CHAR­LOTTE COR­DAY

The as­sas­si­na­tion of Marat by Char­lotte Cor­day is one of the most en­dur­ing events of the French Rev­o­lu­tion. Deb­o­rah Nash traces the young woman’s foot­steps from a farm­house in Nor­mandy to the guil­lo­tine in Paris

France - - Contents -

Ex­plore the short and tragic life of a fa­mous fig­ure in the Rev­o­lu­tion.

It was rain­ing in Paris as Char­lotte Cor­day stood in a tum­brel rum­bling its way to her place of ex­e­cu­tion. ‘ La vierge rouge’, as she be­came known, wore a white bon­net and the red chemise of the as­sas­sin. Ear­lier that morn­ing in July 1793, she had given a strand of her hair to thank the artist paint­ing her por­trait; the rest was shorn by her ex­e­cu­tioner, who now sat at the front of the cart.

The three-kilo­me­tre jour­ney from the Prison de l’ab­baye to Place de la Révo­lu­tion (today’s Place de la Con­corde) was halt­ing. Weary, she sighed, and her ex­e­cu­tioner turned and asked, “Are you find­ing it a long way?” “We’ll get there soon enough!” she replied. On reach­ing the square, the crowds swelled and jeered at the killer of the rab­ble-rous­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary Jean-paul Marat.

And it was over soon enough. The blade swooped down on the young woman and a mo­ment later the ex­e­cu­tioner’s as­sis­tant swung her head in the air for the mob to see. Play­fully, he slapped each cheek, for he was a sup­porter of Marat. There is a ru­mour that the head blushed.

Mod­est birth­place

Char­lotte Cor­day was born the third of five chil­dren in 1768 in a farm­house in the com­mune of Les Ligner­ies (present­day Les Cham­peaux) in the dé­parte­ment of Orne in Nor­mandy. Al­though her birth­place was mod­est, the Cor­day line was a wealthy one, with châteaux and manors scat­tered across the re­gion, and roots dat­ing from 1077. Look at a map and you’ll even find the vil­lage of Cordey six kilo­me­tres south of Falaise.

The Ferme du Ron­ceray still ex­ists, in the mid­dle of fields dot­ted with fruit trees, and is pri­vately owned, prob­a­bly by Parisians who mi­grate to the coun­try­side in sum­mer like swal­lows. No one lo­cally knows who they are, but the tourist guide tells me the lawn is al­ways neatly mown and the cot­tage cared for. It is pretty and tim­ber-framed, with a climb­ing rose at the front and a rust-tiled roof.

In the sun­shine you can pic­ture a lit­tle girl from two cen­turies and more ago

play­ing with her sib­lings and col­lect­ing the ap­ples fallen from the trees or walk­ing the long tracks through un­du­lat­ing fields and val­leys to visit her more af­flu­ent rel­a­tives at Cau­vi­gny and Le Re­nouard. Wher­ever Char­lotte stayed, she had beau­ti­ful views.

It is easy to ro­man­ti­cise a sim­pler way of life, but Char­lotte’s fam­ily was be­set by fi­nan­cial pres­sures – they were pen­ni­less aris­to­crats – and ill health (two of her sis­ters had dis­abil­i­ties). With the slaugh­ter of farm an­i­mals close by, the pre­ma­ture death of a si­b­ling and mother, and later ex­e­cu­tions in Caen, a re­minder of one’s own mor­tal­ity must have been a daily oc­cur­rence.

The day af­ter her birth, the Cor­days took their daugh­ter to be bap­tised in the Église Saint-sat­urnin des Ligner­ies. Built in the 12th cen­tury and re­stored in the 17th, it is con­structed from the land it sits in: wood, stone, earth. Its roof rests on wooden posts.

“If you take the walls away, the roof will still stand,” my guide M Maguin ex­plains. His af­fec­tion for the church is deeply felt. He knew the curé who was buried be­neath the nave in 1960, and has re­served his own plot in the grave­yard out­side. There are carved fig­urines of saints stand­ing on beams be­neath the rafters, and a clas­si­cal pale blue al­tar. There is no dust and there is small­ness. M Maguin lets me ring the bell. Its ro­bust chime calls out across the cen­turies. He opens the porch door, then creaks it shut. “That is the creak of the 17th cen­tury,” he says.

A som­bre stone font re­minds me why I am here. “Was she an as­sas­sin or a saint?” asks M Maguin. “In these parts we con­sider her a saint. She killed a killer.”

There are many build­ings in the re­gion that have as­so­ci­a­tions with the Cor­day fam­ily, but the two that stand out are lived-in homes. Grand, his­toric and ram­bling, they dwarf the Ferme du Ron­ceray and re­mind us of the com­par­a­tive poverty of Char­lotte’s fam­ily. Both be­longed to rel­a­tives and she vis­ited of­ten.

