Rescued by Marat

Hilary Mantel

  • Théroigne de Méricourt: A Melancholic Woman during the French Revolution by Elisabeth Roudinesco, translated by Martin Thom
    Verso, 284 pp, £34.95, July 1991, ISBN 0 86091 324 4
  • Women and the Limits of Citizenship in the French Revolution by Olwen Hufton
    Toronto, 201 pp, £23.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 8020 6837 5

In 1817, at the asylum of La Salpêtrière in Paris, a long-term inhabitant died of pneumonia. Her malnourished, oedematous body was taken away for autopsy. For some years before her death she had been intractably and violently psychotic. She had crawled on the floor like an animal, eaten straw. She stripped off her clothes in freezing weather, and did not mind (her keepers noted) if men saw her naked. She threw icy water on her bedding and her person, and on the floor of her cell.

Her madness was not without eloquence. Until the last years of dementia, she talked all the time. She denounced her keepers as royalists, and spoke of decrees and government measures, addressing her words to the Committee of Public Safety. But the great Committee was long since disbanded, its members guillotined or in exile. For Théroigne time had stopped, some time in 1793. Trapped in the rat-infested cell that was her last home, she spoke always of liberty.

The woman whom the press called Théroigne de Méricourt was born Anne-Josèphe Terwagne, in the village of Marcourt, not far from Liège. She was therefore not a Frenchwoman, but a subject of the Emperor of Austria. Her family were of peasant stock, but comfortably-off. The train of disasters in her life began when she was five years old, with her mother’s death. She and her two younger brothers were parcelled out to relatives. (About the same time, in Arras, four motherless children called de Robespierre were being bundled from one household to another.) Théroigne was taken in by an aunt, who appears to have treated her as a servant. She returned to her father, and got short shrift from his new wife; through her adolescence she trooped from one family to the next, often with her younger brothers in tow, always hopeful of being wanted, and doomed to disappointment.

The family drifted into money troubles, and its most vulnerable member slid sharply down the social scale, spending a year as a cowherd. After this, she secured a post as a governess, Elisabeth Roudinesco claims – though she goes on to tell us that at this stage Théroigne had not learned to write. More likely, as her 1911 biographer Frank Hamel says, she earned her living as a seamstress. But then in 1778, when she was about sixteen, her luck changed. She met a Mme Colbert, who engaged her as a companion, arranged music lessons for her, and took her around Europe.

Théroigne had considerable musical talent. She was a pretty young woman, petite, with blue eyes and chestnut hair, and a sharp intelligence to make up for her lack of formal education. She had, in fact, all the qualifications for a romantic heroine, or romantic victim. Accordingly, four years after her stroke of luck, there came along a fateful Englishman. Something between an elopement and an abduction occurred. The cad took her to his estate, procrastinated about the marriage he had promised; then they flitted back to Paris, where between them they ran through his money. ‘Yet she knew neither carnal passion nor genuine affection,’ Roudinesco sighs. After that she seems to have taken up with a number of men, including an elderly marquis who gave her an annuity. Roudinesco describes her as ‘uneasily suspended between literary bohemianism, polite society and moral degradation’.

Elisabeth Roudinesco (a pupil of Lacan and a historian of psychoanalysis) is concerned not just with Théroigne’s life history but with revolutionary feminism; with Théroigne’s madness and what it means, and with how historians have treated this baffling and intriguing woman. Her book is intelligent, original and deeply-felt, but it is written, or perhaps translated, in a strained and artificial idiom which makes Théroigne’s story sound even more bizarre than it really is. Throughout the book, errors and inconsistencies pass without editorial intervention; the index is waste paper. But however badly you tell Théroigne’s story, you cannot take away its fascination. The cowherd became an opera singer. The opera singer became a rabble-rouser. The rabble-rouser became a madwoman. It is inevitable that the poor, starved body on the post-mortem table should have become a battleground for theorists. No doubt it is useless to complain that the subject’s humanity has slipped away. Even her contemporaries were quick to turn Théroigne into a symbol.

