The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 1

Charlotte Corday.

In the leafy months of June and July, several French Departments germinate a set of rebellious paper-leaves, named Proclamations, Resolutions, Journals, or Diurnals ‘of the Union for Resistance to Oppression.’ In particular, the Town of Caen, in Calvados, sees its paper-leaf of Bulletin de Caen suddenly bud, suddenly establish itself as Newspaper there; under the Editorship of Girondin National Representatives!

For among the proscribed Girondins are certain of a more desperate humour. Some, as Vergniaud, Valaze, Gensonne, ‘arrested in their own houses’ will await with stoical resignation what the issue may be. Some, as Brissot, Rabaut, will take to flight, to concealment; which, as the Paris Barriers are opened again in a day or two, is not yet difficult. But others there are who will rush, with Buzot, to Calvados; or far over France, to Lyons, Toulon, Nantes and elsewhither, and then rendezvous at Caen: to awaken as with war-trumpet the respectable Departments; and strike down an anarchic Mountain Faction; at least not yield without a stroke at it. Of this latter temper we count some score or more, of the Arrested, and of the Not-yet-arrested; a Buzot, a Barbaroux, Louvet, Guadet, Petion, who have escaped from Arrestment in their own homes; a Salles, a Pythagorean Valady, a Duchatel, the Duchatel that came in blanket and nightcap to vote for the life of Louis, who have escaped from danger and likelihood of Arrestment. These, to the number at one time of Twenty-seven, do accordingly lodge here, at the ‘Intendance, or Departmental Mansion,’ of the Town of Caen; welcomed by Persons in Authority; welcomed and defrayed, having no money of their own. And the Bulletin de Caen comes forth, with the most animating paragraphs: How the Bourdeaux Department, the Lyons Department, this Department after the other is declaring itself; sixty, or say sixty-nine, or seventy-two (Meillan, p. 72, 73; Louvet, p. 129.) respectable Departments either declaring, or ready to declare. Nay Marseilles, it seems, will march on Paris by itself, if need be. So has Marseilles Town said, That she will march. But on the other hand, that Montelimart Town has said, No thoroughfare; and means even to ‘bury herself’ under her own stone and mortar first — of this be no mention in Bulletin of Caen.

Such animating paragraphs we read in this Newspaper; and fervours, and eloquent sarcasm: tirades against the Mountain, frame pen of Deputy Salles; which resemble, say friends, Pascal’s Provincials. What is more to the purpose, these Girondins have got a General in chief, one Wimpfen, formerly under Dumouriez; also a secondary questionable General Puisaye, and others; and are doing their best to raise a force for war. National Volunteers, whosoever is of right heart: gather in, ye National Volunteers, friends of Liberty; from our Calvados Townships, from the Eure, from Brittany, from far and near; forward to Paris, and extinguish Anarchy! Thus at Caen, in the early July days, there is a drumming and parading, a perorating and consulting: Staff and Army; Council; Club of Carabots, Anti-jacobin friends of Freedom, to denounce atrocious Marat. With all which, and the editing of Bulletins, a National Representative has his hands full.

At Caen it is most animated; and, as one hopes, more or less animated in the ‘Seventy-two Departments that adhere to us.’ And in a France begirt with Cimmerian invading Coalitions, and torn with an internal La Vendee, this is the conclusion we have arrived at: to put down Anarchy by Civil War! Durum et durum, the Proverb says, non faciunt murum. La Vendee burns: Santerre can do nothing there; he may return home and brew beer. Cimmerian bombshells fly all along the North. That Siege of Mentz is become famed; — lovers of the Picturesque (as Goethe will testify), washed country-people of both sexes, stroll thither on Sundays, to see the artillery work and counterwork; ‘you only duck a little while the shot whizzes past.’ (Belagerung von Mainz, Goethe’s Werke, xxx. 278–334.) Conde is capitulating to the Austrians; Royal Highness of York, these several weeks, fiercely batters Valenciennes. For, alas, our fortified Camp of Famars was stormed; General Dampierre was killed; General Custine was blamed, — and indeed is now come to Paris to give ‘explanations.’

