Jacques-Pierre Brissot, Manon Roland’s close friend and republican ally, also visited England. Brissot was a lower-middle class provincial who trained as a lawyer, but came to Paris and decided to become instead a writer and journalist. One of his first jobs was for the Scotsman Samuel Swinton, the editor of the Courier de l’Europe which reported on English politics in several languages. Brissot was his French editor. It is in that capacity that he first travelled to England in 1779 at the age of 25. This first journey was short – two weeks – but it gave him a taste for England. This taste became more pronounced as the young writer came up against the stringent French censorship laws, and again when in 1782, he married Felicite Dupont, who translated English writers Goldsmith and Dodsley, and who had spent some of her childhood in London. The couple moved to London shortly after they married. Brissot, who was hoping to establish himself as a writer there was disappointed. As a foreigner, I was snubbed, he says, except by a few individuals, the principal one being Catharine Macaulay.
Catharine Macaulay (1731-1791) was only fifty-one when Brissot met her. Yet, he describes her as a very old woman:
Imagine a woman with lead on her face, missing teeth, wrinkles badly hidden with rouge, and whose decrepitude showed beneath her always fashionable and elegant get up. Next to her the brilliant figure and freshness and health of her husband, still an adolescent! It looked as if a child was hugging a corpse.
Macaulay’s marriage to a twenty-five year old (hardly a teenager!) and good looking man had of course been badly received, and even Brissot, who admired her greatly and defends her against other accusations (such as that she was not the author of her own works) finds this difficult. But even then Brissot tries to dispel the calumnities by arguing that it was the family of her husband (his brother was some sort of medical innovator or quack) that was really objectionable.
Macaulay’s most famous work was her History of England in eight volumes. Brissot thought that work remarkable, and beleived that she deserved the laurels she had taken from David Hume. To objections that she could not, as a woman, really be the author of that work, Brissot replied that the evidence that she was laid in her conversation: ‘It has all the characteristcs, he said, of the dignity, the republican energy breathed by her History.’
In 1784, Manon travelled to England with her husband who was to meet professional contacts there. They came by water, first taking a river boat from Amiens to Boulogne, and then a ship with ‘two rooms and six beds’ for a ten hours crossing to Dover. From there they made their way to London, stopping on the way as tourists would.
Dover, by Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
Manon is very enthusiastic about what she sees. The English countryside is pretty! It’s clean! And it is welcoming to travellers, with walking paths readied and lands separated with 3-foot hedges rather then 12-foot walls as they are in France.
In London she finds the Strand, with Somerset House nearly finished, to be a most beautiful avenue, and again, clean – even the market displays of fish and meat are tidy and appealing. St Paul’s cathedral is like nothing she has ever seen, and she loves Westminster, the Abbey and the Palace. The British Museum with its displays of insects, organized along the Linnaean classifications, and its display of Egyptians mummies is fascinating. The Rolands seat in during parliament, and hear Pitt the young and Fox arguing. They travel to Kew and see the gardens there – what a poor job they did of copying them at Ermenonville, where Rousseau is buried, she thinks.
She is taken by how the women live. They are separate from the men – their domain is the home and they accept that their job is keep the house in order and the children clean. They do not gamble. They are also more modest – and cleaner! – than their French counterparts. They wear a scarf over their décolleté, and a bonnet or kerchief at all times. Young women are not shown in society till quite late, and they do not powder their till they are between 15 and 18. Unlike their brothers, they are not sent to schools – except for a few, but these are respectable schools – but their mothers teach them all they need to know.
But mostly she is impressed by the air of liberty (and again cleanliness!) that she sees about her, whether in the landscape or the education of the young:
Liberty and cleanliness: here are the two laws of early childhood. Children are washed, every day, from head to toe; they do as they wish, as long as they cause no harm. We would be surprised to see at the table of a Duke his children, aged 8 or 10, pushing their plates in front of them, putting their elbows on the table and resting their on their hand, or other such things. They do not pay attention to such trifles as they know that later, the child will notice that these things are not done, and will correct herself for the sake of their own well-being. From this method in general it follows that children are themselves in front of their parents, they do not feel embarassed by their presence, and their parents know them better. It also follows that children are more natural, free, and confident in their movement, their demeanor, which becomes permanently imprinted and suits well the pride of a republican and the independence of a man.
