Rousseauism and Revolution: François Vernes’ Adélaïde de Clarencé, ou Les Malheurs et les délices du sentiment : Lettres écrites des Rives Lémantines (1796), by Catriona Seth

Catriona Seth

Université de Nancy 2 and Indiana University (Bloomington)

It may seem paradoxical to choose a never reedited text published by a little-known Swiss writer as a ‘must’ of the French Revolution, but I would argue that it deserves to be considered an emblematic work in more ways than one.

A mere glance at the title-page of François Vernes’ 1796 novel indicates some of its essential aspects. The date is given both according to the traditional calendar and the revolutionary one: ‘1796, An 4e de la République Française’. As the two ways of computing years do not overlap completely, the an IV or quatrième of the Republic stretched between the end of 1795 and the start of 1796; this means the book in fact came out somewhere between January 1st and September 22nd 1796. The double date is a salutary reminder of the upheaval in traditional norms during the revolutionary period and the problematic coexistence of two eras.

Another essential element present on the title-page is the indication of the editor’s identity. With the abolition of privileges and the opening up of publishing, anyone could set up as a printer and editor. ‘Chez l’Auteur, au Bureau de la Décade philosophique, Rue Thérèse, et chez les principaux Libraires’ indicates as much. This would have been impossible under the Ancien Régime. The reference to the Décade philosophique, the paper run by people one could call moderate democrats also points to the increasing power and politicisation of the press during the period. The author, ‘F. Vernes, de Genève’, careful to indicate, by the presence of the comma, that ‘de Genève’ is not part of his name, but his origin (and to delete the latter part of his earlier signature, Vernes de Luze which could have been construed as aristocratic), bears a patronymic which would have been familiar to many contemporaries.  Pastor Jacob Vernes (1728-1791), the author’s father – François’ earliest published work, a 1783 collection of poems, was signed ‘Vernes, fils’ –, was a friend of Rousseau and critic of Voltaire, a well-known protestant theologian and controversialist. The reference to Geneva lends weight to the Rousseau connection, harks back to a Republic more ancient than the French one and, as the developing tale within the novel shows, poses the question of national boundaries.

François Vernes, himself, as was frequent at the time, refers to his own earlier works on the title-page of his 1796 novel: ‘Auteur de la Franciade, du Voyageur Sentimental, etc.’ This serves a dual purpose. It is a form of advertisement, the writer is, de facto, saying to his reader: if you enjoy this book, you might like to look out for other texts I have written. It is also a sort of guarantee: the author is not a novice. The ‘etc.’ after the two titles makes it sounds as though his literary production was huge[1]. One could also notice that Franciade is a title which suggests a glorification of France. As to the Voyageur sentimental, a 1786 text which rode shamelessly on the success of Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, it is actually called Le Voyageur sentimental, ou ma promenade à Yverdun, referring to a lakeside town in Switzerland. Everyone was bound to have heard of the Voyage sentimental without necessarily knowing Sterne’s name. By quoting the brief form of the title, Vernes may be hoping to profit from Sterne’s literary reputation.

Returning to Vernes’ own work, the title is obviously the most important single element on the page: Adélaïde de Clarencé, ou Les Malheurs et les délices du sentiment: Lettres écrites des Rives Lémantines. No-one could have any doubt that this is a sentimental novel, one in which ‘les malheurs et les délices du sentiment’ play a central role. The heroine’s name is remarkable in itself. ‘Clarencé’ contains ‘Clarens’, the paradisiacal lakeshore village where Rousseau’s Julie was to be found, and which the heroine herself visits in Vernes’ fiction. This connection with La Nouvelle Héloïse is further enhanced by the reference to the ‘Rives Lémantines’, which creates an adjective for the banks of Lake Geneva, the Lac Léman. Vernes’ sentimental and epistolary text obeys literary conventions of the time since, like Rousseau, the writer only claims to have collected the letters, they are ‘recueillies par F. Vernes’ whose afore-mentioned identity as a citizen of Geneva could lead the reader to expect a high degree of ‘vraisemblance’ if not of truth in the letters which follow.

So what does this two volume tale, a ‘must’ of the French Revolution, actually recount? Eusèbe G*****[2]’s 1839 Revue des Romans. Recueil d’analyses raisonnées des productions remarquables des plus célèbres romanciers français et étrangers. Contenant 1100 analyses raisonnées, faisant connaître avec assez d’étendue pour en donner une idée exacte, le sujet, les personnages, l’intrigue et le dénoûment de chaque roman, offers the following plot-summary:

ADÉLAÏDE DE CLARENCÉ, ou les Malheurs et les délices du sentiment, 2 vol. in-8, 1796. — Adélaïde est fille d’un des premiers citoyens de Genève, entiché d’aristocratie, qui refuse de consentir à l’union de sa fille avec le chef d’un parti opposé au sien. Tout l’ouvrage roule sur les combats de l’amour avec la piété filiale. M. de Clarencé aime beaucoup sa fille ; mais il tient invariablement à ses opinions. Adélaïde respecte et chérit son père, mais elle aime avec passion. Elle résiste cependant aux séductions de l’amour, ainsi qu’à la force de l’autorité paternelle ; elle reste fille vertueuse et refuse constamment l’époux qu’on veut lui donner. Enfin, réduite au désespoir, elle se précipite dans l’Arve et y périt[3].

What the summary only suggests, is that the tale is a contemporary one: the baron de Clarencé is an aristocrat fond of his privileges. Adélaïde is in love with Versan, who is fighting for democratic rights. Many of the letters are dated, they range from early 1791 to November 1792, a little under two years in which hopes rose and were dashed on both sides of the political divide. Born in 1765, Vernes himself was not yet 26 in early 1791 and could almost certainly identify with the spirited push for democracy defended by his hero. In his novel, he is taking on essential current issues: much of Switzerland viewed the Revolution warily and indeed, in August 1792, the massacre of the Swiss guard at the Tuileries palace radicalised feelings. That same year, France attempted to invade Geneva. Émigrés had been flocking to the calm and relative neutrality of Switzerland since 1789. Vernes’ novel portrays, among the secondary characters, a charming French noblewoman, Fanny de Vaucluse, who has escaped with her children after a terrifying ordeal. She is duly reunited with her aristocratic husband who has to become a manual labourer in order to provide for his family. The novel thus takes on politically sensitive issues, shows street skirmishes on the barricades in Geneva and illustrates the fear of contagion felt by many Europeans who saw the effects of the events in France.

Letter 3 of part IV, for instance, from Adélaïde to her friend Clémentine, a character in some ways reminiscent of Rousseau’s Claire in La Nouvelle Héloïse, shows revolutionary events impacting on individual destinies. Adélaïde’s father is putting pressure on her to marry someone to whom he is close politically:

L’armée française borde les frontières de la Savoie ; tout menace d’une irruption prochaine ; si Genève se trouvait entraînée dans la prise de cette province, la chute du gouvernement suivrait de près, et mon père craint sans doute, que Versan à la tête d’un parti triomphant, ne réussît alors à écarter La Rivière, et à faire respecter ses prétentions. L’ordre de chose actuel, et la crainte d’un tel avenir, agissent évidemment sur son caractère, et y jettent une âcreté, une agitation nouvelles ; le retour de Versan ne contribuera pas peu à les augmenter, et je puis m’attendre à des efforts redoublés de sa part, pour m’amener à ses fins. Tandis que ce nouvel orage ne gronde encore que sourdement autour de moi, et avant que j’y sois tout à fait livrée, ouvre moi ton cœur, ma tendre amie, toi qui peut seule me guider dans mes perplexités, toi dont je mets la raison, la conscience, à la place des miennes, tant leur vois est troublée par celle d’un cœur égaré ; parle, que me conseilles-tu de faire, dans le cas où mon père voudrait forcer mon choix … Ah ! je suis donc bien malheureuse, puisque je cherche les limites de mes devoirs, du pouvoir d’un père, moi que cette recherche n’eut besoin d’occuper jamais, et qui suivis toujours la route de la vertu, sans avoir demandé si c’était elle !

