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 which you can see at the website, 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

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 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

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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Dolly Wilde, a Ghost in Paris

Dolly Wilde, a ghost in Paris

In 1920s Paris, pained, fuzzy-headed morning afters must have been as defining a feature of life as the sparkling night befores that brought them on. On some of these grey mornings there were some unfortunates, still hours away from achieving verticality and spooling the evening’s events through their minds trying to fill in the blanks, who might have sworn that last night they had met the ghost of Oscar Wilde himself.

It was an easy mistake to make. Everybody said that Dorothy Wilde, known always as Dolly, looked startlingly like her infamous uncle, who had died in Paris in 1900 at the shabby Hôtel d’Alsace (now L’Hotel). Dolly’s natural resemblance to Oscar was only enhanced by her propensity to dress like him, even on occasions as him. You might even be forgiven for imagining that she was Oscar’s daughter, given how strongly she gravitated towards his memory and how little she spoke of her actual father, Oscar’s older brother Willie. Like Dolly, born three months after Oscar’s arrest for homosexual acts, Willie lived in the shadow of his younger brother. The two looked so alike that Willie joked that Oscar once paid him to grow a moustache so people could tell them apart. In any other family, Willie, who was certainly not without charm and was a journalist of some talent, might well have been the star. In the Wilde family, however, his achievements were eclipsed both by his brother’s incandescent fame and dark disgrace, and by his own descent into severe alcoholism, drug addiction, infidelity, abusive behaviour and chronic debt problems. Willie was regarded as a family joke by the Wildes, and towards the end of his life, shabby, shuffling, dirty and pathetic, he sponged, as Oscar said, on everyone but himself. Willie was in every way that mattered an absent father, and, perhaps as a means of filling this void, Dolly learned to idolise the uncle she had never met but had always exercised such a strange influence over her life.

Dolly arrived in Paris in 1914 at the age of 19. At a time when most girls, if they could contemplate any involvement in the war at all, wanted to be nurses, Dolly had come to France to drive ambulances on the front lines. This would be an exhilarating time in Dolly’s life, partly because she was never happier than when she was behind the wheel, partly because Paris in 1914 still represented a world of experimentation, freedoms and new ideas, and partly because she formed intimate relationships with the extraordinary group of women in her ambulance corps. She fell in love with Marion Carstairs, an oil heiress who usually dressed as a man and would in later years become a successful speedboat racer, have affairs with some of the most glamorous women of her age including Marlene Dietrich, and develop a semi-obsessive relationship with a doll she called Lord Tod Wadley, which she loved like a child.

Dolly, being one herself, seemed to attract fascinating women, who often seem more like characters out of the racier sort of novel than real people. She was fortunate enough to be in Paris at a time when women were very much in the ascendant. Dolly’s was a generation that had lost its men, in both the obvious sense that so many were slaughtered in the trenches, and because the scars inflicted physically and psychologically on those who survived so often left them backward-looking, introverted, and sapped of confidence. This created a strange situation in postwar Paris where the women of Dolly’s circle took over roles previously filled by men, often in remarkably direct ways. At a time when all England was scandalised by French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen who took to the courts at Wimbledon in a dress that barely covered her ankles, Dolly’s set of female friends in Paris wore trousers, smoked, and took other women as lovers. This was the era of Chanel, who cut her hair short simply because, she said, ‘it annoyed me’, and pioneered a new, androgynous style that helped finish off the world of corsets.

In the years shortly after the war, the world divided into two; one half feeling guilty about the idea of ever celebrating again, and the other half having practically nothing else to do. Dolly fell firmly into the latter camp, and her friends in the demi-monde would include the novelist and actress Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, American painter Romaine Brooks and the writers Renée Vivien and Elisabeth de Gramont. She would also have known the singular figure of Josephine Baker, an African American performer who became a sensation at the Folies Bergères, appearing on stage nude and often accompanied by her pet cheetah, looking resplendent in his diamond-encrusted collar. Some people would claim to have spotted her taking the cheetah out for a walk along the banks of the Seine.

