Travels with Caroline

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Alban Bargain-Villéger

Caroline de?me?nage (1987)

Caroline déménage (1987)

Unlike my previous contributions, this post is the result of an accident. While browsing the contents of my external hard drive in June during a (late) spring cleaning operation, I found a folder labelled “Caroline.” Intrigued, I opened the file and immediately remembered what these forgotten documents were. In the summer of 2008, while on vacation at my grandparents’ place, I spent a couple of hours reading a number of children’s books, which my grandmother used to read to me when I was a child. Entitled Caroline, these books follow the adventures of the eponymous character, a blonde preteen in red overalls, and her eight anthropomorphized critter friends. Both amused and intrigued, I decided to photograph the books. Since I was in the early stages of my doctoral research at the time, and since I am not a historian of childhood, I decided to archive the folder and forgot about it for the next eight years.

Although there was plenty to write about this summer, chancing upon the “Caroline” folder was serendipitous. Indeed, I was tempted to write on the 2016 UEFA championship, the causes and effects of the Brexit, or on labour conflicts in France, but lacked the inspiration to do so. Whenever I would draw up an outline on any of these subjects, I would end up telling myself “no… it’s too soon. Wait until the fall.” Thus, the rediscovery of the Caroline series was a real boon, as it enabled me to establish some distance from a history that I deemed too present to be dealt with adequately – even in an Active History post. Also, rereading the adventures of Caroline led me to reflect on how the author, Pierre Probst (1913-2007), relayed common stereotypes about other countries and cultures, and how he (more or less consciously) strove to present his young readers with idealized, Épinal print[1] worldviews.

In that regard, this post should be read in conjunction with “History for Children? Watching Once Upon a Time… Man as an Adult in the 21st Century” . Like Once Upon a Time… Man, Caroline aimed to simultaneously entertain and educate. Nonetheless, the two series differ from each other in several respects. First of all, Caroline clearly targeted a younger audience (six to ten year olds). Secondly, Probst’s views were clearly more conservative than those of Albert Barillé, the centre-left, progressive Catholic creator of Once Upon a Time…. While the latter could at times seem politically incorrect to many viewers today, it aimed to promote the ideas of the Enlightenment and often blamed human and environmental tragedies on greed, cynicism, negligence, and humankind’s inability to learn lessons from its own history. In contrast, while Caroline and her friends do occasionally face ill-intentioned adversaries, they go about their business in a world where all is for the best “in this best of all possible worlds.”[2] Finally, while Once Upon a Time… is a product of a particular moment in the twentieth-century (the end of the postwar economic miracle), Caroline spans a large part of the Cold War era, the 1990s, and the early post-2001 world, as the series’ forty-four books were published between 1953 and 2007.

2Originally, Caroline seems to have been intended as a spinoff of other books starring some of her animal friends. But the novelty of an independent, tomboyish little girl inviting the cutest animals to party at her country house (see Une fête chez Caroline, 1953) must have struck a chord among the readers, as the first opus was a success. From its inception to its end, the series did not experience many changes, whether from a pictorial viewpoint – though the little girl replaces her ballerina shoes with a pair of white sneakers in the mid-1980s – or a narrative one. Indeed, Probst’s light magical-realistic approach is a constant throughout the entire series. On the one hand, Caroline drives her own car, does not seem to have a day job, and travels all over the world with three puppies, two kittens, a leopard cub, a bear cub, and a lion cub. On the other hand, her adventures take place in what could be termed “the real world”: the places she visits do exist, and the illustrations often provide precise clues as to where the scene takes place. On the surface, then, Caroline seems like a sophisticated, progressive children’s book. While it would be a little far-fetched to see the main character as “an aspiring feminist,”[3] the 1953 book might have been perceived as somewhat subversive, at a time when French women could not open a bank account under their own name or work without their husband’s authorization – these constraints were lifted in 1965. Probst’s idea is all the more commendable, as he went against his publisher’s wish that the character should be a young boy.