As characters go through exile and imprisonment, the feeling of history accelerating is striking. The political differences between Adélaïde’s father and Versan mean that the liberating aspects of revolutionary upheavals do not apply to the young couple. On the contrary, new divides appear: social differences become less important than political choices.

The novel marks a culmination, but also the end of certain forms of rousseauism. Adélaïde’s garden contains direct allusions to La Nouvelle Héloïse and the characters’ names are often quoted by Vernes’ own heroes. They live in the same part of the world and seem to wish to model their existence on Julie and her ‘petite société’. In July 1791, when all hopes still seem legitimate, Adélaïde recounts to her friend Clémentine a visit she has made:

Je reviens de Clarens ; jamais promenade ne m’a plus intéressée. Parcourir la demeure de Julie, c’est, en quelque sorte, entrer dans le temple de Gnide, et errer autour de ses autels. Tout y enchante les regards ; la nature y paraît plus fraîche, plus touchante, le ciel plus pur, le Léman plus calme et d’un plus bel azur ; la campagne plus riante semble y exhaler un parfum d’amour ; le cœur sensible contracte un sentiment de tendresse plus délicieux ; ceux qui ont aimé, y donnent des regrets au passé, et cherchent à vivre de leurs souvenirs ; ceux qui aiment, sentent mieux le présent, et demandent à Saint-Preux et Julie d’aimer et de sentir comme eux ; et ceux qui n’aiment pas encore, ou qui n’ont pu rencontrer l’objet qu’appellent leurs désirs, se livrent ) une mélancolie qui n’est point sans charmes, ou se bercent d’illusions flatteuses, et soupirent dans l’attente d’un doux avenir. Néanmoins les prés, les fleurs et les bocages ne brillent pas ici de plus d’éclat que sur nos bords, mais c’est toi, Rousseau, c’est ton pinceau magique qui répandit ici la féerie du sentiment !

Rousseau is the writer of the Revolution, ‘par excellence’, with his Social Contract. He is also the ultimate reference for the sentimental novelist of the time. What Vernes’ own fiction shows is that Lake Geneva may have delightful landscapes which attract tourists, in particular, readers of Rousseau, but that his tale is that of an utopian society and cannot serve as a pattern on which to model one’s life.

At the end of Vernes’ novel, Adélaïde, who wishes neither to disobey her father’s wishes, nor to renounce her love for Versan, commits suicide, a bold and terrible move. Only death can preserve her virtue and, like Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Virginie, death by water is a way of maintaining a form of unity which is threatened by surrounding events – natural disaster (the storm and shipwreck) in Virginie’s case, political upheaval in Adélaïde’s. There are three posthumous letters from Adélaïde. To her Father, she writes begging for forgiveness, stressing that she has remained virtuous, and asking that he do not mourn her as she is going from him into the arms of the eternal Father, at a time when suicide was considered by many to be a wicked and sinful act. To Versan, she writes, not knowing whether he is dead or alive but fearing they will never be united: ‘Aime-moi encore dans les malheureux à qui je tâchais d’être utile ; je te lègue le bonheur de les soulage. Aime-moi dans une patrie que tu peux servir et qui protégea ma jeunesse ; aime-moi dans une autre moi-même, dans cette amie si tendre … Les larmes m’empêchent de poursuivre … Adieu ! … adieu !!!’. Expecting to be welcomed by white flags of clemency in the eternal kingdom, she then writes to her friend Clémentine, stating that even if her belief in an after-life were to be wrong, she will still live on in her friends’ memories. Versan has the final word in the novel. He thinks he may soon leave this life and, whereas Julie died with the veil lifted from her heart, he is plunging into darkness: ‘Je la vois, je la sens ; elle approche enfin cette mort désirée ; son voile heureux s’étend sur moi ; il enveloppe déjà mon cœur de son obscurité profonde. …’. We are left with an unresolved question, not knowing what becomes of Versan after he has written the last letter to the dead Adélaïde.

The split between two worlds felt by Vernes’ heroes thus points to irreconcilable differences between aesthetics and politics, a literary tradition and the beginnings of a new Europe, a fictional Revolution in the novel thus heralds a Revolution in fiction.


[1] Right at the end of volume 2, Vernes lists his publications in order, he says, not to be saddled by unscrupulous publishers with works which are not his.

[2] Girault de Saint-Fargeau, Pierre-Augustin-Eusèbe, Revue des Romans. Recueil d’analyses raisonnées des productions remarquables des plus célèbres romanciers français et étrangers. Contenant 1100 analyses raisonnées, faisant connaître avec assez d’étendue pour en donner une idée exacte, le sujet, les personnages, l’intrigue et le dénoûment de chaque roman, Paris, Firmin-Didot frères, 1839.

[3] Vernes offers the following summary at the end of his novel : ‘PREMIERE PARTIE. Projet de correspondance d’Adélaïde et de Clémentine. Des Sociétés de Genève, pag. 5. Portrait de quelques hommes, p. 9. Portrait de quelques femmes, p. 20. D’Adélaïde, p. 28. De la physionomie, p. 34. Des Romans, de la musique, romances, p. 43. Dur vrai bonheur, p. 58. Prise d’armes, p. 79. Opinion de Versan, p. 83. Aveu d’Adélaïde, p. 89. De Genève, p. 94. Histoire de Fanny de Vaucluse, p. 100. Des mariages bizarres p. 121. Bague de cheveux, p. 125. Entrevue de Versan et d’Adélaïde, p. 130. Du véritable Amour p. 141. Bal de Morges p. 150. Songe, p. 163. Eulalie, 166. De la Religion, ma Philosophie, p. 179. Querelle au bal, p. 187. Maladie d’Adélaïde, p. 199. Entrevue de Versan et d’Adélaïde malade, p. 204. / SECONDE PARTIE. Séjour d’Adélaïde à Cologny ; projet d’un cours de philosophie, p. 211. Histoire d’Aline et Colette, p. 230. Cours de philosophie, p. 238. Promenade sur l’eau, Histoire de Corali, p. 271. Du mariage, p. 284. Visite à Fanny de Vaucluse, et son époux, p. 299. Rendez-vous d’Eulalie et Delarin, p. 312. Vers à Clémentine, 323. Histoire de la famille Nègre, p. 327. / TROISIEME PARTIE. Voyage aux Glacières, p. 3. Histoire de Delton, p. 8. Route de Cluse à Salenches ; Alphonsine, p. 22. Chamonix ; histoire de Sans-Souci, p. 30. Histoire de Delville, p. 41. Tableau des Glaciers, p. 47. Histoire d’Alméda, p. 55. Le Sourd et muet, p. 68. Clarens, p. 77. Meillerie, p. 84. Adélaïde au bain, p. 105. Duel, p. 124. Paris, p. 137. / QUATRIME PARTIE. Versan à Londres, p. 170. Lidelson, p. 177. Elisa, p. 179. Discours à Lidelson, p. 186. Fuite d’Adélaïde, p. 231. Son séjour à Aubonne, p. 241. Ses rendez-vous avec Versan, p. 258. Son départ de Genève, et sa mort, p. 315.’

