Blood Sisters by Marilyn Yalom

June 28, 2021

In Blood Sisters, historian Marilyn Yalom tells the story of the French Revolution through the perspective of women’s memoirs.  She studied the memoirs of over eighty women, of various ages and social classes, who lived through the French Revolution.  In her introductory chapter, Yalom writes about the advantages and disadvantages of memoirs as sources.  The great advantage is that they provide an eyewitness account of the time, by people who had met the major figures and experienced the important events.  Even the women who lived far from the center of the action write about what life was like at the time. 

One major disadvantage of these sources is that many of the memoirs were written long after the events they recount.  Memory, of course, is imperfect, especially after so many years, and often accounts of the same events will conflict with each other.  Also, many of these memoirs, especially those by poor or working-class women who were illiterate, were dictated to someone or heavily edited.  Even women who could write often had their memoirs edited.  That means that the editor often intrudes with his (and it almost always was “his”) own perspective, and, in certain cases, we do not know exactly what was written by the author and what was written by the editor.  Another problem is that the authors of the memoirs often wrote in order to justify their actions and show themselves in the best light, so they cannot provide a balanced perspective.  Some of these memoirs were written only for the author’s family, and were not meant for publication, while others, particularly those by famous women of the time such as Manon Roland or Germaine de Staël, were meant to be published.  Many of the memoirs were written under the restored monarchy, so the authors, especially those who had supported the Revolution to some extent, and who were writing for publication, had to be careful what they said, so as not to offend the monarchs.

With these problems in mind, though, the memoirs provide a very important perspective on what life was like during the French Revolution.  The women who wrote them came from a great variety of backgrounds, but, even there, certain biases come into play.  A great majority of the women who wrote memoirs were from the aristocracy and upper classes, which means most of them opposed the Revolution.  As Yalom says, upper-class women were more likely to be literate, so that accounts for the fact that there are relatively few memoirs by working-class women who supported the Revolution.  Those that exist were, as mentioned above, dictated to someone else.  Many of the women lived in Paris, but there are also important memoirs from women who lived in the provinces, especially the Vendée region of western France, where a bloody civil war was fought between royalist and revolutionary armies.  Another important category of memoirs that Yalom uses are those by women who escaped from France and lived in exile.  Some of the authors returned to France after the Revolution, and some did not.  These authors, with a few important exceptions, were aristocrats or upper-class women.

Since Yalom used over eighty memoirs, of various lengths (one was 10 volumes, some were only a few pages), as her sources, it is impossible for her to cover them all in detail.  Fortunately, she provides an excellent annotated bibliography at the end, where she writes about each author and the events the memoir covers.  In the main part of the book, she focuses on particular women.  First of all, Yalom tells the story of the fall of the monarchy through the perspective of the Duchesse de Tourzel, governess to the royal children.  She writes of the royal family’s attempt to flee the country in 1791, and then she tells a horrifying story of the September Massacres of 1792, from which she and her daughter narrowly escaped, with the help of a stranger who, for reasons unknown to the Duchesse de Tourzel, decided to save their lives.  The Duchesse saw things in black and white, though: in her eyes, the royal family could do no wrong, and she had nothing good to say about anyone who opposed them.  This illustrates the problem with perspective in these memoirs: you see only what the author wants you to see.

The Duchesse de Tourzel was separated from the royal family at the time of the September Massacres, so she did not share their captivity.  The story of the royal family’s captivity is told from two very different points of view: first through that of Madame Royale, the only surviving child of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, and then, in one of the most moving memoirs discussed in the book, through that of Rosalie Lamorlière, a servant in the Conciergerie prison, who attended on Marie-Antoinette in her last days.  She gives a very touching account of the queen’s final moments.

The perspective then shifts to someone who thought Marie-Antoinette deserved what she got: Manon Roland, one of the most famous women of the French Revolution.  Mme Roland was the wife of a much-older man, Jean-Marie Roland, the minister of the interior, and was a strong supporter of the Revolution until it turned into the Terror.  As a young woman, before her marriage, she had wanted to be a novelist, but she decided against it, because women novelists were looked down on at the time.  She made a comment to the effect that, if their writing was bad, they were ridiculed, and if their writing was good, people said someone else must have written the novels.  Instead, Mme Roland turned her interests to politics.  Of course, at that time it was forbidden for women to vote or hold office, so she worked behind the scenes, writing her husband’s letters and speeches.  She hosted a salon for the Girondin (moderate revolutionary) deputies to the National Convention and strongly allied herself to them in their conflict with the more radical Jacobins such as Robespierre, Danton, and Marat. 

When the Jacobins expelled the Girondins from the National Convention, many of Mme Roland’s friends fled or went to prison, and were eventually guillotined.  Mme Roland herself was imprisoned, and wrote her memoirs in prison, hoping that, one day, her reputation would be restored, even though she had no hope of surviving.  She wrote about the important figures of the time, as well as her own life.  Interestingly, Mme Roland didn’t care much for other women, with a few exceptions, especially Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Marat.  She admired Corday for ridding the world of a monster.  Another exception was a friend named Sophie Grandchamp, who left her own memoir.  When Mme Roland was sent to the guillotine in 1793, she asked Sophie to watch the procession, to give her strength.

