Louise Michel was born illegitimate in 1830 and became a schoolmistress in Paris. She was involved in radical activities during the twilight of France’s Second Empire, and during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the siege of Paris. She was a leading member of the revolutionary groups controlling Montmarte. Michel emerged as one of the leaders of the insurrection during the Paris Commune of March-May 1871; and French anarchists saw her as martyr and saint - The Red Virgin. When the Versailles government crushed the Commune in May 1871, Michel was sentenced to exile in New Caledonia, until the general amnesty of 1880, when she returned to France and great popular acclaim and support from the working people of the country. Michel was arrested again during a demonstration in Paris in 1883 and sentenced to six years in prison. Pardoned after three years, she continued her speeches and writing, although she spent the greater part of her time from 1890 until her death in 1905 in England in self-imposed exile. It was during her prison term from 1883 to 1886 that she compiled her Memoires, now available in English.
These memoirs offer readers a view of the non-Marxist left and give an in-depth look into the development of the revolutionary spirit. The early chapters treat her childhood, the development of her revolutionary feelings, and her training as a schoolteacher. The next section describes her activities as a schoolteacher in the Haute-Marne and Paris and therefore contains much of interest on education in 19th-century Europe. Her chapters on the siege of Paris, the Commune, and her first trial show those events from the point of view of a major participant. Of particular interest is a chapter on women’s rights, which Michel saw as part of the search for the rights of all people, male and female, and not as a separate struggle.
The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel will be useful to both scholars and students of 19th-century French history and women’s studies.
About the Author
Bullitt Lowry, associate professor of history, and Elizabeth Ellington Gunter, instructor of English, both teach at North Texas State University.
Read an Excerpt
The Red Virgin
Memoirs of Louise Michel
By Bullitt Lowry, Elizabeth Ellington Gunter
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 1981 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
People have often asked me to write my memoirs, but whenever I have tried to speak about myself I have felt the same repugnance I would feel about undressing in public. Today, in spite of these feelings, I have decided to put together a few of my memories. My life is full of poignant memories, and I will expose some very personal feelings. I will tell them randomly as they come to mind; if I give my pen the right to wander, I have paid very dearly for this right.
My life has been composed of two very distinct parts that form a complete contrast. The first was made up of dreams and study; the second of events, as if the aspirations of the calm period came alive during the period of struggle. I will go to some lengths to avoid mentioning the names of persons whom I lost sight of long ago, to spare them the disagreeable surprise of being accused of conniving with revolutionaries. It might become a crime for them to have known me, and my old acquaintances might be treated like anarchists when they don't know exactly what anarchism is.
I shall write boldly and frankly regarding everything that concerns me personally, leaving in the shadows they loved those people who brought me up in the old ruin of Vroncourt in the Haute-Marne. The Military Tribunals of 1871 investigated the very bottom of my cradle and still respected the privacy of my relatives, and I won't disturb their ashes. Moss has worn their names off their tombstones in the cemetery and the old château has fallen down, but once again I see the nest of my infancy, and I see those who brought me up brooding over me. Their images will appear often in this book. Alas, of the memories of the dead, of the fleeting thought, of the hour which has passed, nothing remains.
If a little bitterness drops onto these pages, no venom will ever fall. The human race as a whole is blameless if individuals waste away like animals in the struggle for existence. When the obstacles that fetter humanity finally are forced aside, humanity will pass beyond this anguish.
In this unceasing battle the lone human being is not and cannot be free. My life is not mine to live. I must fulfill my duty to the Revolution, and lead my life harshly, without comfort, so that it will all be over more quickly.
Perhaps these memoirs will have a great number of volumes. To tell all, one would write without end. In any case, I would do well to sketch the history of my prisons. Many brave hearts are found among those unfortunate prisoners whom people despise. People must see things as they are, and only someone who has lived through such experiences knows.
Some of these pages would be difficult to send out the gates of Saint-Lazare prison, which is where I am now writing. But to rescue these words from oblivion I intend to take advantage of an article in the regulations that states: "Attorneys can receive sealed letters from prisoners." One attorney understands that because these memoirs are, in a sense, my last will and testament, I have the right to say whatever I want in them and send them to him.