Thomas Paine first arrived in France in 1787, and he moved between there and England until his arrest in December 1793 and release from prison some months later, upon which he moved back to America. In August 1792, Paine was granted honorary French citizenship, alongside a few foreign supporters of the revoluton. Paine already had two citizenship: English, from birth, and American, also honorary. Paine was connected to the Girondins, and during Roland’s ministry, he visited Jean-Marie and Manon at their Paris home. Manon reports on his character in her usual style:
I have already named the most notable of the people I entertained, but I must also mention Paine. He had been given French citizenship as one of the celebrated foreigners whom the nation felt proud to adopt, being noted for his writings which had played a large part in the American Revolution and might have helped to bring about a similar revolution in England. I cannot form an absolute judgement of him because he could speak no French though understood it and I was such in much the same position with English; so that although I could follow his conversation with others I could hardly engage him in one myself. But I did form the impression that, like so many authors, he was not worth so much as his writings.
Equality is not often discussed in a republican context, as liberty is more central to that debate. But equality also plays a role in 18thcentury republicanism ‘Liberty, Equality’ was the first motto of the French Revolution. Republican liberty is all about non-domination: living under a despot, a king, is being dominated even when the King is not intentionally harmful. The very fact that one person is in a position to interfere with the lives of all on a whim is tyranny, and results in the absence of freedom. Republican equality is also defined in contrast to tyranny. It is equality of status in relation to the law that prevents one individual from being dominated by another. This was framed early on in the Revolution by Abbe Seiyes in “What is the Third Estate”:
I picture the law at the center of an immense globe. All citizens without exception are at the same distance from it on the surface and occupy equal space. All equally depend on the law; all give it their liberty and property for protection. This is what I call the citizens’ common right, whereby all are alike. [...] If [...] one person comes to dominate his neighbour, or to usurp his property, the common law will repress his attempt.
Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes (1748-1836), pictured with and without his religious garb.
Equality of status must have seemed especially urgent for the women involved in the Revolution, as they must have understood that without that, they could not claim the freedom that was on offer as they would remain under the domination of their husbands. And in 1788, it looked as though they would benefit from the title of citizen and therefore receive equal status. Sieyes, when asked who would count as equal replied that “inequalities of sex, size, age, colour, etc. do not in any way denature civic equality”. These, he said, like inequality of property, are incidental differences and cannot affect civic rights.
One good place to start in establishing republican equality, one place where it was very clearly wanting, was the criminal law. Sieyes called the use of privilege in punishment an ‘abominable distinction’:
Why do the privileged, when they commit the most horrible crimes, nearly always escape punishment, thereby stealing from the public potentially most effective examples? [...] The law dictates different sentences for the Privileged and he who is not. She seems to follow the Noble criminal with its tenderness, and to want to honour him even at the scaffold.
Two years after Sieyes wrote ‘What is the Third Estate’, and when it became clear that sex would make count towards equality after all, Olympe de Gouges argued, along similar lines, that for women to have equal status as citizens would mean in the first instance, equal status in the face of criminal law:
VII. No woman may be exempt; she must be accused, arrested and imprisoned according to the law. Women, like men, will obey this rigorous law.
Eudora (1781-1858) was born one year after Manon married Roland de la Platiere. The pregnancy and birth were reasonably straightforward and Manon elected to feed the baby herself, following Rousseau’s advice in Emile. When she thought her milk had dried, she turned to her husband for advice. He visited an orphanage and reported that infants there were fed beef stock mixed with cow’s milk, dripped through a sponge. Fortunately for Eudora, her mother’s milk had not in fact dried.
Once she was a little older, her parents decided that it was safe for her mother to travel – she had family business to attend to in Versailles – and to leave Eudora in the care of her father. In a letter he reported that he let her play on the floor of his study while he worked, and that she had somehow gotten hold of a pair of scissors and some of his socks, which resulted in pretty red ribbons.
By the time they moved to Le clos in the mid 80s, the couple devised an educational program for their daughter based on Rousseau’s works. Conveniently, they must have forgot that Rousseau’s educational precepts only really applied to boys!
