This post written by our wonderful co-organiser, Sarah Burdett.
On 13th July 1793, Charlotte Corday, a twenty five year old Republican woman from Caen, Normandy, stabbed and killed the tyrannical Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat, while he sat naked in his bath tub. The assassination was carried out for political purposes. Corday’s loyalties lay with the Girondins, a political faction made up of moderate republicans. Marat belonged to the radical Montagnard gangs, who were engaged in a violent struggle to overthrow the Girondins, on account of the latter’s disapproval of the bloody turn that the revolution had taken. Corday killed Marat to protect her compatriots, or, to use her own words, ‘to deliver [her] country from a conspiring monster’. She perceived her actions as heroic, and proudly listed herself, along with Brutus, as one of few ‘true patriots who know how to die for their country’.
Corday quickly acquired international notoriety, and became yet another of the eighteenth century’s very ‘difficult women’. Corday transgressed the boundaries of decorous feminine behaviour to an extreme degree: she violated the public/private male/female divide, by rendering herself a political agent; she challenged ideas regarding women’s innate emotionalism and sensibility, by choosing the stoic Brutus as her patriotic role model; and she defied arguments proclaiming the incongruence between women and violent activism, by proving herself perfectly capable of fulfilling the task that she had set out to achieve. For Britons, the difficulties posed by Corday were enhanced by the country’s relationship with her victim. French supporters of Marat described his assassin as a repulsive and unsexed she-devil, who had rid the nation of the virtuous ‘friend of the people’. Yet this hostility towards Corday was not mirrored in Britain. The prevalent loyalism of Britons following the outbreak of Terror in France meant that, by the time of his death, most Britons viewed Marat with abhorrence. Therefore, to portray Corday using the same derisive terms employed by the French radicals, and to condemn the figure responsible for the death of one of the country’s greatest foreign enemies, would be to confuse the nations’ conservative loyalties. At the same time however, Britons could not celebrate Corday’s activism without condoning gender transgression, by vindicating the interchangeability between male and female virtue.
Becoming somewhat of a posthumous celebrity, Corday appeared frequently in British newspapers, poems, novels, and upon the stage. On account of the difficulties posed by her actions, her authors tended to fictionalise the facts of her crime. Typically, conservative representations denied Corday political agency by granting her a private motive for her crime: commonly, she killed Marat to avenge a murdered lover. Her stoicism was often replaced with acute sensibility, which caused her to struggle with her task, and her Republicanism was prevalently ignored. The romantic, sentimental and apolitical version of Corday presented to the public was greatly at odds with the heroic and patriotic image that Corday had wished to fashion for herself. The fabricated narratives illuminate the desperation among gender conservative commentators to erase accounts of subversive forms of female heroism from the records of eighteenth-century history. It is the role of the eighteenth-century scholar to counter this erasure, and grant the period’s ‘difficult women’ the attention they deserve.
Death of Marat, late member of the National Convention, at Paris, on the 13th of July 1793.
London: published by Rob.T Sayer & co, 1st Nov 1793