Carles, Emilie (1900–1979)

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Carles, Emilie (1900–1979)

French teacher, activist and autobiographer who was a fierce champion of the ideals of human freedom and a passionate defender of the natural environment of her beloved valley. Born Emilie Allais in 1900 in Valdes-Pres, France; died on July 29, 1979; daughter of Joseph Allais and Catherine (Vallier) Allais; married Jean Carles, in 1928; children: Georges, Janny, Michel.

Had a long career as a teacher (1918–62) in the remote Alpine region where she was born; in later life, became a French national celebrity with a best-selling book.

Born in 1900 in the remote French Alpine village of Val-des-Pres, Emilie Allais became a village schoolteacher. Although she never left her region except for a brief stay in Paris, she was involved with the major ideas of her century and spoke eloquently to the urbanized world about the increasingly threatened rural way of life. Like virtually everyone living in the French Alps a century ago, the Allais family was poor. Emilie's father Joseph eked out a living on the beautiful but bare land around their village, an alpine settlement in the Clarée Valley near Briancon and the Italian border. This region of short summers and long, bitterly cold winters made for a dangerous landscape. When Emilie was four, her mother was killed by lightning. Two years later, Emilie almost lost her life when she fell from a hayloft. Life was difficult: nearly all of the families in the area labored from dawn to dusk for the bare necessities. From her earliest years, Emilie was expected to contribute to the family's coffer by working both in the fields and in the stables. In later years, she would describe her mountainous world simply as "the harshest place on earth."

The village life that molded Emilie Allais was overwhelmingly communitarian, and group survival was the community's paramount goal. In this environment occurrences like the death of a beloved child "didn't amount to much" if the village was able to remain biologically viable; such a perspective was not callous, but hard-headedly realistic. Deeply rooted in tradition, the people of her valley had a deep and abiding sense of place and loyalty to their soil. While their conservatism could sometimes be narrow and intolerant, at other times it was a source of strength, allowing them to collectively defy the aggressively dislocating intrusions of the outside world.

Although geographically remote, Val-des-Pres was by no means cut off from the larger world. A bright girl, young Emilie was intensely curious about the larger universe, and education provided her means of escape. She was able to study in Paris from 1918 through 1920, supporting herself by working as a teacher and monitor in boarding schools. By the early 1920s, she had returned to her home region and was working as a substitute teacher not only in her native village of Val-des-Pres but also in one-room schoolhouses in the nearby communities of Les Gourniers and Queyras. From the outset of her career, Emilie loved teaching. A realist rather than a starry-eyed idealist when it came to her students, she was aware that many of them had been raised in narrow and closed-minded family environments.

Although Emilie Allais had decided to return to her native valley to teach, she was influenced almost as strongly by the outside world of ideas and ideals as she was by the unforgiving mountains and valleys of Val-des-Pres. During her stay in Paris, she had been deeply impressed by the ideas of anarchist friends who alerted her to the dangers of a central government that could easily turn tyrannical. The bloodbath of the recently terminated world war also left a deep mark on her, and she became increasingly receptive to pacifist thinking, which she saw as the best chance of avoiding another such catastrophe. Her attraction to radical ideas received additional encouragement when she met and married Jean Carles, a committed pacifist who worked as an innkeeper and house painter. They married in 1928 and had an extraordinarily happy marriage. Emilie would say of her husband: "through the warmth he radiated, the gifts he lavished on everyone, Jean Carles dealt out happiness." Their first child, a son, died in childbirth. While the parents grieved, the village's mayor had the infant's body buried in the far end of the cemetery "in the common grave reserved for people who've been drowned or hanged." Refusing to be broken by tragedy, Emilie and Jean continued to want a family. A year later, she gave birth to another son who was followed two years after by a healthy daughter.

Despite their surroundings, both Emilie and Jean were intensely involved with the important political and literary currents of the day. Jean subscribed to "all the progressive periodicals of the day" and introduced Emilie to the books of major authors. Sharing with her husband a deep love of liberty, Emilie worked hard to pass on the ideals of freedom to her students. At a time in France when extreme patriotism and intolerance was the norm, she introduced her students to ideas critical of existing society, such as anarchism and pacifism. If this meant telling them that even Napoleon Bonaparte was not a hero, but a tyrant whose lust for power deserved to be halted, she was equal to the task. Emilie Carles was fearless, and both she and her husband were enthusiastic supporters of the Popular Front government that in 1936 initiated major social reforms in France and attempted—but ultimately failed—to create an effective anti-Nazi coalition among the European powers. During these years, the Carles family managed a communal inn that catered to urban workers, many of whom were now enjoying the first paid vacations of their lives as a result of Popular Front social legislation.

Emilie Carles lost her teaching job in 1941 as a result of her well-known political views. Jean Carles joined the anti-Nazi maquis forces active in the mountains and was willing to accept the risks of working with them. But, true to his pacifist principles, he never carried a rifle during these dangerous years. With liberation in 1944, Emilie returned to her teaching job, working at the communal school in Val-des-Pres until her retirement in 1962. In the 1970s, she organized her friends and neighbors throughout the Clarée Valley in a united front of opposition to a superhighway planned to cut through the region. She also opposed the plans of various developers who argued that they would "improve" the area; Carles was convinced they would totally destroy its scenic beauties and remaining institutions of human solidarity. In addition to getting virtually all of her neighbors and former students to sign petitions against the highway, she also urged local farmers to drive their tractors in a dramatic demonstration in the town of Briancon. To top things off, the sprightly septuagenarian held a press conference in Paris to bring her and her neighbors' concerns to the attention of all of France. A canny practitioner of modern media politics, she brought the politicians and shady speculators of Paris to heel when it became clear that their goal was not the improvement but the despoliation of her valley.

In 1977, Emilie Carles was in her old age when she became a national celebrity in France with the publication of her autobiography, Une Soupe aux herbes sauvages (A Soup of Wild Herbs), in which she related her life in sharp, clear detail. Selling almost a quarter of a million copies in the first three months after publication, the book became one of the French literary world's most remarkable bestsellers. Carles appeared on national television recounting to an overwhelmingly urbanized nation tales of a virtually unknown world, including such vignettes of her youth as the proper methods of winter storage of food and the wolf stories told by superstitious peasants when they gathered in their stables at night to tell tall tales.

Emilie Carles was a last living link with a vanishing rural France of extreme poverty and self-reliance; she was also an extraordinary woman in her own right, a person of acute intellectual powers and high moral vision. Intellectually, she had liberated herself as a young woman from the stifling conservatism of rural life, while at the same time remaining deeply rooted in the better aspects of its values. She died on July 29, 1979, but her legacy of rural activism lived on. Carles' energized neighbors continued to fight for the preservation of the Clarée Valley, and in 1990 the French government named the valley a protected natural site.


Carles, Emilie, with Robert Destanque. Une Soupe aux herbes sauvages. Definitive ed. Paris: Editions Robert Laffont, 1988.

——, with Robert Destanque. A Life of Her Own: A Countrywoman in Twentieth-Century France. Translated with an introduction and afterword by Avriel H. Goldberger. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

——. Mes Rubans de la St. Claude. Paris: Encre, 1982.

Robinson, Lillian S. "A Soup of Wild Herbs," in The Nation. Vol. 253, no. 6. August 26–September 2, 1991, pp. 234–236.

Rose, Phyllis, ed. The Norton Book of Women's Lives. NY: W.W. Norton, 1993.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Carles, Emilie (1900–1979)

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