Piercy, Marge. City of Darkness, City of Light. New York:
Fawcett Columbine, 1996. 479 p. ISBN 0-449-91268-X LCCN 96-24748

City of Darkness, City of Light tells the story of three courageous women at the time of the French Revolution. Claire Lacombe is the daughter of an impoverished family in the south of France who joins a traveling theatrical company as an actress. Eventually, she becomes a leader in the revolutionary movement for women's rights. Manon Roland, intellectual and disciple of Rousseau, is the wife of a much-older government official and the hostess of a political salon in Paris. During the Revolution, Manon is a member of the Girondist (moderate republican) faction, but, because of her traditional view of the role of women, feels that she must always do her work through men: first her husband, then her lover, the Girondist politician François Buzot. Pauline Léon, an orphan and owner of a chocolate store in one of the poorest sections of Paris, witnesses the execution of the leaders of a bread riot; partly as a result of this childhood experience, Pauline herself takes to the streets as a political agitator during the Revolution. Together with Claire Lacombe, Pauline founds the society of Revolutionary Republican Women, an organization which works for women's rights, more democracy, and economic controls.

Piercy intertwines the story of these women with the story of three men: the Marquis de Condorcet, mathematician and intellectual nobleman, who tries to keep a balance between the old society and the new, and the more familiar figures of Robespierre, leader of the Terror, and Danton, Robespierre's one-time friend and, later, dangerous opponent. Although the men are important characters, this novel is really about the women and shows us a side of the French Revolution that we do not see in most histories: the struggle for women's rights.

Besides the six principal characters, there are several fascinating secondary characters. Condorcet's much-younger wife, Sophie, is an intellectual noblewoman, which was quite unusual at the time; noblewomen were taught, above all, to be attractive to men, and their education was usually limited to drawing, painting, needlework, dancing, music, and a little reading and writing (see L'Education des filles aux temps des Lumières by Martine Sonnet for the education of women--noble and non-noble--in the eighteenth century). At a time when most French noblewomen could not speak any foreign languages, except possibly a little Latin learned at convent schools, Sophie de Condorcet was fluent in Italian and English; as Piercy points out, she translated Adam Smith during the Revolution. Piercy also depicts Sophie as a rival to Manon Roland; Sophie was the hostess of a salon which, unlike Manon Roland's salon, included other women. Manon Roland always seemed to perceive other intellectual women as rivals and a threat to her position as the leading salon hostess in Paris, rather than as possible friends; Sophie de Condorcet was no exception (see the biographies of Manon Roland by Gita May and Françoise Kermina for her attitude towards other women). One of the most memorable parts of Piercy's novel is the relationship between Condorcet and Sophie; a particularly touching scene comes towards the end, when Sophie, who has been forced to divorce the outlawed Condorcet so that her property will not be confiscated, visits him in his hiding-place shortly before his death.

Also interesting are several lower-class Paris women who are friends of Claire and Pauline. There is Hélène, Claire's fellow-actress and close friend to whom Claire is, possibly, sexually attracted (although Piercy does not make this clear); in a horrifying scene, Claire takes Hélène to a "wise woman" to get an abortion. Babette, Aimée, and Victoire are childhood friends of Pauline; on July 17, 1791, Pauline witnesses Aimée's tragic death in the massacre of the Champ de Mars, when Lafayette's National Guard fired on the people, who were petitioning for a republican government (Lafayette, incidentally, is depicted quite negatively in the novel); Pauline's later violence and fanaticism can be seen as a desire to avenge Aimée's death. Victoire is an old-clothes dealer, slightly older than Pauline, who becomes the first divorcée and, later, Claire's lesbian lover.

There are several historical inaccuracies in the novel, although these are minor details for the most part; the worst is probably Robespierre's love affair with Eléanore Duplay, which many historians have dismissed as a legend (see, for example, the biographies of Robespierre by Norman Hampson and David P. Jordan). Eléanore Duplay, the oldest of the three daughters of the carpenter Duplay, in whose house Robespierre lived from 1791 to 1794, was, according to some romantically-minded biographers, secretly engaged to Robespierre. The only evidence for this comes from Eléanore's sister, Elisabeth Le Bas, who, however, is not the most reliable of witnesses, being somewhat romantically-minded herself. Robespierre's sister Charlotte vigorously denied that Eléanore was anything other than a friend to Robespierre, although her evidence is also suspect, since she hated all the Duplays except Elisabeth. (Incidentally, Piercy depicts Charlotte Robespierre negatively, as a jealous, possessive, and silly woman; for a different interpretation see Marilyn Yalom, Blood Sisters, which also contains a chapter on Elisabeth Le Bas.) Several nineteenth- and early twentieth-century biographers have taken the story seriously (see Hilaire Belloc's biography of Robespierre), but no one, to my knowledge, has ever suggested that the "affair", if there was one, went as far as Piercy says it did; in Piercy's novel, Robespierre and Eléanore have full sexual relations in her parents' house. This seems extremely unlikely. Would Robespierre and Eléanore have run the risk of being discovered by her parents, who probably would have forced them to get married, although Robespierre makes it perfectly clear that he does not want to get married until he considers the Revolution to be over? I seriously doubt it.

