Catherine Delors

Mistress of the Revolution

Q&A
With Catherine Delors

What prompted you to write this book?
My late father was a history professor. A few months before his death, he asked me if I knew the origin of Coffinhal Street in Vic, the little mountain town where, like my heroin Gabrielle, I spent part of my childhood.

Of course, I had known of Coffinhal Street all of my life, but had always imagined that the Coffinhal in question was simply a former mayor, a local bourgeois. But then my father told me that he had been Vice President of the Revolutionary Tribunal. I was intrigued and looked up the man. And I found someone almost everybody hated! It was too tempting.

I already knew of two other historical characters who appear in the book, Carrier and the Chevalier des Huttes (yes, local legend indeed has it that the Chevalier was in love with Marie-Antoinette). The Chevalier des Huttes had a house in Vic, and Carrier was from the village of Yolet, only a few miles away. The houses of the Coffinhal family and the Chevalier des Huttes are still there. So is "Fontfreyde", Gabrielle's birthplace and ancestral home in the countryside nearby, though I changed its name.

It was an irresistible conjunction: three men who had played an important role in the French Revolution were tied to my little mountain town of Vic. I must confess that, before writing the book, I had little interest in that historical period. That changed in short order. I realized during my research that most of the political issues raised at the time remain current.

My ambition became to make the French Revolution, often perceived as a confusing medley of events and characters, understandable for a reader without any scholarly knowledge of the period. I wanted to explain in an accurate manner how the chain of events led from idealism to bloodshed and international catastrophe, all through the eyes of an intelligent female witness.

What is your personal connection to Gabrielle, your heroine?
I am descended, on my father's side, from impoverished nobility from Auvergne. That is what gave me the idea of creating Gabrielle. She is otherwise an imaginary character, but I like to think that an ancestor of mine could have been her, and could have met Coffinhal.

Gabrielle, though fictional, had a way of appearing in my life. In the initial version of the novel, she had no "marriage contract" (prenuptial agreement). It bothered me from the standpoint of historical accuracy, although I believed it necessary to the dynamics of the plot. So I told my mother of my quandary. She said that she had a "bunch of old papers" that I should review. She had never mentioned those before, and I doubted that they would be of any help. But then she pulled a box of documents from under her bed, and I realized that those were my family's marriage contracts, all the way back to the 1600s. I had seen copies of those kinds of documents on the internet, of course, but it was a different experience to hold them in my hands, to feel the texture of the paper, to see the way the pages were bound, and to think that they came from my own ancestors. One of those contracts was from 1772, just 12 years before Gabrielle's. That settled it. Gabrielle had to have a marriage contract. So I rewrote that part, adding the scene of the contract signing where she realizes that her entire family sides with her brother against her.

Another odd coincidence: a year ago I visited the National Archives in Paris. I was just walking through with some friends, because it is a gorgeous building from the late 18th century. We were only browsing, and happened upon an exhibition of a dozen or so significant historical documents: Napoléon's will, Robespierre's "little papers", etc. Everything concerned major figures. All of a sudden one of my friends called to me: displayed in one of the windows was also the original bill from the National Convention appointing Coffinhal Vice President of the Revolutionary Tribunal. I had no idea that I would come across anything about him that day. I was as if Coffinhal were beckoning to me. No wonder. I must be the first person to have written anything remotely favorable about him in over two centuries.

Was the Revolutionary Tribunal as terrible as its reputation?
Not in the beginning. Before the Great Terror, the Tribunal handed death sentences in about one third of its cases. The rules it followed were an improvement over the criminal procedure under the Old Regime, when the use of torture was official and even routine, both in the investigation phase and prior to the execution.

Before the Revolution, one could be sentenced to death for crimes such as petty theft. That meant a gruesome execution, usually by hanging or on the wheel, after the public confession of the convict, stripped to his or her shirt, on the steps of the main church of the city. Thus the guillotine was conceived as a "humane" alternative to those protracted deaths, and it was indeed less cruel.

However, during the Great Terror (May to July 1794) the Revolutionary Tribunal issued more death sentences than acquittals or dismissals. The procedure changed dramatically, there were no more attorneys, dozens of defendants were tried hastily together as "co-conspirators" and defense rights were severely curtailed. But even then, being tried before the Tribunal was not tantamount to stepping onto the next cart to the guillotine.

What about Coffinhal himself? How much of your depiction of him is fictional?
He is generally described as a sort of giant, dark-haired and swarthy, with a long aquiline nose, which obviously did not answer to the standards of beauty at the time. We will probably never know what he looked like, because no portrait of him was ever found, which is unusual for revolutionaries. His contemporaries mention a deep, booming voice. He did spend hours in his cell clamoring against his friends' cowardice before his execution. I found that detail in his colleague Fouquier's defense brief.

