The text below is extracted from Manon Roland’s second letter to her lover Buzot, on 3 July 1793, from the prison of Sainte Pélagie.
Do you know a greater advantage than that of being superior to adversity, to death, et to find in one’s heart the means to enjoy and embellish life until one’s last breath? – Have you ever felt these effects from the attachment that ties us together, in spite of all the contradictions of society, and the horrors of oppression? – I told you so: this is why I enjoy my captivity. – I am proud to be persecuted in those times where good character and honesty is proscribed, and even without you, I would have born it with dignity; but with you, it becomes sweet, and dear. The villains think to hurt me by putting me in irons… Insane! What do I care whether I live here or there? Don’t I go everywhere with my heart, and isn’t my constriction me in a cell meant that I am his entirely? […]
The rest of the letter casts some light on how she dealt with the fact that she was still married and that her husband, Jean-Marie Roland, was broken-hearted by her emotional desertion. She describes her state of mind when she was arrested:
I won’t say I went out of my way to meet them (the men who came to arrest her), but it is very true that I did not run from them. I did not stop to think whether their fury would extend to me, but I thought that if it did, it would give me an occasion to serve X (Roland) through my statements, my constancy and firmness. I delighted in finding a way of being useful to him while at the same time being yours more completely. I would like to sacrifice my life to him in order to earn the right to breathe my last breath for you alone. Except for the terrible unrest when I learnt of the decree against the proscribed, I have never enjoyed such great calm than in this strange situation, and more completely once I learned that nearly all were safe, and once I saw that you were working in freedom to liberty at preserving that of your country.
During her trial, and throughout her Memoirs, Manon Roland presented herself as a model wife to her husband. But reading through her recollections of the early days of hers and J.-M. Roland’s courtship, one is underwhelmed. Their courtship was long, their engagement business like – he was always hesitant and there is very little passion showing in Manon’s accounts. It was not a marriage of convenience: Jean-Marie Roland saw his wife as an equal in all respects, he did not attempt to dominate or curtail her, and they were partners in all their projects (except for the Memoirs which she wrote while she was in prison and he in hiding). There was a strong friendship between the two but perhaps not much more.
Towards the end of her life, however, Manon did fall in love with a young Girondin (he was six years younger than her, while her husband was twenty years her senior), François Buzot. François was also married, and neither he nor Manon had any intention of breaking down their marriage. Nonetheless, Manon told Jean-Marie that she no longer loved him, and that she loved François. This is perhaps why, in the weeks before her arrest, she had planned to leave Paris. She needed some space to think.
Manon's correspondence with Buzot was hidden from the public when the letters were first published, so that the image of her as a virtuous wife remained. But the truth came out in the 19thcentury: after all, all interested parties were dead.
Below is a letter Manon wrote to Buzot shortly after she was imprisoned, and after the decree for the arrest of the Girondins had been issued. She had heard that Buzot, together with Jérome Pétion (whose wife was Manon 's neighbour at Sainte Pélagie, had managed to escape and that they were in the South-West of France, near Bordeaux.
This is a love letter: she tells him how she covers his letters to her with kisses. But it is also a political letter: one that shows both hope and despair. She tells him that when she heard of the arrest of twenty-two Girondins, she thought France was lost. But then, she asks him to stay alive, because a republican ‘while he breathes, while he has his freedom, can and must be useful’.
A few weeks after Manon’s death at the Guillotine, Buzot and Petion shot themselves in the woods of Saint Emilion. Their bodies were discovered later, eaten by wolves.
In September 1787, Manon Roland was staying at Le Clos, the Roland family home in the countryside. She and her husband were about to take possession of the house, and she was beginning to renovate it, while Roland was working nearby in Lyon. Eudora, their daughter, was six years old.
It’s very cold here, but our rooms are comfortable even without a fire, and one could easily spend the winter here. All that is missing are chairs, which will come on Friday, weather permitting, and the top of the book case, which would not fit on the first cartload. Our child is quite well behaved with me. I have established a schedule, and I think this is an excellent method. We wake up together at six: we get dressed, read catechism and do some needle work, all this together until eight. Then breakfast together, great happiness and play till half past nine. Then we go back upstairs and I write, while the child sews or knits till half-past eleven. Then play for her, but indoors, till twelve. At twelve, she chooses a book to read, then music lesson. Lunch at one. Play until three. Upstairs again then work or reading till five (keeping the readings short). A collation at five, then play till six, or later if we go out; otherwise we go in and she has another music lesson. She dines and goes to bed between seven and eight. I dine after eight and go to bed an hour later.
Not many in the eighteenth century agreed that women should be writers of anything other than gossipy letters. But even those who did found it hard to agree as to when was the best time for a woman to become a writer.
A woman who had the misfortune not to be married or have children could write at any time, provided she did not disturb her relatives. Hence Jane Austen would get up early, before her family’s breakfast, and write at the dining table. Afterwards there was household tasks to attend to, of course, and any other time she could take up a pen was devoted to writing letters to family members who were away.
Considerations of respectability only applied to respectable women, of course. So Olympe de Gouges, widowed, living under her assumed name instead of her husbands (Aubry), bringing up her boy alone, assisted financially by her lover, and pursuing a career as a playwright could write when she wanted to. This is probably why her biographer lists over 140 pieces penned by Olympe in the last five years of her life. (Her writing career began 1788 and she died in 1793)
Little is known of Sophie de Grouchy’s writing habits, except for a report from her aunt that as a twenty year old, staying in a convent finishing school in Normandy, she spent so much time reading and translating that she made herself ill and damaged her eyesight. Given that the social life of the school was quite active – the idea was for the young women to be presented to society and hopefully find husbands – Sophie probably worked during the night, by candlelight. The only obstacle standing between her and her work then was her social life, and it is likely that even when she married and became a mother this carried on, i.e. that her activities as a saloniere were the only thing that stopped her from writing when she wanted to. Her daughter, Eliza, had a wetnurse, so that Sophie was not bound by the usual duties of motherhood.
