Liberty by Lucy Moore

Girl power, French Revolution style
Click to follow

In Liberty, her spirited and engrossing account of the French Revolution, Lucy Moore draws vivid portraits of six ardent women, following them from the storming of the Bastille through the savagery of the September massacres in 1792 to Napoleon's dictatorship.Moore writes, "Each of them... burned to distinguish herself in the great drama unfolding in front of her." And drama is exactly the note Moore strikes with her lively narrative full of pungent details. She sympathetically recalls the love affairs, political hopes and private disappointments which made up these women's lives but also catches the idealism, confusion and sense of betrayal which marked the revolution itself, highlighting the essential contradiction that allowed females to mount the scaffold but never the rostrum.

The revolution politicised everything. It changed how people dressed, talked and saw themselves. From the beginning, women were at its heart, both victims and perpetrators.Moore points out, too, that women were central to revolutionary iconography. Liberty was represented as a goddess; the Republic a strapping female warrior baring her nurturing bosom to the people. Rousseau had inspired a generation of revolutionaries with his cult of sentimentality and domesticity. He glorified women as wives and advocated motherhood as the highest calling. The fan-base of the biggest misogynist of the lot, Robespierre, was largely women.

Rich, plain Germaine de Staël was daughter of Jacques Necker, Louis XVl's sacked Swiss Finance Minister and wife of a Swedish diplomat. Surrounded by progressive aristocratic and well-connected friends favouring a constitutional monarchy, she was free to take lovers. But for her, politics was personal. Despite being fiercely intelligent, she was just another woman judged on her looks and behaviour. In her work, On Literature, she lamented "the injustice of men towards distinguished women."

Almost her equal in egotism but far more extreme, the anti-monarchist Manon Roland supervised her unsparkling husband's career. She even wrote his speeches when he became a government minister. The daughter of an engraver, she maintained she was just a devoted spouse, primly handing round the sugar water to the radical lawyers who gathered at her home. She couldn't help noticing, however, the "universal mediocrity" of most people she met.

A banker's daughter, the sexy raven-haired Thérésia de Fontenay wanted the freedom to do what she wanted, whatever the political backdrop (she was married three times and had six children by assorted lovers and husbands). The lovely Juliette Récamier - a post-revolution icon - chose not to become Napoleon's mistress. For the less privileged, independence meant something else entirely.

Unmarried and working class, Pauline Léon adopted the sans culottes striped pantaloons and joined the Société des Républicaines-Révolutionnaires. These "hideous coquines of Paris" patrolled the streets roughing-up passers-by who showed insufficient love of La Patrie. Anyone who intervened risked being "battered senseless with a wooden clog." For the "fallen woman" Théroigne de Méricourt, an early revolutionary pin-up in her blood-red riding habit, the republic provided a different kind of empowerment: the chance to reinvent herself and reject an unhappy past.

But independence came at a price. Moore writes: "Any woman who did have a voice in 18th-century France, from the queen down, was denounced for immorality." Newspapers targeted such women, undermining their opinions by attacking them in the crudest sexual terms. Théroigne was a whore; Germaine, a hermaphrodite. The virtuous Manon was portrayed as an nymphomaniac.

The old regime's boudoir politics was considered the cause of the country's ills. This led to an equally entrenched form of patriarchy with few patriots prepared to champion women's rights. For France to be stable and secure, women could exist only as men's supporters and the mothers of heroes. What had not been foreseen was women's eloquence, and it became obvious by 1793 that it needed silencing. Regressive measures forbad women from commenting independently on public affairs. The same autumn the Jacobins crushed the républicaines-révolutionnaires, Marie-Antoinette, Manon and the eccentric writer Olympe de Gouges were dispatched to the guillotine.

With the revolution's emphasis on child-rearing and wifeliness, there's a sense in which women's very sexuality posed a threat. Robespierre made it his personal business to destroy the sensual Thérésia, who seemed able to turn any male weak at the knees. He ordered that she be kept in solitary confinement, unable to change her clothes or wash.

The championing of liberty and egality took its toll. Moore recounts Manon's ordeal in prison movingly. She faced her death bravely and alone. Germaine suffered years in exile. Théroigne who had survived an Austrian prison and a public beating, died raving, chained to the walls of an asylum. Yet, as this serious, but entertaining book reveals, there was more than one irony to the revolution. Although it ended up suppressing women, France's revolution actually left us testimonies to quick, energetic minds. In Manon's prison memoirs, Moore suggests "her repressed individualism" finally found its release. A celebrated writer, Mme de Staël's thoughts still resonate. As she wrote, a society's treatment of its female citizens is a measure of its civilization.

Comments