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Film Review: A Royal Affair

Film producers, as a species, are notoriously risk averse creatures, which is why it’s always a special joy when a film that doesn’t have dollar signs written all over it slips through the net. This is just such a film, based as it is on one of those pieces of history that is bafflingly, criminally overlooked, and having at its heart a complicated, decidedly unheartwarming love affair fuelled by – of all the unsexy things – the Enlightenment.

The true story in question is that of King Christian VII of Denmark (1749-1808), his wife Caroline Matilda and the king’s physician Johann Friedrich Struensee. Daughter of the tragic Frederick, Prince of Wales (who I’ve written about before) poor Caroline was genetically predisposed to have an unhappy family life, though initially hopes were high when she was shipped off to marry the by all accounts charming, handsome and artistic Christian of Denmark. Sadly, what these reports had neglected to mention was that Christian was an outrageous libertine and already suffering from psychological and emotional problems that would only worsen with time, to the extent that he has often referred to as ‘mad’.

Following their early dutiful sexual encounters (portrayed with a painful and no doubt realistic awkwardness in the film) things rapidly soured, Christian turning to prostitutes in Copenhagen’s brothels, and Caroline making no secret of her disdain for her husband. When in 1767 Christian’s psychological problems became so severe he was unable to continue a tour of Europe he had embarked upon, a search was mounted for a physician who could help him. Johann Friedrich Struensee was in many ways an odd choice, firstly because he was seemingly nothing but a small town doctor, and secondly because unknown to the king he was the secret author of tracts in favour of Enlightenment ideals (regarded with deep suspicion and censored in the country at the time) and something of a Rousseau fanboy. But the fact was that the king liked him, and he calmed the king down enough that he could maintain a semblance of normality, enough at least to perform his public duties.

Though Caroline initially detests Struensee for encouraging her husband’s profligate behaviour, in the best tradition of cinematic romance, she soon recognises she has misjudged him and warms to his passionate desire to chamge the Danish establishment (which had never really accepted her, or vice versa) as well as his genuine interest in her welfare and company.

Ultimately, Caroline and Struensee entered into a clandestine affair, at the same time as the king, who had come to rely on him completely, dismissed all his other minsters in 1770, leaving Struensee effectively running the country. Struensee then embarked on a radical and breathless period of reform, issuing up to 3 socially progressive laws a day, and winning the king a fan letter from Voltaire himself.

The dream was not to last. It is generally accepted that Princess Louise Augusta, Caroline’s second child, is Struensee’s daughter, though she retained her status as the daughter of the king. Struensee’s mania for reform, coupled with his affair with the Queen, eventually meant that the people, and more importantly the many political enemies he had made, turned against him and brought about his downfall.

This is at times a convoluted story but the film handles it with aplomb, squeezing out every drop of intensity and drama. Costumes are beautiful, period locations are used atmospherically, and clever but subtle special effects draw you unquestioningly into the period. It’s tautly paced and, despite its grand protagonists, feels intimate and human. Mads Mikellson is suitably charming, enigmatic and intense as Struensee, even if there are times we could wish to see a little more of what drives him. Alicia Vikander is probably a little too beautiful for the part (the real Caroline did not have such looks to rely on), and if she lacks the personal drive and commitment to change that drove her historical counterpart, she remains an intriguing and sympathetic presence in this film, distant and disappointed, and later dealing with the pain of exile and the regret of causing the turn events that saw the man she loved, as well as both her children, taken from her.

For my money though it’s Mikkel Boe Følsgaard who really shines as Christian. An actor who could pass for royalty himself (exuding that haughty attractiveness that even obvious inbreeding cannot dent) his is a wonderfully nuanced performance that constantly keeps you guessing about the true state of Christian’s mind. Is he deranged, or some sort of perpetual spoiled child, or, as is suggested by Struensee at one point, is he just so bound to his fate that his mind, surplus to requirements, has retreated deep into himself?

The image of Christian, after his wife and closest confidant have been taken from him, shuffling around the palace holding the hand of the black slave boy who was bought to entertain him, but looks at him with open repulsion, is one of the most haunting of the film.

A striking, beautiful film, this is well worth seeking out, and should be applauded for shedding light on this wrongfully neglected story.


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How the Revolution exposed the dark side of the art of Johann Zoffany

A few weekends ago I went to the Royal Tattoo Academy of Art’s exhibition (sadly now closed) on 18th century painter Johann Zoffany (1733-1810).

Zoffany is largely known for his ‘conversation pieces’, intimate family portraits created for his noble and royal patrons, with his subjects engaged in lively, charming interaction with each other.

This sort of thing.

Queen Charlotte with her Children and Brothers 1771-2

Pleasant, ain’t it? But look a little closer at Zoffany’s work, and you start to see things you might not expect from a painter of his time.

The Tribuna of the Uffizi 1772-78

For example, in this painting of the treasures of the Uffizi museum, commissioned by none other than Queen Charlotte of England, that group of Grand Tourists on the right are most definitely not admiring the artistic merits of Venus (this statue was a well known magnet to young men in an age when sexualised imagery was of course not widely available). And the gentleman admiring the shapely contours of the marble wrestler in the background a little too attentively? None other than Thomas Patch, a real English painter recently exiled from Rome for his known homosexual activities.

Ahh, but we’re on safer ground when we hit the classical predictability of his Flight into Egypt, aren’t we? Erm, no actually, because right on the back of this innocuous looking painting is this bizarre self-portrait of the artist.

