Gertrud von le Fort: Martyrs of the Guillotine
(original: Die Letzte am Schafott, 1931)

English translation by Richard Byrn, 2009
For convenience of file-size this story is divided into three parts:
Opening Middle Ending

Paris, October 1794

Dearest friend,

In these horror-filled times with so many people facing death, you are perfectly right to stress in your letter the extraordinary strength shown daily by so many fellow-members of the so-called ‘weaker sex’. You write admiringly of the behaviour of ‘noble’ Madame Roland, ‘regal’ Marie-Antoinette, ‘magnificent’ Charlotte Corday, ‘heroic’ Mademoiselle de Sombreul (I borrow your own descriptions). Your final example is the ‘heart-stopping’ sacrifice of the 16 Carmelite nuns of Compiègne who sang the Veni Creator as they mounted the steps of the guillotine, and above all the deeply moving voice of young Blanche de la Force who sang the hymn to its end when their voices had been stilled by the executioner’s blade. ‘How superbly’, your eloquent letter finishes, ‘all these martyrs — of royalty, of the Gironde, of the church — jointly demonstrate the dignity of human nature in the face of dreadful chaos!’

Beloved disciple of Rousseau! As ever I admire that light and noble disposition of yours which permits you, even in the darkest night of humanity’s collapse, to believe in the indestructible nobility of human nature. But, my friend, chaos too is Nature. Even the executioners of your heroines are Nature, so too is the beast within human beings, and so too are Fear and Horror! I want to say to you — I, who am much more horrified by the events in Paris than you because I have been far closer to them — I want to admit freely to you, my dear Emigrée, that I see in the devastating calmness of those who are daily executed not so much the dignity of Nature as the vindication of a civilisation in collapse (a civilisation so despised by you — ah, my dear, we have learned to respect it!) In other words, we see the limits that civilisation imposes even on Terror, or at least amongst a few individuals — admittedly something rather different.

In that distinguished list the last-named was Blanche de la Force. But she was no heroine in your sense. It wasn’t the majesty of human nature that was entrusted into her delicate hands, but rather a demonstration of the infinite fragility of all our human strength and dignity. No less a person than Sister Marie de l’Incarnation, the only survivor from the Carmel of Compiègne, assured me of this.

As it is, you probably don’t yet know that Blanche de la Force was a renegade member of the Carmel of Compiègne which she had belonged to for a while as a novice. For that reason permit me to speak of a brief but immensely important episode in her life, for here, it seems to me, lie the roots of that famous hymn at the foot of the guillotine.

You are acquainted with the Marquis de la Force, young Blanche’s father. I don’t need to tell you of his admiration for Voltaire’s sceptical writings as also for those of Diderot. You also know of his fondness for certain liberal patriots within the Palais Royal. He had no ulterior motives. This fine-spirited aristocrat never imagined, of course, that his witty observations might some day be bandied about by the coarser spirits of the mob. But let us not pass judgment on the fateful errors made by our poor friend — he has paid for them, like so many of his kind. (Ah, my dear, in reality all of us thought much the same as he.) In this context the question is simply: what might move a man such as the Marquis de la Force to commit his daughter to the cloistered life?

During the days which Blanche spent in Compiègne I occasionally had the opportunity to speak with her father when, in company with friends in the coffee houses of the Palais Royal, he held forth eloquently about Freedom and Equality. Whenever he was asked about his daughter he would reply with a miserable expression that he regarded the ‘prisons of religion’ — that’s what he called them — with about as much enthusiasm as those of the state. At the same time he had to admit that his young daughter felt happy in her prison where, as it seemed to him, above all she felt secure. “Poor, timid child,” he would always finish, “clearly the circumstances of her birth determined her whole attitude to life.” And that, indeed, was the generally held view.

Yet I hardly imagine, dear friend, that you will understand this observation of the Marquis de la Force since you were yourself a mere child at the time referred to. Let me explain. The particular occasion was the notorious firework catastrophe at the wedding of Louis XVI, the Dauphin of the time, to the daughter of the Emperor of Austria.

