France – La Maison Paternelle, Or Reformation For Young Gentlemen

WE are all familiar with the advertisements of schoolmasters and private tutors undertaking to control and amend idle or unruly lads. Incorrigible ne’er-do-wells of our own upper classes are summarily packed off to the colonies. Very different are French methods. The Code Civil, based on Roman law, places drastic measures within reach of French parents and guardians, and a brief account of the system pursued in dealing with rich prodigals over the water will not, perhaps, prove without interest. It is now many years since I visited the great agricultural and industrial reformatory, or colonie, as the place is euphemistically called, of Mettray, near Tours.

A little removed from the vast congeries of dwellings, workshops, and farm buildings stood a pretty Swiss chalet. This, our guide informed my fellow-traveller and myself, was the Maison Paternelle, another euphemism for what was in reality a refined sort of prison. Thither, we learned, incorrigibly idle or vicious lads of the better classes were sent for terms varying from one to six months, and kept in strict confinement.

We were obligingly allowed to inspect the house, which outside looked quite attractive, and within was what might be called a gilded cage, a genteel prison ; once the key turned upon .a captive, he was here as completely embastille as in the Bastille itself! The cells varied in size, furniture, aspect and decoration, carpets, curtains, a pretty view, and other luxuries adorning those of what, for want of an exact term, I will call first-class misdemeanants. But one feature characterized all. In the door of each cell was a pane of glass admitting of perpetual espial. Like Cain in Victor Hugo’s fine poem, the prisoner was ever followed by an inquisitional eye.

The key and the peep-hole somewhat discounted our cicerone’s glowing appreciation of the Maison Paternelle as a reforming medium. We refrained, however, from criticism till breakfasting with M. Demetz, the founder of Mettray, and the originator of the Maison Paternelle. We had reached the colonie soon after eight o’clock in the morning, and M. Demetz, who lived in the midst of his children, as he called the outcasts and prodigals, break-fasted at the early hour of ten. In a simple yet elegant home, a charming hostess in the person of the Countess, our host’s daughter, and, unnecessary to add, a déjeuner of many courses, all perfectly cooked, awaited us.

One saw at a glance that M. Demetz was a born apostle of humanity; also that, although devoting himself to the humblest and least admirable of his kind, he had consorted with choicest spirits.

Past middle age, refined in feature, of exquisite urbanity, his face lighted up with rare enthusiasm when on the topic of his Maison Paternelle. Eloquent as he became, neither my friend, who was also a philanthropist and educationalist, nor myself were won over to the peephole and the key. We quitted Mettray smiling at what we deemed a good man’s hobby.

We were wrong. The excellent M. Demetz has long since gone to his rest, my travelling companion, Madame Bodichon, the gifted foundress of Girton, has followed him to the grave. The Maison Paternelle, founded forty-eight years ago, not only exists, but has more than justified the confidence of its projector. The tiny Swiss chalet is now replaced by a commodious house, fitted up with all modern requirements, and having accommodation for upwards of fifty inmates. What was formerly a tentative, a modest enterprise is now an important organization, managed by a board of directors, and having a staff of university professors. During the year 1900 no less than forty-six youths of wealthy parents were consigned to Mettray for shorter or longer periods by their parents and guardians. Methods have not changed with conditions. The system pursued by M. Demetz in dealing with idle or ill-conducted youths is still rigidly adhered to, its efficacy being borne out by results.

For an understanding of French institutions we must familiarize ourselves with the Code Civil. Here are the clauses by virtue of which parents can thus sequestrate their children—

” Art. 375. A father having very serious grounds for dissatisfaction concerning the conduct of his child, has at command the following means of correction.

” Art. 375. If the child is under sixteen, a father can have him put in confinement for a period not exceeding one month, and the President of the Tribunal of his arrondissement will, at his demand, deliver an order of arrest.

“Art. 377. From his sixteenth year until attaining his majority, a child may be imprisoned for a period not exceeding six months ; his father must apply to the President of the Tribunal, who, after conferring with the Procureur of the Republic, will either deliver or refuse an order of arrest, and in the first case can shorten the period of detention.