I also had problems with Piercy's interpretation of Camille Desmoulins and his wife Lucile. Piercy depicts Desmoulins as a promiscuous (and bisexual) overgrown adolescent. She repeats the often-told story that Desmoulins had been in love with Lucile's mother, Mme. Duplessis, when Lucile was still a child. This is simply not true; as Jean-Paul Bertaud's biography (Camille et Lucile Desmoulins) indicates, Desmoulins, as a struggling young writer, wrote flattering letters to the wealthy Mme. Duplessis, asking for her literary patronage. Although the letters may have seemed to Desmoulins' enemies to be love letters, they were not. There is no evidence that Desmoulins was bisexual, or that he was unfaithful to his wife.

Lucile Desmoulins is characterized as somewhat shallow, an extravagant spender, and easily frightened; in the novel, she spends the whole night of August 10, 1792, when the monarchy was overthrown, weeping in a corner while her husband goes off to fight. On the contrary, we know that Lucile acted bravely that night, comforting a friend, Louise Robert, who was afraid that her husband would not come back from the fighting (see the recent edition of Lucile Desmoulins' diaries, 1995). In contrast to her husband, who cried on the way to the guillotine, Lucile went bravely to her execution in 1794; there is no doubt at all about her courage. Far from being shallow-minded, Lucile was quite an intellectual, although probably not quite on the same level as Manon Roland (see Lucile's diaries, where she discusses her reading, and also the Bertaud biography).

Piercy also makes some minor factual errors. She makes François Buzot and another Girondist leader, Jean-Baptiste Louvet, members of the Legislative Assembly (1791-1792), when in fact they were not. Buzot was a member of the National Constituant Assembly (1789-1791; the former Estates-General), which decreed that its members should not be re-elected to its successor, the Legislative Assembly; later, he was elected to the National Convention in 1792. Louvet was not a member of any national assembly until he was elected to the National Convention. Also, in Piercy's novel the Revolutionary Calendar is adopted too soon; the calendar was actually adopted towards the end of 1793, but Piercy speaks of its use in her chapter on the king's trial in January 1793 (p. 335).

For the most part, the novel is well-written. At times, however, Piercy's language is too modern. The use of words such as "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" and phrases such as "nest egg" (p. 200) and "the price...has skyrocketed" (p. 463) are somewhat distracting and give Piercy's dialogue a twentieth-century flavor. Also disturbing is the use of first names--Robespierre is called "Max" and Danton, "Georges"--at a time when even close friends called each other by their last names.

In spite of the errors, some questionable character interpretations, and very modern language, City of Darkness, City of Light is a wonderful historical novel. It is fascinating to see the same events described from multiple points of view. A good example is the attack by the people of Paris on the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792, which brought down the monarchy. First we see this event from Pauline's point of view; Pauline (and Claire) took part in the fighting at the Tuileries, and from her perspective we see it as a great victory for the common people. Later, however, comes a chapter written from Condorcet's point of view, in which he and another Girondist leader, Jacques-Pierre Brissot, see the bodies of the victims; they are so disgusted by what they see that they throw up. Here we see the people's victory of August 10 not as a great triumph, but as a horrifying slaughter. Piercy does a wonderful job of portraying characters with differing political opinions sympathetically. All six of the principal characters--even Robespierre at times--have the reader's sympathies, although the characters themselves are violently opposed to each other and, in some cases, bring about each other's deaths. The only disadvantage to this use of multiple perspectives is that sometimes we are not quite sure whose side Piercy is really on. It appears that her sympathies, for the most part, lie with Claire and Pauline and the Revolutionary Republican Women, who were on the far left of the political spectrum during the Revolution (even Robespierre was not radical enough for them), but Piercy also appears to have sympathy for Manon Roland, whose political opinions were sometimes in complete opposition to those of Claire and Pauline.

