A biography of Olympe de Gouges

Since I started learning about the French Revolution I’ve been fascinated by the women involved in it. The workers Pauline Leon and Claire Lacombe, the intriguing Theroigne de Mericourt, and of course Olympe de Gouges – who wrote the Declaration of Rights of Woman and the Citizeness, in answer to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. And ended up getting executed. There’s not a whole lot about Olympe in English, which I think is an absolute travesty, so when I went on a bit of book-buying spree of revolutionary books and came across this one, I decided I needed to own it.

I should have paid attention to how long it was. It’s only 100 pages of text, and given it cost $66 I’m a bit grumpy. I may still have bought it, but probably as an ebook instead.

I’m also a bit grumpy because of the content. Partly I’m sad because the translation isn’t excellent, so there are bits where I’m not sure if a sentence is a translation issue or a writing issue. Partly I’m annoyed because I think it would be very difficult to read and really get this book without knowledge of the French Revolution. That makes it inaccessible to people coming it at from a feminist history perspective rather than a French Rev one, which is doing Olympe a disservice. I would really have liked to see Mousset lay out more of the context of the revolution than simply mentioning some of the events that were happening around Olympe’s life.

Mostly though I’m dismayed at some of the ways that Mousset talks about Olympe’s life and writing. Some of this comes out of currently reading Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing, as part of our Galactic Suburbia one-chapter-per-episode readalong. One of the things that Russ identifies is the idea that women’s writing is inherently personal, or autobiographical. Mousset frequently sees Olympe in the characters of her plays, and suggests that she is interested in the right of illegitimate children because she is one, in divorce because of an unhappy marriage, in housing for the elderly because her mother died destitute, and so on. As if it’s not possible to care about those things without some personal connection. I’m not denying that those issues may have played a part, but to suggest that this woman – who was clearly driven, intellectual, and passionately interested in making society a better place – was only inspired by things she experienced greatly weakens her commitment.

And then there’s the way that Mousset talks about her writing: “Her lack of culture forced her to constantly make reference to herself” (p31) – which I just don’t understand as a concept, and aren’t we all still in admiration of Shakespeare for probably not having the greatest education early on? Olympe explicitly presents herself in her writing at times, downplaying her achievements – but couldn’t this just be seen as a pose? Check this out:

“I haven’t the advantage of being schooled, and as I’ve already said, I know nothing, I will therefore not use the title Author, although I’ve already presented the Public with two plays, which it was kind enough to welcome. And, unable to imitate my colleagues in their talent and arrogance, I shall listen to the voice of modesty, which suits me in all respects.” (p33)

Doesn’t that just scream Olympe playing the pose of modest woman (which she was accused of not being), but also having a dig at male ‘colleagues’ for their arrogance? Maybe there’s extensive French scholarship to suggest that Olympe was always excruciatingly honest and never played a pose, but right now I’m not buying it. And Mousset follows up this quote by saying that “If there was one thing that she was absolutely not, that was modest!” – which… do we care? Would we make the same comment of a male author? After another passage where Olympe talks about her achievements, or lack of, Mousset says “It’s obvious here that Olympe is mocking herself” (p34), but again I can’t help but wonder if it’s all a pose to get the audience on side. And my irritation is compounded when Mousset comments that “If her lack of humility still seems irritating today, imagine how exasperating she must have been at the time!” (p37, my italics). To which I have no answer because I’m gobsmacked.

Olympe, writing and politically active in the late 1780s and early 1790s, seems like a forerunner of second wave feminism: “Whichever barriers may be encircling you, it is in your power to emancipate yourselves from them; you only have to wish to do so” (p1) – pretty sure enslaved women on what would soon be Haiti wouldn’t have agreed with this sentiment. (It should be noted that Olympe was passionately anti-slavery, to the point of one of her plays being banned for its anti-colonial message.) Mousset does present Olympe’s achievements in terms of her plays being performed, and outlines some of the ways in which she was involved in politics and Parisian society. Partly because she was a moderate in many ways as that became increasingly like an anti-revolutionary, and probably also because she was an outspoken woman, Olympe eventually ended up on the wrong side of the people in charge, and Mousset presents Olympe’s final two years quite well.

For me, this feels like an extensive early version that could easily be twice as long with added commentary on the French Revolution to give Olympe greater context. I do like the way that Mousset presents Olympe’s most well-known work today, the Declaration of Rights of Woman and the Citizeness, with some commentary on the way Olympe changed the wording from what had been adopted by the national government. But I’m not sure I could recommend this to someone – certainly not as an entry to the world of women’s involvement in the Revolution. (That book is Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France, By Lucy Moore.)

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