Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What the hell were they thinking?

The two aspects of the French Revolution that most fascinate me are: 1)  What were people thinking? and 2)  the influence of the media, in the form of libelles, songs and pamphlets, in forming public opinion and, thus, propelling events.  My friends and family probably think the primary interest is  a macabre voyeurism of the violence of the time, but that's not the case.  People's feelings, opinions and lives are profoundly interesting to me and what more fertile ground for feelings, opinions, lives could there be than the Fr Rev?  There may be other periods of time more saturated with feelings and spectacular events, but the Fr Rev was my mother's interest, too, which gives it the edge, in my mind.  It all goes back to Mom, but I'll save that story for my therapist.

So... I have this book, "Paris in 1789-94:   Farewell Letters of Victims of the Guillotine," by John Goldworth Alger.  It's an absolute goldmine.  Besides the letters, there are reports from spies on the street, prison documents, Paris addresses of historical import, and more.   Fear, probably of the paralyzing sort, squelched the production of diaries during the Revolution.  There are many first-person accounts in the form of memoirs, but they were written after the fact when details may have become fuzzy and recollections may have been tainted with self-justification or vindication.  According to Alger, a M. Biré, a Frenchman well-acquainted with the Revolution, published a diary, "Journal d'un Bourgeois de Paris", kept during that the time, but, according to Alger, it was based on the newspapers of the time which either didn't want to, or didn't dare, reflect the truth.  Alger says the publication "stands to a real diary just as an artificial flower stands to a real one."

We have no diaries, but we do have a window into the daily lives of Parisians during the Revolution, because the Bureau de l'Esprit Public, assigned to at least six "observers," the task of hanging out in food lines, wine shops, public gatherings, to record the public sentiment.  Alger found their reports, previously undiscovered, among the 200 boxes of papers (mostly collected by Fouquier-Tinville) belonging to the Revolutionary Tribunal.  I believe they were and, perhaps, are, in the French National Archives.  No amount of daily (Ha.  If only I were that self-disciplined.) hour-long increments of Rosetta Stone will teach me enough French to be able to interpret the thousands of pages I would love to read in the French National Archives.  If I could get past the gendarmes.  Good luck with that.

From the 1st paragraph of Tale of Two Cities

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…"  

Excerpts from the reports

These are a few of the exact words, taken from the afore-mentioned reports, that illustrate the times:

"… What surprises many is to see always the same women in the groups and the tribunals.  It is inconceivable to see how idle and sluttish they are."

"There has been a large gathering of armed national guards to celebrate, as is said, the anniversary of the execution of Louis Capet.  Nothing extraordinary happened.  On the suspicion of there being in the rue St. Jacques print-sellers who sold many engravings of the late King and Queen, people went there and burnt all the pictures….  Good people still complain of the high price of meat."

"The fete held yesterday, Place de Révolution, attracted many spectators.  The people showed at this fete its love of liberty and hatred of kings…  All passed off in the greatest of order.  Conspirators were guillotined amid cries of "Vive la République!…  During this ceremony, the people sang, danced, and seemed highly satisfied….  In a wine shop, porte St. Jacques, the fete was discussed.  Women said there could be no greater treat to sans-culottes than guillotining on day like this, for if the guillotine had not worked the fete would not have been so fine."  Thibault, aged 49, was executed on this date for speaking of the members of the Convention as "pigs."

"When we see the multitude of men and women who never miss attending these gatherings (of the Jacobin Club, the Cordeliers Club, the sections, the popular societies, the Commune and the tribunals) we cannot calculate without a shudder the time which they divert from useful labors."

"Women in groups proposed resolutions and denounced true patriots.  The people silenced them, bidding them to attend to their households, and telling them it was not their business to propose motions, especially against true republicans.  People say it has been noticed that women often become sanguinary, that they preach nothing but blood, that there are more and more a certain number of women who are constantly at the guillotine or the Revolutionary Tribunal…"

"Thieves are daily arrested.  Yesterday a company of these gentry were caught in stealing hams from a pork-butcher's shop.  The streets of Paris swarm with these scoundrels."

"Yesterday the market-women of Quinze-Vingts section replied to the citizens and citoyennes who complained o the market not being supplied as usual:  "Is to-day not Sunday?  Why, where can you come from?" and on their neighbors remarking that such talk can risk the guillotine, the rejoinder was, "Let them do what they like to me, I shall never forget Sundays."

"People have for along time been remarking, but particularly to-day, that children, at least under five or six years old, should not be allowed to enter the Revolutionary Tribunal, for they make such a noise crying during the trials.  Vendors of apples, brandy, and rolls, should also be prohibited for they pester citizens and interrupt the judges…."

