Olympe de Gouges

English translations of the original French texts


The Mémoire de Madame Valmont is a semi-autobiographical epistolary novel written in 1784 following the death of Olympe de Gouges's supposed father, Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan, the work was eventually published in 1788. It is a response to the harsh treatment the author received at the hands of her natural family, reflecting, within its fictional world, the reality of de Gouges's situation. With its multiple voices and satirical flair it creates a hall of mirrors, each reflection giving another view of the central narrative that attacks aristocratic privileges and religious bigotry, challenges assumptions of truth and fiction, highlights the lack of faith shown by men when they make promises to women and deplores society's unwillingness to allow women to voice their concerns or take part in political debate. The eponymous heroine is seen to take charge of her life despite prejudicial attitudes towards illegitimacy; she is assisted by a female author whose own history is remarkably similar. These multiple projections of Olympe de Gouges's own situation, as artful as they are, express the frankness and courage with which she attempts to break down the constraints imposed on her, and others, by society's guardians. [Read]

Lettre au peuple/Caisse patriotique - (November 1788) establishes author's persona, independent, untutored, a natural talent. Uses personal experiences to underpin political and philosophical arguments. Bemoans cynical manipulation of population to riot. Expresses horror of civil war. Suggests voluntary taxation to redress State's deficit. Society needs to change to reduce needless expenditure. All must work for the common good. Discusses women's role in society. [Read]

Remarques patriotiques - (December 1788) proposes social and agrarian reform, a form of state welfare, and an equitable taxation system including wealth tax. Empathises with the poor and dispossessed, highlights dishonesty of ministers, wastage of needless luxury, and damage done by those who speculate. Includes a utopian dream sequence in which the successful meeting of the Estates-General brings about great benefits for all. Addresses the King and Queen directly to pave the way for those who lack other means to make their opinions heard. [Read]

Bonheur Primitif - Published in Spring 1789 this work is a creation myth that compares an original utopian world, it's decline, and de Gouges's own times. The egalitarian principles of the first state might return if the faults of the second could be addressed rather than magnified. Man seen working in harmony with the natural world and his kith and kin provides the template for a good life. The essay contains some of her most impassioned arguments against the misuse of power and wealth. De Gouges's critical view of religious organisations is clearly articulated; her preference for a form of nature worship over a supposed revealed truth is clear. In this six chapter long essay she offers varying solutions to contemporary ills without fearing the contradictions that she feels are inherent to such discourse. Olympe de Gouges anticipates criticism, in part due to her sex, but fiercely claims her right to offer her own views which, thanks to her limited erudition, might be more perspicacious than those of Rousseau himself. In reflecting on man's first community, de Gouges offers suggestions for improving the lot of man in 1789 - which is far from ideal - and hopes that an ordered constitutional monarchy can make France a better nation. Later on, as the situation in France changed, she was to abandon these royalist ideas in favour of a republic if it were democratically chosen by a majority of citizens. [Read]

Dialogue allégorique - (April 1789) a dramatic scene used to highlight the author's pacifist and anti-corruption message, followed by new project to use culture to improve society. Addresses role of women in society and creation of homes for those left without means of support. [Read]

Le Cri du sage - (5 May 1789) responds immediately, like a modern day blog, to the momentous meeting of the Estates General of 5 May 1789 calling for the three parties to cast aside their personal interests in favour of the common good. [Read]

Avis pressant - (May 1789) responds to misogynist criticism. France is in crisis; Cassandra like her voice goes unheard. The Estates General foundering in discord, suggests they take time to calm down in order to regroup and address the vital problems afflicting France having set aside personal interests. [Read]

Pour sauver la patrie - (June 1789) begs the Nobility and the Third Estate to conciliate to save France from her enemies, and use a ballot system to settle their differences. [Read]

Mes voeux sont remplis - (June 1789) acknowledges events and projects hopes for the future. [Read]

Epitre - (June 1789). This pamphlet expresses Olympe de Gouges's frustration at Louis XVI's inactivity in supporting the creation of a constitution. One can see the author's attachment both to her king, and to the ideal of a constitutional monarchy. Opinions like these were held against de Gouges at a later date when she was accused of being a monarchist. In 1793 such charges often led to imprisonment and death; they also have posthumous implications when historians assess the political affiliations of their subjects. It is not often remembered that Marat, whose republican credentials are never in doubt, wrote in 1788, 'Blessed be the best of Kings!' stating that only the enemies of the state would wish to 'overthrow the monarchy' (quoted in Conner, Jean Paul Marat Tribune of the French Revolution, Pluto Press, 2012). Like de Gouges, and so many others, Marat feared that anarchy would ensue if the monarchy were to be overthrown; reform within the realm not revolution was still considered the better outcome. [Read]

