This summer I had the pleasure of reading Simon Schama’s book Citizens, a labelled ‘Chronicle of the French Revolution’. It is an era that I return to now and again, such is its impact on world history; however, I find the various threads, main players, and factions incredibly confusing. Schama is a historian I rate very highly and I enjoyed the read through the period 1789-1794, which allowed me to come across engaging historical incidents. One of these involves Charlotte Corday.
Charlotte Corday’s name is forever linked to the French Revolution due to her decision to play a part in a brutal act: the assassination of the Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat. The murder itself has been depicted in the contemporary painting by Jacques-Louis David (‘The Death of Marat’), further impressing the murder on the public consciousness.
Corday has been hailed as ‘the Angel of Assassination’, and perhaps I (and generations of others) have been interested in the whole event because of her gender and of her unassuming background. She decided to act against Marat because of the political upheaval of the period, with the Jacobins purging their rivals the Girondins; she felt as if she had to act in this bloody manner in order to protect France. There is a clear modern analogy in the UK with the divisions caused by Brexit, especially in the more extreme methods and positions that politicians and the populace are prepared to take.
Corday had arrived in Paris intending to kill Marat in front of the Convention, however, Marat was at home due to ill-health. Marat kept his doors open to receive fellow citizens who had news, gossip, or denunciations of others. She arrived at Marat’s home and was permitted entrance by a clearly interested Marat. Corday was guided into the bathroom, where Marat himself was soaking in the tub; the conversation continued for some 15 minutes, during which time Corday revealed details of an anti-Jacobin plot. ‘Good’, Marat is reported to have said, ‘in a few days I will have them all guillotined.’
Schama picks up the narrative:
Her chair was directly by the side of the bath. All she had to do was to rise, lean over the man, pull the knife out from the top of her dress, and lunge down hard and quickly. There was time for but one strike, beneath the clavicle on the right side. Marat shouted “A moi, ma chere amie” before sinking back into the water. As Simone Evrard ran into the room, crying “My God, he has been assassinated,” a jet of blood gushed from the wound where the carotid artery had been opened. “Malheureuse, what have you done?” was all she could say to the murderess. Laurent Bas, who worked for Marat distributing his newspaper, ran into the room, throwing a chair at Charlotte, missing and finally pinning her down, as he told the court, “by holding on to her breasts.”
Later, Corday confessed to all in what Schama calls a ‘clearly and coolly’ tone. Many did not believe that she acted alone and wanted to uncover details of a wider conspiracy against the Jacobins. However, ‘every line of questioning met with the same stubborn denials that had, after all, the consistency of being true.’ The documents of the questioning reveal this:
CORDAY: I knew that he was perverting France. I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand… I was a republican well before the Revolution and I have never lacked energy.
MONTANE: What do you mean by “energy”?
CORDAY: Those who put their own interests to one side and know how to sacrifice themselves for the patrie [country/homeland].
MONTANE: Didn’t you practice in advance, before striking the blow at Marat?
CORDAY: Oh! The monster [ie, Montane], he takes me for a murderer!
MONTANE: Nonetheless it was proven in the medical report that if you had struck the blow in this manner (demonstrating with a long motion) you would have not killed him.
CORDAY: I struck him just as you found. It was luck.
MONTANE: Who were the persons who counselled you to commit this murder?
CORDAY: I would never have committed such an attack on the advice of others. I alone conceived the plan and executed it….
MONTANE: Do you think you have killed all the Marats?
CORDAY: With this one dead, the others, perhaps, will be afraid.
It is easy enough to believe why the Jacobins were so convinced of a wider plot: one of their leaders had been assassinated, the country was riven by political factions, and France itself was at war with other European nations. However, it goes deeper than mere suspicion and paranoia; quite simply put, Charlotte Corday was a woman. Women during the period had minimal rights and respect, and a mere woman had killed one of the mighty political voices of the country.
Ultimately, Corday was guillotined for her crime. But her legend continues to live on, and the entire event is regularly highlighted during study of the Holocaust. As for the judgement as to whether or not Corday herself was a hero or villain, like everything it depends on your own political viewpoint. Clearly murder itself is never acceptable, but there is something about this woman heading to Paris to attempt to decide the fate of an entire nation. Perhaps this is why the entire incident is regularly returned to again and again.