Many have accused Coffinhal of bending the rules to send Hébert, his political enemy, to the guillotine, and in general, of being harsh towards the accused. I tried to show his deep personal animosity towards Hébert. However, the incident in the book where he does his best, during the Great Terrror, to have a teenage nobleman acquitted is taken from the transcript of one of his trials.

I think that Coffinhal had the misfortune, vis-à-vis the posterity, to be hated not only by the royalists, but also, more surprisingly, by the French historians favorable to Robespierre. These somehow tried to exonerate the revolutionary leader of his responsibility in the wave of executions during the Great Terror by blaming them on the judges and prosecutors of the Revolutionary Tribunal.

This is true in particular of Michelet, who loathed Coffinhal, though he acknowledged the man's absolute, "canine" loyalty to Robespierre. Nevertheless Michelet accused Coffinhal, among many other misdeeds, of "abducting" Robespierre on the night of the 9 th and 10 th of Thermidor, to take him by force to the Common House. Certainly Coffinhal mustered an improvised army composed of gendarmes and cannoneers, and he went to free Robespierre, who had been arrested, from jail. But the abduction theory seems inconsistent with the portrait Michelet himself paints of Coffinhal as a man blindly devoted to Robespierre.

I did not try to depict Coffinhal as a nice man. He certainly had a cruel side. He was not bloodthirsty to the point of lunacy like Carrier, but he sentenced many people to death without any qualms. Yet I don't think I am far from the truth when I describe him as steadfast in his political loyalties, in his friendships. He did show a great deal of energy, of moral and physical courage at the end. He was the only Jacobin leader, with Payan, not to lose his nerve on the 9 th of Thermidor. And he did shrug at the jeering crowd on his way to the guillotine.

What is entirely fictional, however, is the pre-revolutionary Coffinhal and his relationship with Gabrielle. Little is known of his early life. In the book, we lose sight of him for years, and he is very different when he reappears, reshaped by political events and personal disappointment.

Wasn't Coffinhal's name also mentioned in connection with Lavoisier?
Indeed. Lavoisier is considered the founder of modern chemistry, and was one of the most famous scientists of the time. He had also been a Farmer General under the Old Regime. The Farmers General were private individuals who collected taxes on behalf of the State, and thus became extremely wealthy, and extremely hated, especially during the year of bad harvests and famine that preceded the Revolution. They were blamed, with some reason, for enriching themselves by putting food beyond the means of most people.

All of the Farmers General, including Lavoisier, were tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal, with Coffinhal as the presiding judge, and sentenced to death. According to the legend, Lavoisier would then have requested a few weeks' stay of execution "to complete a scientific experiment", to which Coffinhal would have responded that "the Republic had no use for scientists," or something to that effect. The anecdote, often reprinted, is unsupported by any reliable source, and one has trouble imagining what kind of scientific experiment Lavoisier could have been conducting from jail at the time of his trial. Like many other things reported about Coffinhal after his death, this smacks of character assassination.

But this is not the only insult to Coffinhal's memory. When he is mentioned, he is generally given the first name of Jean-Baptiste. I found this error even in the work of reputable historians, which rather surprised me, and reminded me to rely, whenever possible, on primary sources rather than their second or third-hand interpretation by scholars. In fact, Jean-Baptiste Coffinhal, who was Pierre-André's elder brother, and appears briefly in the novel, was not guillotined and went on to have a brilliant career under Bonaparte and later the restored Bourbons. So the Coffinhal who was the friend of Robespierre and Vice President of the Revolutionary Tribunal was indeed named Pierre-André.

In any event, my purpose in the novel was not to undertake his rehabilitation, but to show him, like other men of his time, passionately, one could say fanatically, devoted to his ideals, to the point of sacrificing his life for them. As I wrote in the book, he showed his foes no mercy, and received none.

How would you compare the American and French Revolutions?
It is no wonder that the United States and France share so many values. Each in turn experienced its own brand of revolution in the late 18 th century. The French Revolution is the direct consequence of its American counterpart. First many Frenchmen, not only Lafayette, fought on the side of the American Revolution, and brought home its ideals. Also support of the American Revolution completed the bankruptcy of the French treasury and was the direct cause of the budget crisis that led to the French Revolution.