” Art. 378. In neither case is there any judicial formality or written document necessary beyond that of the order of arrest, and a declaration of the reasons thereof. A father is obliged to pay all expenses of his son’s food, or any other expense attached to his confinement.”

These conditions must be strictly complied with by parents sending their sons to the Maison Paternelle; but, as the President’s order for incarceration, the only document necessitated by the proceedings, is burnt after each inmate’s departure, no unpleasant reminder can be brought against him. His name does not figure on the criminal list. M. Demetz’s idea was, therefore, an ingenious application of the above articles of the Code Civil, and the reports in my hands bear ample testimony to its success.

Before giving citations from these most curious reports, it is necessary to describe M. Demetz’ methods.

The keynote of his system is based upon the reflective character of the French nation. “We reason more than we imagine,” writes the first living philosopher of France,”and what we imagine best is not the world of exteriors, but the inner world of sentiment, and, above all, of thought.”

An unremitting appeal to the reasoning faculty, per-suasion, kindness, and solitude such are the influences brought to bear upon insubordination, indolence, and vicious habits.

From the moment of arrivai to that of departure, an inmate of the Maison Paternelle sees no one but his attendant (the word gardien being substituted for that of geôlier), his professors, the chaplain, and the director. So complete is the isolation of each prisoner that two brothers, confined at the same time, have from first to last remained in ignorance of each other’s presence. Inmates are known to the household staff by numbers only. The director alone knows each by name.

It was M. Detnetz opinion that a habit of reasoning is induced by solitude. Hence his insistence on this point.

It must be borne in mind that the Maison Paternelle is essentially an educational establishment. Incorrigible idleness seems to be the principal cause of incarceration, and one interesting fact testifies to M. Demetz’ perspicacity as a psychologist ” Whilst success has not always crowned our efforts in cases of moral perversity,” writes the director in his last report, ” from an intellectual point of view we have never failed.” In other words, reflection has proved an apt monitor, where the head rather than the heart has been at fault. Of twenty-six students going up in 1892, 1893, and 1894, eighteen passed their examination of baccalauréat. A new-comer is straightway conducted to one of the smallest and barest cells. If he becomes violent or despairing, efforts are made to soothe and encourage him ; he is told that no constraint will be put upon his inclination, but that as soon as he wishes to set to work professors are at hand, who desire nothing better than to forward his progress. When reflection brings a better mind, his cell is changed for one more cheerful and comfortable, his improvement is furthered to the utmost by those about him, exceptionally good conduct and extra diligence are rewarded by excursions in the neighbourhood, and even visits to the historic chateaux of Touraine. In addition to the usual programme of studies, the youthful prisoner receives religious instruction and lessons in gymnastics, swimming, fencing, riding, and music. Every fortnight reports of health and progress are sent to parents and guardians.

The expenses of such an establishment are necessarily high, only professors of very special attainments being employed, and the number of pupils varying from year to year. An attendant, or gardien, moreover, is attached to each youth, this person’s business being to accompany him in his walks, supervise his conduct generally, and serve his meals. Under the circumstances the following fees will not sewn excessive ; An entrance fee of 100 francs (1), 250 francs per month is paid for inmates preparing for elementary examinations, and 300 for those aspiring to the baccalauréat. A sum of 500 francs on account must be paid on entry of a pupil. English and German or any other foreign language, music, drawing, and dancing are extras ; also books, stationery, and drawing-materials are charged for. No uniform is worn by inmates. Smoking is strictly forbidden, also the possession of money. Each inmate walks out for an hour a day, a payment of half a franc daily entitles him to a second hour’s walk. This charge helps to defray the salary of an attendant.

On the eve of his discharge, the penitent prodigal is taken into the cellule de réintégration, i.e. the prison-like cell of refractory inmates ; he there signs a solemn promise to refrain from evil or idle courses in the future. The cellule de réintégration serves as a reminder that, if a second time he is consigned to the Maison Paternelle, he must expect severer treatment than before.

