City of Darkness, City of Light

CITY OF DARKNESS, CITY OF LIGHT is my take on the French revolution. Why be interested?


First of all, modern politics began there, even the notions of “left” and “right.”


Second, modern feminism began right there, and many of the demands those women fought for are not yet achieved – although some have been.


Third, late 18th century France was a society that had some of the same characteristics as ours – the top was becoming ever richer, the poor were getting poorer, and the middle class were being squeezed with taxes the rich did not have to pay.
Fourth, the people who made the revolution and those who fought against it were lively, colorful, intelligent, willful and sometime sexy individuals. It was an extremely dramatic time and you might enjoy visiting it.


–Marge Piercy


Review of CITY OF DARKNESS, CITY OF LIGHT from THE LONDON TIMES, May 17-May 23, 1997




In Simon Schama’s massive historical chronicle of the French Revolution, CITIZENS, the chocolate maker’s daughter Pauline Leon and the burlesque actress Claire Lacombe make brief appearances. But in Marge Piercy’s meticulously researched and gripping tale of this turbulent period in French history, real-life women like these are made its central figures: unsung heroines from among the working people of Paris struggling to change the world.


In Piercy’s story, the lives of women surviving alone provide a poignant counterpoint to the power struggles and political intrigues of the political factions, Royalists and Cordeliers, Girondins and Jacobins. From the day she runs away from home at 15, Claire Lacombe is forced to battle a hostile world. Her life as a traveling player is one of abject poverty, but at least she does not have to put up with the kind of casual violence and subjugation experienced by her married friends.


Leon, left to run the chocolate shop alone through a series of awful accidents of the kind which regularly befall the unprotected, becomes the leader of the women who spark off the bread riots, and eventually joins those who invade Louis XVI’s palace to confront the king. It is the combination of deprivation and independence of spirit which bonds the two women when they meet. Their subsequent exploits as militant activists stem from a passionate shared sense of injustice and a determination simply to survive.


Piercy weaves these tales together with those of more familiar figures: Marat and Danton, Robespierre and Condorcet. Her revolutionary heroes are men with feelings and private lives, men who can acknowledge their own weaknesses and uncertainties at least in private. We find ourselves drawn into their intimate lives, sharing their desires and accidental choices, along with their processes of decision-making.


We slide with them from reasonable resistance to oppression into blind unreasonableness of the Terror. And, inevitably, the individuals with whom we have shared hopes and fears, whom we have seen triumph briefly over their local adversities become in their turn the victims of show trials and guillotine.


The world that Piercy conjures up is utterly believable, right down to the all-pervading, nauseatingly foul smells of the city, the appalling squalor of urban poverty, the casual violence and unreflecting cruelty towards the underclass.


So convincing is her fiction that I find it hard not to believe that this is truly how it was, particularly as regards the crucial part played by the women. Surely it was these bands of heroic women who precipitated and sustained the French Revolution? Surely Claire Lacombe, the actress, really is the figure of Liberty shown bare-breasted leading the people in the Delacroix painting reproduced on Piercy’s cover – the figure that Piercy has her play in the revolutionary tableau in the cathedral of Notre Dame? Did Pauline Leon survive her days of glory organising the women of her quarter into the Revolutionary Republican Women, to marry a soldier and retire to the country?


It is a tribute to Marge Piercy’s wonderful novel that these are questions to which I feel I badly need to know the answers.