Tag Archives: women’s history

Two novels worth knowing: Pauline Guizot’s Les Contradictions (1799) and La Chapelle d’Ayton (1800), by Nanette LeCoat

Nanette Le Coat, Trinity University

What characteristics should a novel possess to be “must” of the French Revolution?  Should it critique the Revolution by sensationalizing the horrors of a recent past?  Or should it avoid awakening the memories of what Germaine de Staël called “ce temps incommensurable” by a creating an exotic fantasy world?  Must it express nostalgia for a regime where the cultivation of feeling became a fashionable indulgence? Or must it imagine a new era with where the pursuit of happiness is earnest and egalitarian?  Must it content itself with recombining old forms to new effect or should it strive instead to find forms of expression fitting a new era?

Pauline de Meulan’s post-Revolutionary novels Les Contradictions (1799) and La Chapelle d’Ayton (1800) do not portray the life of aristocrats struggling to remake their lives on a foreign soil.  Revolutionary events, either heroic or bloody, do not figure as a backdrop.[1] Nor indeed do their young protagonists, like many of the college students we teach, seem more than dimly aware of recent historical and political events so preoccupied are they with their own fear of failing to find a position in life and a companion to share it with.

Meulan’s political allegiances are expressed indirectly in her post-Revolutionary fiction.   While the locale of the Chapelle d’Ayton may reflect Meulan’s anxiety about locating her story in the seismic terrain of post-Revolutionary France, her novel is situated in England for the simple reason that her heroine is English. More interesting than the question of why the English locale, is the question of why Meulan chose to translate and appropriate as her own an English novel which unabashedly rewrites the narrative of the most notorious French novel of its day–La Nouvelle Héloïse.

La Chapelle d’Ayton, ou Emma Courtney is the story of a young woman who loses successively her mother, her beloved aunt and uncle with whom she is sent to live, her father, and finally and most tragically, the one great love of her life.  The novel relates a concatenation of circumstances—including a mysterious “obstacle insurmountable”—conspiring to prevent Emma from marrying Auguste Harley.  As Meulan’s narrative evolves it progressively adopts diverse subgenres of the 18th-century fictional repertoire—the memoir, the epistolary novel, the novel of manners, and the gothic romance.  But in this hybrid architecture—symbolized by the central structure that gives the novel its name—echoes of Rousseau’s influential novel are always heard.  Emma, like Julie, is prevented by paternal interdiction and social prejudice from marrying Auguste.  She marries instead the austere and older Mr. Montague who, suspecting that Emma is still in love with Auguste, exacts a promise from her that she will no longer write to August and that she will distance herself from him by moving to the Ayton estate.  Here, Emma keeps her marital promise to live a virtuous life.  She devotes herself to good works and to the education of Montague’s daughter from an earlier marriage.  The novel ends on a bitter-sweet note that is no more convincing than Julie’s attempts to persuade Saint-Preux of her happiness: “Si quelquefois la mélancolie venait s’emparer de son cœur, Emma connaît les moyens de se distraire; elle redouble d’activité pour le Bonheur de ce qui l’environne; le nuage se dissipe, Emma peut dire encore: Je suis heureuse.”(267)

In  her preface to the first edition of her “translation” Meulan claimed that her decision to translate this particular novel was a matter of chance implying that she could very well have chosen another instead.[2] This claim, I believe, was disingenuous. For Mary Hays, the author of whose novel inspired Meulan’s, the decision to translate the French story of a young woman’s moral dilemma into an English context was clearly a political.  I believe that for Meulan, too, the choice was also political.  Rousseau’s novel, in the eyes of contemporary British critics, was fraught with dangerous implications, for as Claire Grogan, Katherine Binhammer and others have pointed out, La Nouvelle Héloïse had the reputation of having made novel reading seductive for women while at the same time exposing women’s fatal vulnerability to such seductions. In the decade of the 1790s (Hays’s novel was published in 1796), the critique of Rousseau became a major weapon in the arsenal of conservative British educators and critics whose anti-Jacobin screeds were bent on demonstrating the baleful social and moral  influence of the French philosophes on both French and British society.[3] While Hays elected to the explore the complexities of women’s identification with Rousseau’s fictional characters some of her contemporaries, such as Elizabeth Hamilton in her Memoir of Modern Philosophers, chose rather to viciously satirize the female types who too readily fell into his seductive trap.  Critiques of Rousseau were not merely incorporated into satiric novels; they also generated sustained commentary on the pernicious influence of French philosophy from in such journals as the Anti-Jacobin Review.