Against all which the Mountain and atrocious Marat must even make head as they can. They, anarchic Convention as they are, publish Decrees, expostulatory, explanatory, yet not without severity; they ray forth Commissioners, singly or in pairs, the olive-branch in one hand, yet the sword in the other. Commissioners come even to Caen; but without effect. Mathematical Romme, and Prieur named of the Cote d’Or, venturing thither, with their olive and sword, are packed into prison: there may Romme lie, under lock and key, ‘for fifty days;’ and meditate his New Calendar, if he please. Cimmeria and Civil War! Never was Republic One and Indivisible at a lower ebb. —

Amid which dim ferment of Caen and the World, History specially notices one thing: in the lobby of the Mansion de l’Intendance, where busy Deputies are coming and going, a young Lady with an aged valet, taking grave graceful leave of Deputy Barbaroux. (Meillan, p.75; Louvet, p. 114.) She is of stately Norman figure; in her twenty-fifth year; of beautiful still countenance: her name is Charlotte Corday, heretofore styled d’Armans, while Nobility still was. Barbaroux has given her a Note to Deputy Duperret, — him who once drew his sword in the effervescence. Apparently she will to Paris on some errand? ‘She was a Republican before the Revolution, and never wanted energy.’ A completeness, a decision is in this fair female Figure: ‘by energy she means the spirit that will prompt one to sacrifice himself for his country.’ What if she, this fair young Charlotte, had emerged from her secluded stillness, suddenly like a Star; cruel-lovely, with half-angelic, half-demonic splendour; to gleam for a moment, and in a moment be extinguished: to be held in memory, so bright complete was she, through long centuries! — Quitting Cimmerian Coalitions without, and the dim-simmering Twenty-five millions within, History will look fixedly at this one fair Apparition of a Charlotte Corday; will note whither Charlotte moves, how the little Life burns forth so radiant, then vanishes swallowed of the Night.

With Barbaroux’s Note of Introduction, and slight stock of luggage, we see Charlotte, on Tuesday the ninth of July, seated in the Caen Diligence, with a place for Paris. None takes farewell of her, wishes her Good-journey: her Father will find a line left, signifying that she is gone to England, that he must pardon her and forget her. The drowsy Diligence lumbers along; amid drowsy talk of Politics, and praise of the Mountain; in which she mingles not; all night, all day, and again all night. On Thursday, not long before none, we are at the Bridge of Neuilly; here is Paris with her thousand black domes, — the goal and purpose of thy journey! Arrived at the Inn de la Providence in the Rue des Vieux Augustins, Charlotte demands a room; hastens to bed; sleeps all afternoon and night, till the morrow morning.

On the morrow morning, she delivers her Note to Duperret. It relates to certain Family Papers which are in the Minister of the Interior’s hand; which a Nun at Caen, an old Convent-friend of Charlotte’s, has need of; which Duperret shall assist her in getting: this then was Charlotte’s errand to Paris? She has finished this, in the course of Friday; — yet says nothing of returning. She has seen and silently investigated several things. The Convention, in bodily reality, she has seen; what the Mountain is like. The living physiognomy of Marat she could not see; he is sick at present, and confined to home.

About eight on the Saturday morning, she purchases a large sheath-knife in the Palais Royal; then straightway, in the Place des Victoires, takes a hackney-coach: “To the Rue de l’Ecole de Medecine, No. 44.” It is the residence of the Citoyen Marat! — The Citoyen Marat is ill, and cannot be seen; which seems to disappoint her much. Her business is with Marat, then? Hapless beautiful Charlotte; hapless squalid Marat! From Caen in the utmost West, from Neuchatel in the utmost East, they two are drawing nigh each other; they two have, very strangely, business together. — Charlotte, returning to her Inn, despatches a short Note to Marat; signifying that she is from Caen, the seat of rebellion; that she desires earnestly to see him, and ‘will put it in his power to do France a great service.’ No answer. Charlotte writes another Note, still more pressing; sets out with it by coach, about seven in the evening, herself. Tired day-labourers have again finished their Week; huge Paris is circling and simmering, manifold, according to its vague wont: this one fair Figure has decision in it; drives straight, — towards a purpose.