At a later date people were inclined to see in this catastrophe a warning sign — a grim omen of the royal couple’s fate. Now, perhaps it was not only an omen of their fate but also a profound symbol. (My dear, revolutions are caused only to a limited extent by bad management and systemic failures — that’s what triggers them. Their real essence lies in their being the agonised death throes of an epoch reaching its end. And therein lies their symbolic nature just mentioned.)

In reality, it is absolutely not the case that the catastrophe in the Place Louis XV was caused by the authorities’ negligence — this view was simply propagated at the time because people needed some way to explain the sudden, inexplicable outbreak of panic amongst the masses. (As is well known: the inexplicable is completely unacceptable to such enlightened times as ours.) In fact the authorities were very much on duty. Indeed, they carried out the proper procedures for emergencies such as this in exemplary manner. The carriages driven by the nobility (which had been greeted with respect by the people) — one of them containing the young Marquise de la Force whose pregnancy was close to term — had remained outside the throng of pedestrians, as did also the fire brigade’s heavy bowsers, which, again with exemplary conscientiousness, were on standby. Officers of the watch were supervising the public at the cross-roads leading into Place Louis XV. The public, despite what was even then being claimed as the ‘distress of the times,’ were well clothed and well fed. Every single one of them was, as it were, a prosperous citizen embodying the sort of respectable attitudes one would hope for. In joyful anticipation of the festivities and showing proper respect towards the watchmen, these people appeared to be anything but tools of the anarchic chaos they turned into within half an hour. In brief, the outbreak of misfortune was truly as sudden as it was incomprehensible, for it was indeed a warning signal.

One completely harmless tiny fire within the fireworks’ store, which posed no danger to anyone, together with a panic that spread like lightning, turned everything upside down. The officers on the street corners were suddenly unable to raise their hands any more for they were no longer there; the cheerful bystanders, loyal citizens all, were no longer there; nobody was there but a wild, monstrous mass, all driven by the fear of death. In other words: the chaos which dwells constantly at the root of existence now broke through what was apparently a secure surface of well-behaved custom.

Trapped in her coach by the terrifying crowd, the Marquise de la Force witnessed the dreadful spectacle through the windows. She heard the screams for help uttered by people torn to the ground and the groans of those being trodden on, but within her spacious carriage she felt safe as if she were in a ship. Unconsciously she stretched out her slim, aristocratic hand and pushed the bolt across the door. It was a trifle rusty, for the coach dated back to the uneasy years of the Fronde. Such bolts were installed on carriage doors in those days because of course you never knew when you might have to take flight in your carriage. Since then they had become unnecessary. But now the Marquise felt completely safe, if somewhat excited — hardly a surprise, since the spectacle of the masses is always something of a challenge for an individual. But now, whether the horses were upset by the general shouting and confusion and started off on their own accord, or the coachman lost his head and tried to drive away from the crush, the coach started moving and drove into the mass of people who reacted with rage and despair. Within moments the horses came to a halt, the door was forced open, and seething chaos followed. And now for an instant there arose something indeed like a premonition of the Revolution.

“Madame,” screamed a man clutching a blood-spattered child in his arms, “You sit there safe in your carriage while we ordinary folk die under the hooves of your horses! Truly, your kind will perish soon and we shall sit in your carriages!” In that instant the Marquise saw the spectacle of, as it were, a horror-filled and horror-inducing monster reflected one hundred-fold. A moment later and she was dragged out of the coach and her own face was transformed into a reflection of that same mass.

Later, people claimed that Blanche de la Force was born in the half-destroyed coach as her mother was driven home from the Place Louis XV. This was something of an exaggeration. What actually happened is that the Marquise arrived back at her palace on foot, clothes ripped and with the face of a Medusa, and there she gave birth prematurely because of shock and died soon afterwards.

