Tag Archives: French Revolution

Divorce and The French Revolution

Le Divorce by Le Sueur

 On September 20, 1792, the Legislative Assembly of the French Republic legalized divorce.  This was a first in the country’s history.  Under the Ancien Regime, the unshackling of partners was unthinkable–a move that would potentially crumble the foundation on which the First and Second Estates derived their power.

 In his Traité du contract de mariage of 1771, the French jurist Robert-Joseph Pothier wrote :

Gross adultery on the wife’s behalf and instances of extreme spousal abuse counted as rare exceptions for separation when annulment no longer remained a possibility.  In essence, marriages were immediately consummated for a reason and unless the petitioner produced testimony that might invalidate the original grounds for marriage, the couple was married until death do they part.

In cases where the law permited separation of any sort, two basic resolutions were recognized: séparation de corps et d’habitation, essentially of person/body and domicile, and less seldom, séparation de biens, or of financial accounts.  Consequently, an attitude of keeping families in their conjoined states prevailed.  As an additional argument against divorce, all children birthed during the marriage were rendered illegitimate upon the conclusion of formal legal proceedings.  Given the need for heirs, one can easily see how this could prove problematic.

Although the Enlightenment initially sparked the divorce debate, it was the French Revolution that succeeeded in secularizing family life.  Public institutions sought to invade the very private sentiments of individuals and turn them outward in service of the state.  In the first gasping breaths of the nineteenth century, a backlash developed against this transparency of state and individual, but for 24 years, marriage was viewed as a covenant which could be broken as all secular affairs could be torn down and if desired, rebuilt.  This resulted in 30,000 divorces between 1792 and 1803, the years when the divorce laws remained the most liberal.

The Morning after Marriage by James Gillray

In the centuries following the years wherein the divorce law of 1792 was active, married women and men were refused comparable rights to divorce until as late as 1975.  1884 saw the return of divorce in France, however limited.

Given its time, the law of 1792 was shockingly encompassing.  It allowed seven instances where legal proceedings were warranted:

  • “Insanity;
  • Conviction for crimes entailing corporal punishment or loss of civils rights;
  • Crimes, brutality, or grave injury inflicted by one partner on the other;
  • Notorious dissoluteness of morals;
  • Abandonment for at least two years;
  • Absence without news for at least five years; and,
  • Emigration (when taken as a sign of counterrevolutionary intentions.” 1

Note the oldest reason for marital dissolution–adultery–is nowhere to be found.

Increasingly, as the idealism of the French Revolution waned, restrictions were placed on the grounds warranting a divorce.  The Napoleonic Civil Code modified accessibilty to divorce, making it more difficult for a wife to leave her husband, as during the 1792 law, men and women enjoyed equal freedom to seek their happiness outside of marriage.  Instead of relying on grievances, Napoleon’s code initially proposed mutual incompatibility (later discarded) and/or mutual consent.  Smacks of his experience with Josephine, doesn’t it?  The formal reasons for divorce  written in the final code were: “adultery, infamous punishment of spouse, outrageous conduct, ill-usage, or grievous injury.”

If the history of divorce law during the French Revolution and/or the social circumstances warranting divorce interest you, there is a good wealth of literature out there, particularly in regard to a wife’s grievances.  Do see:

Works Cited for the Seven Grounds for Divorce

1  Aries, Philippe, and Georges Duby. “The Unstable Boundaries of the French Revolution.” A History of Private Life. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1990. Print.

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18th Century Costume Archives: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Part II

On account of a rapidly moving screen, these movie stills leave something to be desired but bear with me, it’s worth the squinty eye I’m going to force upon you.  Helena Bonaham Carter, right, wears an amazing post 1789 Fall of the Bastille gown here.   It’s the sort of gown one wouldn’t have seen before this period.  First of all, it’s striped with huge pink revers (lapels showing the lining facing out).  Second and third, a matching pink stomacher, which I suspect is more of a corset, sports an exaggerated upside down triangle design and the petticoat is not just peeking out, it’s front and center.  Whatever’s dangling from her waist reminds me of a man’s fob, but upon closer review, I think they are silhouettes.  Either that or she’s wearing sentimental trinkets displaying a favorite person or thing.   From an historical perspective, these initally grew in popularity thanks to Marie Antoinette and her elaborate poufs and of course, were similiar to carrying a beloved’s miniature.

