Louise Michel was one of the leading figures in the Paris Commune, and afterward became one of the leading figures in the early anarchist movement.
Because of her polemical role in history, Louise Michel is one of those historical figures always made out to be either a demon or a saint by biographers, but seldom given a balanced treatment.
Which is why Edith Thomas offers a refreshing take on the life of Louise Michel. Although Edith Thomas is sympathetic to Louise Michel, the Paris Commune, and the anarchist tradition, she fortunately does not believe in hagiography or making saints out of revolutionary heroes. Edith Thomas comes down very hard on Louise Michel on a number of points.
Edith Thomas’s criticisms vary from the trivial to the serious. On the trivial side, she notes that throughout her life Louise Michel consistently lied about her age. (“Whether sparring with the judicial system or providing biographical data under calmer circumstances, Louise consistently claimed to have been born in 1836, rather than (as was the case) 1830. This is a traditional practice on the part of beautiful women, but a curious indulgence by a plain woman who–as we shall see– was never preoccupied by affairs of the heart).
Another recurring theme throughout the biography is Louise Michel’s graphomaniac nature, and her compulsion to constantly write poems and novels. And no literary critic could be harder on Louise Michel than Edith Thomas. (She calls Michel’s novels unreadable.)
On the more serious side, Edith Thomas points out that Louise Michel, despite her romantic dreams of revolution, really understood very little of the socialist or anarchist economics she dedicated her life to.
And, like many political celebrities, Louise Michel could be a bit of a sensationalist seeker, and loved the media lime light a little too much.
And yet in spite of all this, it is impossible not to admire Louise Michel when reading Thomas’s biography. Louise Michel always gave away everything she had. She worked herself tirelessly for the anarchist cause even after the onset of old age. When a crazed rightest tried to kill her during a speaking engagement, she forgave her attempted assassin and even intervened in the courts to save him. And until her death all the European governments were so frightened of this little old lady that she had an escort of police spies follow her everywhere. (The only exception being England, which she much preferred because the government at the time had a much more relaxed attitude towards political refugees and radicals).
Although Louise Michel is most famous for her role in the Paris Commune, the entire Paris Commune ordeal (from the initial revolution, to the final trial of the revolutionaries) occupies a comparatively small part of the book. Over half of the book deals with Louise Michel’s life after she returned from exile and became a leader in France’s anarchist scene.
(As Edith Thomas notes in the introduction, one of the things that makes Louise Michel such a fascinating figure is that old age never seemed to slow her down. She continued leading demonstrations and speaking in political clubs until her death at close to 80.)
Therefore this book may be somewhat disappointing for those interested in a detailed history of the Paris Commune, but it does provide an interesting look at the anarchist movement in Europe in the 1880s and 90s. Although the author never takes her spotlight off Michel, glimpses are given of the first May Day demonstration in France (at which Louise Michel was prominent) the anarchist era of dynamite in the 1890s, the Dreyfus affair, and how it split the anarchist community in France, and the Russian revolution of 1905, and the excitement it caused among all European radicals. Figures like Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin also make small appearances.
Louise also had several friends in more mainstream politics, such as writer and politician Victor Hugo (with whom Louise had a rumored sexual liaison. Thomas explores this rumor in the book).
And George Clemenceau (later to become prime Minister of France during World War I) who supported Louise financially several times throughout her life.
I have two quibbles with this book, and both have to do with the publisher rather than the author.
First of all there is no index, which makes it hard to keep track of some of the characters wandering in and out of Louise Michel’s story.
Secondly the translator for this book chose not to translate any of the poems in English. (This is a bigger deal than it sounds like, considering how many of Louise Michel’s poems are quoted in the book. Not to mention poems about Louise by Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine.) I can’t tell you how much I hate this kind of thing. If I could read French, I wouldn’t have bought the translated version of this book.
(To add insult to injury, the translator has an introduction in which she apologies for translating street names into English, and adds: “I have based my own [translation choice] on one simple assumption: most people who read a translation do so because they do not speak the language of the original publication”…And then she leaves untranslated verse on pretty much every page of the text).
Originally published 1971 in France, English Translation: Edith Thomas (trans. Penelope Williams), Louise Michel, (Black Rose Books, 1980).