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Women & politics: Madame Roland.

I should need a Madame Roland as my reader.


That unpunished vice, reading.

--Valery Larbaud

If anyone helps to overturn conventional notions about the role of women in politics in eighteenth-century France it is Marie-Jeanne (Manon) Phlipon, later Mme Roland (1754-1793). It was not simply the French Revolution of 1789 that inspired her concern with history, society, and the art of government. That interest was of long standing in a deeply studious young woman who loved reading, even works by the most difficult thinkers, and who read widely for self-instruction and self-knowledge as well as pleasure. Much cherished by her parents as the sole survivor of seven children, she was endowed with a strong sense of her own worth and capabilities.

In 1776, Manon, daughter of a well-established master engraver, tried to call on the celebrated recluse, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She failed to get past Therese Levasseur, Rousseau's long-suffering mistress, who by then was his wife. As for Manon's letter, Rousseau in his reply thought, or affected to think, that it was written by a man. What this adventure took in the way of enterprise, daring, and energy for a modest young woman of the day, careful of public opinion (as indeed Rousseau himself advised in Emile), may readily be supposed.

Disappointed but not disillusioned, she wrote to Sophie Cannet, her friend of convent school days, "His genius has warmed my soul; I have felt it set me aflame, uplift me and ennoble me." It was not just his novel, Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, qualified as "a masterpiece of feeling" that seized her imagination, but also his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, his Social Contract, and other works which contained "countless interesting truths in connection with government." Political matters ceaselessly occupied her thoughts. Despite Rousseau's faults of character (for which she found excuses), in her eyes he remained not just a genius but a friend of humanity, its benefactor, a man of virtue, and "a citizen"--high praise indeed.

This admiration never waned, and it was perhaps all the more intense because she had discovered Rousseau fairly late, when she was emotionally vulnerable at her mother's untimely death. He joined her favorite authors: Plutarch, with his portraits of the great men of antiquity, and Montaigne, lauded for his probing self-inquiry and candor. She told Sophie Cannet that she loved Rousseau "beyond all expression. I carry Rousseau in my heart." He is "my breviary," she declared.

As if all this were not enough, she once confessed, in a strange cry addressed to her idol, "divine Rousseau": "You are like me. I find myself in you. You transform me into you, or you are none other than myself" (her emphasis). Here is a curious example of literary transmutation. Although Don Quixote, whose wits were turned by reading novels of chivalry, wanted to serve as a knight errant like Amadis of Gaul, he did not want to be Amadis, or think he was. Given her passionate enthusiasm for Rousseau, it is no surprise to learn that some years later she made a pilgrimage to Ermenonville, where the author of the Confessions then lay buried on an island in the park. She and her husband would also visit sites associated with Rousseau when they were in Geneva, the great man's birthplace. She waxed indignant at the way he had been persecuted.

Clearly, this exalt&, who would become the supreme political heroine of the French Revolution for Stendhal and Carlyle, was already an exceptional young woman. "I admit that I do not feel I am made for ordinary things," she had told Sophie Cannet. She came from what she herself called--in 1777--"la moyenne classe," the respectable lower middle class of artisans-cum-artists, craftsmen, tradespeople, as distinct from those she defined as belonging to the "common" or the "most numerous" class. In this she was unlike Mme de Stael, whose origins lay in the bourgeoisie of high finance, or Mme de Genlis who was descended from the old nobility. However, along with them--and all women of intelligence of the day and after--she was preoccupied with the glaring shortcomings of female education and the need for its urgent reform.

Sainte-Beuve, that subtle nineteenth-century student of eminent women, was to write that the name of Mme Roland "marks a date." Starting from her, thought Sainte-Beuve, women who came after Rousseau were divided from those who preceded him. Following Rousseau's Confessions, she herself would write frankly in her remarkable Memoires about such matters as menstruation and female sexuality. Thus (to Sainte-Beuve's protestations of distaste) she related the unwanted sexual attentions of one of her father's pupils when she was a girl, and she also conveyed the shock and disappointment of her wedding night. In her memoirs she alluded to her imaginative sensibility, her "wandering and romantic imagination" her "romantic mind." She could have found the word "romantic" in one of her favorite writers, the Scottish poet James Thomson, melancholy lover of nature, virtue, and liberty.

