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.
On 26 July 1789, Manon Roland wrote the following to her friend Louis-Augustin Bosc d'Antic:
No, you are not free; no one is yet. The public trust has been betrayed. Letters are intercepted. You complain of my silence and yet I write with every post. It is true that I no longer offer up news of our personal affairs : but who is the traitor, nowadays, who has any other than those of the nation? It is true that I have written you more vigorously than you've acted. But if you are not careful, you will have done nothing but raise your shields. [...]
Bosc d'Antic was a thirty year old botanist, who had just founded the first French Linnean society. But as a close friend of the Rolands, he was also a republican, and keen for France to change. In 1791, he became Secretary of the Jacobin's club. It is not clear what role he played before then. Manon Roland mentions 'his districts' - the old parishes, which under the Commune became 'Sections' - which leads one to suppose that he had been elected at the Assembly of June 89, sworn to give France a Constitution. His name does not feature, however, among the 300 Parisian members. Certainly, however, he and Roland's two other correspondents at the time, Lanthenas and Brissot, were active and influential. And they listened to her, asking for her advice and opinion on what to do. Brissot even published some of her letters in his new paper, Le Patriote Francois.
Clearly Manon was worried that the Revolution would peter out, because her friends did not act firmly enough. She was only just recovering from a life threatening illness, and still nursing her husband, so could not come to Paris herself to see to it that things were done properly.
* The 'illustrious heads' she says must be tried are the king's brother and the king's wife, who were then believed guilty of a failed coup d'Etat.
** Decius, is Decimus Brutus, not the Emperor Decius.
*** "You are f..." is in French "Vous etes f...". She no doubt wrote, or intended it to be read 'foutus', which means exactly what my translation suggests.
Every year for Christmas and New Year we dread the loss of the celebrities we love, and reminisce those who died during the year. Apparently it was very much the same in Eighteenth century France, if Manon's letters are anything to go by. On 2 January 1777, she wrote to her friend Sophie Cannet:
Rousseau is not dead. He did not take a fall, as it was reported, and was not even even ill. I would have been annoyed had he disappeared before I got to see him. Were it not for certain troubles I cannot seem to shake, there are some things I might try, I would not write, as his wife refuses to accept that I am the author of my own letters, but... but... I must leave such projects to a later time.
Unfortunately Manon never got to put these plans into action as Rousseau did die a year and a half later. On 6 July 1778, she sent the news to Sophie's sister, Henriette:
Jean-Jacques is dead. I was given the news yesterday at dinner. Immediately, I felt my appetite disappear, my stomach tighten and heave at the thought of eating anything. Why? ... The best of Rousseau stays with us; anything else is but released from pain. His life is filled, his spirit and his sentiments are still here, so why am I so saddened?
In the winter 1776, Manon Phlippon was 22. She lived alone with her father in Paris on the Quai de l'Horloge, - she had not yet met her husband, Jean-Marie Roland - and she spent much of her time writing in her room, letters or essays in political philosophy.
Late on Christmas eve, as the revellers were going home, she wrote a letter to her close friends, Henriette and Sophie Cannet.
25 December 1776, 1am
As you can see, I am not gone to the midnight mass. I would have gone, as I think it is important to set an example even when one doesn't want to do it for oneself. But the weather is frightful, my father did not think it a good time to be devout, so without a fuss we stayed home.
You might find it strange that I should write always at the first hour. Let me tell you a something of my daily y life which will give you insight into how I spend my time. I never get up, this time of year, before nine. I spend my morning with the housework. In the afternoon, I do needlework and I dream, building everything I fancy in my mind, poems, arguments, projects, etc. In the evening I normally read till dinner time, which is uncertain because it depends on when the master comes home. He is out at all times exept meal times, without telling me, or caring for any of his affairs, and too often leaves me to deal with those who come to do business with him. He usually gets home at half past nine, but sometimes ten or later. Supper is soon over, since when there are few dishes, one eats fast and there is no conversation no feast can last long. In between dishes, I always attempt conversation but my attempts are foiled by his careless replies. I am always trying to hold a thread; but though I do my best, it is always in vain. Eventually time passes and it is eleven. My father throws himself in his bed, and I go to my room, where I write two or three.
In 1839 and 1840, Mary Shelley published her two-volume Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France. This was part of ten volumes of biography published in the 133 volumes series of Dionysius Lardner: Cabinet Cyclopaedia (1829–46)
The series was designed to educate the Middle classes.
In her volumes on famous French men, out of 15 lives, 3 were women: Madame de Sevigne, Madame de Stael and Madame Roland.
This may seem a low percentage for the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. And indeed, there were women writing biographies of famous women, for instance, her mother's friend Mary Hays, who wrote Female Biography: or Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women of All Ages and Countries. But Shelley, one must remember is a history book designed for readers of both sexes, in which she includes women. So in a sense her inclusion of these three women alongside 12 well known and respected men (Voltaire, Rabelais, Fenelon, Pascal, Mirabeau, Racine, Corneille, Moliere, Boileau, Rochefoucault, Rousseau and Condorcet) is more daring than a book solely about women, which may not be taken seriously at all by male readers.
So what did Shelley say about Manon?
Disappointingly, she focuses on her virtues as a wife and mother:
She was her husband's friend, companion, amanuensis; fearful of the temptations of the world, she gave herself up to labour; she soon became absolutely necessary to him at every moment, and in all the incidents of his life; her servitude was thus sealed; now and then it caused a sigh; but the holy sense of duty reconciled her to every inconvenience.
She was probably not aware, because it was not revealed until the early 20th century, that Roland had all but left her husband, before she went to prison, and that she was in love with their friend and colleague Buzot. Both men committed suicide shortly after her death.
What I found more interesting, and which again may have been a function of how many of Roland's papers had been released at the time Shelley was writing, is her representation fo Roland as an activist, rather than a writer.
Her fame rests even on higher and noble grounds than that of those who toil with brain for the instruction of their fellow creatures. She acted. What she wrote is more the emanation of the active principle, which, pent in a prison, betook itself to the only implement, the pen, left to wield, than an exertion of the reflective portion of the mind.
Shelley might well be forgiven for thinking that Roland was a doer more than she was a thinker, if she was acquainted mostly with the prison memoirs, and with Roland’s reputation as a ring-leader, or egeria of the Girondists. The picture, however, is far from accurate. Manon Roland was a writer – producing hundreds of well crafted letters in which she presents philosophical as well as political reflections, writing essays and travel journals which she would not publish in her own name.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.