Here, Zoffany depicts himself donning a monk’s costume, not as an act of sudden conversion, but in preparation for attending a masquerade. Nobody in the eighteenth century would have needed to be told what sort of thing people got up to at a masked ball, but just in case, hanging on the wall are two condoms. The curator of this exhibitions suggests these may be the first ever depiction of them in art.

Zoffany’s paintings then, were clearly not the confections they might at first glance appear, but it took the tumultuous events of the French Revolution, in the last stages of the artist’s career, to bring these hints of depravity and darkness out of the safety of the background, and put them rawly and immediately at the centre of the artist’s works.

Zoffany painted two works inspired by the Revolution.

The Massacre at Paris, August 10, 1792 – I. Plundering the King’s Cellar at Paris

The Massacre at Paris, August 10, 1792 – II. Celebrating over the Bodies of the Swiss Soldiers

These aren’t interesting as representations of what happened – Zoffany was safely ensconced in England at the time, and the pictures have the lurid, unreal air of the English newspaper accounts on which they were based. What is interesting about them, however, is the visceral sense they convey of the shock, fear and revulsion that many in England felt towards the events unfolding across the channel.

Zoffany, who had spent his life in the mannered civility of high society portrays the events of the revolution as a direct and terrifying threat to that world. The people in these scenes are savage, almost animals. His aristocratic subjects of previous paintings may eye up the odd statue or plan for dalliances at masquerades, but these revolutionaries are brutal, full of passions and ugly desires, free of restraint or civilisation. In Plundering the King’s Cellar we see the bogeymen of 18th century England. Black faces stand out in the crowd, a Jew bids for the coat of a murdered member of the king’s guard. Drunkenness and lust is everywhere. The figures defacing the king’s insignia are almost naked.

In Celebrating over the bodies of soldiers we see an odd foreshadowing of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People in the revolutionary woman standing bare breasted in the midst of the crowd. But while Delacroix’s liberty evokes bravery and beckons us towards a bold and exciting future, Zoffany’s is an ugly hag, who promises nothing more than debauchery, wretchedness and ruin.

If Zoffany painted these pictures as a warning of a world unravelling at the seams, his noble patrons proved oblivious, preferring to keep the revolution out of sight and out of mind, to write it off as an aberration typical of the Frenchies, and certainly not hang such visions on their walls, thank you very much. Zoffany realised they wouldn’t sell, and left the second of these paintings unfinished.

Posted in 18th Century, art, British History, French History, History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Madame Jeanne Guyon: The Accused Witch Who Defied King Louis XIV

Culture&Stuff’s very first guest post, by Nancy Carol James, PhD

French culture in the 17th century demonstrated an amazing energy for spiritual and religious questions. One great genius from this time, the mathematician Blaise Pascal, pondered the question, what is a human being in the infinite? In other words, what is a human being who touches the divine? Building on this question, others thinkers wondered if this was possible while still alive on earth? If so, a living person who touches the infinity of God would be a different human being.

For as we all know, participation in religious ceremonies does not necessarily signify spiritual integrity. Many people believe a catechism out of duty, responsibility, tradition or social prestige. Pascal recognized, though, at times a mystical person finds all his or her powers of the mind, heart and soul intimately involved with God. Indeed, Pascal himself believed that he encountered the living God in his life. During his unexpected experience, Pascal grabbed paper and quickly described it as he wrote, “Fire, Fire, Fire! Not the god of the philosopher, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Another such person in Pascal’s own era in France also tried to describe her experience of the infinity of God. This happened in the mysterious life of Madame Jeanne Guyon (1648-1717). A profound thinker, Jeanne Guyon wrote eloquent books and poems describing what she called her union with God. Though some denied the truth of her words, the very evidence of her life and accomplishments gave pause to the criticism. Now in the 21st century, many scholars look upon Guyon’s words as powerfully prophetic yet still a puzzling mystery.

Born into an aristocratic family living in the town of Montargis on the Loire River, Jeanne knew deep sorrow at a young age. Both of Jeanne’s parents, Claude Bouvier de la Mothe and Jeanne le Maistre de la Maisonfort, had children from a previous marriage. From an early age, Jeanne knew a conflicted blended family with constant friction between the siblings. At a young age, Jeanne already sought solace in prayer and spiritual reading. Jeanne’s parents planned her education as occasional years spent in nunneries and she found a strong comfort from the presence of some nuns, including her paternal sister who was a dedicated nun, Marie de St. Cecile Bouvier.

Yet Jeanne seemed surrounded by a sense of destiny that others recognized. At the age of eight, the Queen Consort of England, Henriette Marie de France (1609-1669) visited Jeanne’s family and asked to take Jeanne back to England to be in the royal court. Even while recognizing the many social benefits this would have given Jeanne, her parents refused this proposed adoption.

As a girl, Jeanne believed she had a vocation as a nun. Her parents denied her fervent requests; at the age of twelve Jeanne forged her mother’s signature and ran away to the Visitation Convent, a religious community founded by Jane de Chantal. Even though the mother superior in charge of the order wished to allow Jeanne to join, she feared the wrath of Jeanne’s influential father and sent the chastened girl home again.

To compensate for being barred from the nunnery, Jeanne read all of the saints avidly, especially Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal, and Teresa of Avila. She felt Jane de Chantal’s passion for Jesus when this saint enthusiastically declared “Live Jesus!” Indeed, young Jeanne made a note reading, “Live Jesus!” and placed it on to her skin under her clothing in imitation of Jane de Chantal and her close friend, Francis de Sales.

