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.)
The Oxford History of the French Revolution
Overall this is a very readable book about the French Revolution. I’m not sure it would work for the complete novice – because I’m not, so I can’t judge that anymore. But it gives a generally thorough overview of the French Revolution and, interestingly, its impact on the wider world; Ireland and Poland both get mentions as being inspired by the Revolution itself during the Revolution, and the rest of Europe by virtue of conquest, with Latin America being mentioned in passing. Haiti also gets a few mentions in terms of the uprising there inspired by the Revolution.
I have two complaints; one stylistic, the other content. The first is that some of the writing is a bit obscure, in that sentences could definitely have been better formulated to avoid confusion. The second is Doyle’s attitude towards women. On the first page he mentions ‘an empty-headed queen’, and doesn’t really walkabout Marie Antoinette much except in terms of being anti-revolution. On one of the last pages he mentions that equality between men and women was never going to be a thing, despite women’s contributions to the revolution – which he’s mentioned about once, with the Women’s March to Versailles, which would be hard to avoid – but there he talks about women pushing matters to extremes, and Mme de Stael as ‘Necker’s busybody daughter’ (!!), and Theroigne de Mericourt and Olympe de Gouges and Claire Lacombe only once each. I found this very disappointing. Of course you can’t mention everyone in one book, but surely these women deserve more than just the one line dismissal of their contributions.
I would still recommend this a very good overview, keeping in mind that no single book is going to be perfect.
There are probably three figures in the French Revolution who most fascinate the well-informed everyperson. Georges Danton is my absolute favourite, for a bunch of complex reasons. Maximilien Robespierre is the one that a lot of people know of and blame for the Terror. I’ve read biographies of both of them in the last f ew years. And then there’s Jean-Paul Marat, often regarded as the epitome of demagoguery, inciting the poor uneducated masses to insane levels of violence.
I’ll start with a drawback of this book. The first is a direct consequence of its size: at 155 pages, there’s not room to go into great detail about very much (Conner neglects to mention the massacre of the Swiss Guard in the second storming of the Tuileries, which struck me as odd but I’ll concede it didn’t directly have much to do with Marat). Unfortunately this is hard to remedy, as he himself points out that there are only two other biographies of the man in English – he wrote one and doesn’t think much of the other.
Something else that might be considered a drawback but which I found deeply interesting is the author’s perspective. This is a drawback if you forget that (or were never taught that) every historian does have a perspective, and they bring that to their writing. Conner brings this issue to the very front of this short biography by spending the introduction skewering the perspectives of earlier historians and the way they have treated Marat; he shows – convincingly in most cases – that the bad press regularly regurgitated about the man is fallacious and based largely on anti-Marat propaganda, and/or others’ political convictions (a favourite line: “The episode reveals nothing about Marat, but a great deal about how historians allow their social prejudices to affect their judgement” (p5)). There’s also an amazing excerpt from 1919 wherein Marat’s insanity is affirmed and then a comparison is made to contemporaries who parallel him – like Bolshevik sympathisers and women who “have failed in woman’s first and natural function” (p6). I laughed, I cried. All of this is matched by Conner’s own attitude, which is not really spelled out but nonetheless comes through clearly. I can’t imagine how this book was received by conservative Americans. The final pages imagines Marat’s ghost questioning the legacy of the French Revolution. His big thing (according to Conner) was the idea not just of political and legal equality (thanks to the French Revolution, at least in theory TICK) but economic and social equality – hence his championing of the sans culottes. Conner’s last paragraph reads:
Marat would surely be shocked and dismayed to learn that after more than 200 years his struggle for social revolution had lost none of its relevance and urgency. Where is the People’s Friend now, when we need him? (p155)
I can understand some people being dismayed by this authorial intrusion. But if you hadn’t got that Conner is a bit of a radical himself, then you haven’t been reading very carefully. And if you’re reading the biography and being dismayed by Marat’s politics, then you’re probably not going to agree with this anyway (NB I don’t mean his methods but his ideology).
