On holiday with my husband for a few days at the bottom of the heel of Italy recently, I found myself marvelling at the 12th-century mosaic floor of the cathedral at Otranto. It shows a tree of life twining through an idiosyncratic combination of Biblical, mythical and chivalric cycles, the labours of the months illustrated with images inspired by bestiaries and constellations, as well as workers engaged in a massive building project – the Tower of Babel, a suitable endeavour for a cosmopolitan city in which Christians (Greek Orthodox and Catholic), Jews and Muslims flourished alongside one another for centuries. By 1480, this harmony had been shattered. Otranto was besieged by the Ottoman Turks under Gedik Ahmed Pasha. After two weeks, the desperate citizens had crowded into the cathedral hoping for a miracle, but the Turks gave them no quarter. When the Turks had taken the city and killed those who wouldn’t convert to Islam, as a final humiliation Ahmed decreed that the Otrantans’ beautiful cathedral should be used as a stable. They abandoned the city just over a year later; miraculously the mosaics survived and services are still held in the church today.
Despite undertaking an extensive grand tour in his early twenties, Horace Walpole hadn’t visited the city before writing his novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), a mixture of the sublime, the macabre and the ridiculous that initiated the Gothic genre. Walpole at first disguised the authorship of his melodrama, peopled by beautiful virgins, handsome peasants, servants foaming at the mouth and ghostly moving portraits like the ones in Harry Potter, with a shaggy dog story about the work being originally printed in Italy in 1529 and rediscovered in ‘the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England’.
Faked epics (as opposed to fake news) were much in fashion in the 1760s: this was also the decade in which the poems of Ossian, the Highland Homer, were launched on a gullible public by their ‘rediscoverer’, James MacPherson. Among his fans, who included Thomas Jefferson and William Wordsworth, the most ardent was Napoleon, whose passion for reading is one of his more endearing traits. He was said to always carry a copy of Ossian into battle and he commissioned Ingres to paint The Dream of Ossian for his bedroom ceiling at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, though he was expelled from Italy before getting the chance to sleep beneath it. Ossian, Napoleon declared, was a poet who could ‘lift up the soul, and give to man a colossal greatness’.
‘Villain! Monster! Sorcerer!’ cries a character in The Castle of Otranto. Could this have been the phrase that inspired Napoleon when he was considering what title to bestow upon his minister of police, Joseph Fouché? The romance of the title Napoleon would eventually award him was entirely at odds with the cunning and ruthlessness that marked his career. For a glimpse of that, rewind to Year IV of the first French Republic (1795), the year Evangeline Bruce described as the most exciting in history, when Paris, licking its wounds after the Terror, was a post-apocalyptic desert and anything seemed possible. This was Fouché’s world, and Napoleon’s too. How could they – a disgraced Jacobin, notorious for the bloody repression of counter-revolutionary Lyon, and a friendless and unemployed general – have dreamed then that in little more than a decade the latter, as emperor, would be promoting the former to the dukedom of Otranto?
Adverts on the Tube promoting Joanne Ramos’s debut novel, The Farm, have also brought me back to that era by making me think of Liberty, my book about women and the French Revolution. One review of Ramos’s book raves, ‘it’s about everything a book SHOULD be about. Race and class and power and inequality…’ When Liberty came out thirteen years ago, ‘women’s history’ seemed passé and irrelevant; the battles had been won, or so we imagined. Now the brave campaigners for liberty I was writing about – the chocolate-maker Pauline Léon in her red cap, shaking her fist at the world in front of the short-lived Society of Revolutionary Republican Women; the self-taught journalists and orators Olympe de Gouges and Théroigne de Méricourt, who were met with disdain, public flogging and the guillotine – seem achingly relevant.
During the French Revolution, women of different backgrounds, inflamed by the injustices they saw all around them, rose up to challenge the patriarchal society in which they lived, stimulated by their extraordinary times to become activists. ‘Women have shared the dangers of the revolution; why shouldn’t they participate in its advantages?’ demanded Etta Palm d’Aelders, a former courtesan and salonnière, before the National Assembly in 1792. ‘Men are free at last, and women are the victims of a thousand prejudices.’ Although she was granted the honours of the session, the reforms she proposed – educating girls and granting women equal rights – were ignored. Divorce was legalised but a decade later the Napoleonic Code made the law more restrictive, reaffirming patriarchal rights.
The thing the women who dared to speak out had in common was that they had ‘fallen’: they had been seduced and abandoned, failed at marriage or been branded with the taint of illegitimacy. Humiliated by a corrupt and hypocritical society that idealised femininity in the abstract but derided women in fallible flesh and blood, they had nothing left to lose. The Revolution offered them the only chance they had ever glimpsed of a different kind of life. Ultimately, their hopes were betrayed, with Napoleon setting the legal seal on the Jacobins’ disregard for the rights of people as a whole, as opposed to men. But their stories could have been written yesterday – they’re about gender and how it intersects with class, sex, oppression, passion, fanaticism, political virtue-signalling (in the form of tricolour cockades instead of actresses wearing black) and most of all the urgent desire for change.