In Liberty: The Life and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France, author Lucy Moore tells the story of six remarkable women and the turbulent times in which they lived. Although the book is nonfiction, it reads very well and holds the reader’s interest as well as a novel. Moore’s six protagonists come from various levels on the social scale, from aristocrats to working-class women, and each has a compelling story.
Germaine de Staël was the daughter of Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s popular finance minister. His dismissal was one of the events that led to the storming of the Bastille. Germaine was married to the Swedish ambassador, but it was a marriage of convenience, and she had many lovers over the years, but would not divorce her husband even when divorce became legal, because of the diplomatic immunity her marriage gave her. She was highly intelligent and sociable, and in 1789, at the beginning of the French Revolution, she was France’s leading salon hostess. Many liberal intellectuals came to Mme de Staël’s salon to discuss philosophy and the politics of the day. Mme de Staël and the people (usually men) who frequented her salon supported the idealistic early stage of the revolution, but they thought France should have a king, with his powers limited by a constitution.
As the revolution became increasingly radical, Mme de Staël became disillusioned with it, and in 1792, as she attempted to flee from Paris, her carriage was surrounded by a mob and dragged to the city hall, where, luckily for her, an old friend was in charge, and she was eventually given permission to leave the country. She settled in her father’s native Switzerland, but wanted to join her lover Louis de Narbonne, who was rumored to be the illegitimate son of a member of the royal family, in England, and was devastated to learn he no longer loved her. Mme de Staël returned to France after the Terror, and once again became a leader in society. She became well-known as a novelist, drawing thinly-disguised portraits of herself and the people in her circle, and was a prolific letter-writer. When Napoleon came to power, she supported him at first, but became disillusioned after he declared himself consul for life, and then emperor, and also because he seemed immune to her charms. She left the country once again, became one of Napoleon’s most severe critics, and lived to survive his rule.
Manon Roland was more than a decade older than Germaine de Staël, but was also a leading salon hostess. She came from a middle-class background, and was a prolific reader from an early age. After being educated in a convent, she married a man much older than herself. Their marriage was one of intellects, and there was never much passion on either side. During the early phase of the revolution, Mme Roland’s political beliefs were similar to Germaine de Staël’s, but she eventually moved farther to the left, and supported the fall of the monarchy. At her salon, she hosted a group of politicians known as the Girondins, who were moderate revolutionaries. She fell in love with one of them, François Buzot, but never acted on her feelings, even though her husband became jealous. Mme Roland kept her feelings hidden from the outside world and, even in her memoir which she wrote from prison, she never mentioned the man she loved by name. It was only many years later that people found out who he was, when some of her letters to him were discovered.
Robespierre was originally a friend of Mme Roland, but as he became more radical, there was a split between them, and he engineered the downfall of Mme Roland’s friends, the Girondins. Mme Roland herself was imprisoned. Although, unlike Mme de Staël, she never intended to be an author, she wrote her memoirs in prison. After several months in prison, she was guillotined, as were many of her friends. Her husband and the man she loved both committed suicide to avoid the guillotine. Mme Roland was a woman of many contradictions, whose words often said one thing while her actions said another. She often said women should not have the vote, and they should be subordinate to their husbands. In this she was influenced by Rousseau, who believed women should be confined to the domestic sphere. But on the other hand, she had a passion for politics, and she spoke before the National Convention and wrote her husband’s speeches. If she had lived today, she might have become a politician herself.
Thérésia de Fontenay was the daughter of a wealthy family, and educated at a convent. She was married off at fourteen to an aristocrat who was much older. Her husband lived a dissolute life, and from the beginning her marriage was very unhappy. Only fifteen in 1789, she embraced the revolution early on, even though she was married to an aristocrat. Thérésia became the lover of Jean-Lambert Tallien, a young deputy in the National Convention who was, at least at the beginning, an ally of Robespierre. Always kind-hearted, Thérésia used her influence with Tallien to save many people from the guillotine. Eventually Tallien turned against Robespierre and was one of the leaders of the coup that resulted in his downfall and execution. Thérésia became one of the stars of society under the new government, the Directory. This was a decadent society, with extravagant balls and parties, and Thérésia thrived in that atmosphere. She was known for wearing very revealing clothes, with bare arms and even bare breasts. She married Tallien after Robespierre’s fall, but their marriage was not happy, and she had many lovers. Thérésia became the best friend of the future Empress Josephine, but they had a major falling-out after the coup d’état against the Directory that brought Napoleon to power, because Thérésia continued to support the members of the former government, especially Barras, one of the Directors, who had been her lover. Also, she rejected Napoleon’s advances, and he never forgave her for it. She eventually married an aristocrat and was content in her last marriage.