As might naturally be expected the majority of youthful ne’er-do-wells in France, incorrigibly lazy, and the loafers are sons of widows. Children as a rule are mercilessly—the word is fit spoiled in France, and especially is to be pitied the fatherless lad, the ” lord of himself, that heritage of woe.” One mother thus wrote to the director of Mettray : “I see but too well, monsieur, that my own weakness has caused all the mischief, and that I deserve to occupy a cell as well as my son. I beseech you, come to my aid, help me to recover that authority I have allowed to be set at defiance.”

I will now give some brief extracts from the reports before named ; also from a paper on the subject contributed to the Fournal de Débats.

Here is the letter of a fiery youth to his father on learning of the paternal intentions,


” It has just come to my knowledge that you intend to shut me up in a house of detention, in order that willy nilly I pursue my studies. Take note of this. Before Heaven I swear never to touch a pen for the purpose of work, never to open a book with similar intention, so long as I remain a prisoner. However hard to bear may prove incarceration, no matter to what indignities or punishments I am subjected, my mind is made up, my will is indomitable. I have already acquired quite enough for the fulfilment of an honourable career. I am, forsooth, to be imprisoned, dishonoured ? We shall see the result.”

Six months later the young man thus addressed the director—


” On the eve of quitting the Maison Paternelle, I cannot help sending you a few lines expressive of my gratitude.

” It is owing to you, monsieur, and to my professors here, that I have now completed my studies, having learned more in six months under this roof than I should have done in two years elsewhere.

” Rest assured, monsieur, that I carry away with me the best possible remembrance of the Maison Paternelle; no apter name could be given to this house. Here I have learned—unfortunately, for the first time in my life—to reflect. I have been taught td see the serious side of life and my obligations as a social being. Thus I am deeply grateful for all the care bestowed upon me; and the interest taken in my progress by the professors. This is no adieu, merely an assurance of my esteem and gratitude.”

Another impetuous youth immediately after incarceration writes as follows to the director :


” If I should say that I intend to work here and atone for the faults of which I am accused, I should tell a lie, and lying I detest.

” I will then tell you the truth, which is, that if I am not sent home within six days I will destroy myself. Know, monsieur, that I am capable of anything.”

The above is dated May 18, 1887. The following bears date August 13 of the same year


” Three months have now elapsed since I became an inmate of the Maison Paternelle, and I do not know in what terms to express my sense of indebtedness to you and of all the advantage I have gained by my stay.

” Forget, I entreat you, Monsieur le Directeur, my first letter. Rest assured that I bitterly regret having penned it. As for myself, I shall never forget what I owe you. You have made me a wholly different being. I am very sorry that you are away just as I am leaving ; but if I fail in my examination I promise to come back.”

The following, dated April 26, 1887, from another inmate, is more curious still :–


” Notwithstanding the proposals of my parents and their wish to see me go back to college, and having well considered the matter and reflected on my past career as a student, I have decided to pass the three months before going up for my examination at Mettray, the only place in which I have really made good use of my time. I trust that no objection will be made to my return, and beg for the favour of an early reply.

” Pray give my grateful remembrances to my professors and the chaplain.

” Yours, etc.”

I cannot refrain from a few more citations.

P. D. G. writes to the director in 1898, “Would you kindly send me some photographs of the colonie and the Maison Paternelle (three francs enclosed for the same), especially of the interior, in which last year, alas ! I spent four months, quitting it, thank God, a reformed being. These photographs will remind me of a place once inwardly cursed by me, but now a source of self-congratulation since to Mettray I owe my bettered self.”

A grateful father thus expresses himself : ” I am happy to inform you, Monsieur le Directeur, that after quitting the Maison Paternelle our René passed three months in Germany, returning with a considerable know-ledge of German (un bagage sérieux d’allemand). He now attends the Lycée Jeanson, and is first of thirty-seven in the fourth class. Thus you see that I have every reason to be thankful for the pains taken with my son whilst in your hands.”

