CRANKY LADIES OF HISTORY: CHARLOTTE CORDAY




This month is International Women’s History Month, and my good friends at Fablecroft Publishing are using the month to crowdsource funds for an anthology of inspirational women entitled Cranky Ladies of History.

There’s a Pozible campaign aiming for $8500, and they’re well on the way. It’s a fabulous project, and a great time to bring to light women who have had a profound impact upon the history of the blue green marble, so I’m doing my bit to assist by signing up for Fablecroft’s Cranky Ladies Blog Tour. You read the blog, you give a little at the Pozible shopfront, they print a seriously cool book, we all buy it, everybody happay!


To whit: Charlotte Corday.


Charlotte Corday, by Francois-Seraphin Delpech



It is July 1793. The Revolution has replaced the corrupt, bloated Monarchy, and has, in turn, been replaced by the Terror. France is caught in the grip of a political trio of unimaginable imagination, influence and power: Maximilien Robespierre, father of the revolution, whose reforming zeal has been eaten away by a cocktail of paranoia and ambition; Jean-Paul Marat, the political commentator and hatemonger who now finds his declamations, and enemies, at the heart of political policy; and Jacques-Louise David, painter, zealot and fascist chronicler of the revolution, the Leni Riefenstahl of his day, pervertor of his exquisite talent to the cause of tyrants.

Liberty, egality and equality are years away. For now there is only fear, repression, and institutionalised murder the likes of which France has never before witnessed.


Deep in the heart of the country, near Caen, the Girondins– moderate members of the National Assembly who had campaigned ceaselessly for a constitutional monarchy– watch the endless processions to the guillotine and despair. Marginalised by the extreme right wing at the heart of the Assembly, they have lost the revolution within the revolution. Wishing to accommodate a limited monarchy, they have watched helplessly as the King and Queen are imprisoned and beheaded. The National Assembly has rejected them, and become an instrument of oppression. The Jacobins have seized exclusive power, and run the country according to their whim. The Girondins are powerless, ejected from the halls of government and in fear of action, lest they become the core members of that league of disenfranchised who make the daily troop to the blade. In the Terror, it is not necessary to disagree with the Government to lose your life, but doing so absolutely guarantees it.


Charlotte Corday is 25 years old, a committed Girondist living in Caen with her cousin. Horrified by the breadth of institutionalised murder being carried out in the name of the Revolution her compatriots had fought so hard for, and convinced that another civil war is heading inexorably closer, she makes her way to Paris, intending to murder Marat in full view of the National Convention. Without its voice, distributed daily via Marat’s widely-read newspaper The Friend of the People, the Jacobins will be deeply weakened. The Revolutionary Government will remember its roots. Government will be returned to the people.


Except that Marat is not at the National Convention. Stricken by a debilitating skin condition, he has ceased to appear in public. Instead, he lies in a medicinal bath for hours on end, writing lists of Girondist collaborators and enemies of the people to be sent to the National Assembly. They have stopped answering, and their policies have begun to swerve away from the increasingly despotic measures Marat continues to call for, but no matter. Marat is in the grip of revolutionary zeal. They will see. All he needs are the right words, the right names on the right list. When Corday calls upon him, on the evening of 13 July, claiming to have a list of Girondists planning an uprising in Caen, it is exactly the list for which he hopes. He has her brought into his room, where he lies in his bath, writing, always writing.


Corday gives Marat her list. As he begins to copy it, she pulls a kitchen knife with a six-inch blade out from her skirts and drives it into his chest three times, piercing his lung, aorta and left ventricle. He has time to call out a single imprecation before he dies.


Corday is immediately arrested and put on trial. The result is a forgone conclusion: she readily admits the murder, stating “I killed one man to save 100,000.” Her words are a clear taunt to Marat’s friend and collaborator Robespierre, who had uttered similar sentiments at the execution of the King. Four days after Marat’s death, Corday is executed, another victim of the guillotine.


Charlotte Corday being led to her execution, by Arturo Michelena



The Terror continues, but the triumvirate at its heart is broken. While the engine rolls on, the engineers are chewed up by the machinery. A year later, Robespierre himself is arrested and guillotined in an act of high irony. David is inspired by Corday’s act to create his masterpiece, The Death of Marat, immortalising the paranoid, evil mouthpiece of the Terror, but eventually he too is arrested.

The Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David

Spared the guillotine, he is eventually released, but his career enters serious decline and he spends many years painting the most inoffensive portraits of the new, post-Revolutionary aristocracy: the merchant classes and politicians who become the new power base until the rise of the Emperor, Napoleon. With a new boot to lick he finds momentary favour, producing one of the most iconic portraits of his new Master, but it is all in vain. With the return of the Bourbons he is exiled, and never sees France again. Struck and killed by a carriage in Brussels in 1825 he is denied a return to France, and is buried in Belgium. His works are auctioned off cheaply, and his reputation as a regicide and apologist for the Terror forever stains his legacy.

Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass, by Jacques-Louis David

Like the murderers of Julius Caesar, Corday’s murder of Marat was performed out of a fear of tyranny and despotism, and was a concentrated political act designed purely to destabilise, and hopefully topple, a political system that had appeared to spin out of control. What fascinates is that it was so easily accomplished: there was no security around Marat, and nobody thought to check Corday’s credentials or political history, or even pat her down. And it is hard not to escape the conclusion that this was because she was a woman: indeed, after her execution, Jacobin leaders had her autopsied to discover whether or not she was a virgin. They simply could not conceive that the act could have been performed by a single woman, acting alone, without the planning and assistance of a male.

Another, later, view of the murder: Charlotte Corday, by Paul Jacques Aime Baudry.

Charlotte Corday, acting alone and out of a sense of political outrage, severed the first link that led to the unravelling of the French Revolution and the eventual ascendancy of arguably the greatest legal and judicial reformer since Augustus: Napoleon Bonaparte. Without her single act of rebellion, the political and social map of Western Europe may have evolved very differently indeed. She is the first clear hero of counter-revolutionary France, but because she is a woman she is forgotten in the shadow of the man she murdered, and the overwhelming horror he helped visit upon the French people.




The Cranky Ladies of History Blog Tour is set to roll right throughout March. If you’d like to connect with more brilliant, iconic, unique, iconclastic, insiprational and downright important women from history, you can check out the blog roll at the Fablecroft website.




TRIPPING OUT WITH THE FAM.

A big part of our goals for this year involves getting out and about with the kids and making the most of the region in which we live: the South West of Western Australia is rich with history, natural beauty and cultural heritage, and pretty much all of it is within a three hour drive, which means we can be there by lunch and home in time for tea.

Thanks to the power of an extra-long weekend , Luscious decided to kick start Subject One of Master 9’s upcoming home-schooling year by taking us all out to Fremantle Prison for their daily Doing Time tour, a ninety minute guided tour through the 140-odd year history of the facility.

Ohhhhhh, didn’t we have a lovely daaaayyy….

It’s stunning, not least because the set-up of the building, from the entrance gate through to the museum wing, art gallery and the gaol itself, is utterly unsentimental. Fremantle Prison, as is made clear to visitors, was a punishment prison, not a centre for rehabilitation, and no attempt is made to veer away or whitewash this rather uncomfortable fact. There is no attempt to romanticise the surroundings, or justify the range of sentences carried out within its walls: the yards remain unvarnished and rotting, the cells are presented exactly as they were used throughout the years, and visitors are exposed to the flogging post and execution room in the conditions they were in when sentence was carried out.

In its original condition, the room in which 44 people, including Martha Rendell and Eric Edgar Cooke, met their end.

The history of the prison is, largely, the history of the colony and, eventually, the wider City and State, no less because of the way punishment was carried out: the last person to be flogged in the gaol, for example, received 25 lashes in 1943 as part of his 4th conviction for paedophilia, whereas one of the first recorded floggings was 100 lashes for swearing at the prison chaplain. The highlight of the tour, for me at least, was the prison chapel, where it was easy to see why so many prisoners ended up turning to religion. It was the only stop on the tour that had no bars on the windows, that had any sort of colour on the walls, that had carpet underfoot and didn’t exist purely to crush the spirit and isolate the mind. It was the only part of the entire goal building– the tour, it should be noted, was restricted to those parts occupied by prisoners, and did not include offices or residential sections– where you could see the sky.