Sade’s La Philosophie dans le boudoir: A “Must” of the French Revolution?, by James Steintrager

James A. Steintrager (University of California—Irvine)

Choosing Sade’s La Philosophie dans le boudoir as a “must” of the French Revolution might seem obvious. After all, it is not as if Sade—or this particular writing—is unknown. We are not talking about an archival discovery. But the reception of Sade nonetheless leads me to conclude that the relevance of this work to the Revolution has, in fact, been largely obscured. The best-known part of this reception has been, in a word, theoretical, and as such has often lost sight of—or misunderstood—the particular circumstances of his writings and how these circumstances inform and form a content that has sometimes been seen—to a degree correctly—as idiosyncratic. What are the high points of this reception? Following the decadent and surrealist invocations of the Divine Marquis—and they are little more than invocations—there have been, for example, Bataille’s thanato-erotic hero, Camus’s existentialist rebel of sorts, and Klossoski’s heir to the heretical counter-tradition in his Sade, Mon Prochain, which had a decisive influence on Lacan’s examination of Sade in his seminar on ethics (to put it mildly). Then, of course, there is post-structuralist Sade of Sollers, Barthes, and Foucault. The latter did place Sade in historical context, although the different and pivotal roles that he plays for Foucault suggest that here too we might learn more about the historian’s theoretical stakes and assumptions than about the object of his attentions. Foucault’s Sade is by turns a literary exemplification of a certain regime of madness, the point of rupture between epistemes, and eventually what we might call an exceedingly frustrated expression of the shift from juridical-discursive power to bio-power and “sexuality.” Nevertheless, Sade’s writings, including Philosophie dans le boudoir, have in the past couple of decades received historical attention (and the impetus that Focault’s work provided strikes me as crucial in this regard). There have been, for example, contextualizations of Sade’s writings in terms of the history of the novel and the history of science. “Sensibility” has been a keyword joining these two domains.

Still, the historical approaches just mentioned tend not to pass through the French Revolution. Instead they track trends that are neither explicitly political—in fact, running deliberately counter to political expression in favor of “cultural” or “discursive” formations—and have little place for events. There is, however, a longstanding tendency in intellectual history to place Sade’s thought at the endpoint of certain rationalist trajectory and to align it with the Revolution. Adorno and Horkheimer thus claimed that Sade was the monstrous revelation of what the instrumentalization of reason entails. But their Sade remains historically vague. Lester Crocker similarly made the case for Sade as the logical culmination of enlightened materialism in nihilism (with perhaps less verve but with considerably more attention to the array of philosophical inquiry in eighteenth-century France than Adorno and Horkheimer). There is a soupçon of the same case in Robert Darnton’s The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, which argues that libertine literature and libelles had a de-legitimizing effect on the monarchy and thereby contributed causally to the French Revolution, its inception and its regicidal, anti-aristocratic, anti-clerical, course. A role for Sade could be found here, of course, although events were well under way by the time Philosophie dans le boudoir or his other major writings saw publication.

In short, while Sade’s works have frequently enough been invoked in relation to the French Revolution, they have less often been to tied to concrete events and specifically Revolutionary cultural discourses. And although I am entirely sympathetic to historicist modes that do not reduce a work to its immediate or near immediate context, I think that we cannot really grasp Philosophie dans le boudoir in particular—nor can we see what it brings to our understanding of its context—unless we consider what I would be willing to call its occasional nature. The original text appears to have been published sometime in the second half of 1795. Although we do not know exactly how long Sade took to write it, generally speaking authors at the time did not linger over their manuscripts for years. I would treat as the absolute earliest date of composition for the most politically pointed parts of text—for, again, there are themes and philosophical interests that extend beyond the occasional—as June 24th, 1793, that is, the date of the Constitution de l’an I. And as the editor of the Pléiade edition of the text remarks, while the action of the dialogue apparently takes place late in the reign of Louis XVI, internal evidence suggests as the terminus ad quem for composition some time shortly after the Constitution de l’an III (August 22, 1795), which established the Directoire and its less radical tone and content (see Sade, Œuvres [Paris], 3.1265-1266). Sade’s intervention certainly appears to be just that from a certain perspective: an engagé commentary on the socio-political landscape of this period, which included, of course the Terror (a point that lends topicality to Sade’s largely anthropological analyses of human aggression in the text, if not a dose of realism).

The false “pamphlet” inserted in the narrative of Philosophie dans le boudoir entitled “Français, enore un effort si voulez être républicains” looks a clear reference to the new Déclaration des droits de l’homme and du citoyen of 1793. In keeping with a certain historical trend, that is, the title says both “Let’s try again” and “Let’s push this even farther.” The content bears this out. The radicalization of republicanism and democracy in the new constitution included the addition of various rights not articulated in the 1789 declaration: rights of association, to work, to public assistance, to education, the right of rebellion, and the abolition of slavery. The rights put forward in Sade’s “pamphlet” echo, extend, and, it would seem, parody these new rights by adding, for example, the right to complete sexual access to any other citizen regardless of age or sex and the right to murder. In a way, what Sade’s pamphlet engineers is a defense of tyrannical power and violence not so much as an inversion but rather as a paradoxical corollary of the Déclaration’s exclusion of “actes arbitraires”: the notion that the “bonheur commun,” stated as the final cause of society at the outset of the constitution, is perhaps in contradiction with an individual pursuit of happiness that is irreducible to the former. That what we are potentially dealing with here is perhaps parody comes from the insinuation within the text that Dolmancé, libertine extraordinaire of the Ancien Régime stripe, is the author of the pamphlet. (Here I need mention as essential reading Lucienne Frappier-Mazur’s Writing the Orgy: Power and Parody in Sade, a work that does not avoid the topic of the French Revolution and the play of its rhetoric in my “must.”) At the very least, there is—as usual—a layer of irony that makes attributing certain views to Sade the author difficult and his political intentions at best murky. One could easily imagine a pedagogical exercise in which students compared the declarations of 1789 and 1793 along with Sade’s extrapolation. Not only would the very question of parody make for interesting discussion, but so would topics such as the possible conflict of individual rights, reductio ad absurdam as a real political problem, and the violent aftermath of 1793.