Josephine Baker, with her cheetah

Most central of all to Dolly was Natalie Clifford Barney, the American writer who was to be the love of Dolly’s life. For over 60 years, starting in 1909, Barney held a literary salon in her house on the Rue Jacob every Friday. The list of people who came to sample the famous cucumber sandwiches and still more famous conversation reads like a who’s who of the cultural life of the era, including Rodin, Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes,  W. Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald and T. S. Eliot.

Natalie Clifford Barney, already imposing at twenty, painted by her mother Alice Pike Barney in 1896.

But even in this illustrious company, people still came home from the salons talking about Dolly Wilde. With her imposing physical presence, swept back hair, dreamy, sad eyes and chiselled jawline, Dolly looked enough like Oscar that the effect could be haunting, but she was also strikingly beautiful – something even Oscar’s greatest admirers could never say about him. Journalist Frank Harris once said of Oscar that he used the entrancing power of his words to distract people from his ‘repellent physical pecuilarities’. Dolly had no need to do this but she certainly knew how to work the same magic. Her conversation was, from the accounts that survive, funny, lyrical, flowing, intimate, interested, penetrating and frequently acerbic. The most tantalising and frustrating part of trying to understand Dolly Wilde is that the hypnotising experience of being in a room with her is lost forever now. Even those who experienced it struggled to recreate it, those grey morning afters having rubbed the edges off the memory, and her essence stubbornly refusing to be separated from herself. While Oscar left a body of written work that would make his wit immortal, Dolly never managed to distil her great talent with words into writing, and so it died with the last person who remembered her.

Along with her bewitching talents, Dolly also inherited the more poisonous Wilde family traits that drew her darkly and powerfully towards tragedy. Her great love for Natalie Clifford Barney brought her lacerating pain as much as intense pleasure. Barney was not what you might call a one woman woman. Even as Dolly was living in her home, Barney openly continued to have long-term relationships with two other women, as well as frequent liaisons with many others. There were times when Dolly would be dismissed from the house because Natalie had a new lover, only to be recalled again later, and uncountable nights when Dolly was left alone with torturing thoughts as Natalie exercised her extraordinary and insatiable talent for seduction.  Though Dolly also saw other women, it was without the detached cruelty that those closest to Barney admitted she was capable of, and deep down Dolly depended on Natalie for her happiness, like a flower bending towards the sunlight.

The melancholy beauty of Dolly Wilde, captured by Cecil Beaton.

Like her father, Dolly had no real understanding of money and consequently it always had a habit of slipping through her fingers, especially as her addiction to cocaine and later sleeping drugs took hold. She had enough friends that somehow she always managed to scrape together enough money to carry on, yet too few to fend off a deep and self-destructive unhappiness. Between the wars, the French coined an expression, to ‘avoir le cafard’, meaning a lingering and causeless dissatisfaction with life. Dolly Wilde was its living embodiment. Dolly fled Paris for London as the German army beat a path towards it in 1940, recognising that the party was well and truly over. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1939, but refused an operation, seeking alternative treatments, but more and more relying on the solace of her various addictions.

In 1941, at the age of 45, she was found dead in her flat in London. She was almost exactly the same age as Oscar and Willie had been when they died. The coroner refused to be drawn on the cause of her death. Although several empty bottles of the sleeping drug paraldehyde were found in her flat, this was hardly unusual given her addiction, and there is no evidence that she had taken cocaine. So Dolly Wilde’s death, like the rest of her life, is ambiguous and uncertain. Perhaps she had simply died of the cancer she had refused to tackle head on. Perhaps, as some people said, Natalie Barney had driven her to suicide, as she had at least one of her other lovers. Crueller tongues might have wagged that she had simply fulfilled her destiny as a Wilde; Dolly, after all, was Oscar, with all the tragedy and none of the talent. This of course does Dolly a huge disservice. The story of Dolly Wilde shines a light on a time of distinctively beautiful but fragile decadence in the history of Paris and it reveals the swirling and often devastating wake created by a fame as great as Oscar Wilde’s. More than that, it allows us an introduction to a circle of truly fascinating people who could never have existed except in that precise moment in time, and whose world, like those nights recalled through a haze of headaches and regret, can never fully be recovered.

