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Robespierre, Charlotte (1760–1840)

Robespierre, Charlotte (1760–1840)

French author. Name variations: Marie-Marguerite-Charlotte Robespierre; Charlotte de Robespierre; Charlotte Carrault. Born Charlotte Robespierre on February 5, 1760, in Arras, France; died on August 1,1840, in Paris; daughter of François Robespierre and Jacqueline-Marguerite (Carrault, also seen as Carraut) Robespierre; sister of Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794, lawyer and diplomat who served on the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution); never married; no children.

Charlotte Robespierre is best known for the memoirs she composed on her famous brother Maximilien Robespierre, perhaps the central figure of the French Revolution, and on her own experiences during the Revolution. She was born in southern France in 1760, the daughter of a successful lawyer of Artois. The sudden death of her mother in childbirth in 1764 led to the breakdown of the family; her father became despondent and in 1766 abandoned his children to relatives and moved to Munich, where he died in 1777. The children—Maximilien, the oldest, was only six—were separated, and Charlotte and her younger sister Henriette Robespierre were adopted by their aunts.

In 1768, the girls were sent to a convent for poor girls in Tournai to be educated. Henriette died at the convent in her teens, and in 1777 Charlotte returned to Arras. When Maximilien began his law practice there in 1782, Charlotte came to live in his quiet and austere home, keeping house for him and, later, for their younger brother Augustin. During this time, Charlotte became engaged to her brother's friend, the professor and later revolutionary Joseph Fouché, but although the engagement lasted for years, the marriage never transpired.

By 1789, Maximilien's flourishing career had led, with Charlotte's enthusiastic support, to his election to the national Estates-General. Through most of his career, Charlotte was a devoted follower of her brother's increasingly radical ideas of liberty and democracy. She even became involved to a degree in the political life of Arras, always as Maximilien's supporter. The chaos and violence of the early years of the Revolution kept Charlotte and Augustin away from Paris, but their correspondence with Maximilien, who had quickly emerged as one of the Revolution's key leaders, kept them informed of events in Paris.

After Augustin was elected to the National Convention in 1792, he and Charlotte finally joined Maximilien in Paris, where they set up a household together. As the sister of the de facto ruler of France, Charlotte was a witness to the politics of the innermost circle of the Jacobin leadership. In 1793, she even accompanied Augustin on one of his political missions to the Midi region of France. However, the Robespierre home was far from harmonious. Charlotte's open jealousy of Maximilien's friends led him to return to his old boarding house in 1793, just as her disapproval of Augustin's many love affairs led him to move in with friends for a time. Her sibling relationships had deteriorated completely by the spring of 1794, when both brothers began to suspect Charlotte of opposing the Revolution and the new Republic they were leading. Despite the patriotic stance toward the Revolution taken in her memoirs, Charlotte was, like many of the French, divided in her feelings about the Revolution. She loved her brothers deeply and had always supported their patriotism and the principle of liberty, but at the same time she apparently opposed on moral grounds the widespread violence and bloodshed for which Maximilien was responsible. Her brothers also suspected Charlotte's complicity in the anti-Robespierre intrigues cropping up in their inner Jacobin party circle, although there is no evidence that she was involved in any of the conspiracies against him.

In May 1794, Maximilien arranged to have Charlotte sent back to Arras. Fearing for her safety, Charlotte fled from her escort and returned to Paris, where she made an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile with her brothers. This alienation probably worked to save Charlotte's life after the Revolution's leadership turned against Maximilien's tyranny in the summer of 1794. He and Augustin were arrested as traitors to the Republic on the Ninth of Thermidor (July 26) and executed two days later. Suspected of similar crimes, Charlotte herself was arrested on July 30. She fully expected to be executed, but she was released in a general pardon after 15 days.

Although Charlotte survived for another 36 years, little is known of her after 1794. Never marrying, she remained in Paris for the rest of her life, living under her mother's family name of Carrault. None of her relatives survived the Revolution. In 1803, she applied for and was granted an annual stipend from the government of Napoleon Bonaparte, from accounts administered by her former fiancé, Fouché, who was a minister of the interior. The pension continued under King Louis XVIII's reign.

In 1828, she composed her will, leaving her few possessions to the daughter of a friend. In this document, Charlotte also protested vigorously against the accusations, made in 1818 by former Robespierrists, that her pension from the king was a reward for secretly opposing Maximilien during the Revolution. She staunchly asserted her complete loyalty to her brothers and to the former Republic.

It was probably lingering distress caused by these accusations that led Charlotte, with the aid of another former Revolutionary, Albert Laponneraye, to compose her memoirs. The book is less her own memoirs than her recollections and opinions about Maximilien, describing in glowing terms his childhood, character, and career, and ending with her release from prison following the execution of her brothers. Clearly Charlotte intended her book to rehabilitate her dead brother's memory from accusations of tyranny and to clear her own honor by proving that she had always been a loyal sister to him. Published in 1837, the book came to be relied upon by historians as the only evidence for Maximilien Robespierre's formative years. Charlotte Robespierre died three years after she completed her book, at age 80, and was buried in Paris.

sources:

Fleischmann, Hector. Charlotte Robespierre et Ses Mémoires. Paris: Albin Michel, 1910.

Matrat, Jean. Robespierre; or the Tyranny of the Majority. Trans. by Alan Kendall. NY: Scribner, 1971.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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