Small­est room

The charm­ingly en­thu­si­as­tic Pa­trick Lav­erny and his wife own the 16th-cen­tury Manoir de Cau­vi­gny in Le Re­nouard, which in the 18th cen­tury was oc­cu­pied by Char­lotte’s grand­par­ents and un­cle. This was where she learnt to read and when she stayed, she had a tiny room on the first floor at the cor­ner of the house.

“Hers is the only room that has two win­dows on dif­fer­ent walls,” M Lav­erny tells me. “It’s the small­est room, but it’s the best lit.” One of her win­dows looks on to the val­ley and rows of elms and limes gar­landed with mistle­toe. From the north-fac­ing win­dow, you can see barns and a water pump.

Each year, the Lav­erny fam­ily cel­e­brate 17 July, Saint Char­lotte’s Day, by dress­ing up and act­ing out scenes from the life of their own ‘Char­lotte’.

The sec­ond grand build­ing is the Vieux Château du Re­nouard, which now op­er­ates as a lux­u­ri­ous cham­bre d’hôte and is a mag­nif­i­cent place to spend a day or so. In the early-morn­ing mist, its tur­ret of slate and the tiled roofs seem to float as the warm Caen stone and the mor­tar of its walls dis­solve into the wooded glades. I walk round the boat­ing lake and pond. Per­haps Char­lotte’s rel­a­tive, Pierre Jean-bap­tiste de Cor­day, a roy­al­ist who lived at Le Re­nouard un­til forced to flee in 1791, took a sim­i­lar stroll. In­side the château, the ceil­ings are lofty and beamed; some are painted with fleur de lys; the bath­rooms are the size of a Lon­don stu­dio flat and the fire­places are so wide they look like por­tals to other worlds.

How marked the con­trasts must have been within this aris­to­cratic fam­ily; dif­fer­ences in wealth and po­lit­i­cal ideals that were high­lighted by the French Rev­o­lu­tion, with Roy­al­ists and

Repub­li­cans be­ing re­lated. Char­lotte’s fa­ther, Jac­ques-françois de Cor­day, had mar­ried his cousin, the ex­trav­a­gantly named Char­lotte-marie-jacqueline de Gau­tier des Authieux de Mes­nil­val, with the prom­ise that she would bring him a gen­er­ous dowry. This was not paid and, in­creas­ingly em­bit­tered, he spent most of Char­lotte’s child­hood tied up in le­gal bat­tles to se­cure the money.

These fi­nan­cial wran­glings took the Cor­day fam­ily to Caen, where they set­tled in Rue Basse, in sight of the Ab­baye aux Dames. Jac­ques-françois con­tin­ued his claim in court pro­ceed­ings against his in-laws that seem to have fol­lowed the same pro­tracted pat­tern as the fic­tional case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Charles Dick­ens’s Bleak House.

In Caen in 1782, when Char­lotte was 14 years old, the fam­ily’s sta­bil­ity was shat­tered by the death in child­birth of her mother. Jac­ques-françois was plunged into dis­ar­ray, and Char­lotte and her sis­ter Eléonore were sent to the Ab­baye aux Dames to con­tinue their ed­u­ca­tion. Hence­forth, the close­ness of fam­ily and friends and the rhythm of sea­sons that they had known were defini­tively re­placed by the aus­ter­ity of con­vent life.

Char­lotte spent five years at the Ab­baye aux Dames as a pupil, then an­other two run­ning er­rands. By all ac­counts she was a se­ri­ous child. She read deeply and per­haps tried to align the philoso­phies of the En­light­en­ment with her own life. Most his­to­ri­ans point to the sig­nif­i­cance of Char­lotte’s an­ces­try. She was the de­scen­dant of the il­lus­tri­ous 17th-cen­tury play­wright Pierre Corneille. Her read­ings shaped her Repub­li­can sym­pa­thies while her her­itage em­bed­ded a heroic con­cept of ‘ la belle mort’ and a no­ble life led by codes of hon­our.

In­side the con­vent build­ings at­tached to the abbey hangs a paint­ing of Madame de Pon­té­coulant, the Mother Su­pe­rior in charge in Char­lotte’s time. She holds her in­stru­ments of of­fice that must have ap­peared in­ef­fec­tual against the Rev­o­lu­tion’s bar­bar­ity.

From 1788 on­wards, the vi­o­lence in Caen mounted un­til the ‘City of Spires’ re­sounded to the screams of the raped, the tor­tured and the dy­ing. When a young gen­eral, who was re­lated to Madame de Pon­té­coulant’s pre­de­ces­sor, was beaten to death dur­ing ri­ots, his body parts were pa­raded out­side the abbey on a pitch fork and his heart grilled and eaten.

Char­lotte’s world be­gan to crum­ble. The gap be­tween the ideas of the En­light­en­ment and the un­re­strained cru­elty of the Rev­o­lu­tion was glar­ing. Then an event took place that pro­pelled the young con­vent girl, not yet 25, to com­mit an as­sas­si­na­tion that would lead to her an­ni­hi­la­tion but as­sure her im­mor­tal­ity.

