Corsets, refugees, and skipping ropes: what I’m not saying about Lili Boulanger
There are two things that I tend to say to students, and to myself. One is to imagine a fierce (fierce because she cares, of course) Anna standing at one’s back saying ‘So what?’ The other is to remind the non-fiction author, even those who are writing academic essays, and particularly those who are not, that one’s work should not anxiously display everything one knows. In other words, cut, and cut again.
But, hey, who says that I’m right? So here are some thoughts about underwear, starving refugees, and skipping ropes – three topics which cannot, will not, be squeezed into an already bulging chapter on Lili Boulanger.
So, underwear first, naturally. Lili Boulanger was a very sick woman for most of her life. Born in 1893, she was tall for her time (five foot nine inches), and very slender. No, she wasn’t anorexic, she – probably – had Crohn’s Disease, or, since Crohn’s had not been ‘discovered’ then, abdominal tuberculosis. The labels don’t really matter. She suffered horribly, and there was nothing anyone could do to help.
I’ve been trying to understand how her experience of illness impacted upon her career as a composer – it’s not always straightforward – but I’ve also been thinking about Lili’s day-to-day life in the 1910s. How did she actually manage to function with her dismal repertoire of symptoms? Forget for one moment her compositional activity. How did she, a young ‘lady’ from a privileged Paris world, cope practically with the round of dinners, picnics, balls, concerts, long journeys to the South of France…whilst experiencing recurrent acute abdominal pain, diarrhea, and fevers to name but three of the most distressing symptoms of Crohn’s?
Which is why I was thinking about underwear and the myriad ways in which women’s clothes make life just that little bit harder than it needs to be. Especially if you are sick. I found out that (and all things are relative), it would all have been even worse for Boulanger if she had been a decade or more earlier than she was. For anyone with severe abdominal pain, any kind of corsetry must have been unpleasant, at times agonizing, but at least this
Nevertheless, in the liberated 1910s, the stomach still remained compressed by the new, more ‘natural’, corsets – and women still wore five pieces of underwear: chemise, corset, corset cover, drawers, and petticoat. Nipping to the loo is not really an option under these circumstances. You can sort of see why bed rest might have been the easier option for a sick woman. All this makes me even more delighted that Lili Boulanger (lightly corseted, one hopes, and with a skirt that reached just above – yes, you read that right, above – her ankles) learned to ride a bike in the summer of 1911, pedaling in the lanes around Hannecourt, a hamlet west of Paris, close to the Seine, where the Boulangers had their second home. Lili’s first lesson was on 27 July. Two weeks later she has been on an expedition to a hamlet some six kilometres away, then the following day, sixteen kilometres, there and back, to Mantes-la-Jolie, her local town. A day off the bicycle was followed by an impressive expedition to Houdan, just over thirty kilometres away. Forty miles and a novice. Chapeau, Lili!
I visited Hannecourt while I was in Paris, travelling by slow train as Boulanger would have done from the Gare St-Lazare, close to her city address in the 9th arrondissement. But I didn’t get off at Gargenville (Hannecourt’s village), but kept going a couple of stops to Mantes-la-Jolie, to see an exhibition called Maximilien Luce: quand l’art regarde la guerre: 1914-1918. I was the only person there, which was a relief in that I was shaking after only a few minutes, and spent much of the time trying not to sob. Luce was a pacifist, and his work speaks eloquently to the horror of war. And suddenly I realized that, although Boulanger notes (in passing) that there are Zeppelins overhead at 10am in Paris, and writes with despair when she hears about the Battle of Verdun, it is as if the war is happening to other people, somewhere else. Luce’s art, and the documents provided in the exhibition, shows that it was happening right on Boulanger’s doorstep, whether in Paris or Hannecourt. Surely there was no way to escape the sight of columns of Belgian refugees trudging
no escaping the sight of young men heading to the killing fields from Paris’ own Gare de l’Est?
I have to admit that writing the life of Lili Boulanger has been tough – one of the reasons I write is to get a sense of detachment from lived experience, and that detachment is difficult to maintain in the face of terminal illness or the mud of the trenches. I was, however, greatly cheered when I came across the following photographs here: http://www.musimem.com/prix_rome_1909-1913.htm. Lili Boulanger’s greatest achievement, according to the music history books, was winning the Prix de Rome, the most prestigious prize in French music. To win, she had to go into a kind of retreat with the other finalists at the palace near Paris, and produce a particular piece of music. Sort of Big Brother meets the Great British Bake-Off but with a cantata rather than a lemon tart as the outcome, and a cast made up of young male composers (and Lili). Anyway, these photos, taken, I think, a year or two before Boulanger’s time at Compiegne, show the Finalists having a joyous time.
I just hope Lili Boulanger, in the summer of 1913, got to jump rope.