"A child remarked to his mother that formerly school was very monotonous from having to kneel and repeat prayers which children did not comprehend, but now it was lively with singing patriotic hymns.   Thus the child already sees the difference between the old and the new régime.  The durability of the republic is ensured."

"This morning and all day many people collected in the rue St. Louis St. Honoré to see the window from which Vemerange threw himself down last night, and the pavement on which he fell.  It was said that having been discovered in a house in that little street where he was concealed, and having heard the armed force at the door, he wrapped himself in one of the sheets of his bed and threw himself from the fourth story into the street.  Not being quite dead, he was taken to the hospital."

A pretended banker saw his name placarded, and expected to be arrested.  Hearing a knock on the door, he broke a large square of glass and threw himself into the street.  He died shortly afterwards.  After hearing some observations, one man said, "As well be dead as go to prison, for you wills see that the prison massacres ordered by Pétion will be repeated," and this probably terrifies the prisoners.

"Mass celebrated this (Sunday) morning in the Assumption church.  A large number of persons were present, but at the end of the ceremony it is alleged that three or four Jacobins in red caps, posted at the church door with a register, demanded the names and addresses of all present before allowing them to leave.  This measure, which is denounced as illegal and vexatious disquiets many people."

"People in many groups said, "So we are not free.  Liberty of worship has been decreed, and you see how we are treated."

"Beggars, to excite pity and obtain more alms, go about the streets with three or four infants hanging at their necks, most of whom do not belong to them, but are kidnapped.  Four female wretches accused of this horrible crime were taken to-day to the Mountain section."

The decree of the Commune forbidding masters, fathers, and mothers to inflict corporal punishment is thought strange.  This makes children naughty and go all lengths in audacity and vice."

"The boys called enfants de la patrie (foundlings) are inconceivably corrupted.  Yesterday in the national Jardin des Plantes, they set off singing the most obscene songs, which made the people murmur.  Their teacher shows no shame.  Citizens attribute this to citizen Chaumette, for procuring the abolition on corporal punishment."

"Near the commune (Hotel de Ville) there was much talk of the notary who killed himself in the rue l'Égalité.  One said, "It would not be amiss if all notaries did the same, for there is not one who is really a patriot."  "That is true,"  people remarked."

"I entered one of the most frequented cafés of the maison Égalité (Palais Royale).  I tried to ascertain the cause of (the taciturnity) which I had seen.  The few persons whom I found inclined to talk were, like me, ignorant of it.  Others had the air of avoiding any question as a trap.  Nearly all talked of trivial matters, as though there were no fatherland, and passed the time in frivolous games. This silence is vexatious."


I selected these pretty much at random.  There are more compelling choices to be added later.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Rose Bertin - The Minister of Fashion

In "The Private Life of Marie Antoinette, a Confidant's Account" by Madame Campan, the Queen's Lady-in-Waiting describes how Marie Antoinette met the up and coming couturier, Mademoiselle Rose Bertin, who became such a force in French fashion and who, unfortunately, unintentionally, contributed to the decline of Marie Antoinette's popularity.  And, we all know how that ended up.:

"…  It was also on this first journey to Marly that the Duchesse de Chartres, afterwards Duchesse d'Orléans, introduced into the Queen's household Mademoiselle Bertin, a milliner who became celebrated at that time for the total change she effected in the dress of French ladies.

It may be said that the mere admission of a milliner into the house of the Queen was followed by evil consequences to her Majesty.  The skill of the milliner, who was received into the household, in spite of the custom which kept persons of her description out of it, afforded her the opportunity of introducing some new fashion every day.  Up to this time, the Queen had shown very plain taste in dress;  she now began to make it a principal occupation;  and she was, of course, imitated by other women.

All wished instantly to have the same dress as the Queen, and to wear the feathers and flowers to which her beauty, then in its brilliancy, lent an indescribable charm.  The expenditure of the younger ladies was necessarily much increased;  mothers and husbands murmured at it;  some few giddy women contracted debts; unpleasant domestic scenes occurred;  in many families coldness of quarrels arose; and the general report was, - that the Queen would be the ruin of all the French ladies."

Ironic that the Duchesse de Chartres was the catalyst for the relationship.  Her husband was an enterprising intriguer and a catalyst in the downfall of the monarchy.