Yalom then goes on to write about two women in Robespierre’s circle.  First was his sister Charlotte, who kept house for him for many years.  Then, when Robespierre was elected to the National Convention, he lodged with the Duplay family in Paris.  It has been said that the Duplays’ daughter Éléonore became his mistress, even though no one knows that for certain.  Charlotte Robespierre hated the Duplays because they held a place in Robespierre’s affections that she had reserved for herself.  This led to a quarrel between the siblings that they never made up.  In her memoir, Charlotte deeply regrets this falling-out, and she writes of her brother as if he were a saint.  Charlotte lived until the 1830s.  Toward the end of her life, a young admirer of Robespierre named Laponneraye came to visit her, to talk about her brother, and this led to her writing the memoir, which Lapponeraye heavily edited.  Another memoir that Yalom discusses is by the youngest Duplay sister, Élisabeth, who married Robespierre’s friend Philippe Le Bas, a deputy to the National Convention, who was guillotined with him.  Élisabeth writes of her romance with Le Bas, her mother’s opposition because her older sisters were not yet married, their marriage, the birth of their son, and the execution of her husband and Robespierre, when her son was only five weeks old.

Another famous woman of the French revolution Yalom discusses is Germaine de Staël, novelist and society hostess.  Her 600-page work is not just a memoir, but also a work of political theory on the causes of the French Revolution, as well as a biography of her father, the Swiss-born finance minister Jacques Necker.  As is the case with all the memoirists, de Staël brings her own biases into her work: according to her, her father could do no wrong, and he becomes the hero of her memoir.  Necker was very popular with the French people, and his dismissal by Louis XVI was one of the events that led to the fall of the Bastille, even though de Staël probably exaggerates its importance.  The only other person besides her father whom de Staël wrote about with unqualified admiration is Lafayette.  She admired the American system of government with checks and balances and two legislative chambers instead of the one National Assembly.  De Staël wrote of the excitement of the early days of the Revolution, with the meeting the Estates-General, but she became disillusioned with the Revolution as it became increasingly radical.  She fled from Paris in 1792, in the midst of the September Massacres, and she writes thrillingly of her escape.  She spent the years of the Terror abroad, returning to France in 1795, only to be forced to leave again several years later because of her opposition to Napoleon.

After writing about the famous Mme de Staël, Yalom turns to ordinary women from the provinces, including Marie-Catherine Vallon, the daughter of a royalist notary, who voluntarily shared her father’s imprisonment, and Alexandrine des Écherolles, who experienced one of the worst massacres of the French Revolution, in Lyon.  Yalom writes of several women’s experiences of the bloody civil war in the Vendée region.  Of particular interest is the memoir of Renée Bordereau, who disguised herself as a man and served as a soldier in the royalist army, fighting in several battles.  After the war was over, Bordereau continued to live as a man.  She was illiterate, so she dictated her memoir to an editor.

The final section of the book is about women who left France during the Revolution and lived in exile.  Most of these women were aristocrats, who had to adapt their lifestyles to changing conditions.  When their families’ property was confiscated and they no longer had any money, the women had to work for a living, which was something that, as aristocrats, they had disdained before the Revolution.  Many women made a living in exile with their needlework, and some opened shops.  One particularly fascinating memoir is by Mme de la Tour du Pin who, after going into hiding in the area near Bordeaux, eventually emigrated, with her husband and children, to upstate New York, where they bought a farm.  She embraced the hard work of farming, which several of her fellow aristocratic exiles did not understand.  She, as well, as many of the exiles, eventually returned to France when it was safe to do so.  It was difficult for the exiles, especially those who had left France at a very young age, to re-adjust to life in France.  People who had come to England as children spoke English, and had forgotten their French.  Even for people who left as adults, it was hard to return because their way of life had vanished.  Besides the aristocrats, Yalom writes of several non-aristocratic exiles: a few actresses as well as the painter Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, who was known for her portraits of Marie-Antoinette and other members of the royal family.  Vigée-Lebrun spent her years of exile in Italy, Austria, and Russia at the court of Catherine the Great.

In spite of the wide differences in social and political views among the authors, the memoirs have certain things in common.  One of these things is a desire to help loved ones who were imprisoned or in hiding.  Very often, the women approached the authorities to plead for their family members, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  Many women, of course, witnessed the execution of someone they loved, and they often expressed a desire for revenge.  Renée Bordereau, for example, joined the royalist army in the Vendée to avenge the deaths of her family at the hands of the revolutionaries.  Often the women who survived the Revolution felt a sense of guilt at having survived when their loved ones died.

Blood Sisters is a wonderful book, which gives an important perspective on the French Revolution.  No matter what your opinion on the French Revolution is, or even if you don’t know much about that period, all of the stories Yalom tells are absorbing.  She makes you want to read more of these memoirs.  Most of them, of course, are in French and have not been translated into English, with the exception of those by prominent women such as Mme Roland, Mme de Staël, and Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.  Even then, some of them are only available in an abridged translation (Mme de la Tour du Pin’s memoir, for example).  The book is aimed at a scholarly audience, but reads very well, without academic jargon.  Blood Sisters was later reissued, with no additional material, under the title Compelled to Witness.  Sadly, Marilyn Yalom died in 2019.

Blood Sisters is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library and electronically through HathiTrust.