Manon Roland was firmly opposed to wet-nursing, being a follower of Rousseau, and a middle class woman, less able to ‘adopt’ a nurse, i.e. invite a woman to become a permanent member of the family and live under their roof until she could be retired.
Manon also had some duties at home. Even though she had servants, they had to be trained, supervised, their work had to be done for them when they were sick and big jobs, such as laundry, had to be shared, and dinner had to be ordered, and prepared by herself when she wanted something done in a particular manner. And most importantly, children – in her case a daughter, Eudora – had to be educated following Rousseauian precepts. But none of this, Manon reflected, ought to take particularly long, so that a good mother and housewife ought still to have plenty of time for study and writing.
Those who know how to organize their work always have leisure time. It is those that do nothing that lack the time to do anything. Moreover it is not surprising that women who spend their time in useless visiting and who think they are badly dressed if they have not spent a great deal of time at their mirror, find their days too long through boredom and too short for their duties. But I have seen those we call good housewives become unbearable to the world and even their husbands through a tiresome attention to little things.
Manon’s stance was not unlike that of Mary Wollstonecraft, who claimed that a married middle class woman with children was in an ideal position, once her children were at school and no longer needed her full time attention, to take up science, literature or the arts.
And did they pursue a plan of conduct, and not waste their times in following the fashionable vagaries of dress, the management of their household and children need not shut them out from literature, nor prevent their attaching themselves to a science, with that steady eye which strengthens the mind, or practicing one of the fine arts that cultivate the taste (VRW).
Both in Roland and Wollstonecraft’s case, however, the life plan that would allow women to write while mothering young children relied very much on a reformed, republican and proto-feminist model of family life in which only necessary household duties were perfomed - the ‘vagaries of dress’ to be avoided and ‘if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers’.
I expect a woman to keep her family’s linen and clothing in good order, to feed her children, order, or herself cook dinner, this without talking about it, keeping her mind free and ordering her time so that she is able to talk of something else, and to please, at last, through her mood, as well as the charms of her sex
So what would an 18th woman who wanted to write but had no expectations that a revolution would bring about major changes in her household duties do?
This was the case of Hannah Mather Crocker, born in Boston in 1752, writer of several books and pamphlets, including “Observations on the Real Rights of Women” a work in which she cites Wollstonecraft amongst others. Crocker, although she had always been philosophically inclined, only began to write in earnest once her ten children had left home, remarking that this period in a woman’s life was :
a fully ripe season to read, write, meditate and compose, if the body and mind are not enfeebled by infirmities.
In other words, if bringing up ten children hasn’t left you a mental and physical wreck, now is the time to pursue a literary or philosophical career!
Letter to Sophie Cannet, 5 July 1776.
Twenty-two year old Manon's letter to her convent friend, Sophie, is very reminiscent of Seneca's Letters to Lucilius. And just like him, she believes that although the Stoic sage must be self-sufficient, that is no reason not to value friendship.
Of course she did not know then that her capacity for self-sufficiency would be tested - and found to be quite strong - during the long weeks she spent in prison, awaiting death.
One problem with republicanism as it was understood in the late 18thcentury, from a feminist perspective, is that like its ancestor, Roman republicanism, it is a very performative sort of political theory. To be a republican citizen means running around the clubs and the Assembly, getting oneself elected, or electing others, giving speeches, or going to listen to them, writing, printing, distributing, reading pamphlets. And aside from a few pictures of fishwives on their way to Versailles, or the infamous tricoteuses during the Terror’s trials, the imagery of the revolution is very male.
Political participation is not the sort of think that you can easily do if you are responsible for the upkeep of a house and the upbringing of children. And Roland, we know, took her domestic role very seriously indeed. So how did she reconcile her perception of herself as a wife and mother on the one hand and as a republican on the other?
Part of the answer was that she thought that taking care of home and children was best done as a couple – with her husband fully engaged in the upbringing of their daughter Eudora, and once left in charge of her for several weeks while Manon was in Paris and Versailles. Another answer is that Manon changed her mind when it became apparent to her that the Republic needed her to be active. And she changed her mind again after the September massacres when she decided that the French did not deserve a Republic.
But none of this is enough to give a full account of how she did reconcile her belief in the important of domesticity with her republicanism. One more promising clue lies in the essay she wrote for the Academy of Besancon, in which she described the role played by Spartan women in promoting the republic:
More sedentary, more enclosed ordinarily in republican governments, left to domestic tasks, nourished by this patriotism which elevates the soul and sentiments, they laboured towards the citizen’s happiness and that of the state, through the peace and order reigning inside their homes, and the care they take to cultivate in their children the germs of courage and virtues that must be perpetuated as well as liberty. Focused on their families, they could not set any other ends for themselves than that of being cherished for the qualities that are needed in the home and that they would be recommended for. The love of little things, seeking vain distinctions is a feature only of superficial societies, where each brings pretensions devoid of real merit to sustain them.
What the Spartan women did on this account was to nurture virtues in the family, and that would have carried some weight with an 18th century republican. Whereas we now understand philosophical republicanism mostly in terms of its concept of liberty as non-domination, in the 18th century, it was also veyr much a theory of participation (hence the performative aspect that is so problematic) and of virtue. And what Roland could assert without contradicting herself, is that women who took their domestic duties seriously did in fact participate in the republic, by modeling and nurturing civic virtues.
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.
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.
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.