Laure Junot: Life before, during, and after revolution

Junot Family

After any extreme event, ever since the advent of print (I’m sure before as well, but it’s more difficult to find the evidence) people have penned their memoirs.

For the longest time the ones considered significant were those written by men, especially as men controlled what got printed. But if one digs, and is lucky, one can find memoirs written by females who had to endure and make due while revolution and counter-revolution ripped apart their worlds.

And some of them threw themselves enthusiastically into it.

I find these personal memoirs fascinating, especially the ones with details that demonstrate what life is really like for the ordinary person enduring the wild tempests of change. For writers to get it right even when inventing worlds and governments, I think it’s indispensable to read memories like the volumes penned by Laura Junot, for example.

First published just before Napoleon’s death and then edited in the 1890s, Laure Junot set out to answer all the memoirs coming out at her time by providing her own history.

In her introduction, she claims that she laid in the hands of her publisher actual documents from the time of the Revolution and most especially from the time of Napoleon. And, in the teeth of Bourienne’s pompous dismissal of women memoirists in his ponderous volumes, she maintains she knew Napoleon best of anyone, for not only had she known him from boyhood, before he became famous (her parents were friends of Lucretia, Napoleon’s mother), but she was involved in Napoleon’s court, as the wife of one of his  brothers-in-arms who later became a general and then a marshal. After Napoleon’s fall,  the two men corresponded until their deaths. (She does not say that her own husband, having suffered grievous head wounds in Napoleon’s battles, went pretty much insane; she also leaves out her various affairs, including with Metternich, a guy who really got around.)

Women’s memoirs of the time were scorned for their ‘trifles,’ meaning the details of everyday life.  In his introduction, the editor of the 1890s edition, which is what I have, comments on her inaccuracies and exaggerations about Great Events. Well, how could they write about affairs of state when they were kept out, or battles which they never saw? Though many did quote letters they received from their menfolk abroad. Of course they wrote about what they knew: domestic affairs, including royal domestic affairs, if they were part of that life, and that included rumors and news.

Though Laure Junot can’t help but give in to certain tropes of the nineteenth century female memoirist (never giving her age after her early marriage, and doing her best to present herself as fragile and young even as the decades flew by) Laure Junot scrupulously tries to present others’ points of view when she disagrees, and she goes to great lengths to say who has possession when she quotes letters. In the days when modern scholarship was being invented, she did her best to adhere to the emerging rules of 1) try to be objective and 2) quote your sources.

One can argue about her view of Napoleon, or how much influence she had on him in those lengthily described conversations. That is not the issue here. What I find utterly fascinating are the endless anecdotes she tells of life during the Revolution, the Terror, the Directory, Napoleon’s consulship, reign, fall, and afterward.

The revolution changed everything: within a short time the exhilaration of “Declaration of the Rights of Man” (rights of persons women and slaves, as penned by Olympe De Gouges, a butcher’s daughter who offered to defend Louis XVI and who was eventually guillotined for being a female out of her proper sphere of life) the Terror made everyday existence terrifying when one had to go out for bread. It was important to use revolutionary language, and to wear ragged clothes.

For at the period to which I allude the veriest trifle might become the subject of serious investigation. Even the sports and games of childhood were vigorously watched, and I shall never forget that a demiciliary visit was made to our house in Toulouse, and my father was on the point of being arrested because, while playing at the game called ‘La Tour, prends garde!’ I said to a little boy of five years old, “You shall be Monsieur le Dauphin.”

Laure Junot is great with details: The squeak of a famous man’s boots as he walked back and forth in their parlor during a tense wait for news; her brother’s horrible glimpse of the head of Princesse de Lamballe being paraded about by the crowd, after the poor woman was actually ripped to pieces; the summary hangings of people from lampposts by roaming bands of Revolutionaries if they thought they saw ‘aristocratic’ clothing on anyone; the resumption of parties during the Directorate, when raffish adventurers reigned as gracefully as artistic pirates.

Before the Revolution of the 14th of July M. Necker had been dismissed. He was recalled after that event. From this indecision it was clear that the ship had no pilot.

We were not yet at the height of the Reign of Terror, but there was reason to fear that the revolutionary flame would be rekindled, and caution was advisable. It was no unusual thing to send letters concealed in pies, and in this manner questions and answers traveled under the protection of gastronomic dainties. News was frequently sent from Paris to the country in the lining of a coat, the crown of a hat, or a box of artificial flowers. It was customary to send with these packets a letter, saying, “In compliance with your request, I send you such and such a thing.” My mother was sometimes very reluctant to pull to pieces the beautiful articles of millinery which came from Paris in this way. I recollect she once wore a hat in which a letter was concealed a whole fortnight, without telling my father . . .

Teenage Napoleon

The chaos of the National Convention, when anyone could speak up but no one was good at it, and the resultant shout-downs and invasions of the market women who, drunk with their successes after October and later, would descend in a mob, screaming all the men down and then racing out again, is fascinating.

After her brother takes a letter to a magistrate to keep his father out of jail, the magistrate exclaimed, “And what do you do here? Coward! Aristocrat! why are you not with the army?

She describes how people thankfully followed the utterly corrupt Directors because they restored a semblance of order. Some might say that sounds familiar: corruption at the top is better than the horror of total chaos.

