While we continue to investigate the lives, deeds and works of the great women of the French Revolution, let's not forget that some of these women were married, and that their husbands sometimes also contributed to the political events of their times. This is not, sadly always the case, and sometimes, what we have are rather petty disputes between men who were not as good at their jobs or deserving of their honour as they might have been!
This is partly true of an exchange between Jean-Marie Roland, Manon's husband, and Charles Lebrun, husband to the celebrated painter Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun.
Lebrun was an ambitious art-dealer, supported entirely by his successful wife's earnings and works. However, Vigee Lebrun, who was Marie Antoinette's favorite portraitist, had gone into exile in the early days of the revolution. When she left, she took only 80 louis with her and left most of her fortune with her husband. While abroad she worked and continued to send her some of her substantial earnings to Charles. In order for that money not to be confiscated, Charles asked for a divorce – this was on paper only, and married life resumed as soon as she returned from her 12 year exile.
Jean-Marie Roland was minister of the interior – but we know that a lot of his decisions were made by his wife, and that she wrote several influential letters for him. The two husbands came to fight over the question of how to look after the art confiscated from the aristocrats and the clergy. Lebrun thought he should be given the job and paid handsomely to do it. Roland thought this was not a priority.
Lebrun published a pamphlet which Roland found insulting and even threatening, and Lebrun responded with an epistolary meltdown, accusing Roland of not being a true republican.
I owe the details of this story to Bette W. Oliver's book, Surviving the French Revolution (chapter 4).
Here is the first page of Lebrun's letter below, courtesy of Gallica
When Manon Roland was at the prison of Sainte Pelagie, she found at first the company a bit too loud for her tastes: the prison was full of prostitutes and thieves whose ribald jokes she could hear through the thin walls of her cell. So when an old acquaintance Louise Petion was brought to Ste Pelagie, Manon was saddened, of course, but also relieved: she now had some company.
Unfortunately their friendship was tinged with tragedy. In September 1793, when she heard of the arrest of her daughter, Louise Catherine Angelique Ricard, veuve Lefevre, came to Paris to petition for her release. She was in turns arrested, and take to the Conciergerie. Almost immediately she was tried and condemned to the guillotine on the grounds of defending the re-establishment of monarchy. She is reputed to have claimed, when asking for her daughter's release, that Brissot and Petion and the proscribed Girondins were true republicans, and that if the French people wanted a king, they should have one. She was executed on 24 September 1793, at the age of 56, her daughter was still in Ste Pelagie.
When Manon visited with her friend, she would have been dealing with the loss of her mother, but also been fearing for her husband. Jerome Petion had escaped with Buzot, Manon's lover (although the relationship was a secret, so Manon could not tell Louise that he was that). Petion and Buzot died together in a suicide pact. Their bodies were discovered in a forest, eaten by wolves.
Louise-Anne Lefevre eventually came out of Ste Pelagie and, after the Terror, was granted a widow's pension. Her son, Jerome, lived on and pursued a military career under Napoleon.
I was alerted by Eveline Groot, who gave a great talk this week at the Braga Colloquium on Women and the Canon, to yet another slight in the history of philosophy against a woman. This time, it's against Germaine de Stael, a writer who saw her share of slights in her life time, including some from Manon Roland and Sophie de Grouchy. But what Eveline Groot found is a 20th century historian of philosophy (or philology), who chooses to minimize the impact and import of Stael's philosophical commentary on Rousseau.
Writing in 1915 in Modern Philology (13:7), G.A. Underwood claims that in her reading of Rousseau, Madame de Stael saw only the sentimentalist of the New Heloise, and not the rationalist of the On Social Contract, and that her Notice sur le Caractere et les Ecrits de J.J. Rousseau demonstrate 'little beyond an enthusiasm for Rousseau's ideas' (adding that the enthusiasm itself was significant'. Underwood concludes the introduction to his paper on Stael's interpretation of Rousseau by announcing that: 'The thesis will be that Rousseau leads Madame de Stael to become absorbed in her feelings'.