In these memoirs I want to include accounts of my three trials. I have taken reports of my first and third trial from the Gazette des tribunaux, which no one could suspect of being too favorable to me. The second trial took place only in a lower court, and so was not reported in the Gazette; I have included a newspaper account of it. For the masses, the great masses, my loves, I will add some observations that I didn't think it was proper to make to the judges at the time. For us revolutionaries, every trial is an act of war over which our flag is waving. May that flag cover my book, as it has covered my life, as it will wave over my coffin.CHAPTER 2
My childhood nest was a tumbled-down château. At its corners, the same height as the main building, were four square towers with roofs like church steeples. The south side had no windows, only loopholes in the towers, which made the building look like a tomb or a castle, depending on the point of view. A long time ago, people called the place the Fortress, but when I lived there it was usually called the Tomb.
To the east lay a vineyard, and we were separated from the little village of Vroncourt by a grassy stretch as wide as a prairie. At the end of it, a brook flowed down the only street in the village, and in the winter the brook became so swollen that people in Vroncourt had to put stepping stones in it to make it passable.
Further to the east there was a screen of poplars, and the wind murmured sweetly as it blew through those trees; and then, rising behind everything, were the blue mountains of Bourmont. Many years later when I saw Sydney, Australia, surrounded by bluish peaks, I recognized on a larger scale the crests of the mountains I had seen in my childhood.
To the west were the hills and woods of Suzerin. When the snow was deep, wolves would creep from the woods into the Tomb through gaps in the wall, and they would howl in the courtyard. Our dogs would answer them, and this concert would last until the frozen morning. All was well at the Tomb, and I loved those nights.
I loved them especially when the north wind raged, and we read late, the whole family gathered in the old Great Hall. I loved the wintry setting and the frozen upper rooms. All of it—the white shroud of snow, the chorus of the wind, the wolves and dogs—would have made me a poet, even if all my family hadn't been poets from the cradle.
It was glacially cold in the Tomb's enormous rooms. Through that vast ruin the wind whistled, as it does through the rigging of a sailing ship. We huddled around the fire, my grandfather sitting in his easy chair situated halfway between his bed and a stack of all kinds of guns. In winter he threw a big cloak of white flannel over his clothes and wore wooden shoes trimmed with fleece. Often I sat on those wooden shoes in front of the fireplace, snuggling up to the cinders along with the dogs and cats.
Depending on the circumstances, my grandfather appeared like many different men to me. When he told me of the old, great days, the epic fights of the First Republic, he was passionate, so that he could relate to me the war of the giants, the war when "whites" and "blues," brave men fighting brave men, showed history how heroes died. Sometimes when he explained to me the various books we read together, he was ironic, like Voltaire, the master of his youth. At other times he was gay and witty, like Molière. Still other times, when our minds traveled across unknown worlds together, we spoke of things he saw stirring on the horizon. We looked at past stages of human development, and we discussed the future. Often I cried, touched in my heart by some quick image of progress, art, or science, and my grandfather, with great tears in his eyes, too, would put his hand on my head, which was more tousled than one of our dogs.
Both my grandmothers lived with us, and how different they were! One had a delicate, Gallic face framed by a headdress of white muslin gathered into tiny pleats, under which her hair was arranged in a large chignon on her neck. The other had eyes that were black like coal, and short hair; she was enveloped in an eternal youth which made me think of fairies in the old tales.
My mother was then a blonde, with soft and smiling blue eyes and long, curly hair. She was so fresh and pretty that her friends used to say to her laughingly, "It is impossible for this ugly child to be yours." As for me, I was tall, skinny, disheveled, wild, brazen, sunburned, and often decorated with torn clothing held together with pins. I knew how I looked, and I was amused at people finding me ugly, although my poor mother sometimes took offense at it.
Many animals lived in the Tomb. We had a big Spanish hound with long yellow hair, and two sheepdogs. All three dogs answered to the name of Presta. We also had a black and white dog named Médor, and a young bitch we named Doe in memory of an old mare named Doe that had died just before we got the bitch. When I gave the old mare an apronful of hay her manner would change remarkably. The thing I remember best about her was her stealing my bouquets; she would take them and then lick my face. When she died my grandfather and I wrapped her head in a white cloth, so no dirt would touch it, and buried her outside near the acacia.