A  Closer Look

The French Revolution brought about numerous fashion changes including a preponderance of stripes.  Why, you ask?  Stripes were the outgrowth of the patriotric “constitutional costume” and openly displayed one’s support for the fall of the ancien regime.  The national symbol for the revolution, the tricolor cockade, were concentric stripes, red, white and blue.  Working class women wore striped skirts.  San-culottes and men of political affiliations donned striped stockings.  The list goes on and on. 

If you are so inclined, The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes can fill your head with more than you ever needed to know about stripes, from the 13th century onward!

Read Part I of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Costume Archives.

The Lady and The Duke – A Review

Watching The Lady and the Duke is a unique if yawn-inducing experience.  I can’t say I’ve seen anything like it before.  The film is experimental—layered paintings in the foreground, a nearly static camera, an aesthetic and haunting recreation of the French Revolution that would be difficult, if impossible, to achieve with built sets.  The effect summons the viewer to step into a classical painting with moveable characters, yet simultaneously leaves the viewer short of interaction. 

On that account, the film is a disappointment.  One does, however, get the sense of New Wave director Eric Rohmer’s vision.  He succeeds in horrifying the viewer through the rampant violence and suspicion surrounding the heroine, Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Scotswoman and lover of Duc  d’Orleans, cousin to the king.  Working as the framework, her journals, upon which the movie is based, begin on Bastille Day, July 14, 1789 and end with the fall of Robespierre.

Grace is around thirty years of age when the film opens off Rue Miromesnil.  The chaos of the revolution has awakened and the Duc d’Orleans, no longer lover but dear friend, arrives for one of his many visits  Despite the conversational plotting—table, chairs, and talking heads in a room—Rohmer’s subtlety in achieving his message is what kept me watching.  He refrains from explicitly pinning down the conflict and although Grace develops an increasingly political voice, her outbursts appear that of a woman overwhelmed. 

Through her eyes we see the Princesse de Lamballe’s ghastly green head stuck on a pike; the ghost streets after curfew, barely restrained violence buzzing off guards as they march through the city.  Later, the ragtag band searches her house, as they do every other house in the city.  She is undressed in her bed, hiding the Marquis Champcenetz at her side, when the theme of what it means to be a good patriot takes hold of the film.  Perhaps I’ve been watching too many WWII films, but it reminded me of how the Nazi party controlled their army and the public: denounce suspected enemies of state, cry out in favor of treason at the first whiff of foul play, and keep your head by surrendering another’s—all things Grace is unwilling to do.

For Grace this proves a dangerous stance, but the Duc d’Orleans’ is more perilous.  He is fond of new, emboldened ideas, but falls short of leading their implementation, a trait which places him as the unfortunate figurehead of a revolutionary faction.  As the introduction to Grace’s journals puts it, “. . . it was necessary to group all disappointed and newly born ambitions around the Duc d’Orleans, sow gold to produce popularity, slander the queen and her entourage so as to finally put the king, already deprived of a portion of his nobility and at war with his Parliament, alone, face to face with the people.  The Duc d’Orleans was then to come forward as lieutenant of the Kingdom and interpose between the nation and the King, and they would control the government.”

Although aware of his hatred for Marie Antoinette and the Versailles Court, Grace maintains his noble senses will save his neck.  Not so.  The Revolution is out for blood, and as the film suggests, everyone—Jacobin, Girondin, Royalist—is suspect.  After all, the duke is a dog without teeth, trespassing where nobody really belongs.  

Bottom Line:

Like Grace’s journals, the film explores the little known character of the Duc d’Orleans.  It may be worth watching for the visual feast, but at two hours and nine minutes, don’t bother unless a) you are a Rohmer fan, b) you’ve read (or want to read) Grace Elliott’s journals, or c) like me, you’re a French Revolution nut.  Costume wise, it does have some stunning striped dresses.

Madame Tussaud Giveaway

Since it’s Monday and I’ve been a little light on posts lately, I thought I’d pass along a giveway for an exciting new book, Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran.  Histficchick is putting it on and also throwing in a cheeky pair of Eat Cake Marie Antoinette earrings so  hurry on over and enter!  You have until 11:59 PST on Friday, April 1st to sign up for your chance to win.

