of the Pardon

Venedey and Shoberl and Bosquet are also cited by painter turned folklorist Paul Sébillot in Folklore des Pecheurs (1901) in recounting a version of the "white stone of happiness" as he notes that "it is very rare for a fisherman to marry a country girl, for a fisherman's wife must be able to help her husband with his craft." Like peasants of the land, he notes, fisherwomen try to discern, via superstitious means, whether or not they will be soon to marry.
Folklorist David Hopkin, in his recent book Voices of the People, argues that historians should pay attention to the ways that the telling of folklore gave rural people agency to "express, in their own language, their sense of place" and communicate "from one generation to the next knowledge of their communities"(17). Even though the voices of those who do not directly tell their own stories will always be filtered, or mediated, there is great appeal to viewing peasant women, to some degree, as "agents in their own lives" (18) instead of as well-worn types or as "construction[s] of French literary and political culture... the 'other' against which France defined itself (18).

  Hopkin's work on fisher-folklore asserts that folktales often speak of social relations, and perhaps this tale tells us something of women's life experiences on the coast. The female beachcomber, the peasant fisher-girl, who gleans the strand for the stone that is there to be found, the one that will guide her future. In their communities, fisher women had social positions that differed greatly from the female peasants of the land. Women of the Atlantic coast often sold the fish caught by the men, controlled the family's money, tended to have greater rights to inheritance, and sometimes (as on the Breton islands) were the ones who chose their husbands (and not the reverse).

 Venedey and Shoberl, the ones who first mention the white stone of happiness,  comment on the "masculinity" of the women of Pollet that they
Ulysses Butin, The Fisherman's Wife: Normandy Coast.  Engraving in the catalog of the Salon of 1879.

"are a distinct genus.  They are perhaps more men than their husbands.  During the absence of the latter, the whole management of the house is in their hands, and they seldom resign it when the men return. It is they who sell the fish that are caught, and thus come in contact with the people of Dieppe, who are further advanced in civilization; hence they soon attain a higher step than their husbands, and so have a right to wield the sceptre. It is they who drag the fishing-boats into and out of harbour; and they share with their husbands many other laborious occupations, which serve to fortify their bodies.
Jules and Louis Séeberger, Fish Selllers at Dieppe, 1901.

Their masculine habits give them a relish for the pleasures of the men: they never miss their treats and their parties, and sing their song and take their glass with as much glee as their companions of the ruder sex. This somewhat barbarous custom, however, is attended with these good effects, that man and wife more rarely quarrel, that the latter cannot  reproach the former with spending all he gets in drink, and that they return home together, and at a very early hour. Let him who wishes to keep a  whole skin beware of picking a quarrel with these he-women; for there is no joking with them: but  to the Parisian dames who sigh for the emancipation  of the sex, I can give no better advice than to marry a Polletais" (154).

Was the story of the stone a way of talking about a woman's agency in finding a partner? Does it optimistically offer the notion that love is there if you look, that it is as common as a stone, or that careful looking sorts the special from the ordinary… or that love is a magical gift from the sea? 

Or was this story, seemingly repeated from one source in 1841, merely the daydream of a beach-goer?  

I don't mean to draw a conclusion here, and I have no background in folklore. But by reading David Hopkin's work on folklore and the voices of rural people, historians of visual culture may be given some critical tools that help us out of the bind that we get into when we consider all 19th-century representations of the rural as urban-based discourses on modern life. 

Further notes: 

A fully-embellished, sentimental version of "The White Stone of Happiness" appears in the 1912 collection of Fairy Tales by Lilian Gask, The Fairies and the Christmas Child. 
Here, the stone is spit up on the strand by a mermaid.

'I have lost my Etienne's heart for ever, for ever,' she wailed, 'unless I can find the White Stone of Happiness, which a mermaid throws from the depths of the sea once in a thousand years. I may search for months, and never find it; and Etienne holds aloof from me, and grows further away each day.' 
Now just at her feet lay a small white stone, smooth and round as a Fairy's plaything. I picked it up and showed it to her. 

Lilian Gask "Chapter V: The white Stone of Happiness."  

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