Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Portrait of a Portrait of a Lady: Anne Theroigne

Sometimes bit players steal the show.

That is not to say the historical figures of Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre are upstaged by the sparse appearances of Anne Theroigne in Hilary Mantel's
"A Place of Greater Safety: A Novel," but she certainly adds to the conversation.

This post is both about a fascinating person, and about the author's masterful crafting of a secondary book character.

highwayscribery's own novel "Vedette: or Conversations with the Flamenco Shadows,"and posts like "Birthday Card for Tina Modotti," are evidence of an abiding interest in female revolutionaries. No less sanguinary or egalitarian in action and thought, Anne-Josephe Theroigne de Mericourt fits the bill as a subject of interest here.

The goal is not to conflate the scribe's humble effort with an eminence quite so eminent as Mantel (okay, maybe a little), but to assert his rightful place as an admirer and collector of lady iconoclasts.

Not in the girlfriend sense, let us be clear. They are not conducive to a writer's quiet life.

Throughout this expansive novel, Theroigne surfaces, burns and submerges, resurfaces again, lighting the dank torch-lit streets of ragged and unjust Paris...just a few passages, evocative ones, transmit her flavors.

Late Entry

Camille Desmoulins, pamphleteer extraordinaire of the revolutionary cupola, first stumbles upon Anne at a theater audition where she is being humiliated.

It takes place at page 118 of this weighty literary chronicle: "She was about twenty-seven, he thought; small bones darkish brown hair, snub nose. She was pretty enough, but there was something blurred about her features: as though at some time she'd been beaten, hit around the head, had almost recovered, but would never quite."

They exchange barbs before she submits that her future looks bleak. Desmoulins wants to know what she has done in the past when faced with a dry spell between acting stints:

Answer: "I used to sleep with a marquis."

"There you are then."

"'I don't know,' the girl said, 'I get the impression that marquises aren't so free with their money anymore. And me, I'm not so free with my favors.'"

She then establishes herself as a free-ranging woman when divulging her plan to meet contacts in Genoa.

"She put her cheek on her hand. 'My name is Anne Theroigne.' She closed her eyes. 'God, I'm so tired,' she said. She moved thin shoulders inside the shawl, trying to ease the world off her back."

This is an introduction to someone mordant, socially astute, battered, yet unyielding.

She is being marginalized by fading beauty and diminishing artistic talents. Anne Theroigne is afraid and her future actions reveal she thinks the government, or society, or somebody, should do something to arrest her tailspin into the gutter.

(the scribe does not know this for certain, rather has drawn certain conclusions from these first paragraphs written by Hilary Mantel).

This is Theroigne before the revolution. And this is her France.

Once the deluge is unleashed, Desmoulins is out in the street doing what he does best, rousing the rabble. Among them is a "pretty young woman with a pistol in the belt of her riding habit, and her brown hair tied back with a red ribbon and blue one."

These are the colors the ascendant radicals have adopted and she is with them, flowering, purposeful.

Though she may be fading, Anne has been feted by Paris. Has heard a few stories. She has been at the center of the world and lived off making believe she is other, made-up people.

"Her face seemed luminous in the watery light. Now he saw that she was very cold, drenched and shivering. 'The weather has broken,' she said. 'And so much else.'"

The streets are seething and a few hours later she is a portrait of action.

Made for the Part

Underemployed, she certainly has the time. Dramatically gifted, the troubles of 1879 provide her with a proper stage.

"Another night on the streets: at five o'clock, the tocsin and the alarm cannon. 'Now it begins in earnest,' Anne Theroigne said. She pulled the ribbons from her hair, and looped them into the buttonhole of his coat. Red and blue. 'Red for blood,' she said. 'Blue for heaven.' The colors of Paris: blood-heaven."

You can earn respect by cranking out 749 pages of engaging literature, and sometimes, in one brush stroke, give the whole thing a strident coloring that clings.


The highway scribe is not going to pick apart each of the Theroigne-related passages. He is giving you an idea of how the text was read. Your reading would be something else entirely.

Now back to the revolution. In the earliest phases, action draws the highest premium and the new order has jobs for people like Camille and Theroigne. Their gang, a disparate lot of social maladroits and axe-grinders, is somehow on the rise.

Centripetal forces continue to drive politics in France; Paris in particular and apart. Louis and Antoinette's days are numbered. The politics of the moment revolve around what to do with them. The king does try. He receives a delegation of women and makes promises.

"Theroigne is outside, talking to soldiers," Mantel revives her anti-heroine. "She wears a scarlet riding habit. She is in possession of a saber. The rain is spoiling the plumes on her hat."

Anne can dress the part, although there is usually some element gone awry, screwing up the perfection of the whole, gaining empathy.

Laying Low

And then she is gone, though not for long. As chaotic Paris tries to sort itself out -- going to the theater, dining, sexing it up, and carrying the enemy's head around on a pike -- Theroigne marshals support and plays her hand in the deadly game for power.

