Some male French historians, it seems, still are not very comfortable with the idea that a number of women played a significant role in history. Olivier Blanc, who wrote an excellent biography of Olympe de Gouges is not one of them. And perhaps it is that my sample is small, and it is definitely old.
For the bicentenary of the 14th July, Pleiade came up with a small illustrated volume about the writers of the Revolution. The editor of the volume, the essayist Pierre Gascar (1916-1997), managed a very respectable selection of male writers, and wrote about the with the reverence they deserved. One gets the feeling that even the most psychopathic amongst them have to be treated fairly - after all, they played a role in the revolution that shaped the French nation we know and love.
What he did not do, however, was waste much time on the women writers of the period. Except for one, who is mentioned on nine (four of which are pictures) occasions, with one fairly long section in which her name recurs, and the others passing comments. That was Olympe de Gouges.
In two of the passing comments, Gascar uses the adjective 'ardante' to describe her. That is, Olympe de Gouges, was 'fervent' or 'passionate'. She was also, driven to a near 'delirium' by her attempt to assert herself in the political scene. She was, Gascar tells us, led in all things by the desire to succeed, and the need for glory. But because she was a woman, he concludes, she presented a 'disarming' picture of the thirst for fame.
Her writings did not reflect her judgments, but rather her sentiments. Her objection to putting the king to death was not based on any belief that this could harm the revolution, or that it would be morally wrong, but on disgust.
Lucky for her, she is not the only woman philosopher of the revolution to have been portrayed as a passionate figure driven by ambition but incapable of judgment. In 1927, Jean Martin, writing about this all but forgotten (because largely insignificant) member of the Girondins, Achille Duchatellet, describes Sophie de Grouchy as a 'fiery head'. He derives this description from one by her friend Dumont, who wrote about Sophie that she had :
A serious character, a mind that flourished on philosophical meditations, republican readings, and a passion for Rousseau's works had inflamed her head.
Describing a letter Sophie wrote to Dumont about the state of French politics after the massacre of the Champs de Mars, Martin alerts to the overflowing feminity of the letter, and the instances of 'coquetry' that fill in the spaces between the writers' attempt to engage with the political thought of her time. But, Martin notes generously, she does make a sensible point in passing, about governments in general presenting an obstacle to enlightenment.
The rest of her descriptions, however, only serve to 'stir her nerves' because she dreams of a moving persecution of which she would be the heroine.
Her thoughts on the subject of how to educate a reasonable woman are the occasion for Martin to show us that Sophie is vain - she must be the reasonable woman in question. She is also, he notes, being ridiculously unfair to Dumont, when she notes that it will be a while before men treat women as reasonable being ('Not all men!).
This, is the sort of drivel that we have to wade through in order to study the history of women philosophers. It is a research project all by itself, and I suppose as such interesting. But it leaves a very unpleasant taste.
At the end of a treatise in which she takes on Rousseau's analysis of human progress, Olympe de Gouges makes the following proposal: a second French theatre, or The National Theatre.
A great number of well-born women are ruined because men, who have seized everything for themselves have prevented women to elevate themselves, and to obtain for themselves useful and lasting resources. Why should my sex not one day be rescued from this thoughtlessness to which their lack of emulation exposes them? Women have always written. They have been allowed to contend with men in the theatrical profession. But they would need proof of greater encouragement. Such is my plan:
She goes on to describe an institution that would take in children from respectable but poor families, educate them in the arts and train them as actors, but always with a view to their respectability.
After a few years, these children would constitute a troop of actors and would be offered the opportunity to produce plays. Those that chose not to, could pursue any other career in the arts.
But as many of the fashionable plays of the times were not, to Olympe's mind, respectable, she would enlist the help of writers who are not given to scurrulous plots, and whose works are not usually performed, i.e. women. She says she herself has 32 plays ready to go, and that many other women have penned good plays.
Thus Olympe aims to kill two birds with one stone:
Give women playwrights the chance to work, and reform the arts by providing a national artistic education so that would be artists do not resort to demeaning themselves in order to pursue their arts.
Olympe de Gouges, when writing her play about slavery, Zamore and Mirza, or the Fortunate Shipwreck, displayed a certain amount of confusion about the geographical setting and the people she depicted. The play is described as an Indian drama. The Action is said to take in the East Indies. The main characters, Zamore and Mirza are described as Indians and another as governor of a Town and a French Colony in India. There are also 'several local indians'. Gouges describes a ballet that is take place at the end of the performance where Indians and soldiers mix, and which is to represent the discovery of America.