Paraphrasing Robert Darnton on the function of the lubricious in much libertine writing, especially of the materialist variety: sex is a useful vehicle for the tenor of thought (see “Sex for Thought,” The New York Review of Books 41.21 [Dec. 22, 1994]: 65-74). That we are not, however, faced with an entirely figurative use of sex is suggested by the philosophical and political investment in bonheur—long a part of ethical considerations—as good and goal. Which is to say that many libertines trotted out sexual jouissance as potentially foundational given that, in La Mettrie’s characterization, it “penetrates and transports the soul into the sweetest and happiest moments of our existence” (“On the Soul,” in Machine Man and Other Writings, trans. Ann Thomson [Cambridge, 1996], 58). Another way of looking at Philosophie dans le boudoir as a Revolutionary text would highlight the extent to which such issues where entwined with a cultural and gender politics that, again, did not spring up ab ovo in 1789 but that nonetheless has a specificity worthy of our attention. We might, for example, compare observations about marriage in Philosophie dans le boudoir with that peculiarly Revolutionary figure Le Père Duchesne, who in a 1790 edition of the periodical rants in vulgar language against the “indissolubricité” of marriage: “Here’s what our fucking marriage is…. it’s held together only by chains; it was okay when we were fucking slaves. But now we are free: it’s not money, fuck, which should make marriages; it’s no longer father’s authority, it’s inclination and taste” (cited in Suzanne Desan, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France [Berkeley, 2004], 31). Desan quotes this as part of her case that “[f]reedom to choose a wife and marry would become a key element within revolutionary definitions of manhood” (31). Of course, questioning the rationality and ergo the morality of the Church’s position on divorce has a longer history (consider Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes, where the unnaturalness of enforced lifetime monogamy is satirically compared to the equally unnatural confinement of the harem). The association of divorce with choice and choice with manhood, however, looks more like a historically specific conjunction within the Revolution. That Sade’s text to me seems part of this discourse should be clear; I would simply add that the populist coprolalia of Le Père Duchesne strikes me as comparable in certain respects to the vulgar interjections of Sade’s characters and to his second-order explanations of why we should curse even if their is no God to blaspheme, no shame in intercourse, and thus no inherent offense in shouting foutre: a Revolutionary harnessing of the perlocutionary force of language—as opposed to the bereft constative reference—as a sort of rebellion against conventions and release from them.

I would also suggest another interesting if potentially controversial linkage. Desan notes that along with the manly prerogative of choice, there is a concomitant concern about the “sacrifice of daughters” (31). The theme is once again, hardly unknown, and I might cite only Diderot’s La Religieuse as proof. But it gains in intensity and in literate and literary female porte-paroles with the French Revolution: witness Olympe de Gouges’s Le Couvent, ou les vœux forcés or, of course, her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne. It is interesting to see that Sade similarly takes up the issue of women’s rights in Philosophie dans le boudoir. This is often enough explicitly so in the text, but one might argue that the entire work is about the issue: the extraction of a young woman of near marrying age from the socio-cultural “traffic in women” and her (wicked) delivery over to freedom and to her right to pleasure. It would be fair enough to cry “parody” here again. Certainly the woman-directed violence that has often and understandably been taken as indication—if not apodictic proof—of Sade’s misogyny would seem to point us in this direction. Interestingly, Sade’s characters’ defenses of what we would now call “gay rights” have increasingly been seen as sincere and laudable expressions of authorial intent. Surely this has to do with his hardly exclusive yet nonetheless clear predilection for violence against woman rather than against men—and Simone de Beauvoir and Angela Carter both understood well why this might be the case and how, while hardly escaping misogyny, Sade’s version could nonetheless double-back on itself in the form of critique. But if there is a certain absurdity to claiming Sade as a supporter of women’s rights in the same manner of Olympe de Gouges, it is nonetheless clear that Sade as a thinker put forward the absurd—that is, the hitherto unthinkable—as simply a logical consequence of following principles. We might take this possibility of thinking the absurd as at the very least conditioned by the Revolutionary context.

Having passed through the cleansing fires of historicism, I do not think it unlikely that even the reading paths just mentioned could benefit from a renewed theoretical attention—that part of Sade’s canonicity, as it were, is the very availability of his texts—including Philosophie dans le boudoir—to a variety of approaches and perspectives. In lieu of a conclusion then, let me schematically indicate a couple of possible directions for a renewed theoretical Sade (both of which are returns of sort to questions that have been associated with Sade before and that I have already indicated above). First, for a while now there has been in political philosophy and increasingly among those we would once have oddly classed as “literary theorists” an interest in revisiting the writings of Carl Schmitt (whose support of National Socialism has made him a controversial figure, to say the least). Schmitt’s recent reception includes contributions by, among others, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Étienne Balibar, Chantal Mouffe, and Slavoj Zizek. While neither eighteenth-century studies nor the study of the French Revolution more particularly has played a major role in this reception, it seems worth noting that for Schmitt the so-called “Jacobin argument” expressed the tension of Rousseau’s general and individual wills in an acute form. In Schmitt’s own analysis, 1793 is the moment where liberalism as a “coherent metaphysical system” divulges the irrationalism at the heart of the absolute claims for reason—the moment that the future crisis of parliamentary democracy appears in a brief, bloody epiphany (The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, trans. Ellen Kennedy [Cambridge, Mass., 1988], 35). Surely the current interest in a post-liberal politics that has led to a re-examination of Schmitt—cognizant of his frightfully problematic commitments—might benefit as well from a circumspect return to Sade as an often articulate—frightfully so as well—thinker of violence not as something banished by the liberal political order but rather as inherent in it (for such is the case that Philosophie dans le boudoir makes). Another possibility is to place Sade into dialogue with the recent philosophical assessment of nihilism and radical contingency by Quentin Meillassoux in After Finitude and—it would appear—in Ray Brassier’s forthcoming Nihil Unbound. That Sade is perfect companion for the exploration of such topics strikes me as almost self-evident, albeit the very category of “must” begins to look a bit wan in this light. What is a “must,” after all, under conditions of radical contingency?

Charrière’s je ne sais quoi: Why Trois femmes is a must, by Pamela Cheek

Isabelle de Charrière, Trois femmes (1795-98)

Pamela Cheek, University of New Mexico

What must a must do in order to be a textual must de la Révolution française?  Like any must, it must have style, a certain je ne sais quoi, it must be the little black dress of the event — rich in its references, an object of privilege, and, finally, one of a kind. Isabelle de Charrière’s novel Trois femmes is both one of a kind and one of many kinds, an aristocratic novel seeking an answer to the question of how to write for the people.  Searching for a solution to the questions posed by the Revolution from among an array of styles, it registers five Revolutionary musts: first, an echo of the representative genres and characters of fiction in the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary period; second, the personal, authorial stance of an engagé; third, a meditation on key philosophical questions of the revolution; fourth, a critique of the revolution; and fifth, an attempt to act for social change.

Must I: An echo of representative genres and characters from the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary periods

Trois femmes appeared first in a German translation in 1795 and in French in 1796 and 1797 in editions that Charrière considered “mutilated” by editorial expurgations as well as filled with errors.  It wasn’t until 1798 that a more faithful French edition of the first two sections of Trois femmes was published in Zurich.[1] Taken as a whole, Trois femmes constituted a catalog of the narrative forms and novelistic tropes of the Ancien régime and the Revolutionary period.

Responding to Revolutionary events in 1790, Charrière exclaimed in her letters: “heureux ceux qui pouront vite se plier à tant de choses nouvelles[.  L]es autres seront antiques dans leurs propos & leurs pensées comme nous le serions dans notre habillement si nous reprenions les parures de nos grands peres & grands meres [sic].”  The character of the emigré became crucial to her exploration of flexibility — se plier — to political and social change.  As Valérie Cossy has argued of Charrière’s novels: “Ses romans dévoilent un monde en mutation où le système des rentes et des droits féodaux cache mal le flux de capitaux issues du commerce international, qui […] produit ses propres formes d’exploitation et de nouveaux tabous.” [2] If émigrés are captivating characters, encapsulating the problems of theage, it is because they are forced into the position of either longing for a past that no longer exists or adapting, as energetic cosmopolitans, to a new world — they must choose between a private chimera of privilege and national prejudice or social equality and flexible cosmopolitanism. The choice of style was thus a political choice.  It demanded a strategy for confronting the inability of fiction to match the fictive excess of the real historical events of the French Revolution.  And it also required staking a position with respect to rigid nostalgia for the past or flexible accommodation to constant change.  The novel was a vexed genre, at best, with which to tackle the problem.  Echoing the old attack on the novel to explain why her French émigré characters read Saluste, Tacitus and Plutarch instead of novels, Charrière wrote in Trois femmes that novels “ruin the mind, especially those of women”  (Charrière 134).