However, the Caroline series is certainly not a standard-bearer for female emancipation or progress in general. It seems that Pierre Probst had (to paraphrase Charles de Gaulle, albeit in a different context), “a certain idea of France,”[4] one that was rooted in the 1940/50s and even, in some cases, in the prewar period. While the aesthetics of the first eight books definitely correspond to the period in which they were created, the following opuses retain many elements from the 1950s. Aside from a few details, like Caroline’s sneakers or car brands, many of the books seem caught in a time warp. But this ossification is not confined to the realm of appearances, as the ways in which France and the world are portrayed are somewhat outdated. For instance, Caroline visite Paris (1979) is filled with the usual stereotypes: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Tuileries Garden, and other fixtures – the only exception being the Pompidou Centre (completed in 1977). But more striking is the author’s take on other parts of France. In three of his most “Franco-French” books – L’Automobile de Caroline, Caroline aux sports d’hiver (1959), and Le Cirque de Caroline (1963), Probst ignores almost completely the effects of the “Glorious Thirty”[5] and places much more emphasis on the rural world. Interestingly, it was not until the mid-1980s, most notably in Caroline et le robot (1986) and Caroline déménage (1987) that topics such as technological and urban growth were explored. But while the landscapes change, French society remains the same; housing estates do grace the pages of Caroline déménage, but the working-class and immigrant residents are conspicuously absent from this idealized picture. At a time when Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front national was on the rise – the preceding year, that party had won 35 seats in the parliamentary elections[6] – the author praised a phenomenon which public opinion increasingly viewed as ghettoization. The fact that Caroline lags twenty years behind the times should not come as a surprise, as Probst was already in his forties when the first wave of major tower-building campaign occurred, in the mid-1950s. It was possible that, by the time mentalities were changing, the septuagenarian still held enthusiastic views on contemporary urban planning.

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Le Voyage de Caroline (1954)

Despite some relatively progressive elements, then, the Caroline series has strong conservative tendencies. Even its alleged feminism is not particularly daring. Rather, Caroline is more the exception than the norm, and more of a child living in an alternate reality (à la Calvin and Hobbes) than an emancipated woman in the making. In fact, several of the early books are utterly reactionary. Le voyage de Caroline (1954) and its sequel Caroline aux Indes offer a stark contrast with the innocent, fun-loving tone of the first opus. It is also the first adventure that takes place overseas. Le voyage de Caroline follows the motley crew as it travels through Europe and the Middle East by train and sails on the Indian ocean until the boat (which Caroline’s parents bought her) sinks and they end up stranded on an island. There, they notice the presence of “savages,” which worries Pouf, the white kitten: “[s]avages … are human beings. Sometimes they can be very mean.” But Pipo the sheep dog outsmarts the (implicitly) cannibalistic islanders by getting his friends to form a live totem that does not fail to scare off these allegedly inferior beings. Then, after building a raft and sailing it for several days, Caroline and her friends finally sight the coast of India, as Pitou the leopard (who happens to be living there) comes to greet them onboard a rowboat. In the sequel, the party ventures into the jungle in search of the local Rajah’s son, who has mysteriously disappeared. They soon discover the poor child trapped in a hole, kept there by a ferocious tiger named Ggrrraaa. Eventually, they manage to elude the predator and to bring the prince back home.

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Le Voyage de Caroline (1954)

Obviously, the six-year-old me had not noticed how blatantly orientalist these two books were, and rereading them more than twenty years later was a bit of a shock, as the Voyage / Caroline aux Indes diptych clearly mirrors what Edward Said has described as “a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different … world.”[7] Indeed, as soon as the train leaves Europe, Caroline and her furry companions enter what might be termed a zone of statelessness, a great expanse of deserts and towns that belong in the Thousand and One Nights. As for “the Indies” (note that the book came out eight years after India gained its independence), the author portrays them as a backward society, where people spend their free time riding elephants and bathing in what appears to be the Ganges (pp. 24-27). In that regard, Caroline is one of those relics of nineteenth-century orientalism Said speaks of in the last part of his seminal work.[8] Nonetheless, this systematic othering of foreign cultures was not confined to an imagined “Orient,” as Probst also catered to commonly held stereotypes about European countries. Thus he depicts Switzerland as a land of plenty where everyone regularly wears their traditional garb (Caroline en Europe – [1960], p. 20) and seems to be as attached to their canton as to Switzerland (see picture below, featuring Caroline juggling the flags of Uri and Switzerland). Similar scenes can be witnessed in the cases of the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy (ibid., pp. 8-19, 22-27).