We had legions of cats, too, especially male ones. We called all the male cats Lion or Darling and all our female cats Galta. Sometimes the cats would crowd us at the fire, and my grandfather would use the tongs to pick a glowing coal from the fireplace and wave it at them. The whole pack would run off, only to make a fresh assault soon after.
My mother, my aunt, and my grandmothers usually sat around the table. One read aloud, and the other knitted or sewed. Beside me as I write now is the sewing basket my mother kept her things in.
Friends often came to visit us. When Bertrand or M. Laumont, the old teacher from Ozières, came, the family sat up later than usual, reading aloud. They tried to send me to bed so they could finish reading the chapters they didn't want to read in front of me. Sometimes I obstinately refused, nearly always winning eventually, and other times when I was in a hurry to hear what they wanted to hide from me, I obeyed quickly, and then tiptoed back and hid behind the door to listen.
We called the schoolteacher Little Laumont to distinguish him from his relative, another Laumont, the doctor at Bourmont, whom we called Big Laumont. Big Laumont, the doctor, enveloped in a vast black coat that made him look like an Egyptian scarab, came on a stocky horse to spend every Tuesday with us. Little Laumont was always dressed in a short, gray frock coat and carried an enormously long cane. When he moved, his feet never seemed to touch the ground, and he was as intelligent as he was strange. He used to spend the winters with us. Long ago Little Laumont had given lessons to my aunt Agathe and my mother, and I think he had taught the whole countryside to read.
Those were the good days. My grandmother or I was at the piano, and my grandfather played his bass viol. Big Laumont sometimes carried a flute in his pocket, and when he played it, he played perfectly. All of us together would play music until we tired of it. Then in the dusk of the evening the doctor would leave swiftly, with his capacious black cloak floating around him. He looked like the black horseman of the legends.
Big Laumont asked me once, very seriously, the way he always spoke to me, why I didn't write some prose works. Following his suggestion, I began a story, The Naughty Deeds of Helen, which began, "Helen was very naughty and stubborn." It was a collection of my own wicked deeds, each of which I ended with an exemplary punishment for the sake of morality. For example, I described one episode in which Helen stole a small encyclopedia from an old doctor's house, a leather-bound volume in which were found the names of everything that could be learned. For punishment, Helen was condemned to spend a month with no book other than a huge grammar, which she certainly wouldn't have bothered to steal. "Oh, you little monster," said Big Laumont when he read this piece, "I thought it was you who had taken my book!"
That wasn't the only thing I took as a child. Each of us is capable of all the good or evil in his being. Without remorse I used to take money (when there was any), fruits, vegetables, and so on, and gave them away in my relatives' names. That caused some great scenes when the recipients tried to thank them. Incorrigible as I was, I laughed about it.
Once my grandfather offered me twenty sous a week if I would promise not to steal anything again, but I found I lost too much money on that deal and I refused. I had filed some skeleton keys to open the cupboards where pears and other fruits were kept, and I used to leave little notes there in place of what I had taken. I remember one that read: "You have the lock, but I have the key."
In the summer the Tomb filled up with birds that flew in through the broken windows. Swallows came back to their nests of former years, sparrows flew in and out of the broken windows, occasionally knocking on the unbroken panes, and the larks sang loudly with us. That is, they sang with us when we sang in a major key; when we changed to a minor key they would fall silent.
The birds weren't the dogs' and cats' only fellow-boarders. We had partridges, a tortoise, a roebuck, some wild boars, a wolf, barn-owls, bats, several broods of orphaned hares that we had raised by spoon-feeding—a whole menagerie. And of course, there was also the colt, Zéphir, and his grandmother Brouska. How old Brouska was I don't know—she had been with us so long that no one could remember her age. Brouska walked in and out of the rooms in order to take bread and sugar from the hands of people she liked. To people she didn't like, she would pull back her lips, showing all her huge yellow teeth as if she were laughing in their faces. And there were cows, too, the great white Bioné and the young Bella and Néra. I went to their stable to chat with them, and they answered me in their own way by looking at me with their soft eyes.