Jeanne’s hope to “Live Jesus!” also included Francis de Sales’ unusual idea of spiritual annihilation. Francis de Sales went to great lengths to describe this, saying that a small number of believers know the annihilation of their natural personality so that they may experience a resurrected and spiritual unity with God.

In his spiritual classic On the Love of God, de Sales described annihilation in a narrative. On the Greek town of Sestos, a young girl tenderly cared for an orphaned eaglet. After the magnificent bird’s growth to adulthood, the eagle would leave to hunt during the day and that evening bring his prey home to please the girl. One day the eagle left for the day and suddenly the girl fell sick and died.

As the custom specified, on the same day her grieving family began to burn her in a funeral pyre. They built a raging fire and placed the dead girl’s body in the flames. At that moment, the dedicated eagle came flying back, looking for his sweet friend. The immense bird saw the girl’s body being consumed by flames and in deep sorrow he dove down to save the girl. In the intense heat of the flames, he beat his immense wings in a vain attempt to save her. After the fire began to envelop him as well, the eagle chose to stay and die with his friend. The girl and eagle, consumed simultaneously by flames, became eternally united in love.

Francis de Sales explained the metaphor. As the eagle joined with the girl, so in annihilation, the soaring eagle of God unites with the humble person. The person, lost in chaos, fully and suddenly find the refreshing updrafts of immense, transcendent power, through the bonding with the divine eagle. The eagle and the human soar and float together.

After annihilation, the person knows spiritual power like an interior eagle. In this metaphor, the magnificent bird floats free to go higher to commune with the totality of creation. Together the eagle and human rise to catch a glimpse of the One God, while enjoying the whole and sublime beauty of creation.

This idea of annihilation captivated Jeanne and took root in her soul. Calling this divinization, Jeanne wanted this union with all her heart and called this annihilation and subsequent union a consummated marriage. In this fulfilled state, the person may soar through prayer into new heights, while still remaining fully human.

The annihilation of love became a theme of Jeanne’s, along with others who also treasured this hope. Jeanne understood the process of annihilation as love that carries faithful people to places of suffering, a place that offers many blessings if it is not rejected. She noted the possible annihilations in many dedicated relationships: the faithful parent nurses the sick child, the committed priest cares for his parish, and the fervent believer cares for the poor. As the believer serves others, the divine joins with the human, and the two, the human and the divine, become as one.

For the youthful Jeanne learned from her reading of the saints that the greatest mystery of human life happens when love between a human being and the divine makes them as one. In this grace-filled blending, the greatest suffering as well as the greatest fulfillment spring up. The person, a nothing as Jeanne called herself, and Christ, the all in all, meet with a passionate, fiery love enveloping them together.

Jeanne’s parents seemed to fear her passion for God and attempted to stop this by arranging a marriage. Sadly for Jeanne, they chose a wealthy man 22 years her senior. Jeanne tried her best to stop the marriage but her parents tricked her into signing the articles of marriage without informing her what they were. On February 18, 1664, the bishop performed this marriage ceremony. Almost immediately, Jeanne found herself in an extraordinarily unhappy marriage with no way out of the situation. She lived with both her husband and her mother-in-law, both of whom tried to stop her prayer life.

Madame Guyon

On July 22, 1668, Jeanne could bear her sad life no more. She sought out the counsel of a wise Franciscan monk, Abbé Archange Enguerrand, who advised her to change herself. “It is, Madame, because you seek outside what you have within. Accustom yourself to seek God in your heart, and you will find him there.” Jeanne described the experience of hearing this like an arrow going through her heart.

Maybe we would understand Jeanne’s experience through the more traditional term of stigmata, a spiritual wound that opens a deep connection with God. Later she called this the beginning of divinization, as she changed the noun “divine” into an active verb “to divinize.”

No words easily describe what happened to Jeanne in her divine wounding. Reaching beyond terrestrial cause and effect, she moved into places of unimaginable love. Her heart became mysteriously intertwined with the divine. She describes God as if he were a human lover. In her revealing quote, Jeanne said, “I loved Him, and I burnt with love, because I loved Him. I loved Him in such a way that I could only love Him; but in loving Him I had no motive but himself.” To pray in solitude became her highest joy.

And Jeanne knew the passion of God was for her, a fiery love she never became separated from again. Nothing stood in the way of this love: threats and imprisonments did not deter Jeanne from seeking and confirming the love of Christ.

Yet Jeanne still experienced real struggles and unhappiness in her home. She had quickly given birth to five children with the family tensions impacting all of the relationships. Through the well-documented conflicted marriage described in Jeanne’s Autobiography, we get an understanding of Monsieur Guyon as a solid and serious engineer who felt torn between his young wife and controlling mother. Yet it is also clear that he admired many of his wife’s qualities. Indeed, when he got into legal problems when King Louis XIV’s brother sued Monsieur Guyon, at his request Jeanne successfully represented him in court. Jeanne wrote that before he died, she and her husband shared an intimate reconciliation.

After her husband’s death in 1676, Jeanne was left a wealthy widow with a four-month-old daughter and two older children (two of her children had already died of smallpox). She put most of her money into trusts for her children. Then Jeanne planned her new life along with the assistance of her spiritual director, Abbé François La Combe. She and La Combe bonded and shared hopes that the direct spiritual action of God would work through their lives. Through their faithful obedience, the sick would be healed, the ignorant would see, Christ would walk in merciful kindness among his people.

