A short biography of Simmone Evrard, wife of Jean-Paul Marat by Katherine Emrick. Katherine is a history student with a keen interest in the French Revolution. You can follow Katherine on Tumbler at bunniesandbeheadings.
On July 13th 1793 Charlotte Corday’s dagger transformed a lousy journalist into a legend. Her victim, Jean-Paul Marat, transcended his death. To the Parisians, Marat had long been a saint. To the Jacobins he would now be a martyr. To the Royalists he would become a demon to be exorcised. But Corday’s dagger ensured another transformation, lesser in historical importance and so attracting less attention. For in his final moments, Marat did not call for the Parisians who sanctified him or the Jacobins who deified him. Instead, he called for the person who loved him. He called for his wife, Simmone Evrard.
Her appearance eludes us. Her husband has left us a myriad of portraits including David’s idealized vision of his death. If those were not enough, the author of The Chains of Slavery and the editor of L’Ami du Peuple kept company with the equally prolific who were more than willing to record Marat’s appearance for posterity. One of the describers of the infamous firebrand, Fabre d’Eglantine, wrote, “[Marat] was short of stature, scarcely five feet high…He had a large and bony face…the mouth medium-size and curled at one corner by a frequent contraction; the lips were thin, the forehead large, the eyes of a yellowish grey color, spirited, animated, piercing, clear, naturally soft and ever gracious with a confident look, the eyebrows thin, the complexion thick and skin withered, chin unshaven, hair brown and neglected.”
His wife, by contrast, has left us no portrait, no engraving, no trace of her visage. As for prosy descriptions, her appearance is but punctually recorded in official revolutionary documentation. It drily describes her as being of “1m62” height with “brown hair and eyebrows, forehead ordinary, aquiline nose, brown eyes sometimes described as gray, big mouth, an oval face.”
Her childhood is equally opaque. All that is known for certain is she was born of a carpenter and his second wife early in February 1767 and baptized on the sixth of that same month. Likely she received her education from the local Tournus Charity but even this has attracted dispute. She was orphaned at age 12. And from here, until her brush with Marat, Simmone drops out of the historian’s sight. Elusive in death, she appears to have been equally elusive in life: and it was probably this that first attracted Marat.
Jean-Paul Marat’s incendiary paper, L’Ami du Peuple, was consistently blacklisted as both dangerous and illegal and its editor an outlaw. Marat had no intention of laying down his pen but he also had no intention of languishing in prison. Discarded by the Jacobins and hunted by the moderates, Marat’s freedom relied on his own ability to elude the law… or, occasionally, the ability of some allies who were less legalistic than the Jacobins. Marat eagerly accepted refuge from the hounds in the home of radical patriots, his accommodations ranging from warm beds to cellar floors. And one such safe house was that of Simmone Evrard and her two sisters, the doors of refuge first opening for the People’s Friend in 1790.
From there, Evrard became a reliable, if necessarily clandestine companion, always ready with an open door or tall tale to throw the authorities off of his scent. In this capacity, Evrard contributed greatly to Marat’s popularity and legend. His surreptitious life, his brushes with the authorities, his daring escapes transformed the journalist’s reputation into something akin to that of Robin Hood – and the illusion was grafted in no small part by Simmone.
One Jacobin, Alexandre Rousselin, noted, “It was in a cellar that gratitude gave birth to that virtuous love to which Marat was so faithful!” Another Parisian observed, “Obliged to fly, did not the People’s Friend then find a friend amongst the people? A generous and affectionate woman welcomed and saved him. An enthusiast of liberty, this woman had conceived a high idea and the virtues of Marat! A noble passion succeeded to sentiments of esteem, and engaged her heart in love for a man whose misfortune still further endeared him.”
This latter evaluation of Simmone’s evolving feelings is probably accurate. Simmone’s initial fascination with Marat was for the fabled People’s Friend rather than the scraggly Jean-Paul. It was, after all, the People’s Friend that received the most touching of gifts from Simmone: a personal printing press. L’Ami du Peuple could be printed much more safely now – without her contribution, the journal could have ended as the professional printers began to fear governmental reprisal.
But founded on political expediency the relationship promptly grew into something more. For all his passion and enthusiasm for the Revolution, once the Convention declared war with Austria, Marat declared France lost and ceased publishing his paper effectively ending his career as a political journalist. He disappeared from public view for two months; leaving Simmone in Paris he traveled to London to gather his bearings. But he promised to return:
Since the beautiful qualities of Mlle. Simmone Evrard have captivated my soul, which has paid homage to her, I leave her as a mark of my good faith, that during the voyage that I am forced to make to London, this sacred promise that I will marry her immediately upon my return, should all my tender feelings for her not suffice as a guarantee of my fidelity.
May I be covered with infamy should I renege upon this promise. Paris, January 1, 1792
J.P Marat, the People’s Friend
True to his word, when Marat returned the two did marry, albeit outside the auspices of the church. “Marat,” said the Journal de la Montagne no. 53, “…did not believe that a vain ceremonial constituted the condition of marriage” and it is highly likely that the practical, secular Simmone would have refused such a legal bond herself. Marat himself alluded to a private Rousseuist ceremony in his journal. Such marriages were not particularly uncommon in certain parts of Paris, particularly among the sans-culottes, and would often be upheld by the local government as valid. Moreover, the pair maintained a permanence of affection as well as fidelity.