Manon's strikingly revealing letters to Sophie and Henriette Cannet, the sisters from Amiens who were her convent school friends, cover many years and occupy large volumes. In some respects they foreshadow her memoirs, at times resembling a personal diary. Here can be found, conveyed at length, not only the day-to-day details of her domestic life, but also her moods, feelings, reflections, and opinions. She recounts her unutterable distress at her mother's death. Then she has to endure her father's change of character, his rapid decline into dissipation and ruin. Here, too, are portraits and judgments of the people she encountered--what she liked to call her study of men. This is accompanied by her unrelenting self-analysis in the characteristically French manner (the acknowledgment of "a strong dose of amour-propre," for instance). In these letters she could test her writing skills and refine her style. Indeed, she was then something of a frustrated writer, enraged when she believed that some of her letters were lost or had been intercepted by the censors. She was also an actress looking for a role.

Some of these letters report on her reading and presuppose similar interests in her friends or stimulate discussion between them. On occasion, they are like didactic literary essays. Among the most singular (from January 1777) is her account of Jean-Louis Delolme's study of the English constitution. It occupies many pages and gives an insight into her political views at the time. Delolme, a Swiss republican, was "a truly political mind" in her judgment. For Manon became a republican long before Robespierre. (According to her, in the summer of 1791 the Incorruptible was still asking with a nervous laugh what exactly a republic was). It appeared to her--a convinced Anglophile keen on English literature--that the English were enjoying perfect liberty at a time when the French had to labor under absolute monarchy. She felt nothing but contempt for "the insulting Asiatic luxury" of the French kings. In her view, the fall and execution of Charles I in 164-9 clearly set an example to the entire world (as indeed it did). As for the Glorious Revolution of 1688, with the Bill of Rights it had established the true principles of societies. By expelling James II, a king who had violated his solemn oaths, this revolution had affirmed the doctrine of resistance by oppressed peoples. The violation of the royal oath would be one of her chief accusations against Louis XVI after his attempt to flee abroad and his arrest at Varennes in June 1791. With the removal of a despotic royal house, the English Revolution of 1688 demonstrated that nations do not belong to kings, she declared; on the contrary, legislative powers are rightly assigned to parliaments alone. There must be elections and freedom of the press. These, then, were the advanced ideas circulating among intelligent convent-bred young ladies in Paris and the provinces. They were among the convictions that Manon would carry into the French Revolution.

It was not only from books that Manon drew her opinions or had them confirmed. If she encountered Frenchmen who had travelled to India or lived in Russia, or foreign visitors, she seized the opportunity to question them, and she formed a political map of the world in her head, as she put it. For instance, she asked some "Americans" (who turned out to be wealthy inhabitants of Santo Domingo) about the War of Independence and "the condition of the insurgents." As she wrote to Sophie Cannet in October 1777, "I am very pleased to think as you do about the importance of this revolution. I regard it with keen interest, and I wish for the liberty of America, as just vengeance for the violation of natural law in that unhappy continent, so little shaped for unhappiness." Together with sentiment, the note of intransigence, morbid violence, and revenge can already be heard--that tone of ruthless ancient Roman severity, or what passed for it in eighteenth-century France. There was, at the same time, a kind of self-assurance or self-congratulation at the "advances" that had been made in political thinking, presumably by Rousseau in particular. "We know more about the true principles of good policy in the last twenty years than all the governments of antiquity," wrote Manon to Sophie.

