Essays by Alice Meynell
By Alice Meynell

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Madame Roland

The articulate heroine has her reward of appreciation and her dues of praise; it is her appropriate fortune to have it definitely measured, and generally on equal terms. She takes pains to explain herself, and is understood, and pitied, when need is, on the right occasions. For instance, Madame Roland, a woman of merit, who knew her “merit’s name and place,” addressed her memoirs, her studies in contemporary history, her autobiography, her many speeches, and her last phrase at the foot of the undaunting scaffold, to a great audience of her equals (more or less) then living and to live in the ages then to come–her equals and those she raises to her own level, as the heroic example has authority to do.

Another woman–the Queen–suffered at that time, and suffered without the command of language, the exactitude of phrase, the precision of judgement, the proffer of prophecy, the explicit sense of Innocence and Moderation oppressed in her person. These were Madame Roland’s; but the other woman, without eloquence, without literature, and without any judicial sense of history, addresses no mere congregation of readers. Marie Antoinette’s unrecorded pangs pass into the treasuries of the experience of the whole human family. All that are human have some part there; genius itself may lean in contemplation over that abyss of woe; the great poets themselves may look into its distances and solitudes. Compassion here has no measure and no language. Madame Roland speaks neither to genius nor to complete simplicity; Marie Antoinette holds her peace in the presence of each, dumb in her presence.

Madame Roland had no dumbness of the spirit, as history, prompted by her own musical voice, presents her to a world well prepared to do her justice. Of that justice she had full expectation; justice here, justice in the world–the world that even when universal philosophy should reign would be inevitably the world of mediocrity; justice that would come of enlightened views; justice that would be the lesson learnt by the nations widely educated up to some point generally accessible; justice well within earthly sight and competence. This confidence was also her reward. For what justice did the Queen look? Here it is the “abyss that appeals to the abyss.”

Twice only in the life of Madame Roland is there a lapse into silence, and for the record of these two poor failures of that long, indomitable, reasonable, temperate, explicit utterance which expressed her life and mind we are debtors to her friends. She herself has not confessed them. Nowhere else, whether in her candid history of herself, or in her wise history of her country, or in her judicial history of her contemporaries, whose spirit she discerned, whose powers she appraised, whose errors she foresaw; hardly in her thought, and never in her word, is a break to be perceived; she is not silent and she hardly stammers; and when she tells us of her tears–the tears of youth only–her record is voluble and all complete. For the dignity of her style, of her force, and of her balanced character, Madame Roland would doubtless have effaced the two imperfections which, to us who would be glad to admire in silence her heroic figure, if that heroic figure would but cease to talk, are finer and more noble than her well-placed language and the high successes of her decision and her endurance. More than this, the two failures of this unfailing woman are two little doors opened suddenly into those wider spaces and into that dominion of solitude which, after all, do doubtless exist even in the most garrulous soul. By these two outlets Manon Roland also reaches the region of Marie Antoinette. But they befell her at the close of her life, and they shall be named at the end of this brief study.

Madame Roland may seem the more heroic to those whose suffrages she seeks in all times and nations because of the fact that she manifestly suppresses in her self-descriptions any signs of a natural gaiety. Her memoirs give evidence of no such thing; it is only in her letters, not intended for the world, that we are aware of the inadvertence of moments. We may overhear a laugh at times, but not in those consciously sprightly hours that she spent with her convent-school friend gathering fruit and counting eggs at the farm. She pursued these country tasks not without offering herself the cultivated congratulation of one whom cities had failed to allure, and who bore in mind the examples of Antiquity. She did not forget the death of Socrates. Or, rather, she finds an occasion to reproach herself with having once forgotten it, and with having omitted what another might have considered the tedious recollection of the condemnation of Phocion. She never wearied of these examples. But it is her inexhaustible freshness in these things that has helped other writers of her time to weary us.