Lettre au Le Duc D'Orléans - Written in early July 1789 this open letter shows de Gouges reacting to the turmoil she fears the duc d'Orléans is fomenting at the Palais-Royal. Its publication managed to upset both the court at Versailles and the duc’s entourage. She hoped to persuade the duc that reasoned debate and generosity were needed to steer France towards a better future, not further public disorder. [Read]

Séance Royale, Motion par Monseigneur le duc d’Orléans, ou Les songes patriotiques dates from mid to late July 1789, and was written to counter the opprobrium produced by her poster of the same name. It is a complex text, using multiple voices, which both justifies de Gouges’s previous statements while aiming to conciliate those her words offended. Her ideas are, as in previous texts, presented as dreams, or the imaginings of others, supposedly better placed to make such observations. De Gouges puts forward her suggestions for a constitutional monarchy, or a regency, and ends with her characteristic plea for improving the lot of illegitimate children. [Read]

Le Contre-Poison - (July? - October? 1789) warns the citizenry against being led astray by insurrectional elements who are nothing more than aristocrats aiming to bring about the downfall of a new regime. Patience is needed to allow the new government to achieve its aims. [Read]

Action héroïque - (September 1789) addresses women, lamenting their inability to participate in events, suggesting instead that they should lead the way in altruism and contribute their jewellery to serve the state. [Read]

Lettre aux Littérateurs François - Written in the spring of 1790 in response to her treatment at the hands of the Comédie-Française and her inability to persuade the authorities to act on her behalf de Gouges hoped with this letter to influence writers and journalists to act on her behalf. The text was well received by several newspapers. Opening with the ironic trope of weak womanhood de Gouges moves on to hit hard at the men in power, both in theatre and government, who are behaving, post-revolution, with the same despotism so reviled during the previous regime. [ Read]

Les Comédiens Démasqués - Published in 1790, this lengthy pamphlet charts the performance history of L'Esclavage des Noirs, since 1785, and describes the tempestuous relationship between de Gouges and the Comédie Française. [Read]

Depart de Necker - Written in 1790 this pamphlet made public de Gouges's decision to leave France in the hope that her play, L'Esclavage des nègres, poorly received in Paris, would fare better on the London stage. She uses Necker's departure to playfully contrast and compare their lives, commenting on Treasury affairs before moving on to attack French slave traders and colonists, to comment on newsworthy events such as the execution of Favras, to offer anecdotes relating to everyday life in Paris, and to skewer with her mordant wit those whom she felt had let her, or her nation, down. Having decided to leave Paris she found herself too attached to France's ever changing political situation to bear a lengthy absence and abandoned her journey.. [Read]

Projet sur la formation d'un tribunal - (May 1790) puts forward groundbreaking ideas for trial by jury. [Read]

Le Tombeau de Mirabeau was written in April 1791 as an immediate response to the death of Mirabeau. De Gouges shared many of his political thoughts on France becoming a constitutional monarchy and had corresponded with him in 1789.

Sera-t-il roi - (June 1791) is a lengthy response to Louis XVI's flight arguing for a constitutional monarchy and reform of the royal household. Emigrants should be allowed to return thus bringing back their wealth to France. The duc d'Orléans is blamed for encouraging civil disorder. Digresses to discuss need for equitable divorce to safeguard adults and children. Would appear to describe her own financial and domestic arrangements. Suggests a National Guard made up of women to protect and guard the women of the Royal Family thus involving ordinary women in public life and diluting the influence of courtiers. [Read]

Les Droits de la femme – (14 September 1791 written in direct response to the disappointingly exclusive Rights of Man to show that equality between the sexes is essential for the health of any nation. The suggested contract between women and men that ends the piece is so ground breaking that even two centuries after its creation it continued to be problematic. It is one of the first published tracts in favour of the political rights of women. [Read]

Le Bon sens du français (February 1792) poster expressing belief in divorce as a source of equality within marriage by creating a fair system of separation, protecting the property of individual partners and securing rights of children to a safe future through intermediary of family tribunals. [Read]

