(Denis is also sort of the namesake for the Parisian hill Montmarte where he’s supposed to have been put to death: “mountain of Mars” in heathen times, it Christianized to mons martyrium, “Martyrs’ Mountain”.)
While many Christian martyrs carry the instruments of their martyrdom in iconography, and a few others roll with the bits of severed flesh exacted by those martyrdoms, Denis is only the most notable of an entire designated sub-class who carry their own heads: cephalophores.
She is of stately Norman figure; in her twenty-fifth year; of beautiful still countenance: her name is Charlotte Corday, heretofore styled d’Armans, while Nobility still was … A completeness, a decision is in this fair female Figure: ‘by energy she means the spirit that will prompt one to sacrifice himself for his country.’ What if she, this fair young Charlotte, had emerged from her secluded stillness, suddenly like a Star; cruel-lovely, with half-angelic, half-demonic splendour; to gleam for a moment, and in a moment be extinguished: to be held in memory, so bright complete was she, through long centuries!–Quitting Cimmerian Coalitions without, and the dim-simmering Twenty-five millions within, History will look fixedly at this one fair Apparition of a Charlotte Corday; will note whither Charlotte moves, how the little Life burns forth so radiant, then vanishes swallowed of the Night.
Hapless beautiful Charlotte; hapless squalid Marat! From Caen in the utmost West, from Neuchatel in the utmost East, they two are drawing nigh each other; they two have, very strangely, business together.
Or was it strange at all?
Implacable in her purpose, utopian in her design, unafraid to plant a butcher’s knife into the chest of an enemy of France, Corday has a little something in common with her mortal foe.
These make casting too easy: Marat, bad because he was ugly and ugly because he was bad; Charlotte, therefore, just the reverse. (She was also a virgin; they made sure to check at the autopsy.) Our Norman assassin’s looks have inordinately exercised her interlocutors from the moment of her arrest; her prosecutors, too, understood them as essential.
“Not at all pretty,” a contemporaneous government article (cited in Crisis in Representation) put about. “She was a virago, brawny rather than fresh, without grace, untidy as are almost all female philosophers and eggheads … an old maid … with a masculinized bearing … [who] had thrown herself absolutely outside of her sex.”
And there it is. Charlotte Corday’s power to excite both rapture and repulsion is plainly rooted in the unexpected contradiction between her sex and her crime. If she is a resolute political assassin, surely she is not feminine … or is it the other way around?
Take Andre Chenier‘s engorged ode: “Fair, young, resplendent, led to the executioners, you seemed to be riding in your bridal car … You alone were a man and vindicated the human race. And we, vile eunuchs, a cowardly and soulless herd, we know how to repeat some womanly whimper, but the steel would weigh heavy in our feeble hands. … One scoundrel less crawls in this slime. Virtue applauds you. Hear the majestic sound of its virile praise, heroic maid.” This is “throwing herself outside of her sex” in the affirmative sense of uplifting herself beyond mere womanhood, a girl so heroic she might almost qualify as a dude.
Place it at the historical pivot into a modernity unready to reckon with the place of the woman, and confusion reigns.
“The spectacle of such wickedness, beauty, and talent united in the same person,” a newspaper recorded, “the contrast between the magnitude of her crime and the weakness of her sex, her appearance of actual gaiety, and her smile before the judges, who could not fail to condemn her, all combined to create an impression on the spectators that is difficult to portray.”*
Still, this judgment offers more insight than some latterly “tributes,” like this Anglo magazine piece 30 years later: “an ornament and an honour to the sex of woman … Woman is the child of feeling. From this source spring up all her good and bad qualities. It is seldom ambition or policy which leads her on to any enterprise: it is the passions. … it was under the influence of such feelings that Charlotte Corday performed that act, which virtuous and generous minds, so far from considering a crime, will look upon as one of the most heroic deeds of recorded history.”
