E. Belfort Bax

A Tale of the Paris Slums

(March 1884)

From Justice, 22nd March 1884, p.2.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

The following pathetic story about the present distress in Paris deserves reproduction. In a miserable garret in the Rue de la Roquette, lived one of the younger female “hands” of a neighbouring factory. Marie Chant, such was her name, managed with three francs a day to keep herself from actual want. Though in no sense an innocent child her circumstances are a guarantee of that “the streets” as a livelihood whole or partial never suggested themselves to her. On the other hand, it is stated, Marie never indulged in any of those love affairs with which the Paris grisette is associated. At the commencement of winter a portion of the employees were discharged. But Marie Chant retained her place. One evening, as she left the factory, she observed among the groups of starving men and women waiting round the gates in the vain hope of chance work, a half-clad female figure, pale and ill, leaning against the iron harrier and holding by the hand a child of three or four years. The sight was too much for Marie to pass over with prayer and political economy. She went up to the woman who eyed her with envy, and offered to relinquish her own bench in her favour. At first but half understood, she followed up her words, by leading her protégé into the workshop and getting her installed. The next day, and many days afterwards, Marie spent in a weary tramp over Paris from morning till evening in search of work, at first, gay and hopeful, but gradually more and more desponding as no worn or prospect of work appeared and starvation seemed certain before her. One morning, when she had arrived at the last franc of her scanty savings, she was confronted at the door of the house by the landlord, who demanded with threats of ejectment, 25 francs for rent. As a last resource, she bethought herself of her relinquished bench. She would go to the woman she had befriended and in plea of her necessity demand her lost place. But when she entered the neat little attic and saw the child playing on the floor and confronted the grateful face of the mother who welcomed her, her courage failed, and she made an excuse about having come to borrow a little charcoal to cook her meal.

The day following the bailiff proceeding to effect the ejection, found the door fastened and no response to his importunate demands for admittance. A police agent was fetched and burst open the lock, when Marie Chant was discovered stretched dead on the worn-out mattress, the only furniture it contained, while in the corner upon a piece of stone where the ashes of some calcined charcoal.

For those whose faith in human nature is near being sapped, our horror of a tragedy like this is tinged with hope. We would fain believe that in this den of capitalistic iniquity we call London, no less than in Paris, there are obscure nooks and corners, where heroism such as this might still be found, nooks and corners untainted by Bourgeois civilisation in the shape of the smug patronage of “city-missionary” and “district visitor.” The flowers of human pity and devotion bloom in spite of any squalor in which they may be embedded. It is not the much abused “human nature” that is responsible for the evil that is in the world, but the inhuman Moloch – exchange value – with its hideous and respectable train of social, political and religious hypocrisy.

Where there is no question of exploiting and outbidding one’s neighbour, there goodness is possible irrespective of surroundings. The nobler human emotions can stand a good many strains and survive them. They may live in the attic, in the cellar, in the alley, in the court, in the crowded factory, but in the market or on the exchange, never! The atmosphere of “profit and loss,” of competition,” of “thrift,” is death to them.



Last updated on 4.7.2006