In a postcript she added to the play, she recommended that the theatrical company 'adopt both the colour and the dress of the Negro.' thereby contradicting apparent claims that her protagonists are either Asian or native Americans.
Although the French did colonize India, it is not clear that this is supposed to be the setting of the play. Rather, the West Indies is where the French had slaves. What about East Indies? The French did again colonise Vietnam, then Indochina, but this was not where the slave trade was conducted. On the other hand, the French East India Company had interest in Mauritius and Reunion (Ile de France and Ile de Bourbon), both, in the West Indies. The proximity of the West Indies to America may have led to the idea of a ballet re-enacting the discovery of America.
What can we make of such racial ignorance and inept geography? Of course Olympe was largely uneducated. And the anti-slavery movement in France was yet to grow strong enough that many people were aware of the specifics of the slave trade and of the conditions of living in the West Indies. In fact, Gouges was one of those who helped bring the evil of slavery to the attention of the French public, and Brissot, one of the founders of the Club des Amis des Noirs, claimed to be influenced by her play, and offered her a membership to the abolitionist club as soon as it was founded.
Olympe was ignorant, but she did not, as an 18th century woman, have much of an opportunity to educate herself by travelling. She was confused, but had good intentions: she felt that by portraying courageous, intelligent and compassionate runaway slaves, she would spread the word about the abuse that was perpetrated and interest the public in helping stop that abuse.
Poor education, lack of opportunity, good intentions all sound like the sort of excuses given for every day racism and cultural appropriation. Does it make sense to see in Zamore and Mirza the beginnings of these phenomena?
Ballet - at the end of the last act.
When Sophie de Grouchy was young, no tutor was assigned to her. But she benefitted from her mother's instruction, a woman known for her intellect, culture and generosity. And she was allowed to participate in her younger brothers' lessons. She did so well at this that when their tutor was sick, she took over their Greek and Latin instruction.
At the age of 18, she was sent to a finishing school in Normandy, at Neuville-les-Dames, near Macon, a secular convent for ladies. She received the title of Chanoinesse, and was addressed as Madame.
In order to gain admission, one had to pay a substantial fee and maintenance amounting to 9000 pounds per year, but also provide proof of lineage: 9 generations on the father's side and 3 on the mother's.
The convent was not ostentatiously religious. Pupils studied Latin and modern languages, and worked on their accomplishments. They hosted parties, the purpose of which was to find husbands of the right sort.
In an environment that was religious and socially privileged, she became an atheist and socially aware. She discovered Voltaire and Rousseau, she read and translated Tasso's Jerusalem, and an unnamed work by Young (probably his Tour of Ireland). Her aunt, visiting her, worried about her health - her eyes were puffy every night and ached so that she feared it might be a form of gout. And yet Sophie kept on with her work.
The building Sophie lived in is long gone. But Neuville now has an Allee Sophie de Grouchy, on which stands an elementary school, l'école Condorcet. There are many schools named after Condorcet in France, but if this one is named after the Marquise, not the Marquis, then it is, as far as I know, unique.
As most Parisian children of the times were, Manon was sent to spend her first two years in the home of a wet-nurse, in the country side. Perhaps Paris was not a great place to bring up a baby, and Marie-Jeanne’s parents had already lost several children, so they were bound to be more careful. Fresh air, a nurse who has nothing to do but fuss over her, this would keep her alive, make her healthy and strong. And whether or not from the effect of her residence in those first two years, Manon, as her mother called her, was healthy and strong, and would no doubt have lived well beyond the age of 38, had she not been guillotined. When she came back it was not to the Ile de la Cite, but on the other side of the Pont Neuf, Quai de l’Horloge.
Young Manon had the run of her father’s library – not a large one – and on certain days, she has the run of the town. She has tutors – no expense was to be spared in the clever child’s education. She knew her catechism by heart but was not convinced by what she learned. On Sundays, she hid a favourite book in the cover of her bible: Plutarch’s parallel lives, translated into elegant French by Anne Dacier. She embraced republicanism, admiring the values and virtues of the Roman leaders she read about. She began to wish she had been born Roman, or above all a man, so she could act on her convictions. But soon even Plutarch was no longer enough. She wanted to learn more and her tutors – music, languages – could not teach her enough.
When Manon 11 an apprentice of her father assaulted. The experience shocked her deeply and she sought refuge in religion. Manon begged her parents to be allowed to continue her studies at a convent school on the Ile de la Cite. But at the Convent of the Augustines, Manon, a precocious child, turned out to be difficult to teach, as she knew more already than the kindly nuns who’d agreed to take her on. She stayed a year, and made lifelong friends there, two of whom, the Cannet sisters, became her correspondents and later introduced her to her husband to be.