This is a wonderfully readable biography of a quite astonishing man. Marat was a doctor and an experimental physicist and a journalist and a politician and an intensely passionate advocate for social change (even before the Revolution). He dealt with a chronic skin disease (it’s apparently unclear what this was), and police harassment (occasionally warrants were for possibly-real issues, sometimes it was plain censorship and targeting). He was too radical for his times and thus often a voice crying in the wilderness; he would still be regarded as too radical, I would suggest. Conner sets out his life neatly and clearly. There’s just enough detail about the French Revolution that I think you could read it cold… but I know too much to actually be a reliable judge of that. I’m really glad to add this aspect – the man who was revered by much of the menu peuple, who too often get ignored even in histories of the French Revolution where they had a fundamental role.
Marie Antoinette: a biography
It’s weird reading biographies. There can be no great surprises, really; you do already know the ending after all. And in the case of Marie Antoinette, I know the outlines of her life so well that I was curious to see how Fraser shaped the events, rather than finding them out – especially of the last half of her life. I knew very little of her childhood and in fact did not realise that she was the youngest daughter of the Austrian Empress, which does add a particular shade to her upbringing.
Overall I really enjoyed Fraser’s style, although the use of ellipses in a historical work is a bit weird. But she’s eminently readable; having the endnotes at the back of the book helps that, although it does also mean I didn’t look at any of them (none of them were discursive so I didn’t miss much). There were enough endnotes that I felt like I was reading a well-researched book, which I presume is accurate rather than being wishful thinking!
Of the content, the one rather odd note for me was that Fraser accepts as highly likely the idea that Marie Antoinette did have an affair with Count Axel Fersen, Swedish soldier and general lover of women who did spend time at the court and indeed helped to arrange the escape that ended so disastrously at Varennes. I didn’t feel that Fraser offered enough evidence to make their liaison quite as certain as she suggested. Other than that, Fraser is quite sympathetic towards the Archduchess/Dauphine/Queen – and I have no problem with that. Fraser shows the many difficulties that Marie Antoinette faced throughout her life ( for instance, more than seven years of marriage before consummation brings problems on a whole range of levels when you’re meant to produce the heir), and does so with an eye for detail and, yes, with sympathy. That’s not to say that she shadows the problems that Marie Antoinette brought on herself, and those she did little or nothing to minimise; they too are investigated, sympathetically but rigorously, honestly, as a thorough biographer ought.
Overall this is a really great biography, and reminds me that yes I really do enjoy reading history like this and maybe I should read some more. I believe that it would be quite accessible to those with little knowledge of the revolutionary period; it’s instructive of the way women were used politically in European aristocratic and royal circles for centuries, and reflects on the sorts of propaganda that is still used around powerful women today.
You can get it from Fishpond.
Lefebvre and the French Revolution
Just look at that cover. Does this look like a history book to you? No it does not. But this is the first volume in Georges Lefebvre’s outstanding history of the French Revolution. Rather than, as the cover suggests, a cook book.
This book is definitely not one for beginners. Lefebvre assumes some knowledge of both the Revolution itself and the the late 18th century in Europe more generally, and if you either have no knowledge or aren’t quick on your feet when dealing with names and politics – well, this will be a hard book to read. Me, I’m pretty good on the French side of things, and that’s the only way I managed to read this without feeling like a complete idiot. There’s also no glossary, so woe betide the reader that misses a term that was explained early on… or wasn’t explained at all and you’re just meant to understand it, but maybe don’t.
One of the most awesome aspects of the book is the very fact that it places the Revolution in its broader European context. I had no idea of the Austrian/Prussian/Russian machinations that were going on at the same time as they were posturing about and around France; the controversy over Poland in particular made me realise just how much I have always viewed the French Revolution in isolation. That is, I know that the American Revolution had an impact, and so on; but I had forgotten that of course those countries who eventually invaded had other things on their mind than just an annoying neighbour. This is a common failing of mine, I have realised. So Lefebvre’s insistence on providing a really broad context – much broader than I would have thought necessary, with the internal politicking of Pitt etc – makes this a quite remarkable part of revolutionary historiography.