An anti-Anti-Jacobin novel

Fluent as she was in English and familiar as she was with the British literary scene, Meulan could scarcely have been unaware of the controversy that Rousseau-inspired fiction generated across the Channel.   Nor was she unaware that the French Counter-Revolution like the Counter-Enlightenment which had preceded it, made the critique of the philosophes the core of their campaign to restore France to ancien régime glory.  Meulan’s own views on the Revolution were moderate.  Like most people who had survived the Terror, her life had been inalterably changed and, as Sainte-Beuve observed, she looked back on the late stages of the Revolution as “un affreux spectacle qui blessait toutes ses affections et ses habitudes.”[4] Nonetheless, like the Thermidoreans, she refused to abandon her faith in the Revolution’s early ideals.  This political independence earned her the respect of Suard, the Enlightenment man of letters, who published Le Publiciste and hired her there as a regular journalist.  In this role she refused to bow to the critical orthodoxy of either the Right or the Left and her assessments of writers as diverse as Collin d’Harleville, La Harpe, Germaine de Staël and Louis de Bonald were notable for their dry wit and judiciousness. Because Meulan was politically savvy, she must certainly have anticipated the critical reactions her text was likely to provoke when she undertook to translate Hays’s novel.  To amplify and expand upon a novel whose themes were so obviously indebted to Rousseau was then, consciously or not, a gesture of defiance to the Counter-Revolutionary Right and an implicit reaffirmation of the French revolutionary ideals.

Reading Rousseau

As James Swenson has argued, there are many ways that Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse was retrospectively interpreted as prefiguring revolutionary ideas: its affirmation of a personal conception of God independent of orthodox religious pieties, its vision of a utopian space in which nature both shapes and is shaped by human will,  its reinvention of virtue.[5] But the influence of Rousseau’s novel did not derive exclusively from abstract ideals. The novel provided a way for its readers to understand their own lives by drawing out the connections between their imaginative and affective inner experience and their social existences.  Through the reading and writing of letters, Rousseau’s protagonists fashioned their own moral identities.

Both the French and English versions of Emma Courtney’s story make plain the foundational role of reading in her moral development.  Emma’s early contact with literary texts creates the essential lineaments of her character and establishes her most significant affective ties.  Emma’s aunt, having lost her infant son, lavishes her maternal feeling on her young niece.  Mme Melmoth “se plaisait à développer et à faire ressortir une sensibilité, déjà plus vive qu’elle ne l’est ordinairement dans l’enfance” (10).  Whereas Emma’s uncle loves poetry and introduces her to best examples of ancient and modern verse, Mme Melmoth, has an inordinate predilection for novels—a taste which she transmits her niece:  “Son goût pour les romans allait jusqu’à la fureur.  Elle employait à cette dangereuse occupation tout le temps qu’elle ne donnait pas à ses études, ou à la société de sa tante. Tout son petit revenue passait à se procurer des livres [. . .] tous les personnages du plus fade roman saisissaient tour à tour son imagination; elle se mettait à la place de chacun d’eux; la position la plus extraordinaire était toujours celle qu’elle choisissait de préférence. .  . ” (11-12).