Abbé La Combe moved to work in Geneva and shortly afterward Jeanne moved her young daughter to a place near him in Gex to live at a nunnery. Together La Combe and Jeanne developed hospitals and worked for the relief of suffering. Jeanne started writing her books, including her two most famous A Short and Easy Method of Prayer and Commentary on Song of Songs. With her growing popularity as an author, La Combe and Jeanne became increasingly controversial and in 1685, the Bishop of Geneva, d’Aranthon told them to leave his diocese. Jeanne and her daughter Jeanne-Marie began to travel all over Europe, staying with aristocrats while Jeanne talked to others about spiritual wisdom.

Outside world events soon impacted Jeanne and La Combe’s lives. In 1687 at the request of Louis XIV, the Vatican declared Quietism a heresy. Sadly, soon Abbé la Combe and Jeanne found themselves accused of this spirituality that emphasized the knowledge of God through quiet. The trusting priest La Combe returned to Paris to defend himself against these charges. Quickly La Combe’s superiors in the Barnabite order arranged a guilty judgment and he was sent away to prison. La Combe was imprisoned until his death 27 years later.

In January 1688, Jeanne was also charged with Quietism and incarcerated in an unventilated room in the House of the Visitation in Paris. She went through lengthy interrogations by church officials and Bishop Bossuet, a bishop at Meaux, who was also active at Versailles. Jeanne’s friends and relatives advocated for her release and after the intervention of the third wife of Louis XIV, Madame de Maintenon with her husband, Jeanne was released.

Madame de Maintenon, morganatic wife of Louis XIV

Soon after regaining her freedom, Jeanne met Abbé François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon at a social gathering near Versailles. A prestigious priest at Versailles, Fénelon was chosen to be the royal tutor for Lous XIV’s grandson, the Duke of Burgundy.

An unusual group arose at Versailles called the Court Cenacle, a group of the leading dukes, their wives, Jeanne, Fenelon, and Madame de Maintenon. They met to pray for a spiritual reformation in France and, in particular, for the conversion of Louis XIV. The Court Cenacle chose intimacy with God and a weekly evening of quiet prayer instead of the many human pleasures available at Versailles. This group trusted that each individual would keep the existence of this prayer circle unknown so as to avoid the wrath of Louis.

For Louis XIV’s genius was to explore the human spirit while frequently neglecting the spiritual life. French aristocracy at Versailles enjoyed the arts: theater, ballet, and concerts. It was as if Louis conceived a social experiment: what happens when you take people away into grand buildings, food, theater, gambling, jewelry, and sex involving aphrodisiacs. What happens when you intensify pleasure? What is in the human heart?

Yet in France the counter-point to the pleasurable Versailles was the horrific Bastille. In this prison, Louis XIV intensified anonymity and pain. Under Louis’ authority, instruments of torture were developed and used on his prisoners who had no legal right of appeal. For when imprisoned by a lettre de cachet, people were put to an ultimate test. Will one suffer without losing one’s mind, heart and spirit?

Louis designed Versailles (where he placed his treasured court) and the Bastille (where he placed his despised political prisoners). Louis also seemed passionate about questions about the human heart. What is a human being in the infinite? Or what is a person inundated by opportunities for pleasure? Or, conversely, what is a person who only sees and experiences deprivation and, at times, pure horror?

Jeanne’s peace at Versailles did not last for long. Bishop Bossuet wanted to become the archbishop of Paris, and his chief rival for this position was his former student, Archbishop Fenelon. And soon Madame de Maintenon had become jealous of Fenelon’s relationship with Jeanne. Along with the help of the influential Bossuet, de Maintenon told her husband that Jeanne was a heretical Quietist. At the same time, both Bossuet and de Maintenon demanded that Fenelon betray Jeanne.

The stage was set for a tragedy of epic proportions. If Fenelon betrayed Jeanne, she would probably be burned at the stake, as Bossuet was requesting. If he did not, Fenelon would be ridiculed as too attached to this woman Jeanne who they considered a heretical Quietist.

Some people proposed ideas of how Jeanne could get out of this situation. Bossuet said that if she would sign statements admitting theological mistakes, he would exonerate her. But Jeanne knew that this could be an even worse danger because admitted heresy could lead to capital punishment, such as happened to Joan of Arc. But Jeanne’s friends proposed she run away to England and this would have probably promised safety to her.

Jeanne attempted with all her human powers to avoid her second incarceration, yet stopped short of leaving France, her beloved home country, for a safe haven in England. She believed that God asked her to remain faithful to both her country and her Roman Catholic Church, even if this required suffering. Maybe her thinking was something like that of Socrates who said he would not desert his country, even if it would save his life.

Difficult to imagine, Jeanne’s character allowed herself to be moved into the intensification of pain for spiritual reasons of love. But she did it knowing that this was her time of annihilation, and like the young girl she had read about, she would see if the God like a mighty eagle would became one with her.

A letter de cache was issued by Louis and signed by Bishop Bossuet ordering that Jeanne be found and incarcerated.

Jeanne struggled with this situation and wrote, “Since I am not a theologian, . . .why put me in prison?”.  The real goal here was the destruction of Fenelon. What could happen to Fenelon if his close friend was publicly burned at the stake? Why kill these women they called witches? The burning at the stake was the ultimate test. Would their powers end when their bodies ended or would an irrepressible power manifest itself? The question became, what power does a human being have if they touch the infinite.

