FIRST ENCOUNTER: When Charlotte Corday met Jean-Paul Marat

A first meeting, and - for him at least - a last. The fourth in a series of memorable meetings drawn by the distinguished American illustrator Edward Sorel and written by Nancy Caldwell Sorel. Last week: Maya Angelou and Billie Holiday. Next week: Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy
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It was July 1793 - four years after the fall of the Bastille and some six months since the king's execution. To Charlotte Corday, in Caen, as to many others in the provinces, the promise of the Revolution had been irretrievably tarnished. The excesses of the Jacobins were to blame. Even in Girondist Caen there was a guillotine now: its first victim was the priest who years before had attended Charlotte's mother when she died in childbirth. And as Corday knew, no Jacobin in France more avidly promoted the guillotine, or unmasked more "traitors," than the virulent polemicist and pamphleteer Jean-Paul Marat.

So when she read exhortations like "Let Marat's head fall and the Republic is saved!" posted along the streets of Caen, Corday - a young and beautiful descendant of the dramatist Corneille - rose to claim her destined role. On 9 July she boarded the Paris coach. On the morning of the thirteenth she walked from her lodgings to the Palais Royal and along the way bought a newspaper, a black hat with green ribbons, and a large kitchen knife. After one abortive attempt she managed to slip into the house she sought, on the rue des Cordeliers, and then, by loudly declaring that she bore valuable information, to confront Marat himself.

Marat lay, as he had for weeks, in his shoe-shaped tub, attempting with solutions of kaolin to relieve the scaly sores that afflicted his body. A board served as his desk. His receiving en bain had the advantage that his broad shoulders and brawny arms were fully visible while his almost stunted lower body was not. As she sat at his side, Charlotte described the rebellious atmosphere at Caen. Asked for names, she cooly ticked them off. Marat was pleased. "In a few days I will have them all guillotined," he said, and thereby made easier what followed. Like the tragedienne she saw herself, Charlotte Corday stood erect, pulled the knife from her bodice, and aimed true

Taken from 'First Encounters', published by Knopf, New York

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