The only room with a sky in it.

The kids were wide-eyed throughout: this is a side of history they’ve not been exposed to in any great detail, and between them took well over 100 photos as we went around (hooray for digital technology!). Master 9 was one of the few tourists to ask a question of the guide: What did the arrows on prison uniforms come from. For the record, the arrows on prison uniforms were not specific to the prison system. They are used to indicate ‘property of the British Government’, and were used on a wide number of objects. They are still used in the British military and civil materiel industries– news to many of us, judging by the number of other visitors who approached us to congratulate him on his question and chat about how they had not known the answer.

A door bears the mark of ownership.

In the end we came away with an appreciation of how massive the recent history of our State is when streamed through the lens of a single cultural filter, and how it is an ongoing beast that can still reach out and touch entire elements of our culture: the museum had large sections devoted to the Fenian imprisonments of the 1860s and 70s, which stood in stark counterpoint to an exhibition of works by current women prisoners in the Art Gallery, the majority of which were clearly created by Aboriginal women. The stories were fascinating, complex and almost constantly compromised by the prevailing sentiments of the time from which they originated. The images– paintings on cell walls, shelters corroded and rusting, garden beds destroyed and partially filled– were stark and almost beautifully ruined.

Paintings of beauty and hope created in the midst of isolation and despair. Quite beautiful. And then you learn that the prisoner who did it was a 13-time violent rapist, and that’s the kind of place you’re in.

It is a big place, Fremantle Prison, uncomfortably so, and filled with the ghosts of culture past. We left it with wider eyes and deeper questions to explore over the coming months: the children with a pack full of reference points for learning, and Luscious and I, as authors, with countless vectors for our future work. A successful field trip, certainly, but an enriching experience for us all.

If you’d like a second view of the experience, Luscious has blogged about the trip on her blog as well, and she gives some different insights into what made the day so memorable.

Image of prisoners baking bread in the kitchen. A coveted role, and one given almost exclusively to convicted murderers.
Raw concrete, barbed wire, and panopticon. As close to freedom as you get, eight hours a day.

The exercise yard where prisoners milled for eight hours a day, no matter the weather. The shelter was erected in the 1960s. Before then, you stood in the open.
3 Division, for long-term prisoners, complete with ‘suicide net’ to stop falling bodies.
Solitary confinement day cell. 
From the prisoner lists contained in the museum. A family link? 
 

I CAN SMILE, AND DRAW AS I SMILE

Late last year, as part of reverting to a single wage, we decided to lay a treasured family member to rest: we cancelled our Foxtel subscription.

We’d become a TV family– come home, watch TV, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed. Given that we live in a town that other people come to for their holidays, and we have two intelligent active kids who just cry out for constant action, slipping into that kind of a lifestyle was a crime we were committing against ourselves, and we made the decision to stop and change our lifestyle around.

Currently, due to a lack of reception and the cost of the necessary cables, we have no TV reception at all. No Biggest Survivor Loser Brother. No X-Singer Star Dance on Ice. No Mastercook a Garden Decorate Building.

Yeah. Not missing it much.

When news broke earlier this week that the skeleton discovered under a Leicester carpark was, as had been hoped, indeed that of Richard III, we broke out our copy of the Kings and Queens DVD and watched the Richard III episode with the kids, explaining where the information presented by Nigel Spivey was now obsolete, and generally using it to generate a discussion with them. Then we settled around the kitchen table, and drew a picture of what we’d learned, discovered, and been fascinated with from this rediscovered monarch’s story.

And this is what we drew:

Connor, 8: George, Duke of Clarence, was drowned in red wine by King Edward IV. The King is watching from his throne and he has lots of heads he wants to cut off so he can stay King.

Erin, 11: I chose Princes in the tower because I was quite horrified that their Uncle, King Richard III, would lock them in the tower of London and then when the time came (if he knew) didn’t reveal the secret to their disappearence! I mean, he was their UNCLE!! My picture shows the two Princes, right to the throne, locked away in the Tower of London with no doors or escapes, thorns growing over the Tower, the crown in the bushes when the King died, a cage over the windows and behind the curtains, what could have been the Princes’ death.

