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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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