SHAD Interview: “The Making of a Hero: Maria Legrain (1863–1945), a French ‘Temperance Apostle,'” with Victoria Afanasyeva

Editor’s Note: Today marks our last interview with an author from the newest issue of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. The current issue deals with the topic of radical temperance–the act of not drinking alcohol in booze-soaked eras. Today we hear from Victoria Afanasyeva, a doctoral student at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. She is the author of “The Making of a Hero: Maria Legrain (1863–1945), a French ‘Temperance Apostle.'” 

Tell readers a little bit about yourself.

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Victoria Afanasyeva

I’m a Russian girl passionate about the French language and the archives. I started learning French when I was 15 and continued in the Kaluga State University, in my hometown. After finishing my studies, I started to work as a university French teacher and in parallel, I entered the French University College in Moscow to expand my horizons in sociology and history. Thanks to my history teacher, who was very invested and encouraging, I fell in love with archives papers and investigation process. I got a scholarship to come in France to finish my Master 2 degree in history, with a study project about Frenchwomen in the temperance movement during the Belle Époque. And today, I’m on the last line of my PhD dissertation about the history of Frenchwomen engaged in the temperance movement since 1835 until 2013. 

What got you interested in alcohol (and its history)?

In 2013, I was in my hometown library, thinking about a subject for Master 1 degree. I was looking through annual directories of Kaluga of the last 19th century when I found advertising for French alcohol. Literally amazed at the quantity and quality of wines and cognacs imported in my small city, which had about 50,000 people at this period, I thought that it would be interesting to analyze the evolution of the alcohol question in my region. 

One year later, I was looking for a scholarship project. Alcohol history in wine-drinking France attracted me, then I became particularly interested in the temperance movement. There were meager mentions about temperance women – especially about Maria Legrain – in academic studies (Nourrisson, Prestwich, Dargelos, Fillaut), whereas on-line archives revealed important and unexamined female activity.

Explain your journal article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

Nowadays, women all over the world have attained the highest positions in various fields; some of them have become presidents. In the early 20th century France, a woman could hardly be independent and couldn’t compete a man in almost any field except the household. If he was your husband, it might be difficult to work with him in his own domain; at least, you shouldn’t be too good. Maria Legrain was possibly seen as taking too much liberty developing her treatment theory at the expense of her husband’s professional reputation. 

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

Maria Legrain’s temperance activity was at the core of my interest to the history of temperance Frenchwomen. Now I’m working on the last chapters of my PhD dissertation on this subject, which I plan to defend in spring 2020. 

Thereafter, I hope to continue my work on the history of the French temperance movement, because there are so many things to do and so many archives to analyze! 

Finally, we have some interesting ideas to develop with Audrey Bonvin, a brilliant Swiss PhD candidate who won a prize for her Master’s research about the history of collaboration of Swiss temperance women with American activists. 

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the frontier or future of the field?

In my opinion, temperance history in France could and should be a new field of investigation. Apart some general studies about the French movement, two works about Paul-Maurice Legrain, husband of “my” heroine and “French temperance apostle,” and the study of Sylvie Fainzang about Vie Libre association, we need to make more detailed analyses of all associations, study French positions in the transnational movement, work more closely on some eminent temperance activists, both men and women, and, after all this, think about regional aspects. There is a very interesting area of temperance restaurants that I’ve started developing myself, and an important investigation to carry out in Le Doubs department where the French Blue Cross society was born. Montbéliard archives have got a very rich collection of documents of the very first section. 

BONUS QUESTION: What scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

Massimo Montanari, Italian historian specialized in food studies. Before entering the French University College, I had History classes on Russian chefs, national and international politics, economics, wars… We had very few classes on social history. And when I read Massimo Montanari’s book La fame e l’abbondanza. Storia dell’alimentazione in Europa (in Russian), I was stunned and surprised by the everydayness of the subject and the clear and simple but academic way he was arguing.