What becomes a legend best? This was the hook of an old furrier advertising campaign, famous for showing Liliane Hellman in a mink stole. But the hook deserves a better fate than to go to advertising heaven in a chorus of skinned weasels. For what becomes a legend best is a bad end, which is what happened to Olympe de Gouges, that fabulous existence, the bastard daughter of a seller of used clothes and – so she claimed – one of the great 18th century literary talents, although she named no names. Others claimed Louis XV. In fact, Gouges’ downfall was due to her strenuous and heroic advocacy for Louis Capet, who she was by no means willing to see led to the guillotine. Was this an act of sisterly sympathy? No, it was the common sense of genius. As the anarchist Malatesta said, a century later, far better kill a chicken than a king, for at least you can eat a chicken. Which is pretty much the definitive argument against all capital punishment, if you ask me.
How is a woman of such doubtful origins not to get lost in the bog? It is another case of the encounter of the third life and the adventurer’s character. She started out marrying a rich merchant when she was merely 15 – an unusually young age in a country where the average age of marriage for someone of Gouges’ class was twenty five. She was more than fortunate, though, in her marital choice – not only did they have a child right away, but the rich merchant conveniently died, like an inconvenient secondary in one of Angela Carter’s fairy tales. One of her biographers – Lairtuilliers – claims that she was particularly adept at the game of decamptivos – like Lotte’s game in Sorrows of Young Werther, a surprisingly crude and childish affair. It consisted of someone, elected to be King of the Fern, saying decamptivos – which would make all guests, who were grouped into couples, scatter out of sight. They had to stay out of sight for fifteen minutes. If they were late coming back, the king would fine them. Of course, one assumes the fifteen minutes were spent in kissing and groping, but just putting off and putting off clothes would take enough time to make more extensive sex unlikely.
Lairtuillier includes an almost unbelievable claim – except that everything about Olympe is quasi-unbelievable:
“But she had not yet arrive at that stormy phase in her life, and it was necessary that before that time, another demon took hold of her: that of letters. I can affirm, writes M. Dulaure in the Sketches, that madame de Gouges, author of novels and plays, did not know how to read or write, and dictated her productions to her secretaries. “They never taught me anything,” she says somewhere; raised in the countryside, where French was badly spoken, I didn’t know the principles; I didn’t know anything, and I made a trophy of my ignorance; I dictated with my soul, never with my mind. The natural seal of genius is on all of my productions.” The public didn’t completely agree with the last part of this opinion. But we are going to see that this woman, whose vocation was so strongly marked by revolutionary crises, of whose nature it was to be all action and speech, and who seemed to be made for nothing other than mounting to the political assault, knew also, to use the expression of Sand, how to throw her soul outside herself and lend it to the heroes of the drama.” [54-55]
The idea that she couldn’t read or write is common to her story, as told by the nineteenth century historians. Michelet says the same thing, and all attribute this fact to… her own testimony. In the preface to her place, The corrected philosopher, she writes:
“I don’t have the advantage of being educated; and as I have already said, I know nothing. I will thus not take the title of author, although I have already been announced to the public by two plays which they have very well received. Thus, not being able to imitate my colleagues by either my talents or my pride, I listened to the voice of modesty which completely agrees with me.”
O O, but what becomes a legend most is that the legends never agree. More recent reseach has turned up quite a different story about Olympe de Gouges. A good place to start is the excerpts, taken from a biography of Guillotine, written by Henri Pigaillem, which he presents on his blog. She was the daughter of a butcher and a washerwoman, but her grandfather was wealthy enough, and the family, the Gouzes, were close to a local noble family in Montauban – Pigaillem claims that she received some training by the nuns, and it does seem unlikely that the family would have left their daughter illiterate. She married to her father’s partner at 15 and didn’t like the blessed state of matrimony, so, as in a Tom Waits ballad, she encountered a man who had to do with the riverboats and took off with him to Paris. Jacques Biétrix de Rozières. Being quite beautiful, she made use of her beauty to become a kept woman, and king of the fern be damned if she stayed the extra fifteen minutes in the shadows beyond the other players. Born Marie Gouze, she renamed herself something more pompous and personal. At thirty she decided to become a writer – and the story that she was illiterate is likely an exaggeration, for by this point she’d spent fifteen years in good, educated company. Megan Conway’s essay on Olympe de Gouges tries to sort through what is legendary and what is not about a woman who wrote forty plays, numerous fictions, and of course many pamphlets. Gouges might have received some help – she was a close friend, if not lover, of Louis-Sebastian Mercier, for instance – but she also liked to put herself on display as a Rousseau-ist type, sowing doubts about her education. Conway concludes that it is unlikely that she couldn’t read, and likely that she was at least literate, although she surely also dictated to secretaries. Conway writes that her disconcerting vanity, the way all general topics are interrupted by her particular peeves, makes it hard to read her since she was “so undeniably obnoxious.”
Olympe de Gouges, at this distance, has been wrapped in the perfumed saliva of the human rights type, who celebrate her as a feminist and ignore, as best they can, her outsider status and her fidelity to a creed laid down, she thought, by Rousseau – which might be paraphrased, via Kerouac, as first moral judgment, best moral judgment. It is extremely hard to say if she really dictated her works – surely, in 1793, it was a little difficult to find secretaries for the job – but “dictation” of a sort was certainly at the center of her pamphleting, her posters, her letters to the assembly, her violent taunting of Robespierre. What came out of her mouth was like a revelation, and she would be its prophet and martyr. She would be the Queen of the Fern in the streets of Paris in 1793. And she would die gloriously, her blood rising up to pull down and utterly destroy her murderers.
Another outsider saint.