Now, it’s not just me that links their poor daughter’s temperament to the circumstances of her birth the way Monsieur de la Force did. Not just popular superstition but medical experience too suggests that such a link is entirely possible. Blanche, ejected prematurely as it were into the world by her mother’s terror, appeared to have received no other gift but this selfsame terror. From early days she displayed a timidity much beyond that frequently observed amongst children. (Children have a way of being scared by all sorts of things — usually it’s put down to lack of understanding.) If her own little dog suddenly barked she would tremble; the unknown face of a new servant caused her to back away as if she’d seen a ghost. It was impossible to stop her being terrified by a dark corner along the corridor which her nurse walked her through every day. In the garden you would see her stiffen like a statue at the sight of a dying bird or a dead snail. It was as if this pitiable young creature lived constantly in the expectation of some terrible event which she could only escape by keeping constantly alert in the same way as those small, sick animals which sleep with their eyes open, or as if her terrified child’s perception could see through the solid structures of secure existence into the depths of a terrifying fragility everywhere.

“But won’t the stairway slip under our feet?” asked Blanche, whenever she was taken to the sturdy tower at the family’s seat of Château la Force, where the Marquis regularly spent the summer. This tower had lasted for seven centuries, and everyone could see that it was fit to last another seven. “But won’t the wall fall down? But won’t our coach collapse? But won’t the people become wicked?” Such questions were always on young Blanche’s lips. And it made no difference at all when people explained she had no reason to be afraid. She would listen attentively, considering everything — for she was by no means ungifted — but still she was afraid. Neither tenderness nor severity nor the poor girl’s own good intentions (they are not in doubt) were able to improve her unfortunate disposition in any way. Indeed, these good intentions almost made the situation worse in the end because Blanche became so despondent over the failure of her efforts that, constantly encouraged to be brave, she came to regard her lack of courage as a blot on her character. One was tempted to say that, on top of everything else, she began to be afraid of her own fearfulness. As time passed, it’s true — for, as we’ve already observed, Blanche was not ungifted, indeed, she had a good brain — she developed little tricks to mask the problem. She stopped saying ‘But won’t the stairway slip under our feet?’, or ‘But won’t our coach collapse?’; instead she now suddenly became tired or unwell, or she found she’d forgotten to fetch something or other, or to do her homework. In short, she would find any excuse not to climb the stairway or get into the coach.

The servants laughed and called her “Little Mouse”, but things didn’t improve. Indeed, Blanche began to suffer from her weakness even more, because now she strove to hide it. Witnessing this from time to time was painful. Never did a well brought-up child of aristocratic birth behave so timidly and blush so unhappily as did Blanche de la Force. That name — her family’s proud boast: ‘La Force’ — was acutely incongruous, attached to her with seemingly blatant unfairness, a mockery. People risked calling her only Blanche, as they thought of her poor, pale face. But ‘Little Mouse’ remained the most appropriate name. And that is how things stood at the time the Marquis de la Force engaged Madame de Chalais.

This excellent governess eventually succeeded in partially overcoming the poor child’s timidity by taking her religious education in hand carefully and resolutely. Until then this aspect of her education had been regrettably neglected — hardly surprising, given the Marquis’ free-thinking spirit — but the neglect was certainly fateful for Blanche because, quite unlike her father in this respect, her religious nature badly needed sustaining.

Now, it was certainly psychologically right that Mme de Chalais should introduce her young charge to the infant Christ. It was then that Blanche had her first encounter with ‘Le petit Roi de Gloire.’ (As you know, my dear, that is the enchanting wax statuette belonging to the Carmel of Compiègne which was the delight of all children at Christmas when it went on display in their chapel.)

