Manon Roland did not live through a pandemic. But she did spend several months in forced isolation, when she was arrested and sent to prison, first at l'Abbaye, then at Sainte Pelagie.
Did her experience bear any resemblance to ours, who have to self-isolate at home while Covid19 weakens and hopefully goes away?
Certainly there are many points in common:
Fearing for her friends' lives – check: those of them who were not also in prison were running, and in fact many of them died.
Fearing for her own – check: and quite rightly too, as she was guillotined after 5 months of prison.
Having to stay away from her loved ones to protect them – check: the motive for her arrest was that she might give away the whereabouts of her husband and other Girondins, including her lover Buzot, so she had to make sure that she kept her contacts with them very discreet indeed.
Being confined to a small indoor space, without all her work stuff – check: Though her first cell was fairly comfortable, she was moved somewhere smaller. And though she had some books sent to her, and was able to buy pens and papers, most of things were inaccessible under seals.
Knowing the world around her was falling to pieces because its leaders were mad and not having a clear idea of when it would all be over – check: she saw the Terror as the death of the Revolution and did not think the republic would ever recover.
How did Manon cope with isolation? Not being ill, and being completely isolated from anyone she may have had to care for or homeschool, such as her daughter, Eudora, she could use the time pretty much at her own discretion:
I plan to use the leisure of my captivity by retracing my personal life from my earliest childhood until now. To go back thus, on every step of one's career is to live a second time. And what better is there to do in prison than to take one's existence elsewhere through a happy fiction or interesting memories?
How did she manage to settle down to work in such circumstances? Manon tells us that her education, which mixed Plutarch with omelet making, and dancing lessons with Latin was an ideal way of preparing for a varied life, and especially useful for knowing how to make the best of a very unpleasant situation:
This mixture of serious study, pleasant exercise and ordered domestic tasks, seasoned by mother's wisdom, rendered me fit for everything. This seemed to predict the vicissitudes of my fortune and helped me bear them. [...] I am nowhere out of place.
So when she first arrived at l'Abbaye, her first prison, she immediately set about to organize herself, so that she would be comfortable and able to work:
Up at noon, I examined how I would settle in my new home. I covered a small and mean table with a white cloth and placed it under the window, intending to use it as a desk, resolved to eat at the corner of the hearth in order to keep my work space clean and tidy.
But before you ask yourself how you could be more like Manon, and make your quarantine more productive and tidier at the same time, remember that Manon died at the guillotine. Don't be like Manon. Stay safe.
On Pause ...
The French translation of Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published before she arrived in Paris in the winter 1792, and reviewed favourably in at least four reviews, including one, La Chronique de Paris, edited by Condorcet. The name of the translator is not noted anywhere in the translation. Isabelle Bour, in an article on the reception of Wollstonecraft in revolutionary France, suggests that it was a Girondin.
The translation is a good one: it contains spelling mistakes rather than mistakes in translation, suggesting that it was done in a hurry by someone who knew English well. It is also annotated in a way that suggests familiarity with English culture and literature, and a desire to defend 'Papist' France against the allegations of a protestant writer, while at the same time poking fun at Wollstonecraft's old fashion religiosity.
The translator seems thoroughly on board with Wollstonecraft's defence of women, until, that is, we reach a footnote to Chapter 11 (which mostly concerns education of women) where we get a peak at the translators's common-revolutionary-garden variety and insidious sexism:
Here the author is talking about France. It is true that the Revolution is allowing us to pay attention to women who for too long were treated with superficial respect and deep contempt. We owe them a better education; because mothers are the first teachers that nature and society offers children. We owe them divorce, which only the tyranny of priests was able to take from them. A large number among them have proven that they were worthy of liberty; they only need to be enlightened. More enlightened, they will become more virtuous and happier. We owe them reparation for all the gothic crimes of feudality against them, for inheritance, etc.; for if nature seems to refuse them political rights, they have as many claims to civil rights as men. In a word, it is up to them to give the new regime the firmness it needs. Since the French nation has shaken off it yoke, we have heard much about a counter-revolution. Legislators! Don't deceive yourselves: if there is to be a counter-revolution, it will come from the influence of women. So let the constitution concern itself with them, what you do for them will not be lost. What you have deposited in the hands of the paterfamilias really belongs to them, as they will transmit it to the future generations.
The translator is quite clear that women are not and should not be political rights holders, and that the main reason why we should grant them rights is that they are mothers to future citizens.
Although Wollstonecraft does emphasise the importance of the role of women as mothers in a republic, she by no means reduces their citizenship to that, indeed, takes pain to say that women need not marry nor have children, but that they still deserve to be treated as full citizens. The translator clearly accepts what Sieyes proposed in the draft of the Constitution, namely that women should be only passive citizen, i.e. enjoy civil, but not political rights.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.