From The History of Madame Roland (1850) by John S C Abbott. Photo courtesy Internet Archive/Public Domain


Vive Madame Roland!

She was a French revolutionary and a politician’s wife. But Manon Roland should be remembered for her philosophical writings

by Sandrine Bergès + BIO

From The History of Madame Roland (1850) by John S C Abbott. Photo courtesy Internet Archive/Public Domain

On 8 November 1793, Madame Roland was led to the scaffold. She was a healthy, middle-class woman in her late 30s, and cast a pleasant and dignified rather than a dramatic figure on the tumbrel that carted her through the streets of Paris. The mob waved at her and sent her encouragement – she was well loved.

Like many of her friends and enemies, Madame Roland had her life ended by the guillotine’s swift and efficient blade. Four years on from the fall of the Bastille, even the most enthusiastic actors of the Revolution had become the enemies of the ruling triumvirate: Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Danton and Jean-Paul Marat. And the guillotine, invented for the purpose of making punishment more humane, dominated the period known as the Terror.

Marie-Jeanne (‘Manon’) Roland, née Phlipon, belonged to the group known as the Girondins, early defenders of republicanism who, after a number of disagreements with Robespierre, had become the enemy of the nation. Their leader, Jacques-Pierre Brissot, had been executed eight days earlier, along with 21 of his fellow Girondins. And five days before Roland’s execution, another Girondin woman had died at the guillotine: Olympe de Gouges, who had been outspoken in her disagreements with Robespierre, and this had led to her downfall. Roland kept her own criticisms to her inner circle but she, too, was considered a dangerous adversary. The public prosecutor had scribbled ‘URGENT’ on her execution order, noting that she was the wife of the ex-minister of the interior, and that she had to be executed that very same day. Why was Manon Roland’s execution so urgent?

That she was someone’s wife does little to explain it. Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, the prosecutor, probably sought to elicit a reaction of the kind ‘Oh, that Madame Roland!’ That would make sense. Roland was a central figure of the Girondins: she regularly entertained their leaders in her salon, and discussed policy and appointments with them when her husband was minister, so much so that Danton joked that she was the real minister of the interior. Roland was a significant actor in the Revolution in her own name, and one we should now remember not just for her role in the years before the Terror but also for the political writings she left behind.

During her lifetime, few realised Roland’s significance as a writer. Her best-known work, her Memoirs (1795), like most of her work, was published posthumously (the translations that follow are my own). The few pieces she wrote that were published in her lifetime came out anonymously. Her reasons for not wanting to be published under her own name had very little to do with whether she felt it was appropriate for women to be authors – and everything to do with the harm to her reputation she knew to expect if she did become known as an author:

Never have I had the slightest temptation of becoming an author; very early, I saw that any woman who would earn this title lost much more than she gained. Men do not like her, and her own sex criticises her: if her works are bad, she is mocked, and quite rightly. If they are good, they are taken from her. If one is forced to recognise that she did produce the best part of it, her character, her morals, her behaviour and her talents are dissected to the extent that her wit’s reputation can be balanced against the weight given to her weaknesses.

Despite her misgivings about authorship, Manon grew up reading and writing. As a child, she had the run of her father’s library – not a large one – and she had tutors: her parents recognised her potential and spared no expense. She knew her catechism by heart but was not convinced by what she learned. On Sundays, she hid a favourite book inside her Bible’s cover: Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. She began to wish that she’d been born a man so that she could help found a Republic. She had a nook in her father’s atelier where she’d hide out and read.

When she was 10, Manon was assaulted by an apprentice of her father’s. The experience shocked her profoundly, and at this point she sought refuge in religion. Her parents agreed to let her continue her education in a convent school nearby. Her little cell took on the role of her home reading nook, and she took up writing as well as reading; by the time she came out of the convent, she was an accomplished writer.

Women’s position in the home is crucial to society’s healthy development

When Manon was 21, her mother died and, grieving, she found herself responsible for looking after her father’s home. She carried on reading and writing in her spare time. Her working habits are outlined in a letter she wrote to her convent friend Sophie Cannet on 25 December 1776 (at 1am):

I spend my morning with the housework. I do needlework in the afternoon, and I dream, building everything I fancy in my mind, poems, arguments, projects, etc. In the evening, I normally read till dinnertime, which is uncertain because it depends on when the master [her father] comes home … He usually gets home at half-past nine, but sometimes 10 or later. Supper is soon over … My father collapses on his bed, and I go to my room, where I write for two or three hours.

