The French Revolution created a new cultural world that freed women from the constraints of corporate privilege, aristocratic salons, and patriarchal censorship, even though it failed to grant them legal equality. Women burst into print in unprecedented numbers and became active participants in the great political, ethical, and aesthetic debates that gave birth to our understanding of the individual as a self-creating, self-determining agent. Carla Hesse tells this story, delivering a capacious history of how French women have used writing to create themselves as modern individuals.
Beginning with the marketplace fishwives and salon hostesses whose eloquence shaped French culture low and high and leading us through the accomplishments of Simone de Beauvoir, Hesse shows what it meant to make an independent intellectual life as a woman in France. She offers exquisitely constructed portraits of the work and mental lives of many fascinating women--including both well-known novelists and now-obscure pamphleteers--who put pen to paper during and after the Revolution. We learn how they negotiated control over their work and authorial identity--whether choosing pseudonyms like Georges Sand or forsaking profits to sign their own names. We encounter the extraordinary Louise de Kéralio-Robert, a critically admired historian who re-created herself as a revolutionary novelist. We meet aristocratic women whose literary criticism subjected them to slander as well as writers whose rhetoric cost them not only reputation but marriage, citizenship, and even their heads.
Crucially, their stories reveal how the unequal terms on which women entered the modern era shaped how they wrote and thought. Though women writers and thinkers championed the full range of political and social positions--from royalist to Jacobin, from ultraconservative to fully feminist--they shared common moral perspectives and representational strategies. Unlike the Enlightenment of their male peers, theirs was more skeptical than idealist, more situationalist than universalist. And this alternative project lies at the very heart of modern French letters.
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The Other EnlightenmentHow French Women Became Modern
THE PERILS OF ELOQUENCE Y'a d'la parole dans leux ventre p'us qu'dans l'Encirclopédie.
(There are more words in their lungs than in the Encyclopedia.
-Chanson poissarde (1789)
Early in the spring of 1793, at the height of the revolutionary crisis in France, a middle-aged domestic cook named Jeanne-Catherine Clere frequented a Parisian café near her employer on the rue des Poules where she was in the habit of tippling a few and losing her senses.1 Once she had had a few too many, she would take to singing at the top of her lungs. And recently she had begun saying that it was "wrong to kill the King and it would have been better to kill the Queen, who was far guiltier than he." The cafetier had had to throw her out of the establishment on several occasions.
Sometime in the first week of March she had also been heard by a local architect in another café, at the corner of the rue Mouffetard and the place de Contrescarpe, saying that "It won't be tolerated if they cut off the head of the son, as they did the father." Asked by another patron in the café who she meant by "the father," she responded, "The father who was in the Temple. Vive le roi!" Abartender warned her that if she said such things outside in the street, she would be arrested.
And that is precisely what happened. At eleven in the evening on March 7, Mme Clere was thrown out of the café Mouffetard after a few drinks. She began ranting loudly as she careened down the street. To be more exact, she was singing, verses ending in resounding choruses of "Vive le roi." A patriotic passerby, who turned out to be the President of her section, escorted her to the station of the local Corps de Garde. There, seeing the guard's muskets, she bragged of her father's service in the Army of the King and continued singing royalist war songs. She began denigrating soldiers who served the Republic. For several hours she held forth in the most unpatriotic terms: "The rabble that was sent to the army and was still being sent would be swept away by the 30,000 troops of our enemies"; "the rabble weren't the only ones to leave Paris," and that many honest men would die. And, she went on, according to the officers at the station: "The city of Lyon was under the white cocarde, and the province of Franche-Comté would defend Lyon, and would never betray that same cocarde"; "the Swiss Guards were of this faction"; "they too would stick up for the Franche-Comté and the city of Lyon"; "and the same was to be said for all the villages along the postal routes between France and her enemies." Finally, she opined that "the National Convention, as well as the Jacobins, should be lined up in two columns and pummeled. It was supposed to happen on the 25th of March." Asked if she wanted to have her head cut off, she said, "There will be a revolt soon, and this time it won't fail." Then, having said her peace, she fell asleep for several hours. When she woke up, Mme Clere found herself formally accused of treason and imprisoned.
