The Daily

Prison Lit

Unseen, Even of Herself

November 17, 2015 | by

Before she was guillotined, the inscrutable Madame Roland wrote a remarkable memoir.

A portait of Madame Roland from Coiffure 1er Republique, a compendium of historical French hairstyles

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Abdellatif Laâbi’s poems, here.

It could be said that the men with the greatest influence on Marie-Jean Phlipon’s life and legacy were two she never met. She rarely let herself depend too heavily on the male figures she knew: her husband, whom she respected and discretely controlled; the lawyer François Buzot, whom she came to love; and the many men of power whose authority she defied. It was Rousseau who provided “exactly the nourishment I needed,” she wrote, having read his La Nouvelle Héloïse in the wake of her mother’s death. “He showed me the possibility of domestic happiness and the delights that were available to me if I sought them.”

Phlipon—a well-read engraver’s daughter who went on to become a martyr of the French Revolution—defined “domestic happiness” differently than most. Two years after Rousseau’s death, she married Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, whose political rise and fall she explores in the thrilling Memoirs she wrote from Paris’s Saint-Pélagie prison in the months leading up to her execution. Thomas Carlyle, the second man who shaped her reputation, was born two years after her death. When he gave his account of her in his 1837 history of the Revolution, it was left to others to decide whether he “interpreted feelings” that she had had herself: 

Radiant with enthusiasm are those dark eyes, is that strong Minerva-face, looking dignity and earnest joy; joyfullest she where all are joyful. It is Roland de la Platière’s wife! … Reader, mark that queenlike burgher-woman: beautiful, Amazonian-graceful to the eye; more so to the mind. Unconscious of her worth (as all worth is), of her greatness, of her crystal clearness; genuine, the creature of Sincerity and Nature, in an age of Artificiality, Pollution and Cant; there, in her still completeness, in her still invincibility, she, if thou knew it, is the noblest of all living French-women,—and she will be seen, one day. O blessed rather while unseen, even of herself! For the present she gazes, nothing doubting, into this grand theatricality; and thinks her young dreams are to be fulfilled.

The Madame Roland that Carlyle invented bears practically no relation to the complicated, shrewd, observant, impassioned woman who emerges from her prison memoirs. The Madame Roland we encounter on the page is in no way “unconscious of her worth.” Much of what generates energy in the Memoirs is the uncanny confidence, determination, and self-assurance of her voice. “I get no pleasure from pricking bubbles or killing flies,” she writes near the start of the book’s second section. “But I do believe in upholding justice with plain truths and I am capable of enunciating such truths with terrible intensity in the presence of those involved, regardless of the effect on them, while remaining entirely detached myself.”

She brings equal detachment to the work of enunciating her own virtues, including her range of sensitivities (“I am not yet forty, but I reckon by the depth of my feelings I must say mine has been a prodigiously full life”) and the rigor of her convictions (“My experiments have always been made in good faith, because I have never been tempted to change my beliefs in order to relax my moral principles”). It’s revealing to compare Carlyle’s account of her physical presence with her own description of her teenage self:

The mouth is rather large; one may see hundreds prettier but none with a sweeter or more winning smile. The eyes, on the other hand, are smallish and prominent. The irises are tinged with chestnut and grey. The impression they convey is of openness, vivacity and sympathy, reflecting the various changes of mood of an affectionate nature. Well-moulded eyebrows of auburn, the same colour as the hair, complete the picture. It is on the whole a proud and serious face that sometimes causes surprise but more often inspires confidence and interest. I was always a bit worried about my nose; it seemed to me too big at the tip. On the other hand, seen in its setting, and especially in profile, it did not damage the general effect. The broad forehead, issuing from a high brow and covered by a fringe, was unusually expressive of the most fleeting emotions and the firm, rounded chin suggested a natural sensuality. No one so obviously made for voluptuous pleasure has enjoyed so little of it.