In contrast to the upper-class women, Moore also writes about two lower-class women, Théroigne de Méricourt and Pauline Léon. Not as much is known about their lives, since the lives of the lower classes in general are more sparsely documented. But what Moore tells us about these women is fascinating. Théroigne was born just outside the French border, in what was then part of the Austrian Empire, and fell in love early on with a British soldier, who promised to marry her, but instead seduced and abandoned her. Because she was considered a “fallen woman,” she was not welcomed back into the society into which she was born, and she became a courtesan. Théroigne was an enthusiastic supporter of the revolution, and from the beginning argued for political rights for women. She frequently took to the streets in various riots and protests. In 1792, Théroigne participated in the attack on the royal palace that led to the fall of the monarchy, and she attacked a royalist journalist who had often reviled her because of her past as a courtesan. In spite of the efforts of Théroigne and others to gain political rights for women, Robespierre and many of the other leading revolutionaries, who were influenced by Rousseau, believed the revolution should be only for men. Théroigne wanted women to be able to join the Jacobin Club, but Robespierre and other leading Jacobins turned down her request. Théroigne eventually became disillusioned with the revolution and returned to her home in the Austrian Empire, where she was interrogated because of her revolutionary activities. She then returned to France, where she opposed the Terror. At one time she was almost killed by a mob and was lucky to escape with her life. Tragically, she suffered from mental illness, which probably started during the Terror, and she spent the last part of her life in an insane asylum.
Pauline Léon was the daughter of a working-class family in Paris, and had to support her widowed mother and younger siblings from an early age. She was an enthusiastic supporter of the revolution from the beginning and, like Théroigne, participated in many riots and protests, although it has been debated whether she actually participated in the women’s march to Versailles in 1789, where the market women of Paris, demanding bread to feed their families, brought the king back to Paris. Together with other working-class women who shared her views, she formed a women’s revolutionary society, which demanded political rights, including the vote, for women, and often took to the streets in protest. Originally, Léon and her group were allies of Robespierre and the Jacobins, but when they refused to extend voting rights to women, they joined forces with a political faction called the enragés, who were politically to the left of Robespierre and were more sympathetic to the possibility of rights for women. But Robespierre sent many of the leaders of the enragés to the guillotine, and Léon’s group eventually faded from the scene. Léon married a journalist, Théophile Leclerc, and settled down into her married life.
The youngest protagonist of Moore’s book, introduced relatively late in the book, is Juliette Récamier, who was married very young to a banker who had been her mother’s lover. In fact, there were rumors that her husband was actually her father. It was probably a marriage in name only. Juliette was only a child at the beginning of the revolution, but she became a leading salon hostess during the Directory and under Napoleon’s rule. Initially, she and Thérésia Tallien were friends, but they became rivals, and their lifestyles were opposites: Thérésia was sexually promiscuous and wore revealing clothes, but Juliette was modest in her clothing and chaste in her lifestyle. Modesty and chastity were considered ideals for women under Napoleon’s rule, and so Juliette supplanted Thérésia as the leading lady of Parisian society. Interestingly, Juliette became close friends with Germaine de Staël, even though their lifestyles were so different, and Juliette was the model for a character in one of Germaine’s novels.
As well as telling the story of these fascinating women, Moore writes about the role of women in the French Revolution in general. Women participated in all the major events of the revolution, including the storming of the Bastille, the women’s march to Versailles, and the fall of the monarchy. Of course, Moore writes of the women who knitted at the foot of the guillotine—the basis for Dickens’ Mme Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities. But, as Moore points out, even though women played a vital role in all the events of the revolution, they never gained political and voting rights, which were reserved for men. They did gain some important civil rights: they could marry without their parents’ permission once they reached a certain age, they could own property independently of their husbands, and they could initiate a divorce. But the rights they gained under the revolution were taken away by Napoleon. And, as Moore says, men and women were equal before the guillotine. Women, as well as men, were guillotined during the Terror, even though they did not make the political gains that men did.
I highly recommend Moore’s book. In these difficult times, it is fascinating to read about people who lived through another difficult time. The book is relatively long, but it reads quickly, and is a very rewarding experience.
Liberty can be borrowed from the Hatcher Graduate Library.