The most annoying thing about this is that it is part one of two. And this translator did not, apparently, do part 2 – which incorporates the Terror, and Thermidor, and Danton being his most awesome. Still, Lefebvre does give a succinct overview of the issues leading to the Revolution, as well as description of the early years. Perhaps the most amusing aspect is that he appears not to like anyone. He doesn’t seem to like the proletariat (as he terms them), nor the peasants, and the bourgeoisie quite often come in for disapproval. And let’s not talk about the aristocracy. The other thing of note for those of us who’ve done history more recently and have been forced to deal with issues of historiography and the post-modern/post-structuralist turn is Lefebvre’s utter conviction that his interpretation of events is right. In fact, it’s not even a conviction – that would suggest it was something he had given thought to. No; this is just the facts, and that’s all there is. Which is very appealing, if a little dangerous in the 21st century.
The translation is superb; there was no point at which I thought that it was convoluted or messy.
Robespierre: the democrat, the radical
It’s a running joke in my Revolutions class that I have a little history-crush on Peter McPhee – one that I do all I can to play up, in all honesty. Robespierre has not, however, been my particular revolutionary crush; that’s Danton. After reading this biography, I’m half tempted to switch my allegiances… but the larger than life Danton is still more alluring than the somewhat severe Robespierre.
Anyway, this biography is exactly what I was hoping for. It’s clearly written and easy to read; I don’t know accessible it would be for someone with zero knowledge of the revolution, but I’m no expert and I had no trouble following it. It follows Robespierre’s life chronologically – indeed giving a bit of background on his family too – and provides what felt like an appropriate amount of background and contextual information on the realities of life throughout France, reasons for revolution, and attitudes among different groups for the duration of said revolution.
I’ve not read any of the other numerous biographies of “the Incorruptible,” and McPhee gives an interesting overview of them in his final chapter. I know that some have tended towards utter condemnation, but I didn’t realise that others turned into panegyrics. This one certainly comes down largely in favour of Robespierre as a man and a politician, demonstrating quite conclusively how consistent his ideals and desires were, even predating the revolution of 1789 that made at least some of those ideas acceptable. McPhee doesn’t shy away from the fact that lots of people died in the Terror, but does point out that in no way can the majority be laid at Robespierre’s feet – he was horrified by the actions of some deputies in rural France. He also doesn’t shy away from the likelihood that Robespierre was in fact going too far, by mid-1794, and may even have been tending towards paranoia.
If you’re at all interested in this period, or in how a leader can influence events, this is a really brilliant bio.
Danton: making it big in the revolutionary world
I read biographies far less often than someone of my historical bent would be supposed to. I often expect them to be dry – I’m not sure why – and I often prefer books on the minutiae of history, the stuff that often gets overlooked. That said, I have a soft spot for Alison Weir’s biographies – I’ve read most of her Tudor stuff, and I really liked her book on Isabella (“She-Wolf of France”).
One of my all-time favourites is a biography of John Dee, best known as an astrologer, alchemist and magician, but actually responsible for some pretty awesome science too. Against that is the fact that I have biographies of Dirk Bogarde (I am a big fan of the Doctor movies), Gandhi, Elizabeth I… and the Pythons autobiography… all sitting on my unread/true shelf (it’s a long story). I’d like to read more bios, they just don’t move up in the ‘must read’ queue.
This problem is exacerbated, for me, when it comes to reading of modern, controversial characters. Dee was controversial, and Isabella certainly was (and when I can get my hands on a good revisionist bio of King John, I am going to be all over it), but even I concede that arguing about them is slightly academic, although always with modern repercussions. I would desperately like to read a good biography of Trotsky – and Lenin, I guess, too – but who the heck am I going to trust? A popularist like Alison Weir? I don’t think so, sunshine. A historian of whose politics I know nothing? Problematic. I would love to read one written by Peter McPhee – God bless his Marxist soul – but I don’t think that’s going to happen.
And so we come to the fact that I have finally finished The Giant of the French Revolution. Danton: A Life, by David Lawday.
When I first started reading about the French Revolution I quickly decided that Danton was the man for me; Marat is too much a rabble rouser – although dying in the bath is sooo Greek tragedy – while Robespierre, with his insistence on continuing to wear ancien regime costume, clearly had gumption but his whole Republic-of-Virtue-or-die made me a bit uncomfortable. There are things about Danton that make me uncomfortable too, but… he’s so much larger than life, he had such energy, and he instructed his executioner to make sure to show his head to the crowd once it was off, because it was worth looking at. Plus, Gerard Depardieu plays him in a movie, and he was perfect.
