Monday, November 21, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago. 

“THE ANGEL OF THE ASSASSINATION” Joseph Shearing (first published 1935)

After considering Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, a long, detailed argument about the decrease of human violence, perversity leads me to consider an historical book about something violent. But at least it too has an angel in its title.

I picked up The Angel of the Assassination, a sturdy hardback with thick-paper pages, from a second-hand bookshop some years ago. A first edition, but not expensive – and I doubt that it has been reprinted much since 1935. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and assumed that “Joseph Shearing” was some forgotten non-academic historian of the day. Only now do I discover that “Joseph Shearing” was in fact one of the pseudonyms of Gabrielle Long, the prolific English author of thrillers, historical novels and popular histories. She was better known by her main pseudonym “Marjorie Bowen” under which name, at the age of sixteen, she wrote her first novel The Viper of Milan, a thriller with a Renaissance Italian setting. Published in 1906, when she was 21, it is still considered her best work. This must have been galling for somebody who kept turning them out until she died in her sixties in 1952.

The Angel of the Assassination is one of her works of non-fiction. Briefly, it’s a life of Charlotte Corday or, to give her her full name, Marie-Charlotte Corday d’Armont, the young woman who killed Jean-Paul Marat during the French Revolution. Apparently in her lifetime she was more often called Marie than Charlotte.

She was a direct descendant of the playwright Pierre Corneille, whose tragedies, with their severe classical virtues, she revered. Her father was a very minor noble in provincial Caen and hence an enthusiastic supporter of the reforms in the earlier stages of the revolution, but not of the revolution’s later radical turn. For a short time, she went as a novice into a convent, largely because her father could not afford to keep her. But with the revolution’s suppression of religious houses, she transferred her piety to an idealised concept of the French republic, influenced by a cloudy version of Classicism and the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

She and her provincial circle were Girondins, wanting a kind of decentralised federated France. But in Paris the more radical “Mountain” had taken control of the National Assembly, rounded up and executed the Girondin leaders, and proceeded to prosecute revolution with the maximum of Terror.

Against this background, acting entirely on her own initiative and inspired by her elevated republican ideals, 24-year-old Charlotte travelled to Paris with the aim of killing the “Mountain’s” most ferocious orator Marat. She hoped to kill him in public, to inspire other Girondins, but he was confined to his home by illness. She diligently sought out his address then – poignant detail! – purchased a common, cheap kitchen knife in a Paris arcade.

The 51-year-old Marat lived with his mistress Simonne Evrard and his sister Albertine. On 13 July 1793, Charlotte persuaded them to let her into their apartment under the pretext that she wanted to give Marat details of a vast counter-revolutionary conspiracy. She was admitted to the tiny closet where Marat, who suffered a painful skin disease, sat in his bath writing. One straight and true thrust of the kitchen knife to Marat’s heart and he was dead.

This was either extraordinary skill or extraordinary luck for a young woman who had never practised such violence before. Marat’s mistress and sister threw themselves on her screaming, and would have beaten her bloody if their screams hadn’t summoned revolutionary guards who arrested her at once. When she was arrested it was noted that there was no blood on her clothes. That is how true her knife-thrust had been.

Charlotte was hastily tried by a revolutionary tribunal and guillotined four days after the assassination. All the leading members of the “Mountain” (Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Desmoulins etc.) watched her execution. The obvious retrospective irony is that all of them were, less than a year later, to be executed in their turn as the “Mountain” split into factions, devoured itself, and was later overthrown.

Even Charlotte’s enemies noted her calm and unruffled demeanour during her arrest and trial. The immediate result of her action was an increased round-up and killing of the remaining Girondins. Revolutionary presses wrote scurrilous, fictitious accounts of Charlotte Corday’s sex life to discredit her. But when her corpse was dissected (by order of the state prosecutor), she was found to be virgo intacta.

This story has been told many ways. Our idea of the assassination is irreversibly influenced by Jacques-Louis David’s famous image of the dead Marat, painted within months of the event. It was commissioned and consciously intended as revolutionary propaganda, and interpreted Marat as a martyr. In a way, this tradition was continued, long after the book I’m reviewing, in Peter Weiss’s semi-surreal 1960s German play Marat/Sade (set in a madhouse). Weiss represents Marat as the rough but effective tribune of the people and Charlotte Corday as a jittery neurotic and repressed nymphomaniac. (If you can’t discredit somebody for having a loose sex life, then you can discredit them for being repressed about sex.)

By contrast, Andre Chenier, France’s greatest poet at the time of the revolution, wrote a noble poem in praise of Charlotte. (He was executed later in 1793). Similarly the young German Jean-Adam Lux, who had come to Paris to support the revolution, was disgusted with the Terror, smitten by Charlotte’s final courage, and wrote a pamphlet in her defence. He was executed at once.

“Joseph Shearing” writes to a thesis. She sees Charlotte and her Girondin friends as typifying the vague, sentimental, unrealistic idealism of Rousseau. They were humane and they were brave – at least most of them (like Charlotte, like Madame Roland) went to the guillotine without flinching. They were right to protest against the excesses of the revolution. “Joseph Shearing” paints Marat as the bloodthirsty, sick, scrofulous fanatic, filthy in his personal habits and directly responsible for many murders. Hence, in her view, a man who richly deserved to die. And yet the Girondins lacked all sense of reality. France was then involved in a massive international war. The “Mountain”, for all their many crimes, did at least mobilise the nation for victory. No Danton and Robespierre, no French republic.

What we end up with, then, is the story of noble, righteous and totally impractical provincial idealists at odds with base, filthy, murderous but practical Parisians. I’m almost reminded of 1066 and All That contrasting “wrong but wromantic” Cavaliers with “right but repulsive” Roundheads.

The Angel of the Assassination is written in a brisk, efficient, dramatic style, very descriptive and probably calculated to drive academic experts on the French Revolution spare. There are no footnotes or references. This is popular history. Nevertheless, I think it catches accurately some of the currents of the revolution and it is still worth seeking out. I have found advertisements for it on-line, so there are alternatives to scouring second-hand bookshops.

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