Madame Roland’s generations of readers have puzzled that a writer capable of paragraphs like this seems also to have had little trouble reconciling herself to a rather traditional picture of “domestic happiness.” How could someone blessed with such largeness of spirit, such incisive detachment, have adhered to a code of feminine virtue visibly too small for her? And yet if she stayed committed to that code in principle, it’s unclear to what extent—and with how much ambivalence—she stuck to it in practice.

A Japanese print shows Carlyle watching his manuscript burn.

Carlyle allegedly rewrote the first volume of his from scratch after John Stuart Mill’s maid used the original manuscript as kindling paper. Madame Roland’s Memoirs are likewise haunted by destruction. The manuscript she testifies to having spent “the first half of my captivity” writing was, she says, a “detailed comment … on all the events and all the personalities connected with public life that my position had enabled me to know.” It was to be her “moral and political testament.” She entrusted the manuscript to her friend Luc-Antoine de Champagneux; when “the storm broke suddenly over his head,” as she put it, a member of his household threw the papers on the fire. (Some pages, it emerged after Madame Roland’s death, were spared.) Devastated, she rewrote much of the material piecemeal—“jotting down, in no particular order, whatever comes into my head.” When she started writing the memoirs of her girlhood and youth that make up the second half of her literary testament, it was because she thought it might “help to distract me, at a time when I am particularly distressed, if I talk a little about myself.”

Born in 1754, she grew up in a France where inherited privilege was still entrenched and the clergy’s word still had weight. As a young girl, her voracious reading and her increasing wariness about sex—at about ten, she had to rebuff two aggressive advances from one of her father’s fifteen-year-old apprentices—drew her closer to the church. “I spent the first years of my adolescence,” she would write after having lost her faith, “in a sort of divine frenzy.” She passed the year of her first Communion in a convent, where she met one of her lifelong friends and basked in a pre-Revolutionary tranquility she’d later lament: “How shall I describe, from the depths of this prison and in the thick of the turmoil ravaging my country and destroying everything I hold most dear, the deep calm and rapture of those days?”

Rueful passages like this alternate in the Memoirs with acid recollections of the ancien régime: the young woman at Versailles who moves through the palace’s inner chambers convinced that anyone who questions her “should be able to recognize six hundred years of proven noblesse in her grotesque visage”; the pretentious noblewomen who invite Marie-Jean and her mother to dinner, then instruct them to eat below stairs. Madame Roland was ambivalent about the worth of organized religion, the place of women in public life, and the possibility of a popular, democratic government for France. And yet she rarely comes off as ambivalent about people. The character sketches she compiled of the figures she and Jean-Marie Roland met during their period at the center of French Revolutionary political life are either rousing defenses of her Girondist allies or scathing denunciations of the Jacobins who turned against them. The Rolands came to Paris from Lyons, where Jean-Marie was a government functionary. Dissatisfied with the old aristocratic order and full of republican feeling, they drifted into Jacobin circles that then included both their future supporters and the more radical deputies they’d come to denounce. Madame Roland held a salon each week where, she later insisted, Robespierre “spoke little” and “sneered a great deal.”

They moved in and out of favor. Jean-Marie’s unexpected nomination to the King’s ministry earned him suspicion from some republicans as a collaborationist. The famous letter of protest that got him fired—and which his wife, it’s always been widely believed, wrote—won the couple a temporary reprieve from the National Assembly’s furthest-left deputies, but the tide of popular opinion in Paris was shifting dramatically away from the Girondists’ more cerebral, idealistic breed of republicanism. In the Memoirs, Madame Roland vigorously defends the Bureau de l’Esprit public, her husband’s initiative to spread printed journals and pamphlets across the country, which she insists was meant to unite provincial authorities under the banner of the Revolution. Her opponents, especially Danton and Marat, condemned it as a reactionary propaganda machine. By the time of the events she recounts in the first pages of her memoirs, the Girondists had come under heavy attack. In 1793, twenty-two of their deputies were put under arrest. Those who didn’t flee were imprisoned (Madame Roland’s friends on the inside did their best to keep her comfortable), summarily tried and, in late autumn, executed.

