As I find myself single parenting my son for a whole 12 days, I feel bound to reflect on what it was like, being a single working mother during the French Revolution.
Olympe de Gouges, widowed at twenty, her son just one year old, brought him up by herself in Paris while pursuing her career as an actress, then a playwright, and later a political writer. She made sure to pay for him to have private tutors, and may have had help from her sister, also in Paris, to look after him. We know that he came with her to theatrical rehearsals, and eventually became an actor in her troup. By the time she died he was married with one child and another on the way. Under pressure (and perhaps torture) he signed a letter renouncing his mother. A few years later, he wrote and signed a document recusing himself, which he sent to the government, along with two volumes of his mothers' works.
Pierre Aubry, Olympe's son, struggled to make a career for himself under Bonaparte, but eventually was sent by him to French Guiana, in South America, at the time slavery was being re-introduced there. Aubry died a few months after arriving, of malaria. His wife remarried, several of their children survived and some of their descendants still live in Australia and the United States.
Mary Wollstonecraft found herself pregnant by her American lover during her stay in Paris, and moved alone to Le Havre when her baby girl, Fanny, was born. There she looked after her daughter while writing up her History of the French Revolution.
By the time Mary and her daughter came back to England, the relationship with Fanny's father, Imlay, was over. In order to keep them out the way, he asked Mary to go and investigate the disappearance of a cargo of silver on the coast of Norway. Mary went with her daughter and a French maid, clearly not thinking of single motherhood as a reason not to travel. When they came back, Imlay made it clear that he had no intention of spending time or money on his daughter. Mary responded by attempting to commit suicide, leaving the following note for her daughter:
I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed.
When Mary met her William Godwin, they agreed that he would act as her daughter's father. Unfortunately, she did not live long enough to find out whether that model of parenting would have been a success.
Fanny Wollstonecraft did not live a happy or successful life. She lost her mother at the age of 3, and was left in the care of the father of her new sister, Mary. William Godwin remarried a few years later and Fanny and Mary were looked after by their step-mother who cared more for her own daughters than for them.
Godwin, although he saw it as his duty to care for Mary's daughter, did not think much of her:
My own daughter is considerably superior in capacity to the one her mother had before. Fanny, the eldest, is of a quiet, modest, unshowy disposition, somewhat given to indolence, which is her greatest fault, but sober, observing, peculiarly clear and distinct in the faculty of memory, and disposed to exercise her own thoughts and follow her own judgment. Mary, my daughter, is the reverse of her in many particulars. She is singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire for knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes is almost invincible. My own daughter is, I believe, very pretty; Fanny is by no means handsome, but in general prepossessing.
When the girls were teenagers, Percy Blithe Shelley came into their lives and seduced Mary by talking to him about her mothers' life and work. Two years after Mary ran away with the poet, Fanny, left alone with her unkind stepmother and a stepfather who did not care much about her, committed suicide. She was 22.
Sophie de Grouchy was widowed at 30, her only daughter still a toddler. Although she had a support system – her sister and an old nanny – to help her bring up young Eliza, she had to earn the money to feed and house her extended family, and she did that by painting portraits.
Eliza Condorcet O'Connor is the one real success story of the three. This is perhaps due to the fact that her mother did not die when she was a toddler and was not tried and executed, thereby ruining her family's reputation and career prospects. By the time Eliza was old enough to marry, her mother had regained most of their family wealth and was able to purchase Mirabeau's old castle for her. Eliza seemed to have lived a long and happy life there, continuing the work her mother had started of editing her father's works. Her descendants still live at the castle
On 6 August 1789, the Assemblee Constituante met to discuss the points that were made on the night of the 4thregarding the abolition of the privileges of the aristocrats and the clergy. One point of contention was the abolition of the 'droits honorifiques' i.e. rights and privileges that could be purchased by families or individuals within the church. These rights pertained to being seated in a particular place, burial privileges, having prayers and masses told, the use of incense and holy water, etc. Every aspect of church going could be moneyed.
These rights had to be abolished for the sake of equality – but at the same time, some families had invested in their church for several generations and there were contracts at stake that would have to be reneged on if these rights were abolished.
The question of church privileges seems like a petty concern to us – not what the Revolution, in its early days ought to have been about. Yet the Assembly, fired up by the night of the 4thaugust, decided to spend an entire day discussing just that.
When Brissot decided that he would set up his republican colony in France, rather than America, he first approached his friends Bosc and Lanthenas. The latter had some money and was enthusiastic about the idea – although he might have preferred the original plan of going to America. Bosc and Lanthenas suggested the include the Rolands in the plan. Their current way of living, between Lyon where Roland worked, and their idyllic country house, le Clos, together with their shared republican dreams made them perfect for the project. Brissot was introduced, and the friends corresponded. It was decided that they would contact a few others and try to put together enough money, in installments, to buy land and set up the colony.
