“All that You Must Know About the French Revolution you can learn from Irma,” by Antoinette Sol

Antoinette Sol

University of Texas at Arlington

“All that You Must Know About the French Revolution you can learn from Irma

If you ask someone at random walking down the street what comes to mind when one mentions the French Revolution, certain categories invariably come up: violence, blood, public disorder, guillotine, Marie-Antoinette, and– if the person has an interest in history (or is over-educated)– the Terror, pornographic political propaganda, and the tension of oppositional public discourses of sensibility and reason come up. These impressions of the Revolution today echo those of the late 18th and early 19th century when traumatized people tried to make sense of their experiences. One particular novel, coming out of and on the heels of these political, social and cultural upheavals known collectively under the rubric “the French Revolution,” places the reader thoroughly in the revolutionary moment. The monophonic epistolary novel Irma, ou les Malheurs d’une jeune orpheline. Histoire indienne, avec des romances, publiée par la citoyenne Guénard (an VIII) lets the reader vicariously experience not only revolutionary events as it follows the private and public travails of the great (royal family) and the small (and those who come into contact with them), but also allows them to come to terms with them. Representations of the French Revolution are today, as they were then, skewed either to the right or to the left. Rarely is discourse on the Revolution a balanced one. However Guénard offers a path outside of partisanship inside of a royalist novel. It ultimately offers a non-partisan vision of the world; one in which compassion is the ruling ideology. The popularity of the book in the XIXth century and its value today both stem from the novel’s hybridity—both generic and aesthetic—that offered contemporary readers in familiar and non-threatening literary modes a way to come to terms with national as well as personal traumatic events and allows the modern reader to plunge him or herself into the maelstrom of the era.

If the novel, as well as its author, are forgotten today, this was not always the case. In fact, it turned into a small cottage industry for Guénard. Volume one and two, serving as a sort of trial balloon, were published first. For some reason, they were not subject to censure and the sales were encouraging. The third and forth volume quickly followed. The novel ran to ten editions from 1799 to 1815, not including the pirated runs. It was considered politically dangerous enough in 1810 to have the ninth edition confiscated by the police. In the tenth edition, Guénard adds a fifth and sixth volume. In 1825, Guénard published a three-volume continuation, Triomphe d’une auguste princesse, which brings the total to nine. The immensely popular roman à clef recounts the fictionalized story of Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, Madame Royale, the surviving daughter of Louis XVI and the fate of the royal family set in India and Persia. The characters are barely masked (Siblouïs for Louis/Selabius for Elizabeth for example).  And although the point of view appealed to one particular political faction, the royalists, it was, at its most basic level, a rousing good read for the growing reading public who eagerly seized up the numerous novels published by a burgeoning publishing industry.

As a gothic or frenetic-bildungsroman-sentimental-pseudo historical-adventure novel of persecuted innocence, it had something to please everyone. In addition, the horror of recent events is rendered manageable by its integration into the familiar literary registers and subgenres. Irma is an outrageous novel, mixing historical facts and fictional events, political analysis with wild speculation set in an exotic atmosphere that combines the engouement for the frenetic esthetic so popular at the end of the XVIII century with the familiarity of longstanding popularity of the oriental narrative. However, drawing on tropes familiar to readers of popular fiction and adding the new tropes of the gothic or frenetic novel, Irma allows readers to vicariously relive traumatic events at a safe remove. By setting the novel in an oriental frame, a device popular for the preceding two centuries, powerful traumatic events and political figures are at once neutralized when set at a remove from the present. The reader is able to read tale of persecuted innocence on multiple levels, one according to the clef, a fictionalized account of the imprisonment of a young Indian princess, her family and many political intrigues surrounding them, another as the story of the Royal French family and, again, read it simultaneously as an allegorical account of the French nation as a whole. It allows the reader the distance he or she may need to understand events at a private as well as public level—this proved to be a powerful combination and accounts for the novels enduring popularity.

