Liberty, by Lucy Moore

Women who kept, and lost, their heads
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

We live ten years here in twenty-four hours," wrote Manon Roland, exhilarated by the Paris of 1791. Lucy Moore's subjects in a book about "six women in Revolutionary France" were young or youngish at the start of the Revolution. Criss-crossing narratives are fleshed out in the loving detail of parties and fashions. But the sequence of coups is clear, and Moore never loses her focus on the liberties briefly acquired.

In the old regime, aristocratic women could influence government by granting or withholding social and sexual favours. The austere male Revolutionaries of 1789 despised boudoir politics. A woman who interfered in public matters was as bad as a femme publique, a whore. Their newly politicised wives and sisters thought otherwise. One of the richest women in Europe, Germaine de Staël, did her best to reconcile radical principles with gilt salons. Royalists and democrats distrusted her plans for constitutional monarchy; she also had to influence events through lovers and male friends, but her power as an author frightened even Napoleon.

Unlike de Staël, Roland was middle-class, a republican from the start, committed to female decorum. For the wife of a moderate minister, the early days of the new regime gave some outlet for political acumen; the Terror gave her a room of her own in prison, where she wrote her memoirs and reflected on the equality with male friends a death sentence conferred. Roland emerges as the most impressive of these women.

Theresia Cabarrus is the most fun. Sexy, wildly self-dramatising, she was hated by Robespierre. Due for the guillotine, she dashed off a plaintive letter inciting her lover Tallien to attack Robespierre, resulting in his death. New divorce laws allowed her to marry Tallien, a leader in the Directory. From outside, their house looked like a cottage; inside were marble goddesses, lobsters Thermidor and dancing in transparent muslin. Like de Staël, she was brave and generous, saving lives and stripping off in public with equal élan.

Moore's two working-class subjects fought beside the men. Pauline Leon, a chocolate maker, was among the market women who marched on Versailles and so forced Louis and Marie Antoinette back to Paris. She and Théroigne de Méricourt took part in the attack on the Tuileries in August 1792 which ended the monarchy. De Méricourt, once a prostitute, became a Revolutionary icon but ended up in a lunatic asylum, providing historians with an easy symbol of the Revolution's descent into madness. Moore rejects this, seeing her derangement as a consequence of customs that condemned working women pregnant before marriage to prostitution and eventual death from VD. De Méricourt was the most passionate campaigner for equal rights.

Napoleon's Civil Code returned women to their purely "feminine" roles. Juliette Recamier, indescribably beautiful, catatonically boring, was the face of the backlash. But the Revolution's post-traumatic shocks went on for a long time, the most Gothic, perhaps, at the Victims' Balls, where men and women bereaved by the guillotine danced dressed in black, thin crimson ribbons round their throats.