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.