Mother's Disapproval

As a mother , a daughter, and one who loves a handwritten letter, I'm fascinated by the letters between Marie Antoinette and her mother, Empress Maria Theresa.  In the book, Secrets of Marie Antoinette, by Olivier Bernier, one is able to watch Marie Antoinette grow from an eager-to-please fifteen year old to an eager-to-please twenty-five year old, through these letters.  There are others, as well, including many between the Empress and comte de Mercy-Argenteau, the Austrian Ambassador slash tattletale who faithfully spied (and paid others to spy) on Marie Antoinette, then reported back to her mother.  Marie Antoinette never knew how her mother managed to know so much about her gambling, ill-advised jewelry purchases, outrageous fashion choices, and (lack of) sexual activity and she trusted Mercy well past the point when it would've been obvious to a more savvy person that his loyalty was  not to her, and not to France, but to Austria alone.  Her mother usually, as she does in the following, attributes her information to the gazettes, public knowledge or someone besides Mercy.

Anyway, here's an excerpt from one of the letters, dated March 5th, 1775, in which Maria Theresa chastises the twenty year old queen for her frivolity.  She doesn't specifically mention her expensive wardrobe, but I doubt the Empress had much good to say about that either.

"I can't prevent myself raising a point which many gazettes repeat all too often:  it is the coiffure you use:  they say it is thirty six inches high, and with so many feathers to adorn it!  A young and pretty Queen, who is full of attractions, doesn't need all these follies, on the contrary, the simplicity of your adornment will show you off better and is more suitable to the rank of a Queen…"

"Madame, my very dear mother" had a point, but girls just wanna have fun.  In the case of this particular girl, it seems that she may have wanted to fill her hours with sometimes almost frantic amusement, so she could forget the areas of her life that weren't going well.  But, that's another story.

Pay up. Now. (please)

In January 1787, rumors spread through Paris that the celebrated fashion merchant Rose Bertin had filed for bankruptcy.  Her royal and aristocratic clientele was famously negligent in payment of their accounts (Commerce and its tawdry exchange of cash are so nouveau riche, darling.) and it was speculated that Mademoiselle Bertin had started the rumor herself to pressure her customers to pay their bills.

Some who'd witnessed her ascent were smugly pleased at the prospect of her descent.

"The empire of fashion is experiencing a great cataclysm. Mademoiselle Bertin, so proud, so high, so insolent even, who worked with Her Majesty, mademoiselle Bertin displaying on her bills in large letters: Fashion merchant to the queen; mademoiselle Bertin has just gone bankrupt. It is true that her bankruptcy is not at all plebeian, it is the bankruptcy of a great lady, two million! ... We are assured that mademoiselle Bertin will cede to all the tears and continue her business."
* written by the Baronne d'Oberkirch

In his diary, a bookseller named Hardy claims that Bertin sometimes resorted to such ploys and on this occasion immediately received a note for 400,000 livres from the royal coffers.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Drama in the palace - "She spat in her face."

Rose Bertin and Marie Antoinette's hairdresser, Léonard, collaborated on extravagant creations that were copied across Europe.  Because they spent so much time with her, they both became her confidants, in the limited way that individuals of their station would become confidants of a Queen.  Léonard was even charged with carrying her jewels out of France when the Royal Family tried to make a run for it.  I can't testify to the veracity of this story, because his imagination wasn't limited to hairstyles, but this anecdote came from Léonard's memoir:

"My good friend, Mademoiselle Rose Bertin, got herself in a rather bad scrape, towards the end of the year 1782, and had it not been for the Queen's protection, I really do not know how she would have got out of it.  She had a head milliner a certain Julie Picot, a very clever hand, but much more of an intriguer, and who had, it was said, more than one string to her bow.  For some time past Mademoiselle Picot had been taking the addresses of her mistress's wealthy customers, and called on them, offering her services and seasoning her offers with uncomplimentary remarks about the business standing of my friend….  Mademoiselle Bertin had profited by her frequent trips to court, and had acquired fine manners;  she was, besides, gentle and good;  but indignation makes people forget themselves.  One day she met Julie Picot in the gallery of Versailles;  furious at finding this girl in the midst of the apartments of the Chåteau, and almost at the Queen's door, Mademoiselle Rose was unable to control her exasperation, and having approached her opponent, she spat in her face.  Mademoiselle Picot, a robust wanton, who had not yet forgotten the punches given by her late mother, during her lifetime a fish woman at the Halle, Mademoiselle Picot was about to give a few slaps to her ex-mistress, forgetting to open her hand, when some body-guards who were walking about the gallery,  came to put a stop to the quarrel of the two milliners."  The incident was investigated and Madamoiselle Bertin was fined twenty francs… "it was reported at the time that Marie Antoinette had interceded to somewhat mitigate the severity of the provost's justice."

