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France has produced many remarkable women; perhaps no other country can boast such an array of illustrious names; they shine from the pages of French history like fixed stars from the firmament. Among them, down the long vista of a hundred years, brilliant and beautiful, shines the name of Madame Roland, the spirit of the great French Revolution personified.
Striking beauty, great genius, and wonderful courage in the hour of martyrdom, rendered this woman an unusual character in an unusual epoch. Surrounded by deceit, she was honest and fearless. In the midst of immorality and license, she was pure, and brave enough to resist temptation which came from without and from within, and she went to the scaffold with an untarnished name and soul.
Manon Philipon, as Madame Roland was known in her childhood, was born in Paris in the year 1754. Her father was a worker in enamel, who thrived well enough in his art when he was content to toil at it, but a restless spirit of speculation led him into ventures which brought him neither profit nor renown.
Manon's beauty was a direct inheritance from both father and mother. Gratien Philipon was a handsome man, and vain and frivolous as he was handsome; but his beautiful wife was serious-minded, and much the superior of her husband in intellect as well as morals. Of seven children born to this couple, only one lived--Manon, the subject of our sketch--who inherited the combined beauty of both parents, with the rectitude and high ideals of the mother. But there lies no explanation of inheritance from either father or mother to make us understand how the child of these common people became at nine years of age a student of Plutarch, Tasso, and Voltaire, and a philosopher at the age of eleven. It requires a deeper law than that of heredity to explain these things.
At ten, Manon developed a strongly religious tendency, which was fostered, no doubt, by daily studying the "Lives of the Saints." While reading the accounts of martyrs who had died at the stake rather than resign their faith, the child often regretted that she had not lived in those "good old days," so happy a thing it seemed to her to die for one's principles. This privilege was granted her in after-years, strangely enough; and she proved as courageous in reality as she had in childhood imagined herself capable of being under similar circumstances.
Manon's religious feelings were culminated by a request made to her mother, in a paroxysm of tears, that she might be placed in a convent to prepare herself for her first communion; accordingly, she was taken to the Convent of the "Sisters of the Congregation" in May, 1765, when she was eleven years old. Side by side with this nunnery, where the precocious child passed one of the happiest epochs of her life, stood the prison which was to immure her in later years. Should such a circumstance and situation be unfolded in the pages of fiction, we would call it strained and unnatural.
During the year Manon passed in the convent, she made the acquaintance of two sisters, Henrietta and Sophie Cannet, who were allied to the nobility; and she afterward attributed her facility in writing to the correspondence with the younger of these sisters, which continued without interruption over more than a decade of years. In her memoirs, written under the shadow of the guillotine, she says, "In the gloom of a prison, in the midst of political storms, how shall I recall to my mind, and how describe, the rapture, the tranquillity I enjoyed at that period; but when I review the events of my life, I find it difficult to assign to circumstances that variety and that plenitude of affection which have so strongly marked every point of its duration, and left me so clear a remembrance of every place at which I have been."
After she left the convent, she found her passion for reading unabated, and as her father's library was limited, she was obliged to borrow and hire books; from these she made copious extracts and abstracts which formed her valuable habit of reflection upon what she had read.
Her first feelings of contempt and bitterness toward the aristocrats were roused by the air of condescension which the Cannets exhibited to her in her occasional visits to Sophie. They were stupid and arrogant people, but they made her realize that the daughter of an artisan was not on equal footing with people allied to the nobility, albeit she was a prodigy of beauty, learning, and talent, and they the dullest of beings.
"I endeavored," she says, "to think with hope that everything was right, but my pride told me things were ordered better in a republic." So, as early as at the age of fourteen, we find this remarkable being philosophizing upon republics, and taking part in mind against the evils and injustice fostered by monarchies.
Madame Roland wandered from prescribed creeds, and became a liberal in her religious ideas. She has been called an Atheist, but every line she writes, and her life of self-sacrifice, disprove this assertion. Her "one prayer," to which she says she confined herself, is, to my mind, sublime with beautiful and practical religion.
"O Thou who hast placed me on the earth, enable me to fulfil my destination in the manner most conformable to the Divine will, and most beneficial to my fellow-creatures."
I can imagine no more perfect religious faith, no more complete submission to, and acknowledgment of, a Supreme Power than this prayer contains. It strikes me as far more devout and respectful than the prayers of many people who endeavor to dictate to God and direct Him what to do and what not to do, what to bestow and what to withhold.
She writes of her religious agitations with great reluctance to Sophie Cannet, fearful of disturbing the serenity of her friend's convictions; but she continued to conform to her mother's religious ideas during that good woman's life, and even afterward she kept up the forms of Catholicism for the sake of a valued family servant who was devoted to her.
