Jean-Marie Déguignet is not your typical Breton peasant. He’s small and puny—and these people aren’t built that way. At nine, a bee caused him to fall and hit his head, leaving an ugly wound that oozed for years and left a deep indentation in his skull when it finally healed. The result was a lifetime interest in bees and a lonely life, as no one wanted to be near him.
A curious and isolated lad, he becomes an auto-diktat, and like many auto-diktats has lots of disparaging things to say about those who are less educated and more successful and powerful than he—especially church and government officials, monarchists, and landlords: ignorant bastards he constantly fought (and lost) who controlled and ruined his life. He’s an anti-cleric in this most Catholic of lands. He’s a Republican in a time and place of monarchists. He understands the world as a scientist, through observation and experience, not like his dumb-ass peers, who explain the “good” that happens as God’s will and the “bad” as Devil’s tricks.
He learned to read and write Breton, French, and Latin. He was a beggar (an actual occupation), cowherd, gardener, inside domestic, and laborer on a model teaching farm where he learned modern methods of agriculture. Later in life, he owned a bar, had a license to sell tobacco, sold insurance, and did odd jobs. At nineteen, he volunteered for the army and served fifteen years, becoming a sergeant and traveling through France to Sebastopol (Crimean War), Italy (war of liberation), Algeria, Egypt, Jerusalem, and Mexico (Maximillian). This was when peasants rarely traveled more than ten kilometers from their homes and were illiterate in their own language. The last fifteen years of his life he lived alone and poor. He died as he lived, fighting the church, and losing. And he wrote about everything.
He is not a happy fellow: he was diagnosed with persecution mania. His observations are harsh and critical, but through them we learn about rural life in nineteenth century Finistére: the people, language, and culture (ignorant, god-fearing, stubborn, and superstitious); the terrible beginnings of industrialization; terrible diets and terrible jobs; arranged marriages; the powers of mothers-in-law; drunken fêtes, wives, clergy, landlords, and peasants; the prevalence of lice, poverty, lack of education, legends, fables, and myths; the omniscient power of the church, churchmen, and landlords—and their crimes and thievery.
I like this guy: he’s a stoic complainer who writes in a very contemporary voice. He lives to see his words in print in La Revue de Paris, December 15, 1904, which gives him some pleasure, but given who is, not much. His last published work is a scientific treatise on beekeeping. Perfect.