In Irma, Madame Guénard weaves history into her fiction in the Oriental mode in line with the traditions long established by Scudéry and company but with a difference. The novel thrills and entertains according to its generic functions, but it informs on another level as it educates the reader with a well thought out political and historical analysis that is presented as such in the text. In her attempt to explain the underlying reasons for the recent social and political upheaval, Guénard stays close to historical events in her tale of Irma/Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte. Guénard takes this central, yet marginalized historical figure and transforms her into a “player”-through her role as daughter, wife and mother. If you lifted the thin veil of Orientalism, Irma could be called an historical novel. Guénard includes letters (albeit apocryphal), documents, notes and trial testimony alongside the standard fictional inclusions such as Romances (chansons) and Stances. In this cross between a mémoire and letter novel, Irma writes of events to her intended husband, her first cousin. She recounts the events leading up to the Royal family’s imprisonment and the narration advances through these included letters from the King, her father, to family members when he is separated from them right before his trial. For the reader, Guénard humanizes the royal family and creates a real one out of a symbolic one. In so doing, she  appeals not to politics so much as to the reader’s sentiment.

The narrative is split into contemporaneous events told by Irma and the historical perspective leading up to those events explained by her aunt, Selabius. The historical sequence is respected, giving the reader both sides of events, the private side as well as the public. Guénard shows the private face of history as Irma’s narrative traces the march on Versailles, the Terror, La Grande peur, the royal family’s incarceration, the physical conditions of that incarceration, and the reaction of her father and mother on the one hand, and the reaction of the “outside” to the King and Queen on the other, their respective trials etc. Although clearly royalist, there is enough even- handling of the other side to satisfy a Jacobin reader; There are good guys and bad guys on both sides. Dark prison scenes and murderous guards alternate with kind ones and moments of generosity and friendship.  Guénard gestures towards impartiality (I. 28) when she describes that, for the most part, representatives that destroyed her family were acting in good faith and that it was “une insolente minorité” who almost destroyed the country. However, those involved in the Terror for example—not a favorite with any faction by the mid 1790s—are portrayed as monsters, while “le peuple”, portrayed as basically virtuous, are lied to, manipulated and victimized. The two villians in the book are the Philippe Egalité figure, Robespierre and their henchmen.

One can look at this novel as the story of Irma’s political education, à la Télémaque. It is made clear in the text that Irma has received her sentimental education from her father, but it is her aunt that teaches her the historical causes of the Revolution. Her discourse is an explanatory one, giving justifications for certain decisions, which, in hindsight, were poor ones. Guénard literally traces the path from Louis XIV to Louis XVI, pointing out the good that had been done as well as showing how things went wrong, how poor decisions had been made and how the father/King, a good sentimental man, is taking responsibility for his forebears mistakes as well as his own. Irma presents the king in his role as her father and rarely refers to him by his title, “son âme sensible avoit reçu toutes les vertus d’un digne chef de famille: heureux pour lui s’il n’êut été que satrape!” (I, 5). He is presented as the incarnation of a roi-philosophe,

“C’étoit lui qui avoit effacé jusqu’à la trace de l’esclavage. Par lui, on avoit renoncé cette coutume barbare, d’arracher, par les tourmens, les aveux aux prévenus de crimes souvent imaginaires; la tolérance étoit dans son coeur, et il cherchoit les moyens de rappeler, dans le sein de l’Inde, les sectaires que le fanatisme des prêtres en avoit bannis […] il avoit la douceur de Zoroastre et croyoit que les homes sont frères. Il méprisait les grands dont les moeurs étoient corrompus; il aimoit le peuple.” (I,  8)

But one unsuited to public life, “On entoura mon père de pièges que sa franchise ne lui permettoit pas même d’imaginer” (I,11). Misinterpretation of words and deeds is a leitmotif recurring constantly in the king’s sister (Irma’s aunt) Sebaluis’ historical political account. If “les actions les plus simples de la cour étoient mal interprétées” in the present, it was the same in the past (I, 15). The lack of transparency in the king’s intentions has brought the royal family and the nation to a crisis point. The mis/reading of signs has always been important in the political arena and this king finds himself at the end point of a long series of missteps that reach back to le grand Siblouïs (Louis XIV), “le coup est porté, et c’est de la magnifique profusion du prédécesseur de notre ayeul, que sont sortis tous les maux de sa race” (I, 121). Irma receives an education in interpretation, in reading and deciphering ostensible and hidden meanings in a political and private context as her aunt takes her step-by-step through one hundred years of government.

