The Angel of the Assassination: Charlotte de Corday by Joseph Shearing

The Angel of the Assassination: Charlotte de Corday is a biography of Charlotte Corday (1768-1793), the young woman who assassinated Jean-Paul Marat, one of the most bloodthirsty leaders of the French Revolution, in his bathtub.  The author is Joseph Shearing, a pseudonym for Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long (1885-1952), who also wrote as Marjorie Bowen, and under several other pseudonyms.  She wrote over 150 books, many of them under the Bowen pseudonym.  Her first book was The Viper of Milan, a violent historical novel set in medieval Italy, which she wrote when she was sixteen, and which was rejected by several publishers because they thought it was inappropriate for a young woman to write such a violent novel.  When it finally found a publisher, it became a bestseller.  The Bowen novels were mostly historical romances, and the Shearing novels were mostly mysteries based on true crimes.  For a long time, the Shearing pseudonym was a secret, and people thought the books were written by a man.

This particular book is something of a departure for Shearing, because it is a biography, not a novel, but even though it is nonfiction, it reads like a political thriller or a novel of suspense.  It has dialogue, and Shearing gets into Charlotte Corday's head and really shows the reader what Charlotte is thinking.  It is an amazing journey into the mind of an assassin.  Charlotte Corday was born in 1768 into a noble family of Normandy.  Her father was the third son of a nobleman and, because property went to the oldest son, he had only a small amount of land and hardly any money.  What money he had went into financing his sons' education at the royal military academy.  This was the same academy where Napoleon Bonaparte was a student, even though Charlotte's brothers would have been too old to have been Napoleon's classmates.  Charlotte and her younger sister grew up in their father's farmhouse and had to endure his fits of temper.  He was always very bitter because he had to live like a peasant, even though he was a nobleman.  Charlotte was a brilliant girl, and she received her early education from her uncle, an independent-minded priest, who introduced her to the works of Rousseau and Plutarch.

Charlotte's mother, to whom she was very close, died young, in childbirth, and the baby died as well.  After this tragedy, the family moved to Caen, where Charlotte eventually became a nun at the Abbaye-aux-Dames.  Charlotte was never happier than when she was a nun, even though some of the nuns did not want to admit her to the convent.  She was the most brilliant of the novices, but also the most rebellious, frequently arguing with her confessor.  The abbess, a young woman herself, supported her against the objections of the other nuns.  As a nun, Charlotte continued to be a great reader.  Besides Rousseau and Plutarch, as mentioned above, Charlotte read the dramas of her ancestor, Pierre Corneille, which often featured the heroes of antiquity.  Her personal hero, interestingly enough, was Brutus.  Shearing does not say whether Charlotte read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.  She certainly had a gift for languages and read English, as well as Italian and Latin.  In Corneille's dramas, the heroes were depicted as all good, and the villains as all evil.  Throughout her life, Charlotte had a tendency to see things in black and white, without seeing the shades in between, and I think this is what Shearing sees as her most important flaw, besides her willingness to use violence, which, of course, is a common flaw in many people, at all times.  Shearing is largely sympathetic to Charlotte, and this flaw can easily be explained because she was so young, and led a very sheltered life.

Another work which was very important to Charlotte was the Abbé Raynal's Histoire des Deux Indes, the history of the East and West Indies.  This was a bestseller in its time, even though it's hardly ever read today.  It was a major antislavery work, and it was considered heretical, although, interestingly, the abbey owned a copy of it.  It was the influence of this work and Rousseau that led to Charlotte's early support for the French Revolution--a support which was not shared by the other nuns or the members of her family.

After the National Assembly closed France's convents, Charlotte had to return to her father's house, where she was extremely unhappy, because she was always fighting with him about the revolution.  She earned some money by teaching the children in the town, and all the children loved her.  Eventually, she couldn't stand the atmosphere of her father's house any more, and she went to live with Madame de Bretteville, an elderly relative in Caen, whom she had never met before, and who was unwilling to take her into her house at first.  Madame de Bretteville kept trying to marry Charlotte off, but Charlotte was totally uninterested in her suitors.  She had no desire to marry, and none of her suitors lived up to her ideal heroes--the ones she read about in Plutarch and Corneille.

As the French Revolution became increasingly radical and violent, Charlotte became disillusioned with it.  She supported the Girondins, the moderate revolutionaries, who in her mind came closest to her ideal men.  Shearing, although very sympathetic to Charlotte, does not care much for the Girondins.  She views them as well-intentioned, but what they had in mind for France would never have worked in real life: they imagined the country as Rousseau's utopia.  Just like Charlotte, they were idealists, and she shared their vision.  Charlotte often read the Girondin newspapers, where they portrayed Marat as the villain of the revolution, responsible for the September Massacres of 1792, where thousands of prisoners were murdered, and for sending countless people to the guillotine.