On April 8, Mme Clere's case was sent to the newly constituted revolutionary tribunal. The interrogation that ensued helps to put some of Mme Clere's comments into perspective. She was married to a stagecoach driver from Lyon-hence her knowledge of affairs there. Moreover, she had sons in the Republican army, serving under General Adam Philippe Custine, who were, according to the official record, "known to be good citizens." Under interrogation, Clere first denied having made almost all of the statements attributed to her. She said that she remembered nothing except being escorted to the Corps de Garde. When the guards showed her their muskets, she told them that she was the daughter of a soldier who had served thirty-seven years for the King. To prove it, she began singing old war songs.
Pushed further, she admitted saying something about the white cocardes in Lyon, but claimed that she was only repeating what she had read in the old newspapers that she was asked to burn for her employer. She didn't think she was doing any harm in repeating what was already public news. Pushed again about her remarks, she admitted to having said something about plans for a revolt, but here, too, she claimed that she was only repeating things she had heard on the street. She had intended these remarks "without venom," she continued; she only wanted to say that there were "still a lot of crooks in Paris, and that until they were purged, honest men were not free to defend the Republic." Witnesses from the neighborhood were called in to vouch for her character. Her employer, a "man of letters" named Noel-François de Wailly, testified that she had come to work for him five months ago with referrals and that she was a "good soul." He said, however, that "she was often drunk" and that he had castigated her and threatened to fire her if she didn't stop drinking. He added that when she is taken with drink (prise de boisson) she rambles until she sleeps it off. Another neighbor said she had never heard her say anything. The local bartender said she often got drunk and ranted. And the police, too, said that she showed all the "symptoms of drunkenness" when she was brought to the Corps de Garde.
The indictment against Mme Clere acknowledged her drinking, but insisted throughout the record of events that she was "better informed and more articulate (mieux stylée) than she makes out to be." It stated that, even though drunk, "her thoughts are clear and well-ordered," and that she was clearly "conscious of her criticisms of the volunteers sent to the army," that is, that some of them were "rabble." On April 18, 1793, just over a month after her arrest, Mme Clere was convicted by the revolutionary tribunal of Paris for having "uttered remarks intended to provoke murder, the dissolution of the representatives of the nation and the reestablishment of royalty."2 She was put to death by guillotine the following day on the place de la Réunion.
Jeanne-Catherine Clere was one of the first people convicted by the revolutionary tribunal. I have dwelt upon her case at this length because it is not coincidental that this early convicted traitor to the new Republic was a woman, and that her crime was seditious speech. A whole group of market women were arrested for seditious speech as early as the October days of 1789.3 Heated political speech by women on both sides of the political spectrum was treated as a particular threat to public order by revolutionary authorities. Just after the King's flight to Varennes in June of 1791, three notorious radical women, Constance Evrad, Pauline Léon, and Léon's mother, were stopped by a troop of royal bodyguards in the Palais Royal and almost summarily executed for calling the King's actions treasonous.4 Many examples of this sort could be cited, but the important point is that, from very early on in the Revolution, seditious speech was more heavily criminalized than any other form of political expression or activity.5 Still, from what we know about the social logic of the terror, Mme Clere's execution is surprising. Women, in general, were far less likely than men to be detained as suspects. They were less likely to be convicted by the revolutionary tribunal (they constituted less than 15 percent of those put to death). It is true that Parisian women represented almost half of all women convicted, but, in contrast to the social profile of male convicts, the great majority of these came from the upper classes.6 What made Mme Clere such an exceptional figure?
