Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lucy Moore - Liberty

Liberty – The lives and times of six women in Revolutionary France

Liberty kept me submerged for almost a week. It’s a slow starter, granted, but it almost had to be since there are so many characters and the French Revolution is such a complex event. The first chapters are short which sort of kills the mood – I was already into Germaine de Stael when pow! It changes to Pauline Léon and so forth.

However, it more than pays off when the heads start rolling. Awful as it sounds the appeal of the French Revolution besides the hardcore (or, to our eyes, naïve) idealism is the sheer carnage. At the height of the Terror hundreds were guillotined everyday and then, as alliances shifted and Robespierre was executed, the henchmen started loosing their heads too. One month you’re exiled in shame, a few months later you’re welcomed back in arms. It was heady, violent, fuelled by the most abstract of theories on human nature and political philosophy on one side, poverty and hunger on the other, and an overwhelming sense of social injustice.

Women were there every step of the way, engaged in political discourse, public manifestations and violence. And while they weren’t given the opportunity to contribute in an productive manner, many were contributing: some, like Germaine de Stael, offering their salons as places were ideas and courses of action were first drafted, while gently leading opinions to their way of thinking; others, such as Manon Roland, going so far as to dictate their husbands political choices (Roland also wrote most of her husband’s lauded speeches); Thérésia de Fontenay used her wealth and influence to help the persecuted escape, as a sort of XVIII century Schindler of the aristocracy and royalists; working class Pauline Léon and poor girl turned courtesan Théroigne de Méricourt actually took to the streets, the first participating in the popular uprisings and establishing the first political society for women while Méricourt in a tragic twist of fate would first be admired, in her male riding suits, sword unsheathed as a new icon of the Revolution, finally reviled, mocked, humiliated and stored away in an insane asylum, convinced to very end it was still 1795; Juliette Récamier was too young to actually take part in the events, but she appears here as a sort of conclusion: after all was said and done she became Napoleonic France’s sweetheart – dazzlingly beautiful and with no involvement in politics whatsoever (except that she refused Napoleon’s advances (as did Fontenay), which contributed to piss him off further and probably kill more people).

Roland was the only one of the six actually guillotined, and the diaries she kept on her last days must be very moving – the excerpts Moore looks at are enough to make you cry. Roland, who starts out all self-righteous and kind of annoying turns, faced with execution (and having fallen in love for the first time) into a very dignified character. Moore’s description of the whole environment of prison life, where detainees were waiting around for their turn under the blade, yet trying to keep their chins up (some indulging, even behind bars in impressive “Dangerous Liaisons” antics) is impressive.

Except for Pauline Léon all the six have already been subject of biographical accounts (several for Stael, but others only in French, or out of print). Leon having remained working class all her life (from a family of chocolatiers) didn’t leave much of an official trail, certainly no letters or diaries, so she is the least fleshed out character in “Liberty”. Still, it’s a credit to Lucy Moore she included her in the book – when you read about those gangs of women going around in droves around Paris kicking ass or shouting (sometimes obscenities) from the galleries of the Convention, you can’t help but want to know their point of view. The historical record doesn’t help – no-one painted their portraits and they didn’t have much time, or inclination, to put their thoughts on paper – but they were there, hundreds of them to each sophisticated sallonière.

In short – “Liberty” is a great book, and I’m in awe of the kind of research and organization that goes into a work like this, weaving together not only six biographies but also a whooper of an historical event. I’d say I’d want to be like Lucy Moore when I grow up – if only I weren’t so damn close in age.

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