Nonetheless, Trois femmes is a novel, but one that meets the challenge of employing a style suited to the age of revolution by assembling a set of pastiches of the great Ancien régime genres.  The framing device of the novel constitutes a nod to dialogues like Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville. In Trois femmes, the Abbé de La Tour participates in a salon dialogue about Kant’s categorical imperative before then going on to narrate a conte philosophique exploring the question of whether actions that are inconsistent with a priori ethical principles may nonetheless be considered moral.  His conte parodies Voltaire’s Candide, most pointedly in an opening that establishes the characters in Altendorf in “la plus jolie maison du plus joli village de la Westphalie” (Charrière 44).  The three women of the tale are a servant — the loving, practical and church-going sinner Josephine, an orphan — the young, aristocratic émigré Emilie, and their worldly female friend Constance de Vaucourt — the heiress to a commercial fortune acquired illicitly by her father and husband in the West and East Indies.  The pastiche of Ancien régime genres continues in the second section of the novel. In a mode inherited from the monovocal epistolary novels of women writers such as Graffigny and Ricobboni, Constance de Vaucourt writes a volley of letters to the Abbé, a man who cannot, because of social conventions, pursue his attraction to her.  Constance’s letters include the words of others.  The young Baron of Altendorf, whom marries Emilie, prepares his people for an abdication of his feudal rule by writing a satiric philosophical dictionary for them that strikes a tone somewhere between Voltaire and the Encyclopédie and defines in short order “Liberty,” “Moderation,” “Nature,” “Obligation or Duty” and “Potato.” Charrière’s rapid exchange of one literary form for another may be read as a virtuosic unmasking of the conventions implicit in any genre, as well as of the forms of judgment elicited by it.  Her facility with different modes of storytelling, however, also involves an attempt to make fiction— however, well, fictional — into an agent of revolutionary change.

Must II.  A personal, authorial stance as an engagé

Charrière was deeply commited, as Susan K. Jackson has pointed out,  to the “general good of promoting the discursive public sphere.”[3] The extent of her correspondence testifies to an active participation in the Republic of Letters.  Her correspondence functioned as a mirror image as well as a source for the “marathon conversations among strangers,” as Jackson characterizes them, that Charrière put into play in her fiction (198).[4] After a visit to Paris in 1786-87, Charrière became a political journalist, sending a volley of Observations et conjectures politiques anonymously to European heads of state in the years leading up to the Revolution, commenting on possible early Revolutionary reforms in texts expedited to Paris,[5] and writing pointed corrective moral fables, such as Aiglionette et Insinuante, a fairy tale sent directly to Marie-Antoinette, admonishing the queen to be more flexible.  As Charrière revised her optimism about the Revolution in 1792 and 1793, the flight of aristocrats through Neuchâtel furnished her with the opportunity to offer direct aid to emigrés by finding them work, housing and, in a few cases, friendship.  In early 1793, at the behest of the state chancelor, Charrière intervened to moderate the Swiss Jacobin sentiment that had overflowed into popular revolutionary festival and protest.  She quickly published an invented correspondence between a Frenchman and a Swiss, Lettres trouvées dans la neige, to influence public opinion and soon thereafter drafted the novel Lettres trouvées dans des portefeuilles d’émigrés.[6] Already, in 1784, Isabelle de Charrière had used the form of the epistolary novel as a way of acting on the public sphere when, in Lettres de Mistress Henley, she responded to the immediate misogynist image of women and marriage presented in Samuel de Constant’s popular Le mari sentimental (1783) and, more generally, challenged the Rousseauian model of gender roles and sexual difference.  Trois femmes, written a decade later, was originally drafted to raise money through subscription for an impoverished French émigré in England, the Countess of Montrand, Angélique-Marie d’Arlus.[7] It was also conceived, like most of her work of the past decade, as an act or intervention in writing.

Must III. A Meditation on key philosophical questions of the French Revolution

Like the Lettres de Mistress Henley, Trois femmes responded to a contemporary work published the year before that functioned as a textual touchstone in a broader cultural and philosophical debate: Immanuel Kant’s On the Proverb: That May Be True in Theory But Is of No Practical Use (1793).  Carla Hesse has situated Charrière’s encounter with the Kantian notion of the a priori foundation of categorical moral imperatives within the context of thermidorean anxiety after the Terror about the possibility of national moral regeneration and the difficulty of reconciling the public and the private good.[8] Hesse argues that Charrière’s novel is “at every level a searing cri de cœur against the emerging cultural agenda of the Committee on Public Instruction in Paris” and Henri Grégoire’s espousal of the Kantian position that happiness and virtue are not necessarily compatible (112). [9]

In a complex reading of the first two portions of the novel, Hesse maps against Kant’s three male ethical actors Charrière’s choice of three French female characters who find themselves without fathers, husbands or brothers in exile from France. Each character, Josephine the servant, Emilie the marriageable but impoverished orphan, and Constance de Vaucourt, the heir to a commercial fortune, is representative of a different sphere potentially governed by a priori rules of duty: “the domestic sphere of the household, the civil sphere constituted through marriage, and the cosmopolitan sphere of multinational business” (Hesse 121).  Yet each is, according to both Kantian principles and the competing consequentialist philosophy to which thermidorians were also attracted, excluded from full moral autonomy because of gender and status.  As Hesse summarizes,

In the end, Charrière’s story becomes a story of how these three women constitute their ethical life beyond the laws of men and without regard to absolutes.  Trois femmes, as scandalized readers recognized at the time, was the story of a band of outlaws; a story of the ethical life of women beyond the laws of propertied men (124).

The choices of the three women are based on what psychologist Carol Gilligan termed, in her study of the difference between female and male “moral reasoning,” an “ethics of care” for one another that allows them to legitimate their violations of an absolute “ethics of judgment.”[10]

When characters in Three Women make their moral choices, their decisions are generally catalysed by fictions. Thus, when Emilie must decide whether or not to renounce her national pride in France and accommodate herself to the Germany in which she has found refuge and which is the home of Théodore, the man she loves, it is a line from a copy of  Rousseau’s Emile, which Théodore has left lying open on a bench, that moves her to opt for flexible assimilation to German life rather than nationalism: “Sophie, vous êtes l’arbitre de mon sort, vous le savez bien” (Charrière, 57).  Similarly, when Théodore, heir to the Baronny of Altendorf, faces the typical Ancien régime dilemma of obeying his parents by assenting to a marriage of alliance versus asserting his autonomy by marrying the penniless Emilie, it is a line from Adèle de Sénanges, the popular novel by Adélaïde de Souza, comtesse de Flahaut, that decides him: “je ne puis vivre heureux sans elle ni avec elle” (77). When Emilie, retracing the steps of countless Ancien régime heroines, finds herself abducted by Théodore, Constance de Vaucourt moves quickly — but in absolute terms, immorally — to save her friend.  Working to protect Emilie’s reputation and to satisfy what she perceives as Emilie’s desires,  Constance involves Théodore’s parents, friends and servants in creating a public fiction that the elopement is really a wedding trip sanctioned by the family.  Constance enjoins Théodore’s parents, the Baron and Baronness of Altendorf, to display as much pomp as possible so that the elopement will look like a planned trip.  The stolid Baron, who has previously resisted the alliance of his heir with the penniless French émigré Emilie, colludes rapidly with the plot.  Charmed by the fiction and by Constance’s invention of it, the Baron cries to the servants preparing the coach in which he will follow the eloped couple, “Allons, un peu de faste; Mme de Vaucourt veut un peu de faste” (Charrière, 84).