Jeanne attempted to escape this incarceration with honor. In July 1695, Jeanne moved to Paris under an assumed name, taking with her two servants. When one of her faithful servants went to move furniture one day, she was recognized on the street. Someone followed her home to find out Jeanne’s address. The police were notified. They watched and when the servant came back out, they stopped and searched her. Finding the key to Jeanne’s house, they went there.

On December 27, 1695, the French policeman Desgrez quietly walked into Jeanne’s room and arrested her. He had stationed from twenty to thirty armed policemen all around her house. She went with him quietly and the first night of her incarceration she spent at his home.

She was taken to the imposing Castle Vincennes, on the outskirts of Paris. This was used as a prison for religious heretics and freethinkers. When they searched her upon arrival, they found two wax statues and assumed that this was part of her witches’ tools. Instead she protested that this was a statue of the baby Jesus and the archangel Michael. They did not believe her.

Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, assiduous and zealous but in many ways forward-thinking Lieutenant General of the Paris police

The head of police in Paris, Monsieur Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie, searched for signs of any possible crimes during many twelve hour interrogations. After months of questioning and finding no evidence of any crime, M. de La Reynie assured Jeanne, “All justice will be rendered to you.” (Bastille Witness, 4) She hoped that legal justice would be given to her but she believed that this suffering would continue to touch her.

Jeanne was asked to write a letter of condemnation of La Combe and refused saying that she would prefer to suffer than to obtain freedom through such dishonest means. Expressing her inner conviction about God’s protection of her, Jeanne declared, “Nothing in the world is capable of breaking me.”

Jeanne wrote that de la Reynie said to the policeman Desgrez, “Let’s get out of here. They want us to make that lady guilty and I find her very innocent. I do not want to serve as an instrument of her destruction.” She greatly feared her situation when de la Reynie left because she did not want to be left under the complete power of the Roman Catholic Church. Bossuet had written openly that she should be sent “to the fires,” or burning at the stake.

Monsieur de la Reynie reported to the authorities, “You have tormented this person for so little.” Yet at this time her torments had really only begun.

Following her ten-month incarceration in Vinceness, on October 16, 1696, the church authorities moved her to a nunnery in Vaugirard. There she was frequently beaten on the face, while living in a decrepit room. “I easily saw that they had some plan to have me escape and then blame my family or friends for it.” (21)

Yet Jeanne had a way of understanding her incarceration that aided her in keeping her sanity. She wrote, “I considered myself a little bird that You had in a cage for Your own pleasure and who had to sing to fulfill her state.” She said, “My solitude was my delight.”

Jeanne had many interactions with a priest, the rector of Saint-Sulpice named La Chétardie. “I also asked him to consult the king on my behalf.” Following her frequent requests, she received attention from the Archbishop of Paris Louis de Noailles. He processed into her small room at the nunnery fully vested in his hierarchical finery. Accusing her of immoralities with La Combe, he informed her that she would make a public confession of shameful and licentious acts with La Combe. He declared, “I am your archbishop. I have the power to condemn you. Yes, I do condemn you.’” Jeanne described her response to him, “I responded to him, smiling. ‘Sir, I hope God will be more indulgent and that he will not approve of that sentence.’ He told me that my servants would suffer martyrdom for my sake since I seduced everyone I came in contact with.”

Several of the servants at the nunnery began to warn Jeanne of terrible things that were going to happen to her. They presented a forged letter to her, saying that it was from La Combe confessing of immorality with her. Jeanne confronted them with the differences in handwriting from that of La Combe’s. Jeanne began to have dreams in which La Combe appeared to her. In one dream, he was sick and suffering, yet told her that her afflictions prepared her for an eternal weight of glory; Jeanne found comfort in this dream, yet the sad predictions were true.

Finally in the most poignant and understated sentence in her autobiography, she wrote in one brief sentence, “They then took me to the Bastille alone.”

In the Bastille, Jeanne knew humid, dank conditions with little human contact. She listened to pacing and screaming humans waiting to be ‘put to the question,’ i.e. to be tortured. The authorities refused Jeanne the sacraments and Jeanne watched two young women assigned to guard her sicken and die.

Yet as Jeanne discovered, suffering can be a gift—the intensification of life so that she have eyes to see. Jeanne’s theology of life was based on a scripture from I Peter that reads. “Place your worries in the hands of the Lord and He will act himself. Abandon yourself to His guidance and He will guide your steps.”

Jeanne described her move to the Bastille. “Then I was placed in solitary confinement in the Bastille in a bare cell. At first I had to sit on the floor.” She said she listened to the torments of other human beings. On the floor above her, she listened to a man who “paced day and night without ceasing or resting for even a moment, and ran around like a maniac.” Jeanne heard him fall and when she could, told the guards that he tried to kill himself. They found him “drowning in his own blood” after stabbing himself in the stomach.

Jeanne wrote about the conditions at the Bastille. “In this place they only let you know what can afflict you and you know nothing of what can please you. You only see stern faces that treat you with the worst sort of harshness. You are without defense when they accuse you. They let the outside world hear what they want. . . But in the Bastille, you have no one.”