On the wall of the Ab­baye aux Dames, a plaque com­mem­o­rates Père Gom­bault, Char­lotte’s con­fes­sor and fam­ily friend. In 1793 he was im­pris­oned in a cell at the top of the town’s Ab­baye aux Hommes (into the wall he scratched a quo­ta­tion from Corneille), then dragged up Rue Monte à Re­gret (now called Rue aux Fro­mages) and ex­e­cuted on Place du Pilori (the present-day Place Saint-sau­veur).

Wit­ness to ex­e­cu­tion

By this time, the abbeys had been shut down and Char­lotte was liv­ing in Caen with an el­derly rel­a­tive on Rue Sain­tJean. She al­most cer­tainly wit­nessed the ex­e­cu­tion. Her cousin’s apart­ment no longer ex­ists; a choco­late shop has taken its place and Char­lotte’s name. While stay­ing with Madame de Bret­tevilleGou­ville, Char­lotte got to know the Girondins, the Repub­li­can mod­er­ates ex­iled from Paris. She read and lis­tened to their dis­course and the name of Jean-paul Marat was never far away.

Marat, a rad­i­cal jour­nal­ist, used his news­pa­pers to in­cite the Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies to mas­sacre the no­bles and the priests. It is an irony that a man killed by a knife should ex­tol its use as a weapon: “The dag­ger is the only weapon ap­pro­pri­ate for men of lib­erty. With a well-sharp­ened knife you can strike your en­emy in bat­tle or on a street cor­ner!”

Marat had con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence. He was elected to the Na­tional Con­ven­tion, where few would sit next to him, not solely out of ter­ror but be­cause the weep­ing blis­ters caused by his skin con­di­tion made a stink­ing abom­i­na­tion of his body.

His­to­ri­ans agree that Marat’s ill­ness meant he had not long to live when Char­lotte took the de­ci­sion to kill him. In her let­ters, she re­peated her mo­ti­va­tion to re­turn France to peace, that she had com­mit­ted her crime for the French peo­ple. “I killed one man to save one hun­dred thou­sand,” she said.

Three months af­ter Père Gom­bault’s ex­e­cu­tion, Char­lotte was in a stage­coach destined for the cap­i­tal. “Her jour­ney

lasted 45 hours. She had never trav­elled so far, in or­der to kill a man she had never met,” says Hélène Mau­riceKerymer, au­thor of a fic­tion­alised first-per­son ac­count of Char­lotte’s life.

In Paris, Char­lotte stayed at a ho­tel in Rue Hérold. On the morn­ing of 13 July, she bought an or­di­nary kitchen knife from a shop in what is now the Ga­lerie de Valois. She hid the knife and a let­ter – Adresse aux Français – in her cor­sage, be­fore mak­ing her way to Marat’s apart­ment in Rue des Corde­liers.

She was re­fused en­try sev­eral times and only at the end of the day did she suc­ceed in meet­ing the deputy, who was at work in a bath filled with sul­phurous water to soothe the welts on his body. She had used the pre­text of hand­ing over the names of prom­i­nent Girondins hid­ing in Caen to gain ac­cess. When Marat af­firmed they would be rounded up and guil­lotined, the young woman plunged her knife into his heart.

At her trial, the court found it hard to be­lieve that she had acted alone and as­sumed she had a lover among the Girondins. When a post-mortem ex­am­i­na­tion proved con­clu­sively that this was not the case, she was re­garded as a crazed fa­natic. Marat, mean­while, be­came a mar­tyr to the cause, his body ini­tially buried in the Pan­théon.

With time, rep­u­ta­tions were re­assessed; Marat’s be­came tar­nished and the streets named af­ter him changed, while Char­lotte’s act was reap­praised. Was she a ‘Madame Bo­vary’? (a ro­man­tic fan­ta­sist) asks Mau­rice-kerymer. Was there a sui­ci­dal dimension to her de­ci­sion? Was she a hero­ine or a re­li­gious mys­tic? What is cer­tain is that over lunch and din­ner in Nor­mandy and Paris, her name re­peat­edly came up in con­ver­sa­tion.

More than 200 years later, peo­ple re­main fas­ci­nated by the short life of this sin­gu­lar woman.

ABOVE: A por­trait of Char­lotte Cor­day in prison, on dis­play in the Ab­baye aux Hommes in Caen; RIGHT: Jac­ques-louis David’s 1793 paint­ing Le Mort de Marat

ABOVE: The Ferme du Ron­ceray in the present-day com­mune of Les Cham­peaux, where Char­lotte Cor­day was born; INSET: The al­tar in the Église Saint-sat­urnin des Ligner­ies: TOP RIGHT: The Ab­baye aux Dames in Caen; RIGHT: The Cho­co­latier Char­lotte Cor­day in Cae

ABOVE: Char­lotte Cor­day be­ing taken in a tum­brel to her ex­e­cu­tion in Place de la Révo­lu­tion

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