Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat
The People’s Friend

Chapter I
Marat’s Early Years

JEAN-PAUL MARAT, or Mara, the “t” having been added to give the name a French look, was born at the village of Boudry, on the lake of Neuchâtel, the present Swiss canton of that name being then a fief of the Prussian crown. The register of his birth and baptism is as follows:–

Jean-Paul Mara, son of M. Jean-Paul Mara, proselyte of Cagliari, in Sardinia, and of Mme. Louise Cabrol, of Geneva, was born on the 24th of May, and has been baptized on the 8th of June, 1743, having no godfather and having for godmother Mme. Cabrol, grandmother of the infant.” His father thus belonged to the population of mixed race and Italian speech inhabiting one of the most interesting insular seats of early European civilisation. He was made a citizen of Geneva on the 10th of March 1741 having renounced his hereditary faith in favour of the Calvinism of his adopted city.

The name “Mara”, taken in conjunction with his native country, suggests some interesting reflections for the philologist and ethnologist. It is well known that a strong Semitic element has always existed in Sardinia, as the result of the colonisation in early ages of the neighbouring Carthaginian coasts of Africa. The word “Mara” itself certainly, as it stands, looks Hebrew and suggests the “waters of Marah”. In view of the characteristics of Marat himself in his revolutionary career, the name has a queer significance, and might lead the curious to speculate as to whether it was a cognomen bestowed in remote ages upon some unknown ancestor of Carthaginian race whose disposition reappeared in the “bitterness” of the “People’s Friend”. In the absence, however, of any evidence, we are equally at liberty to assume his distant forefathers to have been valiant Roman legionaries, who, it may be, served in the Punic wars and finally settled down in the conquered territory.

Louise Cabrol, the mother, the wife of the elder Jean-Paul, was the daughter of a French Protestant wigmaker who had also become naturalised in the city of Calvin, but of her family no further information seems obtainable.

Next to the younger Jean-Paul in age was Henri Mara, who was born in 1745, and who subsequently migrated to Russia, where he had a successful career in the service of the Russian Government as professor in one of the Imperial military schools, being accorded the rank of “Colonel”. He dropped his patronymic, however, and called himself M. de Boudry, after his native place. The elder sister Marie was born at Boudry in 1746.

The year after his marriage, the elder Mara, having obtained a position in a manufactory of Indian stuffs at Boudry, near the town of Neuchâtel, as designer or chemist, or possibly in both capacities, migrated thither with his wife. His employment for some reason or other coming to an end, he moved in 1754. to the neighbouring town of Neuchâtel. The registers at this place for that year contain a notice to the effect that “the sieur Jean Mara, native of Cagliari in Sardinia, proselyte, designer, and master of the Italian and Spanish languages, having sought the right of domicile in the town, his request was adjourned for authentic certificates of his good-conduct.” These must have proved satisfactory, as we shortly afterwards find him admitted as an inhabitant with full rights. His occupation now was that of professor of languages. Here was born his son David, whose baptism is recorded for the date 21st February 1756. An indication of the good repute in which the family stood is afforded by the fact that the godfather and god-mother were M. David Huguenin, Councillor of State and Chancellor, and his wife. The Huguenins are, it may be mentioned, a very old stock of Neuchâtel. Charlotte-Albertine Mara was born here in 1760, and Jean-Pierre in 1767.

In 1768, shortly after the disturbances in which the Advocate-General lost his life, Marat’s father left the town and returned to the city of his adoption, Geneva, apparently with the hope of bettering his position. The Mara family left enemies behind them, however, for they had not long arrived when the following letter was received by Mme. Mara:-

NEUCHÂTEL, 19th March 1768.

MADAM – As you have the most diabolical tongue that we have ever had in our town, and as you are a notorious liar and slanderer, who are never tired of injuring your neighbours by your tongue, I shall take care to make you known at Geneva. I have already written to different persons, and have painted you in your true colours, as also your children, who resemble you. Your one-eyed son apparently David is a notorious ragamuffin. It is he who did the most injury to the Advocate-General. Yes, I say once more that you are a notorious liar, a most evil tongue, a slanderess, a woman of no character, whom every one despises, and who is only too despicable. Your husband is no better. He is a downright hypocrite and canting humbug (caffard). Adieu. Alter your conduct. I have forgotten to tell you that everywhere I can I shall expose you. I have already written anonymously to four persons to tell them what you are, and I have still ten letters to write to describe you and your children, not forgetting your scoundrel and hypocrite of a husband. I had intended to write to M. Joly, but I cannot do so. Moderate your infernal and diabolical tongue. This is not all. There are many other things that are being prepared for you.