Brissot drafted a plan for what he called an agricultural society, or society of friends. The aim of the society would be twofold: to ‘regenerate’ its own members by cultivating the earth, and to regenerate the local community through a ‘rural education’. The first part of the plan would be to buy property, a land vast enough to house twenty families, each in its own simple and luxury free house, and with room to grow. The land should be in the countryside, contain a wooded area, water, be close to a mountain, and served by a large road.
The plan says nothing about how the rural life would help ‘regenerate’ the members of the society. Maybe he felt there was no need, and that anyone interested would already believe in the healing powers of the simple, rural life. This was certainly true of Manon, who even before she was married, and while she still lived in Paris, claimed that the Spartans led the best lives, because they lived in the country, simply, without any luxury. She embraced, and sought to reproduce, whenever she could, the life led by Rousseau’s Julie at Etanges, simply, luxury free, industrious, and always with an eye to the needs and education of the men, women and children working the land she lived on. At le Clos, she even participated in the Vendanges when the season came, picking grapes alongside her peasant neighbours, making friends with them and treating them as equals. When the Great Fear happened, and those who had locked their doors against those who did not, she was secure enough in her relationship with the poor of Le Clos not to run away.
Another reason why Brissot may not have felt the need to explain what was in it for the colonists lies in the title of the document in which he details his plan: a society of friends. Brissot had ties with the Quakers of England, whose philosophy and way of life he admired, and when he travelled to America, it is the Quakers he sought, both because he regarded them as a model and because of their work against slavery. His brother in law had immigrated to Philadelphia, a Quakers town, so there were possibly ties to the sect from that side of the family too.
Another possible clue to Brissot modeling his proposal on Quakers communities is the content of the educational program the colonists were to dispense to the locals – one in which religion was taught but in very simple, rational terms. Members of the society, when they were not labouring the earth, or reading philosophy, would teach peasants ‘the purest morals, the simplest religious beliefs and how to work with their hands.’ Although the colons were to live simply one thing they would not have to compromise about was reading materials. Brissot takes care to specify in his plan that the colony will house a good library held in common.
Should we talk about a colony when they were in fact not planning on leaving the country? It seems so – and moreover that what they intended was a colony in the strong sense, i.e. they wanted to colonize the people living around them, teach them to be other than they were, more virtuous, more efficient in their work, and better republicans. But at the same time they had no intention of living among the peasants as equals, or of integrating the peasants more closely into their communities. The community was one of teachers, who would benefit from a more rural lifestyle, but not peasants. Agriculture and philosophy might live side-by-side, but not together.
This separation of status between the colonists and the colonized is reflected in Jean-Marie Roland’s letter to Champagneux in early 1792 – by which time all the land had been bought and all had given up on the dream:
I was as sure of this as my existence - to create a monument to patriotism and the useful arts, such as does not exist even in Paris [...] we would have made a community such as never existed before in the provinces, which could have become famous and would have rewarded our pains with either reputation or profit.
Perhaps this was not Brissot’s intention, but it seems that for Manon’s husband at least, there was a third aim, beyond self-improvement and improvement of the local peasantry: fame and wealth for the founders.
In 1788 Brissot travelled to America in order to investigate the possibility of removing his family there, and also in order to try and make himself known: Brissot did not wish to give up his literary career, and if he were to move to a large unknown country, he would need the support of influential people. In that sense, his trip was not successful – he did not feel he had made enough of an impact to risk moving his name and career to the other side of the ocean. But the dream remained. When he wrote up his travel notes, which were published in 1792, he emphasized what he saw as the parts of American life worth reproducing: the Americans, he thought, lived well because their lives were simple and virtuous, and everything in it arranged according to reason. This was the dream he was after, and with which he infected his friends, the Rolands, Lanthenas, and Bancal.
In a sense, it may have seemed safer to stay than to go. Those who moved to America, taking advantage of the dubious Scioto company, selling worthless land in Ohio, tended to be those who had either tried to make a life for themselves in France and failed, or those who had little hope of succeeding where they were. FelicitéBrissot, writing to her brother in Philadelphia, warns him of the possible arrival of several men they know, and of their various moral failings – one is selfish, another stupid, and a third so bad tempered that he has alienated everyone who could help him. She adds, charitably, that they are young and that therefore they may benefit from the move, but worries nonetheless about the effect of these men on the American communities (in particular the one she thinks of as intellectually limited, because he would, she thinks, encourage gossip). For those who care about the future of France, and who think that they are in a position to benefit the nation through their character, ambition, knowledge, then it is best that they stay and attempt to bring the American model to the new Republic, rather than draining it of its most promising elements in order to join those it has already rejected.