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  • Joan Schenkar’s Truly Wilde is the only biography of Dolly Wilde, and thankfully, it’s as distinctive and intriguing as she was.
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Marie Antoinette on Trial: Your Cut-Out-and-Keep Guide to Reading the Trial, Part 4

In the last part of the guide to Marie Antoinette’s trial, I looked at the way she dealt with the completely unexpected and totally secret interrogation which was sprung upon her two nights before the trial proper was to begin.

The challenge that faced her on the morning of 14th October was very different. This time there was no dark chamber populated by a few shadowy figures. This time the Great Hall of the Revolutionary Tribunal had been transformed into the great political theatre that was in many respects its prime function, and it quickly became clear that this performance would be standing room only. Every available seat was taken, most picturesquely by the infamous tricoteuses – a gang of ardent women, like some sinister version of Donny Osmond fans, who attended so many trials and executions that they now bought their knitting with them to help pass those interminable moments waiting for the delivery of a verdict or the fall of a guillotine blade. The atmosphere was probably something akin to a circus, with refreshments on sale and lively, expectant chatter – especially as most of the Revolution’s darlings, including spidery Robespierre and hogheaded Danton, were in attendance. Fouquier-Tinville, who would be familiar to Marie Antoinette from the secret interrogation, was presiding as President of the Tribunal, a position it’s easy to confuse with judge, but as we’ll see his role was really more that of at best ringmaster and at worst chief cheerleader for for the Revolution. The jury, such as it was, was packed partly with Robespierre’s cronies and partly with humble but stalwart ‘grassroots’ supporters of the Revolution.

Marie Antoinette’s beleaguered lawyers, Tronson Doucoudray and Claude Chaveau-Lagarde, had sent a letter requesting a delay to the start of the trial, so as to allow some extension to the scant day they had been allowed with their client. This letter had gone unanswered. However, if you go now to this website you’ll easily get in contact with the best lawyers near you.

When the door finally opened and the guest of honour arrived, it’s hard to know what the reaction of the crowd was to seeing their former queen, but I’m tempted to imagine that things suddenly fell electrically silent, for a brief moment at least. As Antonia Fraser points out, perhaps the first thought that went through most people’s minds was ‘That’s Marie Antoinette?’. Hidden from public view for over a year, Marie Antoinette was utterly transformed, and it must in that instant have seemed impossible to comprehend that this was the woman about whom legends of luxury, frivolity and beauty had been spun. She was on this October morning nothing more than a frail, sick woman – far older than her 37 years. She went to the armchair on the witness platform, and the tricoteuses shouted complaints that she was being allowed to sit.

What follows was a truly remarkable piece of theatre that I do urge you to read if you can. This event represents something that’s quite rare in history – a person being forced to confront their own legend during their lifetime, and in some respects an entire era, an entire way of life, being put on trial and condemned. Here I’ll try to pick out some of the most revealing moments.

> Fouquier-Tinville’s opening statement is one of the most vitriolic, misogynistic tirades you’re likely to read for a good long while. It’s hard not read it without picturing a man spitting in great torrents, with an ever-reddening face. To take an example, early on in the speech, Fouquier-Tinville states

it appears that, like Messalina, Brunehaut, Fredigonde and Medicis, who were formerly distinguished by the titles of Queens of France, whose names have ever been odious, and will never be effaced from the pages of history – Marie Antoinette, widow of Louis Capet, has, since her abode in France, been the scourge and the blood-sucker of the French. (p21)

There is never any pretence of impartiality in this trial, and the tone of persecution rather than prosecution is established from the very first moments. Here, Marie Antoinette is placed in a long, spectacular and peculiarly French line of female hate figures. Messalina was wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius, and went down in legend as a depraved, promiscuous woman, who would have even killed her husband had her plots not been discovered just in time. Brunehild was the wife of King Sigebert in the medieval French kingdom of Austrasia. Accused of interfering in politics and the line of succession, her grotesque punishment was to be ‘tied to a camel for three days, and to be beaten and raped by anyone passing by’ (in the words of Andrew Hussey) on what is now the rue Saint-Honoré. Fredegund, Queen consort of Merovingian king Chilperic I, is said to have murdered the woman who previously held Chilperic’s heart in order to ascend the throne, and gone on to plot the murders of her her husband’s half-brother and his son, her own brother-in-law and several more besides, depending on which version of the story you hear. And Catherine de Medici, of course, is an out-and-out monster in French history, renowned for her deviousness, her duplicity, her political power won by machination and poison that prolonged the bitter Wars of Religion and led her to spark the dreaded St Batholomew’s Day massacre.

