I love the eighteenth century. More specifically, the long eighteenth century, which ended sometime between the battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the death of Shelley in 1822. It was the Age of Enlightenment, the age of revolutions (American and French) and an age full of interesting, intelligent women who wielded a great deal of influence.
I say “influence” advisedly, not power, because we are looking at a time when women’s suffrage was hardly dreamt of, much less on the agenda; a time when a woman’s place was almost certainly in the home – no women doctors, lawyers, politicians, journalists, academics. In England, the Married Women’s Property Act, giving married women a legal right to the money they had earned or inherited, didn’t come into force until 1870.
In spite of all the obstacles, there were many women who made their mark on history. Inevitably, the vast majority of these women came from the aristocracy or the upper echelons of the bourgeoisie, but the fact that social status went along with the ability to influence events was not limited to women; the same would have been said of the men then.
One particular group of women interests me: the ones who, although they owed their status to their husbands or sometimes their fathers, made a greater impact on events in their own time, and are better remembered by history, than either their husbands or their fathers.
This is very evident in France. France: a country where the Salic law had always excluded women from the succession to the throne, a country where women did not get the right to vote until 1945, but also a country where women wielded a great deal of power, in the salons, where the intellectuals of the day would gather, and in their writings, and in the events of the French Revolution. The Revolution seems to have brought a great many intelligent, brave, exciting women out of the shadows.
One of my favourites is Madame Tallien. Born Thérésia de Cabarrus, she had three husbands, a great many lovers, and ten children, but there was so much more to her life, a life she herself described as having been like a novel. Sympathetic to the ideals of the revolution, and allied with the Girondins, she was imprisoned in Bordeaux by the extremists. Jean-Lambert Tallien, sent to Bordeaux to enforce the rigors of the revolution, decided instead to free Thérésia. She, in turn, used her influence over him to help free some of those imprisoned and obtain passports for others who wished to flee the dangers facing them.
Among those who obtained a passage to the United States thanks to her efforts were the Marquis and Marquise de la Tour du Pin and their children. Madame de la Tour du Pin deserves an article to herself – coming from an aristocratic Irish family who emigrated to France after the battle of the Boyne, she married a French aristocrat, fled the revolution, lived happily in upstate New York, returned to Europe to live in England (briefly in Richmond, and I think that, after much puzzling and searching, I have figured out which was the house in which she lived on Richmond Green), and finally returned to France where she met Napoleon. She was a remarkable woman, and it was largely through her efforts, ingenuity and determination that her family survived those difficult times.
But back to Madame Tallien ... When Tallien was recalled to Paris, Thérésia joined him. But this was 1794, the height of the Terror, and she again found herself in prison – Robespierre himself signed the order – where she met Joséphine de Beauharnais, also threatened with the guillotine. Thérésia sent a message to Tallien: “I die, because I belong to a coward”. The message seems to have galvanised Tallien into action. On 27 July, Tallien stood in the Convention and interrupted a speech by Robespierre’s closest ally, St. Just. The following day, St. Just and Robespierre went to the guillotine. The Terror was over.
It would be melodramatic and simplistic to attribute this event to the intervention of Madame Tallien, but she did play her part, as William Pitt admitted when he said of her “this woman would be able to close the gates of hell”. In France, it earned her the sobriquet Notre Dame de Thermidor, in recognition of the many lives saved by the fall of Robespierre on the 10th Thermidor.
It was in the salon of her friend, Madame de Staël, that Thérésia met her third husband, the Prince de Chimay, in 1805. After they were married, Tallien allegedly said (rather ungallantly) “She may call herself the Princesse de Chimay, but history will remember her as Madame Tallien.” And so history has remembered her as Madame Tallien – but what poor Tallien didn’t realize at the time was that history would remember her rather more vividly than it remembered him.