Le petit Roi had a crown and sceptre of gold; both had been gifted to him by the King of France in order to demonstrate that Le petit Roi is Lord of Heaven and Earth. In return for this gift, Le petit Roi protected him and his family; so, you see, it was possible to live in France with complete confidence, in other words you didn’t need to think about slipping stairways or falling walls — all you needed was to make time for Le petit Roi too, the way the King did. You could do this even when you didn’t have a crown or sceptre to give away, in other words by prayer and all sorts of little deeds of love, respect and obedience, offered to Le petit Roi. If you did this conscientiously, you could be as sure of Le petit Roi’s protection as the King of France. Now, as already said, Blanche had a religious temperament, and yet at the start Madame de Chalais ran into major difficulties. And, whilst generally keen to mention her educational successes, she was reluctant to talk about them later — with good reason.

“But you yourself must surely see that it’s easy for the King of Heaven to protect you”, she said to Blanche, gently and determinedly, when the latter refused once more to climb the stairway. “Just think how powerful our earthly King is!”

Blanche raised her anxious little face to her governess. There were times when her eyes looked like a flock of restless birds. “But what if our King loses his crown?” she asked frowning.

Madame de Chalais was silenced briefly. True: this particular objection had never crossed her mind. But a moment later she pushed it well away from her — she was greatly skilled at pushing unwelcome questions well away from her. At times Blanche imagined they simply bounced off the fishbone stays of her rather too tight corset.

“Surely you don’t really believe that, Blanche?” she said. “Crowns don’t get lost like hankies; you have to have the right attitude! As you promised me never to forget your prayers, so you can be sure that the King of Heaven won’t forget to protect you either. Really, there’s no good reason at all why you shouldn’t climb these stairs!”

Blanche trembled — it was the very stairway of which she had always asked whether it wouldn’t ‘slip under their feet.’ Without thinking, she removed her hand from her governess’s and tried one of the banisters; by misfortune it broke.

The terrified little birds in Blanche’s eyes positively shot upwards to Madame de Chalais. For a moment terror and confidence confronted each other almost like enemies. Then, suddenly, it seemed to be Madame de Chalais, not the stairs, that slipped. She almost appeared to take on the child’s role.

“How could you frighten me so much?” she shouted. And at the same moment she leant back a little so that the stays in her rather too tight corset crackled.

Now, this little turn passed quickly of course. Madame de Chalais did not normally permit herself to have little turns, and — as already said — Blanche’s resistance weakened over time as the images and ideas of Christian piety took root in her clear-thinking head, banishing her vague fears and premonitions. I can fully understand this: ah, my dear, what comfort flows from the founts of piety! I well recall from childhood the singular way that, when praying, one sinks down through all the levels of consciousness until one reaches — let’s call it — the ground of our being, where no further falling is possible. Without doubt Blanche experienced something similar at that time. This poor child, obstinately rejecting all the earthly guarantees of security offered to her, began to entrust her poor timid little heart to the wings of eternal omnipotence. Little Mouse took courage. Indeed, Madame de Chalais glowed with such satisfaction at the way she had made so much progress that Blanche began to laugh at her former timidity and mock it with little jokes — they sounded a bit like childish boastfulness but they certainly satisfied everybody.

She had now grown into a slim sixteen-year-old girl with a small, tender mouth in a slightly pinched face. Madame de Chalais had not failed to ensure that she wore a bodice as tight as her own. Thus her movements had a somewhat circumscribed charm, but nobody thought of calling her shy. None of that was negative, so the Marquis de la Force set about making plans for a suitable marriage. At that, Madame de Chalais surprised him by insisting that Blanche did not feel called to become a wife but, rather, a nun.

Now, it goes without saying that a man such as the Marquis de la Force raised objections, for, in common with every dazzling intellect in France, he held the view that the Church was a thing of the past. He was heard stating in the most vexed terms that Madame de Chalais, on whom he had pinned such great hopes, had patently achieved nothing for Blanche other than to construct a bridge across which she could walk comfortably away from the world. For sure, she was as timid as ever! In the cloister — so the unfortunate Marquis argued — certain temperaments no longer had to face the terrifying precariousness of human life; firm limits are set against the encroaching sands of unbounded choice; no longer does one have to fear the unexpected inroads and demands of Fate, but rather, one moves once and for all within predetermined rules, ideas and walls which, as Monsieur de la Force put it, are no longer open to ‘reality’ but only to the kindly phantoms of heaven and its inhabitants.