It’s highly revealing that Marie Antoinette could with absolute seriousness be added to this list. It makes clear that the hatred of her had become so widespread and passionate that she was already regarded more as a myth or a symbol than as an actual human being, and is also indicative of the level on which the trial is going to operate. There’s a huge disconnect between the gravity of the crimes implied by these comparisons and the evidence that is to be presented in the trial, indeed it is perhaps precisely because Fouquier-Tinville is acutely aware that he has so little to work with that he feels the need to destroy Marie Antoinette before the trial even begins. Later on in the opening statement he goes so far as to make the palpably ridiculous claim that Marie Antoinette was the driving force behind both counter-revolutionary pamphlets and writings “in which she herself is described in very unfavourable colours, in order to cloak the imposture”. There is also talk of “midnight meetings” and “creatures in the armies and public offices”: language, as I’ve said before, reminiscent of witchcraft trials. From the outset then, Marie Antoinette is painted as a monstrous, sinister woman forever meddling in politics, leader in fact of a vast and dangerous conspiracy.

> More generally there’s an anxious, heightened tension to the entire proceedings. At times it becomes perfectly clear that what’s at stake is as much the fate of the Revolution as Marie Antoinette. So we have the odd spectacle of witnesses seemingly included more to incriminate themselves than to shed any useful light on the case in hand. Both Pierre Manuel and Jean Sylvain Bailly were one-time heroes of the revolution who have by this stage turned against it and become its enemies. Both would be executed within a month of this trial. Both Danton and Robespierre would of course both be dead within a year, and even Fouquier-Tinville would follow those he had condemned to the scaffold with two.

> Then there’s the motley crew of witnesses that it’s remarkable Fouquier-Tinville even bothers to bring out. Pierre Joseph Terrason, employed in the office of the minister of justice, suggests that Marie Antoinette orchestrated the massacre on the Champ de Mars, on the basis that he once saw her give a ‘most vindictive glance; which suggested to him… the idea that she would certainly take an opportunity for revenge’ for the failed escape to Varenne (p42). Then Rene Mallet, a former ‘servant-maid’ who worked in some unspecified context in the Versailles area, recounts the frankly absurd story that Marie Antoinette had planned to assassinate the Duke of Orleans, and having been discovered by the king with two pistols concealed in her undergarments for this very purpose, was confined to her room for a fortnight (p51/52). Interestingly, Marie Antoinette’s response to this is very confused, saying ‘It is possible I might have received an order from my husband to remain a fortnight in my apartment, but it was not for a case similar to the above’. She is not asked to explain what the case might have been, so we can only wonder what incident she might be referring to. One gets the impression that at times Marie Antoinette, during this gruelling 2 day ordeal, at times slips into autopilot, especially when it’s so apparent that there’s really nothing for her to respond to.

> The uselessness of Marie Antoinette having any kind of nominal legal representation is clearly demonstrated when she hands a note to one of her counsel, and is immediately forced to read the note aloud like naughty schoolgirl.

> There are times when the queen is forced to abandon her general policy of flat denial, and the subject of her extravagance is certainly the most painful of these. Fouquier-Tinville asks (p61),

Where did you then get the money to build and fit out the Petit Trianon, in which you gave feasts, of which you were always the goddess?

In fact, Marie Antoinette had nothing to do with the building of the Petit Trianon, which was commissioned by Louis XV for his mistress Madame de Pompadour (though she did instigate major works in that area of the palace, including her infamous pretend village, the Hameau). She does not point this out, and rather, following further prodding, admits

It is possible that the Petit Trianon may have cost immense sums; may be more than I wished. This expence was incurred by inches; in fact I desire more than any one that every person may be informed what has been done there.

This is in many ways a damning confirmation of the Marie Antoinette myth: that she was responsible for huge amounts of money being wasted, without ever stopping to even think how much, that in essence she had no understanding of money whatsoever. Since this was the main reason the public hated her, this could have been a high point of the trial, but it isn’t. Her interrogators immediately swerve away without forcing any more admissions, again seeking to associate the queen with wider conspiracies rather than simple greed and ignorance.