The reading tastes of her surrogate mother, and to a lesser extent her uncle, prove to have a negative effect on Emma’s character.  In the assessment of Meulan’s stern narrator, these character flaws reveal themselves at an early age for while Emma is tender, affectionate, and intellectually curious, she is also flighty and incapable of self-discipline.  Through her choice of reading, her aunt has transmitted to her niece her own moral shortcomings.  While Mme Melmoth is kind and generous, she is also pampered, complacent and ignorant of the world.  She has no real judgment, no intellectual interest, and no fortitude.  As Emma becomes a young woman, her aunt’s example becomes increasingly dangerous for the “maternal” education she has provided has ill-equipped Emma to be strong in the face of adversity, to learn the skills she needs to be independent, or to negotiate the treacherous ways of polite society.

When Mr. Melmoth dies, Emma’s father belatedly accepts his paternal obligations.  Having spent his life pursuing pleasure in fashionable society, Mr. Courtney has taken no real interest in his daughter, but fearing the prospect of a lonely old age and discerning in his daughter some intellectual aptitude, he attempts to make amends by overseeing her education. “M. Courtney paraissait mettre le plus grand soin à former le jugement de sa fille, à rectifier ses idées, à détourner sur des objets utiles l’activité d’une imagination ardente.” (30)

Emma, suspecting that her father’s newfound interest in her is motivated solely by as sense of duty, is at first reticent.  But she is soon absorbed by the texts to which her father introduces her.  At this stage in the narrative Guizot introduces another scene of reading reminiscent of Rousseau’s most intimate writing. The text Mr. Courtney chooses to inspire Emma to abandon her novels and take up more serious reading is Plutarch’s Lives. This stage in Emma’s education mirrors a similar transition in Rousseau’s formation.  The author of the Confessions recalls that after his mother’s death, he and his father would indulge in the guilty pleasure of staying up all night reading the novels she had left behind.  This “dangereuse méthode,” Rousseau confesses, gave him a misshapen education: he knew everything about feelings and nothing about things. The novel reading period of Rousseau’s education soon came to an end, however, when he and his father had exhausted all the books in his mother’s library.  It was now time to turn to his father’s library.  “Plutarque surtout,” Rousseau explains, “devint ma lecture favorite. Le plaisir que je prenais à le relire sans cesse me guérit un peu des romans.”[6] Yet despite Rousseau’s acquisition of more philosophical reading habits, the impressions created by his first reading experience leave an indelible imprint on his character. The confused feelings awakened in him by his mother’s novels do not alter his as yet-to-be-developed reason but “elles m’en formèrent une d’une autre trempe, me donnèrent de la vie humaine des notions bizarres et romanesques, dont l’expérience et la réflexion n’ont jamais bien pu me guérir.”

Similarly for Emma, the novels and tales which inspired her early identification with romantic heroines leave a lasting impression on her imagination and shape her responses to new experience.  Emma’s new paternal education will be tested when her father invites her into his social world.  Mr. Courtney’s worldly friends are impressed by his daughter’s literary sophistication, but condescending regarding her social skills.  Emma’s instinctive reaction is to reject the pretensions, egotism and falseness her father’s stylish circle.  At the same time, she is astonishingly naïve regarding the intentions of the people who offer her their friendship. Emma has learned to read, but she has not yet learned to decipher the codes of polite behavior or to conform to social expectations.  This incomplete education will lead Emma to become a victim of many misunderstandings and deceptions.  It is only when she has acquired the discernment born of long experience of the world that Emma finally succeeds in overcoming the obstacles which thwart her happiness.

Gender and genre

What are we to make of the contrast Meulan draws between “maternal” and “paternal” educations?  Is Meulan saying that novels are the frivolous indulgences of women whereas works of history, philosophy and the natural science reflect the interests and more systematic mental training of men?  Do Emma’s early reading experience incite her to imagine and then to enact passionate sexuality by offering herself to Augustus before marriage?  And if Meulan intends to suggest a linkage between frivolous reading and immoral behavior how does her view distinguish itself from the anti-Jacobin posture?

