Breaking the Social Stereotypes of the 19th Century French Poor

Not Quite Nuclear: The Lower Class Family

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Frederic Ozanam
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Women and Poverty
Living Conditions
Inside the Family
Making Ends   Meet


"[This child] had a father and a mother. But his father never thought of him, and his mother did not love him. He was one of those children so deserving of pity from all, who have fathers and mothers, and yet are orphans. This little boy never felt so happy as when in the street. The pavement was not so hard to him as the heart of his mother. His parents had thrown him out into life with a kick."

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, Marius Book I, Chapter XIII

Domestic life for the lower class was, in many respects, less subject to scrutiny than that of the bourgeoisie. For example, while marriage among the wealthy was an elaborately orchestrated event, it was often of relative unimportance for their poorer contemporaries. Couples were older on average when they did wed, and lavish ceremonies like that of Marius and Cosette proved far beyond their capacities. Working class families did not share the stigma regarding cohabitation, and consensual unions, even those involving children, were a common occurrence. Above all, the family network formed the backbone of impoverished districts.

Brion, Jondrette Is Furious, from Les Misérables. The Thenardiers (in any of their many disguises), epitomized the toll poverty took on family relations.

With the inadequacies of state welfare, better-off relatives often took responsibility for their less fortunate family members. A woman who bore an illegitimate child might find herself tended to by the father's parents, regardless of his direct involvement. One bourgeois woman could recommend a poor cousin to another as a servant, securing her a job in a time when unemployment was rampant.