We hear tales of Madame de Stael that she is always at the Assembly, where she has admirers to whom she sends notes from the gallery to encourage them to vote for patriotic motions. They say that the Spanish ambassador has reproached her for this at her father's table. You cannot imagine how much weight the aristocrats give such nonsense - that was born from their own brains perhaps. But they would show up the Assembly as led by a handful of scatterbrains, excited and fired up by a dozen women.
In contrast to her aristocratic contemporaries, who hosted the whole of revolutionary Paris in their rich salons, serving champagne and entertaining with music and literature, Manon Roland had the reputation of being a rather prim hostess. The only drink she served was sugared water, and she invited only her husband's colleagues, all men. She herself would sit apart from the men, sewing at her table, listening without talking.
Manon did visit with other Girondin women, such as Madame Petion, Madame Brissot and Louise Keralio-Robert. She even frequented Helen Maria Williams, and through her Mary Wollstonecraft. Her objection to women was not on the grounds that they should not participate in political debates, but because she thought that the public was not ready to accept politicised women, and because she worried that the aristocrats would use women's presence in her salon as a way of ridiculing the revolution as they had done with Madame de Stael in 89.
On 6 April 1791, she justified herself on this point to Bancal:
Our customs do not yet permit women to show themselves publically. They must inspire goodness, ignite all the sentiments that are useful to the nation, but not appear to participate in political work. They will only be able to act openly once every French man will have earned their freedom. Until then, our lightness, our poor morals would turn to ridicule everything they would seek to accomplish, and thereby destroy all the advantage that was to result from it.
Olympe was tried at the Conciergerie on 2 November 1793.
After she was arrested on 20 July she had been held first, at the Prison de l'Abbaye, transfered to the hospital prison of La Petite Force - she was suffering from an infected cut on her leg - and finally she paid to be incarcerated at a private pension on Chemin Vert.
The public prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal was Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinvinlle, a zealous and ruthless officer of the Terror, who took his turn at the Guillotine in 1795.
Olympe was introduced as 'Marie Olympe de Gouges, veuve Aubry. born in Montauban, aged 38 (she was in fact close to 45), residence: rue du Harlay section du Pont Neuf'.
She was charged with' having composed a work contrary to the expressed desire of the entire nation', and according to Article 1 of law of 29 march 1793: Whoever is convicted of producing writings advocation for the dissolution of national representation [...] will be sentenced to death." she was sentenced to death by the guillotine.
She would have been excecuted on that same day, but, after the order was read, she announced that she was pregnant.
'My enemies will not have the glory of seeing my blood flow. I am pregnant and will bear a citoyen or citoyenne for the Republic'
According to the law, she was to be examined by health officers who had been named by Robespierre 8 months previoulsy, after the Revolutionary Tribunal was founded, and by a Midwife, Veuve Prioux.
Her cell at the Conciergerie was the same one Marie-Antoinette had been held in after her attempted escape. It was isolated, for the purpose of keeping prisoners 'au secret'. The infirmary was just outside that cell, a dire place, if we are to believe the description of a surviving prisoner, Beugnot:
Seven by thirty metres, closed on both sides by iron fences, two narrow windows, vaulted roof, like some sort of gothic hell. 40 or 50 dirty straw beds on either side, with two or three patients each, sharing unwashed blankets. The privies were in the middle of the infirmaries, and there sick patients who had collapsed on the way lay in their own waste. The corpses, three or four each day, were removed at a specific hour of day, and until that time, the dead remained in bed with the sick.
All that is now left of this room is one of its narrow windows, which is visible from the women's courtyard.
The medical team concluded that if Olympe was pregnant, it was too early to tell.
Fouquier-Tinville chose to ignore their doubt, and declared that her claim had been found to be false:
The Public Prosecutor notes that the accused was incarcerated for the past five months and that according to regulations no contact was allowed between men and women in prisons. Therefore she made it up in order to avoid the death penalty.
There was in fact much romantic commerce between prisoners, as they were kept in adjoining wards, and often not very efficiently. In any case, Olympe had been staying in a private pension for mixed prisoners, a fact that Fouquier Tinville chose to ignore.
Olympe was arrested on 20 July 1793.
Three weeks before that, she was moving her furniture from Paris to a small house she had bought in the countryside near Tours, and where she was about to retire. She had been away visiting properties and spending time with her son, but had come back to Paris to see to the removal of her things.
Olympe knew that by being in Paris, and publishing more political tracts, she was putting herself at risk. But the decree against the Gironde had just been issued and she felt she had to do something. Her Political Testament, written at time, reflects her anger and uneasiness:
If, in a final effort, I can still save the republic, (chose publique), I desire that even while they immolate me to their fury, my sacrificers still envy my fate. And if one day, posterity notices women, perhaps the memory of my name will be of value. I have planned everything. I know that my death is unavoidable, but how beautiful and glorious it is, for a well-born soul, when ignominious death threatens all good citizens, still to give one's life for our dying country!