Many ” old boys” send donations towards improvements of the ” Paternelle,” as they affectionately call their former prison, and one showed his attachment to the place by visiting it in later years accompanied by his wife !

It would seem as if idleness and its corrective, the faculty of reflection, were in part hereditary. In any case the son of a whilom inmate was placed in the Maison, Paternelle by his father.

No less interesting than the letters just cited, selections from a vast number, are the monographs or character sketches drawn up by M. Gilbert, Préfet des Etudes. A perusal of these carefully drawn-up human documents suggest the inquiry, How far might the individualizing of criminals work out reform ?

A distracted father begged the director to receive his son, a lad who had been expelled from college after college, and who had proved refractory alike to threats and entreaties.

Here is the youth’s description from a psychological point of view : ” He belonged to that class of pupils who delight in nothing so much as preventing others from work and upsetting order in a class-room. Intelligent, but idle and trifling, our new inmate, on arriving, decided—merely to annoy his father—on preparing for the mercantile instead of the classical baccalauréat. The mere notion that such a decision displeased his parents and professors was enough for him ; one severe reprimand and a punishment relatively severe had no effect whatever. So long as he had his way he would be satisfied.

” But we must carefully analyze such natures, in order to deal with them efficaciously. Idleness and a propensity to trifling were this lad’s chief faults. Before finally making up our minds that he should be humoured, we set him to work on preparations for the classical degree. At first all went well, his progress surprised even himself. On a sudden he declared his intention of seeking a fortune in the colonies. Of what good, therefore, to waste his time over Latin and Greek ? Again he lapsed into idleness and inertia. The effect of a course of punishments was as that of a douche upon an enervated system. ` Such treatment was exactly what I needed,’ he owned ; and, strange to say—who would believe the fact without personal experience ?

from that moment he worked strenuously, and became attached to his professors. ‘ In the end he made up his mind to present himself as a candidate for the baccalauréat of science and letters, and to the joy and infinite amazement of his parents passed the examination.”

The young man for by this time he might be so called —thus wrote to the director : For the first time in my life I am quite happy, because, for the first time also, I have made my parents happy. Since passing my examination I am treated so differently. I am almost afraid that my head will be thereby turned ! ”

Many other instances of successful treatment might be adduced, not only disinclination to work, but vicious habits, dissipation, addiction to bad company, gambling, and other vices having yielded to M. Demetz’ methods. I will now, however, say a few words about the resource of less wealthy parents, another and very different place of detention to which minors can be consigned by virtue of Articles 375, 376, 377, and 378 of the Code Civil. This is Citeaux, near Nuits, in the Côte d’Or, an agricultural and industrial penitentiary which, at the time of my visit some years ago, although a State establishment, was entirely controlled by priests. This, I believe, is now changed.

At Citeaux there is no separate organization for youths of the middle ranks. Twenty pounds a year only is the sum charged for board and lodging, and these paying inmates fare precisely the same as youthful vagrants or first offenders, but are not set to field work.

On the occasion of my visit, a hundred of the thousand inmates were middle-class boys with whom their parents could do nothing. And here, as at Mettray, a large percentage of these young good-for-nothings were sons of widows !

My driver, who was in the habit of conducting visitors to the colonie, as Citeaux is also called, told me that he had lately taken thither a widow lady with her son, a youth of seventeen ; also another widowed mother with an unruly lad somewhat younger. The mother of the first-named incorrigible declared it her intention to keep him in the reformatory till he should become of age, unless he turned over a completely new leaf. My conductor ‘further informed me that he was employed in the printing press, and looked miserable enough.

It is hardly to be expected that results at Citeaux would bear comparison with those of Mettray. In the former place a lad can have no individual treatment ; in the latter, he is in the hands of experienced specialists—in fact, he is a case, diagnosed and treated according to the most advanced theories of moral and mental science. The subject awakens much speculation.