They enjoyed private conjugal bliss for two months. And then, despite Marat’s ostentatious cessation from politics, L’ami du Peuple sprung onto the streets again in April 1792. After such a long hiatus, its return was secured primarily through Simmone’s financial support.
Partners when Marat was an outlaw, they remained so when Marat reached the cusp of legality – that is, a member of the government itself. On June 2, 1793 the conflict between the Montagnard and Girondin parties reached their height and the crowd that had hid Marat now marched to the Convention and purged the Girondin party from its ranks. If any one man had led the insurrection that man was Marat, who had so urged it and now ensured its success by mitigating its potential excesses. It was this insurrection that cleared the way for the Jacobin Republic. It was this insurrection that cemented Marat’s role in history and Simmone, doubtlessly, witnessed his apex. But then she witnessed his deterioration.
The day after the insurrection Marat sent a letter to the Convention resigning his post as deputy, indicating that he believed his continued presence in the government would just be a source of discontent to Girondin supporters in the provinces. The other deputies never officially acted on his resignation but Marat’s political life effectively ended. Had he any inclination to continue, his health would have forbid it. When he heard of rumors of his dictatorship, Marat bitingly wrote, “Perhaps they will drop by to see the Dictator Marat. What they will find is a poor devil in his bed who would give all the dignities on earth for a few days’ health.”
He had not exaggerated. A skin disease popularly suspected to have been contracted from scurrying through filthy Parisian sewers had ravaged Marat’s body, forcing him to spend much of his time in bed or in a medicinal bath. His publications appeared infrequently and his letters to the Convention went unread. His journalist and political career over, Marat and Simmone awaited the inevitable. It would come sooner than expected. For all their partnership, Marat did not heed Simmone’s very sensible warning on the 13th of July, 1793.
A young woman from Caen had come to the door, wishing to have a private audience with the People’s Friend. Simmone, suspicious at the woman’s demeanor, refused her entry. But the visitor was forceful and became quarrelsome. The noise reached Marat, who had been taking his medicinal bath while he worked on some final edits for his next publication. When his wife told him of the Caenese woman Marat – remembering a pleading letter he had recently received from just such a woman – decided that he would like to speak with her. Simmone left the two in private. Then she heard her husband’s anguished cry: “Help me, dear friend!” But she arrived too late for the assassin’s dagger had already struck true. Jean-Paul Marat was dead.
But Marat was hardly cold in his tomb before his title, the People’s Friend, was seized by men such as the radical Jacques Roux. Simmone was demonstrably furious. Shortly before his death, Marat had denounced just such men.
Some have speculated that her subsequent speech to the National Convention was little more than a political gambit by Robespierre, a final attempt to use Marat’s memory to quash the growing, far-left Hébertist movement. While it is true that Robespierre had ample enough motive to combat Hébertism to narrow the speech to nothing more than a Robespierrist grab is to ignore Simmone’s well-demonstrated political inclinations. She had fallen in love with Marat’s politics first, Marat as a man being something of a bonus. So the speech, for all that it may have had Robespierre’s blessing, was also Simmone, the political activist, seeking to secure Marat’s ideals against those who attached his name to proposals she believed he would have decried.
“I have not come to ask greedy favors or to claim indigence,” she began, “Marat’s widow only needs a tomb.” And then she spoke against the Hébertists’ alleged violence, how they were tarnishing her husband’s name by conniving at blood a true friend of the people would never want spilled: “I have come to seek justice against new attacks committed against the memory of the most intrepid and the most outraged defender of the people! These monsters, how much gold they have provided! How hypocritical libelers they are, that cover his name with shame for a pittance! How awfully hard they try to make his politics and fame hideous, to dishonor the people’s cause, to cover what he so faithfully defended with blood. They pursue him within his tomb; they murder his memory…The cowards! First they flatter the suffering of the people by praise, they draw some true evils of the country, they denounce some traitors dedicated to its contempt, they speak the language of patriotism and morality, so that people still believe that it is Marat they hear, but it is only to defame the most zealous defenders….”
She admitted that Marat himself sometimes used course language, but only because “his sensitive soul gave vent to just anathemas against public blood suckers and against the enemies of the people!” but Roux and Leclerc, under the protection of Marat’s name, were preaching the “extravagant maxims that his enemies had imputed to him but all his conduct had disavowed” thereby perpetuating the “murderous calumny” that he was an “insane apostle of disorder and anarchy.”
The journals of Roux and Leclerc did not long survive the bitter denunciation of the Widow Marat. Her job done, Simmone retired from public affairs, living comfortably with Marat’s sister, his family formally recognizing her as his widow. “We declare, then, that it is with satisfaction that we fulfill the wishes of our brother in acknowledging the Citoyenne Evrard as our sister, and that we shall hold as infamous those of our family, should such be found, that do not participate in the sentiments and esteem of gratitude we feel towards her,” wrote Marat’s surviving siblings. She tried, albeit in vain, to defend her husband’s memory until her death in 1824.
Sources: “Jean-Paul Marat: The People’s Friend” by Ernest Bax, “Jean-Paul Marat: Scientist and Revolutionary” by Clifford D. Conner, “Jean-Paul Marat: A Study in Radicalism” by Louis R. Gottschalk