On another sheet in the same handwriting is the following postscript:-

Your daughters are both fit to be at Geneva, no less than your husband. As to those who will come from the thirteen cantons and from the town-hall, I will make you known to them, please God, so that they may tear out your tongue, as they have torn out the eye of your rascal of a son. Your husband will pose at Geneva as the honest man, but it will not be long before you are known. Whatever happens, I shall write as many anonymous letters as I can. There are several children here who would like to pay you out. They will make it as hot for you as they can. You deserve it. Adieu, diabolical tongue, calumniator, impostor, liar, slanderess, beggarly wretch, renegade’s wife!

Mara senior enclosed this cowardly letter of anonymous abuse in one of his own to the Prussian Vice-Governor and his Council of State, and wrote also to the Secretary of State, protesting the falsity of the charges, and claiming that the author or authoress of the letter should be found out and punished. He professed himself to have behaved loyally to “His Majesty the King of Prussia” during his residence at Neuchâtel, and gives, as the only reason he can think of for any enmity felt against himself by any inhabitants of the town, the fact that he had disapproved of their “illegal, unnatural and imprudent conduct”. Here he obviously refers to the revolt. Beyond this he knows of nothing to justify hatred on the part of any one against him or his. It is not known whether a search was made, nor whether, if made, it resulted in the discovery of the delinquent.

In No. 98 of his Journal de la Republique française, Marat has left the following account of his youth:-

Born with an impressionable nature, a fiery imagination, a hot, frank, and tenacious temperament, an upright mind, a heart open to every lofty passion, and above all to the love of fame, I have never done anything to pervert or destroy these gifts of nature, but have done everything to cultivate them.

By an exceptional good fortune I have had the advantage of receiving a careful education in my father’s house, of escaping all the vicious habits of childhood that enervate and degrade a man, of avoiding all the excesses of youth, and of arriving at manhood without having abandoned myself to the whirlwind of the passions. I was pure at the age of twenty-one, and had already for a long time past been given to the meditation of the study.

The only passion that devoured my mind was the love of fame; but as yet it was only a fire smouldering under the ashes.

The stamp of my mind has been impressed upon me by nature, but it is to my mother that I owe the development of my character. This good woman, whose loss I still deplore, trained my early years; she alone caused benevolence to expand in my heart. It was through my hands that she caused the succour that she gave to the indigent to pass, and the tone of interest she displayed in speaking with them inspired me with her own feelings.

Upon the love of humanity is based the love of justice, for the notion of what is just comes from sentiment as much as from reason. My moral sense was already developed at the age of eight. Even then, I could not bear to behold ill-treatment practised upon another; the sight of cruelty filled me with indignation, and an injustice always made my blood boil with a feeling as of a personal outrage.

During my early years, my constitution was very delicate; moreover, I never knew either petulance or obstinacy or the games of childhood. Docile and diligent, my masters obtained everything from me by gentleness. I was only chastised once, and the resentment at an unjust humiliation made such an impression upon me that it was found impossible to bring me again under my instructor’s authority. I remained two whole days without taking nourishment. I was then eleven years old, and the strength of my character may be estimated from this single trait. My parents not having been able to bend me, and the paternal authority believing itself compromised, I was locked up in a room; unable to resist the indignation that choked me, I opened the casement and flung myself into the street; happily the casement was not high, but I did not fail to hurt myself seriously in the fall, and I bear the mark on my forehead to this day.

The shallow men who reproach me with being a tête (obstinate fellow) will see from this that I was such at an early age; but they will refuse perhaps to believe that at this time of life I was devoured by the love of fame; a passion that has often changed its object at different periods of my life, but which has never quitted me for a moment. At five years of age, I wanted to be a schoolmaster; at fifteen a professor; at eighteen an author; and at twenty a creative genius.

This is what nature and the lessons of my childhood have made me. Circumstances and reflection have done the rest.

I was reflective at fifteen, an observer at eighteen, a thinker at twenty-one. At the age of ten I contracted the habit of a studious life; mental work has become a veritable necessity for me, even in illness, and my greatest pleasures I have found in meditation.