Her interrogator, the new chief of police in Paris was René de Voyer d’Argenson (1652-1721). He threatened Jeanne and attempted to get her to confess crimes but she continued to declare her innocence. D’Argenson also warned her that he was capable of sending her to the infamous prison the Conciergerie that could lead to torture and a death sentence, the prison that later sent many to the guillotine. Jeanne wrote, “For d’Argenson told me: ‘You are tired of being in an honorable prison. If you want to taste the Conciergerie, you will taste it.’ Sometimes, when they were taking me downstairs, they showed me a door and told me that it was there that they tortured. Other times, they showed me a dungeon. I told them I thought it was very pretty and that I would live well there.”

Yet something very odd happened to Louis XIV. From the hometown of Nostradamus came a man with a warning to Louis. He knew something that verified himself to Louis as an authentic prophet and gave a private warning to Louis. Some speculate that the warning was about the incarceration of Jeanne and other faithful believers. In 1700 after Bishop Bossuet met with the bishops, they declared her innocent of immorality and in 1703 Jeanne was released from the Bastille. They had to carry her out of the Bastille on a litter.

And then Jeanne found a profound ministry. People from around the globe showed up at Madame Guyon’s cottage wanting to talk of spiritual matters. Quakers from Pennsylvania came seeking guidance about human happiness, a Scottish Lord Deskford came to offer his administrative and writing skills, and Protestants everywhere asked about her faithful joy. Letters to and from her friend Archbishop Francois Fenelon flew fast and faithfully between them. And her daughter Jeanne-Marie offered a sweet consolation that fulfilled Jeanne’s heart.

The world did its best to separate Jeanne with her unusual passion for God in many ways: a forced marriage, a personal inquisition, and a long incarceration. Still Jeanne prayed joyously, singing like a bird in the cage of this world.

But even as scholars heatedly debate Jeanne’s life and words, we see how profound her interpretation of her century was. She correctly understood how deeply the peasants needed help; she gave much money and food to the poor, while building hospitals for the ill. She saw that if people knew how to pray, they would hope and work to make better lives for themselves. She helped with the education of girls and helped improve the lives of women.

All of her very successful work gave evidence that she understood the needs of her century and poured out her life trying to help. One of her translators, Thomas Taylor Allen, wrote that if the French leaders in her time had listened to Fenelon and Jeanne, the horrors of the French Revolution might have been avoided.

Jeanne believed though that in the Bastille, she experienced her annihilation and her joy became powerful and intensified. Jeanne never regretted her actions and ends Bastille Witness with a plain declaration that she would never change to please the world. “And if it were necessary to change my conduct to be queen, I would not be able to do it. When my simplicity caused me all the troubles in the world, I could not leave simplicity aside.”

Jeanne lived her beliefs and stated that in the Bastille she became annihilated and the eagle of God joined with her humble suffering. She described her experience in a poem,

But Love seeks nobler aims

In self-denial finds its joy,

In suffering her repose.

For sorrow and love walk hand in hand;

No height or depth can ever divide

This heaven-directed marriage;

These dear friends complete a union

Until the race of life is run.

About the author

Nancy C. James, PhD, is the author of The Complete Madame Guyon (Paraclete Press, 2011). James received her PhD from the University of Virginia with a dissertation written on Madame Jeanne Guyon.

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Théroigne de Méricourt: ‘The fatal beauty of the revolution’. Part Two.

When we left Théroigne de Méricourt at the end of part one, she was beginning to sense a new energy in the streets of Paris in the spring of 1789. Like so much of social and political life at the time, this energy seemed to coalesce and find its fullest expression at the heady Palais Royal, where Théroigne would often be found walking, absorbing the new ideas and revelling in a newfound feeling that change was finally coming. ‘Everyone’s countenance seemed to have altered’, she wrote, ‘each person had fully developed his character and natural facilities. I saw many who, though covered in rags, had a heroic air’.

Although she was not, as would later be rumoured, involved in the storming of the Bastille, she became an active participant in revolutionary activity immediately afterwards, and was in the crowd when the king was forced to wear a revolutionary cockade on 17th July. At this time, she began to adopt a mode of dress that would make her from the very start striking, and later iconic. She wore a white riding habit (an amazone) and a round-brimmed hat, wanting to ‘play the role of a man’, she later explained, because I had always been extremely humiliated by the servitude and prejudices, under which the pride of men holds my oppressed sex’.

BEFORE: Portrait presumed to be of Théroigne de Méricourt on the eve of the Revolution, attributed to Antoine Vestier via Wikimedia Commons

AFTER: Théroigne in her new mode of dress, which helped make her famous (portrait around 1818) via Wikimedia Commons

She moved to Versailles so that she could attend the meetings of the National Assembly every day, where she was quickly noticed as the first to take her seat in the gallery in the morning, and the last to leave at night. Though initially baffled by the often highly complex debates, she taught herself to understand the issues at stake, and became more and more convinced of the justice of the cause.

Théroigne seems to have been the sort of person myths wind themselves around, and it would come to be said that she lead the market women who stormed Versailles on 5 October 1789. In fact, she spent most of the night in bed, and though she did go to the palace the next day to see what was going on (as the royal family were removed, and marched to Paris), there’s no reason to believe she played any leading role. Again, it was perhaps Théroigne’s unforgettable image which made her so easy to pick out of any crowd, and so easy for people to burn into memories in which she actually had no part.

