Louise Michel’s Childhood

Louise Michel was born at 5pm on 29 May 1830 as the illegitimate daughter of a serving-maid, Marianne Michel, and the son of the house, Laurent Demahis. She was raised by her paternal grandparents, Charlotte and Charles-Étienne Demahis, in a tumbledown castle called Vroncourt, in the French Haute-Marne. She spent her childhood in the Château de Vroncourt and was provided with a liberal education.

Louise showed a deep empathy for the animals of her village, and developed a reputation for saving little creatures from her school friends: she would pay them to take the animals away and care for them, knowing that many children at this time experimented on animals and caused them unnecessary pain. After seeing a goose decapitated one day, she became a vegetarian, although her grandmother eventually convinced her to return to eating meat.

Louise’s childhood was described as a happy one, albeit a naughty one: Louise delighted in playing pranks, including stealing from her grandparents to give to people who needed it: she thought there was nothing funnier than when those people would come up to her grandparents later to thank them, and they had no idea why (although, after years of this, they surely did!)

Louise’s father, who had never accepted her, died when she was an adolescent. When her grandparents died shortly afterwards, her father’s widow demanded that Louise and her mother leave Vroncourt, their lifelong home. Louise and her mother were given a small inheritance by Charles-Étienne Demahis, including an education fund which would enable Louise to support herself, and a small house for Marianne, which she sold to buy Louise her first school in Chaumont.

Louise corresponded extensively with Victor Hugo during this time; they had become pen-friends when Louise was a young girl, and she wrote him letters expressing how she admired his writing. Victor Hugo responded, and the relationship evolved over many decades. Some claim that the character of Enjolras in Les Miserables was based on Louise Michel. Some also claim that Louise bore a child, Victorine, with Victor Hugo, and a fascinating book by one of her possible descendants, Yves Murie, can be read (in French) here.

Louise Michel mourning portrait

Louise Michel’s Early Career

In 1865 Louise felt drawn to Paris. She could increasingly hear “a call from below” which demanded that she leave the small village life, and find her destiny. Paris was a very different life to the villages she had grown up in, and Louise embraced it enthusiastically. She opened a school in Paris which became known for its modern and progressive methods. She also began publishing poetry, and forming women’s groups which aimed to support each other: teaching poor women to read, finding resources for those who could not access them, and writing letters on these women’s behalf when they met with legal or administrative challenges.

During this decade Louise also became involved in the radical politics of Paris. She joined many political groups around this time, including the 1869 feminist group Société pour la Revendication des Droits Civils de la Femme (Society for the Demand of Civil Rights for Women), created by the journalist André Léo. Because of the broad range of opinions, this particular group decided to focus on the subject of improving girls’ education.