In telling contrast to this admission is the poignant moment when all of Marie Antoinette’s remaining possessions are shown to the court (p53). These include a table of ‘cyphers’ which Marie Antoinette says was ‘to teach my child to reckon’, prayers, portraits of girls she knew as a child in Vienna, a symbol of the flaming heart (a known counter-revolutionary as well as religious symbol) and several locks of hair, which Marie Antoinette says are ”of my children, living and dead, and of my husband’. After all the excessive luxury of her youth, everything she owns can now be fit into a small parcel.

> Finally, there’s the moment when rabble-rouser Jacques René Hébert accuses the former queen of sexually abusing her son – the undoubted low point of the trial, which I’ve written about in a previous post. This accusation, based on the coerced confession of a sick and terrified child, is almost certainly without any substance whatsoever, and is revealing of the urgent need felt by Marie Antoinette’s accusers that she can’t simply die a criminal or a symbol of extravagance, but as a monster. She must be made to symbolise the complete moral degeneracy and destructiveness of the ancien régime and the pressing need to destroy it absolutely. The powerful and useful hatred felt by the sans-culottes can’t be allowed to be dissipate with her death, rather her memory must be a continuing force for action and a reminder that the Revolution is always unfinished.

Frankly, this particular ploy fails to land, and even Fouquier-Tinville seems embarrassed to question Marie Antoinette on the matter following Hébert’s theatrical delivery and, we can assume, a much more mixed reaction in the court room than he had hoped. No-one ever really seems to buy this over-baked and vindictive story, and it did not go on to become one of the elements of the Marie Antoinette myth that persists to this day.

When Marie Antoinette’s sentence was read out, she was asked by Fouquier-Tinville if she had any objection to make. She simply bowed her head and said nothing (p77). She left the court knowing she would be executed the next day. Marie Antoinette was the first and last Queen ever to be tried in France, and perhaps her greatest achievement in handling it lies in not providing the spectacle everybody hoped for. Innately recognising that the whole affair was a circus, she refused to become a sideshow, remaining calm, impenetrable – removed, almost, from the hoopla of the event. When the former Queen climbed the scaffold and met her death, the crowd was jubilant (save for the one person who surged forward to dip a cloth in her blood, and was immediately arrested) but for just the same reasons they always would have been. The trial had been revealing of so many things, but ultimately inconsequential. Half a year afterwards, Jacques René Hébert would find himself on trial at the Tribunal. Legend has it he petulantly threw his hat at his judges, then trembled on the scaffold. Marie Antoinette never gave this victory to her enemies. Her trial was her finest hour.

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Marie Antoinette on Trial: Your Cut-Out-and-Keep Guide to Reading the Trial, Part 3

There aren’t many things I’m good at doing if I’m suddenly woken up from sleeping. Operating a pair of trousers is a challenge, walking in a straight line a chore, and conducting a meaningful conversation a scientific impossibility.

I don’t want to become one of those web sites that worship the ground Marie Antoinette walked on, but on this most basic trouser-operating, conversation-having level, Marie Antoinette was something of a god. On that bitterly cold night, on 12th October 1794, the former queen was woken and taken from her cell to the Great Hall of the Revolutionary Tribunal. The room was inkily dark – only two candles flickered in the large space – making it more or less impossible to determine how many people were in the room, who exactly they were, or which shadow was speaking at any one time. Eventually, the figure of Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, the President of the Tribunal, emerged out of the gloom. Fouquier-Tinville had already earned himself the reputation as one of the Revolution’s attack dogs, having conducted the trials of such revolutionary bête noires as Charlotte Corday (Marat’s assassin) and many other less famous unfortunates. Totally ruthless in pursuit of revolutionary justice, legend had it he slept with an armed guard at his door and a hatchet under his bed, for fear of the people he was sworn to protect.

Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville

Fouqier-Tinville was not an easy man to square up to at the best of times, and these were not the best of times. Marie Antoinette arrived in the chamber for the secret interrogation having no prior knowledge that it was to take place, much less what would be asked of her. She had no legal counsel of any kind, and was utterly alone in the room. She had been imprisoned for many months; both her mental and physical health were as low as they had ever been. But if nothing else, Antoinette was a performer, and in the secret interrogation she turns in the performance of a lifetime.