Her next tract, The Three Urns, is an attack on the Paris Commune.
It is printed by her imprimeur, Longuet, on 15 July. He draws 1000 copies. She sends a copy to the committee of public safety, and one to Herault de Seychelle, then she waits a few days - no reply, which she takes to mean that she can go ahead. Her distributer, or afficheur, is a Citizen Meunier who lives in the Rue de la Huchette.
On 20 July, Olympe leaves her apartment on the Ile de la Cite, crosses the bridge St Michel, and turns left into the Rue de la Huchette. The Pont St Michel and the Rue de la Huchette are still there. The actual Pont St Michel dates from the mid-nineteenth century. Earlier photographs show a similar looking bridge, with four arches, rather than two, and less flat. And back in the eighteenth century, it would still have had the more traditional aspect of the Medieval bridge, it would have been covered in wooden shops and houses.
The members of the Commune are reputed to have met in a tavern on the Rue de la Huchette. If true, this may well have influenced Meunier's decision not to post Olympe's Three Urns. What he actually told her, on the morning of her arrest, is that he was worried that it would rain. One imagines Olympe looking up at the clear sky, puzzled, before she set out to find another distributor on the Pont St Michel. But when she got there, Meunier's daugher, who had followed her pointed her out to three policemen and members of the national guard, She was arrested her and taken to the Depot prison of the Mairie.
On the afternoon of 2 September 1792, the Tocsin was rung, and and canon was shot as an alarm. Word was out that France had lost Verdun, and the traitors to the republic were blamed - they must have spread intelligence. Who were the traitors? Mostly two kinds: the aristocrats, and the priests who had refused to pledge allegiance to the new civic religion, known as the refractory priests.
But most of those were in prison.
Manon reports the following anecdote: her husband was then minister of the interior, and one of his deputies came to alert the Paris Commune that some of the prisoners might be at risk. Danton replied testily:
"I don't give a fuck for the prisoners or what happens to them!" (Portrait de Danton).
There was indeed cause for worry: the last time the tocsin was rung and the canon shot was the 10 August, when the Parisians stormed the Tuileries, where the King and his family was held, and massacred the Swiss guards who were there for their protection. The King and Queen were now at the Temple prison, and quite safe for the time being. But the Swiss guards that survived, and some of the nobles of their entourage, such as the Princess of Lamballe, were in the Paris prisons.
By the evening of 5 September, most of them were dead.
The British Caricaturist James Gilray published the following picture of a sans-culotte (here depicted literally without trousers!) family eating the flesh of their victims after a day of murders.
Unfortunately the caricature was not as far from the truth as it might have been, as Manon reports to a friend a few days later.
"If you knew the horrible details of these expeditions! Women are brutally raped, before these tigers tear them apart, entrails are worn as ribbons, human flesh eaten, still bleeding! You know my enthusiasm for the Revolution, well, I am ashamed of it. It has been stained by scelerats, it has become ugly!|"| (letter to Bancal, 9 September 1792)."
This episode marked a turn in the Revolution. Those who had been critical of the Commune, or Robespierre, Danton, and Marat - "My friend Danton leads all, Robespierre is his dummy, Marat holds his torch and his knife." - were now reluctant to have anything to do with them. By January, Roland had handed in his demission from the ministry, on 1 June, his wife was arrested, and on 2 June a decree for the arrest of the Girondins was issued. By November, all were dead.
"The whole of Paris let it happen... the whole of Paris is damned in my eyes, and I no longer hope that liberty may take root amongst such cowards, insensible to the worst outrages inflicted on nature and humanity, cold spectators of attacks that could easily have been prevented by fifty armed men." (Memoires)
There are a number of versions of Manon Roland's Memoires, each presented and edited differently by different editors. Manon gave her manuscripts to friends as she wrote them. Some friends, such as Champagneux, kept them religiously, Helen Maria Williams burned a copy of the Notices Historiques when she found out she would be arrested, and Bosc kept what he was given, but did not hand everything to the editors, seeking to protect his friend's reputation.
One thing that is missing from the early editions, based on the Bosc manuscripts, is the story of what preceded Manon's childhood religiosity, and her desire to be sent to a convent. In one early edition, we are told that Manon was simply seduced by religion, and told her mother one day that she wanted to go to a convent to be closer to god.
But later editions, restoring the passages kept back by Bosc, tell a very different story.
