Six Historical Novelists Come Together to “Search for the Women” in Ribbons of Scarlet
I think I can safely speak for many historical novelists when I say that writing a historical novel isn’t easy. Historical novelists not only have to juggle plot, conflict, and characterization, but they have to weave in the history that forms the backdrop of their novel, meticulously researching and layering that history throughout their story. Now imagine not one, but six novelists each writing their own story as part of a larger whole and you have the amazing feat that is Ribbons of Scarlet (HarperCollins, October 2019).
My first thought upon reading this novel was: In an era as rich with conflict, turmoil, tragedy, and heroism as the French Revolution, how did these authors decide who they were going to write about? Fortunately, I had the chance to have my question answered!
Heather Webb, author of “The Revolutionary,” explains that their characters were matched “against six distinct phases of the French Revolution, from its idealistic beginnings to the bloodiest days of the Reign of Terror. We aimed to explore each distinctive phase through the voice of a woman who had the most at stake—usually their very lives. Also, our heroines had either documented interactions with one another, or at least had plausible relationships with each other so that we might create one cohesive novel. It was really important to us that this be one larger story, told from a 360-degree perspective.”
Webb’s story focuses on Louise Audu, the “Queen of the Market Women,” in part because Webb had previously written about Josephine Bonaparte and she did not want to focus on privilege and opulence this time. She explains that Louise was “gritty, mouthy, and a part of the ‘boots on the ground’ movement during the revolution. She was quite an orator in the end, and a soldier, and I found this utterly fascinating. Secondly, I wanted to delve into the concept of mob mentality and how one might be swept into a frenzy of anger and fear and the thirst for change at any price.”
Though Eliza Knight made many trips to Paris and southern France to visit her grandparents in her youth, she didn’t stumble across her heroine, “The Assassin,” Charlotte Corday, until a few years ago. “Her story struck me as one that needed to be told because we so often hear of the women who did something extreme, like Charlotte, or the women who were recognized for their efforts, like Olympe de Gouges or the royals, but the lesser-known women are not household names.” Knight’s story is a bit unique in that Charlotte’s story is intertwined with that of Pauline Leon. She explains, “Pauline’s and Charlotte’s stories felt like they needed to be tied together. In essence they were the same, even as they were so very different. They both picked up their weapons to fight. They both penned letters to the people. They both voiced their dissent. They both wanted change. The parallelisms of their stories were what wrenched at my heart, and I don’t think we can tell one of their stories without telling the other.”
Stephanie Dray first discovered Sophie de Grouchy, “The Philosopher,” while writing another novel. Dray describes her as “one of the first feminists of the western world, and yet most Americans have never heard of her . . . It was especially important for us to have a character in the novel who could act as a sort of bridge for American readers who might not understand the French Revolution’s connection to the American Revolution.” Dray describes being moved by Sophie’s philosophy work about human sympathy and explains that she wanted readers to understand that “the Frenchwomen who started the revolution were inspired by what had happened in America—and by enlightenment ideals. Sophie was herself married to the Marquis de Condorcet, one of the most influential enlightenment thinkers, so we really wanted to spotlight the idealistic reformist stage of the revolution that sought a more just society through legislative means.”
Kate Quinn explains that she always knew her heroine, “The Politician,” Manon de Roland, had to be part of the collection. “She has an inside-view, front-row seat to the collapse of the revolutionary moderates and the rise of the radical Jacobin party who spearheaded the Reign of Terror.” Quinn acknowledges that Manon’s contradictions frustrated her at first. She was “a brilliant woman who believed women should not have the vote; a gifted political writer who claimed she didn’t want to write; a passionate bundle of convictions who smothered her own passions in a starchy veneer.” But the woman and the character came to life when Quinn read her memoirs. “Her voice came clear and loud to me as a woman with a tart, no-nonsense view of the world and a truly epic side-eye for the foibles of mankind!”
Laura Kamoie first came across Emilie de Sainte-Amaranthe without realizing she’d eventually be writing about her in “The Beauty,” when she visited Picpus Cemetery in Paris. “I visited because it’s where the Marquis de Lafayette is buried. But it’s also the location of a mass burial of over 1,000 people executed during the Reign of Terror, and members of Emilie’s family were among them. Emilie’s fate helped to usher in the final days of the Terror, which made her voice an essential one for the book.”
The lone voice from the other side of the revolution comes from “The Princess,” Elisabeth, sister of Louis XVI, written by Sophie Perinot. Perinot explains that “without a defender of the Divine Right of Kings, and a member of the Royal family, it is difficult to imagine how the revolution could be fully or fairly understood. If only the revolutionary side of things (which was admittedly also very diverse) was included, it becomes too easy to see things in black and white—the righteous and the wrong—when history and indeed modern life is much more nuanced. Additionally, showing women from the most radical to the staunchest royalist also illustrates that sadly on whichever side of the struggle these women found themselves they shared an immutable commonality they were defined, judged, even condemned based on their gender.”
In her forward to Ribbons of Scarlet, Allison Pataki talks about the old French saying “cherchez la femme,” meaning whenever there is a problem, look for a woman as the cause. She goes on to say that this novel gives new meaning to that term, to “search for the woman” means to “bring their voices to the fore,” and I was struck by that idea. I asked the novelists what this theme means to them and how they tried to implement it into their individual stories.
Eliza Knight explains, “At the heart of every story, every movement, every battle, every letter, of the revolution itself is the efforts of a woman. This was a revolution led by women. The term cherchez la femme—meaning: look for the woman, she is the root of the problem—is turned on its head in this book as we explore the truths of history, what is exaggerated, what is left out, how women started, fought, and paid for the revolution. We look for the woman here, but we see her not as the cause of a problem, but the catalyst for the future, a better, more enlightened future.”
Perinot echoes those sentiments. “We saw virtually all the women at the heart of Ribbons of Scarlet branded as trouble (as well as wanton whores, unnatural, and many other derogatory things). What is inspiring and even exhilarating about the stories of the real-life women of Ribbons is that they persevered in the face of such mockery and degradation. We wanted to reclaim the legacy of these women from relative obscurity—to show that they made their voices heard; carried pikes; wrote speeches and letters in support of the Republic, argued not only over democratic principles but in support of justice reform and of a wide variety of rights for women . . . And their work and words made an impact even if, sadly, their names were forgotten or they were rather deliberately expunged from much of the telling of revolutionary history.”
Perinot goes on to draw parallels between the women of their stories and the women of today. “Women pushing for change today, and fighting to uphold democratic institutions, should take heart in knowing they stand shoulder to shoulder, or even upon the shoulders, of these amazing women of the French Revolution who are finally getting their due. We have the power to be change-makers—however others choose to label us. And we can also work to be certain that when the history of this era is written, the women who march and lead and fight remain on every page. Call us trouble—but do not believe for a moment that you can silence us.”
About the contributor: Jennifer Quinlan, aka Jenny Q, founder of Historical Editorial, is an independent editor and cover designer specializing in historical fiction. Jenny studied history at Virginia Tech and copyediting at the University of California, San Diego. She writes reviews and interviews authors for her blog, Let Them Read Books, and she moderates the American Historical Fiction group on Goodreads. Jenny also serves as chair for the Historical Novel Society North American Conference. She lives in Virginia with her husband, a Civil War re-enactor and fellow history buff, and two wicked-smart German Shepherds.