Women’s Journals During the French Revolution

When you think of prisoners during the Revolution you are inclined to think of possibly the two most famous women who were arrested and sentenced to death – Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday, who assassinated Marat, but there were many other women who wrote journals about their lives during the French Revolution, some written from prison, others were purely about how their lives changed during this period.

In 1803 Napoleon sent out an edict to detain every British citizen living in France at that time; all British persons were to be arrested, imprisoned and interrogated, with some also being sentenced to death.

We know however, that many lesser known women were also detained. From her letters and journal we have found out that our heroine spent from the early 1790s to the mid 1820s travelling between England and France, with part of her life being spent in a variety of French prisons.  We also know that Helen Maria Williams, whom we have written about before, spent time in The Luxembourg prison, Paris, from where she continued to work on translations.

Apart from Le Bastille, the main prison used to house British detainees was La Conciergerie, a former royal palace in Paris; between 2nd April 1793 and 31st May 1795 over 2,500 prisoners were sent to the guillotine from La Conciergerie.

Marie Antoinette's cell in the Conciergerie.
Marie Antoinette’s cell in the Conciergerie.

During this period in history many women, whether in prison or just trying to continue with their day to day lives, wrote letters and journals which have survived, giving us an insight into their lives at this time.

For those interested in reading about life during the Revolution there are quite a few online journals that make fascinating reading, such as the one by the Duchesse De Duras.

A well known Scottish courtesan Grace Elliott nee Dalrymple was also purported to have been held as a prisoner during the Revolution, however the jury has always remained out as to whether or not this was in fact true, and just how much truth is in her Journal of my Life during the French Revolution (we reveal the true facts in our book on Grace).

Grace is another lady who we have been closely researching, but more of this at a later date.

Mrs Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Thomas Gainsborough (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Mrs Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Thomas Gainsborough (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Another interesting journal was written by Henriette-Lucie Dillon born 25th February 1770 at Saint-Sulpice, Paris. She was the daughter of General Arthur Dillon, who married his second cousin Therese-Lucy de Rothe – Journal of a Woman of Fifty Years. We stumbled across this journal we researching our heroine who was a friend of one of Arthur Dillon’s relatives.

The Great French Revolution is narrated in the letters of Madame J which were edited by her grandson Edouard Lockroy. Madame J had never anticipated her letter being published as they were not written for the public to read, but none the less they give a fascinating account of her life.

All of these journals give the reader a real insight into life in France before, during and after the French Revolution and we feel they are definitely worth a read!

Armed with snippets of information from these journals we set about trying to research French records in the hope of finding the people we were interested in listed in at least one of the prisons we had read about where many of the English women were held during the revolution.

During our research we have came across a wonderfully helpful website set up by Anne Morddel which gives links to the various French Departments.

Anne very kindly sent us a list of women that were listed as foreign British prisoners in Napoleonic France. Sadly, our lady was not on the list, but many others were. If you think that one of your relatives might have been on the list it is worth emailing Anne to obtain a copy.

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4 thoughts on “Women’s Journals During the French Revolution

    1. All Things Georgian

      Thank you so much for the feedback. Henriette-Lucy, Marquise de La Tour du Pin-Gouvernet is someone we will definitely look at more closely as she fits right in with the research we’re doing.

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  1. Charlotte

    Hello! Your info was very interesting and helpful, I am deeply inspired so thank you for writing this.
    I am currently doing a project for university and would like to know specifically: were women in prison allowed to receive letters during and after the Revolution? Thanks!

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    1. All Things Georgian

      Thank you so much for such an interesting question, unfortunately there’s no easy answer we can give. We are aware that people did write letters whilst in prison, frequently on scraps of paper or fabric – in fact anything that was available. As to whether they were actually supplied with writing paper it’s really difficult to say. Charlotte Corday certainly wrote to her father, she said farewell and asked him to forgive her, then said judgment was to be passed the next day – it was after her condemnation so judgment meant the guillotine. Whether this was ever delivered to him we really don’t know. We’re sure that some letters would have made it to the recipient, probably by covert methods, perhaps by bribing a guard.

      Another example would include Madame de Kolly, who communicated with her eldest sons during the summer of 1793 whilst held in the Hotel de La Force which had been split in two mens and womens prisons. They managed to pass letters along a drainpipe, the current of a stream brought a clog pulled by a string which held letters. This seems to confirm there was a fair degree of subterfuge and that prisoners couldn’t pass letters between themselves. We’ve seen mention of both men and women writing to Robespierre etc pleading for their lives, but again this would have been internal correspondence.

      Most accounts of prison life were however written after the event, a way of recounting the horrors they experienced – not necessarily for the public at large to read, although in the case of our own Grace Dalrymple Elliott her journal was published, not totally factual, but certainly some of it was.

      There’s a couple of books which might be worth reading and exploring in more detail – ‘Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution 1793-1794’ by Olivier Blanc and ‘Writing the Revolution: A French Woman’s History in Letters’ by Lindsay A.H. Parker

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