This delicate consideration of the feelings of others has been mistaken by some bigoted minds for deceit or vacillation on the part of Madame Roland; as if such a being were capable of either.
We owe all our knowledge of her early private life to the voluminous correspondence between her and Sophie Cannet; to this friend she wrote those long, journal-like letters, in which one young girl often pours out the inmost secrets of her heart and soul to another; but, unlike the letters of the ordinary girl, Manon's contained criticisms of the books she had read, and discussions of philosophical subjects, which bear evidence to her wonderful precocity of thought and feeling in her "teens."
Originality, unselfishness, genius of the rarest order, are all displayed in these letters; already had her mind grasped some great truths which it requires the average philosopher half a century to discover, when at seventeen, she says, "Man is the epitome of the universe. The revolutions of the world without are an image of those which take place in his own soul."
Upon the news of the mortal illness of Louis XV., she writes to Sophie this strongly humanitarian passage: "Although the obscurity of my birth, name, and position seem to preclude me from taking any interest in the government, yet the common weal touches me in spite of it. My country is something to me, and the love I bear it is unquestionable. How could it be otherwise when nothing in the world is indifferent to me? A love of humanity unites me to everything that breathes. A Caribbean interests me; the fate of a Kaffir goes to my heart. Alexander wished for more worlds to conquer. I could wish for more to love."
In spite of her philosophy, her seriousness, and her learning, however, Manon Philipon was a girl, and a charming one; and we learn in her letters to Sophie how she was pestered with lovers of low and high degree, during her long maidenhood. I might better say with proposals for her hand, since, as we know, French custom does not permit the "love-making" which American girls consider their natural prerogative.
Manon was so beautiful, brilliant, and magnetic, that when she went out to promenade with her father, she was greeted with admiring glances and remarks; and from the fruit vender of whom she made occasional purchases, and the butcher who served the family with joints, to dancing and drawing masters, up along the line to merchants, professional, and literary men, she seemed to fascinate and attract with no effort on her own part.
Each one in turn asked for her hand and was rejected; and a host of others followed, to meet a similar fate, until her father threatened to marry her to the first stranger who crossed his portal, whether either one wished it or no. She says in her memoirs, "The respectable character of my mother, the appearance of some fortune, and my being an only child, made the project of matrimony a tempting one to a number of persons who were strangers to me. The greater part, finding it difficult to obtain an introduction, adopted the expedient of writing to my father. These letters were always shown to me. I wrote the answers, which my father faithfully copied. I was much amused at acting the part of my own father, and dismissed my suitors with dignity, leaving no room for resentment or hope. Here began to break out those dissensions with my father which lasted ever after. He loved and respected commerce, I despised it; and he was much concerned at my rejection of suitors who possessed any fortune."
After the death of Madame Philipon, which occurred in her daughter's twenty-first year, Manon's life at home became almost unbearable. Her extreme grief impaired her health, and anxiety and mortification were added by the excesses and frivolous extravagances into which her father plunged. He formed associations with people of bad character, and took to gambling. Manon strove to make herself an agreeable companion, and to entertain him at home, but the attempt was futile. She filled her lonely hours with study, and with writing letters to Sophie. One day a tall, thin gentleman, bald and yellow, past forty, and looking older, presented a letter of introduction from Miss Cannet.
It was M. Roland, an austere philosopher, of an ancient family, to whom Sophie had often referred. Manon admired his intellect and his respectability; and when, after some two or three years, he made an offer of marriage, she was ready to accept; but M. Philipon bluntly and insolently refused his consent, through a strong personal dislike which he had conceived for the severe moralist and philosopher.
Manon could not marry against her father's wishes, but she could leave the home now so distasteful to her. She had saved only a small sum from her mother's fortune, amounting to about one hundred dollars per year. With this, she retired to the Convent of the Congregation, and shut herself up with her books, and received only her old friends.
M. Roland, for whose sake she had taken so decisive a step, was far from an ardent lover in his conduct at this juncture. He wrote her affectionately, but he made no reference to his proposal of marriage until six months had passed. Then he came to Paris, had an interview through iron gratings, and expressed himself determined to make her his wife. Since she had left her father's roof, she was at liberty to accept his somewhat tardy proposal, and she emerged from the convent to become Madame Roland.
We have seen that M. Roland was not an ardent lover, and it is readily understood that this beautiful, intense girl, in the very prime of young womanhood, was not in love with him. She felt only esteem for his virtues, and admiration for his intellect. But she was twenty-five years old, and virtually homeless; of all the score of men who had sought her hand in marriage, no one had ever stirred her heart, and she married, believing, no doubt, that this cold regard and high admiration which the character of M. Roland elicited, was all that she could feel for any man.