Of course events took different turns in each country. Americans did not behead poor King George the Third (but then he was not available locally to be executed.) The French Revolution took a more radical, often more violent turn. In some ways, it went further than the American Revolution. I am thinking in particular of the issue of slavery. It was abolished, by a unanimous vote of the legislative body, the National Convention, in 1794. Black men were granted suffrage and other civil rights.

The pendulum swung back after the Revolution. Bonaparte, whose first wife Joséphine came from a slave-owning family of Martinique sugarcane planters, reinstated slavery in 1801. It was not abolished again in until 1848, this time for good, when the Republic was restored in France.

You are an attorney. Did it influence your writing?
Very much so, in particular with regard to the evolution of the legal status of women during the Revolution. Under the Old Regime, they were subject to the authority of their fathers, brothers or husbands. Widows were the only women with a modicum of independence.

This changed with the onset of the Revolution. The role of women was decisive during the events of the 5 th and 6 th of October 1789, when they marched on Versailles to bring the royal family to Paris. The following year, they participated in the preparation for the Festival of the Federation, and later in the storming of the Tuileries Palace, which led to the fall of the Monarchy in 1792.

Under these circumstances, many women demanded the right to vote. Some advocated the complete equality of the sexes before the law. There were female journalists, female political clubs. True, those innovations met with much resistance from some of the male revolutionaries themselves.

In the private sphere too the status of women evolved rapidly. Marital authority was abolished and women could now petition for a no-fault divorce. Of course those measures were gradually repealed after the fall of Robespierre. Eventually Bonaparte, whom we might call in modern parlance a male chauvinist pig, implemented a new legal system, under the Code Napoléon , whereby women became once again lifetime minors.

It seemed to me that, when people think of women during the French Revolution, they tend to focus on the fate of prominent individuals, usually seen as victims, such as Marie-Antoinette. I wished to call attention as well to their active participation, for the first time, in political life and civil society.

What do you think of Marie-Antoinette?
Such a complex character! Any image we can form of her is overshadowed by her tragic destiny. My portrait of Marie-Antoinette was inspired by the memoirs of a few ladies who knew her well, in particular Madame Campan, her First Chambermaid, and the Duchess de Tourzel, Governess to the Royal Children. Both were devoted to her, without being blinded to her weaknesses. The Versailles scenes in the book are drawn from the Memoirs of the Marquise de La Tour du Pin, one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting.

Marie-Antoinette had received a mediocre, careless education at the Court of Vienna. Later in life books never held much appeal for her. She closeted herself in the insular world she created for herself and her close friends in her hamlet of Trianon, cut off from the Court itself and, of course, from the unpleasant realities of peasant life.

I often hear Marie-Antoinette compared to Princess Diana. Certainly there are similarities. Both were fashion icons, and both met untimely and dramatic ends, but otherwise they were strikingly opposite public figures. Diana had a gift: she could connect with ordinary people, she was the "People's Princess".

This was what Marie-Antoinette was lacking, in a dramatic way. She had a terrible image, totally untrue, but unwittingly reinforced by her own flippant and provocative behavior. Even decades before the Revolution, there was an entire cottage industry of pornographic pamphlets about her supposed sexual exploits. Nobody called her the "People's Queen".

In Mistress of the Revolution, Marie-Antoinette is seen from the outside, already middle-aged, though still somewhat immature. Yet after the fall of the monarchy, in the last year of her life, she did show extraordinary courage and dignity. This is not part of the novel, because by that time my heroine, Gabrielle, no longer has any association with the royal family. We see Marie-Antoinette's trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal through Coffinhal's eyes. I had to put myself in his place to write the scene where he relates the proceedings, which was a rather eerie experience. Before writing the novel I had always thought of the Queen's trial from her standpoint, not from that of one of the judges.

Do you have any other writing projects at this time?
I have completed my second novel, about a terrorist attack in 1800 Paris. It is scheduled for publication in 2010. It is not a sequel. It starts six years after Mistress of the Revolution, with a different set of characters. I wished to move away from the world of the nobility and bourgeoisie, and show the life of the underclass in Paris at the turn of the 19th century.

So will there be a sequel to Mistress of the Revolution ?
In the initial version of the book, Gabrielle's second husband, Lord St. Ives, was a fully developed character, with his own courtship of Gabrielle. Then I stopped to reflect. It was not right. There was one male character too many. So Lord St. Ives went from many chapters to a couple of sentences. The reader is at liberty to picture him as she likes. All we need to know is that he is a decent man.

I do not know at this point what will become of that last part, already mostly written. It might yet turn into a full-fledged sequel. And I am now working on a prequel involving Gabrielle's family, this time a few decades before the Revolution.