Catel & Bocquet, Olympe de Gouges (French, 2012)

What did I do during the holidays with a computer with a computer but no Internet? Write! (at least, a bit). So I prepared a few posts about books I’d finished long ago but never came round to blog about. Here’s of them:

It’s not the first time I read a graphic novel by these two (Catel is the graphic artist and Bocquet the writer, so I understand), so I was already expecting great things about this book. Last time, they wrote the graphic biography of Kiki de Montparnasse, a woman full of stamina who started as a pauper and made it despite the odds to the muse of several great artists during the golden years of the 1920s and 1930s.

This time around, they recreated the life of a great French feminist of the Revolution days: Olympe de Gouges. Her name comes up vaguely whenever we in France think of the early days of women rights movements, but I’d never cared to learn anything about her life (her death by guillotine is unfortunately the only point I knew).

Olympe (her real name Marie Gouze) was the daughter of a butcher’s wife and a nobleman in the southern provinces of France. Her biological father professed progressive ideas influenced by Voltaire and loved the little girl, but still didn’t go as far as crossing the social class divide and marry her mother, who eventually preferred a local tradesman. She pushed her daughter to be pragmatic and do the same, but Olympe was idealist and ambitious. Unfairness and inequalities revolted her, and she couldn’t see why a woman could not act exactly the same way as a man. She was never going to satisfy herself with a marriage de raison and aspired to become a femme de lettres, a writer in the Parisian salons.

Of course there were setbacks but she eventually achieved her dreams. Even as she fell in love with a man she never saw marriage as anything but binding rules set against women. She came out as uncompromising and an often virulent thinker, unafraid of personal consequences for the sake of her (very modern) ideas. After supporting the revolution and seeing in the upheaval an opportunity for women (and slaves) to access freedom and rights equality, she could not arrange herself with the violent and tyrannical turns of events: after just a few years the government of Terror turned democracy into a demagogic dictatorship, killing everyone associated with nobility and keeping people and especially intellectuals on their toes with indiscriminate use of the guillotine.

As you can see, mitigating her opinions in the face of an arbitrary trial and all-too probable execution didn’t go well with Olympe’s personality, so her destiny was indeed tragic. In that sense, she was very much a woman of her times (while her ideas made her so avant-garde), as we don’t easily understand that level of idealism nowadays (she could have escaped if only she’d kept quiet and remained away from Paris, but no, she had to return and print out some libels to denounce Terror’s oppression). We can hardly imagine how she’d have made it to the Napoleon reign.

The black-and-white design seems at first naive enough, in the tradition of the Belgian “ligne claire”, but don’t be fooled: Catel and Bocquet managed to recreate a complete society, complete with anonymous people and famous thinkers and political figures of the Revolution (the book is full of biographical notes at the end about each of them). That period is so complex in French history that in many books I read before, my eyes glazed over in the rapid succession of cliques seizing power over others, but Catel and Bocquet make it clear enough and reduce it at human level, so that we better grasp what Olympe get incensed and so passionate about. In a less personal way it should be compared with Marianne Satrapi’s Persepolis.

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