The conclusion of the paper reads as follows:
Such is the somewhat undeveloped Rousseauism of Madame de Stael when she began writing. It is an emphasis on temperamental inclination rather than a ripened criticism. A continuation of this study would show how in her mature and original work Madame de Stael gradually thought out to definite literary and philosophical tenets those ideas of Rousseau to which she was so strongly attracted.
So one may well wonder why Underwood decided to write the article showing that in her early work, Stael was not a proper philosopher, but yet another female with inflamed emotions, rather than study the philosophical tenets he agrees she later came up with.
We can add G.A. Underwood to the list of scholars for whom, when it comes to the study of women philosophers, the important work to be done is to show how uninteresting and un-philosophical their work was.
The Letters on Sympathy were published in 1798 as an appendix to Sophie de Grouchy's translation of the final edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and of On the Origins of Language. However, we have good evidence that the Letters on Sympathy were drafted earlier, in 1792 as she sent copies of them to her friend Etienne Dumont in the spring 1792, and her husband, Nicolas de Condorcet refers to them in his 1793 ‘Advice to his Daughter’.
These may, however have been early drafts, and it is likely that Grouchy would have wanted to revise them somewhat before publication six years later. But did the Letters exist even before hand? Pierre Louis Roederer, idelogue and member of Grouchy's circle after the Revolution notes, in his Memoirs and in a review of the Letters published on 14 July 1798, the existence of an earlier manuscript which he had seen in the hands of Sieyes in 1789 or 1790. Although it's possible that a draft existed then, the fact that Roederer himself cannot remember the exact date (1789, or 1790?), that his testimony occurs nine years after the fact (and they were a busy nine years!) and that we have a dated letter from Grouchy to Dumont about her writing the manuscript, 1792 is a more reliable date.
Roederer, although he mostly praises the Letters in his review does have some criticism. She ought not, he says, to have addressed the Letters to Condorcet and taken the tone of an instructor, as Condorcet would already have known and understood everything she could possibly write! (But in fact, we have good reasons to think that the C*** of the Letters was Cabanis, not Condorcet). On the other hand, Roederer does not accept another criticism, namely that Grouchy's style lacks the gracefulness of a woman's writing or the authority of a man's. Her style, he says, is adapted to her subject. He points out that sentiment and frivolity is not conducive to a clear discussion of thorny subjects. Madame du Chatelet, he adds, did not write her Physics using the stylistic 'tricks' of Madame de Sévigné, and Sévigné herself did not use these 'tricks' when she wrote about human understanding and moral sentiments. He concludes that Grouchy's style, although not always 'pure' is clear, simple and without pretensions.
In a 1790 text addressed to Necker, when he is about to leave France to go into exile, Olympe de Gouges announces that she too is ready to leave France. She has done her best, but that was not enough, and she now has too many enemies to stay safely. But her message is also to the French: unless you change your way fast, she says, you will lose your revolution, and your liberty, and you will find that you are better off with a king.
She goes on to tell him the following story: a coach driver insulted a national guard. When Olympe challenged him, he said that the national guards treat people like him badly, that they don't pay, and that he and his family are starving despite his work. He concludes:
I were a good democrat when the Revolution started, because I thought I would get something out of it. But now, I'm aristocratic as a dog
Olympe reflects sadly on this state of things, and judges that democracy has not yet taken hold in the French and that they may not be ready for it:
The counter-revolution will happen by itself, through the force of nature, especially if the French go another six months at this present rate. Things are destroyed, nothing is built. Everyone wants to be in charge, no-one wants to obey. All is reduced to nothing, everything is in a terrible disorder. The love of liberty still turns French heads, but once it is gone, they will recognize, I hope, that one master is better for them, than all men being masters at once.