So, the book. Lawday admits at the start that this is a slightly romanticised history, because Danton committed almost nothing to paper. There are no footnotes, although there are references at the back giving some indication of where ideas and quotes came from. And it is a bit romantic: Lawday sometimes lets himself go on flights of descriptive fancy about the streets of Paris and the countryside around Arcis, Danton’s birthplace; and he gets a bit smoochy over Danton and his wife Gabrielle’s relationship. The other romantic aspect, and the thing that annoyed me the most, was that Lawday’s vision of Danton as a hero apparently demanded that there be a genuine fiction-like villain for him to play against. Robespierre, the man probably responsible for Danton’s death, is the obvious candidate here, and Lawday goes out of his way to malign and belittle him as unmanly and insipid, in contrast to the testosterone-fuelled Danton. But what really, really got my back up was that Lawday also featured Manon Roland, wife of Danton’s fellow elected official Jean-Marie Roland. It seems clear that Mme Roland and Danton did not get along. Lawday, though, plays this up in sexualised and demeaning ways that were occasionally outright offensive. Having recently read Liberty, about the contribution of women to the Revolution – including Roland – this got my goat even more than it might have.
Sigh. Anyway, aside from that demonisation, I did really enjoy Danton. Lawday gives a good running explanation of the Revolution such that I didn’t get lost trying to figure out what else was going on at the time, and he does well at portraying Danton as intimately involved in most of the important events. Some of this may be exaggeration, but not all of it. It’s largely well written, although I’m not sure that I agree with The Economist that it’s “beautifully told”. It’s eminently readable, anyway, and captures the energy and urgency of the Revolution. I think this would be exceptionally good way in to the Revolution for someone with little knowledge of the events, but with a curiosity about people who shape events.
In other news, I am still struggling through Citizens. That is, in theory I am still reading it, but it’s at the top of my bookcase at the moment, not being read.
So, a while ago on the Coode St podcast, Jonathan and Gary wondered what it would be like if you tried to write a history of sf through the female writers. I think this is a most interesting idea, and relates to my desire to find women writing space opera.
Which relates to a book I’ve just finished reading called Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France by Lucy Moore. I was expecting it to be a book essentially looking at six women, all very different, and their experiences in the French Revolution. However, what I got was so much more than that. Alongside the bios – and they were really interesting women, all of them – I got a full history of the Revolution itself, almost entirely from the point of view of women. And the really, really cool thing is that it totally, totally worked.
Women were involved at every level of the Revolution. It was working-class women who marched on the palace in 1789 and scared the king and queen terribly. Women were involved in planning and suggesting policy in the convention’s various incarnations, and getting it passed too, thanks to both direct action on the streets and more indirect action in the various salons. Women were directly impacted, of course, by changes made to the laws – although they were not accorded citizenship rights under the great Declaration – and, perhaps more interestingly, perhaps stereotypically, but nonetheless dramatically, fashion was also of huge importance. Especially in the streets of Paris, what you wore was an immediate sign of your allegiances. In a world where there were laws about how could wear what, having women on the street insisting that everyone wear the revolutionary cockade was pretty influential. As was when aristocratic women, formerly the paragons of incredibly expensive haute couture, wore clothes that wouldn’t look out of place on a sans coulotte.
The women under investigation were Germaine de Stael, Pauline Leon, Theroigne de Mericourt, Theresia de Fontenay, Manon Roland and Juliette Recamier (all names missing accents, since I can’t figure out how to add them in). Leon is perhaps the most interesting, in some ways, because she was the most definitely working-class. I had come across her (and Mme Roland) in Marge Piercy’s City of Darkness, City of Light – daughter of a chocolate maker, active on the streets and probably in violence. Mericourt had probably been a courtesan, and was also immensely visible on the streets. The other four were all basically aristocrats, on various levels and with differing views on politics – what they wanted to get out of politics, and how they went about doing it.
Each chapter is based around one woman, but Moore weaves so skilfully that she keeps the larger story of the Revolution moving, and brings in the narratives of the other women as well. It’s a marvellously well-written book, which I thoroughly enjoyed – even though I was reading it for school! – and it’s now covered in (appropriately pink!!) comments in the margins. Hugely recommended to anyone interested in the French Revolution or women in history more generally.