In her manner of telling her story there is an absence of all exaggeration, which gives the reader a constant sense of security. That virtue of style and thought was one she proposed to herself and attained with exact consciousness of success. It would be almost enough (in the perfection of her practice) to make a great writer; even a measure of it goes far to make a fair one. Her moderation of statement is never shaken; and if she now and then glances aside from her direct narrative road to hazard a conjecture, the error she may make is on the generous side of hope and faith. For instance, she is too sure that her Friends (so she always calls the Girondins, using no nicknames) are safe, whereas they were then all doomed; a young man who had carried a harmless message for her–a mere notification to her family of her arrest–receives her cheerful commendation for his good feeling; from a note we learn that for this action he suffered on the scaffold and that his father soon thereafter died of grief. But Madame Roland never matched such a delirious event as this by any delirium of her own imagination. The delirium was in things and in the acts of men; her mind was never hurried from its sane self-possession, when the facts raved.

It was only when she used the rhetoric ready to her hand that she stooped to verbal violence; et encore! References to the banishment of Aristides and the hemlock of Socrates had become toy daggers and bending swords in the hands of her compatriots, and she is hardly to be accused of violence in brandishing those weapons. Sometimes, refuse rhetoric being all too ready, she takes it on her pen, in honest haste, as though it were honest speech, and stands committed to such a phrase as this: “The dregs of the nation placed such a one at the helm of affairs.”

But her manner was not generally to write anything but a clear and efficient French language. She never wrote for the love of art, but without some measure of art she did not write; and her simplicity is somewhat altered by that importunate love of the Antique. In “Bleak House” there is an old lady who insisted that the name “Mr. Turveydrop,” as it appeared polished on the door-plate of the dancing master, was the name of the pretentious father and not of the industrious son–albeit, needless to say, one name was common to them. With equal severity I aver that when Madame Roland wrote to her husband in the second person singular she was using the TU of Rome and not the TU of Paris. French was indeed the language; but had it been French in spirit she would (in spite of the growing Republican fashion) have said VOUS to this “homme eclaire, de moeurs pures, e qui l’on ne peut reprocher que sa grande admiration pour les anciens aux depens des modernes qu’il meprise, et le faible de trop aimer e parler de lui.” There was no French TU in her relations with this husband, gravely esteemed and appraised, discreetly rebuked, the best passages of whose Ministerial reports she wrote, and whom she observed as he slowly began to think he himself had composed them. She loved him with a loyal, obedient, and discriminating affection, and when she had been put to death, he, still at liberty, fell upon his sword.

This last letter was written at a moment when, in order to prevent the exposure of a public death, Madame Roland had intended to take opium in the end of her cruel imprisonment. A little later she chose that those who oppressed her country should have their way with her to the last. But, while still intending self-destruction, she had written to her husband: “Forgive me, respectable man, for disposing of a life that I had consecrated to thee.” In quoting this I mean to make no too-easy effect with the word “respectable," grown grotesque by the tedious gibe of our own present fashion of speech.

Madame Roland, I have said, was twice inarticulate; she had two spaces of silence, one when she, pure and selfless patriot, had heard her condemnation to death. Passing out of the court she beckoned to her friends, and signified to them her sentence “by a gesture.” And again there was a pause, in the course of her last days, during which her speeches had not been few, and had been spoken with her beautiful voice unmarred; “she leant,” says Riouffe, “alone against her window, and wept there three hours.”


Ceres’ Runaway  •  Wells  •  Rain  •  The Tow Path  •  The Tethered Constellations  •  Rushes and Reeds  •  A Northern Fancy  •  Pathos  •  Anima Pellegrina!  •  A Point of Biography  •  The Honours of Mortality  •  Composure  •  The Little Language  •  A Counterchange  •  Harlequin Mercutio  •  Laughter  •  The Rhythm of Life  •  Domus Angusta  •  Innocence and Experience  •  The Hours of Sleep  •  Solitude  •  Decivilized  •  The Spirit of Place  •  Popular Burlesque  •  Have Patience, Little Saint  •  At Monastery Gates  •  The Sea Wall  •  Tithonus  •  Symmetry and Incident  •  The Plaid  •  The Flower  •  Unstable Equilibrium  •  Victorian Caricature  •  The Point of Honour  •  The Colour of Life  •  The Horizon  •  In July  •  Cloud  •  Shadows  •  The Seventeenth Century  •  Mrs. Dingley  •  Prue  •  Mrs. Johnson  •  Madame Roland  •  Fellow Travellers With a Bird  •  The Child of Tumult  •  The Child of Subsiding Tumult  •  The Unready  •  That Pretty Person  •  Under the Early Stars  •  The Illusion of Historic Time  •  Footnotes

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