Marie Antoinette and her children

Marie Antoinette poses, in a Rose Bertin design, with her children.  Her eldest son, Louis-Joseph, points to the cradle made empty at the recent death of his baby sister, Sophie.

From Le Grand Mogol

Mademoiselle Bertin emigrated to London during the Revolution, but her shop, Le Grand Mogol, on rue Saint-Honoré, remained open and continued to supply Marie Antoinette with ribbons, lace, alterations and the occasional item of clothing even while she lived (or was imprisoned, depending on how you look at it) at the Tuileries and beyond.  The milliner provided the mourning dress that Marie Antoinette wore after Louis XVI's execution and the dress she wore when she arrived at the Conciergerie where she'd wait for her own execution. 
We've loved Monica since she was six and we love when she comes to town and cuts our hair.

And, I especially love it when she laughs at my jokes.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Let's go to Paris!

I've finally found someone who is as interested in French history as I!  She doesn't just have an interest, she has a Master's in European History to back it up.  Meeting Elissa (online, no less) is a prime example of what I've always told my kids about life.  You just really never know what can happen.  Many of the very best things in my life have just fallen into my lap with no prior planning, expectation, or even conscious hope.   So it was when I happened upon Elissa's blog, was emboldened by the fact she was from Texas, sent her an email to ask her a simple question about Paris, and, from that, almost instantly, we decide to meet in Paris in March.  For five years, I've wanted someone with whom I could discuss the ins and outs of French history and, suddenly, here she is.  It's so fantastic that it's easy to be unintimidated by the fact that she's young and adorable.  It helps that, as a Texan, she's also down to earth and just a really nice person.

Instead of trudging through my version of Elissa's, and her husband, Matt's, (who, by the way, is a chef which dovetails nicely with another interest of mine) glittering evening at an actual Versailles masked ball, you can read her sparkling description on her blog:  http://thetravelingpear.com/2011/07/10/591/ 

And, the section of the blog that prompted me to email her:     

If, by some freak occurrence, someone stumbles upon this blog and shares this obsession, let me know and you'll be welcome to join us in Paris.  If you'd like a preview of the fun we're going to have, scroll past my recent family posts until you get to the ones about Marie Antoinette's Petit Trianon - starting with "Je Vous Donne"- and other Paris/French history stuff posted during the last few years.  We're going to see all, plus more!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Louis XVI

I've not posted this photo before, because it's kind of borderline, but am throwing it out there because it's connected to the previous post.  I took it in Paris' Musée Carnavalet which is stocked full of thousands and thousands of objects, paintings, reconstructed rooms, artifacts of the history of the city and the country.  It's by far my favorite museum and the three times I've visited haven't allowed time to see a fraction of what it has to offer.  Next trip, I'll spend at least a full day there and it won't be nearly enough.  I stand and stare at the Royal Family's personal effects, including toys, lesson books, and Louis' hair, shorn before his execution, and try to understand.  Because of what I interpret to be a not-too-subtle territorial statement, the exhibits aren't translated from French.   I know enough to get the general idea, but I'm going to see if my (technically, former) sister-in-law, Michele, will go with me to fill in the blanks.  She, lucky woman, is French and lives in Paris.  I, lucky woman, am going to see a lot of her in March.  
Carnavalet is housed in two mansions.  One was owned by Madame Sévigné whose 1100 or so letters written to her daughter are an important source of information into 17th Century court  life.  And, a glimpse into their sometimes odd relationship.  The other mansion was owned by Le Peletier, a member of the Convention.   It's thought that he cast the deciding vote for the execution of Louis XVI.  Supposedly, he was influenced by duc d'Orleans, AKA Phillippe Égalité, the King's dastardly cousin.  That association that didn't end well, considering that Le Peletier was assassinated in a restaurant at the Palais Royale, the duke's home and well-known hotbed of revolutionary and criminal goings-ons, on the same day Louis was guillotined.  One fascinating thing leads to another in this story.  Fascinating to me anyway.

I want to find something like this for sale at Les Puces for a couple of euros. And, I'd like for someone to clone XVI. The world would be a better place.

From an article written by Tia Ghose of LiveScience.com (and posted on FB by Elissa, my Paris travel partner.) :  "More than 200 years ago, France's King Louis XVI was killed (along with his wife, Marie Antoinette) via guillotine, and legend has it someone used a handkerchief to soak up the king's blood, then stored the handkerchief in a gourd.
Now scientists have confirmed that a squash emblazoned with figures from the French Revolution indeed contains the dried blood of the executed king."  The article goes on to recount the process…  http://news.yahoo.com/squash-holds-decapitated-king-louis-xvis-blood-191730913.html