The use of fiction as a catalyst for or even agent of change becomes, in the second part of the novel, even more feckless, but remains equally beguiling.  If, in the first section, Constance devises impromptu fictions to give the appearance of virtue to choices based on an ethics of care, in the second half of the novel, she develops expedient fictions to enable a series of Jacobin experiments in radical social transformation through education. When the son of the servant Josephine and the son of a noblewoman are mistakenly confused at birth, Constance contrives through persuasion to have them both nursed by Josephine and both given the same education by the Baronness of Altendorf.  She pays a handsome sum to have male and female twins each be given, from birth, the names, clothing and education normally reserved for the other gender.  While the reader never learns the conclusion to any of the experiments in social engineering — and, indeed, it is characteristic of Charrière’s stories that they are never brought to a full, romanesque close, the social agency of sly fictions emerges as the primary tool for tackling and rectifying injustice in a world in which women and servants are not acknowledged as autonomous moral actors.

Must IV: An articulation of direct criticism of the French Revolution

The criticism in Trois femmes of the Ancien régime and of the Revolution largely focuses on authors and fictions.  The first line of Trois femmes, a question the Abbé de la Tour addresses to a German salon, supposes that the normative order of relations between writer and reader have been upended by revolutionary events: “Pour qui écrire désormais?” (41).  The Abbé de la Tour shares the horror of other characters over the Terror, but assimilates it to the “carnaval,” “hideous orgies,” and “cruel and disgusting spectacles” that all peoples become capable of at one time or another (74).  For him, the singular fault of the French lies in having been “mesquins dans les ouvrages de l’art qui ont le public pour objet, dans ceux qui demandent unité, grandeur, dignité (74). In the second section of Trois femmes, Théodore tries his hand at just such a project when he drafts his philosophic dictionary for the feudal subjects whom he hopes to liberate from his own tutelage.  Still, as Constance suggests, the dictionary is hardly suited to its audience; she herself resorts to bribing the young people of Altendorf in order to keep them in school.

Nonetheless, the first two, published sections of Trois femmes eschew mystification and sentiment as styles suited to the people. Constance relentlessly criticizes the cult of Rousseau and Voltaire; “Le Clergé philosophe,” she writes, “est aussi Clergé qu’un autre, et ce n’étoit pas la peine de chasser le Curé de St. Sulpice pour sacrer les Prêtres du Panthéon” (106).   She objects not only to false idols and the idea of “culte” in general, but also to the claim of perfection for writers or for any human being: “mais qu’on ne demande pour ceux qui l’ont recherché, un culte que je ne puis leur rendre: en général, qu’on ne demande pas pour soi ni pour autrui l’oubli des bornes de toute perfection humaine” (104).  A lengthy authorial footnote embellishes on the theme, arguing against authors who set up characters as models of perfection for readers.  Readers, the footnote suggests, will always find a way of excusing themselves for failing to live up to those sentimental moral models and will never find themselves in moral situations that are unequivocal.

Must V: An attempt to act for social change

It thus comes as a surprise to read the third section of Trois femmes, “L’Histoire de Constance,” which remained unpublished until its inclusion in the ten-volume edition of Charrière’s complete works published in 1982. Constance’s memoir is set in Martinique, the East Indies and France and is told to the sympathetic French émigré with whom she once conducted the flirtation that led to the dueling death of her despotic first husband.  Charrière had consistently criticized one stylistic solution to the problem of representation raised by the Revolution: the sentimental and increasingly melodramatic aesthetic of turn-of-the-century drama and narrative which raised up tragic characters as melancholic exemplars of moral perfection and wounded virtue.[11] Nonetheless, “L’Histoire de Constance” is written in the “style of the day” — a style that Charrière openly attacked when Germaine de Staël employed it in Zulma.[12] So successfully does Constance’s memoir play on the tropes of early colonial and Romantic sentimental fiction that it can only be recognized as pastiche when read as the suite to the succession of pastiches in the first two sections of the novel. The significance of this conclusion to Trois femmes is threefold.  First, Charrière’s employment of the mechanisms of sentimental fiction, despite her own taste, features the very flexibility in style — the capacity to adapt to a new global reality — that she touts throughout the novel.  Second, Charrière adds two additional moral subjects to the three positions occupied by her three women: Bianca, a black slave in Martinique who tries to stab Constance’s uncle because he has abused his authority over her, and Biondina, Bianca’s young daughter, and the cousin whom Constance tries but fails to protect.  As female slave in the sphere of colonial authority and as biracial child placed at the ill-defined intersection between domestic intimacy and colonial exploitation, these new characters represent the degree zero of moral autonomy.  What claims may categorical imperatives have, Charrière seems to ask, on individuals who are forced to inhabit a society — domestic, civil and commercial — which is constituted outside of both an ethics of justice and an ethics of care?  Finally, against the grain of the style of her memoir, Constance stubbornly refuses to cast herself as a virtuous sentimental subject, an example for readers to emulate, or as the nostalgic victim of a turbulent age.   Like the orphan émigré Emilie, who realizes at the beginning of Trois femmes that she has been “abandoned to providence” “with no other mentor . . . than herself” (48), and unlike Candide, Constance has had to learn to negotiate the web of plots surrounding her, including her own romanticism, with only her own reason as guide.  If Charrière employs the style of the age to tell the story of the flexible, cosmopolitan and independent Constance, it is because it is politically expedient.  Her sentimental fable of reason, without a happy ending or, indeed any ending at all, is calculated as a lesson about the false moral authority of fiction.  In novels, Constance comments:

On y trouve une Morale qu’on appellera sublime si l’on veut mais que j’appellerois plutot idéale ou qui même n’est plus de la morale ne pouvant s’appliquer à rien.  Quelquefois l’on s’engoue tellement de sa chimérique excellence que ne trouvant pas à l’appliquer et n’en pouvant gouter une plus commune et plus adaptée à la vérité de la vie, on vit sans morale du tout ou bien on tache d’arranger sa vie à la ressemblance d’un roman ou bien encore on s’imagine qu’elle ressemble à un Roman dont on croit etre le Heros ou l’Heroine et alors on fait des aveux comme la Princesse de Cleves, on se tue comme Werther, mais cela n’arrive qu’a quelques Dupes.  Des gens plus sensés se garantissent de la catastrophe ne trouvant pas que le Roman doive finir si tot ou si tragiquement. (134)

If Charrière is flexible enough to violate her own ethics of style in order to practice an ethics of care for readers by reminding them not to be dupes, if her novel is marred by a patronizing attitude towards “le peuple”, and if the incompletion of Trois femmes reminds us of nothing so much as that the story will continue, her very failure to find the proper style for a work with the “peuple pour objet” is significant.  “Pour qui écrire désormais?” asks the Abbé de la Tour at the outset of the novel, raising a revolutionary question.  When Charrière tries purchase readers’ allegiance to reason with the bribe of a sentimental tale, the attempt speaks less of casuistry than it does of the nostalgia of a self-exiled aristocrat for an ethics of writing a priori to the marketplace.


[1] Isabelle de Charrière/ Belle de Zuylen, Œuvres complètes, 10 vols., Jean-Daniel Candaux, C.P. Courtney, Pierre H. Dubois, Simone Dubois-De Bruyn, Patrice Thompson, Jeroom Verruysse, and Dennis M. Wood, eds. (Geneva: Slatkine, 1981). 26-32.

