Marie-Jeanne Roland Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Marie-Jeanne Roland 1754-1793

(Born Marie-Jeanne Phlipon; also known as Manon Phlipon and Manon Roland de la Platière) French memoirist.

If only for a few weeks, Madame Roland was the most powerful woman in Paris. Louis XVI of France was finally deposed, and Roland entertained, with her husband, the most powerful men of the new government. However, these powerful men—including Jean Paul Marat, Georges Jacques Danton, and Maximilien Robespierre—quickly turned on the Rolands when they failed to support their increasingly violent measures for exercising political control following the French Revolution. Within a few months, Roland had exchanged her Paris mansion for a prison cell. Awaiting execution, Roland put on paper her memories of the remarkable series of events that led to the Revolution and its violent aftermath, along with recollections from her early life. Her posthumously published Mémoires (1900-02) made her one of the leading heroines of the French Revolution and a model of feminine virtue. She left behind her one of the few accounts of women in prison during the eighteenth century and participated in the evolution of the autobiographical genre after Jean-Jacques Rousseau's influential Les Confessions.

Biographical Information

Madame Roland is often referred to in biographies as “Manon”; this was a name adopted by her family in place of her birth name, Marie-Jeanne. Manon Phlipon was born in Paris on March 17, 1754, to Pierre-Gatien Phlipon, an engraver, and Marie-Marguerite Bimont. She was their only surviving child. Though her father held the social rank of an artisan, he was a master of his craft, and the family lived comfortably if modestly. She was trained in art and music, and read widely; in her Mémoires Roland claimed that Plutarch's Lives influenced her when she was just nine years old. She also had a taste for hagiography, or saints' lives, and resolved as a girl to become a nun. To that end, she attended convent school from 1765 to 1766. That was the end of her formal schooling, but she continued her self-education by reading classical texts of history and philosophy, in addition to the works of Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau. Rousseau would become the strongest influence on Roland's thought and writing. Some biographers speculate that Roland's admiration for the heroines of Rousseau's novels even determined her choice of a husband. Roland read La Nouvelle Héloïse after the death of her mother in 1775 and in her grief found it profoundly transforming. The novel's heroine, Julie, rejects a suitor her own age, despite her feelings for him, and marries an older man of intellect. Roland followed a similar path: in 1776 her close friend Sophie Cannet introduced her to Jean-Marie Roland, a man twenty years her senior who was, in addition to his industrial pursuits, engaged in contributing to Denis Diderot's admired Encyclopédie. They married in 1780 and produced one daughter, Eudora, in 1781. Madame Roland worked as her husband's secretary, likely writing for him most of his correspondence and, later, his political addresses; possibly she wrote his contribution to the Encyclopédie as well. It was through their correspondence that the couple met friends who would later become central to the revolutionary effort. Among these was Jacques-Pierre Brissot, an attorney who became one of the leaders of the Girondins (a revolutionary faction that eventually was violently defeated by Robespierre's Jacobins). Brissot was Madame Roland's first publisher, printing some of her passionate letters on the Revolution in his journal Le Patriote Français. The couple lived in Lyons, where Jean-Marie Roland was involved in local government, but traveled frequently to Paris, where Madame Roland operated an influential political salon. She did not speak for herself on political issues, but she made sure her husband had contact with important men, including Robespierre and Danton, and she carefully guided his words. As King Louis XVI grew weaker, the revolutionaries increased their numbers in government, and in 1792 Jean-Marie Roland was appointed Minister of the Interior. Nevertheless, if the king was weak, he could still effectively slow down change; in her frustration, Madame Roland wrote a challenging letter to Louis XVI (on her husband's behalf) that swiftly led to the dismissal of all the Girondins in the Ministry. As the king lost control of the government with the insurrection of August 1792, the fortunes of the Rolands and the Girondins fell further. Madame Roland maintained an open hostility toward the new Minister of Justice, Danton, and although Jean-Marie Roland was restored to his position as Minister of the Interior, his time in the ministry was brief. Danton, Marat, and other enemies of the Girondins wanted the Rolands out. When Jean-Marie Roland opened the king's safe and found evidence of Louis XVI's illegal dealings with French enemies, his political opponents accused him of tampering with the documents to protect the king. The Bureau d'Esprit Public, effectively overseen by Madame Roland, was also tarred with rumors of treason against the Revolution, and was de-funded by extremists in the Assembly, a heavy political blow against the Rolands. Four months after retaking his ministry office, Jean-Marie Roland submitted a resignation letter, which had been written by his wife; it was January 22, 1793, the day after Louis XVI's execution. The execution of the king marked a change in the tone of the Revolution, at least from Madame Roland's perspective; noble violence against tyranny became tyrannical violence against opponents of the Jacobins in a period now called the Reign of Terror. With the help of their friend Louis-Augustin-Guillame Bosc, Jean-Marie Roland fled Paris in May 1793, fearing for his life after the complete collapse of the Girondins, but Madame Roland stayed behind out of devotion to her lover, François Buzot. Madame Roland and Buzot had fallen in love in 1792, and when Roland chose to confess her love, which she swore was unconsummated, Jean-Marie grew bitter and resentful. On May 31, 1793, Madame Roland went to prison, where she began writing the memoirs that would ensure her lasting reputation; she was incarcerated first at the Abbaye prison and then at Sainte-Pélagie. She believed the first section of her writings, the “Notices historiques” (“Historical Accounts”) to have been destroyed, and rewrote it as “Portraits et anecdotes” (“Portraits and Anecdotes”). In fact, both texts survived, along with her “Mémoires particuliers” (“Personal Memoirs”), the last of her prison memoirs. She was executed November 8, 1793. The last words attributed to her, said to be spoken to a clay statue of the figure of Liberty, are “O Liberty! What crimes are committed in your name!”

