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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.3 (2001) 403-419

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Sweet and Consoling Virtue: The Memoirs of Madame Roland

Lesley H. Walker

Her great soul, superior to all events, turned inward and found the force to suppress not only the natural horror of death, but also to taste, if possible, the pleasure of this last sacrifice for her country. 1

Luc-Antoine Champagneux, Oeuvres de J. M. Ph. Roland

In June of 1793, as the French Revolution radicalized and the Jacobins consolidated their political power, Marie-Jeanne Roland, along with other Girondin sympathizers, was arrested and incarcerated. From prison, she wrote what we now know as the Mémoires de Madame Roland, edited and published by Louis-Augustin-Guillaume Bosc, after her death, in 1795. Rather than culling Madame Roland's autobiographical project for its informative, historical details, as the work of Gita May and Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret have so ably done, I will examine the cultural work performed by the Mémoires. 2 Madame Roland's text is divided into two parts. One half tells the disillusioned tale of a Revolution gone wrong, of innocent victims unjustly persecuted, and of virtue shamelessly defiled. The other recounts her girlhood, which she figures as an idyllic time of domestic tranquillity where the presence of her mother guaranteed her happiness. A narrative of feminine virtue, which is dependent on maternal sacrifice, unites the two halves. Read together, they produce a portrait of exemplary feminine virtue that, by means of sympathetic identification, sought to move and shape Madame Roland's posterity. [End Page 403]

Madame Roland was, without question, one of the most influential female figures of the French Revolution. 3 During the period when the views of the Girondin party dominated the Legislative Assembly and later the Convention, her husband, Jean-Marie Roland, was appointed Interior Minister in March and reappointed in September of 1792. Madame Roland's advice and counsel were sought by the leading figures of the Girondin party. Whether it was through her involvement in the selection of ministers for her husband's cabinet, her support and editorial guidance of La Sentinelle, a radical broadsheet, or through Roland's famous letter of resignation to the king, she wielded unusual power and influence during the months of her husband's ministries. In addition to Madame Roland's role in the Revolution and the memoirs that she would subsequently pen, she is likewise well known for her girlhood letters to Sophie Cannet. These letters, in two large volumes, supply a rich documentary account of eighteenth-century life as seen by an intelligent and astute young woman, and they also attest to their author's remarkable epistolary skills.

For different reasons, the concept of virtue has raised problems for both Madame Roland's early editors and her twentieth-century critics. In the aftermath of the Terror, which had unleashed extraordinary vitriol against those perceived as "public" women, the early editors of Madame Roland's memoirs worried about the consequences of exposing her writings to the public. In the 1795 preface to the first edition, Bosc justifies at length his decision to publish her text, and expresses great concern about sullying her virtue. The injustice of revolutionary events forced Madame Roland to take up her pen in order to defend herself, explains Bosc, and thus it was only out of a concern for her countrymen, a sense of patriotic duty, that she agreed to participate in the public forum. By contrast, for today's reader, it is Madame Roland's feminine virtue that risks obfuscating this otherwise noteworthy text. Because Madame Roland felt that women should be excluded from politics and expressed strong ambivalence about female authorship, it has proven difficult to enshrine her in the contemporary pantheon of eighteenth-century women writers. Sara E. Melzer and Leslie Rabine's omission of Madame Roland from their volume, Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution (1992), is symptomatic of this difficulty. 4 For many critics, Madame Roland was not enough of a rebel.

Excess--either too much writing or too much virtue--would seem to...