Monday, 13 November 2017

Mimie, the wife of Joseph Le Bon

As with so many implacable Revolutionaries, Joseph Le Bon's relations with his family were warm and close, especially with his wife Élisabeth, his beloved "Mimie".  His letters to her, particularly those written from prison during his trial, are models of tenderness and  affection, conditioned by a surprisingly refined Rousseauist sensibility.

The following, gathering together what little is known of Le Bon's married life, is translated and summarised from  a study by Lenotre originally published in his Vieilles Maisons, Vieux Papiers, Volume 3 in 1928.

In 1791 Le Bon became Constitutional priest of Neuville-Vitasse, a village a league from Arras, within easy reach of his father and troubled mother. The energetic and gregarious Le Bon no doubt found his situation isolating and trying.  His domestic arrangements were makeshift. The little presbytery had been left in such an empty and abandoned state after the hasty departure of the former incumbent that Le Bon was at first obliged to take lodgings in the village. Later his youngest sister Henriette would come to assist when he entertained occasional dinner guests such as the Robespierre brothers.

Among regular visitors at this time was Élisabeth Régniez, his future wife and a first cousin.  Élisabeth - Le Bon affectionately called her Mimie - was born at Saint-Pol on 7 April 1770, the daughter of Antoine-Joseph Régniez, an innkeeper (Le Bon's maternal uncle?) and Marie-Josèphe Vasseur.  Le Bon  maintained close ties with the entire family: both Élisabeth's brother Abraham and another cousin Lamoral Vasseur at one time lodged in the presbytery.  Le Bon's growing attachment to his "charming cousin" can be traced in their surviving correspondence. Mimie's pious widowed mother, Le Bon's aunt, looked upon their  intimacy with displeasure but Le Bon did little to asuage her misgivings.  Whilst he was still a priest in Neuville, he began addressing his letters to "his promised one".  On 15th September 1792 he was elected mayor of Arras  and a month later he announced his engagement.  The pair were married on 5th November 1792 in the Town Hall of Saint-Pol.  It was the first purely civil marriage in the region and the first of a priest.  The groom pronounced a discourse in Rousseauist vein in favour of ecclesiastical marriage, which he later published and addressed to the Convention:

Pierre François Legrand, Mariage républicain, print (1794). Musée Carnavalet

Magistrates of the people, I wish to give an example which has been awaited for a long time by the infinitely small number of virtuous priests.  I want to combat the fierce prejudice which condemns a whole class of men to live in crime and allows them only a choice of penalties.  By my solemn action I take from them all excuse.  They must decide finally to respect both nature and society:  nature by obeying its author's laws and not extinguishing the light of reason; society by not using their ministry to abuse the wives and daughters of other men. (Lenotre, p.8 note)

The couple settled briefly in Arras but after only seven months Le Bon was called to take his seat in the Convention.  He left for Paris on 29th June 1793 accompanied by both his wife and his brother-in-law Abraham, who acted as his secretary.  They lodged provisionally with the Pas-de-Calais deputy Armand-Joseph Guffroy before securing an apartment in the rue d'Argenteuil for a rent 650 livres. On 9th August Le Bon accepted his first mission back to the Pas-de-Calais.  In his whirlwind progression from Boulogne to Arras, to Pernes and Saint-Pol he found time to spend several days with his wife's family.  He returned to Paris in October for the birth of their first child, a daughter Pauline, born on 16th October 1793, the very day of Marie-Antoinette's execution.

By the beginning of November the whole family were once more back in Arras.  During the most sanguinary period of the Terror, the family life of the proconsul remained intimate and untroubled.  Mimie, with Pauline close by, scarcely left his side.  They lodged in an old house in the rue Saint-Maurice, with a  spiral stone staircase and a turret, arranged on two stories each with a single room.  In this town of prisons, where commerce was anihilated, Le Bon and his wife dined (at least relatively) luxuriously.  Despite the orders of the Committee of Public Safety restricting maritime commerce, the Boulogne fishing fleet went in search of oysters for the proconsul's table.  Chocolate was requisitioned for drinks and fine flour for patisseries.  Le Bon assembled around him an entourage of sure friends, several of whom were  recruited from among his former colleagues and pupils in the Oratory.  Although the reported conversations may well be apocryphal, both he and his wife clearly conducted themselves with friendly informality towards the judges of the Revolutionary Tribunal, the jurers, the prosecutors, and even the officials, gaolers and executioners.