Admittedly, warped though these ideas were, they did have a grain of truth in them as regards Blanche’s decision. But if there was no more to it than that, then the young girl would have been done an injustice. It has to be said again and again that Blanche was truly religious by nature. In the Carmel of Compiègne, where Madame de Chalais had contacts, she made the best possible impression. She was introduced to the Prioress (in those days the invalid Prioress Croissy was still living) and, in response to her question ‘Did she not fear their hard rules?’ she had replied with a hint of the boastfulness she now tended to display when it came to courage: “Oh, my Mother, there really are other things to be afraid of besides these minor sacrifices!”

Upon that Prioress Croissy enquired what sort of things she might be afraid of (for Madame de Chalais had informed her of Blanche’s earlier difficulties). Blanche thought for a moment, then replied with less confidence than before: “Reverend Mother, I don’t quite know what to say, but if it is your command, I shall think about it and give you an answer later.”

“But it’s not my command,” replied Madame de Croissy quickly. In those days she was still a youngish woman, though she already bore the marks of the painful affliction which would very soon bring about her death. They say God allowed it to happen that, for a while, she experienced great horror in the face of death (it was in these days that she was seen praying so often before the Calvary in the convent garden), and this will have been one of the reasons why she always felt such strong sympathy with Blanche. (And indeed, it is far from normal for such a strict Order as the Carmelites to accept such a tender young woman into its number.)

At any rate the convent gave its agreement. Now, it won’t be a source of surprise to learn that Madame de Chalais did not have too much difficulty overcoming the Marquis’s resistance — after all, she was accustomed to bending Heaven itself to fit in with her requirements, and, as already mentioned, the Marquis was not the sort of man to put his beliefs into action.

So Blanche crossed the threshold into the cloistered life, and she did so (we are assured) with such intense inward joy showing on her pinched little face that the inmates of the Carmel of Compiègne were convinced that her vocation was true, and they were confident in their hope that she would prove a worthy daughter of St Teresa.

Her first period as a postulant was completed satisfactorily. Blanche did not find it especially easy to follow the strict demands of the convent rule, but she did fulfil them. She was friendly, eager, obedient and — something they emphasised particularly — she was also happy and appreciative. This became especially evident when — as was scarcely to be avoided in those days — certain disquieting rumours even strayed across the threshold of their convent (it was shortly before the Estates General were convened). We are assured that on such occasions Blanche’s face bore an expression of indescribable satisfaction, indeed she was heard clapping her hands like a child and calling out with that now familiar bubble of excitement “That’s of no concern to us in here!” Or “That won’t get through to us, we’re safe from that in here!”

She also adopted the styles of Carmelite piety in a remarkably short time — coming out with certain heroic little expressions such as “O my God, I sacrifice myself to Thee entirely!”, or “O suffering, sweet peace of those who love God, do not be absent from me!” — just as she had previously adopted the much easier thought-patterns encouraged by Madame de Chalais. But gradually it seemed that these apparently so easily acquired formulae ceased to be effective — a degree of relapse was evident.

This became quite clear when the invalid Prioress Croissy died. Her battle with death was dire; her groaning filled the convent for many hours. It was then that Blanche asked in dismay how could God permit so holy a woman to suffer like this? And she displayed such horror that the convent was wholly taken aback. It became known that her reception into the novitiate had been postponed because the Novice-Mistress, Sister Marie de l’Incarnation, had reservations. In the end, though, she was received with great speed.

The date was 1789, the year in which the National Assembly came together at Versailles and, faced by the country’s dire financial position, made its first attempts to expropriate Church property. (You will recall those particular provisions, dear friend.)