The consequence of this sense of progress in political thinking meant that one could now be certain of what true political principles were, who was in possession of them, and who was not. This attitude would lead to the notion of "true patriots" (oneself and one's friends) and "false patriots" (one's opponents), as well as to some dire misjudgments. A number of those who were thought to be true would unluckily turn out to be false. While Manon's high principles were directed to the service of humanity, she had an extremely poor view of the generality of men, an opinion repeated many times in her letters and her memoirs. She does not appear to have noticed, acute as she was, the contradiction between her passionate devotion to the regeneration of humanity and her convinced misanthropy, presumably fostered to some degree by personal experience.

Her charm and intelligence, and more particularly the prospect of her dowry, had attracted a number of suitors. Unfortunately, her father--now a merry widower--lost most of her portion in gambling and dissipation. Various suitors faded quietly along with her financial prospects. She appears to have become really attached to a young writer named La Blancherie, who failed her in this respect. The fact was that she had cultivated her sensibility, as the eighteenth century would have it, and she had, as it were, educated herself above her station. Several merchants sued for her hand. "Had I lived with Plutarch and the philosophers to marry a merchant without feelings similar to my own?" she was to ask rhetorically in her memoirs. There were a few cultivated men somewhat advanced in years, who shared her interests, gave her free access to their libraries, escorted her to literary or musical gatherings (she was herself a gifted musician). Whenever she encountered female wits who displayed their talents in public their vanity aroused her distaste. However gifted these women might be, she thought, men always tended to ridicule them. On no account therefore must a woman be seen to perform or write for the public, she agreed with Rousseau--at least until circumstances were to force her hand.

It was through Sophie in Amiens that Jean-Marie Roland came to call with a letter of introduction when he visited Paris in 1776. Known as a liberal-minded advocate of free trade, he was the hard-working official inspector of manufactures in Picardy, whose headquarters were in Amiens. A bachelor past forty, he had travelled widely in Europe and he was acquainted with eminent savants. She could discuss literature, philosophy, and politics with him as her friend and guide. He might be domineering, but he also appeared "austere," high-principled, a cultivated man of integrity. "I believed I saw that as regards politics and conduct he held true principles," wrote Manon to Sophie, thus revealing her own priorities as a young woman of twenty-two.

There followed an odd on-off courtship. It lasted several years, until she brought him to his knees by retiring to the convent where she had been educated. Roland came from land-owning gentry in the Lyons region, his social position was therefore higher than hers, and his family saw their union as a misalliance. Nonetheless, they were married in 1780. Their daughter Eudora (who in character and talent was to prove such a great disappointment to her mother) was born in 1781. Indeed, after Eudora's failure to live up to Manon's high standards, the girl was kept in the background. Manon liked to refer to her husband as Cato, with herself as Cato's wife, but this may have been slightly ironical, and not quite the Roman compliment it might first appear. For, in a letter to Sophie where she had discussed Cicero's letters to Atticus, she had observed that Cicero thought Cato a true citizen but stiff and with little tact. She was to feel the same about her husband. It appeared to her that he made enemies by his sharp and sarcastic manner, and that he lacked the ability to "dissect" the motives of others as well as being wanting in finesse in dealing with them. She herself had to make up for these shortcomings by her grace and charm. Did she realize, when she wrote her memoirs to establish his reputation and her own in the eyes of posterity, how unprepossessing a portrait she was painting of her husband's character? Perhaps she did.

From the beginning of their life together, Manon served as unofficial secretary to her husband, helping him with his writings, including the three volumes of his important Dictionary of Manufactures, Arts, and Trades, part of the additions to the celebrated Encyclopedie edited by Diderot and d'Alembert. Her powers of concentration and her literary skills were considerable, and, as she later expressed it, Roland began to think he had written her more stylish contributions himself. It was she who often corresponded with friends he had made like Jacques-Pierre Brissot who was to become the revolutionary leader of the Girondins. After all, she had had long practice in her years of letter writing. Besides, she had once sketched a metaphysical dissertation, planned a philosophical novel, and been persuaded to submit an essay on women's education to a provincial academy--anonymously, of course. She had even written a lively account of a journey into the country in disguise as her cousin's maid, and had fantasized about the advantages of travelling in men's clothes.

