Sunday, 16 September 2012

Marianne, Dickens and Kate

“The maidenly bosom bared to this …”

This, here, is not a paparazzo’s telephoto lens; it is a reference by Charles Dickens to the Carmagnole, the revolutionaries’ dance around the guillotine which so terrifies the heroine of A Tale of Two Cities, Lucie Manette:

a something, once innocent, delivered over to all devilry – a healthy pastime changed into a means of angering the blood, bewildering the senses, and steeling the heart. Such grace as was visible in it, made it the uglier, showing how warped and perverted all things good by nature were become. The maidenly bosom bared to this, the pretty almost child’s head, thus distracted, the delicate foot mincing in this slough of blood and dirt, were types of the disjointed time.
A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Book the Third, Ch.5; Everyman edition 1994, p.281

The uncoverage of the Duchess of Cambridge in the French press this week has been accompanied by some attempts at humour in the Allo Allo vein. One picture caption in Closer chortles, ‘Les français ont le buste de Marianne. Maintenant, les Anglais ont celui de Kate!’ Actually, I think Dickens had Marianne in mind when he wrote about the ‘maidenly bosom’, because a little later in the novel he returns to the Carmagnole and this time he describes how a young woman was lifted into a chair by the dancing mob and carried shoulder-high ‘as the Goddess of Liberty’ (p.288).

Now Marianne, usually (but not always) bare-breasted, is the personification of the Goddess of Liberty, and a French national icon. Think of Delacroix’s celebrated painting, ‘Liberty Leading the People’ (1830) which depicts Marianne storming the barricades, the tricolor streaming in the wind as she holds it aloft. This picture, and Marianne herself, have been powerful representations of la République ever since, though Marianne made her first appearance during the French Revolution, at least as early as 1792.

I have argued elsewhere* that the figure of the young woman in the foreground of Phiz’s wonderful illustration of the Carmagnole for A Tale of Two Cities is not just a discreet depicting of ‘the maidenly bosom bared to this’. She is actually Delacroix’s Liberty with her back to the viewer – no doubt because the mid-Victorian readers of All the Year Round  (in which A Tale of Two Cities was serialized) would have been shocked by a full-frontal Marianne. Given that Phiz brought into this picture elements of the story from both before and after the actual event depicted, I now think we are to understand that the young woman introduced by Dickens, whose delicate foot is faithfully drawn by Phiz  (real name: Hablot K Browne) ‘mincing in the blood and dirt’, is also the young woman later carried aloft as the Goddess of Liberty.

I have been re-reading A Tale of Two Cities this past week, and as it happens I have been doing so in France, on holiday. This is how I’ve been able to obtain a copy of the infamous Closer, of which I had never heard until yesterday. I must say, it treads a fine line between sleazy innuendo and sanctimonious twaddle. Contrasting the pictures of Kate sunbathing (“Elle a épousé le prince des Anglais, mais elle aime bien aussi le roi soleil”) with Prince Harry’s recent embarrassments, Closer’s Samuel Cannes glozes:

Il n’est pas question ici d’alcool, de strip billiard ou de positions équivoques, mais simplement d’une épouse bien dans son corps [“Geddit??”, as Glenda Slag use to demand in Private Eye] qui n’a strictment rien à cacher à son mari .

The disingenuousness is staggering.

Back to Marianne.  In Normandy this week we have been visiting chateaux. I wanted to see if they would add to my sense of Dickens’ mastery of fact and detail in the chapters of A Tale of Two Cities set in and around the chateau of the fearsome Monseigneur. (I’ll write about this another time.)  I’ve also been studying French war memorials, in preparation for a lecture I’m to give in Oxford next month. Yesterday, on the way back to the Portsmouth ferry from Caen, we drove through the small town of Trevières and came unexpectedly upon what must be one of the most provocative images of Marianne in all France – though not in any sense Closer would understand.

The town’s First World War memorial depicts Marianne as a French poilu, an ordinary foot soldier. On her head she wears an adrian, the distinctive French infantry helmet; over her dress she bears the soldier’s kit, with ammunition pouches etc. Her belt and bayonet sheath are slung over the arm of a cross against which she rests, but her sleeves are rolled up and she is ready for action. . Like Delacroix’s Marianne, she brandishes a weapon (her sword) in one hand and her other is outstretched to hold the tricolor.

 So far so good, but I have omitted the most shocking thing about her. She has only half a face. At some moment between 6 – 9th June 1944, when Allied forces were fighting their way inland from the Normandy beaches, the Trevières War Memorial was struck by shrapnel from a shell and Marianne’s jaw and neck were blown off. She stands now, a ghoulish mutilée de guerre, a memorial no longer to one world war but to two. On the plinth beneath, an inscription describes her in uncompromising but highly ambiguous terms:

DU 6 AU 9 JUIN 1944

Whereas Marianne in her earlier incarnations had triumphantly represented France, personified as the goddess of Liberty, now (the inscription implies) she represents the image of that same France murdered (‘meurtrié’) by the allied forces in the process of ‘liberation’. No longer a goddess, she has been made a victim.

You could say the same about Kate.

Adrian Barlow

* I have written about ‘The Sea Rises’ in World and Time: Teaching Literature in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp.214-218)

Illustrations: (i) ‘The Sea Rises’ by Phiz (Hablot K Browne) 1859; (ii) War Memorial at Trevières, Normandy. Photograph © Adrian Barlow 2012

1 comment:

  1. I have my own professional reasons for disliking 'Closer' magazine. The title follows the French trend of borrowing Anglo-Saxon words to give a modern aura to things. One of the most common methods is to take a gerundive and use it as a noun, as in 'bowling' for 'bowling alley'. I was always amused by the name of a chain of sports shoe shops with the name 'Athletes Foot', which disappeared recently and was replaced, probably because someone pointed out the real meaning of the term. What annoys me about 'Closer' is that the French pronounce the 's' as 'z', as in 'Phiz', 'sleaze' and 'gloze'. This means having to overcome the difficulty of introducing the correct pronunciation to indoctrinated pupils. The Liberation of France and especially the Battle of Normandy meant great sacrifice for the French and I suppose some of the liberated have reasons for resenting the Allies. Some even see the landings as an invasion. I remember an old man who survived the bombing of Le Havre openly accusing me as a Brit for the responsability of destroying his town. Yet then I shall never forget the time I was riding alongside an old cyclist from Caen who told me without any kind of resentment how when he was a child his house was blown in half and all his family were killed. But one thing the French seem never to be able to forgive us for is the burning of Joan of Arc in Rouen. I hear that all the time. Even though the English didn't actually burn the lady. We simply provided the matches.