The Memoirs of Louise Michel, the Red Virgin

The Memoirs of Louise Michel, the Red Virgin

The Memoirs of Louise Michel, the Red Virgin

The Memoirs of Louise Michel, the Red Virgin


Louise Michel was born illegitimate in 1830 and became a schoolmistress in Paris. She was involved in radical activities during the twilight of France's Second Empire, and during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the siege of Paris. She was a leading member of the revolutionary groups controlling Montmarte. Michel emerged as one of the leaders of the insurrection during the Paris Commune of March-May 1871; and French anarchists saw her as martyr and saint - The Red Virgin. When the Versailles government crushed the Commune in May 1871, Michel was sentenced to exile in New Caledonia, until the general amnesty of 1880, when she returned to France and great popular acclaim and support from the working people of the country. Michel was arrested again during a demonstration in Paris in 1883 and sentenced to six years in prison. Pardoned after three years, she continued her speeches and writing, although she spent the greater part of her time from 1890 until her death in 1905 in England in self-imposed exile. It was during her prison term from 1883 to 1886 that she compiled her Memoires, now available in English. These memoirs offer readers a view of the non-Marxist left and give an in-depth look into the development of the revolutionary spirit. The early chapters treat her childhood, the development of her revolutionary feelings, and her training as a schoolteacher. The next section describes her activities as a schoolteacher in the Haute-Marne and Paris and therefore contains much of interest on education in 19th-century Europe. Her chapters on the siege of Paris, the Commune, and her first trial show those events from the point of view of a major participant. Of particular interest is a chapter on women's rights, which Michel saw as part of the search for the rights of all people, male and female, and not as a separate struggle. The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel will be useful to both scholars and students of 19th-century French history and women's studies.


Even today, Louise Michel, who won fame as the "Red Virgin" during the Paris Commune of 1871, remains a heroine to the French Left. While Karl Marx sat in the British Museum writing tracts, Michel was facing French government troops across the barricades of Paris. While her contemporaries were just beginning to decry colonialism, she, as a convict in New Caledonia, was involved in the Kanaka uprising of 1878. Freed by the amnesty of 1880 from her exile at the other end of the earth, she returned to France and the speaker's platform, and except for several periods in prison she continued her revolutionary exhortations until her death in 1905.

Born illegitimately on 29 May 1830, Louise Michel was brought up by her mother and paternal grandparents in a half-ruined, fortified manor house in the Haute-Marne. Her paternal grandfather, Etienne-Charles Demahis, was descended from nobility and had changed his name from De Mahis to the less grand Demahis in republican sympathy with the French Revolution of 1789. Although impoverished, he was serving as mayor of the village of Vroncourt when Louise was born to a servant of the household, Marie Anne (or Marianne) Michel, and his son Laurent, of whom no further record exists. Louise was raised as if she had been a legitimate Demahis granddaughter, and after her paternal grandparents died, she became a schoolmistress, teaching first in the Haute- Marne and later in Paris. She turned to revolutionary dreams and became deeply involved in radical affairs during the twilight of France's Second Empire, the gaslit Paris of Louis Napoleon. During the Franco- Prussian War of 1870 and the Prussian siege of Paris, she was a leading member of the revolutionary groups controlling Montmartre, that squalid and colorful district which has been inhabited by the disaffected poor for centuries. During the Paris Commune of March to May 1871, when the citizens of Paris rebelled against the government because they believed it was trying to steal their republic, Michel became even more deeply involved in events, emerging as one of the leaders of the insurrection.

When the forces of the Versailles Government crushed the Commune in May 1871, Michel was captured, tried, and sentenced to exile. She was transported to New Caledonia on a prison ship in 1873. For six years she lived under harsh conditions in the prison colony near the capital, Nouméa, and later she lived in the capital itself, with a limited amount of freedom. Following the general amnesty of 1880, which the government gave to the Communards in response to public pressure, she returned to France and public acclaim.

Though massive public gatherings greeted Michel upon her return, it was difficult for her to find a place in revolutionary circles. She was ignorant of events that had taken place in France during the preceding . . .

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