Which brings us neatly to another of my eighteenth century heroines, Madame de Staël. A year or so ago, I saw a tweet saying “In 1817, two female authors died. One was famous; the other was Jane Austen.” The famous author was Germaine de Staël, whose fame across Europe (including England) outstripped Jane Austen’s.
Her father was Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s finance minister, at a time when France’s financial situation was as precarious and complicated as the world’s is today. He was dismissed or resigned three times; twice, he was called back, and finally he went home to Switzerland.
Germaine was brought up in Catholic France, but in a Swiss, Calvinist household. Her education was thorough. By the time she reached her teens, she was well versed in literature, spoke fluent English, and had met and conversed with the intellectuals and politicians who were her parents’ acquaintances.
Her marriage to the Baron de Staël, Swedish ambassador to France, proved unhappy and his death in 1802 was unlikely to cause her much grief, but his diplomatic immunity at times proved useful. Her knowledge of English proved useful when, in 1793, she took refuge from the worst excesses of the revolution in England.
Indeed Germaine de Staël spent much of her life travelling, and often in exile. Like Madame Tallien, she was not popular with Napoleon. Of the two, Germaine was by far the more intellectual, but both women were free-spirited, responding to events according to their own moral codes, sceptical when it came to the ambitions of those in authority.
She travelled in England, where she admired the sense of liberty; to Italy, the setting for her novel Corinne; to Russia and to Sweden; and most importantly to Germany, writing her influential De l’Allemagne. At a time when France considered itself more sophisticated and more intellectually advanced - some even said more civilized! – De l’Allemagne was revolutionary. The work discussed, with some admiration, the German people, their literature – Goethe and Schiller in particular – the philosophy of Kant and Leibniz, and championed the birth of the Romantic movement in Germany. The book was banned in France until the fall of Napoleon.
Germaine was fortunate in having her family home at Coppet, in Switzerland, but only just over the border from France. It was to serve as a refuge both for her and for her friends in need.
Germaine de Staël, had lovers, most importantly her tempestuous relationship with the novelist Benjamin Constant, but it was often her friendships with women which sustained her. Thérésia Tallien, of course, knew her, and during her time in England she became friends with Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, but perhaps one of her greatest friends and supporters was Juliette Récamier who also found herself banished from Paris by Napoleon and found refuge at Coppet with Germaine de Staël.
Through her upbringing and her travels, Germaine became an advocate of the need for the peoples of Europe to understand each other better, their different cultures, temperaments and ideas. She advocated German unity a century and a half before it happened, and she wrote sensitively about different attitudes to life in Italy and England.
The spirit linking all these women is an open mind, a willingness to learn and explore, and a way of responding to the time’s tumultuous events that combined common sense with a generous heart. And courage … no one could deny their courage.
And to finish, here is a short list of some of those other remarkable eighteenth century women, whose stories I will come back to at a later date:
Mary Wollstonecraft, whose 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman is still one of the great works of feminist literature; what many people forget is that this work was preceded by her 1790 pamphlet The Vindication of the Rights of Man, a rebuttal of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
All four of the Lennox sisters, Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah, whose lives were remarkably independent for the day (Caroline and Sarah both eloped, Sarah the more scandalously); their sons were Charles James Fox, Lord Edward Fitzgerald and the Napier brothers of Peninsular War fame (I refer you to Stella Tillyard’s excellent Aristocrats for their full story).
Jane Austen, whose sharp observations so delicately dissected English society.
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a society beauty but also an astute and committed political campaigner (and incidentally another woman whose later fame far outstripped her husband’s).
Marie Antoinette, who despite a sketchy education showed great determination and courage, for better or for worse, when engulfed by the revolution
Madame Roland, one of the leading Girondistes, a moderate revolutionary condemned to the guillotine for speaking out, and again a woman whose later fame eclipsed that of her husband.
Theroigne de Méricourt, feminist and revolutoinary – her admirers called her “La Belle Liégeoise” others called her an Amazone.
This is just the English and French list for a start. The German, Russian, Italian and Americans will come ...