Mireille by Janice Lert


mireille 1Mirèio in provençal. A word which was music to the ears of Frédéric Mistral, our famous provençal poet. So when he went looking for a name for the heroine of his epic poem published in 1859 which would later win him the Nobel Prize in Literature, he chose this loving word which he had heard his grandmother use during his childhood in Maillane. The word could be associated with the idea of "marvel", or "marvellous", but Mistral "invented" it as a first name, as he explains in his Mémoires et Récits.



Mireille has become a very popular first name for girls in Provence, particularly those born in the years after World War II. This is of course because of the popularity of Mistral’s poem, Mireille. But the name is also used to refer to one of the provençal dress costumes worn by girls. To wear the 'Mireille costume' signifies that the girl or young woman is dressed in the morning or working costume, which has been codified by regional folklore groups.

The main elements from top to toe include a white cotton or lace kerchief tied around her chignon with the points of the knot sticking up in front. This is known as the cravate or tie, worn for work, as opposed to the ribbon worn by Arlesian women as part of their afternoon dress costume, for leisure activities. Then a black cotton long-sleeved T-shirt called an 'eso' with a dickey and white or coloured shawl over it. She will wear a flowered skirt made from provençal cotton fabric, with an apron, sometimes black. Under the skirt she can wear a petticoat and/or pantaloons made from white cotton cloth. To finish, white socks and black ballerina shoes, and she can carry a wicker basket or cloth bag, and in the summer a parasol.

This is how Mistral’s heroine Mireille must have looked. Now let’s take a look at his poem. It is a long poem divided into twelve cantos or chants. The story takes place on a provençal farm and involves the daughter of the farm owner, Mireille Ramon, who is 15 years old and very pretty. She falls in love with the son of an itinerant basket-weaver, Vincent Ambroise, who is the same age, strong and handsome. While working at the farm, in the evening at the fireside Vincent, who has travelled far and wide, tells Mireille the legend of the Saintes Maries de la Mer and Mireille dreams of this town beside the Mediterranean Sea.

The drama develops against a backdrop of provençal rural society and farm activities: there are three official candidates asking for Mireille’s hand, one a shepherd, the second a horse breeder and the third the owner of a herd of bulls in the Camargue. But Mireille prefers Vincent the basket-maker.

mireille 2

Mireille’s family disapproves of her choice, and Mireille decides to run away. Where could she go? To Les Saintes Maries de la Mer of course, to ask these holy women to grant her what her family refuses. But she has no idea how far away it is, and she chooses the hottest day of the year to leave. She manages to cross the Rhône River and sets out across the blazing Camargue countryside with no water, no shade, nothing but sand and sparse blades of grass. She gets dizzier and dizzier but manages to get to the door of the church in Les Saintes Maries before collapsing. When her parents and Vincent finally find her she is dying of sunstroke, and breathes her last breath beside the Mediterranean Sea, her final destination. Thus ends this tragedy of unrequited love.

The popularity of this story at the time was such that it was put to music, a three-act opera which opened in Paris in 1864. It was the French composer Charles Gounod who wrote the music. Gounod was not a provençal, so to get into the atmosphere, he came and stayed in St Rémy de Provence while he was composing.

Thus the music contains many references to provençal culture: the farandole dance in Arles, the moving final scene with march music accompanying Mireille across the Camargue, etc. In some cases Gounod incorporated melodies heard in Provence, for example the pilgrimage hymn dedicated to St Gent.

mireille 3After the death of Frédéric Mistral, his widow offered to the town of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer a statue of Mireille. This was one of Mistral’s last requests. The statue is the work of Antonin Mercié and was inaugurated in 1920 on the Place Mireille.

Mireille is holding her forehead in a dramatic gesture, a permanent reminder of all of her mental and physical suffering. What better way immortalize such a popular to immortalize such a popular heroine?

Janice Lert
Guide lecturer licensed by the
French Ministry of Culture

Mistral, Frédéric, Mémoires et Récits, Aubéron, Bordeaux, 1999.
Mistral, Frédéric, Mireille, Librairie Contemporaine, Montfaucon, 2008.