When the National Assembly moved to Paris in October 1789, Théroigne followed it and remained a committed attendee, personally getting to know many influential figures such as Desmoulins, Brissot, Pétion and the Abbé Sieyès. Théroigne  played an extraordinary role in this phase of the revolution, founding her own club, running a salon, and even on one occasion speaking at the Cordeliers Club. She became a celebrity, and it was at this time that she began to be called Théroigne de Méricourt, an affection she never used herself. But despite all this, it was starting to become increasingly clear that the Revolution would not bring the changes that she had hoped for. Women were not after all to be treated as equal citizens, in fact the attitude towards them from many quarters was at best suspicious and at worst downright poisonous. The press decried her as a whore, and legend began to place the figure in the amazone and broad hat (now often with a sword and pistols swinging about her waist for good measure) in any number of the most violent, pivotal moments of the revolution. Deep down, the spectacle of liberated women terrified most men, and Théroigne was its living embodiment.

In the summer of 1790, Théroigne left Paris, bitterly disappointed. Her tale might well have ended here, and still have been more interesting than a hundred ordinary people’s, but with the story of Théroigne de Méricourt, getting the feeling that it must, surely be over is generally the best indication that it’s about to get even more fascinating. She returned to her native Liège, presumably seeking some respite from the turmoil of recent years. Unfortunately, she had not left her notoriety in Paris, and Liège – then under the control of the Austrian Empire – was not the best place for a woman rumoured to have hatched a plot to assassinate Marie-Antoinette to pick for a holiday. In short order, she was kidnapped by mercenaries, and subjected to a tortuous ten day journey to Austria, the captive of three ardent French emigrés who bullied, harassed and even attempted to rape her, but she was able to fight them off.

A view of Castle Kufstein by Konny

Kufstein Fortess by Konny via Panoramio

Eventually she arrived at the castle of Kuftstein in the Austrian Alps, where she came face to face with François de Blanc, the civil servant tasked with interrogating her by the Imperial Chancellor, Prince Kaunitz. Believing even the wildest rumours he had heard about Théroigne, Kaunitz fully expected her to reveal intimate details about the leaders of the revolution, their ideas and their aims. Over the course of the next month, de Blanc spent many hours locked in conversation with Théroigne, as well as examining the contents of papers which had been seized when she was captured. These contained records of her political activities, notes on books she had read as well as ‘strange, dark, stream of consciousness writings’, as biographer Lucy Moore describes them. In one such piece, she imagined building a bronze edifice containing a black vault with the statue of a woman, trampling tyranny under foot, represented by the figure of a man. ‘This woman will reach out her hand to me’, Theroigne wrote in black, underlined letters, ‘and will cry out: help me or I shall succumb. I will then take hold of a dagger from nearby and I shall strike the man’.

Blanc soon became aware that Théroigne  had no insights into the minds of the revolutionary leaders, and even seems to have become fond of her, calling her ‘luminous and surprising’. He was clearly concerned for her health, given her bouts of depression, coughing blood, insomnia and splitting headaches, and he travelled with her to Vienna to press for her release. After this was secured, she would continue to write to him, signing herself ‘votre toute dévouée’.

By the start of 1792 Théroigne was back in Paris, having picked up a few more rumours along the way, including the delicious whisper that she had converted the Austrian Emperor to the Revolutionary cause during her audience with him. Seeming not only to have recovered her political energy, she was in truth more fiery than ever, wading into the increasingly dangerous battle between Brissot and Robespierre on the side of the former. She was lauded as a hero in the Jacobin Club and invited to speak there. She gave incendiary speeches, calling to women, ‘Let us raise ourselves to the height of our destinies; let us break our chains!’. She was also, for the first time, actually involved in militant activity, drumming up female warriors for the conflicts she felt were to come. Finally living up to her fearsome reputation, Théroigne was in the thick of the fighting when crowds stormed the Tuileries palace, where the royal family were then living, on 10th August. During this vicious battle, she is said to have lunged at the neck of a royalist journalist who had been particularly scathing towards her in the press. Fighting back, he was about to run her through when the crowd dragged him off and stabbed him to death.

Despite her undoubted appetite for violence when necessary, Théroigne  seems to have become concerned about the direction the Revolution was taking in the wake of the chaos of the September Massacres. She believed anarchy and in-fighting were frustrating all the aims of the Revolution, and in early 1793 called on citizens to ‘stop and think, or else we are lost’. In May 1793, a gang of women from the Jacobin Club, out for revenge on Brissotines, attacked Théroigne in the gardens of the Tuileries, stripping her naked and flogging her publicly. She was only saved by the intervention of Marat.

Contemporary sketch of the attack via Look and Learn

This incident seemed to have tipped Théroigne’s always fragile mental balance, and she began a descent into madness. She was arrested in the spring of 1794, at at which time she began fixating on Saint-Just, ally of Robespierre, as her saviour. She wrote to him from prison, begging him for light and paper so she could complete the work she still felt she had inside her. Saint-Just never opened her letter, which was found unopened after his death. After Robespierre’s downfall at the end of July, Théroigne joined the ranks of prisoners slipping out of Parisian jails, but the thread of her sanity was now well and truly broken.

Officially declared insane later that year, Théroigne was to spend the rest of her life in various asylums, clinging more and more strongly to her revolutionary beliefs. As Lucy Moore points out, this in itself was taken as a sure sign of madness in a country where the ideals of the revolution were steadily abandoned, if not reversed. She was interred in Paris’s infamously wretched Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in 1807. Apparently stuck in the world of 1794, she accused anyone who came near her of being royalist, and she talked to herself

‘for hours on end, muttering ritualised incantations about committees, decrees, villains, liberty and the revolution, at times smiling to an imaginary audience. Often naked, even in the coldest weather, she punctuated her monologues with baths of freezing water or self-abasement in muddy excrement’.