From around a year before her execution, Olympe started to speak of the certainty of her death. She suspected that her criticisms of Robespierre would lead to her arrest. But she wanted her death to be useful. Unlike Charlotte Corday she was not willing to stoop to murder to save the revolution. But she did want Robespierre (and possibly Marat) dead, and in a response to a speech by him in which he tried to clear himself of a number of accusations, and compared himself to the heroes of the Roman Republic, she suggested a joint suicide: Robespierre would gain her death, which she assumes he wants, and France would be saved.
Needless to say, Robespierre did not take her up on this.
Robespierre! Have you the courage to imitate me? I suggest we take a bath in the Seine but in order to wash away all the stains you have acquired since the 10th we will attach cannon balls of sixteen or twenty-four to our feet; then, together, we will rush headlong into the flow. Your death will calm minds and the sacrifice of a pure life will disarm the heavens. I am useful to my country, you know; but your death will at least free it of its greatest scourge and maybe I will never have served it better: I am capable of such extreme patriotism. Such is the courage of the great characters that you yourself describe without ever knowing any. 'One can outrage virtue but memory lives on forever,' you are right. 'The small-minded and facetious never last, only the great live on.' It is too marvellous that you yourself should write their defence and your proper accusation! Mediocre and boastful compared to your superiors in merit and talent; a cringing impostor to the people: there is your portrait. Tell me, what, actually, will be your place in the pages of history; lift up your eyes, if you dare, and see the ideal philosopher and people's magistrate.
We know that Manon Roland was fond of a more Spartan lifestyle , and that she believed that a well-organized housewife would spend no more than an hour a day on domestic matters, so that she could use the rest of her time on more interesting pursuits. Mary Wollstonecraft, also a fan of simplicity, believed that women who discharge their domestic duties with minimum fuss, would have time to develop a career in the arts or sciences – while their husbands who worked outside the home would not.
In one episode of her Netflix series, Marie Kondo shows a young mother how by learning to fold and tidy her laundry (a cause of much stress in her household), she can achieve the piece of mind necessary to enjoy her time with her children, rekindly her relationship with her husband, and maybe even think about going back to a job she loves.
Is there a parallel there?
Probably not: after all, Marie Kondo is picking up on the age-old wisdom that if you do something properly it will be less painful and done more quickly than if you do it halfheartedly. The KonMari method is about focusing on what you're doing, giving it your full attention for the time it takes to complete the task. It's about giving each thing it's place, and it's about not multi-tasking: not mixing socks with philosophy, or dinner with government.
Neither Roland nor Wollstonecraft were particularly fond of following fashions, so it's likely they would not have jumped on the KonMari wagon. And it's quite unlikely they would have wanted to fill their homes with KonMari merchandise…
When Sophie de Grouchy married Condorcet on 28 December 1786 at her childhood home, the Villette castle, The Marquis of La Fayette was witness.
Some, including Condorcet's friend Madame Suard, thought that Sophie was either in love, or having an affair with La Fayette (who was then married). There is no evidence whatsoever that this was the case. Sophie remained close to La Fayette and his family and named his dautgher, Madame de Lasteyrie one of her executors.
During the early years of the revolution, however, when the counter-revolutionary press was still fighting hard – and dirty! – a pornographic caricature of Grouchy and La Fayette together was published in the royalist press. But in 1791, when La Fayette ordered the army to charge into the crowds on the Champ de Mars, Sophie, and her infant daughter, were among those who had to run.
Sophie de Grouchy was not the last important female friendship in La Fayette's life. In 1820 he was introduced to the young Frances Wright, Scottish writer who had travelled to America to witness the republic there, and went on to develop her own republican arguments for a more radical republic that abolished slavery and gave women equal rights. Frances Wright and La Fayette presented themselves as adoptive father and daughter – a relationship that was not always recognized by his own children and therefore was never formalized. When they travelled together to America, presenting Frances as his daughter helped avoid certain misunderstandings.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.