The National Razor

Hilary Mantel

  • The Women of Paris and Their French Revolution by Dominique Godineau, translated by Katherine Sharp
    California, 415 pp, £45.00, January 1998, ISBN 0 520 06718 5

We have seen her at the edge of crowds, dwarfed against public buildings. We have seen her in woodcuts, a naked sabre in her hand, the tricolour cockade pinned to her cap; in drawings, with her wooden clogs and apron, her basket over her arm, her knitting in her hands: click, click, through the debates of the Assembly, in the gallery of the Jacobin Club, and each day at me foot of the scaffold, where the tumbrils bring up their freight of dying flesh. She is the ‘fury of the guillotine’, given to a habit of ‘atrocious vociferation’. She is at once an ultra-revolutionary, bloody and unrestrained, and a destroyer of radical will, priest-ridden and superstitious. For the historian Michelet, she is honest and spontaneous, but credulous, a victim of her own sensibility. For the historian Mathiez, she is stupid. For more recent scholars, she is a very defective sort of feminist, or an armed and violent housewife, less concerned with liberty than with the price of sugar. And though this latter concern is seen as legitimate, it does not fail to detract from her status.

The woman of the Revolution is depicted as earthy and solid, but the harder you look for her the more elusive she becomes. She is, as Dominique Godineau says, ‘lost within a paragraph’. She hides in the thickets of partial and compromised evidence, compiled by male hands and reflecting male concerns. She does not speak, but ‘screams’ or ‘yelps’ down the years. She does not write; on the eve of the Revolution, it is believed, 65 per cent of the women of Paris could not sign their names.

Unable to make sense of the sketch and the woodcut, historians first noticed those famous women whom portraitists have fleshed out. The shelves of the libraries of the last century were crammed with books about ‘great women of the Revolution’ – ‘great’, in this sense, meaning ‘well-documented’. So we have innumerable studies of Félicité de Genlis, of Madame Roland, of Charlotte Corday who was famous for fifteen minutes. There were the marginal, romanticised figures like Théroigne de Méricourt, held to be a very salutary example of what revolution does to women, since she was very violent – though fetchingly pretty – and died insane. Queen Antoinette alone, until recently the chief patron saint of those who like royalty and frocks, sustains a biographical cottage industry of some economic importance. In considering these women it was not thought necessary to apply scholarly concern, only to make stories, stories with morals; to rehash the prejudices of their contemporaries and season them with some timid liberalism; no one ever suggested that stabbing Marat was a silly thing for a girl to do.

Then fashions changed, the ‘great women’ were left behind, and the search for working-class heroines began. All our attention is claimed by Claire Lacombe and Pauline Léon, of the Revolutionary Republican Women. Is this shift helpful, or productive of real knowledge? Godineau dares to wonder. Certainly, it tells us more about our own concerns than about the Revolutionary women themselves. Figures who do not quite fit – like Marat’s printer, Anne Félicité Colombe, or Louise Kéralio, a radical but middle-class journalist – are forever consigned to the footnotes; and we are no nearer to being able to imagine the day-today life of the ordinary woman.

Godineau wonders if, in the field of Revolutionary scholarship, the rise of ‘women’s history’ has generated more heat than light. Dorinda Outram put the problem in simple, clear terms in The Body and the French Revolution. Feminist scholarship, she says, has ‘very often been tempted to see the actions of militant women during the Revolution, and their political clubs in particular, as forerunners of modern feminist movements, rather than examining them in the context of the history of the Revolution’. As a result, the failure of the women’s clubs, their suppression in 1793, is seen as an act of male hostility to nascent feminism. The members of the clubs are seen as women who lost the sex war, not politicians who lost the debate. Women are seen as victims, and Godineau believes that this determination to show the Revolution as anti-feminist leads us to undervalue the important role women played in it. Godineau’s great strength is that she doesn’t apply 20th-century values to 18th-century situations. She will have no truck with a schematised, generic, representative ‘revolutionary woman’. So it is that the first part of her brilliant study is devoted to investigating the public and private lives of the Revolutionary Parisienne. And gradually we begin to see her: wearing men’s clothes very often, which is easier if you deliver water for a living, or haul coal and wood. There is almost nothing men do, that she can’t.

We find her at the street-corner bar, sharing a bottle of wine and reading, or listening to a friend read, the latest speech of Robespierre. (All those speeches, Godineau reminds us, that were later picked over by historians, were picked over first by seamstresses and washerwomen.) We find her in temporary wooden shelters, leaning against great buildings or clustering at crossroads: shelters vulnerable to the first gust of wind, or blow from a rival’s hammer. She is always on the street, a sociable being, curious, a bearer and exchanger of news; this will fit her, when the Terror comes, for her two great, misunderstood roles: as denouncer, and as spectator of death.

She may belong to a trade which involves artistry and skill. For example, she may be a bookbinder, or polish metal for a jeweller, or be the colourist to an engraver. If this is the case, she will earn more than some men, but a man will always be the best-paid person in the workshop, because men have reserved to themselves those processes which require greatest skill and longest apprenticeship. Her demand is not for equal pay, but for the chance to do equal work. The Revolution will do something for her. 1791 sees a proposal for a School of Typography, to take in literate but needy women and train them in an essential Revolutionary skill; the printers of Paris are a powerful group of people. By 1793 the school is actually turning outwork, and the Committee of Public Safety rushes to employ it. The idea is floated that it could become an official government printer. But by 1795, the school has disappeared from the records. For the female typographer, and the female in general, the Revolution is over.

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