The past adds to the present lesson that her father, a victim of his own misplaced trust, deems so important and requests that his children learn: they should count on nothing, “pas même sur les vertus apparentes de ses semblables” (I, 88). Irma shows how the King has been and is still poorly served by his advisors, who wanted only a “simulacre du roi” (I,23) to front for their ambitions. The narrative alternates from contemporaneous events to the historical synthesis and back again. This political education (of Irma and the reader) is interrupted by the “hache homicide,” to which she loses her family, one by one (I, 97). Irma, like her real life model the Madame Royale, is eventually sent to her maternal relatives (the King of Persia in the text) in exchange for Revolutionary hostages. In the Persian court she continues her “lessons” in practical politics–international relations and local party politics as palace intrigue etc.– and then again on a more abstract level when a sage takes up where her aunt left off. Although the narration moves the reader through the emotional as well as social chaos of the Revolution, the author takes great care to explain the origin of events, giving a context for the upheaval. The author fosters a sense of emotional security through intellectual understanding by retelling of events experienced by contemporary readers or at the very least with which they were familiar. She places personal trauma in a larger national and public tragedy. By the end of the novel (first 4 volumes at least) the reader comes to an emotional understanding and a certain peace even if the times are still uncertain.

An integral part of this education is the short inset narratives of people Irma comes across. Contrary to expectations, the normally rigid monophonic epistolary form bends its singular and aristocratic point of view to include multiple voices from different social and economic backgrounds.  One of the novel’s great strengths is that it does give voice to oppositional parties and differing opinions to create a united compassionate discourse by its end, leaving the political and ideological in the background to favor the polyphony that is the basis for its appeal. Everyone tells their story and they all have one from the highest nobles, to the servants that served them, to peasants in the field. From monarchists, to revolutionary partisans, to the politically neutral, (women especially) all tell horrendous stories of betrayal, separation, anxiety, and loss.

“Je puis y être heureuse par l’amour de mon bien-aimé, mais je le sens : au milieu des plus douces jouissances, l’image sanglante des auteurs de mes jours se présentera à moi, et je me trouverai bien mieux avec ceux, qui comme moi, ont des larmes a répandre, qu’avec les êtres qui ne peuvent avoir aucune idée de ce que je souffrirai sans cesse, n’ayant rien éprouvé de semblable.”  121

The common thread running through all of these “témoignages” is the pain of separation from both their country and loved ones. If the appearance of virtue is not to be trusted, easily counterfeited, and intentions illegible, the signs of pain are transparent. By the end of the novel, the reader like Irma has come to understand that her country is in reality not divided, but united and equal, with pain and loss as the great leveler. A united community has been forged, but it is not a political one. It is located rather in the sentimental register, coming out of pain and loss and built on shared trauma. It is in this domain that everyone proves equal and one in which her own experiences has taught her to read the suffering heart of her fellow Indians.

In sum, Guénard shows the private face of History, demonizes destructive private ambition and renders public the private suffering of the people.  The particular (found in the singular epistolary narrative voice) expands to encompass the communal through shared experience. By the end of the novel, the reader like Irma has come to understand that her country is in reality not divided between revolutionaries and royalists, but united and equal at a deeper and more important level, with pain and loss as the great leveler. A united community has been forged, but it is not a political one. It is located rather in the sentimental register, coming out of pain and loss and built on shared trauma. Irma, for modern readers, allows the reader, on an emotional level, to experience the paranoia, fear, and confusion rampant at the time of its production and expose him or her to contemporary analysis of recent historical events. If a late XVIII and early XIX century reader looked to Irma for romance, rational explanations and to be moved (both in horror and pity), this novel allows the modern reader to plunge into a world of hysteria, paranoia, violence and schizophrenic pairing of reason and sentiment of the French Revolution. This one novel unites the emotional overload of a people traumatized by violent political events, both public and private, analyses and historicizes the causes of that violence, and, in attempting to come to terms with these events both personal and public, reflects the communal hysteria of 1799 in its frenetic aesthetic. If there was ever a novel that communicates at a visceral level its zeitgeist it is certainly Irma.😀

One response to ““All that You Must Know About the French Revolution you can learn from Irma,” by Antoinette Sol

  1. I am very curious to know a little more about the “gravure” called Le serment de l’hymen. When was is made, by who etc… ? I look forward to meeting you.

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