She has been called the “Beautiful Amazon of the French Revolution,” and is commonly used as a metaphor of the French Revolution. My own opinion is that she is a metaphor of France, a collapsing empire. Whether she died of syphilis, mania, or of premature old age brought on by a life of immorality and humiliation, we will probably never know. Hers is a sad story. I will not tell it here, but I will post for you a piece from the epilogue of Simon Schama’s Citizens, A Chronicle of the French Revolution. He, of course, used Théroigne de Méricourt as symbolic of the Revolution. I think she represents the wasted prostitute that France has become. The last sentence of this quote sums up the arrogance of a France which pretends to know most about humanity.
from Simon Schama
In the spring of 1793, while speechifying on the Terasse des Feuillants for the Société des Femmes Républicaines [Society of Republican Women], she had been violantly attacked by market-women supporters of Mountain. They were tired of being lectured to on the duties of citizenesses and detested her attempts to defend the Girondins. Stripped and beaten senseless, she was rescued, some claim, by Marat. Whether or not the stories were true, Théroigne recovered her consciousness but not her sanity. She was taken to a hospital for the poor and the deranged in the faubourg Saint-Marceau. She would stay locked up for the remainder of her life, another twenty-three years, moved from one gloomy hospital to the next, ending up in La Salpêtrière, more a prison than an asylum, where she died in 1817.
Théroigne had been in prison before. In an imprudent journey back to her native Liège in 1791, she had been arrested by the Austrians and treated as though she were a great and important spy. After interrogation in Belgium, she was transported to Kufstein Castle in th Tyrol (where, two years later, the balloonist Blanchard was confined after crash-landing in the mountains, also on the assumption that he was a spy). After more intensive interrogation, the Austrians could get nothing out of her and had to be satisfied with a diagnosis from the prison doctor that she was suffering from “revolutionary fever.”
After her skull had been staved in, that fever returned with all the force of an unstoppable delirium. She sat in her cell, her hair cropped, glaring at the walls. Periodically the black silence that descended on her would be interrupted by a torrent of denunciation in half-intelligible revolutionary phrases: “comité de salut république,” “liberté,” “coquins.” In the fiercest paroxysms of her dementia she would rage against “moderates.” In a period of relative lucidity around 1808, someone who remembered the belle liègeoise of 1789 asked to see her and was immediately accused by Théroigne of “betrraying the cause of the people.” He left not knowing how mad she really was.
To some, Théroigne became a source of amusement; to others, a quaint kind of living museum of half-forgotten and embarrassing slogans. Periodically, well-meaning officials attempted to trace her family and wrote to the prefect of the department of Ourthe for information. The physician and specialist in the insane Esquirol, who was writing a treatise, Les Maladies Mentales, classified her as lypémanique or suffering from manic depression. The autopsy he performed after her death convinced him its cause lay in the irregular alignment of her colon.
By 1810 she had disappeared from the land of the living in all but biological fact. Clothes had become and abomination to her, so she sat naked in her cell, angrily refusing even the simplest wool dressing gown offered to protect her from the winter cold. On the rare occasions when she emerged for air or to drink from the filthy puddles that formed in the courtyard, she consented, sometimes, to wear a light chemise but nothing more. Every day she would throw cold water on the straw of her bed, sometimes breaking the ice in the yard to get at it, as if only glacial saturation could cool the heat of her dementia. Periodically she was heard, still, to mutter imprecations against those who had betrayed the Revolution.
Oblivious of all visitors, concerned or callous, who saw her, Théroigne, it seems , now lived entirely inside the Revolution and the Revolution inside her. Sympathy seems out of place here, for in some sense the madness of Théroigne de Méricourt was a logical destination for the compulsions of revolutionary Idealism. Discovering, at last, a person of almost sublime transparency and presocial innocence, someone naked and purified with dousings of ice water, the Revolution could fill her up like a vessel. In her little cell at La Salpêtrière, there was at least somewhere where revolutionary memory could persist, quite undisturbed by the quotidien mess of the human condition.
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