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THE FRENCH REVOLUTION THROUGH WOMEN'S EYES
STANFORD - Witnesses to a particularly bloody episode in European history, some women wrote about it as the turmoil raged around them. Others waited for decades before setting down their recollections.
Marilyn Yalom, a senior scholar at Stanford's Institute for Research on Women and Gender, has studied their memoirs in her new book, Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women's Memory, published by Basic Books.
In focusing on women, Yalom said, she was interested in two questions: "How does individual destiny intersect with national destiny, and how is that story different for women than for men?"
Confined largely to the domestic sphere, women often did not see the French Revolution in its broad political dimensions, Yalom said, but they did see the toll the revolution took on individual lives.
"Their story is for the most part the story of loved ones and friends who were destroyed by the revolution," she said.
In calling her work Blood Sisters, Yalom is suggesting a relationship among women who varied widely in social class and political allegiance. She knows that may be controversial, but as she read the women's memoirs, she said, she saw more commonalities than the women themselves might have seen.
For example, she said, these women, whether aristocrats or peasants, are not given to abstractions.
"Death is never faceless in women's memoirs," Yalom said. "When they see death, they see it carrying off a husband, a child, a friend."
In addition, she said, whatever their social class, the women share a sense of nurturance and responsibility for family members who depended on them.
These women, Yalom said, "are never willing to sacrifice a life for a principle." There are several instances in the women's memoirs in which people act to save the lives of those with different political loyalties.
"I find that very moving," Yalom said. "We all ask ourselves what would we have done in certain circumstances. Would we have turned our backs on people who were politically dangerous?"
Despite their focus on the domestic, the women writers did not want posterity to see them merely as passive participants in great events.
"As each one tells her story, she recreates herself as an active player," Yalom said. "I think it says something about the desire of each of us to place ourselves at the center of history."
Since official government policy after the execution of Marie Antoinette was to squelch any expression of women's political voice, Yalom said, writing their memoirs was a way for some women to participate, very belatedly, in the French Revolution.
Blood Sisters relates the imprisonment and execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, as witnessed by their daughter and by a servant.
Marie Antoinette, whom most Americans think "got what she deserved," Yalom said, merits a fresh biography, "one that would look at her sympathetically, but not uncritically." Using feminist insights developed over the last 20 years, such a biography would "analyze the political situation of a woman who had power without authority, and whose gender and foreign birth made her liable to extravagant forms of satire and abuse," Yalom said.
Blood Sisters grew out of Yalom's work putting together a bibliography of French women's memoirs and autobiographies published from 1793 to 1939. Sorting them into groups - writers, actresses, those related to a famous man - she found that women who had lived through the French Revolution made up the largest category of memoirists during the first decades of the 19th century.
"Whatever their experience or relationship to a famous person, their claim to autobiographical worth came from being a witness to the revolution," Yalom said.
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