Lee: I seem to have come over all symbolic: Richard’s battered skull, the young Princes in its vacant eye sockets, wearing the crown while biting down on the red dragon of Henry Tudor, with the white Rose of York behind, framed by the stone wall of the white Tower. There’s such an interconnectedness in Richard’s story, such a crux of history being portrayed– if he had won at Bosworth, what would have happened to Britain? To its religions, its wars? 

Lyn: I’m a bit of a Plantagenet fan and have always been fascinated by the War of the Roses. The Princes in the Tower is such a sad mystery and I love reading or watching anything that extrapolates on what happened to them. These little boys were the innocent victims of a war not of their making.

NOW IS THE SUMMER OF GREAT CONTENT

I’ve always been a bit in love with the study of history. Indeed, had I my time over I’d have removed ‘Creative writing’ from my list of Uni preferences and promoted ‘archaeology’ from the only-if-I-don’t-get-my-first-two-choices slot to bang on number one. What I love about it is just how much of the real story of the world is yet to be uncovered– and this goes for archaeology and paleontology as well, both of which have become amateur loves over the years– and especially, how each discovery forces a reappraisal of not only what has come before, but of how what has come before has been represented. A new historical discovery can reverberate across art, tourism, politics, academia, and any number of scientific disciplines, and that flow of reverberation can go both ways as advances in medical technology, computer imaging, and research techniques can often completely shatter long established theories and facts, coughbrontosauruscough.

Which is why the news that bones found beneath a Leicester car park are those of Richard III is tremendously exciting to me. For a start, had the discovery been made twenty years ago, we’d still likely be waiting for medical technology to catch up to the point that DNA of a 17th-generation descendant could be comparatively analysed. And the reappraisal of Richard that had been undertaken after news that a famous portrait had been altered later to include a hump will now be reassessed again in light of apparent scoliosis in the skeleton itself. But I’ve a somewhat personal reason to be excited, as well. Richard is one of my great fascinations, both literary and historical.

I’ve always been captivated with Richard: partly because of his great infamy, coupled with the briefness of his reign; partly because of his role in the creation of the Tudor dynasty and the flirtatious idea of what might otherwise have been had he not been defeated at Bosworth; and partly because he has an indelible link with Nottingham,. the town of my birth– he lead his troops to Bosworth from Nottingham Castle, and in classic more-English-than-the-English fashion, the longer I am separated from the City the more entranced by it I become. That a great British figure should march to his doom from my home town is a source of wonder to me, and I’ll admit to no end of romanticising in the place of actual, visceral experience.

So the idea that accurate study of these bones will yield information yet unknown about the man, his society, and his place in the pantheon of my country of birth fills me with joy, and the understanding that more than 500 years of history will have to be reassessed through the filter of this single discovery gives hope for more wonder and announcements to come.This discovery will have repercussions throughout so many branches of popular culture, theatre, literature,  and historical study that, yearning amateur that I am, I’ll be entranced by its developments for years to come.

Richard III portrait compared to Greyfriars  skull

Geer! Geer! My gningdom for a gottle of geer!

JUST WHO THE HELL DO I THINK I AM?

For reasons that largely escape me, but which may have contributed to my becoming sadly addicted to home reno shows of the “Better Homes & Gardens” variety a few years back, Luscious Lyn and I have recently started to watch Who do You Think You Are, an English show in which celebrities of the second stripe pretend to discover facts about their family history without acknowledging the team of researchers working behind the scenes who have carefully prepared every square inch of the utterly ‘spontaneous’ revelations well beforehand.

In truth, watching the likes of John Hurt and Jeremy Irons bemoaning the fact that they might have someone slightly notorious or ill-fitting in their backgrounds is really quite entertaining, because let’s be honest, the reason I’d want to engage in such an exercise is in the hope of finding someone thoroughly and despicably nasty (“Really? My Great great great whatever buggered Blackbeard on a Caribbean beach whilst knifing the local Governor’s virgin daughter, and they gave him a baronetcy for it? Coooolll…..”), or at the very least, finding out that the pathetic, grubby little domestic betrayals of your more recent ancestors aren’t the most noteworthy occurrences in your entire family tree: if you’re going to be a hero, be a real hero, but if you’re going to have bastardry in your family, please God let it be some spectacular bastardry!