In the British context, there was in fact considerable consensus about the dangerous seductiveness of Rousseau’s novel; disagreement amongst critics and the novelists who were inspired by him focused on assessments of women’s capacity to resist this textual seduction and what views on what means should be favored to counter the novel’s influence.  As Claire Grogan noted, the remedies that were proposed were of three types: censorship, guidance, and knowledge.[7]

Meulan, not surprisingly, takes the middle stance favored by Mary Hays.  Emma’s “paternal” instruction provides a corrective to the lax novel-reading upbringing given to her by her aunt.  Mr. Courtney intends the intellectually demanding readings and critical debate he engages in with Emma to develop her analytical skills so that she might resist the suasions of imaginative fiction.  Though Meulan suggests that the effect of imaginative literature has not been altogether beneficial in the development of Emma’s character, and though she proposes an alternative form of reading and an alternative style of instruction, she does not seem to suggest that novel reading be banned altogether.  Nor does she draw a strict dichotomy between the male and female reading provinces.  It is, after all, Emma’s uncle who instills in her a love of poetry, a genre which like the novel, had been viewed as a slightly feminine.  Meulan also suggests that the “serious” form of instruction offered by Emma’s father is not entirely successful unless Mr. Courtney succeeds in establishing a closer rapport with his daughter.  Mr. Courtney’s coldly intellectual approach initially backfires.  His mocking tone and sarcasm initially cause Emma to refrain from discussing her enthusiasms with him. It is only when he learns to listen to her in a respectful manner that she becomes more receptive to his lessons. Emma’s most enduring and powerful lessons derive not from a particular literary genre, but from the affective relations she has with her teachers.  Mme Melmoth’s unconditional devotion to her niece and her affectionate, accepting attitude reinforce Emma’s passion for certain kinds of reading, much in the same way that Rousseau’s early slightly illicit reading sessions with his father help to palliate the loss of his mother and her affection.  Ultimately, the shaping of Emma’s moral character depend both on the cultivation of her feelings and imagination and her capacity to negotiate the social world through rational discernment.

On the surface at least Les Contradictions, ou ce qui peut arriver, a novel Meulan published a year before La Chapelle d’Ayton, are quite different novels.  Meulan’s first novel is the story of a young man’s struggles to marry a woman of equal fortune and status.  The marriage is constantly deferred by a series of social obstacles of varying degrees of seriousness –rainstorms, elopement, miscarriage and the death of an aunt.  Whereas Emma’s story has a dark romantic tone enhanced by gothic elements such as the brooding ambiance of the Chapelle d’Ayton and the appearance of ghostly apparitions, Les Contradictions is told in a breezy style.  While its characters experience misfortune, they display throughout the comic resilience of the protagonists of Voltaire’s Candide, and the reader never really doubts that their story will have a satisfactory resolution.   Indeed the novel ends when the hero marries a suitable young lady leaving his servant, Pierre, to conclude with the Panglossian observation:  “Dieu fait tout pour le mieux.”(275)

Huguette Krief has remarked on the heterogeneity that characterizes Pauline de Meulan’s oeuvre.[8] I would suggest, however, that these two novels reveal essential continuities.  They share the standard topos of sentimental fiction—marriage— and the plots of both novels are driven by the deferral of desire.  More importantly, both novels illustrate the importance of choice in the moral formation of the young and an invitation to the young to participate in the creation of their own moral identity.