Through her husband's connections in the worlds of learning, commerce, law, and politics, her horizons began to expand. For the first time, she visited England, meeting the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, and noting "the happy results" of the English constitution that she had admired when reading Delolme. In Switzerland, she became acquainted with the philosopher-poet Johann Kaspar Lavater, celebrated analyst of physiognomy, and she corresponded with him. As was perfectly customary in the ancien regime, where women were often employed to use their charms to seek advancement for male members of the family, Roland sent his wife to Versailles to try to obtain a patent of nobility. She did not succeed, but she did obtain his promotion to Lyons.

It was not the first time that she had visited the palace at Versailles. She had been taken there once on an excursion with her mother, staying briefly in a borrowed apartment in the attics, next door to the Archbishop of Paris, no less. She remembered the vile stench from the privy on the floor they shared with this strict cleric who like the rest was prepared to live in squalor so as to be able to "crawl" before the high and mighty. She told her mother that she felt nothing but "hatred" for the members of the court with their haughty airs, and she raged at the sheer injustice and absurdity of it all. Any example of pretentious mediocrity--and she encountered many--invited her scorn for privileges that were not founded on merit. Together with her sense of her own worth and her high idealistic principles, it was indignation and resentment that would play a large part in firing Manon's revolutionary ardor.

In Lyons, Roland aroused the wrath of the local reactionaries by his enthusiasm for change--enthusiasm passionately shared by his wife, who was much moved by the appalling sufferings of the poor in the Lyons region during the recession of the 1780s. Her letters to friends like Louis-Augustin-Guillaume Bosc, for instance, reveal her frustration at what was going on in Paris, known to her only at second hand. Nothing fulfilled her dream of action as it should be. Her language became ever more intransigent. "You are nothing but children," she wrote to Bosc, shortly after the fall of the Bastille. "Your enthusiasm is a flash in the pan, and if the National Assembly does not put on trial two illustrious heads, or if some magnanimous Decius does not slay them, you are all f*****." This note of forceful vulgarity in a person so sensitive to womanly charm and grace takes one by surprise.

In her correspondence the tone of redemptive violence grows ever more strident. In order to "whip" one's fellow citizens into action, what is needed is for them to prove their mettle in a civil war. It is impossible to rise to liberty from corruption without dangerous upheavals. These are simply the "salutary crises" of a grave political fever. This dark vision was inspired perhaps not only by internecine conflicts in ancient Rome but also by the civil strife in seventeenth-century England that gave birth to Cromwell's republic. Apart from preaching and teaching, one must inspire fear. Patriotic writers should denounce corrupt political figures, advice later to be followed assiduously (and with little regard for truth) by her enemies. Complete your work or be ready to water it with your blood, she proclaimed. "When the public safety is at stake the citizen should not even spare his father." Brissot published some of her outpourings in Le Patriote Francais as "Letters from a Roman Lady."

When Roland was sent to Paris early in 1791 to try to settle the debts of the Lyons municipality, of which he was a member, Manon accompanied him. She hastened to attend sessions of the Constituent Assembly, but she became so angry that she could not bear to return. In her impatience it seemed to her that everything was moving much too slowly. Four times a week, in her salon, Brissot and his associates and Robespierre (whom she then admired) were frugally entertained. She sat sewing or writing letters, listening intently, absorbing all, and remembering the fine details, but she did not join in the discussions. Sometimes, she related, she had to bite her tongue.