Théroigne had a daughter; we do not know her date of birth or the name of her father, but we know that she died in 1788. Théroigne also contracted syphilis. In the light of her later illness one would like to hear more about this, but perhaps it is as well that we don’t hear more from this author; it is impossible, for several reasons, that a surgeon should have told Théroigne that ‘the virus had entered her bone marrow.’ Medical matters are not Roudinesco’s strong point; it is only in legend that the murdered Marat was still bleeding on the day of his funeral.

Théroigne was restless and ambitious; she wanted to make a professional career as a musician, so she left her old marquis and went in pursuit of success. She crops up in London, Naples, Genoa, Rome; we can follow her, just about, by a paper trail of pawn-tickets and letters and legal agreements. In the spring of 1789 she took lodgings in Versailles, and attended every day the debates of the newly-convened Assembly.

On the eve of the Revolution, women did not regard themselves as an interest-group. Throughout the century poor women had taken to the streets in times of shortages and high prices. But few people in 1789 thought that women should be allowed to vote – or indeed, that all men should be allowed to vote. Suffrage was dependent on economic status, and few women had enough of that. Besides, as Roudinesco shows, few Enlightenment thinkers could conceive of any role for women beyond the domestic. There were exceptions, like the Marquis de Condorcet, who believed that either no human beings had natural rights, or all had the same rights. But the biology-is-destiny school of thought had the upper hand: women were weak, irrational, subject to cyclical indisposition, unfitted by providence for any part in the political process. The Declaration of the Rights of Man did not extend to women; it was enough if their fathers and brothers and husbands had rights. Théroigne called this attitude ‘supremely unjust’.

At some stage Théroigne acquired not only the language of political discourse, but also the famous riding-habit – white, black or bloodred – in which she sweeps through the imagination of her contemporaries and of romantic historians; at some stage, this neglected, abused little girl puts on her plumed hat and picks up her pistols. What was she then – a feminist pioneer, a street-fighting woman? Any close account of her life is a process of debunking. Though she haunted the Palais-Royal in Paris, she was perhaps not present on 12 July, when the crowd turned into a mob; she was not present two days later, when the Bastille fell. She did not lead the women of Paris on their October march to Versailles, to bring back the royal family, ‘the baker, the baker’s wife, and the baker’s little apprentice’. What she did do was to make herself pleasant to various up-and-coming deputies and journalists, to attend little discussion groups; to be seen, once or twice, on the streets when notable events were occurring. Her greatest moment came when she delivered a speech to the men of the Cordeliers Club, and was enthusiastically applauded. But would the left-wing club make her a member? Ah, well: that was another matter.

Elisabeth Roudinesco has a number of interesting things to say about the nascent political power of women, but she tends to make simple ideas sound very complicated; Olwen Hufton, in her study of women and citizenship, is a model of clarity. Hufton has produced a vigorous, well-argued, level-headed book, written with a nicely sardonic wit. She handles theoretical issues with ease, makes them concrete; Roudinesco makes them vaporous. Théroigne is peripheral to Hufton’s narrative; her interest is in more ordinary women, women who (by and large) have neither faces nor names, but who, as the Revolution progressed, arrogated to themselves an increasing share of informal power. But did the Revolution advance women’s rights, or retard them? Both these authors show how feminism and progressive politics came adrift from each other. Urban women rioters did not want the vote, but price controls on bread, candles, soap. Their interests and those of peasant women did not coincide. And rural women, as their men complained, clung to their priests: to their madonnas and village virgins, to the hope of a better life after this.

As Théroigne became better known, she became the target of a ruthless campaign in the royalist press. She had tried to keep herself to herself – Roudinesco, who presumes to go to bed with her subject, assures us that ‘it was not hard for Anne-Josèphe to renounce the pleasures of the flesh, for she had never known them.’ But inevitably, stories about her background leaked out. A certain deputy had the unfortunate surname of Populus. The satirical right-wing newsheets nominated him as Théroigne’s lover, thus implying that she was mistress to the people, a very busy prostitute. She was depicted as having given birth in the chamber of the Assembly – her labour brought on by excitement at one of Robespierre’s speeches.

