1794: Rosalie Lubomirska, mother of Balzac’s antagonist

Add comment June 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1794, the Polish princess Rosalie Lubomirska was guillotined during the Paris Terror.

The hottest thing to come out of Chernobyl before 1986, the glamorous young Lubomirska had it all going for her before Europe turned revolutionary.

Her support for the reformist Patriotic Party in her homeland required her flight on to France when a Russian invasion defeated that movement in 1792. Indeed, short as her own thread was cut, Rosalie Lubomirska was only barely outlived by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth itself.

But escaping to her friend Marie Antoinette in France might not have been the savviest choice.

The irrepressible Melanie “Madame Guillotine” Clegane, author of such topical historical fiction as The Secret Diary of a Princess: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, has everything you need to know about Rosalie Lubomirska’s activities from that point in this post: going royalist after the execution of Louis XVI, taking Vendee rebels into her salon and/or bed, and seeing her lovers precede her to the guillotine while she desperately bought time by feigning pregnancy.

She left behind a young daughter. In much later years, this little girl grown up and married to noted Orientalist scholar Waclaw Seweryn Rzeuwski would manifest as a side character in a very different story: she is “Aunt Rozalia”, whose niece was Ewelina Hanska, the admirer turned wife of the novelist Honore de Balzac. Aunt Rozalia was a bitter foe of Ewelina’s declasse romance with the bourgeois scribbler and to judge by the correspondence of the lovers was continually trafficking in rumors that Balzac — who was in actuality a legendary workaholic — was a gambler, boozer, or suchlike dissipated wastrel.

Balzac gave his antagonist the gift of literary immortality by using her as an inspiration (one inspiration: his own mother was another) for the titular killjoy spinster in his novel Cousin Bette.

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1795: Unspecified Robespierrists

1 comment January 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1795, a Balzac story La Comedie humaine reaches its climax as the tumbrils of the Thermidorian Reaction wind their way to the scaffold.

In “An Episode Under the Terror”, a mysterious man appears to a priest in hiding and prevails upon him to say a secret mass for the recently executed Louis XVI.

It transpires in an exchange between the two that the stranger’s own conscience is somehow troubled.

“Remember, my son, [said the abbe] that it is not enough to have taken no active part in the great crime; that fact does not absolve you. The men who might have defended the King and left their swords in their scabbards, will have a very heavy account to render to the King of Heaven — Ah! yes,” he added, with an eloquent shake of the head, “heavy indeed! — for by doing nothing they became accomplices in the awful wickedness—-”

“But do you think that an indirect participation will be punished?” the stranger asked with a bewildered look. “There is the private soldier commanded to fall into line — is he actually responsible?”

We have no more answer in the text than we have in life.

Spoiler (That You Saw Coming) Alert

The stranger returns on the anniversary of the king’s martyrdom, but he remains enigmatic, until the abbe is caught up in a crowd watching the procession to the guillotine.

“What is the matter?” [the abbe] asked Madame Ragon.

“Nothing,” she said; “it is only the tumbril cart and the executioner going to the Place Louis XV. Ah! we used to see it often enough last year; but to-day, four days after the anniversary of the twenty-first of January, one does not feel sorry to see the ghastly procession.”

“Why not?” asked the abbe. “That is not said like a Christian.”

“Eh! but it is the execution of Robespierre‘s accomplices. They defended themselves as long as they could, but now it is their turn to go where they sent so many innocent people.”

The crowd poured by like a flood. The abbe, yielding to an impulse of curiosity, looked up above the heads, and there in the tumbril stood the man who had heard mass in the garret three days ago.

“Who is it?” he asked; “who is the man with—-”

“That is the headsman,” answered M. Ragon.

Meaning (though unnamed as such by Balzac), the phenomenally prolific Sanson.

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1839: Sebastien-Benoit Peytel, notwithstanding Balzac

1 comment October 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1839, Honore de Balzac’s crusade to save a condemned man got the chop.

Sebastien-Benoit Peytel was a notary and minor journalist death-sentenced that August for murdering his wife and their servant, one of those countless local outrages whose passing notice flies before the years.

Driven by sentimentality or opportunism or literary conceit — but with a genuine sense of aggrieved justice — the French writer Balzac, who had met Peytel, took up his pen on the condemned man’s behalf.

I am extremely agitated by a horrible case, the case of Peytel. I have seen this poor fellow three times. He is condemned; I start in two hours for Bourg.

Blowing through 10,000 francs of his own money on travel and investigation, Balzac could never make the case to the public as compellingly as it evidently appeared to him.

The English writer William Thackeray was then abroad in Paris, and if we are to credit his more measured defense of Peytel,* Balzac was counterproductive to his cause.

Perhaps Monsieur de Balzac helped to smother what little sparks of interest might still have remained for the murderous notary. Balzac put forward a letter in his favor, so very long, so very dull, so very pompous, promising so much, and performing so little, that the Parisian public gave up Peytel and his case altogether.

Thackeray’s own (yawn) account won’t bring the rhetoricians out of their seats. Conniving Frenchmen: fresh take.

I am not going to entertain you with any sentimental lamentations for this scoundrel’s fate, or to declare my belief in his innocence, as Monsieur de Balzac has done. As far as moral conviction can go, the man’s guilt is pretty clearly brought home to him. But … [i] t is a serious privilege, God knows, that society takes upon itself, at any time, to deprive one of God’s creatures of existence. But when the slightest doubt remains, what a tremendous risk does it incur! In England, thank heaven, the law is more wise and more merciful: an English jury would never have taken a man’s blood upon such testimony: an English judge and Crown advocate would never have acted as these Frenchmen have done; the latter inflaming the public mind by exaggerated appeals to their passions: the former seeking, in every way, to draw confessions from the prisoner, to perplex and confound him, to do away, by fierce cross-questioning and bitter remarks from the bench, with any effect that his testimony might have on the jury.