It is yellow July evening, we say, the thirteenth of the month; eve of the Bastille day, — when ‘M. Marat,’ four years ago, in the crowd of the Pont Neuf, shrewdly required of that Besenval Hussar-party, which had such friendly dispositions, “to dismount, and give up their arms, then;” and became notable among Patriot men! Four years: what a road he has travelled; — and sits now, about half-past seven of the clock, stewing in slipper-bath; sore afflicted; ill of Revolution Fever, — of what other malady this History had rather not name. Excessively sick and worn, poor man: with precisely elevenpence-halfpenny of ready money, in paper; with slipper-bath; strong three-footed stool for writing on, the while; and a squalid — Washerwoman, one may call her: that is his civic establishment in Medical–School Street; thither and not elsewhither has his road led him. Not to the reign of Brotherhood and Perfect Felicity; yet surely on the way towards that? — Hark, a rap again! A musical woman’s-voice, refusing to be rejected: it is the Citoyenne who would do France a service. Marat, recognising from within, cries, Admit her. Charlotte Corday is admitted.

Citoyen Marat, I am from Caen the seat of rebellion, and wished to speak with you. — Be seated, mon enfant. Now what are the Traitors doing at Caen? What Deputies are at Caen? — Charlotte names some Deputies. “Their heads shall fall within a fortnight,” croaks the eager People’s-Friend, clutching his tablets to write: Barbaroux, Petion, writes he with bare shrunk arm, turning aside in the bath: Petion, and Louvet, and — Charlotte has drawn her knife from the sheath; plunges it, with one sure stroke, into the writer’s heart. “A moi, chere amie, Help, dear!” No more could the Death-choked say or shriek. The helpful Washerwoman running in, there is no Friend of the People, or Friend of the Washerwoman, left; but his life with a groan gushes out, indignant, to the shades below. (Moniteur, Nos. 197, 198, 199; Hist. Parl. xxviii. 301–5; Deux Amis, x. 368–374.)

And so Marat People’s-Friend is ended; the lone Stylites has got hurled down suddenly from his Pillar, — whither He that made him does know. Patriot Paris may sound triple and tenfold, in dole and wail; re-echoed by Patriot France; and the Convention, ‘Chabot pale with terror declaring that they are to be all assassinated,’ may decree him Pantheon Honours, Public Funeral, Mirabeau’s dust making way for him; and Jacobin Societies, in lamentable oratory, summing up his character, parallel him to One, whom they think it honour to call ‘the good Sansculotte,’ — whom we name not here. (See Eloge funebre de Jean–Paul Marat, prononce a Strasbourg in Barbaroux, p. 125–131; Mercier, &c.) Also a Chapel may be made, for the urn that holds his Heart, in the Place du Carrousel; and new-born children be named Marat; and Lago-de-Como Hawkers bake mountains of stucco into unbeautiful Busts; and David paint his Picture, or Death-scene; and such other Apotheosis take place as the human genius, in these circumstances, can devise: but Marat returns no more to the light of this Sun. One sole circumstance we have read with clear sympathy, in the old Moniteur Newspaper: how Marat’s brother comes from Neuchatel to ask of the Convention ‘that the deceased Jean–Paul Marat’s musket be given him.’ (Seance du 16 Septembre 1793.) For Marat too had a brother, and natural affections; and was wrapt once in swaddling-clothes, and slept safe in a cradle like the rest of us. Ye children of men! — A sister of his, they say, lives still to this day in Paris.