Lucy Moore

Théroigne de Méricourt, or Anne-Josèphe Terwagne as she really was, died in June 1817. Many have found echoes in her life of the story of the revolution as a whole, but more specifically hers is a tragic insight into women’s experiences of the Revolution. Most oddly, it reveals how many of its leaders and opinion-formers sought to make monsters not only out of female enemies (as demonstrated clearly in the trial of Marie-Antoinette) but also its most ardent supporters. Women, who had experienced all the indignities of the ancien régime in their sharpest forms, and who therefore were often the most energised by the promise of the Revolution, would come to see that the cry of liberty, equality and brotherhood was to be taken literally. In her madness, Anne-Josèphe Terwagne chose never to accept this fact, to believe that the movement she believed in more than anyone would some day fulfil its promise, and rescue her from the life of unhappiness and deep dissatisfaction she had known.

A portrait of Théroigne by 20th century surrealist painter Félix Labisse



 Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France
by Lucy Moore
Moore movingly tells the story of Théroigne as well as many other fascinating women in the Revolution.

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Théroigne de Méricourt: ‘The fatal beauty of the revolution’. Part One.

If the Austrian Emperor’s interrogator, François de Blanc, hadn’t already heard so much about the revolutionary prisoner, Théroigne de Méricourt, it’s unlikely a man like him would have believed much of the story she spun him. Stripped of the myth and legend that already surrounded the key events of her life, even the version of her story that could be more or less accepted as being ‘true’ had an implausible air to it, as if it had been spliced together from the more interesting parts of several different people’s lives. But perched in the chilly, remote and echoingly vast medieval mountaintop fortres of Kufstein, over 6 months in 1791 a peculiar thing happened. As the days went by in this strange, intimate isolation, the arch civil servant de Blanc was starting to not only believe Théroigne de Méricourt, he was starting to like her. Intrigued by the details of her extraordinary life, charmed by her passion and intensity, and moved by her experience of the Revolution, which reflected all of its excitements, contradictions and fickle cruelties, de Blanc became the strongest advocate for the freedom of his captive.

Like so much else that came to make up her fearsome reputation, even the name Théroigne de Méricourt was a creation, later applied to the woman born in 1762 near Liège, with the much more humble moniker of Anne-Josèphe Terwagne. Her mother died when she was five, and she was sent to live with an Aunt, who initially packed her off to a convent, then, unable or unwilling to meet the cost of maintaining her there, brought her back into her own home, but in the humiliating position of maid. When her father remarried, Anne- Josèphe returned to live with him, but her stepmother was more interested in raising her own children than looking after Anne-Josèphe (the wicked stepmother type so beloved of fairytales had its origins, as Robert Darnton argued, in the very real social tensions of this kind of all-too-common scenario at a time of high mortality and frequent remarriage).

Having made further unsuccessful attempts to find a place she could call home with her mother’s parents, and even, one can only assume out of pure desperation, making another go of things with her aunt, Anne-Josèphe finally realised that she was going to have to look after herself. Taking any work she could to sustain herself, she eventually found her way into the employ of a Madame Colbert, working as her companion. Mme Colbert taught her to read and write as well as to sing and play the piano. Inspired by her success, Anne-Josèphe began to dream of a future as a singer. Perhaps she could have achieved it – by all accounts she had the talent – but at the age of twenty she entered into what would be the first of a string of reckless, dubious and ultimately disastrous relationships with men.

She was seduced by an English army officer who promised to marry her when he came of age, and whisked her off to Paris. He never made good on his promise, but Anne-Josèphe continued her relationship with him, as well as the marquis de Persan. Though the marquis was, as Lucy Moore (who tells this story in detail in her excellent Liberty) puts it, ‘elderly and unpleasant’, he lavished her with gifts and money. Anne-Josèphe had meandered into the life of a courtesan, adopting the soubriquet Mlle Campinado, and often seen at the opera, alone in a large box, dripping with diamonds.

When she had a daughter with the Englishman, he refused to acknowledge the child, and was no doubt unmoved when it died of smallpox in 1788 (though this would always be a particularly painful memory for Anne-Josèphe). She then began an affair with an Italian tenor, who proved far more romantic on stage than in life, and she then fell victim to the charms of another Italian singer, this time (oddly) the castrato Tenducci, known throughout Europe as – somehow – a great ladies’ man. She followed him to Genoa, where the singing career she had dreamed of almost looked like coming true, but beyond a few concerts nothing seems to have happened. Behind the scenes she faced a bitter and now all-too familiar breakup from Tenducci, and battled with the terrifying symptoms of a severe venereal disease.

The castrato and ladykiller Giusto Fernando Tenducci – final proof that size isn’t everything

After a year, Anne-Josèphe returned to Paris, the collapse of her dreams in Genoa marking just the last in the string of failures that had made up her life thus far. Her attempts to find a family, her efforts to turn a voice that had seemed remarkable in the provinces into a career on the world stage, and above all her experiences with men had ended in nothing but disappointment, exploitation and pain. As luck would have it though, there would be no time for moping, because she so happened to find herself back in Paris in May of 1789, at the beginning of a summer of endless, irrefusable opportunities for change and reinvention. For Anne-Josèphe, like for so many others, the coming of the revolution seemed to offer not only a chance to regain control over her own destiny, but also a way of wiping out the failures of her past.

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