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  • Woman, My Symbol
  • Colette Gaudin

In the notes for his February 12, 1846 Course at the Collège de France, Michelet cites Gericault: "Quand je veux faire une femme, il se trouve que c'est un lion."1 The painter, Michelet explains, died at a time of intense struggle and heroism, too young to experience hisaccession to grace. Michelet had long associated grace—a feminine motif—with everything that led history astray, that is, away from justice. Unlike Gericault, Michelet lived long enough to recognize the necessity of harmonizing grace and justice. He never stopped discussing 'woman,' persuading himself that he had captured her essence, as he jots in his March 14, 1858 Journal: "Il te faut faire ta femme et te faire toi-même."2 If history is a calling, as he claims in his 1849 course, then woman is a religion, whether she be a saint, a simple bourgeoise to be educated or a witch. More than a theme in his corpus, the topic expandedwith the multiplicity and wealth of its variations, becoming rather an interrogation that requireda response. As Ballanche puts it, "la femme est une initiation."3

There was nevertheless a progression in Michelet's depiction of 'woman,' whom he calledhis symbol as early as1845. His focus culminatedin texts specifically devotedto the exploration of the phenomenon: Les Femmes de la Révolution (1854), L'Amour andLa Femme in 1858 and 1859—the two halvesof his nineteenth-century gospelregarding the paternalistic bourgeois family—then La Sorcière in 1862. L'Oiseau (1856), L'Insecte (1857), La Mer (1861), and La Montagne (1868) orchestrate naturalist themes concerning women. Before losing his chair at the Collège de France, Michelet had given his 1849 course the title "L'Amour comme éducation," and that of the following year, "Éducation de la femme et par la femme." In these courses he depicted woman in an exalted style as nature, as the eternal lover. These post-1848 texts reflecteda turning point both in his life and in history. 1848, a year of revolutionary impulse in Europe and in France, was both the date of the proclamation of the Second Republic, andthe beginning of itsdissolution. Buta significant event in Michelet's personal life attenuated his bitter disappointment in the aborted revolution. The fifty year-old historian, madly in love, embarked on an extraordinary adventure with Athénaïs Mialaret, whom he married the following year. He marveled at the convergence between history and his personal life. "Cette terrible année 48 la fit et la mûrit, pour moi, d'une [End Page 45] étonnante manière."4 In short his wife, woman, thenentered historical time, joining that center of creation which wasthe historian himself.

From that time forward, Michelet's hymn to woman amplified and grewmore diverse in his writing. At the same time, he undertooka quasi-obsessional study of his wife's body in his private Journal, where he takes pride in being the first to do so in such detail. He also rediscoveredthe strength of love, not only in his life but in history. "L'histoire du monde semble l'histoire de la haine et de l'amour."5 Sentiment suffuses everything and illuminates the antagonistic forces that dominate the past. Thus the Middle Ages, he states, seriously erred by ignoring that love is ultimately identical with justice. Moreover, the theme is amplified in his vision of anamorous struggle between the forces that arrest the time of history, like Christianity, and those that promote it and cause it to progress toward a triumph of the people. His vision is not without ambiguity, however, as to the value of the feminine factor in the destiny of humanity.

Michelet acknowledged having always been "un cœur brûlant" long before admitting Athénaïs into his life. The first six volumes of his Histoire de France that had been published before he met her abound with female characters, whereas most nineteenth-century historians relegated women to the background. Above all, Michelet highlights the role of powerful women during the Middle Ages. Far from being ancillary characters, they acted, they arguedabout states and thrones, they defendedcities and governedin the name of...


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