[2] Valérie Cossy, “Des romans pour un monde en mouvement.  La Révolution et l’émigration dans l’œuvre d’Isabelle de Charrière,”  Annales Benjamin Constant 30 (2006). 158.

[3] Susan K. Jackson, “Publishing without Perishing: Isabelle de Charrière, a.k.a. la mouche du coche,” Going Public: Women and Publishing in Early Modern France. Ed. Elizabeth C. Goldsmith and Dena Goodman.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP. 196.

[4] On the relation between her letter writing and her fiction, see the articles collected in Yvette Went-Daoust, ed. Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen). De la Correspondance au roman epistolaire. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.

[5] In Lettres d’un evêque français à la nation in 1789 and Epigrammes de la mouche du coche.

[6] Isabelle Vissière, “De la lettre au roman,” Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen). De la Correspondance au roman epistolaire. 95-6.

[7] Charrière, vol. IX, 24.

[8] Carla Hesse, The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. 105.

[9] For an account of the role of moral reasoning in Charrière’s work more generally, see Colette Cazenobe, “Les Lumières au pouvoir.  La « philosophie » d’Isabelle de Charrière à l’épreuve de la Révolution,” Une Européenne. Isabelle de Charrière en son siècle.” Ed. Doris Jakubec, Jean-Daniel Candaux.  Hauterive et Neuchâtel: Éditions Gilles Attinger, 1994.  87-117.

[10] Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.

[11] On Charrière’s critiques of novelistic styles in general, see Cossy, cited above.

[12] Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen), Œuvres complètes, Jean-Daniel Candaux et al. (éd.), Amsterdam/ Genève, G.A. van Oorschot/ Slatkine, 1979-1984, 10 vols. Tome III, 181 and 542.  Cited in Cossy, 155, note 2.

“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. 😀

Sur Olympe de Gouges, “La déclaration des droits de la femme”: une révolution dans la Révolution, par Jennifer Tamas

Jennifer Tamas

Stanford University

Les Musts de la Révolution française. Table ronde organisée par Julia Douthwaite

Olympe de Gouges et la déclaration des droits de la femme : une révolution dans la Révolution[1]


« Ô mon pauvre sexe, ô femmes qui n’avez rien acquis dans cette Révolution[1]. » C’est au nom de cette néantisation de la femme qu’Olympe consigne dans sa Déclaration des droits de la femme les revendications qui pourraient, semble-t-il, trouver leur place dans cette ère de révolution. Ce texte est fondamental car il permet de poser la question de la nature des droits que la Révolution française se propose de conquérir. En effet, la Déclaration des droits de l’homme, par son abstraction à valeur généralisante[2], laisse planer le doute quant aux bénéficiaires de ces nouveaux droits, et ce, dès l’article 1 :

Les hommes naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits. Les distinctions sociales ne peuvent être fondées que sur l’utilité commune.[3]

De quels hommes s’agit-il ? Le substantif a-t-il une valeur généralisante (le genre humain) ou particularisante (les hommes par opposition aux femmes) ? S’agit-il de tous les hommes ou uniquement des hommes blancs[4] ? Notons, qu’au même moment des hommes qui « naissaient » esclaves se révoltent pour accéder à ces fameux droits et qu’ils sont punis dans un bain de sang. La Déclaration des droits de l’homme ne semble donc pas valoir universellement. Olympe de Gouges décide de mettre au jour cette supercherie. La réécriture de la Déclaration des droits de l’homme a une portée subversive parce qu’elle remet en question les notions clefs d’un texte qui sera posé comme l’un des jalons essentiels de la République française. Olympe de Gouges nous force à nous demander ce que les Révolutionnaires entendaient par les termes « liberté » ou « égalité » s’ils étaient capables dans le même temps de mener à l’échafaud celles et ceux qui se battaient au nom de cette soi-disant égalité.

Dans le cadre restreint de cette communication qui est conçue sous forme de discussion, nous nous proposons d’attirer l’attention sur quelques points de réécriture. Cela nous permettra de comprendre les enjeux fondamentaux de cette déclaration, qui demeure un texte-clef pour comprendre les contradictions de la Révolution française. Comment ce texte si essentiellement novateur a-t-il pu passer complètement inaperçu ?

La Déclaration des droits de la Femme n’est pas une simple réécriture de la Déclaration des droits de l’Homme. Olympe de Gouges ne s’est pas contentée de remplacer le mot « homme » par le mot « femme ». Si Olympe conserve la forme du document, à savoir la Déclaration, elle change la situation d’énonciation, ainsi que certains éléments de l’énoncé, ce qui produit des effets différents. Voici quelques points que nous aimerions discuter au cours de cette table ronde.

1)      La forme du document : le choix de la forme déclarative

Pourquoi choisir d’adopter une déclaration, et non un pamphlet révolutionnaire, par exemple, comme elle a pu le faire auparavant ?[5] Il semblerait que ce soit la forme la plus apte à rendre effective la proclamation des droits. La déclaration relève des actes de langage définis pas Austin[6]. Elle a l’espoir de faire par le dire et d’inscrire la mise au clair. Ainsi, en choisissant la forme de la déclaration, les pères fondateurs américains, et les révolutionnaires français rendent effectifs leurs revendications. Olympe de Gouges cherche à s’inscrire dans cette lignée.

2)      La situation énonciative : la question de l’autorité

La Déclaration des droits de l’homme s’adressait à tous et venait de tous, ce que notait d’emblée le Préambule : « Les Représentants du Peuple français, constitués en Assemblée Nationale (…) ont résolu d’exposer une déclaration solennelle ». Par opposition, Olympe de Gouges n’a pas l’autorité nécessaire pour légitimer ses revendications. Elle recourt ainsi à deux modifications essentielles :

-la déclaration est adressées à la Reine, c’est-à-dire à la fois une personne d’autorité (et qui plus est, une femme) et une figure hautement contestée en cette période révolutionnaire.

-Olympe parle en son nom, mais montre qu’elle entend parler au nom de toutes les femmes, ce décalage étant important car il dévoile qu’Olympe de Gouges n’a pas derrière elle l’unanimité (« Les mères, les filles, les sœurs, représentantes de la Nation, demandent d’être constituées en assemblée nationale »). Paradoxalement, les revendications d’Olympe de Gouges ne seront appuyées ni suivies de personne, pas même Manon Roland[7], seule femme influente de la Révolution française. Contrairement à la Déclaration des droits de l’homme, Olympe de Gouges ne réussit pas à faire entendre une voix unanime. C’est peut-être pour cette raison que sa voix ne trouvera pas sa place dans la cacophonie des discours révolutionnaires.

3)      La réécriture du Préambule : convaincre les hommes

Il montre justement qu’Olympe ne peut proclamer les droits de la femme avant de convaincre l’homme. Ainsi le Préambule se présente comme une série d’interrogations destinées à ébranler ses certitudes : « Homme, es-tu capable d’être juste ? C’est une femme qui t’en fait la question ; tu ne lui ôteras pas du moins ce droit. Dis-moi ? Qui t’a donné le souverain empire d’opprimer mon sexe ? ta force ? tes talents ? » La déclaration ne peut donc pas se faire affirmation pure et simple. Elle doit encore relever de la persuasion. Cette captatio malevolentiae en est la preuve. Alors que le préambule de la Déclaration des droits de l’homme cherche à présenter l’image d’une assemblée inattaquable, le préambule de la Déclaration des droits de la femme expose les failles d’une vision masculine pourtant toute puissante. En même temps qu’Olympe aspire à un changement fondamental, elle énonce ironiquement les raisons qui rendront ce changement impossible.