The entire purpose of the secret interrogation was to try to obtain evidence that could be used against Marie Antoinette in the trial. There was of course no opportunity to plead the Fifth here. As we shall see, though Marie Antoinette’s guilt was pre-determined and already certain in the minds of almost everyone in France, the actual case that had been assembled against her was in most particulars very far from impressive. Fouquier-Tinville, in short, needed Marie Antoinette to slip up here, to give something away under pressure – hence fetching her in the middle of the night, hence the darkness, hence the lack of ceremony and quick-fire questioning.

Who knows if Marie Antoinette had decided her gameplan at some point previously, or if it came to her on the spot, but her approach (as it will be throughout the trial) is to remain matter-of-fact to a level which is almost robotic, to never rise to bait or give emotional answers, and to be as brief as possible. This is an especially clever tactic in contrast to the hyperbolic, hysterical fervour of her accusers. Though it was always likely to be construed by her enemies as yet another example of her legendary coldness, it provided her with a solid emotional compass to guide her through the most dramatic moments of the trial. Perhaps we can even go further – perhaps this is the stance of a woman who deep down knows that her death is coming, and has determined to deny every possible ounce of satisfaction she can to the people who will exact it.

Without losing sight of her overriding tactic, the former queen never capitulates or gives an inch, especially where matters of pride are concerned. Early on, when asked where she had been when she was arrested, she responds that she has never been arrested, but has simply been conveyed to her various prisons (p10) – a technicality, perhaps, given her current situation, but one which clearly matters to her.

There’s little in the accusations wheeled out during the secret interrogation that’s likely to have come as much of a surprise to Marie Antoinette. What might have been more shocking though is the manner in which the accusations were put to her. Even in the past few years, in her private life at least Marie Antoinette had remained relatively shielded from open disrespect or scorn, especially as she always seems to have worked some kind of softening magic on the people who served her. Although the secret interrogation does not rise to the theatrical heights of venom and rage unleashed in the trial itself, her accusers are openly confrontational and superior, and certainly display not a shred of the awed deference with which she had been treated throughout her life as a princess and queen. This was not something she was accustomed to.

The old accusations are trotted out one by one, beginning with the belief that Marie Antoinette provided money to Austria to fund a war against the Revolution. This she flatly denies, and points out astutely that ‘my brother did not want money from France’, which doubtless had none to give anyway. When accused of holding ‘secret and nocturnal petty councils’ (in the language, very reminiscent of witchcraft, which is a feature of the trial) with her supporters, she boldly replies that “the rumour of those committees has constantly existed whenever it was intended to amuse and deceive the people”. Then, when accused of ignoring the entreaties of the “then minister of justice” Danton in November 1791, Marie Antoinette makes a factual correction, saying Danton was not the minister at that time (p12).

Her answers betray an extraordinary amount of self control, clearly holding back very real anger which sometimes nearly breaks through before being reigned in again, as in this exchange (p12-13).

TRIBUNAL

Observed, that it was she who taught Louis Capet that profound dissimulation by which he has for too long deceived the kind French nation, who did not believe that perfidy and villainy could be carried to such a degree.

MARIE ANTOINETTE

Yes, the people have been deceived – cruelly deceived! But it was neither by her nor her husband.

TRIBUNAL

By whom, then, has the people been deceived?

MARIE ANTOINETTE

By those who felt it their interest; that it has never been theirs to deceive them.

Marie Antoinette quickly dismisses questions over the royal family’s escape plan by sticking to what was always the family’s official line – that they had never intended to escape France, but rather to find a safer part of it and “conciliate thence all parties for the happiness and tranquillity of France” (p13). Even the most ardent Marie Antoinette fan would have to concede this comes over as a little disingenuous, but bafflingly, the point is not pressed. Instead, her accusers move on to the seemingly trivial and obvious question of why she adopted a false name during the escape.

The former Queen’s cold, emotionless approach occasionally borders on irony,  giving away her withering contempt for her questioners. In perhaps my favourite of her answers during the trial (when she is again being pressed on the matter of being the ringmaster of the escape plan, and the fact that she opened a door at the Tuileries and made everyone go out), she replies that she “did not believe that the opening of a door could prove that a person directs the actions of another” (p14).