Throughout the book, Manon seems to be a contrasting figure to Claire and Pauline. We can see this even at the very beginning, where their childhoods are described; Manon came from a "bourgeois" family and a relatively privileged background, while Claire and Pauline both come from extremely poor families. Probably because of her background, Manon never fully understands the life of the poor, and, during the Revolution, she does not understand their political demands, such as democracy and price controls. To her, the Revolutionary Republican Women are nothing but rabble-rousers, to be feared because they do not behave like "proper" women, not only because of their radical politics, but also because of their style of dress: trousers and red liberty caps. In Piercy's novel, Manon is strongly opposed to giving women the right to vote, which was one of the Revolutionary Republican Women's basic demands. Actually, this was not true; a biography of Manon Roland (The Roland Woman by Martha Walling Howard) tells us that Manon had a much greater interest in women's rights than was previously thought. (This brings up another problem with Piercy's novel; it is unfortunate that Piercy does not list her sources; she has obviously done a great deal of research, but I, at least, would like to know exactly what sources she used.)

Interestingly, Condorcet, who was, like Manon Roland, a Girondist, is seen as a greater advocate of women's rights than Manon. According to Piercy, in his project for a constitution, which was rejected by the National Convention, he wished to give women the right to vote; other members of the constitutional committee, who were members of Manon Roland's circle, forced him to remove this passage. Martha Walling Howard's biography of Manon Roland gives us a different interpretation; she says that it was Manon who wanted to add the passage about women's right to vote, but Condorcet and his committee rejected it.

Probably the most interesting characters in the novel are Claire and Pauline. Although much has been written about Manon Roland, Condorcet, Robespierre, and Danton, not much is known about Claire Lacombe and Pauline Léon; as Piercy says in her preface, she had to invent many details about their lives. Of the main characters, these two are much more Piercy's creations than the other four. While reading about them, I often wondered how much was real and how much was Piercy's invention. For example, did Claire really act in a play by Olympe de Gouges (a leading feminist playwright and author of the "Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Citizen"; guillotined in 1793 for her defense of the king)? Did Pauline really have a lover who was drafted into the army before the Revolution and then never returned? Did Pauline lose a close friend at the Champ de Mars massacre? Was Claire really a lesbian? (This did seem surprising; Claire has many affairs with men throughout the novel and does not discover that she is a lesbian until the very end.) Also, what about Claire's many lovers--were they all real people? Again, I wish Piercy had listed her sources.

Although Claire and Pauline are on the same side--the extreme left--during the Revolution, there are some interesting differences between them. (But were these real or invented?) At first, Pauline seems to be a better person than Claire, but during the Terror, Pauline is much more of a fanatic. She applauds the guillotine enthusiastically, while Claire can not; possibly, Pauline's loss of her friend on the Champ de Mars is responsible for this. Claire and Pauline have contrasting lifestyles; Claire has sex with many men (including Danton); Pauline stays faithful to her absent lover until she meets Théo Leclerc, an army officer, journalist, and leader of the extreme radicals (and also Claire's former lover), whom she eventually marries. After the Revolution, Pauline leads a "conventional" life with Théo and their children, while Claire lives with her lesbian lover Victoire. In the very last chapter, Pauline visits Claire and Victoire at their country house in 1812; Pauline does not understand the nature of Claire's and Victoire's relationship, and wonders why Claire never got married.

Probably the most original thing about Piercy's novel is its sympathetic portrayal of the Revolutionary Republican Women. This organization fought hard for democracy and women's rights. If what Piercy says is accurate, Claire and Pauline participated in every major conflict of the Revolution: the fall of the Bastille, the women's march to Versailles in 1789, the Champ de Mars petition in 1791, the invasion of the Tuileries Palace on June 20, 1792, the successful attack on the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, and the expulsion of the Girondists from the National Convention on June 2, 1793. Unfortunately, according to Piercy, the Revolutionary Republican Women's efforts were not appreciated by their male political allies: first by Robespierre and the Jacobins, who abolished the organization when Robespierre felt he needed the support of the property-owning classes, and then by Hébert and the extreme radicals, who did not do enough to help the women after they started meeting in secret. The Revolutionary Republican Women have often been portrayed unsympathetically as rowdy, bloodthirsty women, carrying pikes and other makeshift weapons; the "furies of the guillotine". Dickens' Mme. Defarge comes to mind. Many histories of the French Revolution give them only a few sentences (see, for example, Women of the French Revolution by Linda Kelly, which discusses them very briefly and somewhat unsympathetically). Piercy's novel gives us an entirely different perspective.

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Copyright 1997 Vicki Kondelik.