As early as that summer the Carmelite Order’s Visitor, Monsignor Rigaud, informed the convents under his care that a law was under preparation forbidding the Order to receive new recruits. The Monsignor did not try to hide the fact that the National Assembly was set on abolishing the Religious Orders completely; but he held out some hope that the law could be moderated to permit people already in monastic communities to remain in them — in other words that membership of the Religious Orders would be permitted to die out gradually. Under these circumstances the Monsignor’s advice was, in cases where postulants were waiting and appropriate supervision was available of course, to admit them to the novitiate without delay. ‘Unless there are strong indications to the contrary,’ wrote the clear-sighted prelate, ‘let us commend these young women to God’s strengthening hand; let us not be petty, but generous in our dealings with them: In the days to come God Himself will make His own dispensations amongst them. Christ the Ever-living’ (his letter concluded) ‘now dwells in, as it were, the Garden of Gethsemane. For that reason I commend to the Reverend Mother Prioress the name ‘Jésus au Jardin de l’Agonie’ for any postulants ready to enter the novitiate — there could be no more apt name under present conditions.’ (You know, my friend, that in Carmelite convents they hold the view that the name in religion adopted by individual nuns gives them special access to the mystery which underlies it.)

Under these circumstances the newly-elected Prioress, Madame Lidoine, whose name in religion was Sister Thérèse de Saint Augustin, judged it right to speak again with the Novice Mistress, Marie de l’Incarnation, about receiving Blanche into the novitiate.

But let us hear Sister Marie de l’Incarnation speak for herself (or ‘Sister Marie of the Christ-Child’, as the children of Rose Ducor, the charming opera singer, called her, for that is how their mother explained to them the incomprehensible name ‘Incarnation’).

You know, my dear, that Rose Ducor, the little diva of the theatre whose more frivolous admirers accused her of flirting with religion, astonished us during the reign of terror by taking into her home a great variety of priests and religious: they were safe with her thanks to her popularity. (Ah, my dear, in the presence of martyrdom great surprises lie in store regarding people’s steadfastness; on this subject I shall never again dare offer predictions!) Sister Marie de l’Incarnation, too, was given refuge for a time at Rose Ducor’s house, and without question her escape from the Revolutionary Tribunal owes everything to that little singer’s coolness and presence of mind.

In those days I often had the honour of visiting this excellent nun. She was occupied at the time in writing the biography of her martyred sisters: I found her seated at her hostess’s rosewood bureau, sorting through a mass of papers, unveiled of course and wearing everyday clothing, a bonnet on her head, the white jabot drawn high to her throat so that it concealed the spot where (as a strange rumour has it) a thin red line was to be seen on her skin ever since the day of her sisters’ execution. Even brave little Rose Ducor asserted the truth of this affecting legend, for she regards Sister Marie de l’Incarnation as a saint.

When the latter saw my eyes fixed on the jabot, she shifted it slightly to one side. She trembled a little as she did so, but without hesitation. Meanwhile I could see (and that no doubt is what she wanted) that the rumour was false, but that there was reason for it. For this woman was in fact a most impressive personality: it was easy to associate miraculous happenings with her. (Indeed, when you know her, there’s nothing more surprising than the sweet little name ‘Sister Marie of the Christ-Child’!) A sculptor could have used her as the model for a saintly queen, maybe even a saintly king. At least, that is how I felt, and I don’t believe what I felt had anything to do with the rumours surrounding her birth. — You are aware, dear friend, this nun is said to be the natural daughter of one of France’s royal princes. Indeed, right up to the days of the Revolution she received a royal pension; it is also known that, on entering the convent, she received an Episcopal dispensation regarding her illegitimate birth. They say that, as a young girl living in most advantageous circumstances, she once visited the grave of the famous Carmelite Madame Acarie and was quite suddenly seized by a burning desire to atone for the sins of the Court (to which she owed her life’s conception) just as Madame Louise de France, Prioress of the Carmelite Convent of St Denis, had done. These hints from her earlier life explain much about this unusually noble soul. — Meanwhile I put to her my question about Blanche de la Force.