Last night, we watched Jodie Kidd discover just that level of bastardry, which was entertaining for us, but absolutely fascinating for Erin, who sat up and watched the episode with us, and who was beset with questions about her own family history as a result. Suddenly, the idea that you can be connected to people from several hundred years ago, and that you can learn all about them, is inspiring to little Miss Death-obsessed 10 year old.

I know very little about my Mum’s family. She died in 2003 without ever spending any time discussing her family line, and to be honest, I wasn’t that interested for most of her life. My grandmother died when I was young, my grandfather was both distant and dotty when he followed us out to Australia a few years after we arrived, and due to the timing of various moves I’ve not really had any sort of relationship with my grandparents on either side. I know a few snippets of family history, a surname or two, and the fact that the trail stops cold sometime in the late Victorian-era with an out-of-wedlock birth. Hey, if the BBC run out of sixth-rate personalities sometime in the next 40 years and come knocking, maybe I can find something out.

My Dad’s side is a slightly different matter. Thanks to a second cousin with a genealogy bug, my Dad’s been able to trace our paternal line back to the early 1700s, to Henry, a pipemaker who hanged himself “in a fit of insanity after a night drinking at a local club”. I’ve also got rather a lovely document tracing the history of the surname Battersby itself, with a trail that stretches back well before the 13th Century. Should I ever decide to do some serious digging, there could be a long line to uncover. We have a coat of arms, awarded in 1605. We have a motto (“Before honour is humility”, and before you make any jokes about my personality, consider it in respect to my finances, and see how accurate it is…). The name is associated with a family seat that was first recorded before the Norman Conquest. There’s a sweet looking little village in North Yorkshire that shares the name, and which is, undoubtedly, the source of its English origin. There’s going to be a few things worth finding out.

The Battersby Family crest. A saltire paly of twelve ermine and gules, a crescent in chief sable. Whatever the hell that means.

I have an odd relationship with family, and with our history. The last 20 or 30 years haven’t exactly been covered in glory and gold dust, as far as I’m concerned, but then, of course, I’ve been living it, and I doubt anyone really thinks they’re part of the glory years whilst they’re actually happening. Maybe William the Conqueror, but was he really happy? (Laughing his fucking head off, I should imagine…) Maybe this whole novelist thing will really take off, and my great great whatevers will be on telly looking at photos of me and commenting about the number of chins I’m sporting. Or my brother will finally tip over the edge and assassinate an entire coastal town. Who knows? We wait with bated breath.

But deep history, history that illuminates a way of life and a prevailing culture that is alien to one’s own, that does fascinate me. To connect myself to moments of great import, or even just to see a connection to facets of existence which have fallen into extinction, to draw a line between myself and those events that have shaped the course of continents, that would be worth discovering, I think.

I’ve made a promise to Lyn– who, for a number of reasons, cannot trace her family back beyond two generations– that once we have the means to do so, we will find out how far back her line stretches, and who it encompasses. While we’re at it, we may see how far back we can stretch the Battersbys and the McMahons.

Here’s hoping for some world-class bastardry……

My paternal line, such as it is. Apparently, Oil of Ulay is good for removing lines…

SHIVERS ALL UP AND DOWN MY ARMS

The only known footage of Anne Frank, watching from a window as a wedding procession begins in the summer of 1941. I found it via an article on The Smart Set, which sums it up far more articulately than I am capable of. Much more can be found at the Anne Frank House Museum Amsterdam.

What’s always been the defining nature of the tragedy of the Franks, for me, was the ordinary nature of the family: these weren’t war heroes or spies or members of the Resistance fighting the brave struggle. They were simple people just trying to keep their heads down and survive an onslaught that was beyond their understanding– in short, they were me if the same thing happened to my world. Watching this very ordinary footage, with its very ordinary teenager doing what any young girl would do with such an event happening under her window, amplifies that.

Knowing what happens such a short time after this footage was recorded makes it tragic beyond words.