L'ésprit français - (March 1792) boldly dedicated to Louis XVI, addressed to the Legislative Assembly, the Jacobins and the Feuillants attacking pervasive, corrupting, influence of power and the disorder at the heart of the administration, the threat of civil war and the lack of common sense, or reason, used to persuade all to work for the good of France and its people rather than to seek personal reward. [Read]

Grand eclipse – (April 1792) Jacobins and Feuillants both attacked for violent, inflammatory, tendencies. [Read]

Lettres. A la Reine. Aux Généraux de l'armée. Aux Amis de la Constitution. Et aux Françaises citoyennes (May 1792) This pamphlet unites the letters written by de Gouges to various parties in which she sought, from the powers that be, support for a group of women to join a procession in honour of the murdered Mayor of Etampes. Crucially it had been framed as a celebration of the rule of law. De Gouges felt strongly that if women had to obey the law, then they must be allowed to help create that law. Participating in such an official festival was a step towards female representation in the political arena. Her address to Marie Antoinette was to have grave consequences for de Gouges a year later. [Read]

La Fierté de l’Innocence – (September 1792) one of the rare responses to the appallingly bloody events of the previous weeks publicly exclaiming against the use of violence to uphold governmental change, attacking not only those actually responsible for the massacres but also those who stood aside and let them happen. [Read]

Les Fantômes de l'opinion publique - (October 1792) De Gouges took up her pen to support the moderate elements following the events of September 1792, terrified that insurrection could lead to both internal and external war. Action must be taken before it is too late. [Read]

Pronostic – (November 1792) characteristically bold response to Louvet’s accusation against Robespierre that pre-empted the latter’s own response by a few hours; the indictments were only too accurate, if a year ahead of their time. [Read]

Réponse à la justification – (November 1792) lightening response to Robespierre’s speech of 5 November taking apart his arguments, giving full vent to anger and frustration: pointed irony misunderstood and taken for lunacy. [Read]

Olympe de Gouges défenseur officieux de Louis Capet - (December 1792) this letter written to the Convention on 16 December 1792 offering to defend Louis XVI was also produced as a placard liberally posted around Paris; it was disregarded and derided. In her defence of Louis XVI de Gouges expresses her customary fair-mindedness, in her understanding of the Convention's Parisian bias, her shrewdness and in her plea for exile rather than death, her pacifism. De Gouges produced three further texts in response to the negative reaction: Mon dernier mot à mes chers amis; Addresse au don Quichotte du Nord; Arrêt de mort que présente Olympe de Gouges contre Louis Capet. [Read]

Mon dernier mot a mes chers amis - (December 1792) A farewell poster, laden with irony, pasted up then bound with Correspondance de la Cour and sent to the Convention in the same month . Discouragement following physical and verbal attacks had finally pushed de Gouges to consider leaving Paris and abandoning her writing of political tracts. This decision was swiflty overturned as, yet again, events became too momentous to be disregarded. [Read]

Correspondance de la Cour. Compte moral rendu. - (December 1792) On 28 October 1792 a Jacobin publicly accused Olympe de Gouges of disseminating a petition in favour of Louis XVI. The danger of such an accusation was enough to stimulate de Gouges to respond with Compte moral rendu printed, a few weeks later, to refute the charge made against her by giving examples of her political integrity. She also made public, for the first time, her brush with Marie Antoinette’s household and her refusal of any royal favours. [Read]

Arret de mort – (January 1793) overnight response to the vote taken by the Convention when a small majority carried the motion for Louis XVI’s death sentence. Patriotically agrees with Convention, king should go, but against death penalty, ineffective politically and inhumane. [Read]

Testament politique – (June 1793) prophetic pamphlet distributed to the Convention, the Commune, the Jacobins and various journalists in which Girondins are supported and sacrifice for a cause celebrated. [Read]

Les trois urnes – (July 1793) challenges concept of Republic, one and indivisible by suggesting a democratic vote throughout the country to choose truly representative form of government; this suggestion led to her death. [Read]

Une patriote pérsécutée - (end of August/early September 1793) written from prison boldly expresses opinions with regards to detention, demands to be given a fair hearing, reaffirms fundamentally pacific republican sentiments and throws down the gauntlet to captors. [Read]

Olympe de Gouges au Tribunal revolutionnaire – (September 1793) accuses Robespierre of tyranny and justifies own political stances. [Read]