A show of callous humour was evident, no doubt to an extent bravado in the face of mounting horrors.  The sources - universally hostile - depict Mimie as an active participant. The future public prosecutor in Cambrai, François-Joseph Caubrières was reputed to be the chief humourist, a great singer who amused citoyenne Le Bon - "il me fait rire à ventre déboutonné" - with tales from the scaffold.  According to Guffroy,  a certain Remy, dubbed by Le Bon his little canary on account of his yellow coat,  was charged by the proconsul with procuring supplies for his two "terrible friends", his wife and the guillotine.  In another anecdote, Mimie herself threatened the public accuseur Demuliez that, if he did not supply "five thousand heads", he would lose his own.  She is also much accused of petty pilfering from those condemned to die.

To an extent this picture must be accurate.  Lenotre confirms the existence of a letter in Mimie's hand denouncing two hapless women of Arras.  Ever the supportive wife, she certainly seldom missed an occasion to view the executions from the balcony of the Theatre, seated beside of her husband, with his splendid hat and sabre.

Maison Le Bon in Arras, today and in an
early 19th-century postcard

On 5th May 1794 at about five in the evening, Le Bon made his entry into Cambrai, flanked by his retainers in their carmagnoles and pantaloons, sporting plummed hats and bonnets rouges. Mimie arrived two days later.  This time they lodged in the spacious hôtel of a certain Mme Dechy, taken to the guillotine on the previous day.  The house was full of provisions, "wines, hams, sweetmeats and poultry", whilst orders were given to provide two or three pots of milk each day for the infant Paulette.  The balcony boasted a view of the scaffold, to the satisfaction of Mimie who supposedly remarked that they could watch the apricots fall.

The maison Dechy was organised "to receive guests"; the "little canary" had charge of invitations, and the denizens of Cambrai dared not refuse.  Liqueurs and canapés were served, often on glass and silverware recognisable as having belonged to those guillotined.  Mimie "faisait la reine" and carried her child around ostentatiously.   She even attended the Tribunal, where she sat next to her husband, and indicated her opinions to the jury, by swiping her hand across her throat. 
 (All these damning details cited by Lenotre are from Thénard, Quelques souvenirs du règne de la Terreur à Cambrai, 1860)

On 11 Thermidor news reached Le Bon of the death of Robespierre.  Without even gathering his papers, he immediately left Cambrai with Mimie and Pauline, dropped them in Arras, and at midnight took a carriage for Paris.  On 15 Thermidor he was imprisoned in the Luxembourg.  Mimie took refuge with her mother in Saint-Pol, where she was left untroubled for a month, then on 8 Fructidor arrested in her turn and imprisoned in La Providence. She was now pregnant for the second time.  Her husband's sister Henriette Le Bon visited her daily. Her brother Abraham meanwhile left for Paris to aid Le Bon in the preparation of his case.

Le Bon spent over a year of incarceration before his trial.  His correspondance with his wife, written during the course of fourteen months, is preserved.  His  letters, says Lenotre, are "disconcerting" in their expressions of love and sollicitude. 19 Brumaire saw the birth of their son Émile and Le Bon's letters were full of concern.  Mimie, for her part, tried to encourage her husband by recounting Pauline's games and the progress of the infant Émile. His attachment ot his daughter was deep; at one point he took a fancy to an infant girl of nine months called Julie, detained with her mother, and wondered if a man with his monstrous reputation could dare to touch her. On 24 Vendémiaire IV, 13th October 1795, he was finally executed, his last scribbled note to his brother-in-law enjoining his wife to be brave and sending her "a thousand kisses."

The next day a court official came to La Providence and declared that she was  freed. She was met at the prison door by Abraham who told her of Le Bon's death. The same day she returned with her brother and children to her mother's house in Saint-Pol.  Nothing more is recorded;  it is known only that she was in Saint-Pol in 1814,at which time she is recorded as leaving the Pas-de-Calais for fear of Royalist reprisals.  According to  Émile Le Bon, she died in 1830.  As to Le Bon's other relatives, his father and two brothers lived on in the local area but were obliged to change their names,  his mother having already died in 1795.  Henriette Le Bon married a former pupil of Le Bon's, Barthélemy Masson and settled in Mons where her husband taught literature.  The infant Émile was entrusted to their care.

G. Lenotre "Mimie" (1906), reproduced in Le Conventionnel Le Bon: textes oublies, by Jacques de Loris. Free ebook, p.1-30.

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