After the Girondins were expelled from the National Convention, many of their leaders went to Caen and took up lodgings in a hotel near Charlotte's house, where she spoke to them, especially to Charles Barbaroux, a handsome deputy from Marseille.  Other authors have imagined a romance between Charlotte and Barbaroux, but Shearing (who, let's not forget, was best known as an author of romances under her Bowen pseudonym) says there was no romance in Charlotte's life.  In real life, Barbaroux didn't live up to her ideal, but that didn't matter by that point, because by then Charlotte was determined to kill Marat, and she was only using Barbaroux in order to gain admission to the National Convention.  At first, Charlotte planned to kill him in the Convention, and did not know that, by this time, Marat was so ill that he never went to the Convention any more, and spent his time soaking in his bathtub to relieve the pain from a severe skin disease.

Shearing does an excellent job of portraying Charlotte's struggles with her conscience, in deciding whether or not to kill Marat.  As a religious woman, she thought of killing as a sin, but she decided in the end that it was more important to rid the world of a monster and save the people of France.  Her dilemma is depicted in the notes she wrote to herself, which she left behind in Caen, which said, "Will I or won't I?"  Eventually, she left Caen for Paris, where she bought a knife at a shop in the Palais-Royal.  She was upset to find out that Marat was no longer going to the National Convention, and had to find a way to gain admission to his house,  She came up with a ruse where she sent a note to him saying she had information about the Girondins staying in Caen.  Marat admitted her to his house, where she stabbed him in the bathtub.  Charlotte was immediately arrested and imprisoned in the Conciergerie.  A few days later, she faced trial for her crime.  Unexpectedly, the head of the Revolutionary Tribunal was so moved by her story that he changed the wording in the accusation enough so that she could be given a lighter sentence, but the public prosecutor, one of the cruelest of the revolutionaries, was furious with him and demanded that Charlotte be guillotined.  To everyone's surprise, including Charlotte's, the jury took a long time to deliberate, but eventually they condemned her to death, and she was guillotined for her crime.  Until the end, she never felt any remorse.  She felt she had done the right thing and saved France from evil.  Shearing frequently compares Charlotte to Joan of Arc.  Many people couldn't believe that Charlotte acted alone, and thought she must have had male accomplices, and that she slept with all of them.  After she was guillotined, her body was examined, and it turned out she was a virgin.  Similar charges of sexual promiscuity were made against Joan of Arc,

Shearing tells Marat's story along with Charlotte's, although in much less detail.  She gives Marat no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  Marat was born in Switzerland to a Calvinist family, although later he became an atheist.  He was a doctor and scientist, and wrote treatises challenging Newton.  Marat was an extreme egoist and saw everything in terms of how it affected him.  He became a revolutionary because he thought the establishment did not treat him right.  He developed his illness while hiding out in the sewers and other unsanitary places, and eventually the illness affected his brain.  Marat was mentally unstable throughout the revolution.  Calling himself the friend of the people, after the title of his newspaper, L'Ami du Peuple, Marat became extremely popular with the common people, but, according to Shearing, he never really cared about the people, only about himself.  He told the people what they wanted to hear, and that was why they loved him.  In his newspaper, Marat constantly called for the chopping off of heads, and at one point he demanded that 200,000 people be guillotined.  Even his colleagues in the National Convention, including Robespierre, didn't care much for him, even though they pretended to support him, out of fear.  Robespierre was at best an uneasy ally.  The Girondins put Marat on trial in the spring of 1793, but it backfired on them.  Marat was acquitted, and this attempt to condemn Marat led to their own expulsion from the Convention.  It was after these events that Charlotte first conceived of her plan to kill Marat.

Charlotte's and Marat's stories are interspersed with that of a young German named Adam Lux, who is not as well known.  Lux was from Mainz, Germany, which bordered France and was annexed to France during the revolution.  An idealist very much like Charlotte, Lux supported the revolution in its early days, and became one of Mainz's representatives in France.  With the rise of Marat and the Jacobins, Lux felt nothing but disillusionment and despair.  Hoping to save the country, he decided to speak to the National Convention and then kill himself.  He thought his suicide would move the Jacobins so much that they would relent in their violence.  Lux's friends talked him out of his plan.  After Charlotte Corday killed Marat and was guillotined, Lux was so moved by her act that he wrote a pamphlet defending her.  This led to his arrest, and he was later guillotined, around the same time as many of the Girondins.  Shearing depicts Charlotte and Adam Lux as very similar in their minds, and they read many of the same works.  She portrays Lux as a male version of Charlotte.

Shearing's book is a compelling read, and I highly recommend it.  Even if you know what happens, she keeps up the suspense.  She definitely has strong opinions in favor of Charlotte and Adam Lux and against Marat, but she gets her facts right and tells these events in a way that makes them very interesting to the reader.

The Angel of the Assassination: Charlotte de Corday is available from the Buhr Shelving Facility.  Interestingly, the library's copy is cataloged under the Bowen pseudonym, even though Shearing's name appears on the title page.