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Caroline au Canada (1972)

Even more striking is the treatment of the USA in Caroline au Ranch (1961) and Canada in Caroline au Canada (1972). While Caroline au Ranch is a textbook example of the fascination that western European artists had for the “wild west,”[9] Caroline au Canada is not only representative of commonplaces about North America, but is also the most transparently political book of the series. This episode is, in fact, more about Quebec than the country as a whole, as Caroline only visits Montreal, Quebec City, and an unspecified area “in the north” of the province. The book, which came out five years after Charles de Gaulle’s “vive le Québec libre,” takes a clearly Francocentric stance on Canadian history. Thus “Caroline explains to her friends that, ‘long ago, back when Canada was only inhabited by Indians [sic], courageous French people settled in America. More joined them, and many more came later’”. Nowhere in the story is there any reference to Canada’s English-speaking majority. A map of Canada only features the cities of Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa, and Vancouver (Toronto is conspicuous by its absence) and Quebec is the only province labelled on the document. As for the French Canadians, Probst seems to view them as absolute Francophiles. Although, in one instance, an equal number of maple leaf and fleur-de-lis flags appear, the entire story revolves around the allegedly strong connections between France and la belle province, as the plot consists of a quest to find out where one of Caroline’s ancestors, Désiré Jolibois, used to live.

After failing to find any clues as to the location of Caroline’s “great-great-grandfather’s” cabin, a Quebec City archivist advises the travellers to “head north” and to get in touch with the Mi’kmaq. Had Désiré Jolibois settled in the Maritimes or in southern/eastern Gaspésie, then the local Mi’kmaq might have been able to help out. Here, however, Probst suggests that the Mi’kmaq’s homeland is located “north” of Quebec City – which is partially geographically correct but idiomatically ambiguous, as the portion south of the Saint Lawrence river is not exactly “the north” of the province. At that point in the story, one might give the author the benefit of the doubt – after all, the archivist is from Quebec City (southwest of the Gaspé peninsula). The following scene, in which Caroline asks a Mi’kmaq “chief” for information, is more problematic, as it contains several stereotypes about First Nations. First of all, the chief’s physical appearance is not exactly flattering to the Mi’kmaq people, and the headdress he is wearing certainly does not belong in Mi’kmaq culture, but in the prairies. Secondly, this scene gives the impression that Canadian First Nations still live in teepees and make a living building and renting out canoes – faulty ones, as it is implied later. Finally, the Mi’kmaq language (which Caroline apparently understands) is reduced to monosyllabic sounds and gestures: “‘Hoom… hoom’, the old chef grumbled, which, in his language, means ‘Hmm… hmm!’ Then he holds out his arm to the east”.[10] Compared with his relatively positive, albeit naïve, portrayal of American First Nations in Caroline au ranch, Probst’s depiction of the Mi’kmaq is insulting and myopic at best, racist at worst.

After paddling up an unnamed river and being saved in extremis by a moose during the sinking of the canoe, the adventurers find Désiré’s old cabin, as well as his descendants (Caroline’ cousins). Here the final scene is worth mentioning: as Caroline and her friends are about to leave, the narrator concludes that, “after all, Quebec is not that far away from France,” as, in the foreground, Youpi the cocker spaniel waves a flag with “Je me souviens” written on it, underneath a crest featuring the fleur-de-lis, along with (ironically) the English lion and the Irish shamrock! Although the author does not openly take a stance for the sovereigntist cause, he clearly supports closer cooperation between Quebec and France. While this is not surprising in itself, so explicit a position statement is unusual in the Caroline series.