In any case, Manon was not impressed with her daughter’s intellect and she wrote to her husband:
We mustn’t pretend, your daughter is sensitive, she loves me, she will be sweet, but she does not have a single idea... [...] no promise of any wit. She embroidered a pretty work box for me and she seems good with a needle, but she doesn’t appear to have any taste, and I am starting to believe that we should not expect too much of her.
When Manon was taken to l’Abbaye, in May 1793, her daughter stayed behind with the family’s servant, Marguerite. While in prison, her mother arranged for their friend, Bosc, to be her guardian in the event of hers and her husband’s death. And the even did come a few months later.
Bosc took charge of the twelve year old’s education. A year and a half later, they were considering marriage. Bosc, in a letter to a friend, represents it as her idea, but one he is considering as he finds so ‘promising’ and ‘interesting’. Nonetheless the marriage does not happen and Eudora is adopted by another friend of her mother’s Champagneux. The latter, a family man, cannot take the child for himself, but he married her off to one of his son. Eudora was 15 and he husband, Pierre-Leon, 20.
The couple had two daugthers, Zelia (1799-1880) who had herself had three daughters and one son and Malvina (1800-1834). It is likely that there are descendants of Zelia still alive, but I have not been able to trace them.
When Malvina died suddenly at the age of 34, her mother turned to religion and became a recluse.
Bosc gave Eudora her mother’s papers around that time. but it was Zelia and her children who later re-discovered Manon’s life, works and correspondence. They collaborated with Faugere to publish a new edition of the Memoirs, and donated the manuscripts to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Many of these can now be read on Gallica.
I have written before about historians' treatment of the women of the Revolution. But it seems to be a theme that keeps on giving.
The latest culprit is Max Gallo, French historian and Academician (we also saw how those were not as woman friendly as they might be).
His first volume of a popular history of the French Revolution says very little about the women involved in the events between 1788 and 1793. There is no mention of Olympe de Gouges, which is suprising as much of the book deals with the people of France's unwillingness to do anything substantial about povery, and Gouges was influential in bringing about some kind of a solution by encouraging women artists to give their jewels to a patriotic fund. The last part of the book, dealing with the King's trial could also have mentioned Olympe's various writings on the topic, including her offer to serve as the King's advocate.
Sophie de Grouchy is mentioned in passing as hosting a salon (but as Madame de Condorcet). But it is the treatment of Manon Roland which left me reeling.
Gallo writes that Danton is weary of his enemies, the Girondins, especially:
this Madame Roland, hounding him with her hatred, perhaps simply because he was not affected by her charms, and she is an imperious seductress, who imposes her ideas on her husband, on Barbaroux, Brissot, the leaders of the Girondist party.
We should not assume that Gallo has not read Manon Roland's works, however. He clearly has and quotes one of her letters, written after the September massacres:
My friend, Danton leads all ; Robespierre is his puppet; Marat holds his torch and dagger.
Except that Gallo omits to attribute the quote to its author, putting it down instead as a popular rumour.
During the summer 1791, when the royal family had escaped from their enforced Parisian home, been arrested in Versailles, and brought back to Paris, the Condorcets, together with Thomas Paine and a few others, and with the help of Brissot, had started a journal, Le Républicain. Sophie wrote two pieces for that journal, one of which was a satirical piece titled ‘Letter from a young mechanic’.
The letter proposes that the royal family and its entourage be replaced by a set of automata. Even though such machines are expensive, it says, 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! Jacques Vaucanson, the putative teacher of the fictional author was a famous inventor, and one whose inventions Condorcet had praised in his works as an example of the sort of technical activity that could be just as inspirational as theories.
Automata were generally meant to be humourous, rather than impressive scientific inventions, or serious art. Vaucanson had created many impressive moving statues, including that of a musician who could play twelve songs on two sorts of flutes. But his most celebrated piece was a copper duck that could be made to pick grain, swallow it and defecate them. Vaucanson claimed the duck could also digest the grain – this however, was discovered to be untrue in an autopsy conducted in 1844 – the ‘excrement’ was simply stored in a different part of the duck’s body, not metabolised from the grain it swallowed. Given this, the idea of the King and his family being replaced by automata is not simply insulting in that it reduces them to impotent machines: it is also ridiculous: the royal family, though they were used to perform their private functions in public, did not do so on demand!