Towards the end of 1789, land and building that had belonged to the church were put for sale to private buyers, as a way of reducing the national debt. This was an opportunity for Brissot to put his plans for a colony into practice without leaving the country. There were several reasons why that may have seemed like a good plan to him. First, his trip to America had not been the personal success he had hoped it would be, so that if he moved there, he would not be known as a writer, and could not count on the help he would surely need to establish himself in that profession. Secondly, France was now a desirable place to be for the reason America was: it was on its way to becoming a Republic, a land of freedom. Brissot first approached his friends Bosc and Lanthenas. The latter had some money and was enthusiastic about the idea – although he might have preferred the original plan of going to America. Bosc and Lanthenas suggested he include the Rolands in the plan. Manon Roland became the prime mover behind the plan, which, unfortunately, was never realized.
Pierre Aubry was the son of Olympe de Gouges and the man she was forced to marry as a teenager. He was born in 1766, a year after his parents were married. In 1767, his father either died or disappeared, and Olympe became solely responsible for his upbringing.
As a single mother, Olympe de Gouges did everything she could to ensure that her son received the good education she did not have, paying for tutors to make up for the fact that she could not teach him herself. She also included him in her own life, and as a child he became part of her theatrical group. When he was old enough, she bought him a place in the army.
Given this, what happened after her death seems like the lowest possible treason. Five days after his mother's death, Aubry published an 'Address to the public' in which he recused his mother and all her work. Yes, this was not the end of the story. In a letter written on 11 April 1795, a year and a half after his mother's death, Pierre Aubry wrote to the National Convention to ask that Olympe de Gouges's name be rehabilitated.
I am writing to ask you to rehabilitate an illustrious victim.
Henri Grégoire, known as the Abbé Grégoire, a catholic priest with jansenist sympathies, leading member of the Third Estate, Constitutional Bishop of Blois, was an important figure in the French Revolution, especially for his work against slavery in the French colonies. Grégoire, a close friend of Brissot, one of the few Girondins to survive the Terror, kept on fighting for abolitionism until his death in 1820.
Given their shared enthusiasm for abolition, and the fact that they moved in the same circles it may seem surprising that his name and Olympe de Gouges' are not found together more often, or that there is no correspondence between them. When I was in the Archives Nationales, I found out why: Grégoire may have a great abolitionist, but his treatment of women did not measure up.
The first clue as to Grégoire's attitude is a footnote from his 'Lettre aux philanthropes', (p. 19, note 1) written in 1790, to shame the French into action in the colonies:
Readers, I confess to you, in great secrecy, a story about myself that the white colonists are murmuring to each other: 'it is not surprising that he defends the mixed bloods because his brother has married a woman of colour'. Honestly, if I did have a virtuous mixed-raced sister in law, I would prize her more than I do the near totality of your women, whose amiability receives such praise, but who cannot even, underneath their apocryphal modesty, conceal the ugliness of their vice; and who are all at once brazen in their gaze, impudent in their talk, and cynical in their acts.
One might be prepared to forgive and forget – this is after all only a footnote, if it were not for a letter written to Brissot a few months later, in which he more than reiterated his views on women:
In other words, some women may be virtuous, most are not. Either way – women should shut up.
On 20thNovember 1792, Olympe de Gouges wrote to Jacques Pierre Brissot, editor of Le Patriote Francais, sending him a set of documents and asking that he should extract them in his paper. She had been denounced at the Jacobins club and feared for her safety. In the PS, she says that she has also received threatening letters and would like to set up a meeting with Brissot to discuss her situation.
Gouges had in fact been denounced at the Jacobins by Leonard Bourdon, for having written against the Jacobins's actions leading to the massacres of 10 August and 2 September 1792. The Jacobins, she claimed, especially Marat and Robespierre, were entirely responsible for inciting popular violence. Interestingly, Manon Roland had blamed Danton for the same thing. But from inside the Government, Manon knew, or suspected, that it was Danton who'd ordered the signal to start the massacre, while Olympe, as a public writer and philosopher, knew that it was the speeches and writings of Marat and Robespierre that had prepared the people to react to that signal.
The two documents that Olympe sent Brissot can be found on Clarissa Palmer's excellent site :
Court correspondence. A principled report and my last words to my dear friends, by Olympe Degouges [sic], to the National Convention and to the People. On a denunciation made to the Jacobins, against her patriotism, by Monsieur Bourdon
Prognostic of Maximilien Robespierre, by an Amphibious Animal published 5 November 1792, in which she attacks Robespierre and Marat for inciting the people to violence on August 10 and September 2.
Below is a translation of the letter to Brissot and a photograph of the actual letter taken at the Archives Nationale on 5 June 2019 (446AP/7-18)
Note that the letter and the signature are in different hands, as Gouges was using a secretary. Note also that she signs herself 'Olimpe', not 'Olympe'.