In case the name sounds familiar, Madame Tussaud is indeed the wax sculptress who founded the famous wax works musuem.  The details of Tussaud’s long life are fascinating:  entre into Versailles and the court of Louis XIV, survivor of the French Revolution, travelling businesswoman, and much, much more.  The novel spans the years of 1788-1794, amidst France’s tumultous time of the storming of the Bastille, the imprisonment and beheading of the royal family, and the birth of the Republic.

Devotees of Marie Antoinette will also appreciate the doomed queen’s appearance as the review for publisher’s weekly states Antoinette  “in particular becomes a surprisingly dimensional figure rather than the fashionplate, spendthrift caricature depicted in the pamphlets of her times.” 

Queen of Fashion – Book Review

Queen of Fashion paints a vivid picture of a defiant queen, externally frivolous, sartorially political, and, as we all know, inevitably doomed.  A queen whose legendary fashions would sweep the fabric of change before France.

 Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber

What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

Throughout her youth Marie Antoinette was a figure to be envied, despised, a foreign queen who acted more like a courtesan than a consort.  The words she never spoke (Let them eat cake!) are remembered with more vivacity than those chilling sentiments recorded in her letters (“I have seen everything, known everything, forgotten everything.” October 1789).

At the end of her life, her body wracked, hemorrhaging, her soul devoured, she would die a misunderstood queen, one that history would refuse to relinquish to the crackled pages of time.

More than any other day in her life, on October 16, 1793, she inspired a rare kind of divine awe in the populace.  As noted in Weber, “By most accounts, as the spectral white figure was escorted through the double hedgerow of navy- blue-coated soldiers who lined her path, the crowds reacted with stunned, leaden silence.”   Garbed in scraggly black mourning dress during her internment at the Conciergerie and denied those same widow’s weeds upon her death (as the privilege of mourning was associated with the aristocracy) she had one last statement up her sleeve.  In a move of fashion genius, she had saved a pristine white chemise in anticipation of her final parade .  . .

Marie Antoinette Taken to the Guillotine, William Hamilton, 1794

At the age of thirty-seven, her hair the angel white of the gaulles she wore while frolicking in the gardens of the Trianon, she proceeded to the guillotine, shorn of all royal refinement, but possessed of a final resistance: undeniable, unrelenting grace.

She went to her death as she lived her life, courageously, unwilling to confirm to the dictates of her gaolers, Versailles and later, ironically, her people.

Marie Antoinette , Joseph Ducreux, 1769

Ange ou demon?

Enemy of the Republic, royal conspirator and counterrevolutionary, that Austrian bitch or conversely, victim and bubble-headed consort, Marie Antoinette proves herself as neither.  She dusted flour in her poufs while her people starved; crippled the silk industry – a mainstay in the French luxury economy – by flaunting her preference for foreign fabrics.  She influenced Louis XVI, a soft hearted, bewildered king – a break in the imperious line his Bourbon ancestors – when consorts before her faded as forgotten queens.  Her exploits infamous far beyond France, she shadowed the already dissolute, depraved Court of Versailles in her scandals, becoming the sun itself.

January 1793:  Louis, ever faithful to her, ever weak, goes to his death wearing a coat a la cheveux de la Reine, the golden-red of his wife’s youthful hair.  The future king in an abolished monarchy, Louis Charles, her son, is ripped from her prison cell, placed in the hands of a drunkard, a fervent revolutionist bent on beating privileged sensibilities out of the boy.  Although the testimony in her trial is composed of hearsay, lies, and speculation, the memory of Madame Deficit, the Autrichienne who failed to metamorphose into a true, French royal, triumphs.

In my favorite chapter, the last entitled “White,” Weber draws her readers into this profound last vision of Marie Antoinette:  “White the simultaneous coexistence of all colors: revolutionary blue and red, royalist vilent and green.  White the color of the locks she saw the executioner slip into his pocket as her sheared her head to prepare her for her fate.  White the color of matrydom, of holy heaven of eternal life.”  And this eloquent, final prose: “White the color of a ghost too beautiful, or at least too willful, to die.  White the color of the pages which her story has been – and will be – written.  Again and again and again.”