4)      La réécriture des articles : l’accès des femmes aux droits « universels »

Le corps de la déclaration revendique les droits de la femme au même titre que ceux des hommes. De plus, Olympe de Gouges va plus loin que son modèle en complétant les libertés civiles par les libertés individuelles. Sont ainsi revendiqués : le droit à l’égalité (article 1) ; le droit à la propriété, ce qui est tout à fait novateur pour les femmes (articles 2 et 17) ; le droit à la sûreté (article 2) ; le droit à résister à l’oppression (article 2) ; le droit de faire partie intégrante de la nation et d’être reconnue comme pleinement citoyenne (articles 3 et 6) ; le droit d’être libre et de ne plus subir « la tyrannie perpétuelle que l’homme » exerce sur la femme (article 4) ;  la liberté d’opinion et son expression publique : « la femme a le droit de monter à l’échafaud ; elle doit avoir également celui de monter à la Tribune » (article 10) ; le droit de revendiquer sa maternité (article 11) ; le droit au travail au même titre que les hommes : « elle a part à toutes les corvées, à toutes les tâches pénibles ; elle doit donc avoir de même part à la distribution des places, des emplois, des charges, des dignités et de l’industrie. » (article 12) ; en conséquence, le droit à participer à l’impôt (article 13) ; le droit de contribuer à la rédaction de la Constitution française afin de la rendre valide (article 16). Autant dire que ces droits resteront lettre morte. Le seul droit qui sera accordé aux femmes sera le droit au divorce. Olympe de Gouges avait d’ailleurs œuvré en ce sens à travers son Plaidoyer pour le droit au divorce et pour un statut équitable pour les enfants naturels. Elle considérait en effet le mariage comme « un tombeau de l’amour et de la confiance ». Néanmoins, si la Convention légalise le divorce en 1792, Napoléon se hâtera de l’interdire, ce qui dura pendant plus d’un siècle. Autant dire que la  Forme de Contrat social de l’Homme et de la Femme[8] imaginé par Olympe de Gouges sera lui aussi un texte ignoré et méprisé.

5)      L’ajout d’un postambule : convaincre les femmes.

Si la Déclaration des droits de la femme n’a pas les effets escomptés, c’est sans doute aussi parce qu’Olympe de Gouges ne parvient pas à persuader son propre camp, à savoir celui des femmes. Peur, timidité, désintérêt ? Olympe avait pourtant tenté de mobiliser les femmes dans un postambule qu’elle avait rédigé dans cette attention. En effet, le postambule fait écho au préambule par son utilisation des modalités interrogatives et injonctives. Cependant, alors que le Préambule visait à éveiller la conscience masculine, le postambule tente de sortir les femmes de leur torpeur : « Femme, réveille-toi ; le tocsin de la raison se fait entendre dans tout l’univers[9] ; reconnais tes droits (…). Ô femmes ! femmes, quand cesserez-vous d’être aveugles ? Quels sont les avantages que vous avez recueillis dans la révolution ? Un mépris plus marqué, un dédain plus signalé ». En effet, les actions des femmes restèrent isolées. Les rares révoltées[10] comme Etta Palm surnommée « la démocrate outrée », ou Claire Lacombe, appelée « La Furie de Versailles » furent guillotinées ou humiliées publiquement comme Théroigne de Méricourt que l’on fessa sur la place publique, ce qui lui fit perdre la raison. Isolée dans le camp des femmes, Olympe de Gouges est ostracisée par les hommes, que ce soit à travers le mépris de Beaumarchais ou le dédain de Sylvain Maréchal qui propose une loi visant à interdire aux femmes d’apprendre à lire, « la Nature les ayant douées en compensation d’une prodigieuse aptitude à parler ». Ses trop rares défenseurs (Condorcet et Mirabeau) furent guillotinés.

6)      Quelle postérité pour cette « singulière production » ?

En parlant de sa déclaration comme d’une « singulière production », Olympe de Gouges a bien conscience du caractère novateur de son entreprise. Si les effets ne se font pas sentir tout de suite, son œuvre, véritable pierre de touche, continue d’étonner par sa modernité. En effet, Olympe de Gouges s’opposa à l’esclavage[11], se battit pour la suppression du mariage, et le droit au divorce. Elle fut également l’une des premières théoriciennes du système de protection sociale qui existe actuellement en France, et elle créa également des foyers pour mendiants. Enfin, son contrat social entre l’homme et la femme préfigure le PACS actuel[12]. Si la lutte des femmes pour l’égalité est loin d’être achevée, comme l’a rappelée récemment Elisabeth Badinter[13] qui était l’invitée d’honneur sur France inter, on lui accorde désormais droit de cité dans les débats d’idées. C’est ce que montre du moins la sortie du livre[14] d’Élisabeth Badinter, qui déchaîne les passions.


[1] Olympe de Gouges, L’Esprit français, Paris, 1792, p. 12.

[2] Sur cette question, se reporter à l’ouvrage de Keith Baker, Inventing the French Revolution. Essays on French Political Culture in the Eighteenth Century, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[3] Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen de 1789, article 1.

[4] On pourra consulter à ce titre l’article de Shanti Marie Singham qui se pose cette question dans « Betwixt Cattle and Men : Jews, Blacks, and Women, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man », dans The French Idea of Freedom : the Old Regime and the Declaration of the Rights of 1789, edited by Dale Van Kley, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1994, p.114-154.

[5] On pourra consulter à ce titre la liste établie par Olivier Blanc qui recueille dans sa bibliographie certains de ces pamphlets révolutionnaires dans son livre Marie-Olympe de Gouges, une humaniste à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Éditions René Viénet, 2003, p. 244.

[6] J-L Austin, Quand dire c’est faire, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1970 (1962 pour la version anglaise).

[7] On pourra consulter à ce titre l’introduction de Benoîte Groult dans sa présentation des Œuvres  d’Olympe de Gouges, Paris, Éditions du Mercure de France, 1986, p. 12 à 64.

[8] Texte cité par Benoîte Groult dans son livre, Œuvres d’Olympe de Gouges, op. cit., p. 109.

[9] Olympe de Gouges fait peut-être référence ici à l’aspiration qui gagne certaines femmes en Angleterre comme Mary Wollstonecraft, qui rédigea  Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

[10] Pour le rôle des femmes dans la Révolution, on pourra consulter avec profit J. Michelet, Les Femmes de la Révolution, Paris, Éditions Flammarion, 1863.

[11] Sa pièce Zamore et Mirza, ou l’esclavage des noirs en est une bonne illustration.

[12] On peut consulter à ce titre le livre de Sophie Mousset, Olympe de Gouges et les droits de la femme, Éditions Agora Pocket, 2007.

[13] Sur France inter, de nombreuses émissions ont été consacrées au féminisme pendant la semaine du 8 au 14 Février 2010 en compagnie de Madame Badinter.

[14] Élisabeth Badinter, Le Conflit, la femme et la mère, Paris, Éditions Flammarion, février 2010.

Hello world! / Bonjour tout le monde!

Welcome to “What You Must Know About the French Revolution: Literature / Les Must de la Révolution française:  La littérature,” an interactive site for scholars of French revolutionary literature.  What is your “must”?  Read on for the latest insights into this fascinating field…