In the imagination of the era – and of later eras, too – a public man is one thing; a public woman quite another. A woman who leaves hearth and home for the wider world is a streetwalker. She is a locus of disease; she victimises men, infects them. A number of historians have described the Revolution as a spreading infection, a disease running out of control. Roudinesco shows us the painful metaphorical weight the woman revolutionary had to bear. She tends, however, to write as if Théroigne had a harder time than her female contemporaries. In fact, sexual slur and innuendo was the established, pre-revolutionary weapon of anonymous but aristocratic pamphleteers, who portrayed Marie Antoinette as a predatory lesbian. During the Revolution, the journalist Hébert would portray the ferociously respectable Manon Roland as a slut, and Antoinette as a seducer of her own pre-adolescent son. Any woman who put her nose above the parapet received the same treatment. Right-wing journalists like Suleau, one of Théroigne’s persecutors, employed language offensive to a 20th-century ear. Did people in fact believe what was written in the press? Were they blind to satire and exaggeration and sheer silliness? Roudinesco writes as if the left-wing press of 1790 was quite different from the royalist press – as if it was sober and responsible, and employed legions of fact-checkers. But abuse was in the air. The press was free for the first time. The fine art of vituperation was flourishing, on every side. There was no divide between the personal and the political. Théroigne’s friend Camille Desmoulins once wrote a theatre review so ruinous to business that the leading man called him out.

The men who traded insults had means of settling their disputes: rapiers and writs. Théroigne had no platform from which to reply. Towards the end of 1790, heart-sick and in debt, she left Paris. She wanted to see her family – she was always loyal to them, despite their treatment of her. Unfortunately, her reputation as a political activist followed her. Three émigré officers kidnapped her from a rural inn. One of them attempted to rape her. She was handed over to the Austrians, and imprisoned in the Tyrol, in the formidable fortress of Kufstein.

Her captors had swallowed her legend. They did not ill-treat her physically, but they put her under a great deal of mental pressure. They believed that she was on intimate terms with the men who were now shaping events in Paris. They had amassed a formidable amount of documentation about her – some of which has misled Elisabeth Roudinesco. But it soon became clear that while Théroigne was a singular and eloquent woman, a great enthusiast for revolution, her actual influence had been very limited; she had no particular knowledge of the inner workings of the Jacobin Club or of the private opinions of Revolutionary leaders.

Théroigne coughed blood. A doctor said her mental state showed cause for concern. Her interrogators took her to Vienna, where she was taken to an interview with the Emperor, who ordered her release. Escorted halfway across Europe by her captors, she resurfaced in Paris. Most people had assumed she was dead; besides, the world had changed.

In republican France, Théroigne would grow into her popular persona, go halfway to meet her violent legend. Did she, on the day the monarchy was overthrown, kill the journalist Suleau? Certainly, she was at the centre of a mob which did so. Roudinesco does not concern herself too much with sifting through the available accounts, and this seems a loss. So many of the Revolution’s leaders remained aloof from the violence. It seems important that Théroigne did not.

At least there was no longer a royalist press to spread rumours about her private life. But she was further away than ever from real power. Manon Roland – who was disdainful of women’s role in public life – exercised covert power when her husband was Minister of the Interior. Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe – mysterious, marginal women – seized the initiative in the political societies. By 1793, the women sans-culottes were on the streets, calling for price controls. Théroigne did not fit in anywhere. Whatever she was, she was not a woman of the people: her superior if patchy education, her cosmopolitan experience, marked her out. She attached herself to the Brissotin faction in the Convention, to the people who were later called Girondins; she backed their pro-war policy, and campaigned for the right of women to bear arms.