During those years, Manon wrote essays, several of which were published a few years after her death, including at least two on political philosophy: ‘Rêverie Politique’ (1776) and ‘De la Liberté’ (1778).

In 1777, the Académie de Besançon proposed an essay competition with the following question: ‘How can educating women contribute to the improvement of men?’ Such competitions were popular at the time. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s career as a writer had taken off when he won the Académie de Dijon competition with his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts in 1749. Other famous writers of that time entered and won academic competitions, such as Brissot, Marat and the Abbé Grégoire. Manon eagerly submitted a piece to the competition.

So what was in the essay? And what does it tell us about Manon as a young philosopher? The argument she presented in her academic piece was both conservative and innovative. She maintains that, in the best constitution, women must remain in the home. But women’s position in the home, she also says, is crucial to society’s healthy development because domestic life is the best environment not only for happiness but for learning. Women, she says, make it possible for society to come into existence:

Women are, therefore, by their natural destination, appointed to make men better; only they can give birth to the affections that bring them closer to one another … We saw in the impressions they produce the origins of society and of all the goods that make it desirable, and in the contempt for their power or forgetting of their rights, a source of the horrors that tear it apart and disfigure it.

In 1780, at the age of 25 and after a long engagement, Manon married Jean-Marie Roland, a minor aristocrat from Lyon. She spent much of the next nine years writing for and with her husband – he had various projects on the go, including an encyclopaedia of textile manufacture. When her daughter Eudora was born, she decided against sending her out to a wet-nurse. As a disciple of Rousseau, she wanted to be the one who both breast-fed and educated her daughter. Her letters from that period show that she enjoyed the running of her home as much as the research and writing:

Those who know how to organise their work always have leisure time. It is those that do nothing that lack the time to do anything.

An 18th-century wife and mother, she says, ought to be well enough organised that she can fulfil her housewifely duties and do something useful with her life, such as write philosophy. Manon Roland has firm ideas as to what those housewifely duties consist of:

I expect a woman to keep her family’s linen and clothing in good order, to feed her children, order, or herself cook dinner, this without talking about it, keeping her mind free and ordering her time so that she is able to talk of something else, and to please, at last, through her mood, as well as the charms of her sex.

But all this, she tells the reader of her Memoirs, ought not to take up so much of one’s time that it would stop us being productive writers. She herself, even at her busiest, never spent more than two hours a day doing housework.

‘I cannot keep to my home and am visiting all my acquaintances to excite us for the greatest actions’

Two hours a day is still quite a lot of time for a woman to spend on housework if she also works full-time. And for a woman whose primary work is to care for her children, unless she is rich enough to contract out most of her childcare duties, she still won’t have a lot of leisure. Roland’s advice is very much dated – it applies to the 18th-century middle classes. It also comes from a place of high privilege – working- or lower-middle-class women often had to work late in the evenings to make enough to feed their families. They needed to send their children to wet-nurses and managed to clean the house with their daughters’ help, whenever they could; having a schedule allowing for private study was not on their agenda. But the general spirit of Roland’s advice was just that – unless one lives in dire circumstances – a little bit of organisation and awareness of how one spends one’s time goes a long way towards making space for activities more valuable and more interesting than housework.

Although she became a political thinker at a very early age – if we believe her Memoirs, she discovered Plutarch and decided she too was a republican aged eight – she didn’t become interested in politics until the Revolution in 1789. Part of the reason seems to be that she had lost all illusions that the world would ever be ruled in a just manner. In 1783, she wrote to her friend Champagneux:

Virtue, liberty are only to be found in the hearts of a small number of decent people; to hell with the others and all the thrones in the world! … I stay away from politics … and all I can talk about are the dogs that wake me, the birds that console for not being asleep, the cherry trees that grow under my windows, and the cows that chew the grass in the yard.

But from the very start of the Revolution, when she was recovering from pneumonia and writing powerful letters to her friends in Paris, advising and admonishing them of what had to be done, Roland became fully involved. She wrote letters and newspaper articles (published by her friend and fellow Girondin, Brissot) and helped her husband find a position for himself that would allow them to participate more fully. As soon as it became possible, that is, as soon as her husband was delegated by the city of Lyon to speak to the Assembly, the Rolands moved to Paris. In June 1791, she wrote to her friend Bancal explaining her transformation:

While peace lasted, I kept myself to the tranquil role and the kind of influence that seem to me proper for my sex. But when the King’s departure declared war, it struck me that we must all devote ourselves without reserve; I went and joined the Fraternal Societies, persuaded that zeal and right-thinking could sometimes be very useful in times of crisis. I cannot keep to my home and am visiting all my acquaintances in order to excite us for the greatest actions.