The foregoing is our only authentic information concerning the childhood and early youth of Marat. As regards the self-complacency of the extract, somewhat offensive to the modern mind, three things are to be borne in mind – firstly, the stilted and inflated style of the eighteenth century, especially in personal matters; secondly, the nationality of the writer, for in spite of his birthplace Marat was essentially a Frenchman by temperament and education; and thirdly, the virulent personal attacks that called forth the autobiographical declaration in question. As an illustration of how calumny pursued the “People’s Friend” even into his early years, we may take the statement of a certain Fauche-Borel that he had seen Marat as a tiny child at Neuchâtel exciting a crowd of little ragamuffins to deeds of violence of which his own hands were incapable. Unfortunately, the worthy Fauche-Borel is a little too detailed in his information. He states that it was on the occasion of the outbreak in which the Advocate-General Gaudot was killed by the populace. Now, it happens that this historical incident occurred in the year 1768, when Marat was not a child at all, but a man of five-and-twenty, who had been for years absent from his native land. The truth would appear to be that Marat’s young brother, David, was involved in this matter, but only to the extent, as the Neuchâtel archives indicate, of being charged with “throwing stones”.

Jean-Paul Marat left the paternal roof soon after the completion of his sixteenth year. His object was probably to find a school or university where he might pursue the studies preparatory to the practice of medicine. Where he immediately went, however, is doubtful. Above all, it is not known where he received his first medical degree, an uncertainty that has enabled Michelet and other detractors to cast doubts upon the fact of his having ever graduated in medicine at all. As will be subsequently seen, however, such doubts are not tenable in the face of facts we shall deal with.

The first places to which we can distinctly trace him by his own recorded account are Toulouse and Bordeaux, at the latter of which towns he stayed two years, studying, as he says, medicine, literature, philosophy, and politics. It was perhaps at this time that he made his first attempt in literature in the form of a romance entitled The Adventurer of the Young Count Potowski. The fact that the letters of which the work is composed bear later dates does not necessarily militate against the assumption that it was written about that time, for in a work of fiction of this character it might quite conceivably have been done on purpose. The plot, which is simple enough, is as follows. A young Polish nobleman is in love with the daughter of one of his father’s friends. All goes well, and the marriage is about to be celebrated, when suddenly a civil war breaks out with the object of freeing Poland from the Russian yoke. The one family is on the side of the Russian authorities; the other on that of the Polish patriots. Hence, mortal enmity arises between them. Gustave, the hero, is induced by his father to enlist under the Confederate banner. Meanwhile, the bride, Lysille, and her mother take refuge in flight to foreign lands. Episodes are introduced illustrating the grief of the lovers and the fortunes of war. The intrigues of a countess, who is herself in love with the young nobleman, also play a part. Finally, hostilities come to an end, and the course of true love runs smoothly into marriage. The narrative is interrupted by dissertations on the perfidy of monarchs who stir up strife, and on the new political principles then agitating men’s minds. The work lacks originality, and the execution is distinctly amateurish. Marat himself doubtless felt this, as it remained unpublished during his lifetime, and first saw the light in 1847 as a feuilleton in the Siècle newspaper, the original manuscript having been purchased, as was alleged, by a friend of the proprietor of that journal from Marat’s widow, Simonne Evrard, shortly before her death. In 1848 the romance was issued independently in two volumes.

Marat eventually reached Paris, where he doubtless pursued his studies in medicine. After some time employed in scientific research, he migrated to London, the city that until shortly before the outbreak of the Revolution was the one in which he spent most of his time. On this occasion, however, he did not continue in the English metropolis, leaving apparently in a short time for Dublin, where he remained a year, going thence to Edinburgh, possibly in a tutorial capacity, and probably visiting St. Andrews. Marat then set sail for Holland, stopping some time in its chief cities, such as the Hague, Utrecht, and Amsterdam. After this he returned again to London, probably about 1765, some eleven years since his departure from Boudry. His residence was in Church Street, Soho, the Harley Street of that day. The only knowledge we have of Marat’s family during this time is that his mother died soon after the birth of her youngest child, of whom mention has already been made. Obscure as these years are also in the lifetime of Marat himself, we have evidence enough that they were unremittingly employed in professional medical work and study, that he made the acquaintance of many distinguished persons in the scientific world, and that he had relations, both literary and personal, with many learned bodies, amongst others the Royal Society of London, and the Academies of Berlin, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, and Madrid.

Last updated on 15.7.2006