Read it?

If, after ingesting biographies, memoirs, and blogs, Marie Antoinette still holds your imagination, your picture yet incomplete of this misunderstood queen, read Queen of Fashion.  Combining exhaustive scholarship and vast insight, Caroline Weber writes with a deft hand, reviving an icon in a flourish of silks and muslins and widow’s weeds.  Revisiting her story on a Weber’s fresh canvas, I like Marie Antoinette more and I like her less, but finally, if only a little, I think I understand her.

Book 1 of Enchanted by Josephine’s French Historicals Challenge completed!

Stripping the 18th Century English Male

How To Undress Your Hero

The basics:

Everyday Coat, Waistcoat, and Breeches on the 2nd Lord Vernon, 1767.  Note the stockings and the buckled shoes.

It was quite fashionable in the early 18th century to contruct the three piece suit out of monochromatics colors and one type of cloth.  Later on, each piece would be diffferent (and perhaps dandy) with the waistcoat made of the most expensive fabric, ususally velvet, silk, or satin.

Formal Coat & Waistcoat

The lavish embroidery on this three piece suit suggests court wear, although day wear for the rich would also include painstaking detail and the use of lush fabrics.   As a rule, the more extravagent the suit, the more costly, and the more likely to be worn by the aristocracy.   With great affluency came an abundance of ruffles and a freshly laundered state of dress not seen in the lower classes.

However, in a nod toward the simpler fashion plates produced during the French revolution (1789-1799)–not to mention the revolution’s ideals of equality–a pared down style was adopted by the gentlemen of England.  The jabot gave way to the cravat, the ruffled sleeves disappeared.  By 1785 wigs were already losing their popularity.  In 1795, the heavy tax on powders all but killed the trend that had lingered for the past 135 years.  The full bottomed wig of the early 1700’s at first gave way to a shorter style before disappearing completely in society (they were still, however, worn in the courts).

Men eventually started wearing their hair natural and shorter, which one can imagine was a godsend for the itchy scalp associated with the cumbersome hair-pieces  By the regency period (1810-ish to 1820, although some say it extends to 1790’s despite the fact that Mad George was still on the throne), short hair a la the handsome George Fiztroy, the 4th Duke of Grafton, became the norm.

The 18th century was an era of great upheaval, politically and fashion-wise.  Note the main changes in style:  the coat cuts more and more away from the waist until by the late 1780’s, men no longer button their coats.  The breeches get tighter, the hair becomes shorter, natural instead of powdered.  The waistcoat’s arms disappear entirely, the frock skirt shortens, the collar becomes more defined.  Near the late 1790’s, the jackboots we see in the Regency period are preffered over buckled shoes.  Overall, the trend leans toward streamlined cuts as seen on Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.  Notice the lack of ornamentation, the abundance of black, the absence of lush fabrics.

Got the basics down?  Now for the fun part.  Let’s get on with stripping the 18th century man!

 Undressing the Neck:

Men during this period either wore a jabot, a ruffled neck piece, as below . . .

Or a cravat like this one shown on Ralph Fiennes in The Duchess.

Coats are collarless in the first half of 1700’s; revers abound in the second half.  During this period, fashion also saw the cut of the coat change, curving away from the midline until eventually we have the evolved Regency style, which is cut very high upon the waist.  Then we have the waistcoast, sleeveless or with sleeves. . .

followed by the simple linen shirt, worn by the masses, and breeches (no fly before 1730’s; after we find a drop front where the center flap buttonned near the waistband).  Later in the 18th century, the fit became tighter so as to seem completely fitted against the thighs, a second skin if you will.  Popular fabrics were nankeen and leather.

Lastly,  the stockings (we’ve already kicked off those dreadful buckled shoes, perhaps heels of red or black, perhaps not!) and the linen drawers similar to modern day boxers but longer.  The stockings would be gartered at the knee.

And then finally, voila!

(Attribution: By After Polykleitos (Ophelia2) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Or at least one can hope.

More on Men’s Fashions:  Wigs & Wig Curlers

Interested in Ladies’ Fashions?  Look at my post on Dressing the English Lady

Vive La France!

With the Oh-La-La French Historical Challenge!

Oh, yes, readers.  More books. 