[Y]ou may see how easy a thing it is for a man’s life to be talked away in France, if ever he should happen to fall under the suspicion of a crime.

Eventually, he pivots from Peytel’s execution this date to state a more general argument against the death penalty, at least in its public form.

Down goes the axe; the poor wretch’s head rolls gasping into the basket; the spectators go home, pondering; and Mr. Executioner and his aides have, in half an hour, removed all traces of the august sacrifice, and of the altar on which it had been performed. Say, Mr. Briefless, do you think that any single person, meditating murder, would be deterred therefrom by beholding this — nay, a thousand more executions? It is not for moral improvement, as I take it, nor for opportunity to make appropriate remarks upon the punishment of crime, that people make a holiday of a killing-day, and leave their homes and occupations, to flock and witness the cutting off of a head. Do we crowd to see Mr. Macready in the new tragedy, or Mademoiselle Ellssler in her last new ballet and flesh-colored stockinnet pantaloons, out of a pure love of abstract poetry and beauty; or from a strong notion that we shall be excited, in different ways, by the actor and the dancer? And so, as we go to have a meal of fictitious terror at the tragedy, of something more questionable in the ballet, we go for a glut of blood to the execution. The lust is in every man’s nature, more or less. Did you ever witness a wrestling or boxing match? The first clatter of the kick on the shins, or the first drawing of blood, makes the stranger shudder a little; but soon the blood is his chief enjoyment, and he thirsts for it with a fierce delight. It is a fine grim pleasure that we have in seeing a man killed; and I make no doubt that the organs of destructiveness must begin to throb and swell as we witness the delightful savage spectacle.

Lost among literature’s towering oaks, our day’s humble shrub has a literary footnote of his own for authoring, in 1832, Physiologie de la Poire (“The Physiology of the Pear”), a protracted satire exploiting Louis-Philippe‘s reputation as “the Pear King.” (Contrary to some reports, Peytel does not appear to have invented this image.)

According to these antiquarians, the book contains the author’s “hilarious” predictions of the ways he will not die.

“Il ne sera pas guillotine‘ comme Bories, Raoulx …”

* Thackeray argued that the trial was badly done and the evidence insufficient for execution but expressly stopped well short of expressing confidence in Peytel’s innocence.

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1794: Andre Chenier, poet

5 comments July 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1794, proto-Romantic poet Andre Chenier went to the guillotine the unfortunate victim of his father’s love.

In the operatic version of this Istanbul-born poet‘s life story, Chenier is accused by a rival in love, convicted, and guillotined the next day together with his beloved Maddalena, who effects a Sydney Carton-like swap into the lot of the condemned in order to share his fate.

Chenier’s real end was both more mundane, and far more tragic.

A revolutionary of the constitutional monarchist variety and an open opponent of the Jacobins bold enough to compose an ode to Marat’s murderess, Chenier had spent a year staying out of sight when the police picked him up almost accidentally.

Prisoners suffocating in the Paris jails were suspended horribly between life and death, but the anonymity of this living tomb offered — as with Tom Paine — a measure of occasional safety.

When Chenier’s father blunderingly appealing to the authorities for his son, he accidentally stripped away that anonymity. Chenier had been under lock and key for three-plus months — writing, the whole time, in minuscule letters on scraps of paper he arranged to have smuggled out to his father — but once reminded of the writer’s existence, the authorities promptly had it snuffed out. (A friend and fellow poet, Jean-Antoine Roucher, shared his tumbril.)

Chenier’s prison verses are among the most affecting of his 32 years — like the acidic Iambes blistering his persecutors, and the heartbreaking “La Jeune Captive”, in which he gives voice to the young fellow-prisoner who has smitten him, excerpted here:

Mon beau voyage encore est si loin de sa fin!
Je pars, et des ormeaux qui bordent le chemin
J’ai passé les premiers à peine.
Au banquet de la vie à peine commencé,
Un instant seulement mes lèvres ont pressé
La coupe en mes mains encor pleine.

Je ne suis qu’au printemps, je veux voir la moisson;
Et comme le soleil, de saison en saison,
Je veux achever mon année.
Brillante sur ma tige et l’honneur du jardin,
Je n’ai vu luire encor que les feux du matin:
Je veux achever ma journée.

Chenier was not broadly published or extremely well-known in his own lifetime; many critics think he was pinched out while still maturing. The poet himself told a friend in parting, “I leave nothing for posterity; and yet, (touching his forehead) I had something there.” In the backstory to one of the tales in Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine, a grocer who annoys one of Robespierre‘s associates is also among this day’s batch and arouses more notice than the man of letters:

Though Descoings died, he had the honour, at any rate, of going to the scaffold with Andre de Chenier. There, no doubt, grocery and poetry embraced for the first time in the flesh; for they have always had, and will always have, their private relations. Descoings’ execution made a far greater sensation than Andre de Chenier’s. Thirty years elapsed before it was recognised that France had lost more by Chenier’s death than by that of Descoings.

Robespierre’s sentence had this good result — until 1830 grocers were still afraid of meddling in politics.

The salutary effect upon grocers has long faded, but Chenier’s reputation has steadily ripened like wine since his demise. And the title part of the late-19th century opera Andrea Chenier — however scant its resemblance to the man who inspired it — is one of the most gorgeous tenor roles in opera.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guillotine,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason

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