20 November, year 1 of the Republic
In the Archives Nationales, I found a set of letters from Louise Keralio to Jacques Pierre Brissot. The letters are kept in a folded paper, which notes that one of the letters is about Marat. The letter in question is undated, but from the reference to Marat’s denunciation of Necker means that the letter must be have been written towards the end of October 1789. Here is a – translated – extract:
It is my honour to send you, Monsieur, a claim on behalf of M. Marat which was handed me yesterday evening by a man of letter who deserve our consideration. M. Carra was at my home, and asked me for a copy that I sent him this morning, and we made a pact to win us over to our side and to [?] with you and all good patriots against the illegal and tyrannical acts that have been allowed against the ‘Ami du Peuple’ whose zeal is perhaps a little inconsiderate, but for in cause all free writers should recognize their own. I do not judge of the content with respect to M.Necker, M.Bailly or M. Joly. If M.Marat allowed himself to make accusations without probable proofs, he must be judged either as a madman or a slanderer. It is nonetheless the case that to suppress his writings, and to attack his person belond entirely to the ancient and odious regime of censorship and ministerial revenge. […] One cannot put a stop to the writings or the person of an author on a simple denunciation without violating the rights of man. We have done nothing by destroying the Bastille if the tribunal’s lock-ups serve as arbitrary prisons.
Louise Keralio was then already a friend and correspondent of Brissot – they had advertised each other’s journals, and praised each other’s work and ideas. Keralio had not, however, met Marat, and had only read a few articles by him. She supposes that Marat is a good citizen whose zeal has carried him beyond acceptable limits. But what she cares about is that the French Press should be treated legally, and not tyrannically. She cites Beaumarchais’ Figaro, jesting that the press should be free, provided it does not mention important people, religion, or anything contentious. She begs Brissot to use his influence to interfere on behalf of Marat, l’Ami du Peuple, and make sure that he is asked to present his proofs so that if he has them, it is known that he did not slander Necker, Bailly and Joly, and that if he doesn’t, the reputation of these three will be cleared in the eyes of all.
Marat quickly came to be regarded as a threat by the Girondins – especially after he voiced his opinion that the best way to safeguard the revolution would have been to cut off six hundred heads. He went into exile, came back, was tried, imprisoned for a month, and acquitted before he became one of the leaders of the Terror. In September 1792, he tried to have Brissot arrested. One wonders if Brissot looked back then, on Louise Keralio’s petition three years earlier, that he should stand up for Marat…
Marat was murdered in July 1793, by Charlotte Corday, who’d decided that by killing Marat she could put a stop to the Terror and protect the republic.
Beginning in the summer 1793, Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, public prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal, signed hundreds of death decrees.
Prisoners of the Republic were moved from their prison to the Conciergerie a few days before their trial, and they were tried in the Palais de Justice next door. When found guilty, they were generally executed within one or two days of the judgment.
One decree stands out as having happened even faster: that of Manon Roland (whose name is misspelt in the document ordering her death). Manon was killed on the very same day she was condemned.
The document above, a printed form filled in with the relevant details, asks the commendant-general of the Paris armed forces to organize the execution of the 'widow Rolland' - and her unfortunate companion, Lamarche, Armed soldiers were to pick up the condemned from the 'Palace court' outside the Conciegerie, and escort them to the Place de la Revolution, where they would be executed at 3:30pm exactly. The armed men were to be dispatched 'immediately'. To this Fouquier-Tinville adds the following by way of explanation:
Bear in mind that this is the wife of the ex-minister and that for the sake of the public interest it is imperative that she should be executed today.
Given that no-one expected Manon to act in any way dangerously, we must suppose that what Fouquier-Tinville feared was that public sentiment would act against him if it became known that Manon Roland was condemned to die.
Just in case the commandant-general didn't get the message, Fouquier Tinville adds in the bottom left of the page 'very urgent''.
Pierre-Jean-George Cabanis, Sophie de Grouchy's long time friend, the C*** of her Letters on Sympathy, and husband of her sister Charlotte, and Claude Fauriel, Sophie's lover from 1801 till her death in 1824, developed a close friendship from the time Fauriel became part of their circle in 1801 till Cabanis died in 1808.
Cabanis's text on Stoicism and Physiology, The Letter on First Causeswas written to and for Claude Fauriel. Fauriel intended to write a book about Stoic philosophy (the manuscript was lost before he could finish it).
The few personal letters from Cabanis to Fauriel that survive give this sense of a nineteenth century ‘bromance’, with Cabanis writing excitedly to Fauriel that Sophie’s father has reserved the room next to his own for his upcoming visit, and signing off his letters with tender embraces and assurances of ever lasting love. In one of his letters, he enquires after Fauriel’s project of a Greek History, and promises him the notes made by Garat on a similar topic. Garat was either Sophie's ex, Mailla Garat, or his older brother: in neither case, does it seem like it was an entirely appropriate person to turn to!
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.