In the 1750s, when Marie Gouze, as she was then called, was of the age to learn how to read, the education of French children was under the control of the catholic church. There were few options: you could be educated at home, privately, by a parent or a tutor, or you could be sent to school. Boys who were not particularly rich, might do better at school than at home. Maximilien Robespierre, for instance, won a scholarship to leave his native Arras and study at the Lycee Louis le Grand, in Paris. But there were no equivalent schools for girls, so unless they could be educated at home, working perhaps with their father, as Anne Dacier had done, or with their brothers' tutors, as Sophie de Grouchy did, girls were sent to convents, or to the Ursulines' day Schools.
The Ursulines school at Montauban had been started in 1682, by six Ursuline sisters from Toulouse. Their school still stands - it has been expanded, and they now have a very modern looking building.
A most fashionable way of thinking about politics in the 18th century, was to hypothesize what life would be like without any form of political government, and argue that it would intolerable, so that no matter how badly off we might be in this world, in a world without government, we would be worse off.
This relied on the assumption that in the state of nature, we would be unhappy.
As Hobbes famously put it, life in the state of nature would be 'nasty, brutish and short'.
Rousseau is often portrayed as disagreeing with Hobbes on this. After all, the savage human being for him is carefree and happy, living in a land of plenty, and has no need for war or strife. But even Rousseau believed that as soon as one human being meets another, they become enemies, compete and war against each other. The only way out is civilization and government.
One writer stands out in disagreement with this pessimistic view of humanity in its 'natural' state - or rather she would stand out if she were still read. Olympe de Gouges wrote a short philosophical treatise in 1788, in which she argued, against Rousseau, that human beings in the state of nature would have been, not only happy, but quite capable of living with each other, collaborating on projects and forming lasting loving relationships.
What does she base her belief on? Her own childhood experience of a simple, free and outdoors upbringing. In Le Bonheur Primitif, she speculates on the daily lives of the people Rousseau calls 'savages'. She surmises, for example, that the way in which the first breads were made may have been similar to how she was making bread as a child, laying the dough on hot ashes, and remembers how pleasant that experience was. This, she claims, gives her an insight into the lived experience of primitive people.
In 1798, Sophie de Grouchy published her Letters on Sympathy.
We know that she already had a draft in 1791, which she'd sent to her friend Dumont for feedback that never came. We know that the Letters were complete in 1794, and that they had a title, as Condorcet refers his daughter to them in his Testament.
So why were they only published in 98?
We don't know as she did not leave an account. But it's likely the answer lies either in need, opportunity or both. After the Terror, Sophie needed money, and she decided to translate Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiment. Smith was very popular, and existing translations of this text were not particularly good, so there was a clear gap in the market. This also gave her the opportunity to publish her own short text. Her Letters were after all a critique and commentary of Smith. So she appended them to the translation.
Although the Letters are in fact a more like a treatise than a record of correspondence (there is in fact only one letter writer involved), each chapter is set out as a letter to someone addressed as C***, announcing the topic of discussion, linking it to the previous one, and at the end, drawing out the conclusions to be taken forward to the next chapter.
C*** is also an excuse for considering objections to Grouchy's arguments, with many paragraphs starting with formulas such as "No doubt you will tell me, my Dear C***". So C*** is very much a philosophical interlocutor, the Platonic touchstone to Sophie's Socrates.
So who is C***?
The obvious assumption is that it is Sophie's husband, Condorcet.
But there are reasons why this is probably not true.
First, her husband was dead by the time the Letters were prepared for publication. Secondly, if Sophie was to record a fake dialogue with a real person then she would probably have picked someone she actually corresponded with - in 1791, when the letter were written, Sophie and her husband were not apart long enough to correspond.
But there were at least two more Cs in Sophie's life, to whom she was very close, with whom she did correspond and who were still alive when the Letters were published.
They were her sister Charlotte, and Condorcet's close friend, Pierre George Cabanis. Of the two, C*** cannot be Charlotte, as 'My Dear C***' in French is 'Mon Cher C***' which is masculin.
So Cabanis is more likely.
Cabanis, as it happens, did correspond with Sophie on topics very close to her Letters, on Physiology, a materialist science aiming to understand human beings through their bodily organs. In 1802, Cabanis published his Rapports du Physique et du Moral de l'Homme, in which he explores the relations between bodies and morality, discussing for instance, the influence of weather and digestion on mood and decision making. Prior to publishing this, he corresponded with Sophie, and had long discussions with her on the subject.