This book begins with the revolutionary conjuncture of Parisian women and political speech because the unhappy fate of eloquent women in revolutionary politics marked a critical cultural turning point for French women more generally: The demise of the oral was the first chapter in the story of their entry into the modern world.
In retrospect, the conviction of Mme Clere may not seem difficult to explain. Her speeches were outrageously provocative. But on closer examination her case is more difficult to interpret. True, some of her remarks were flagrantly royalist, especially concerning the execution of the King. But she also suggested that the King was perhaps a mere victim of his wife's plotting and that the Queen should be killed for treason. And the impression that her record leaves is primarily that of a woman in distress-distress because her sons were at war and she was frightened for their safety, distress and anger because of the uncertainties of the Revolution. She blamed the new government, she longed for the security of the King. But her political views were not unambiguously royalist: Her remarks about all the "crooks in Paris" and her fears for the safety of Parisians if all the honest men went to war, were reminiscent of the popular anxieties that resulted in the September massacres. And her invocation of a rumored popular revolt planned for March seems more likely to have referred to the plans for an ultrarevolutionary Hérbertist insurrection than to a counterrevolutionary uprising. What, finally, made the ranting of a drunken women seem like such a threat?
Before answering this question let us consider another case, taken from the other end of the sociocultural spectrum-the trial of the well-known Girondist salonnière and minister's wife, Marie-Jeanne Roland, eight months later, on November 8, 1793.7 Mme Roland went to prison with high hopes that she would be able to use her well-known eloquence to recover her freedom. Indeed, in December of 1792 she had already successfully defended herself and her husband before the bar of the National Convention. On that occasion she had spoken with such eloquence that she had received a standing ovation from the deputies.8 Ten days after her arrest, Mme Roland was interrogated for the first time. She was asked if she had any special knowledge of the affairs troubling the Republic. She responded, like Mme Clere, that she had no knowledge of public affairs other than what she had read in the newspapers and heard about in public conversations. Moreover, everything that she had heard in conversation was always in a manner entirely in accordance with the principles of justice and liberty. The interrogator replied that "the words liberty and justice can become very equivocal ones when one doesn't add that equality is the basis of a Republic." Ever quick-witted, she responded that equality was "an inevitable consequence of liberty and justice." Language play was a game well suited to the talents of Roland.
Asked to name who composed her regular society, Mme Roland stressed that a great number of people passed through her house and that "she had never had what one would call a particular 'circle.'" The interrogators persistently tried to get Mme Roland to admit that she was the "director" of a secret "bureau d'esprit" that functioned as a propaganda center for the Federalist cause. She, in return, resisted characterization of herself as anything more than a helpmeet to her husband (his occasional secretary) and as having engaged only in casual conversation. Each time they suggested that she held private "meetings" at her home, she corrected them, calling her gatherings public "conversations" as opposed to "conferences." The interrogators became increasingly frustrated with her answers. As they put it: It was shocking that her responses were entirely generic and evasive of what the court wanted to hear, and we therefore required her to respond only by an affirmative or negative whether she had knowledge of an organized departmental force and whether she had agitated in favor of this in her conversations.
As she recalled this interrogation in her memoirs: The discussion was long and difficult. Before I could put my answers in writing they wanted to reduce them to a simple yes or no. They accused me of verbosity, and said that this wasn't the Ministry of the Interior; wit would get me nowhere. When the judge posed a question that the prosecutor didn't find to his taste, he would pose it in another manner, extending it, making it more complex or interrupting my responses, and then requiring me to abridge them. It was a real vexation."9
In the end, the prosecutor, Antione Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, indicted Mme Roland for counterrevolutionary conspiracy because of her correspondence and because of her private conversations, for having held "secret meetings in her home."10 Mme Roland's interrogation proceeded in precisely the opposite rhetorical direction from that of Mme Clere. In Mme Clere's case, the authorities worked to provoke her to greater eloquence in order to determine whether she should be judged to be the author of her own words; her culpability lay in the perception of her conscious ability to create political meanings. In Mme Roland's case, her ability to debate political meanings far exceeded that of her interrogators. They therefore pursued the opposite tactic-reducing her to two words alone.
