The French Revolution was truly the mother of all succeeding revolutions. Whether they occurred in Russia or China, Mexico or Cuba, and whatever forms of liberation they hoped to espouse, they all accomplished their goals through class warfare and the victimization of countless individuals.
The architects of the French Revolution persecuted not only members of the nobility, but also members of the Catholic clergy, whose loyalty to the Church preceded their loyalty to the State. Priests were ordered to pledge allegiance to a Civil Constitution whereby they would become, in effect, government functionaries. Those who refused‹and they were in the majority‹were labeled "refractory" and forced to face exile, prison, and even death. Religious orders were disbanded, their members expelled, and their properties seized or destroyed.
Cloistered nuns, like priests, were compelled to leave their communities, to refrain from collective worship, and to adopt secular dress. Nonetheless, many continued to worship together in secret, running the risk of imprisonment. Sixteen Carmelite nuns from a convent in Compiègne, arrested on June 24, 1794, were to know even worse. Accused of attending subversive meetings and of corresponding with counter-revolutionaries, they were carted off to Paris, imprisoned in the Concièrgerie (where Marie-Antoinette had spent her last days), condemned to death, and executed at the Place du Trône Renversé (now the Place de la Nation) on July 17, 1794, while singing the Te Deum on their way to the guillotine. Only ten days later, with the downfall of Robespierre, the infamous Reign of Terror would be over.
The wrenching story of these nuns was first recorded by Sister Marie of the Incarnation, one of the Carmelites who had escaped the fate of her sisters. Her memoir, published after her death in 1836, constituted the first written phase in the transformation of an historic event into major works of literature, theater, and opera. The German author Gertrud von le Fort was inspired by Sister Marie's memoir to write Die Letzte am Schafott (1931; The Last on the Scaffold), a novella adding a fictional character to the story. Giving her own noble status and family name to this character, Sister Blanche de la Force, le Fort turned the drama inward and tied Blanche's fear-ridden personality to the anxiety of an entire era.
Then, immediately following World War II, the French Catholic novelist and polemicist Georges Bernanos transplanted the Carmelites' story from the printed page to the stage. The knowledge that he himself was suffering from terminal cancer as he wrote Dialogues des Carmélites lent urgency to the task. Produced at the Théâtre Hébertôt in 1952, four years after his death, Dialogues added posthumous luster to Bernanos' distinguished reputation.
Bernanos' struggle with the religious concerns of good and evil, grace, death, and salvation was deeply personal as well as literary‹he was married to a direct descendant of Joan of Arc's brother. Inspired by the canonization of Joan of Arc in 1920, he had joined his slightly older contemporaries, Paul Claudel and François Mauriac, in the revival of Catholic writing in France, finding a special theme in the spiritual torments experienced by members of the clergy. His powerful novel, Journal d'un curé de campagne (1936; Diary of a Country Priest), immortalized in Robert Bresson's classic 1951 film version, chronicled the disappointments and failures of a simple priest who could not recognize the good works he had performed.
Dialogues focused on similar torments in a women's religious community, especially in the person of 20-year-old Blanche de la Force. The essential question is whether this pathologically fearful woman, taking the veil and the name of Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, will be able to overcome her "feminine" weakness and rise to the heroic courage traditionally associated with men. Psychologically speaking, Blanche had inherited her frailty. Her mother had died giving birth to her, from the shock of a mob uprising that had stopped the family carriage. Thereafter, Blanche had been raised by her father and brother for a life of aristocratic privilege that presupposed marriage and court attendance. Ultimately rejecting that world, she seeks refuge in an all-female enclave devoted exclusively to prayer. Suffering the disastrous loss of her biological mother, Blanche hopes to find salvation amidst substitute mothers and sisters.
Four nuns play crucial roles in Blanche's spiritual trajectory. The first, Madame de Croissy, the Carmelite Prioress, explains the value of prayer as a transcendent act that can influence the salvation of others, dead or alive. Her own subsequent death‹an unexpected agony rather than the "beautiful", easy death expected of a saintly woman‹introduces the idea, in the words of Sister Constance, that "we die not for ourselves alone but for one another, and even sometimes in the place of others." This Sister Constance, a cheerful, down-to-earth young Carmelite, provides a solid counterweight to Blanche's unrelenting fearfulness. Her presentiment that she and Blanche will die on the same day, expressed almost glibly, is one of several premonitions foreshadowing the dreadful dénouement.
Mother Marie of the Incarnation and Mme. Lidoine, the new Prioress, also exhibit contrasting personalities. The former, a woman of noble birth and activist character, leads the nuns to take a vow of martyrdom, yet she ironically escapes their fate at the guillotine. The latter, of plebeian birth, will be numbered among the Carmelites who mount the scaffold, even though she is strongly opposed to the vow because she believes that martyrdom is not decided by mortals but only by God.
Bernanos' God acts in mysterious ways, and never more mysteriously than at the very end of the play, when Blanche, who has been in pusillanimous hiding, appears out of the crowd before the guillotine and joins her sisters in communal martyrdom. The audience is not asked to understand Blanche's choice, but to accept it as an act of grace. If, as Sister Constance had suggested, individuals die not for themselves alone, and can even die for each other, the Old Prioress' incongruous death seems to have been exchanged for Blanche's serenely heroic end.
During the Reign of Terror, hundreds of women faced the guillotine, many as bravely as the fictional Blanche. Marie-Antoinette herself was described as mounting the scaffold with a calm and tranquil air. Three members of the family of Madame de La Fayette (her mother, grandmother, and sister) showed great dignity when they were executed together. Most of the slain women were nobles, defiantly exclaiming "Vive le roi!" with their last breath. But republicans, too, were victims of the guillotine. Madame Roland, wife of the minister of the interior, exhibited fortitude in the face of the executioner as she cried out "Liberty! How many crimes are committed in your name!" For the most part, women were condemned because of their relationships to suspect husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers. Precious few were, like the valiant Carmelites of Compiègne, unattached to men and executed for simply refusing to abrogate their vows and their dearly held principles. Surely this is why the Martyrs of Compiègne have been not only beatified (in 1906, by Pope St. Pius X) but celebrated time and time again in story and song.
Marilyn Yalom is the author of books including Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women's Memory. Formerly a professor of French at California State-Hayward, she is currently a Senior Scholar at the Stanford Institute for Research on Women and Gender.