It was not until the thunders of the Revolution shook the world, that her heart awoke to real passion; and even then, in a situation where hundreds of women who have professed greater religious fervor, have fallen, she conquered herself, and virtually died to protect her husband's life.
During the first year of their marriage, the Rolands lived in Paris. Manon had imagined a happy association with her friends, the Cannets; but her husband was morbidly jealous of these friends, and extracted a promise from her that she would see them as little as possible. She became his amanuensis and secretary, and scarcely ever left his side.
During the next ten years we find her passing the greater part of her time in the Clos de la Platiere, an ancient and humble country-seat belonging to the Roland family. Here, with her taxing domestic duties, the exactions of her husband, the care of her child Eudora, the tyrannies of her aged mother-in-law, this wonderful woman had little opportunity for the exercise of her talents.
It seems strange to think of this beautiful martyr, whose name is a synonym for all that is grand and heroic, passing the best years of her womanhood in preparing dishes for the appetite of a dyspeptic husband, in looking after house-linen, and arranging lessons for a child. Matilda Blind says "This affects one with something of the ludicrous disproportion of making use of the fires of Etna to fry one's eggs by."
Yet Madame Roland performed these and less agreeable duties as cheerfully and as perfectly as she had performed her chosen tasks in the convent years before. Women doctors were not known in those days, but the genius of Madame Roland embraced a knowledge of medicine with other things; and she often went three leagues to relieve a sick peasant, and was ever ready to sacrifice herself for the good of others.
There was very little happiness for her in the companionship of her husband. He was twenty-two years her senior, and possessed an imperious temper and an exacting nature. But the most ardent wife could not have better performed her duty to the most lovable of husbands.
Naturally democratic in her feelings and sympathies, Madame Roland took the keenest interest in the progress of the Revolution; from her quiet retreat she studied its leading members, and when, in 1791, her husband was chosen deputy to the Constituent Assembly, she accompanied him to Paris, and their apartments became the rendezvous for such men as Brissot, Buzot, Danton, Robespierre, Petion, and many more, who met to confer with one another and to exchange ideas and suggestions. Madame Roland sat apart with her embroidery and listened. Of these meetings she speaks thus in her "Memoirs": "Good ideas were started and excellent principles maintained; but there was no path marked out, no determinate point toward which each person should direct his views. Sometimes for very vexation, I could have boxed the ears of these philosophers."
Had not her sex precluded this silent spirit of the Girondists from taking part in these counsels, if, instead of acting second hand through her husband, she could have taken the lead, as her genius, perception, honesty, and courage entitled her to do, who knows that she might not have averted the disasters which befell the party through its dissensions.
In March, 1792, Roland was elected minister of the interior; and Madame Roland presided over the establishment that had been sumptuously fitted up for Madame Necker. Roland became the idol of the patriotic party, and was enchanted with his excellent position. He urged upon King Louis XVI., in whom he reposed great faith, the necessity of a decree against the priesthood, and the establishment of a camp in the suburbs of Paris. Louis demurred, Roland insisted in the famous letter written by his wife, and placed in the king's hands June 11th. This letter became immensely popular. The Assembly ordered it to be printed and copies sent to all departments, together with expressions of national regret at the discharge of Roland and his friends, which the letter caused. But they were recalled to office after the dreadful August 10th.
Twice a week Madame Roland gave a dinner to fifteen of her husband's colleagues, with whom he wished to converse. No other lady was present. The Girondists were at the apex of society, and Madame Roland was the life and impetus of the party. She endeavored to infuse its members with her hatred of false pride and old prejudices, and with her desire to establish a liberal democracy. Always enthusiastic, and vexed with the lack of unity and direct purpose in the Assembly, she was over-zealous in some of her suggestions.
Among the brilliant men whom she entertained at these dinners, was one, young, handsome, elegant, and refined, whose many manly qualities woke in her heart that long-delayed passion which a nature so ardent must sometime feel. This man was Buzot; and he was as irresistibly drawn to this beautiful, brilliant woman as the magnet to the steel.
Madame Roland was at this time thirty-eight years old; her brilliant color and her open expression made her look much younger, and her tall, finely developed form, her splendid eyes and engaging smile, charmed and attracted all who came near her. But though domestic life and morality were held at the lowest possible value in those chaotic days, and each man made a law for himself, Madame Roland never wavered in her loyalty and devotion to the man whose name she bore. Only through her remarkable letters written to Buzot from her prison cell, and never made public till 1863, does the glory and intensity of her hopeless passion display itself.
