The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia recounts the life of French feminist and anarchist Louise Michel. The narrative is structured as a frame tale, in which American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman is told the history of Michel’s work by a few women who knew her. This graphic novel explored the idealism of the Paris Commune of the 1870s and the optimistic futurism that was being displayed in the current literature.
Once I started reading, I had to stop and brush up on my French history (Joke’s on me, guys. There are annotations at the back of the book that I completely missed). Louise Michel and her revolution were fighting for the people of Paris after the fall of Napoleon III. They took over the city of Paris and tried to create a utopia where there was free marriage, in which men no longer held proprietary rights over women; equal education, where children and women could be educated and have jobs so that all classes of people had food on their tables.
This revolution was eventually taken down by the French army. The slaughter is known as the “Bloody Week” due to the thousands of France’s own people who were killed. Louise Michel was arrested and her most famous quote came the day she stood trial. She stood before the committee and said, “Since it seems that any heart that beats for liberty has the right only to a small lump of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I will not stop crying for vengeance, and I will denounce the assassins on the Board of Pardons to the vengeance of my brothers. If you are not cowards, kill me!” Although she dared them to execute her for her revolutionary ideals, she was deported. She spent two years in prison and seven in deportation before returning to France to continue her work.
There is one particular scene in the comic that is striking. It takes place during Michel’s deportation. The story is being recounted to the American feminist of how Louise Michelle helped the local indigenous people rise up against the white colonizers. The American feminist starts to say “you mean, she helped those nig-? I mean, she didn’t stick with her own kind?” At this point, Michel’s friend who is telling the story explodes, yelling “her own kind you say? She was sticking with her own kind! She stuck with the indigenous people, just as she always stuck with the oppressed! Just as she did with the rebellious, oppressed and then defeated people of Paris. They were fighting the same fight.” What is important to take away from the scene is that so many of us American and feminists, forget that the feminist movement, in particular, Susan B Anthony, did not want the black man to have the right to vote before the white woman. Racism and classism was still very much an accepted norm. Yet, here we have the story of a 19th-century French woman, who defies those norms. That being said, we know how colonialism works. The white colonialist pitted tribe against tribe and there was massacre after massacre. Michel wrote to her friend, Victor Hugo, asking for his help and sent documents to the French newspapers exposing the massacre in the colony. This type of revolutionary, activism from a woman – a woman with no power, remember, she is a prisoner. She has been deported. But time and again she is reaching out to help those groups in need. And when she cannot help them, she exposes their oppressors.
While she is hailed as the “French grande dame of anarchy”, her real legacy lays in the Labour movement and women’s rights. Michel was decrying poverty in theoretical essays long before it was recognized as a problem. She was a school teacher, medical worker and revolutionary. After coming back to France she was continually in and out of prison, always giving lectures and writing essays on the Social Revolution. She was shot in the head for her words, and thankfully survived, although some reports say she had remnants of the bullet in her head. She continued her work until her passing at age 74.
The graphic novel format made this fun to read. It’s always nice to have history and feminism presented in a non-traditional style. The art was simple but striking.
Some of my favorite quotes are as follows:
“Knowledge, it must be presented in a manner that enlarges the horizon instead of restricting it. Girls are given a pile of nonsense supported by childlike logic, while at the same time boys have to swallow little balls of science until they choke. For both of us, this is a ridiculous education. Education can provide not only an avenue to economic independence, but also a means to hasten the recognition of women’s rights.”
“Let’s run into the red teeth of the chattering machine guns, the ash blowing around us like black butterflies!”
“I have seen criminals and whores and spoken with them/now I inquire if you believe them made as of now they are,/to drag their rags in blood and mire,/preordained an evil race./You to whom we are all pray, have made them what they are today. ”
(Ok, doesn’t that remind you of Drew Barrymore in Ever After when she says “first you make thieves and then punish them”? Well, now we know who said it first.)
I’m pairing this book with Left Hand‘s Milk Stout Nitro. I was originally going to get a light French lager but this graphic novel was dark and moving, so I opted for the rich, stoutly sweet taste of this beer. The mild coffee aromas coupled with the sticky sweetness of the beer perfectly matched the mood and tone of this novel.