From the novel to moral philosophy

In the prefaces to both the first and second editions of La Chapelle d’Ayton, Mlle de Meulan, soon to be Pauline Guizot, displayed an ambivalent attitude towards her progeny.  As Antoinette Sol has remarked, this ambivalence reflects a diffidence concerning the hybrid nature of her production for her version of the Emma Courtney story was neither fully a translation of another’s work, nor fully an original production.[9] Her ambivalence stemmed as well from a critical attitude to the form she had adopted:  “. . . j’ai fait un roman et une préface, après avoir juré vingt foi que si je faisais jamais un livre, ce ne serait point un roman, et n’aurait point de préface.”(vi)  Meulan’s translation/imitation is as Sol, suggests, at once a mémoire de roman and a roman-mémoir; it is also, I would suggest, an experimental novel.  Meulan adopts Hays’s novel expanding and adding many characters and episodes not in the original.  It is in this material that the most significant generic shifts occur.  In elaborating Hays’s novel Meulan tries on the themes and preoccupations which would become truly her own in her subsequent work.  Through this experimentation with genre Meulan identifies her own literary niche.  The role Meulan elects is that of the “moraliste.” As her contemporary, Charles de Rémusat, commented: “toutes ces compositions prouvent un penchant visible à tout ramener au point de vue moral.” (74)   Meulan’s choice is important. In the first few years of the nineteenth century, the eighteenth-century was in ill repute.  Many writers expressed their contempt for the philosophical tendencies of the previous century by celebrating and imitating the literary genres of the Siècle de Louis IV.  The choice to adopt the role of moraliste in the tradition of La Rochefoucauld, Pascal or Chamfort, might be interpreted as a gesture of conformity with the retrograde tendencies of the time.  Such is not the case.  Meulan may well have taken up the literary genre of an earlier period, but her orientation was decidedly modern.  What made it new was her audience—one which hitherto had largely been ignored by the literary world.  In the years 1802 until her death in 1827, Pauline Guizot produced a stream of moral tales destined for children which bore the titles L’écolier, ou Raoul et Victor, Le pauvre José: conte dédier à la jeunesse, Jules ou le jeune précepteur, or my particular favorite, L’éducation de Nanette.   This work culminated in her most admired text—L’Education domestique, ou lettres de famille sur l’éducation—which won her literary validation in the form of the prize in moral philosophy from the Académie française in 1828.

Pauline Guizot’s literary trajectory typifies the work of early nineteenth-century women writers who adopted eighteenth-century genres to the political and social ambitions purposes of the new century. Guizot’s skeptical attitude regarding the implausibility and excess of sentimental fiction inspired her to embrace its plots with a provisional and ironic attitude.  Whatever its perceived flaws, the novel would remain for nineteenth-century women writers a capacious and flexible receptacle for wide ranging reflections on politics, history and new social roles for women and the young.

[1]Both novels were published Chez Maradan in 1799 and 1800 respectively. The second edition of La Chapelle d’Ayton appeared Chez Maradan in 1810.

[2] “Je voulais traduire un livre anglais; le hasard me fit tomber sur un roman en deux volumes, nommé Emma Courtney”, Préface de la première édition, v.

[3] See Claire Grogan, “The Politics of Seduction in British Fiction of the 1790s: The Female Reader and Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 11, Issue 4. 1999 and Katherine Binhammer, “The Persistence of Reading: Governing Female Novel-Reading in Memoirs of Emma Courtney and Memoirs of Modern Philosophers in ,”Eighteenth-Century Life, vol. 27, Number 2, Meulan2003. For a discussion of the Anti-Jacobin reaction to Rousseau, see M.O. Grenby, The Anti-Jacobin Novel: British Conservatism and the French Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[4] Sainte-Beuve, Charles, “Madame Guizot,” in Portraits de Femmes, (Portraits lIttéraires, vol. 2) Paris: Gallimard, 1960, 1180.

[5] James Swenson, On Jean-Jacques Rousseau Considered as One of the First Authors of the Revolution. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

[6] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Les Confessions. Paris: Garnier Frères, 1964, 8

[7] Grogan, 6.

[8] Huguette Krieff, Vivre libre et écrire: une anthologie des romancières de la période révolutionnaire 1789-1800. Oxford /Paris: Voltaire Foundation, 2005.

[9] Antoinette Sol. “A French Reading and Critical Rewriting of Mary Hay’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney” in Strategic Rewriting, vol. 8 edited by David Lee Rubin Early Modern Fiction, vol. 8, 2002.


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.