When she was 10, a young apprentice of her father's grabbed her hand and placed it on his penis. She cried out, and he was eventually forced to let go.
I had a lot of trouble untangling in my head what this scene had placed there. Every time I tried to think about it, some unknown, and unwelcome turmoil rendered such meditation wearisome. At the end of the day, what harm had he done to me?
A few weeks later, while she is working alongside her father, he has to leave suddenly and she is left with the apprentice. A band is going past in the streets and she wants to see. The apprentice raises her to the window, and in process, lifts her skirts and presses himself against her. She protests and he tells her he will put her skirt back, but starts caressing her genitals instead. She manages to escape again, and when she turns and sees his face, she is so afraid she nearly faints.
This time she had to tell her mother everything.
My mother's emotion and her expression of dismay overwhelmed me
Her mother used the shame, and the desire to be rescued that Manon felt so strongly, to bring out her religiosity. Within a couple of months, Manon demanded to be sent to a convent.
Manon meant to be scrupulous when recording her memories. But she did hesitate before relating the story of the assaults. She prefaces the story by saying that she is embarrassed by it, wanting her writings to be as chaste as she was. But, she says, it was too important a circumstance to keep a secret. Even as a child, she noted that telling the story to her mother required 'great courage' but that it was necessary.
Olympe de Gouges was brought in to the Prison de l'Abbaye three weeks after Manon. The two must have overlapped, for a few days and maybe they talked, exchanged a few pleasantries. But Olympe was not the kind of woman Manon liked to talk to, not respectable enough, not mindful of her virtue or reputation. In any case, it’s unlikely that Olympe was in a talkative mood. A week earlier, she had cut her leg, falling off a car, and the wound was infected. The guardians at l’Abbaye decided they could keep her – it would not do for a prisoner of as high a profile as Madame de Gouges to die before she was tried. So she was transferred to another prison, the Petite Force, previously a prison for prostitutes, and the scene of the Princesse de Lamballe’s massacre the previous year, but now converted to an infirmary for prisonners. No doubt the conversion didn’t amount to much and Olympe did not want to stay there. She sold her jewels and paid to be transferred to a private pension for sick prisoners on the Chemin Vert. Unlike the Abbaye or the Force, this is a prison for both men and women, and soon, Olympe finds herself pregnant at the age of nearly forty-five.
Only three weeks afterwards, on 28 October Olympe was taken to the Conciergerie and put there in isolation for four nights in the same cell where Marie Antoinette had spent her last days, just two weeks previously.
Then on 2 November, she is tried. As she is accused of having printed a pamphlet against Robespierre, raising the possibility of a constitutional monarchy, she cannot plead innocent. Not only had she written the pamphlet in question, the Three Urnes, but she had herself posted it on the walls of Paris, after her distributor deserted her. So instead of pleading innocence she pleaded pregnancy. She was examined and the doctors confirmed that there was a good chance she might be pregnant - but it was too early to tell. She herself testified that she recognised the signs, that had felt the same way on the two occasions she'd been pregnant before. (This is, incidentally, the only mention of a second child, who must sadly have died). Her prosecutor, the infamous Fouquier-Tinville, however, refused to consider the evidence on the grounds that she had been in a female only environment (conveniently forgetting her stay at the Chemin Vert pension).
The next day, Olympe climbed the stairs up to the Rue de Mai, stepped into the charette, and was driven to her execution. Her last words: “Children of France, you will avenge my death!”
In July 1791, just as Le Republicain was getting ready to print its first issue, the King, who'd try to run away from France with his family, was caught in Varenne, recognised because of his likeness to the profile printed on a coin. He was brought back to Paris, and the Assembly, much relieved that they wouldn't have to do anything truly radical, decided to keep him on as the head of a constitutional monarchy.
This roused the republicans, and Brissot, often their spokesperson, drafted a petition to have the king removed from office. The word spread and on 17 July a huge crowd gathered on the Champ-de-Mars for the purpose of signing the petition. The Champ-de-Mars, now the site of the Eiffel Tower, was then a large empty space which had been chosen to celebrate the first 'Fete de la Federation' on 14 July 1790.
As is often the case in large gatherings, a few detractors made trouble, there was a fight, and possibly a death or two. This was enough for the Assembly to declare court martial and the army, headed by La Fayette, fell onto the crowd with their bayonettes.
It is unknown how many died or were wounded, but the event is refered to as the Champ-de-Mars Massacre.
Both Sophie and Manon were in the crowd, both with their daughters. The Marquis de la Fayette, famous for his role in the American Revolution had been a close friend of Grouchy before her marriage to Condorcet, and was generally in sympathy with Brissot and his friends. This, of course was the end of the friendship.