Physiology is also central to the Letters on Sympathy, as Sophy argues that our moral feelings are born out of the physiological response that ties a newborn to the person that nurses her and holds her.
Cabanis and Charlotte de Grouchy became lovers during the Revolution, and in 1796, they were married. Some readers like to see a love story behind every text (in particular, texts written by women!) but in this case, we must suppose that C*** was very much an intellectual interest (and a close family friend) but not a love interest.
Cabanis was by profession a doctor in medicine but did not practice. Some say that was because of his own poor health. Some say that he was in fact a spy, not a doctor. He is also reputed to have given Condorcet a dose of poison to hide in a ring. And this poison, in some accounts of Condorcet's death, is what he took to kill himself when he was captured in March 1794.
Charlotte Corday died at the guillotine in July 1793, a few weeks after Manon Roland’s arrest, and a few days after Olympe’s. Charlotte had come down from her native Vendee, in the north west of France, just below Britanny, to murder Jean-Paul Marat, the ‘friend of the people’ and leader, with Robespierre, of the Terror. She was an aristocrat, who left to her own devices, had ‘read everything’ in her parents’ library. She was a republican, who wanted to save the republic by ridding it of Marat, and not, as the English believed at the time, a royalist. She came to Paris, rang Marat’s door bell, was admitted to his bathroom where he was writing in the tub, to relieve a skin irritation, and she stabbed him. She was arrested immediately and tried very publically. A few days later she died.
When we talk about women who were important actors in some historical event or other, very often there is a focus on what they looked like, in particular, whether they were pretty or not. (This, of course, does not simply apply to political women from the past but is still very much in force!)
What's interesting about Corday's case, is that descriptions and portraits of her after she was caught are very different from earlier descriptions or portraits. Before the murder, Charlotte Corday was described as pretty, beautiful even, by all who saw her. Even Chabot, the Montagnard who thought her a horrifying accident of nature, and fancied he could detect plainly her criminal propensities painted on her face, still described her as having ‘spirit, grace, superb height and bearing,’
But the death of Marat changed the way she was perceived. Fabre d’Eglantine, actor and Danton’s private secretary, captured this reversal in his ‘Moral and physical portrait’ of Corday for the daily newspaper Le Moniteur Universel.
“This woman who has been called very beautiful was not beautiful. […] she was a virago, fleshy and not fresh, without grace, dirty, as are nearly all female philosophers and blue stockings. Her face was covered in red patches, and featureless. Height and Youth are proof indeed! That is all it takes to be beautiful while on trial. Moreover this observation would not be needed if it were not for the general truth that any woman who is beautiful and knows it cares for life and fears death.”
Cities don't stay still. Their shapes change. Rivers move, neighborhoods are destroyed to make way for new roads, and buildings fall down and are replaced with little or no respect for the people that once lived there, or the things they said and did.
Paris underwent a great deal of change in the 19th century. In 1853, Napoleon III commissioned his prefect, Haussmann, to redesign Paris so that it would be beautiful, united and airy.
The old Paris was dirty and unhealthy - there were too many people living in confined spaces, and a lot of sickness and death. But it was also easier to ferment revolt in dark and narrow streets. In June 1832 and May 1848, the streets of Paris had been the scene of much fighting, with barricades being set up in the narrow passages, piles of furniture and debris, upturned paving stones. This would no longer be possible in Haussman's wide boulevards.
Haussman worked on the Rive Droite first. But his most drastic redesign was perhaps the Ile de la Cite, where the Conciergerie, the last prison of those who were executed in the Revolution, stands.
Between 1859 and 1867 the Capital was transformed from a nest of narrow breeding disease and discontent, to a network of large, airy boulevards, connected by the remaining truncated streets.
The first boulevard constructed was the Rue de Rivoli, lounging the Seine river on the Rive Droite. This is by far the fasted way from the Conciergerie, on the Ile de la Cite, to the place de la Concorde, previously Place de la Revolution. In other words, had this road existed in 1793, Manon Roland and Olympe de Gouges would have had a much more comfortable journey from their prison to the guillotine.
In 1870, Haussman was dismissed. The Parisians had had enough of their city being constantly turned upside down, and his projects were expensive. Nonetheless, they were continued until 1927. And seven years after Haussman's dismissal, the Boulevard St Germain was constructed. Many buildings were taken down in order to make space for this, including the prison where Manon Roland was first taken, L'Abbaye. The space where the prison building once stood is now occupied by a restaurant from a chain specialising in Belgian mussels.