Caroline en Europe (1960)

Caroline en Europe (1960)

Other Caroline books are equally political, but more subtly so. Although Caroline might at first seem disconnected from politics and society, some books – especially the pre-1982 ones – undoubtedly mirrored contemporary anti-communist worldviews. Caroline en Europe provides a perfect example of the ways in which children who grew up during the Cold War (like myself) were encouraged to think of western Europe (i.e., the countries west of the Iron Curtain) as the only true Europe. In the course of her trip, Caroline visits Luxemburg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Federal Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, but no mention is made of the GDR, Yugoslavia, and other nearby countries belonging to the Eastern Bloc. It should also be noted that Probst’s “Europe” does not include the British Isles (which continental Europeans usually consider as part of Europe), Spain and Portugal (then ruled by authoritarian regimes), and Scandinavia. In retrospect, it seems that the author meant to praise the process of European unification, as Caroline visits all six countries (including France) that signed the 1957 Treaty of Rome (Caroline en Europe came out in 1960) – she does, however, stops in Switzerland, which was not (and still is not) part of the EU.[11] As in Caroline au Canada, the conclusion says a lot about the book’s subtext: “[a]ll these countries of our Europe truly are beautiful”. The possessive “our” says it all, as it succinctly presents the young, impressionable reader with an ideologically-loaded worldview. Tellingly, Caroline and her friends did not travel to Eastern Europe until the collapse of the Eastern Bloc (Caroline en Russie [1993]).

Like Tintin, Astérix, and other iconic children’s books, Caroline experienced major changes over time, most notably in terms of ideology and how it portrayed the Other.[12] The Caroline series, which, at first glance, seems rather one-dimensional, clearly attempted to familiarize the readers with generally conservative, sometimes reactionary (racist, even), and often old-fashioned, worldviews. The fact that the main character is an unrealistically emancipated and autonomous little girl tends to conceal the books’ traditionalist streak and to soften the orientalist, ethnocentric makeup of Probst’s work. Finally, far from a feminist character, Caroline symbolises eternal childhood (and all the fantasies inherent to that moment in life), and nothing tells us that the independent, wealthy Caroline is not supposed to become a “respectable” housewife once “recess” is over.

Alban Bargain-Villéger is a sessional faculty member at York University, where he specializes in modern European history. His current research project involves a comparative study of Arran, Borkum, and Groix, three small islands off the coasts of Scotland, France, and Germany, respectively.


Notes

[1] Épinal prints (images d’Épinal), named after the French city of Épinal, are known for their idealistic portrayal of nineteenth-century French society. The expression “image d’Épinal,” which is still in use in today’s France, thus refers to an idealistic, utopian view of the world.

[2] François Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Candide or Optimism, trans. Richard Aldington (London: The Nonesuch Press, 1939), 4.

[3] Xavier Houssin, “Pierre Probst, auteur d’albums,” Le Monde, April 19, 2007, http://www.lemonde.fr/disparitions/article/2007/04/19/pierre-probst-auteur-d-albums_898484_3382.html, accessed September 7, 2016. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.

[4] Charles de Gaulle, Mémoires de guerre, Tome 1: L’Appel, 1940-1942 (Paris: Plon, 1954), 5.

[5] The “Glorious Thirty” (Les Trente Glorieuses) refers to the three decades of economic expansion that followed World War Two.

[6] On the March 1986 parliamentary elections, see Pierre Martin, “Le rapport de forces droite/gauche en 1986,” Revue française de science politique 36, no. 5 (1986): 597-605.

[7] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 12.

[8] Ibid., 199-328.

[9] See for instance the excellent articles by H. Glenn Penny, “Elusive Authenticity: The Quest for the Authentic Indian in German Public Culture,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 48, no. 4 (October 2006): 798-819; and Olivier Mongin, “D’où viens-tu Johnny ? Le survivant mythique,” Esprit 6, no. 365 (Juin 2010): 187-89.

[10] The author would like to thank Thomas Peace, of Huron University College, for the information he provided on the Mi’kmaq.

[12] The Treaty of Rome sanctioned the founding of the European Economic Community (EEC) – the predecessor of today’s European Union (EU).

[13] Regarding the aesthetic, philosophical, and ideological development of the Tintin series, it is particularly interesting to contrast the unarguably racist Tintin au Congo (1931) with the more progressive, sophisticated Les Bijoux de la Castafiore (1963).

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  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of September 18, 2016 | Unwritten Histories

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