Which is a fascinating form of sexism, since it was precisely Corday’s unearthly calm — masculine virtue! — that awed the Revolutionary Tribunal. But everything about Charlotte Corday is up for interpretive grabs; Nina Rattner Gelbart even argues, in “The Blonding of Charlotte Corday” (Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.1 (2004)) that though a real-life brunette, her depictions trend increasingly flaxen-haired.**
As for Charlotte Corday her work is accomplished; the recompense of it is near and sure. The chere amie, and neighbours of the house, flying at her, she ‘overturns some movables,’ entrenches herself till the gendarmes arrive; then quietly surrenders; goes quietly to the Abbaye Prison: she alone quiet, all Paris sounding in wonder, in rage or admiration, round her. …
On Wednesday morning, the thronged Palais de Justice and Revolutionary Tribunal can see her face; beautiful and calm: she dates it ‘fourth day of the Preparation of Peace.’ A strange murmur ran through the Hall, at sight of her; you could not say of what character. Tinville has his indictments and tape- papers the cutler of the Palais Royal will testify that he sold her the sheath-knife; “all these details are needless,” interrupted Charlotte; “it is I that killed Marat.” By whose instigation?–”By no one’s.” What tempted you, then? His crimes. “I killed one man,” added she, raising her voice extremely (extremement), as they went on with their questions, “I killed one man to save a hundred thousand; a villain to save innocents; a savage wild-beast to give repose to my country. I was a Republican before the Revolution; I never wanted energy.” There is therefore nothing to be said. The public gazes astonished: the hasty limners sketch her features, Charlotte not disapproving; the men of law proceed with their formalities. The doom is Death as a murderess. To her Advocate she gives thanks; in gentle phrase, in high-flown classical spirit. To the Priest they send her she gives thanks; but needs not any shriving, or ghostly or other aid from him.
On this same evening, therefore, about half-past seven o’clock, from the gate of the Conciergerie, to a City all on tiptoe, the fatal Cart issues: seated on it a fair young creature, sheeted in red smock of Murderess; so beautiful, serene, so full of life; journeying towards death,–alone amid the world. Many take off their hats, saluting reverently; for what heart but must be touched? Others growl and howl. Adam Lux, of Mentz, declares that she is greater than Brutus; that it were beautiful to die with her: the head of this young man seems turned. At the Place de la Revolution, the countenance of Charlotte wears the same still smile. The executioners proceed to bind her feet; she resists, thinking it meant as an insult; on a word of explanation, she submits with cheerful apology. As the last act, all being now ready, they take the neckerchief from her neck: a blush of maidenly shame overspreads that fair face and neck; the cheeks were still tinged with it, when the executioner lifted the severed head, to shew it to the people. ‘It is most true,’ says Foster, ‘that he struck the cheek insultingly; for I saw it with my eyes: the Police imprisoned him for it.’†
In this manner have the Beautifullest and the Squalidest come in collision, and extinguished one another. Jean-Paul Marat and Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday both, suddenly, are no more. ‘Day of the Preparation of Peace?’ Alas, how were peace possible or preparable, while, for example, the hearts of lovely Maidens, in their convent-stillness, are dreaming not of Love- paradises, and the light of Life; but of Codrus’-sacrifices, and death well earned? That Twenty-five million hearts have got to such temper, this is the Anarchy; the soul of it lies in this: whereof not peace can be the embodyment! The death of Marat, whetting old animosities tenfold, will be worse than any life. O ye hapless Two, mutually extinctive, the Beautiful and the Squalid, sleep ye well,–in the Mother’s bosom that bore you both!
While the assassin went contentedly to her death, and left smitten admirers in her passing, more realistic politicians saw that all her magnificent stoicism, all her self-sacrifice, had doomed the liberals who were her political fellow-travelers and opened the door to the very Terror she meant to avert. (And also that the gesture might have been better directed elsewhere, since Marat was already dying.)
What meaning this leaves one with — any at all? — is the subject of the Peter Weiss play-within-a-play Marat/Sade, which sets a cast of lunatics in the Napoleonic era under the direction of the Marquisde Sade to portraying Marat’s rendezvous with Charlotte Corday.
* Cited by Elizabeth R. Kindleberger in “Charlotte Corday in Text and Image: A Case Study in the French Revolution and Women’s History,” French Historical Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Autumn, 1994).
** Also of interest from Gelbart is the Vichy government’s affinity for our murderess: “Antisemitism made of Marat a Jew and a vile creature, dark, dirty, satanic, a bloodthirsty monster. In contrast, Corday was pure, saintly, beautiful, virginal, and of course fair.”
† The slap given Charlotte Corday’s severed head is historically attested by the French press (which was aghast); the famous story about it of a much more fantastic quality is that the severed head blushed — and, in the phrasing of Englishwoman Helen Maria Williams, “exhibited this last impression of offended modesty.” The legend of Charlotte’s crimsoned cheeks always comes up in the backstory of the guillotine’s experiments to determine if a head retained consciousness; Charlotte’s blush may in fact be credited as one of the reasons these experiments actually came to pass.