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.
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 The Revolution has replaced the corrupt, bloated Monarchy, and has, in turn, been replaced by the Terror.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.