The author finds a character who can tell us they are all -- Danton, Desmoulins, Robespierre, Anne and their revolutionary caste -- "virgins."

Soon enough, she reappears before Desmoulins. "Theroigne swept in. She wore a white dress, and a tricolor sash about her waist. A National Guardsman's tunic, unbuttoned, was draped over her slim square shoulders. Her brown hair was a breeze-blown waterfall of curls; she employed one of those expensive hairdressers who make you look as if you've never been near a hairdresser in your life."

Desmoulin rebuffs her sexual play and denies her a job writing for whatever paper he's editing at the moment. She is damaged goods and he's worried about his reputation.

"As far as he knew, Anne was leading a chaste and blameless life; the strange thing was, that she seemed dedicated to giving the contrary impression. The royalist scandal sheets were not slow to pick up on anything. Theroigne was a gift from God, as far as they were concerned."

So she gets labeled the whore while Danton and Desmoulins enjoy the winning revolutionary's celebrity, notching their belts with every belle at every ball in town.

Anne, by opting for a public life, for demanding a voice, gets tarred and good.

And though she's acting, it's not an act. She's a revolutionary having her say and you can't mistake Theroigne for anything but what she is, except for what she's not.

Which is to say there is ambiguity in this portrait, someone we can both like and not like, a person on whom we are still withholding judgment, but find worthy of attention.


The revolution, as most left-wing ventures tend to do, begins consuming itself. First overboard are the dreamers. Mantel tells us, "In May, Theroigne left Paris. She had no money and was tired of the royalist papers calling her a prostitute."

Noblesse Oblige indeed.

"One by one, the "murky layers of her past" had been peeled away to reveal unsavory acts and liaisons that "we've all done when necessity has pressed. It left her open, though, to ridicule and insult."

Anne's plan is to return once the libelers move on, but she suffers the star's burden of being missed: Her scarlet cloak, her "claque" surrounding, pistol swinging as she prowls the National Assembly's corridors looking for deputies to berate.

And so rumors circulated, in her absence, that the Austrians, with whom the revolutionary government is at war (along with the rest of Europe), have abducted her.

"Hope they keep her," is what Lucile, Desmoulins' modern wife and newly minted revolutionary, says. "What gave her the right to be a pseudo-man, turning up at the Cordeliers [that most ferocious of workerist sects] and demanding the rostrum."

Aborted Catfight

Lucille gets a shot at some answers when Theroigne shows up in her tricolored salon. Anne has been released by the Austrians with some money to boot, but she has not come to square-off with a feminine rival. She has come to lament. For her part, Camille's wife is very pregnant.

Their lives have assumed radically different paths, and each prefers the other's.

Theroigne is out of sorts, tattered, not sharp. Lucile can see that the hem is frayed on her scarlet coat, "that the dust on the streets was upon it, that even the red was not so red as it used to be."

Anne is furious that the papers are still spreading lies about her. And Camille is ignoring her.

"He's busy," Lucile covers for her husband.

"Oh yes, I'm sure he's busy. Busy playing cards at the Palais-Royal, busy dining with aristocrats. How can anyone think of passing the time of day with an old friend when there's champagne to be drunk and so many silly, empty-headed bitches to be screwed?"

"Including you," Lucile murmured.

"No, not including me," Theroigne stopped pacing. "Never including me. I have never slept with Camille, or with Jerome Petion, or with any of the other two dozen names the newspapers have named."

The object of a superior social deference, Lucile wouldn't dare stake the same claim.

Theroigne has a particular grudge against a royalist by the name of Louis Suleau, publisher of The Acts of the Apostles who has had his way with her good name in print.

Lucile is miserable in this hellion's company. She explains how Anne's bankrolled release from the Austrians has left her open to the charge of spying.

Theroigne comes a little undone. She admits to having a daughter who died after being left behind. She doesn't know how to write. Things are not going her way, her tribulations multiplying willy-nilly.

Today she has been weak.


But life can turn on a dime, and soon the angriest most radical of the revolutionary factions is literally up in arms, jailing aristocrats left and right, and forcing the king's imprisonment.

Desmoulins is witnessing a riot outside the Royal Palace at Versailles.

“Theroigne had taken charge. Here was her own, her little Bastille.”

She has led an “unfocused rabble” to a place where the royalty are being held against their will, and is breaking in, not to save them, but too...

More revolutionary and feminine portraiture:

“Theroigne wore black; she had a pistol in her belt, a saber in her hand, and her face was incandescent.”

It’s romantic writing, without getting melodramatic. Theroigne is incandescent, but she’s also out of her mind. Camille watches as the fourth prisoner emptied into the mob’s maws is Louis Suleau, the guy who’s been spreading the rumors.

It’s not a heroic moment, but an ugly one. Your own politics determine whether it is necessary.

Leader of the revolution, or some part of it, Desmoulins can do nothing but watch Theroigne, “approach Louis Suleau and say to him something that only he could have heard; Louis put up a hand, as if to say, what’s the point of going into all this now? The gesture etched itself into his mind. It was the last gesture. He saw Theroigne raise her pistol. He did not hear the shot.”

