Wednesday 6 May 2015

Ways of Seeing (The Paris Commune) by Lydia Syson

I spent a lot of time thinking about point of view when I was writing Liberty’s Fire.  So many of my sources saw Paris as a stage, a spectacle, a panorama, and I kept trying to find a way to convey this without becoming overly theatrical myself.  But while I was actually walking the streets of Paris, I often found myself looking down.  I stared at the paving stones, and thought how different they were from London slabs, and how much better for building barricades:

 I became an expert in ventilation shafts for cellars:

Their different sizes and gratings. . .

And how they could be blocked up. . .

Thanks to Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris (the forefather of the werewolf sub-genre, which is set in 1871 and, despite this lurid cover, impressive in its historical accuracy) I even discovered the name for these openings in French: soupirail(Another new word I learned was ‘délation’, which has a very interesting history in France.)  

In the last days of the Commune, a rumour sprang up that would be the death of many women. 
‘The Emancipated Woman Shedding Light on the World’
1871, Lithograph by J. Lecerf
 “Petroleuses!” writes novelist Lucien Descaves in his spirited introduction to that rare thing, a published memoir by an active Communarde, Victorine B. [Brocher]. “Until the last days of the Paris Commune, during the red week, this designation was fatal to the unlucky women who received it from a vindictive concierge, a perfidious neighbour, a passing hallucinator, from no matter whom. . . But much later, in exile, the word marked the shoulder not just of refugees, but even their friends.” (Souvenirs d’une morte vivante*, 1909)

Paris Incendie, night of the 24-5 May 1871, Michel Charles Fichot

Paris was in flames: the Tuileries Palace was burning, part of the Louvre, the Hôtel de Ville, the Finance ministry. . .the river ran red with the reflected conflagration.  The situation felt apocalyptic.  The world decided to blame women, who had already been far too active in the Commune, with their club oratory and public pronouncements, their vigilance committees and the Union of Women.  Of course they were represented as ugly, impoverished, unnatural, wicked women with loosened hair and dishevelled clothing.  Femelles’ (‘bitches’), so maddened and unsexed or oversexed by politics that they would rather see Paris destroyed than give up their dangerous socialist ideals. 

In his 1873 illustrated catalogue of Commune ‘types’, Bertall naturally includes a Picture of ‘a pair of pétroleuses’ stealing out at night with petrol cans and matches.  He cheerfully admits that even if they didn’t exist, thanks to the fact that plenty of women had been summarily shot by soldiers on suspicion, ‘they existed in every one’s imagination’ and so the mania continued long after ‘the Insurrection’.  For weeks people bricked up cellar openings and even keyholes.  Bertall’s pétroleuses represent feverish panic rather than reality, ‘an embodiment of what all the World believed in, and feared at the Moment.’

Bertall’s image is relatively kind.  Another shows a petroleuse with a pig's snout.  They are furies, viragoes, tigresses.  They had to be punished, and they were.

The word ‘pétroleuse’ has been almost forgotten now, but it quickly became one of the most powerful and most negative political symbols of the nineteenth century, according to Gay Gullickson, author of Unruly Women of Paris: ‘The female incendiary became an international symbol, not only of the Commune itself, but also of the evils of revolution.’  

Fifteen years after the invention of the pétroleuse, Eleanor Marx Aveling’s rallying introduction to Lissagaray’s History of the Commune explains the necessity for her translation:
‘To most English people the Commune still spells ‘rapine, fear and lust’, and when they speak of its ‘atrocities’ they have some vague idea of hostages ruthlessly massacred by brutal revolutionaries, of houses burnt down by furious petroleuses.  Is it not time that English people at last learnt the truth? Is it not time they were reminded that for the sixty-five hostages shot, not by the Commune, but by a few people made mad by the massacre of prisoners by the Versaillese, the troops of law and order shot down thirty thousand men, women, and children, for the most part long after all fighting had ceased?’

Eleanor Marx
A year later her call for the truth was echoed, rather surprisingly, by a public schoolmaster best known for the anthem ‘Forty Years On’, in a lecture to the Harrow Liberal Club on 31st October 1887.  Edward Bowen decided to put together an outline of the facts as he’d experienced them because, he said ‘there are no books on the subject which are even approximately truthful’.  (I'm not sure if he includes Lissagaray's or simply hadn't come across it.)  Bowen's account is vivid, balanced, humane and also quite angry.  He concludes - and most contemporary historians agree – that shells from Versailles forces on the heights of Montmartre caused some of the fires, while others were probably started deliberately and strategically by retreating soldiers of the Commune.

‘A crime…a barbarous act…to destroy the monuments of history’ says everyone, but remember you are speaking of men who did not look on the glories of Louis XIV and the trophies of art as we do. I think they saw in them big buildings into which a common man was never allowed to penetrate, which existed for the pleasure of emperors & courtiers, and moreover, buildings the blaze of which might give the defenders some twenty-four hours longer life in this world.’

©Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections,
Northwestern University Library
As for the women incendiaries, Bowen is categorical:

’Every woman who looked ragged, or who could not stammer out a good account of herself, fell under suspicion, and no sooner was the cry of petroleuse raised than all hope for that woman was gone.  No one knows how many wretched creatures perished under the accusation.  Well, it was false from first to last.  Not one single woman was ever proved to have acted thus from one end of the week to the other.  If you wish to know on what authority I say this, it is on the authority of the chief law officer of the Versailles government.’

Liberty’s Fire is published by Hot Key Books on May 7th.  Full details of all my sources can be found on my website, where I’ve also written about some of the real women who supported the Paris Commune, such as Louise Michel, Nathalie Lemel, Elizabeth Dmitrieff, André Leo, Paule Minck and Anna Jaclard.

* I consulted a translator friend about how best to render Souvenir d'une morte vivante in English and she immediately assumed it was a book about zombies – the ‘living dead’.  Horror and the Commune are rarely far apart. ‘The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth. Now is the time of monsters’ (attributed to Gramsci) is the epigraph for a compelling article by Eric Smith analysing the Paris Commune as an important but unacknowledged source for the ‘deep social distress’ expressed in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: it’s expressed in red fogs, rats, Dracula’s pseudonym ‘de Ville’ which recalls the burning of the Hôtel de Ville, and Lucy Western as the ‘oblique invocation of the quasi-mythic female agent of the latter-day Commune, the reviled petroleuse, the loathsome embodiment of the Commune’s political/libidinal excess’. Appalled at the brutality with which the Commune was suppressed, massacres on a scale which dwarfed the endlessly decried execution of hostages, the narrator of The Werewolf of Paris concludes that we are all monsters now.  Why pick on werewolfs?


Carol Drinkwater said...

Terrifis blog, Lydia. Best of luck with the book.

Catherine Johnson said...

It's a fabulous book Lydia and this is so interesting

Clare Mulley said...

Fascinating. I nearly wrote about this when I proposed a biography of the three Marx daughters to Macmillan, just before Rachel Holmes' biography of Eleanor was announced. I will definitely be getting a copy of your book.

Penny Dolan said...

Totally fascinating article. Thanks - and looking forward to the book!

Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating - it's a piece of history I know nothing about, so am very much looking forward to the book!

Leslie Wilson said...

A really excellent blog. More really needs to be known about this period.

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