When Paine submitted his 'Letter' to his friends Brissot and Condorcet to publish as an advertisement for their new paper Le Républicain, it needed to be translated. Paine spoke and read French, but didn't like to write it. It had been decided, for some reason, that Achille Duchatellet, not Paine, would sign the article before it was pasted all over Paris, and published first, in Brissot's Patriote François, and then as the leading article of Le Républicain. Etienne Dumont, translator of of Jeremy Bentham, was approached first. Dumont refused, on the grounds that he did not want to be involved in what he saw as a foolhardy enterprise by 'an American and a young fool from the French aristocracy who put themselves forward to change the face of France' . The other member of the team who was able to translate was Sophie - hence, she probably got the job.
But Sophie's participation in the journal did not end with translation. Two anonymous articles may be attributed to her. The first is very short. Entitled "Letter from a young mechanic" it proposes that the royal family and its entourage be replaced by a set of automaton. Even though such machines are expensive, they will cost a fraction of what the French people are spending on their actual king. And what's more, the mechanical king, far from being a tyrant, will raise its pen and sign everything its government wants it to!
The second article is a long and very critical piece on the King and the mechanisms of his government. This article, it seems, was originally supposed to be written by Dumont, but he withdrew, when the king was returned to Paris. Dumont, however, had left a set of notes at the Condorcet. He later complained in his memoires:
There is good stylistic evidence that the person who 'rewrote' Dumont's piece was in fact Sophie. In particular, an image she uses in her Letters on Sympathy can be found in the article, that of the king (and monarchy) as a rattle designed to amuse the immature French people, to distract them from the fact that they are not free.
On 21 June 1791, . the King of France had just escaped with his family, dressed as middle class people, and hoping to reach Austria.
At lunch at the Petions with Brissot and Robespierre also present, the Rolands were discussing what the Assembly should do next. The idea of a republic was first mentioned.
At that point, according to Manon Roland,
"Robespierre with his habitual grimace, and biting his nails asked 'What is a Republic?'"
This was also, Manon claimed, when the project of a republican society and the journal "Le Republicain" were first imagined.
The journal was very short lived, with only four issues printed, It was in fact the work of Condorcet, Brissot, Thomas Paine, Achille Duchatelet, Etienne Dumont and (as we will see in a future post), Sophie de Grouchy. It was first advertised through a pamphlet, written by Paine, translated by Grouchy, and signed by Duchatellet.
Manon, writing to Bancal in July 91 reported that the opening of the new society had caused quite a scandal at the Assembly:
You know that a new republican society was formed, and they are to bring out a paper, the title of which advertises its goals and principles. Payne is at the head of it. He wrote the content of the pamphlet that is pasted everywhere this morning, as a sort of notice. Malouet denounces this pamphet as deserving the of the harshest punishment. The worst thunder was at the assembly, and it is only by flattering its love for the monarchy, and hatred of republicanism that we succeeded in convincing it that whatever the opinion, it should be let to run free [...] The Jacobins, like the Assembly, go into convulsions whenever the Republic is mentioned” Mme Roland,
In August 1782, Manon was in Amiens, while her husband, travelling for business, was in Paris. Jean-Marie Roland was inspector of Commerce and Manufactures, had his office in Amiens. The couple lived there for the first four years of their marriage (1780-1784) and their daughter was born there in October 1781. Most of the time, the couples were working on an Encyclopedia of textile manufacture, gathering expert articles, researching and writing, and editing. When Jean-Marie was promoted to general inspector, the family moved to Lyon, and Manon was able to live in the family's nearby country home, Le Clos.
Whenever they were apart, the couple corresponded.
On 8 August 1782, Manon wrote to Jean-Marie:
I hear, my friend, from M.d'Antic, that you are arrived, and while at first I only meant to let you know through him how pleased I was, I thought that at the same time I should pass on to you the included, which is from Villefranche where you must reply. It came together with a piece for Despreaux, from the lawyer Dessertines who disserts on Greek chronlogy as an ex-jesuit. (Please don't tell the chanoine this is from me, as it talks about the Deluge, and Moses, etc, things and people I don't wish others to think I have fallen out with).
Monsieur d'Antic was Bosc d'Antic, who, after 1789, went only by Bosc. He was a close friend of the Rolands, a botanist who helped them in the botanical part of their Encyclopedia.
The 'chanoine' was Roland's brother, a religious man. Both Manon and Jean-Marie were atheists, but Manon liked her brother in law very much and did not wish to argue with him too loudly.
As to the young lady, the editor of the letters refers to Manon's childhood friend and correspondent, Sophie Cannet, who introduced her to her husband. Sophie was considering an offer of marriage from a much older man. She eventually gave in, and a few years later was a widow with two children.