Opposing strategies led, however, to the same end. In each case the police were determined to find these women guilty as the witting authors of their own speech, and to conclude that they deployed their speech with the intent of effecting political ends. In both cases-the one through her explicitness, the other through her evasiveness-the women were proved to be culpable.
While in prison, awaiting her trial, Roland still clung to hopes that once she was permitted to speak in the courtroom she would be able to sway the jurors with a rousing defense of her actions and motivations. But she was never to be given the opportunity. The moment she opened her mouth in the tribunal, she was interrupted by one of the judges and then silenced by deafening cries of "Long live the Republic, Down with the traitors," from the public galleries. Clearly, the only means to convict this eloquent woman was to silence her.11 Female eloquence became a central and a dangerous element in revolutionary politics. Spoken words, especially among Parisian women of the people, carried more weight-and a historically specific weight-in 1793 than they do today. Though urban France was becoming rapidly more literate, Mme Clere's world was essentially an oral one. Daniel Roche estimates that in the 1780s only about one in eight women in the Parisian popular classes could read, even if they could sign their names.12 Illiteracy was a distinctly gendered phenomenon by the end of the Old Regime.
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What People are Saying About This
Carla Hesse has given us an astonishing new look at women's struggle for independent expression and moral autonomy during the French Revolution and afterward. Denied the political and civil rights of men, literary women plunged into the expanded world of publication, answering the men's philosophical treatises with provocative novels about women's choices and chances. Lively and learned, The Other Enlightenment links women from Madame de Stael to Simone de Beauvoir in an alternate and daring path to the modern.
Natalie Zemon Davis, author of "The Return of Martin Guerre"
Hesse takes the history of women and gender into exciting new territory. She gives women of the past a chance to talk back, to tell their stories, and to reveal how an alternative history can be discovered through their writings and even through the very act of writing. Hesse's groundbreaking evidence about women writers and their publications is bound to stimulate new work for years to come. Combining print history with literary and philosophical analysis, she argues a provocative and important thesis: that the growing market economy in print offered women new opportunities for self expression through fiction and for making public claims to moral autonomy. Women thus managed to define their own worlds, even as their public and private lives were legally subjugated to those of their fathers and husbands.
Lynn Hunt, University of California, Los Angeles
This book is a long-awaited tour-de-force by a major historian. It is sure to become an instant and enduring classic in French history and literary studies, a provocative and compelling argument to be reckoned with by anyone concerned about the possibilities for female subjectivity and women's full participation in modern Western culture and public life.
Margaret Waller, Pomona College
Hesse combines an insightful reading of key figures in the history of French women's letters with an astute understanding of the role of print culture in the making of modern society. She has produced a highly readable, extremely persuasive book. Against those who see the rise of modern society as erecting barriers to women's full equality and independence, Hesse finds cause for greater optimism.
Joan B. Landes, Pennsylvania State University
The Other Enlightenment is a masterpiece of analytic clarity and historical acumen. Focusing on women's writing rather than on discourses about women, Carla Hesse shows that the French Revolution provided women with unprecedented access to print culture. Never again would the number of published women writers sink to pre-revolutionary levels. Anyone interested in women's access to bourgeois modernity will have to read this pathbreaking book.
Toril Moi, author of "What is a Woman?"
"Carla Hesse has given us an astonishing new look at women's struggle for independent expression and moral autonomy during the French Revolution and afterward. Denied the political and civil rights of men, literary women plunged into the expanded world of publication, answering the men's philosophical treatises with provocative novels about women's choices and chances. Lively and learned, The Other Enlightenment links women from Madame de Stael to Simone de Beauvoir in an alternate and daring path to the modern."Natalie Zemon Davis, author of The Return of Martin Guerre