She gave me a most strange answer. She responded with another question: “So then,” she said, “are Fear and Horror really always a source of vexation? Is it not possible that — at least to begin with — they may be something altogether more profound than courage, something that fits much more closely the reality of things, in other words, the terror at life’s heart, and thus also fit much more closely with our own individual weakness?”

Her words astonished me, for, as you know my dear friend, it was Sister Marie de l’Incarnation who persuaded the convent at Compiègne to offer to heaven that heroic Act of Dedication which, to an extent, presaged the convent’s subsequent fate. (I shall return to this point in a moment.)
“Fear is something more profound than Courage — and it’s you, Sister Marie de l’Incarnation, who make that claim?” I asked.

She brushed aside my reference to her heroism by returning to my original question.

“Indeed, yes,” she said, “there were amongst us those who recommended Blanche’s return to the world. However, our Reverend Mother, Prioress Lidoine, decided otherwise. Oh, Madame Lidoine understood souls and led them well!”

“And yet,” I retorted, “did not the way things developed prove Mother Lidoine wrong?” (I was thinking of Blanche’s flight from Compiègne.)

“Not Madame Lidoine,” she replied quickly, “but another of the nuns. Not all of us properly understood Reverend Mother’s conduct of souls.”

Suddenly I got a strong sensation that she was speaking of herself, though I couldn’t explain why. At the same moment she looked at me and I blushed. She, however, remained unconcerned.

A brief but very lively silence ensued. Finally she said, with a strange expression of — I would almost say — exalted simplicity which, from the contrast between it and her proud face, rendered me speechless: “And why shouldn’t you, Monsieur de Villeroi, be told about it? Did you not after all come here to discover the truth of these matters? I assure you, this truth is such as to give far greater honour to His Majesty than anything else.” (You will know, dear friend, that in Carmelite convents they refer to God as ‘His Majesty’.)

She then gave me various writings. Some of them were notebooks from Prioress Lidoine, i.e. a sort of journal of her period of office, some of them memoirs written in her own hand, for, as I mentioned already, she was working on the biography of her martyred sisters.

I extract from those two manuscripts the bits that are important for our purpose and return to my story.

So, Sister Marie de l’Incarnation advised the Mother Prioress not to receive Blanche into the novitiate yet on the grounds of her peculiar weakness and timidity.

“O my Mother,” she said then, looking down at her with her beautiful, fiery eyes (she couldn’t look up to her because she was significantly taller), “this poor child moves me deeply, for truly she has snuggled up within the walls of the convent like a bird in its nest! I love this child no less for her being weak! It’s just that, because I love her — O my Mother, there are thousands of people capable of such small pieties, hundreds of similar tiny flames! Every day countless numbers of them burn at the altars in Paris, and countless more are blown out by the storms of life. Such little flames cannot be transferred to a Carmelite convent! Our convents demand violence in every aspect!”

My dear, let me digress for a moment — I have just let you know the impression that Sister Marie de l’Incarnation’s personality made on me, but I probably need to say a bit more about her position in the convent and in particular vis-à-vis the newly elected Prioress.

Without doubt the latter held her in high regard, because she refers to her frequently in her journal as her ‘right hand’, her ‘daughter adviser’, sometimes even as her ‘great daughter’, indeed on one occasion as her ‘motherly daughter’. She also mentions that, following Prioress Croissy’s death, Sister Marie de l’Incarnation had hoped to become her successor, but that the church authorities had elected to place the direction of the convent in the hands of ‘a much lesser person’ (by which she meant herself).

It is true that, in her religious life as in her external appearance, Madame Lidoine was of no significance at all. This became quite clear immediately after her election. “It was only with great difficulty” (as Sister Marie de l’Incarnation put it to me) “that she accustomed herself to give orders to those whom she felt were superior to her, and in this respect she sometimes appeared — but certainly was not — somewhat insecure. Ah, and it was this fact” (she added) “that was my actual temptation!” (At this point Marie de l’Incarnation touched on the sensitive issue of her relationship to Madame Lidoine, because hers was certainly the dominant personality).