It was not an astute move. Théroigne and other women campaigners invoked the image of the Amazon. Myths were well-understood, in those days. As Roudinesco reminds us, the Amazons killed half their male children at birth, and kept the rest as emasculated slaves. It is hard to think of an image more calculated to strike panic into the male psyche. Théroigne campaigned among the women in Saint-Antoine, claiming that her views had the backing of prominent Revolutionaries like Robespierre. But Robespierre had never met her, and said so. He was unlikely to favour her notion of women’s battalions, since he did not favour any battalions at all – he was opposed to the war. He had his own constituency among the women of Paris, who came to sit in the public gallery at the Jacobin Club and worship him. As Hufton says, a pattern had been established: on their day off, men went drinking and women went to church. The women of Paris may have had little time for the priests the old regime had foisted on them, but they preserved the image of a male saviour who was gentle, celibate and ready to die. They cherished at the same time, Roudinesco says, the image of Marat, but for a different reason. He was everything the political woman was said to be. He was ugly. He was irrational. He was a political embarrassment.

Théroigne’s opponents in the press were now on the left, not the right. They depicted her as wearing a false moustache, which tended to drop off at moments of crisis. Predictable male grumbles were beginning to surface. When a man got home from a hard day’s patriotism, he wanted his dinner on the table; he didn’t want to find that his wife was three streets away, attending a political rally. In the summer of 1793 the power of the women’s clubs would be broken. A series of personal and peculiar contingencies – which Hufton describes very clearly – identified them with the enragés, the anarchistic looters of grocer’s shops, the populists whose views, in time of war, became a luxury the Republic could not afford.

Théroigne was not a clubbist, though, or enragé’s mistress, or anything much any more, just a woman washed up on the Revolution’s inhospitable shore; her vision of women’s role was becoming utopian, at a time when only the bleakest pragmatism could take one safely from day to day. In May 1793 she turned up at the door of the Convention to take her usual place in the galleries reserved for Girondin supporters. A crowd of women ambushed her, stripped off her clothes and whipped her. The incident was very violent; it was not a token humiliation. She was rescued by Marat, who called off the women, put an arm around her and took her to safety. It is one of the doctor’s few recorded good deeds.

The following spring, one of her brothers asked the authorities to take her into protective custody, and declare her insane. This may, Roudinesco thinks, have been an attempt to pre-empt her arrest. She was said to be suffering from delusions of persecution – but during the Terror, who was persecuted, and who was deluded? She wrote a letter to Saint-Just: ‘I have neither paper nor light, I have nothing ... I must be free so that I can write.’

The letter seems more desperate than mad, but it was used against her. She was transferred from one asylum to the next, ending up at the terrible Salpêtrière. Roudinesco shows how proposals for the reform of the place had come to nothing – other considerations had elbowed out the issue of how the mad were treated. It is clear that, if she was sane when she was shut up, Théroigne could not have remained sane for long, under the stress of mistreatment. She was not forgotten after the Revolution – far from it. She became a well-known curiosity. The doctors who treated her did not trouble to inform themselves of the facts of her life. They embraced the legend. She was the killer, the emasculating Amazon. It was considered that the Revolution had driven her mad. What was the Revolution, after all, but an outbreak of mass psychosis? The monarchy restored, this view seemed persuasive.

After Théroigne was dead, a cast of her head was taken. The tiny face is avian, chilling. She had withered away, Roudinesco says, ‘through a slow extinction of the organs, arising from the depth of melancholia’. If we are to be Freudian, melancholia is induced by mourning for the ‘lost object’. Théroigne’s lost object was the Revolution. The language of her madness is simpler than Roudinesco will concede. Enemies said she was filthy, hot, demanding. For twenty years she washed herself in ice.

Olwen Hufton writes very cogently of the decline of the female militant, and of the counter-revolutionary woman. Roudinesco devotes her later chapters to historiography: her subject seen by Michelet, by Lamartine, by the Goncourts. Théroigne becomes thinner, more shadowy: an ideological nullity, a ghost. Yet she was real, wasn’t she? In her postscript Roudinesco describes her journey to Marcourt, the village where Théroigne was born. She finds ‘nothing, no shadow or shade’; almost nothing to demonstrate that the woman or her family ever existed. There is only a baptismal certificate, preserved under glass. The author is overtaken by that haunted malaise common in those who try to make sense of the Revolution: ‘I feel that I have invented everything.’