The scarcity of bread and the necessaries of life now began sensibly to be felt. My sister secretly sent us flour from the South. In so doing she was obliged to resort to various subterfuges, for a serious punishment would have been the result of such a discovery. The people who had endured misery under Robespierre, because Robespierre flattered them, now openly threatened to rebel. Every day the bar of the Convention was invaded by the Sections of Paris, and crowds of people traversed the streets exclaiming, “Bread! Bread! We at least had bread in 1793! Down with the Republic!”

The sense that French people were trying to reinvent France, and often not knowing how to do it, she relates in personal anecdotes. Like when Napoleon was edging toward the crown and declared that servants were to wear livery again–they found some somewhere for his people, but it was all ill-fitting, and the servants did not know how to wear it or how to behave like servants.

When Napoleon held his first kingly reception, no one knew what was expected, so his orders took hours longer to perform –the women had to enter at a certain door, perform curtseys in this room, then proceed to that room, but there were bottlenecks in part due to the wearing again of hoops, and how much space they took up….

A few evenings before the First of Prarial my mother had a small party. She told the gentlemen she would have no politics introduced. “Is it not enough,” said she, “to be roused out of one’s sleep of a night by your tocsins and your drums, to say nothing of the harmonious choruses of your market-women? Promise me that you will not speak of politics.” The promise was given, but the difficulty was to keep it. What was to be talked about? All subjects of conversation were annihilated. The theatres produced nothing, and literature was dead. . . At length it was proposed to tell stories . . .

She talks about people trying to reestablish salons, to discover that everyone had lost the art of conversation that had been so skillful and mannered during the days of Madame du Deffand and the others.

“I’m a real princess,” one of N.’s sisters declared happily, when she was raised out of the family’s obscurity and found herself married to a prince.

Napoleon and Josephine practice dancing

Madame Junot was sent to Madrid as an ambassador, but first Napoleon had a talk with her about her behavior, not leaving out that he expected her to use the French pronunciation of his name, and not the Italian or Corsican.

She got to Madrid to discover, to her horror, that she not only had to wear hoops to visit the queen, but during the day she had to wear diamonds–pearls not allowed–and worst of all, there she was in a hooped and trained gown, and diamonds, but there was an old woman at the door to make certain she did NOT enter the queen’s presence wearing gloves!

Once Napoleon was gone, having failed to establish his dynasty, many of the aristocrats who had fled returned to find that homes in ruins, or occupied by others, their holdings gone. And sometimes the occupiers were their own family members, who had agreed with the revolution, weathered Napoleon, and who had embraced the idea of equality quite firmly.

But how many disappointments awaited the unhappy exiles on their return to their native land? Poverty, isolation, death, were the lot of most of them. One of the most painful situations, and to which I was frequently witness, arose from the diversity of shades of opinion. This produced discord in the mosts united families. The destruction of principles had led, as a natural consequence, to one of a similar nature in the most ordinary habits of life….

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9 Responses to Laure Junot: Life before, during, and after revolution

  1. Having just read “Ambition and Desire,” a biography of Josephine by Kate Williams, I find this post fascinating. I’ve never wanted to know more about the French Revolution–which would make even the worst slasher horror movie look tame–I am now dipping my toes into those waters.

    • Sherwood Smith says:

      I’ve got I think seven biographies of Josephine, and every one is different. There are some more trustworthy than others. (This goes tenfold for Napoleon.)

      The best overview I think is Simon Schama’s CITIZENS.

  2. Asakiyume says:

    Love details like the squeak of the boot, and also the mechanics of practical matters, like how things get smuggled in. The overarching picture… we’ve seen it time and again, and it’s terrifying, and having to live through it must be like having to live through a life-threatening illness.

  3. Leigh Kimmel says:

    The French Revolution, like the Russian Revolution a century later, was so horrific largely because of its attempt to completely restructure the society to a new model. Once the existing social furniture was all tossed into the street and repudiated, how was one to create new systems of limits and boundaries? So the worst and darkest aspects of humanity come out and ran wild — and eventually people begin to embrace elements of the old order for the simple reason that it’s order, and thus gives a certain stability and predictability to life.

    Among the English-speaking peoples, neither the Glorious Revolution nor the American Revolution sought to completely upend and reorder the structure of society. Instead, they were fundamentally disagreements of governance, and specifically how and by whom. So while there are some expulsions of loyalists to the old regime, there is not the bloodbath we see in Revolutionary France or the early USSR.

    By contrast, the English Civil War came far closer to being a revolution in the manner of the French and Russian, complete with an effort to remake society (albeit on a Puritan rather than Leveler model) and a sort of Terror, just not as extreme. For some generations after the Restoration, the name Oliver was in disrepute in England because of its association with Cromwell and the Commonwealth (which makes you wonder about the connotations of Oliver Twist’s given name, and whether Dickens was making a deliberate choice in evoking them).

    • Sherwood Smith says:

      Oliver continued to be popular in some levels of English society all along. Otherwise, yes. the Chinese Revolution is another that ended up very, very bloody.

  4. Pilgrimsoul says:

    One thing I love is history from the bottom up. Now Laure Junot was hardly on the ground floor of society, but the details and atmosphere of everyday are delightful!

  5. pence says:

    Thank you. Another pile of books has been added to my list. The memoirs sound fascinating.

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