Célina, Catherine Axelrad Review

celina catherine axelrad bookblast diary review_

Célina is beautifully written by Catherine Axelrad who captures brilliantly the tone and voice of a young servant, conveying an exaggerated sense of loyalty and hierarchical respect which overlays the harsh reality of a chambermaid’s life. Meticulously researched and inspired by Victor Hugo’s cryptic diary notes and letters from his wife, the narrative is peppered with details illuminating family life and the writing of Les Misérables

Revered and remembered to this day for his remarkable literary output, Victor Hugo campaigned to end poverty, for free education for all children, and for the abolition of the death penalty. A committed royalist when young, Hugo’s views had changed over the years and he became a passionate supporter of republican cause, denouncing Napoleon III’s coup d’état. An eccentric force of nature, he was also an inveterate womaniser.

Although he was married to Adèle Foucher and the couple lived together for over forty years until she died, his devoted loyal mistress, Juliette Drouet, lived near Hauteville house on the Channel Island of Guernsey where he and his family lived in exile. Hugo also enjoyed many casual affairs as well as nocturnal visits to the young women working at his family home.

I didn’t notice straight away that Monsieur had come in. There are so many rugs in the house that the floors don’t always creak, and even if Monsieur had made a a noise, the music would have stopped me hearing it. I dusted the whole area of the ceiling that I could reach from in front of the window, and it was only after several minutes that I noticed him. He hadn’t spoken to me since yesterday, and I was still a bit worried that he’d be cross about me making fun of him, but he no longer seemed concerned about it. He had his hands tucked in the pockets of his waistcoat, and watched me from below twiddling his thumbs, as though to check I was doing a good job. I kept on dusting without letting on that I’d seen him watching me; but in stretching my arm to reach the comer of the ceiling, I felt a current of air beneath my skirts, and realised that he could see all of my bottom. I was so flustered that I didn’t dare come down again. For a time which seemed like it would never end I carried on dusting the same spot without looking at what I was doing, and I would be there still if Mademoiselle hadn’t stopped her music.” (page 32) 

In the 1850s, at the age of fifteen, Célina was employed as a chambermaid by the Hugo family. She was born into poverty: her fisherman father disappeared at sea, and her siblings gradually died of pulmonary consumption (tuberculosis).

Domestic service was a major employer across Europe and Britain in the nineteenth century. It was like a form of marriage – a servant was devoted to the family they worked for. Reliable, discreet, trustworthy, their life revolved around their boss whose needs were their number one priority. The women servants who worked in Hauteville House had an easy way to make extra money, blurring the boundaries of the professional and the personal. Sexual obligations were placed on Célina, well over and beyond those expected of a servant, in exchange for the occasional coin. Célina is treated kindly when she falls ill, before being dismissed, although to what extent this mitigates what actually went on is a moot point.

Servants were almost like possessions: they had very little legal protection and contracts were informal. This lack of legal autonomy meant their employers had total control of their lives and work. Freedom to leave the household was limited, and they were totally dependent for wages, food, and shelter. The rigid class system further reinforced their subservient status as extensions of the employer’s household. An unbridgeable divide separated the worlds of master and minion. 

There is a great deal of nostalgia surrounding the traditional perception of domestic service. From Upstairs, Downstairs to Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, TV dramas and films have provided a romanticized, sanitized portrayal of life below stairs, providing a ratings success. Célina resonates as being far, far closer to the truth.

Come and celebrate the launch of Célina

with Catherine Axelrad and her translator Philip Terry

on Friday 28 June at 7pm

Brick Lane Bookshop, 166 Brick Lane, London E1 6RU

Buy Tickets
Pre-order CELINA

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About Georgia de Chamberet 379 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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