Her prosecutors push further (p14).

TRIBUNAL

Observed, that she never concealed for a moment her desire of destroying liberty; that she wanted to reign at any cost, and re-ascend the throne upon the corpses of the patriots.

MARIE ANTOINETTE

That they did not want to re-ascend the throne: That they were upon it; that they never had any other desire but the happiness of France. Be it happy: be it but happy! they would always be contented!

Somehow the spare third person of the trial record seems to heighten the drama of these exchanges, and draw out the tension between what is being said and what is being so carefully not said.

The prosecutors then move on to the question of whether Marie Antoinette had been in contact with the enemies of the Revolution, both foreign and the emigrated princes, and provided them with vital military information. This is probably Marie Antoinette’s most vulnerable point; there are reasons to believe she may have actually done this, and she clearly falters here (p15).

TRIBUNAL

You have held a correspondence with ci-devant French princes since their quitting France, and with the emigrants; you have conspired with them against the safety of the state.

MARIE ANTOINETTE

She never held any correspondence with any Frenchmen abroad; that with respect to her brothers, she might have written them one or two insignificant letters; but she does not believe she has; and recollects having often refused to do so.

Despite the fact that her confidence clearly deserts her here, and the answer she gives is evidently inadequate, this is remarkably not followed up, and the subject is immediately changed, leaving important questions unasked. If she has often refused to write letters, for example, who was trying to make her? Here, the crippling lack of evidence against Marie Antoinette is exposed, with the consequence that her accusers have no trump cards they can use to force more out of her. It simply comes down to their accusation versus her denial.

There are further telling moments, as when Marie Antoinette is asked (p16)…

You regret, without doubt that your son has lost a throne, which he might have ascended, if the people, at length enlightened upon their true rights, had not themselves crushed that throne?

MARIE ANTOINETTE

She shall never regret anything for her son, as long as her country is happy.

She seems to find strength in this simple strategy of insisting her only aim was the happiness of her country, and it’s one she holds to time and again in the trial. Indeed, her confidence seems to grow as she realises the paucity of evidence available to her prosecutors. She even goes so far, when challenged on rumours that she was kept in constant communication with the outside world whilst at the Temple, that “those who declare anything of the kind, dare not prove it” (p17).

The secret interrogation comes to an end without having obtained any killer evidence, or indeed anything much of real significance that can be used in the trial. In a poignant moment, Marie Antoinette is asked whether she needs to have counsel appointed by the court for her trial, and she replies that she does, because she ‘knows not any one” (p19).

Tronson Doucoudray and Claude Chaveau-Lagarde are named as her lawyers. Chaveau-Lagarde was perhaps a likely suspect for this job, having already established something of a reputation for defending revolutionary hate figures, including Charlotte Corday, Madame Roland, Jean Sylvain Bailly and several moderate Girondins. Showing great courage, and attracting all kinds of the wrong attention to himself at a time when blending into the background was by far the safest option if one wanted to remain attached to one’s head, Chaveau-Lagarde provided that basic legal support permitted to lawyers in the Revolutionary Tribunal, in cases which everyone knew were hopeless.

Marie Antoinette returned to her cell knowing that her trial would begin in just two days. Unlike her husband, who had been given weeks with his lawyers to prepare his defence, Marie Antoinette would have less than 24 hours, during which time they were not even aware of what charges were to be brought against her, and would have been under constant surveillance. Her lawyers would not be permitted to speak for her in court, so it is likely that in whatever time they had available their advice would have been more general, on how to stand up to the coming onslaught (of which the secret interrogation been just a taster), and how to frame her answers. Perhaps, with their hands tied so firmly behind their backs, the lawyers’ real contribution was psychological and supportive more than it was detailed or practical. In any event, when the trial began it would become clear that Marie Antoinette would hold to the instinctive course set in the secret interrogation, and was more mentally prepared for the key lines of questioning revealed during this ordeal. In some crucial ways, then, the secret interrogation had been far more beneficial to the former queen than it had her accusers.

Next time: the trial proper begins.

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