With Roland's financial mission successfully concluded, the couple returned home to the provinces. A few months later, they were back in Paris, no longer quite so much in demand as before. Thoroughly depressed, Manon was contemplating defeat when, to general surprise, Roland was appointed Minister of the Interior. An eyewitness has described how Manon was suddenly transfigured. For this unexpected appointment (due to the constitutional exclusion of deputies who had already served) Roland was largely indebted to Brissot and his friends. In Manon's view, Brissot remained the true patriot. She appears to have known nothing about his period of gutter journalism or his shady past as a police spy (corroborated by Robert Darnton's fascinating researches into the eighteenth-century literary underground). Nor did she seem aware of Brissot's former close links to the Orleans party, or the fact that his wife was a protegee of Mme de Genlis, whom Manon thoroughly detested. The historian Pierre-Edouard Lemontey, who knew Manon at this period, remarked that she spoke of nothing but political affairs. She informed him--in a way that now seems profoundly ironic--that she was ready to die on the scaffold. He said that she seemed to pity his moderation.

In the splendid official residence, Manon gave modest dinners twice a week, attended mostly by political allies. Her comments on the best part of the Girondins were tart. Eloquent lawyers as many of them were, they were incapable of action, they lacked character, and moreover they were "lazy." As for the liberal philosophe Condorcet, however estimable, he should never have left his study. Gaspard Monge in ministerial debates had never occupied anything but his chair. She met Thomas Paine whose writings she thought were preferable to the man in person. The revolutionary leaders who would be idolized as role models down the ages were all, in her view, "pygmies." No women were ever present at these dinners --she did not have a high opinion of their sense or discretion. Many people who sought access to Roland approached her first. It was she who, as unofficial secretary (and private adviser) to Roland, wrote the celebrated letter to Louis XVI, where she told the king some home truths in her husband's name. Such was the power of the social conventions of the day that she had to maintain the fiction that she had never crossed the limits imposed on her sex. Consequently she lied in her memoirs when she declared that she had simply copied the notorious missive. In a situation increasingly compromising for the Girondins, her action was decisive. Unsurprisingly, Roland was dismissed together with the other two Girondin ministers.

The "second revolution" the popular insurrection of August 10, 1792, brought Danton to power as Minister of Justice, while restoring Roland to his post. But the scene had changed radically. Manon could not abide Danton, with his large appetites and his questionable financial dealings. Some have suggested that her hostility to him carried a sexual undertone, others that she simply resented the way he ineluctably cast her husband into the shade. Certainly, her refusal to consider any accommodation with Danton when he contemplated an alliance with the Girondins was not politic. She attributed to him and his faction (wrongly, historians believe) the responsibility for the ghastly massacres of September 1792. Onetime advocate of spilling blood, Manon viewed this savagery with horror. It was one thing to urge bloodletting in rhetoric and another to have to face the grisly reality. However, the fact was that Roland himself along with the rest of the Girondins had failed to act decisively to prevent such an atrocity, though she did not admit it. They were now left behind as ever more ruthless figures took command. Both Roland and his wife came under fierce attack from demagogues like Marat.

Manon had always been eager to teach and, privately, Roland appears to have left her in charge of the Bureau d'Esprit Public, a sort of propaganda office for educating the people in the proper revolutionary principles. "You do not have to be a profound politician to know that public opinion creates the strength of governments," wrote Manon, asserting that here lay the difference between a just government and tyranny. All the same, amid the fear and suspicion fostered by enemy invasion, it was easy to suggest that this Bureau concealed a source of sedition--yet another conspiracy theory to which could be added the calumnies and the obscene innuendoes of the demagogues. Roland himself was castigated and his integrity impugned because of his serious tactical error in opening the king's private "iron safe" without first obtaining due authorization from his colleagues. On January 22, 1793, the very day after Louis XVI died by the guillotine, Roland submitted a letter of resignation. This was actually written by his wife. Her activity, it seems, was no secret. In the Convention, Danton remarked sarcastically that any proposal made to Roland should be put to Mme Roland as well, "for everyone knows that Roland is not alone in his ministerial office."

