“The wolves are gathering,” writes Manon Roland—one of the seven protagonists in the historical fiction novel Ribbons of Scarlet—and she could not have been more right. During a time of political turmoil and social rebellion, France, in the last decade of the 18th century, bathed in the blood of its citizens. During the French Revolution, no one was safe from the merciless violence that spread like a plague throughout the country.
Perhaps one of the most ambitious historical fiction novels of the year, Ribbons of Scarlet (William Morrow) is written by six different female authors detailing the lives of seven unique women from the revolution’s humble beginnings to its bloody end.
First, the Philosopher: Sophie de Grouchy. Born into a life of the aristocracy, Sophie is not privy to the inherent struggles of those around her. She is, however, sympathetic to the woes of society, and it is she who takes the first step in addressing the inhumane punishments that run rampant through Paris’ streets. She abolishes the wheel, France’s crude execution device and even goes so far as to construct the beginning plans to abolish slavery, actions many women wouldn’t dare to conduct. Sophie fearlessly challenges the social norms that try to force her into submission and complacency while promoting logic, education and common sense in a world that has seemed to abandon it.
More than anything, Sophie’s story raises the beginning questions of apathy: What is the cost of such indifference? How long will society thrive in its fantasy of progress if it continues to turn a blind eye to those suffering at the hands of people who seek to silence them? With these moral dilemmas in mind, author Stephanie Dray seamlessly introduces readers to the complexity and the ambiguity of the French Revolution.
The consequences of apathy seep through the subsequent chapters of the novel and center each characters’ motives. For the Revolutionary Louise Audu, her life as a lowly fruit seller has left her nearly starving in the streets, a situation that squandered all hope for social change. Bitter and cynical, she fears she has nothing to give to the growing rebellion around her.
But the women in her life won’t settle for complacency, and this is a topic author Heather Webb denotes with a clear fervor. As such, Louise is plunged into the heart of the revolution as she takes part in the storming of the Bastille and eventually leads the historic women’s march to Versailles to demand equality for all. With women supporting her, Louise comes to understand the sweeping power in numbers and the importance of standing up for victims of oppression.
“Our collective spirit had become a force of destruction, one that tore away not only the trappings of Hotel de Ville but centuries of rules and restrictions and oppression.”
The spirit that every woman exudes as they contend with the royalists and patriarchy speaks a powerful message to present-day activists, and it provides the utmost hope for change at any moment. Most importantly, Louise’s transformation from a cynical citizen to a powerful leader amongst women revolutionaries is a subtle reminder of the capacity that average citizens have to make an impact. All it takes is finding your voice.
Tackling the unique perspective of a royalist, author Sophie Perinot details the controversial story of Princess Élisabeth, the dear and loyal sister of King Louis XVI. For the royal family, times are just as dire. The country has turned against them, and fear runs through their bones just like everyday citizens. They, too, wish to survive the seemingly never-ending social and political catastrophe at hand.
As a royalist, Élisabeth is just the type of individual everyday citizens detest: spoiled in every possible way, elegant in ways they could only dream. And yet, Perinot is able to capture every essence of Élisabeth’s humanity. She is a devout, faithful woman who only strives to preserve her family and clear Louis of the lies that have been spread about him—lies that claim he wants to abandon his people and surrender the capital to foreign enemies. But growing tension is tearing France apart, and Élisabeth realizes that people will only listen to half-truths, truths they choose to believe.
“How can [they] hate so very deeply a man [they] do not know?”
Almost effortlessly, Perinot portrays the royal family in a forgiving light. Even King Louis, who is historically demonized, is humanized in a way that warrants sympathy from readers. And as Élisabeth’s and the rest of the royal family’s downfall looms closer, it is hard not to hope that they were able to find at least some ounce of peace.
The hope for the cessation of violence didn’t end following the royal family’s incarceration; in fact, it seemed to only get worse. The political and social quarrels gave rise to new factions that further divided France, and for Manon Roland, a member of the Moderates faction, the importance of a woman within the political sphere became more important than ever. Aptly named the Politician, Manon is one woman against the handful of infamous male politicians of the time. Sexualized and objectified by the men who try to dominate the political setting, Manon remains fiercely proud and determined to have her say as a politician and revolutionist, but it is done in secret, through the words of her husband.
Despite being forced into hopeless situations, Manon fights for moderation and reason, because it seemed as if the leaders of France had been reduced to their most animalistic impulses as if the killing was a sport and blood was their trophy. Madness consumes France in its entirety, and once the Radicals take over, no one is safe. The visceral pandemonium that Kate Quinn captures through the eyes of Manon Roland is equally terrifying and enthralling, for it shows the raw, untamed nature of revolutions and the victims it takes.
“…the Revolution was no longer cleaving to her new government like a faithful wife, but selling herself to every divisive new faction rising from within—to men who craved violence, power, and vengeance against the former ruling class more than they ever craved stability, peace, and prosperity.
Within the final two chapters of Ribbons of Scarlet, authors E. Knight and Laura Kamoie carefully craft the fear, desperation, and paranoia that prevail throughout the Reign of Terror. Young Charlotte Corday, tired of the pointless, inhumane bloodshed, undertakes a dangerous task: assassinating Jean-Paul Marat, one of the corrupt Radical leaders.
At the same time, E. Knight introduces a second narrator, Pauline Léon, a supporter of the Radicals’ movement. While the two characters epitomize the polarized views of the revolution, they are more alike than they think—a fact that goes misunderstood by all Parisians.
And then, finally, Émilie de Sainte-Amaranthe, renowned for her beauty all throughout Paris, is swept up into a conspiracy that accuses her and her family of being spies. Despite the harrowing circumstances each of these women undergoes, they approach their fates with dignity and pride. Within the bedlam that has Parisians resorting to murder, betrayal, and lies, Knight and Kamoie manage to salvage the last bit of hope for Paris’ restoration through Charlotte and Émilie.
“The crowd around my guillotine hushed and cried, but around others, the people cheered and celebrated. Beautiful, terrible humanity. Capable of the most inspiring and creative genius and the greatest and most unimaginable abominations…I knew France’s revolution was both.”
Though every character in Ribbons of Scarlet is uniquely individual and stands for her own cause, each exudes strength and determined fervor that highlights their untold fearlessness during the French Revolution. Ribbons of Scarlet serves as a reminder that the actions of women deserve to be shared and heard, and, most importantly, neither undermined nor discarded.
The varying degrees of perspective each author covers provide an eclectic and objective retelling of the French Revolution that forces readers to question their assumptions of right and wrong. For during a time of the revolution, not everything is black and white. At the conclusion of each tale, the authors remind us of the undeniable truth that instigates all-powerful revolutions: at what moment do we refuse to be victims of society’s puppetry?
Ribbons of Scarlet is now available.