Don't call her a whore.

As all of the revolutionary class learned, direct action is effective, but does have its drawbacks. Among these are constant exposure to committed enemies and overheated throngs.

Some time later, Robespierre asks Camille if he’s heard about “that girl. Anne Theroigne.”

“What’s she done now?”

“She was making the speech in the Tuileries gardens, and a group of women attacked her -- rough women from the public gallery. She’s attached herself to Brissott and his faction, for some reason only she understands -- I can’t believe Brissot is delighted. She found the wrong audience -- I don’t know, but perhaps they thought she was some woman of fashion intruding on their patch.”

She is saved by the dangerous Jacobin scribe Marat, soon to be assassinated himself, at the hands of a “fashion plate.”

Camille laments that she was not killed. “I'll never forgive that bitch for what she did on August 10.”

Robespierre is philosophical. Old schoolmate or not, Suleau “ended up on the wrong side, didn’t he? And then so did she."

Brissot is on the extermination list, so Theroigne’s made a bad political call. It meant Robespierre wouldn't mind taking off her head.

But he does not have to kill Anne, because everyone thinks her own choices are doing it much better. Theroigne, in fact, ended up surviving the stunning violence of her time and living another 25 years.

In the book, Anne is done before the revolution is done. Disappearing as easily as she first appeared, she is an afterthought in the fast-moving paces of a tumultuous situation.

“A few weeks ago in the street Lucile and her mother had seen Anne Theroigne. It had taken them both a moment to recognize her. Theroigne was no longer pretty. She was thin; her face had fallen in as if she had lost some teeth. She passed them; something flickered in her eyes, but she didn’t speak. Lucile thought her pathetic -- a victim of the times. ‘No one could see her as attractive now,’ Annette said. She smiled. Her recent birthdays had passed, as she put it, without incident. Most men still looked at her with interest.”

Not this reader fair lady. Both eyes are on the rebel girl.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Letter to the Russian Ambassador

Sent Feb. 2, 2010

Sergey I. Kislyak
Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the United States
1125 16th St. N.W.
Washington D.C.

Dear Mr. Ambassador,

Greetings from Southern California.

The persecution of the Russian artist Aleksei Plutser-Sarno and the art group "Voina," really gets my goat. And as a planetary citizen I urge your government to cease the mindless pursuit of this artist and release those of his allies whom have been detained.

I read about their plight in a "New York Times," article dated January 22.

That's a while back, I know, but maintaining a journalist's post, a literary writing career, and the self-appointed job of skewering repressive governments around the world can really weigh on a guy.

I'm sure the article by the marvelous Ellen Barry -- and please don't harass her, too -- caused you a degree of heartburn.

And it's a good thing, too.

Mr. Plutser-Sarno has some unpleasant things to say about those who govern the Russian Federation. But surely you realize that the official response to such provocations only lends credence to his claims that you guys need to lighten-up and take a democracy class.

You work for him, and his fellow citizens, not the other way around. I say this only because I know Russia is new to democracy and could probably use a few pointers.

And by the way, I think Plutser-Sarno's "installation" involving a 210-foot penis hanging from a St. Petersburg drawbridge, pointed at the state security outfit's building, is the ultimate example of free expression.

Anybody can insult some man on the street. The democratic protection to speech is truly cashiered when we try it on those who make the rules and enforce them with the threat of violence.

You should give the way we do it here in the U.S a go. There are vast spaces of freedom for mouthing-off across our mediatic landscape. As a result, so many people are doing it, that no single voice truly rises above the din, except very stupid ones like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin.

Such people are a stain on the nation's honor, yes, but at least we know where and what they are.

You guys are doing it the old-fashioned way and the result is, well, this letter by somebody one zillion miles away from Russia. See how it doesn't work?

Charging Voina with "organizing a criminal gang," would be laughable, were the artists' lives not getting screwed-up in the process. After all, let's not kid ourselves Mr. Ambassador, when it comes to criminal gangs, you guys set the gold standard.

Your government's support of Chechnya's "president" comes to mind. You know, the one who takes time off from a busy executive schedule to personally torture his political opponents.

I hate that guy.

And not to make political hay out of a tragedy, but those people who blew up the airport in Moscow a few weeks ago and killed dozens of people: THEY were a criminal gang.

Perhaps if your security and police forces weren't so busy harassing mischievous Dadaists, the bomb plot might have been detected before so many innocent people died. Touche.

By the way, I'm going to post this letter on my blog "highwayscribery," just to make a point about how hard it is to keep the truth from circulating.

You know Mr. Ambassador, it is not difficult to find absurdities, cruelties, and meanness in the world with which to fill "highwayscribery."

Just this morning I read in the "New York Times," about the slaughter of 100 dogs in Canada, for no good reason (as if there could be one).

Stories like that, and the Voina artists' plight, say to me that no matter how complicated the world may be, right and wrong are not so hard to distinguish.

Thank you for your time.

the highway scribe