Husband and wife were soon in serious danger in a world that came to seem to her far worse than that of the ancien regime. Robespierre had embarked on removing all those who stood in his way. With the fall of the Girondins, Roland went into hiding. Why did she not go with him? Was it because grave differences had arisen between the couple? Toward the end of the previous year, Manon had fallen in love with a member of her political circle. This was the Norman-born lawyer Francois Buzot, already married, who shared her melancholy temperament and her lofty Roman principles. She had flirted with admirers on occasion, but this was romantic passion in the grand manner. They sublimated their love, she insisted in her memoirs, declaring that it never overstepped "the bounds of virtue." Intoxicated by literature and in accord with the religion of feeling, she had confessed to her husband, following Mme de Lafayette's heroine the Princesse de Cleves and Rousseau's Julie. This was a serious misjudgment on the part of one who prided herself on her psychological acumen. Roland did not behave like a husband in a romantic novel with noble sorrow or compassionate understanding and sympathy. He became bitter and resentful. She had to persuade him to destroy his vengeful memoirs so as not to damage their own image in the eyes of posterity.

Manon was arrested at the same time as the Girondin leaders on May 31, 1793, and she spent some five months in prison. According to eyewitnesses, she behaved with exemplary courage. She showed herself a paragon of domesticity, cleaning her cell and keeping it habitable. She cared for her fellow prisoners. She kept busy with drawing, reading, and composing in haste the memoirs that were to be her "moral and political testament." To faithful friends who came to visit her, she managed to entrust portions of the manuscript for safekeeping. One, however, fearing immediate discovery, burned the pages in his possession. She was so shattered that she said she wished she had been consigned to the flames with them.

In prison, paradoxically, she felt for a while strangely content and free--free to think about her beloved Buzot in a way that Stendhal possibly recalled when having Fabrice, imprisoned in the tower, dream happily of Clelia in La Chartreuse de Parme. Meanwhile, through her friends, she was able to correspond with Buzot who was trying to raise an army in Normandy to march on Paris. When her correspondence with the rebels became known, it was enough to seal her fate. With Girondin allies, she was a federalist after the American model, at a time when Robespierre stood for France "une et indivisible." Her high hopes for the insurrection in Normandy were not fulfilled. To her despair, in defeat Buzot and his companions fled to Bordeaux instead of to the United States, as she had urged. She contemplated suicide in the high Roman fashion--her husband would later take his own life and so would Buzot--but she decided instead to die with the rest of the Girondin leaders.

She was not permitted to speak at her "trial" on November 8, 1793 and she was hurried to the guillotine on the very same day. Courageous to the last, she had also contrived to arrange her final moments with the skill of a consummate actress. For she aimed to be remembered along with her favorite models of integrity, men wrongfully condemned to death, from Socrates to the seventeenth-century English republican Algernon Sidney. A good friend of hers, Sophie Grandchamp, acceded to her request and stood at a prearranged spot so that she could bear witness to Manon's steadfast and heroic demeanor in the tumbrel on the way to the guillotine. Manon had been ready in imagination to die on the scaffold, and here she was, her destiny fulfilled, a martyr to the revolution that devoured its children.

What was her role? Is it possible now to separate it from that of her husband, without whom presumably she would have played no part? Was it she who persuaded Roland to return to Paris in 1791, thus placing him at the center of affairs, making him available for high office, and ultimately by her actions causing his destruction? Would Roland himself have entered the historical stage if she had not propelled him? In her memoirs she speaks of their collaboration, while insisting that Roland did not need her to make his mark. Yet it is plain that she was more than a secretary or a mere copyist, as she pretended. Together they discussed matters of state. She was his adviser and confidante. She had ideas that he adopted as his own. Hers was the energy, drive, and ambition. And it is she (rather than her husband) whom historians and novelists have endowed with the heroic role. Given the years she had devoted to the study of history and politics, she felt that she was better equipped intellectually and morally than many of the political leaders of her day. She paid a heavy price for her vanity and her passionate urge to "regenerate" her fellow citizens, who--in the manner of humankind--were singularly reluctant to be regenerated.
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Title Annotation:figure in French Revolution
Author:Winegarten, Renee
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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