The Memoirs are both an extravagant apology for Madame Roland’s discredited political movement and a performance of what, for her, it meant for a woman to live a moral life. These latter sections make you wonder why, exactly, she insists as strenuously as she does on her own feminine virtue. Whenever she makes a point of her “aversion to any solitary or animal pleasure,” it’s largely on account of her attraction to the challenging feats of discipline and self-control that such an aversion required. “I remained mistress of my imagination by constantly curbing it,” she wrote of her early attempts to stave off sensual thoughts, “and when I found myself in a dangerous situation … I was able to find a voluptuous charm in remaining virtuous.” When she developed a mutual passion for Buzot, one of her fellow Girondists, she had more still to curb. “With such a philosophy,” she’d remarked about her habits of self-protection, “it is hard to slip up and impossible to disgrace oneself. But of course that does not protect one from the agony of a real passion; in fact, it may simply store up fuel for it. We shall see!”

Roland writing her memoirs in prison. Illustration from John S. C. Abbott’s Makers of History: Madame Roland, 1904.

Roland at the guillotine, from Makers of History.

It’s unclear whether Madame Roland believed that a woman’s moral worth stood and fell together with her sexual purity, or whether she was simply ambitious enough to want to avoid disgrace at all costs. Either way, one of her surprising rhetorical moves was to depict her submission to a stifling standard of feminine virtue as a source of its own “voluptuous charm.” In the same way, she can argue that “the study of the fine arts, considered as part of a girl’s education,” should inspire “a taste for hard work … enlarging the range of her interests,” because “that is the way to escape boredom … preserve oneself from the perils of sin and—worse still—of temptation.” Madame Roland rarely distinguishes between the hard work it took for a girl in eighteenth-century France to cultivate a sensibility or widen the scope of her authority and the hard work it took for her to preserve her maidenhood. It’s as if she was more comfortable arguing for the former if she could extol the latter in the same breath.

She is no less evasive in her replies to “those who think that any credit given to me must be at the expense of my husband.” It was widely assumed as early as her own time that Madame Roland was her husband’s strategist, ghost writer, and prime mover. About “the true art of politics,” she remarked coyly that “I do not often talk about it, because … women who pronounce on affairs of state always sound to me like yesterday’s newspaper.” Instead, she continued, “I let the men do the talking—I particularly enjoy listening to old men who imagine that every word they say is a revelation to the listener and who think that all I am capable of is stitching a shirt and adding up figures.” Just as she called it a heroic challenge to keep herself virtuous, so she considered it a devious pleasure to play the part of the quiet domestic. The full subtlety and strangeness of the character she created for herself—at once dotingly submissive and prodigiously accomplished—comes out in her telling of how she and her husband worked:

My husband lost nothing by being interpreted through me. There was nothing I could express, in point of justice or reason, that he was not capable of realizing and sustaining by his character and conduct. I could give a fairer picture than he could of his achievements and intentions. Roland without me would have been no less good an administrator; his energy and his experience are all his own, as is his probity. But with me he has made more mark, because I have been able to inject into his writings a combination of strength and gentleness, reason and sentiment such as perhaps only a woman can provide whose sensitive soul is matched with a practical mind … Carpers are welcome to regard this confession as an impertinence; those who know me will see it as typical of my sincerity.

Madame Roland was too canny about her self-presentation to count as the “creature of Sincerity” Carlyle named her, however much she might have welcomed that title. But she can always be trusted to weave nimbly between dogmatisms, endorsing and condemning them in parts without absorbing them in full. She “interpreted” her husband meekly but with almost providential power; she rejected the church but clung to a vaguer kind of spiritualism that gave her trouble to articulate. Her individual judgments are unambiguous and often brutal, but the book in which they’re collected is a kind of trick pattern. From one angle, it’s a celebration of wifely discretion; from another, it’s a stirring performance of self-possession and authority. The definitive picture of Madame Roland might after all be, in Carlyle’s words, “unseen”—to everyone, that is, except herself.

Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Reviewn+1, Film Comment, and The Boston Review, among other publications. He lives in New York. 

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Abdellatif Laâbi’s poems, here.