As for Charlotte Corday her work is accomplished; the recompense of it is near and sure. The chere amie, and neighbours of the house, flying at her, she ‘overturns some movables,’ entrenches herself till the gendarmes arrive; then quietly surrenders; goes quietly to the Abbaye Prison: she alone quiet, all Paris sounding in wonder, in rage or admiration, round her. Duperret is put in arrest, on account of her; his Papers sealed, — which may lead to consequences. Fauchet, in like manner; though Fauchet had not so much as heard of her. Charlotte, confronted with these two Deputies, praises the grave firmness of Duperret, censures the dejection of Fauchet.

On Wednesday morning, the thronged Palais de Justice and Revolutionary Tribunal can see her face; beautiful and calm: she dates it ‘fourth day of the Preparation of Peace.’ A strange murmur ran through the Hall, at sight of her; you could not say of what character. (Proces de Charlotte Corday, &c. Hist. Parl. xxviii. 311–338.) Tinville has his indictments and tape-papers the cutler of the Palais Royal will testify that he sold her the sheath-knife; “all these details are needless,” interrupted Charlotte; “it is I that killed Marat.” By whose instigation? — “By no one’s.” What tempted you, then? His crimes. “I killed one man,” added she, raising her voice extremely (extremement), as they went on with their questions, “I killed one man to save a hundred thousand; a villain to save innocents; a savage wild-beast to give repose to my country. I was a Republican before the Revolution; I never wanted energy.” There is therefore nothing to be said. The public gazes astonished: the hasty limners sketch her features, Charlotte not disapproving; the men of law proceed with their formalities. The doom is Death as a murderess. To her Advocate she gives thanks; in gentle phrase, in high-flown classical spirit. To the Priest they send her she gives thanks; but needs not any shriving, or ghostly or other aid from him.

On this same evening, therefore, about half-past seven o’clock, from the gate of the Conciergerie, to a City all on tiptoe, the fatal Cart issues: seated on it a fair young creature, sheeted in red smock of Murderess; so beautiful, serene, so full of life; journeying towards death, — alone amid the world. Many take off their hats, saluting reverently; for what heart but must be touched? (Deux Amis, x. 374–384.) Others growl and howl. Adam Lux, of Mentz, declares that she is greater than Brutus; that it were beautiful to die with her: the head of this young man seems turned. At the Place de la Revolution, the countenance of Charlotte wears the same still smile. The executioners proceed to bind her feet; she resists, thinking it meant as an insult; on a word of explanation, she submits with cheerful apology. As the last act, all being now ready, they take the neckerchief from her neck: a blush of maidenly shame overspreads that fair face and neck; the cheeks were still tinged with it, when the executioner lifted the severed head, to shew it to the people. ‘It is most true,’ says Foster, ‘that he struck the cheek insultingly; for I saw it with my eyes: the Police imprisoned him for it.’ (Briefwechsel, i. 508.)

In this manner have the Beautifullest and the Squalidest come in collision, and extinguished one another. Jean–Paul Marat and Marie–Anne Charlotte Corday both, suddenly, are no more. ‘Day of the Preparation of Peace?’ Alas, how were peace possible or preparable, while, for example, the hearts of lovely Maidens, in their convent-stillness, are dreaming not of Love-paradises, and the light of Life; but of Codrus’-sacrifices, and death well earned? That Twenty-five million hearts have got to such temper, this is the Anarchy; the soul of it lies in this: whereof not peace can be the embodyment! The death of Marat, whetting old animosities tenfold, will be worse than any life. O ye hapless Two, mutually extinctive, the Beautiful and the Squalid, sleep ye well, — in the Mother’s bosom that bore you both!

This was the History of Charlotte Corday; most definite, most complete; angelic-demonic: like a Star! Adam Lux goes home, half-delirious; to pour forth his Apotheosis of her, in paper and print; to propose that she have a statue with this inscription, Greater than Brutus. Friends represent his danger; Lux is reckless; thinks it were beautiful to die with her.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30