Major Works

If Louis Bosc did not save Madame Roland from execution, he did save her papers. He had collected the many notebooks she smuggled out of prison and had hidden them during the Reign of Terror. In 1795 Bosc published the first edition of Roland's memoirs, though he edited it heavily, deleting any references to her lover Buzot, any hint of sexuality or lack of feminine delicacy, and most negative references to any living figures of the French Revolution. Entitled Appel à l'impartiale postérité (1795; An Appeal to Impartial Posterity), Bosc's edition was the standard into the early twentieth century, until it was replaced by the more complete Mémoires edited by Claude Perroud in 1900. The earlier parts of the memoirs, the “Historical Accounts” and the “Portraits and Anecdotes,” are a history of the Revolution, detailing Roland's impressions of major events and figures. With the benefit of hindsight, Roland shares her initial impressions of later enemies such as Robespierre, attempting to explain her confidence in revolutionary extremists—based on their vigor and determination—and to identify when and how she began to recognize that they would betray what she considered the fundamental principles of the Revolution. Especially in the earlier writings, Roland portrays herself with feminine propriety, continuing to understate her work on behalf of her husband and her direct involvement in politics. With the “Mémoires particuliers” Roland is more direct and more self-focused. She gives an intimate history of her childhood and life as a young woman. Following the model of Rousseau's Confessions, which she greatly admired, she speaks very frankly and in great detail about topics previously unheard of in women's autobiography, small as that field was. She writes openly about sexuality, including an attempted rape, the disappointments of her wedding night, menstruation, and her love for Buzot. She also discusses the trials and frustrations of motherhood, including her efforts at breastfeeding and her disappointment in the intellect of her child. In these later memoirs, written under the shadow of her imminent death, Roland is more willing to acknowledge her role in politics, confessing that her role as a minister's wife provided an opportunity for her to participate in politics as a woman without compromising her femininity.

Critical Reception

Nineteenth-century response to Madame Roland can be fairly described as worshipful. Though she was not without her critics, primarily among Jacobin sympathizers, Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve admired her nobility, and the novelist Stendhal considered her a perfect model of feminine virtue and heroism. The Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, after reading her memoirs, called Roland “the bravest of all French women.” Biographies of Roland into the first several decades of the twentieth century repeat these themes. Mathilde Blind's Madame Roland (1886), Evangeline Blashfield's Manon Phlipon Roland (1922), Jeanette Eaton's A Daughter of the Seine (1929), and Catherine Young's A Lady Who Loved Herself (1930) constitute just a sampling of the numerous biographies and editions of Roland's memoirs that celebrated her intelligence, feminine charm, and essential goodness more than a century after her death. Attention to Roland as an author rather than a heroine did not begin until the latter part of the twentieth century, when more complete and accurate editions of her writings became available in both French and English. The dominant theme of modern scholarship on Roland has been the assessment of her feminism. A disciple of Rousseau who was virtually silent on the issue of women's rights—unlike some other female revolutionaries—Roland has been disparaged by some feminist critics who find her capitulation to her era's stereotyped gender roles an obstacle to taking her seriously. The influence of Rousseau presents a particularly vexing problem. As Gita May has observed, many women of Roland's time were deeply inspired by Rousseau, despite his negative opinion of women's capabilities. May and other scholars have emphasized the influence of Rousseau's Confessions on Roland's thought and writing, but Rousseau's novels were important as well. Dorinda Outram and Lesley Walker are among those critics who have noted the profound influence of the character of Julie on Roland and her ideas about feminine virtue. Scholars have also been interested in Roland's complex negotiation of female authorship, representing herself as a modern Tacitus while almost simultaneously disavowing any ambitions of greatness in traditionally masculine domains. Both Brigitte Szymanek and Barbara Goff have argued that Roland played with these paradoxes skillfully; Szymanek noted that Roland created a place for herself as a woman writer by seeming to embrace, rather than openly rejecting, the restrictions on her sex.