From the very first, Madame Roland had distrusted Danton. It was not long before her intuitions proved correct, for Danton soon showed his jealousy and dislike of the minister, whom he found too honest to tamper with. He feared, too, the penetration, frankness, and genius of Roland's wife. Men who saw the insidious, selfish qualities of Danton, began to cultivate and conciliate him out of fear of his enmity.
Robespierre, whom Madame Roland had at first believed in as an honest friend to liberty, became an ally of Danton and Marat, and Roland soon realized that it was not the monarchists he had to contend against, but the new party headed by these dissenting Girondists, who were savage with a thirst for human blood.
The Rolands were accused of trying to establish an aristocracy of talent on the ruins of a monarchical aristocracy; their semi-weekly dinners were represented as sumptuous feasts where, like a new Circe, Madame Roland strove to corrupt the unfortunates who partook of her banquets.
She was called before the Convention December 7th, to listen to the charges against her; her eloquence won the admiration of even her enemies. But her safety was in danger, and she was obliged to sleep with a pistol under her pillow for fear of the outrages of desperadoes who lurked about her house.
The strife between the two parties grew more bitter, and the downfall of Roland had been determined upon by his savage opponents, once his fawning friends and colleagues. An attempt was made to arrest Roland by six armed men, deputies of the Insurrectionists. He replied that he did not recognize their authority, and refused to follow them. Madame Roland at once set off for the Tuileries, where the Insurrectionists, more cruel and blood-thirsty than the deposed Monarchists, were in session. At the door the sentinels forbade her to enter. Obliged to return home without having been enabled to address the Convention, as she hoped to do, she found that her husband had taken refuge in the house of a friend.
She sought him out, embraced him, and returned once more to the Tuileries in another vain hope of arousing their former friends to resolute action. But she was obliged to return to her apartment in the evening, without having accomplished anything. Late that night she was torn from her child and her home, and cast into the Prison of the Abbaye, from which she was set at liberty a month later, and wild with happiness, allowed to reach her own door; but as she attempted to enter she was again seized and conveyed to the Prison of Sainte Pelagie. The respite had only been given in malice to render her second incarceration more bitter.
Under the same roof were murderers and women of the town; and in the morning, when the cell-doors were opened, the scum of the earth, as one authority tells us, collected in the corridor. On each side of this corridor (the only place where the prisoners could take exercise) were small cells, and one of these, separated only by thin walls from the most depraved beings, whose vile language was constantly audible to her ears, this refined and elegant woman was forced to occupy. She suffered acutely from this proximity to depravity and vulgarity at first; but ere long she transformed the vicinity in which her cell was situated "from an inferno to an oasis of peace." When she walked in the corridor, where at first she was pointed at, abused and reviled, she was now surrounded by wretched beings who clung to her skirts and regarded her as a divinity. Her sweet voice soothed brawls, her words of courage inspired the most hopeless. Everybody loved her, everybody desired her acquittal.
Meantime she was writing her famous "Memoirs," and the touching letters to her husband, her child, and to Buzot. After an imprisonment of more than six months, she was finally called before the judge and the prosecution, and accused of being the wife of Roland, the conspirator, the friend of his accomplices. Twenty-one Girondists had already been executed, and she could not hope to escape. She was condemned to death as guilty of traitorous relations with conspirators. She heard the sentence proudly, and replied, "You consider me worthy to share the fate of the great men whom you have assassinated. I shall try to carry to the scaffold the courage they have shown."
Robespierre signed her death-warrant. He had been her friend, guest, and correspondent. She had helped him when he was unknown, defended him when he was in need of a defender. But he sent her to the scaffold; and on November 9, 1793, the tumbril came to convey her to the guillotine. It had taken many others on that same day; and now her only companion on that fatal ride was a trembling old man named La Marche. He wept bitterly, but Madame Roland cheered him with words of courage and strength.
When they arrived at the Place de la Concorde, she begged the executioner to permit the "etiquette of the scaffold" to be waived, and to allow La Marche to die first, that the sight of her death might not accentuate his fear and misery. So to the last moment of her life she was true to her religion of thoughtfulness for others.
Beautiful, self-possessed, and calm, she stood upon the scaffold in the pride of her womanhood, and spoke those last immortal words as she lifted her eyes to the statue of Liberty, "O Liberty, how many crimes are committed in thy name."
Then the axe fell, and the assassins of the Revolution had added another victim to their list. Seven days after this event, M. Roland committed suicide by stabbing himself through the heart.