That women intellectuals in turn-of-the-century France suffered during the French Revolution is without a doubt. But while Madame de Staël was exiled for her politics, Madame Jeanne-Marie Roland lost her head entirely.
Roland’s father was a laborer, an engraver. Her humble origins, however, did not stop her from becoming one of the pivotal players in the French Revolution, going on to hold great power in the government of her day. While Betsy Ross was sewing stripes onto the flag of the fledgling United States, this French workman’s daughter commanded the helm of her country.
Jeanne-Marie Phlipon was politically precocious. Listening raptly while her father waged a verbal war against the French aristocracy, his opinions were engraved upon her sensibility, and she began educating herself for a life of civic action. At the age of nine, she read Plutarch; his Lives made her wish she had lived in classical Rome with its senatorial lectures and truth-seeking philosophers. Meanwhile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was stirring the hearts and minds of his readers with his egalitarian theories, which the young girl devoured as well.
Her idealistic father’s fortunes took an unfortunate turn during Jeanne-Marie’s adolescence when he lost all his earnings in stock and became a compulsive gambler. Left with nothing but his daughter’s dowry, he lived off that, drank himself into dissolution, and refused her hand to Roland de la Platière, whom she met through a convent-school friend. Roland was not the only man in pursuit of the handsome, strong-willed Jeanne-Marie, with her dark, burning eyes and raven hair. However, this suitor was not easily dissuaded and continued his quest for marriage to the bookish girl. De la Platière came from considerable wealth but retained a position as an inspector at a factory. Although he was nearly twice her age, they had quite a bit in common, especially a love of classic literature. In later life, Madame Roland claimed, “He was a man fond of ancient history, and more like the ancients than the modern; about seven and forty years old, stooping and awkward and with manners respectable rather than pleasing.”
Their shared life of the mind won out over her other admirers, and they married when she was twenty-five. They began an earnest relationship of respect and erudition. Her feelings about her marriage are indicated in this diary entry from her wedding day: “I could make a model of a man I could love, but it would be shattered the moment he became my master.” While theirs was a marriage of minds, Jeanne-Marie eventually found romance elsewhere with Henri Buzot, who was later her companion until her death.
Immediately after her marriage, stirrings of revolution were evident. Madame Roland associated herself with the Girondists, named for the district from which their leaders came, who favored a republic, supported the abolition of the constitutional monarchy, and opposed the violence of the Terror. The Girondists soon became the majority party, dominating the government of France at their height. Led by Jacques Pierre Brissot, they believed in the ownership of private property. The newlyweds both involved themselves deeply in the revolution and opened their home to meetings that rapidly evolved into a salon run by Madame Roland, which she made open to all different elements of revolutionary thinking.
Roland recorded in her journals the fascinating discussions that took place
at these events; she also began writing essays and voluminous letters to her fellows. Along with Georges Danton, a member of the Girondists’ opposition, the Jacobins, Robespierre frequented the salon and was greatly influenced by Roland, most famously when he made a speech to the National Assembly espousing theories she had taught him, in language she had coached him on. Both husband and wife attended the National Assembly of France, and Madame wrote newspaper articles as well as her husband’s speeches and official state documents.
She was a woman who knew the powerful effect her writing could have. When the Austrian army, accompanied by escaped French aristocrats, gathered at the border to invade the weakened, split country, Madame Roland wrote King Louis XVI urging him to declare war in kind; he struck her husband from office. But the consequences of his refusal to do as she suggested ultimately cost the king his crown and his head. The tumult increased; Roland’s wealth caused him to be suspected and arrested during the purge of the ruling class. A split between two factions, the Girondists and the Jacobins, occurred when the Jacobins laid blame on the Girondists for the defeats in the war against Austria. The Jacobins’ retribution was swift and brutal; they guillotined Brissot and thirty others and arrested the remaining factionalists.
The Girondists had espoused moderation, but conceded in the vote to the executions of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, while fighting against the siege tactics of Marat and Robespierre. Her former salonist and student Robespierre began to plot against the articulate and charismatic Madame Roland and betrayed her, resulting in her imprisonment in a dungeon cell into which the River Seine seeped. Sadly, Robespierre and Madame Roland’s relationship, based originally on free exchange, ended tragically out of balance—she saved him from the guillotine, while he gave her up for execution.
The same friend who had introduced Madame Roland to her husband offered to change clothes with her and take her place in prison. Roland’s refusal was typically elegant: “Better to suffer a thousand deaths myself than to reproach myself with yours.” In prison, she suffered horribly. Sick and wasting, she was thrown in with prostitutes, murderers, and thieves; she used her gift of language to appeal to the doomed women prisoners to stop their riots and cease their violence against each other.
In less than a month’s time she wrote her memoirs in prison. The officials presiding over her trial were so afraid of Madame Roland’s facility with words that they refused to allow her to “use her wit” and ordered her only to answer the questions put to her with yes or no. She was, of course, convicted and hastened to the guillotine in just twelve hours. One other prisoner was put to the blade that day, a terrified printer for whom she argued for a peculiar kind of mercy; she asked that he be executed first to spare him the awful sight of seeing her head roll. A clay model of the Statue of Liberty was placed near the scaffold to which Madame Roland addressed her famous last words: “O Liberty! What crimes have been committed in thy name!” She died on November 8, 1793, at the age of thirty-nine.