All these beasts lived on good terms with each other. The cats would lie curled up, following with a negligent eye the birds toddling about on the ground. Even more strange, I never saw a cat bother about a mouse, and mice lived in all the walls. In the Great Hall, behind the green tapestry that covered the walls, the mice ran around rapidly but unafraid, uttering little shrill cries as they went. The mice behaved perfectly, and never gnawed on papers or books and never placed a tooth on the violins, cellos, and guitars which were scattered about.
What peace there was in this place, and what peace there was in my life at this time! Maybe I didn't deserve it. How I love to dream of this little corner of the earth. If my mother had been able to survive my prison term, I would have liked to have spent some peaceful days near her, days such as she needed, with me working near her armchair, and the old Caledonian cats purring at the hearth.
Every time something important happened in my family, my grandmother would write a verse account of it. My grandfather added some pages of his own to that collection, which was kept in two large, looseleaf books. I wrapped those books in black crepe when my grandmother died.
The winds of adversity blow on things as well as people. Of all the pages my grandfather wrote, I have only one left, "A des antiquaires," and I have only one piece my grandmother wrote, "La Mort," which she wrote after the death of her husband. They are all that remain to me. Their sad tones are a feeble enough exhalation compared to the delicate verses that I no longer have. All has faded away, even my grandfather's guitar, which crumbled while I was in New Caledonia. My mother cried over it a long time.
In autumn, my mother, my aunts, and I used to go far into the forest. It was good to hear through the deep silence in our woods the heavy hammer of the smithy, and the sharp blows of the axe that made the branches shiver. Then, too, there were the songs of birds and the buzzing of insects under the fallen leaves. Often we would hear the little branches breaking where some old woman was gathering a pile of faggots. Sometimes we would hear the snort of a wild boar in the thickest woods, and other times it was a few poor roebucks flashing across our vision. Maybe they sensed the autumn hunts, when men cut the throats of animals to the sound of the hunting horn. Animals kill to live; the hunter destroys only to destroy.
On the road to Bourmont was Uncle Georges's old mill, which stood at the foot of a hill where there was an uncultivated vineyard. The grass was thick and cool in the meadow bordered by the millpond. The rosebushes rustled as the ducks moved through them or the wind pushed them. In the mill, the first room was dark even at midday, and it was there that Uncle Georges used to read every evening. How much he learned reading that way!
All those people, living and dead, here they are in this place of time gone by. Here are my grandmother Marguerite's sisters with their white headdresses, pins fastening scarves at their necks, the square bodices—the complete outfits of peasant women, which they wore coquettishly from their youth, when people called them beautiful girls, until their deaths. Like themselves, their names were simple: Marguerite, Catherine, Apolline.
One of my mother's sisters, Aunt Victoire, was with us later at Audeloncourt. She was very tall, with a thin face that had fine, regular features. My mother's other sister, my Aunt Catherine, lived in the Lagny area. Like my mother, both had an absolute cleanliness, a luxury of neatness, which allowed neither the shadow of a spot, nor a speck of dust, from their headdresses to the tips of their feet.
In the first flush of my Aunt Victoire's youth, some missionary preaching at Audeloncourt left behind a religious fanaticism that led many young girls into the convent. My aunt was one of them. She became a novice, or lay sister, at the hospice of Langres, but she broke her health by fasting and was forced to return to secular life. She came to live with us at Vroncourt, where she stayed until my grandparents died.
Excerpted from The Red Virgin by Bullitt Lowry, Elizabeth Ellington Gunter. Copyright © 1981 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
3. The End of Childhood,
4. The Making of a Revolutionary,
5. Schoolmistress in the Haute-Marne,
6. Schoolmistress in Paris,
7. The Decaying Empire,
8. The Siege of Paris,
9. The Commune of Paris,
10. After the Commune,
11. The Trial of 1871,
12. Voyage to Exile,
13. Numbo, New Caledonia,
14. The Bay of the West,
15. Nouméa and the Return,
16. Speeches and Journalism, November 1880–January 1882,
17. The Death of Marie Ferré,
18. Women's Rights,
19. Speeches Abroad, 1882–1883,
20. Speeches in France, 1882–1883,
21. The Trial of 1883,
23. My Mother's Death,
24. Final Thoughts,
Appendix I. Chapter List Showing Source in Original Text,
Appendix II. Table of Poems in Original Text,