This morning while enjoying hot chocolate and reading blogs, I stumbled upon a most tempting idea at Enchanted by Josephine.  I’m psyched about this challenge because A: the French monarchy was replete with lovely, scandalous queens; B: the country has survived such fascinating socio-political climates as the Reign of Terror (aka The Revolution), the Napoleonic Empire, and the bloody  St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; and C: if I can for one moment imagine myself in a Loire Valley Chateau, preferably Chenenceau, drinking chocolat chaud and eating brioche, life is good.

So here’s what I’m thinking:

Mistress of the Revolution – Catherine Delors (Bargain price of Amazon!)

To Dance with Kings – Rosalind Laker

La Reine Margot – Alexandre Dumas

Marie Antoinette – Antonia Fraser

A Scented Palace: A Secret History of Marie Antoinette’s Perfumer -Elisabeth de Feydeau

Courtesan – Diane Haeger

The Serpent and the Moon: Two Rivals for the Love of a Renaissance King – Princess Michael of Kent

The Devil’s Queen: A Novel of Catherine de Medici – Jeanne Kalogridis

Cause really, who isn’t curious about how Medici became this austere looking?  She looks like Dracula’s bride.

Want to get in on the fun? (Oh, I’m such a geek!)  Enchanted by Jospehine has the instructions to join.  I’m aiming for  La Reine ou L’Imperatrice.

Scandals, Sex, and Soirees

18th Century Period Films

I’m a big fan of immersion when I’m working on a novel: reading the literature of the time, listening to period music, and the most fun, watching costume dramas.  My latest work takes place in Georgian England, late 18th century, with touches of the French Revolution thrown in.  I’m loving it, mostly because I’m a raging Francophile, but also because there really is a great abudance of beautiful films that take place during this period.  Take a look.

Affair of the Necklace

A countess stripped of her title.  A priceless diamond necklace, orginally intended for Comtesse du Barry, and ultimately refused by Marie Antoinette.  A daring con scheme that is ultimately, one of the final factors, in condemning the Queen of France as a spendthrift, reckless royal.

Brotherhood of the Wolf

Okay, so this film take place in 1764 to 1767, a little early, but its based after The Legend of Gevaudan, a french myth about a beast attacking the region of Gevaudan during the reign of Louis XV.  A little bit spooky and a little bit kooky (martial art scenes in 18th century France?  Huh?), not to mention sexed up – mostly it’s just fun.

The Duchess

The “It Girl” of late 18th century England, Georgiana was the fashion equal to Marie Antoinette.   She inspired the headache inducing, three foot towering coiffure, resplendent with ornaments; loved and lost Charles Grey (as in Earl Grey, famous now for his affinity for black tea with bergamot); and  had something of a gambling addiction.  The story broke my heart.  Georgiana shows such restraint and passion, but ultimately abides by the former.  The costumes are excellent, Ralph Fiennes is chillingly cold as the Duke of Devonshire, and the soundtrack haunts long after the film finishes.

If you still can’t get enough of Georgiana, there’s a wonderful site dedicated to her.  It’s one of my favorite blogs.

Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette

This film makes me want to eat cake.  It’s a confection of bright, pretty colors.  The soundtrack is oddly modern, but it works brilliantly, painting the Queen of France as a modern rock star.  She’s envied, hated, and glorious.  Although the film doesn’t extend into the gory details of the Revolution, it’s great for getting into Marie Antoinette’s (imagined) thoughts.  The cinematography is so lush, the costumes and feel of Versailles, exqusite.  I loved it!  The Antonia Fraser Biography of Antoinette is worth checking out also.

There are so many others worth checking out too, many of which I haven’t seen.

  • The Scarlet Pimpernel – many versions to choose from.  The original book by Baroness Orczy is fantastic.
  • Amazing Grace – a fine picture of the House of Lords impassioned fight over the abolition of slavery in England
  • Clarissa – Masterpiece Theatre movie concerning a rake obsessed with a virtuous rich young woman.
  • The Madness of King George – what’s better than a mad king?
  • Aristocrats – Based on a true story of four unconventional sisters stirring up society in the late 1700’s
  • Dangerous Liasons – The original Cruel Intentions with fabulous costumes
  • Danton – Subtitled in French; very accurate French Revolution period film