From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Fourteen. Did class consciousness exist before 1789? Yes, thanks to a woman writer
June 25, 2015 1 Comment
In 1789, Abbé Emmanuel Sieyès became famous for articulating the essential problem plaguing the so-called “Third Estate” in 1789, that is, their lack of a political identity. Since the Third Estate included 98% of the population, that is, everybody who was neither a member of the Catholic clergy or the Nobility, this was a significant problem and Sieyès’s pamphlet made a powerful statement.
In his pamphlet, Sieyès coined the slogan: “Qu’est-ce que le tiers état? Tout. Qu’a-t-il été jusqu’à présent dans l’ordre politique? Rien. Que demande-t-il? A y devenir quelque chose.” [What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been in the political order up to now? Nothing. What does it want? To become something.]
An earlier writer articulated a similar anxiety in her book, published well before 1789, where she put the following words into the mouth of an intelligent heroine who suddenly realizes her social nullity:
“Je n’ai ni or, ni terres, ni industrie, je fais nécessairement partie des citoyens de cette ville. Ô ciel! dans quelle classe dois-je me ranger?”
I have neither gold, nor land, nor skill, [yet] I am necessarily a citizen of this town. Oh Heavens! What class do I belong to?
Some critics have seen this passage as proof that a sense of class consciousness existed before the Revolution, even in the heyday of Old Regime France. Others have interpreted the author as working in a proto-socialist mode that prefigures 19th-century theorists such as Karl Marx and Charles Fourier. After a long period of obscurity, this novelist is now considered a major figure in French literary history. What is the name of that prescient writer and the title of her novel?
1. Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, comtesse de Lafayette, La Princesse de Clèves (1678)
2. Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni, Lettres de Mistriss Fanni Butlerd (1757)
3. Françoise de Graffigny, Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747)
4. Madeleine de Scudéry, Clélie (1654-61)