The King would also have been pained, no doubt, by the memory of a previous attempt to liken him to a mechanical puppet. In 1777, a pamphlet was published – The Mannequins, telling the story of a bad King who one days wakes up and finds himself, his family and his entourage transformed into puppets, whose strings are pulled by another, but more autonomous puppet of the name Togur (a thinly veiled reference to Turgot).
Looking for mentions of Sophie de Grouchy in the 18th century press, I came up against an extremely unpleasant text which would find a home today on the worst alt-right threads.
These were unpleasant to translate, and I expect they'll be unpleasant to read - unless you are accustomed to aforementioned threads - so brace yourselves.
The text comes from a royalist journal by a M. Suleau, who, having praised aristocratic ladies for their anti-revolutionary attitude goes to lists exceptions:
There are of course, exceptions amongst the old, the ugly, the infirm, whatever class they belong to. I have carefully verified that of all the women who harnessed themselves to the cart (or more correctly, the tipcart) of the Revolution, there is not a single one that does not belong to this disgusting category.
Francois-Louis Suleau is described in the French Wikipedia article dedicated to him as a passionate defender of monarchy, a provocateur, one who would not accept compromise and bravely attempted to convince first Mirabeau, then Danton and Robespierre to preserve the monarchy.
Readers will no doubt be sad to hear that this noble individual came to a violent and inglorious end at the age of 34, massacred by the crowds in front of the Tuileries on August 10 because they'd mistaken him for another - more influential - counter revolutionary journalist.
Although she became a political thinker at a very early age – eight, if we believe her memoirs, being the age she discovered Plutarch and decided she too was a republican – Manon did not become interested in politics until the Revolution. That is, she was interested in political theory, but felt that these were so distant from the shenanigans at Versailles that her interest had to remain political. In the early 1780s, Manon Roland had lost all illusions that the world would ever be ruled in a just manner.
In 1783, she wrote to her friend Champagneux:
Virtue, liberty, are only to be found in the hearts of a small number of decent people; to hell with the others and all the thrones in the world!
But from the very start of the revolution, when she was recovering from pneumonia and writing powerful letters to her friends in Paris, advising and admonishing as to what had to be done, Manon became fully involved. She wrote letters and newspapers articles, and helped Jean-Marie find a position for himself that would allow them to participate more fully. As soon as it became possible the Rolands moved to Paris. In June 1791, she wrote to her friend Bancal explaining her transformation:
While peace lasted, I kept myself to the tranquil role and the kind of influence that seem to me proper for my sex. But when the King’s departure declared war, it struck me that we must all devote ourselves without reserve; I went and joined the Fraternal Societies, persuaded that zeal and right thinking can sometimes be very useful in times of crisis. I cannot keep to my home and am visiting all my acquaintances in order to excite us for the greatest actions.
In 1777, the Académie of Besançon proposed an essay competition with the following question: How can educating women contribute to the improvement of men? Such competitions were common at the time, a way both for the provincial academies to make themselves known throughout the country, and for fledgling writers to get published.
Competitions were especially rife during the decades preceeding the Revolution, with 357 between 1770 and 1779, that is, more than 35 per year. As well as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose career as a writer took off when he won the Academy of Dijon competition with his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences in 1749, many famous names of that time entered and won academic competitions, such as Jean-Francois Marmontel, novelist and friend of Olympe, Jacques Pierre Brissot, Abbe Gregoire and Jean-Paul Marat to edit.
Manon’s first mention of her academic project to her friend Sophie Cannet is very brief, and almost blustery – look at all the crazy things I’m trying to do, she seems to say – none of them will come to anything:
14 January 1777
In April she sent it the Academy, and in June, still waiting for an answer, she told her friend about it:
21 June 1777
It turned out nobody won. Bernardin de Saint Pierre, Rousseau’s disciple, and author of the novel Paul and Virginie, got an honorary mention.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.