On this question, too, the Mother Prioress did not oppose her directly but simply handed her the Monsignor’s letter.

Marie de l’Incarnation read it. Her complexion grew pale, then reddened, and one could see how affected she was by the news of the Order’s impending curtailment. At the end she said: “What a choice, my Mother!”

Madame Lidoine had obviously expected a different response. A certain reluctance showed on her face, as always happened when she had to confront Marie de l’Incarnation in her role as Prioress.

“You think we have a choice?” she asked in her deep voice. (On first impression her voice was the only striking thing about her.) Marie de l’Incarnation replied quickly — ah, her perceptiveness was exceptionally delicate and sensitive — “You desire that she be accepted as a novice, my Mother?”

“The Monsignor so desires,” replied the Prioress almost apologetically.

Marie de l’Incarnation obeyed immediately. (My dear, it is deeply touching to observe how hard this great soul strove to meet the demands of perfect humility.) “Under these circumstances,” she said “while I do not withdraw my views about our postulant, I do offer myself to God as a sacrifice on her behalf. Permit me, Reverend Mother, to undertake exceptional acts of love and penance to assist this soul which has been entrusted to us, so that no risk is attached to her reception into our community.” (You will know that such acts of heroic, substitutionary love belong entirely within the tradition of Carmelite piety, and there is no doubt that Madame Lidoine welcomed it.)

Thus the decision to admit Blanche was taken. Now, at the Convent of Compiègne they were under no illusions that this would be the last such celebration for the foreseeable future, and without doubt this made the whole ceremony especially moving. And yet, we must not imagine that this moment aroused any sort of anxiety amongst the majority of the nuns. The members of this Order which is so often decried because of the severity of its penitential practices generally possess the gaiety and free-spiritedness of children. At that time in Compiègne they were mostly filled with delight that, under difficult circumstances, one more young sister had been rescued into the safety of the Carmelite community. What’s more, the young novice Constance de St Denis put into words in her own innocent and naïve way a thought which might just have been in the Monsignor’s mind when he gave his advice. “Dear little sister Blanche,” she said, “you and I will stick together to make fools of the National Assembly! We are young, and even though we will find it hard delaying our entry into heaven for so long, we shall gladly live to 100! Because by then the Order is bound to be permitted to admit novices once again!”

And during this conversation the new young postulant’s expression, in her brown habit and novice’s white veil, was touching — albeit a little fragile — as when she arrived at the convent. The way her hands strayed over the coarse wool of her habit, touching it from time to time in a curiously tender manner, spoke so eloquently that the convent could not help but feel reassured.

“The gratitude of this young daughter,” wrote Madame Lidoine that evening, “was quite indescribable. The poor girl knew well that she had been at the end of her strength and was unready to take the veil. ‘Oh how good of His Majesty! How good of the Reverend Mother, how considerate of Sister Marie de l’Incarnation!’ — those were the words she was heard repeating constantly on the day of her profession. She was startled, admittedly, when she heard the name she was to bear from then on, but her joy was so great that she soon came to herself. During recreation in the garden she knelt down quite spontaneously before the Calvary, where Prioress Croissy had knelt so often, and, lifting her voice with profound devotion, she made clear her readiness to accept her name in religion by praying out loud before us: ‘Oh my Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, I offer myself to you wholly!’

‘I place my hopes fully,’ writes Madame Lidoine in conclusion, ‘on this humble gratitude and on the sacred name by which heaven called this child to itself. Oh my Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane — they are my words too — strengthen the soul of this, your young bride, and send her the angel of comfort who also came to your aid in your hour of agony!’

And indeed it seemed as if this time the convent’s hopes would be fulfilled. No longer was there any suspicion that Blanche was merely repeating the great words of Carmelite piety; even less did it seem that she felt unequal to them. The young novice maintained the same inner devotion as she showed on the day of her profession, and she made such obvious progress that even Sister Marie de l’Incarnation was satisfied. So her second relapse was inevitably all the more devastating.

But first, let us recall what happened.