What did Manon Roland contribute specifically to the Revolution? Her Memoirs – particularly her historical notes and portraits – describe the years between the fall of the Bastille and that of the Girondins. Her letters to Brissot, published in Le Patriote français, contributed to creating a picture of revolutionary France that wasn’t entirely Parisian, describing the Republican spirit and enthusiasm that could be found in the provinces and dispelling prejudices concerning their failure to get on board with the Revolution. The writing she did on behalf of her husband at the Ministry, in particular drafting his letter of demission to the king in 1792, might well have contributed to the end of monarchy and the birth of the Republic. But it’s in the private letters she wrote about the drafting of the Constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man that we can best understand how the philosophical ideas on liberty and equality that Manon had developed in her youth could be useful to the new Republic.

To her friend Bosc d’Antic, who was in Paris with two other close associates of the Rolands – Brissot and François Xavier Lanthenas – she wrote the following:

No, you are not free; no one is yet. The public trust has been betrayed. Letters are intercepted. You complain of my silence. However, I write with every post. It is true that I no longer offer up news of our personal affairs: but who is the traitor, nowadays, who has any other news than those of the Nation? I have indeed written you more vigorously than you’ve acted. But if you are not careful, you will have done nothing but raise your shields … You are but children, and your enthusiasm is but a flash in the pan. And if the National Assembly does not hold a proper trial of two illustrious heads, or unless some generous Decius kills them, you are fucked.

She was worried that the Revolution would peter out because her friends didn’t act firmly enough. But her worries were also specific, namely that the members of the Assembly would make a mess of the Constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Her principal fear was that the members would agree on a few paragraphs and leave it at that. The Constitution, and the Rights, she said, could only be drafted by the Assembly. But it should then be circulated throughout France, not just in Parisian circles, read and approved by all, and should be debated in provincial clubs, including those that welcomed women members, and revised before it became final.

They had come for her husband, but Roland had sent him away as soon as she heard he was in danger

Roland was reluctant to publish in her own name. But she wasn’t unwilling to be published, either anonymously (as she was in Brissot’s paper), or under her husband’s name, ‘helping’ him with his work:

For 12 years of my life, I worked alongside my husband in the same way I took nourishment, both were natural to me. If some part of his work was cited because it was found to be more gracefully written; if some academic trifle such as he liked to send out was accepted by one of the learned societies he was a member of, I was happy for him, and I did not take particular notice whether the piece was one of mine. And often, he ended up persuading himself that he had been on a particularly good streak when he’d written this or that passage, which in fact came from my pen.

When her husband was named minister of the interior, Roland kept writing for him, drafting documents that helped define the new Republic. She found it easy because ‘she loved her country’ and was ‘enthusiastic for liberty’. Only once, she tells us, did she allow herself to be amused by her ghostwriting, when she wrote a letter from the minister to the Pope, demanding the release of a group of French artists imprisoned in Rome.

By the time Roland herself was in prison, writing her memoirs, private and political, she decided that anonymity was not for her after all:

Had I been going to live, I would have had, I believe, only one temptation left: that of writing the annals of this century, and to be the Macaulay of my country.

Catharine Macaulay had written a history of England in eight volumes. Roland’s unrealised plan was to write a republican history of the Revolution. But that was not to be.

She was arrested at her home on 1 June 1793. The arresting officers had come for her husband, but Roland had sent him away as soon as she heard he was in danger. She was taken in his stead, first to the Prison de l’Abbaye, where she spent four weeks, after which she was freed only to be rearrested to be taken to Saint-Pélagie Prison. She stayed there until the end of October and was removed from there to the Concièrgerie, where she slept on a makeshift bed for the eight days it took to try her. Finally, she was driven to the Place de la Révolution, where the guillotine blade was being winched to the top of the frame, ready for her.

Roland had one companion in the tumbrel that drove her: a very frightened Girondin, Simon-François Lamarche. Roland was supposed to be executed first. But she took pity on Larmarche, and offered up her place so he wouldn’t have to watch as she was decapitated. When her turn came, Manon Roland stood proud and looked beyond the crowds to the monumental statue of liberty erected a few months earlier. ‘Oh, Liberty!’ she cried. ‘What crimes are committed in thy name!’