Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat
The People’s Friend

Chapter II
Marat In England

MARAT’s life in England is indeed little less obscure than the record of his travels on the Continent. In the one as in the other case the true sequence of his sojourns and of the events connected with them is difficult to determine. It is certain, however, that Marat’s public literary activity seriously began in 1772, and began in the English language. Hitherto this had been confined to a few scientific tracts. In acknowledging the manuscript of Marat’s short treatise on the Soul, Lord Lyttelton, writing from his town house, Hill Street, Piccadilly, on the 19th of November 1772, says:-

In reading with attention the manuscript you have been good enough to send me, I have much admired the author’s learning and talents. This work contains many things beyond the limits of my criticism, ignorant as I am indeed of anatomy and little versed in matters of metaphysics; but I owe it to the marks of esteem you have wished to show me, and to the honour you have done me in lending me your manuscript before publication, to inform you frankly of objections that may be made either to the matter or to the style; I should be very glad to consult you as to some passages that need enlightenment, if you can put on one side the reasons that make you wish to preserve an incognito, up to the point of doing me the honour of a visit on Sunday at eleven in the morning. Rest assured that your secret will not be divulged, Sir, by your very honoured and obedient servant, LYTTELTON.

The reports of Marat’s life in England are very fragmentary, and in most cases obviously false. They are given here for what they are worth. He is alleged to have been undermaster at Warrington Academy, about 1766 or 1767, in company with the famous chemist Priestley. Thence he went, it is said, to Oxford, and an attempt has been made to identify him, on the strength of an alias, with a certain Jean-Pierre le Maitre, who was convicted of a theft from the Ashmolean Museum in the year 1768. The statement goes that the thief fled to Ireland, was arrested in Dublin, and brought back to Oxford, where he was tried and convicted. He had to serve his sentence on the pontoons at Woolwich, but is said to have been recognised by an old pupil, who procured his liberation. There is no evidence whatever that this mysterious thief was Marat. The names are different, and the plausibility of the identification rests mainly on the similarity in the initials.

Another story has it that Marat, through influence, became a librarian at Bristol, and that he subsequently went bankrupt and was incarcerated in the debtors’ prison there, but was subsequently liberated by the instrumentality of the “Society for the Relief of Debtors Imprisoned for Small Sums”. This story again should be negatively disproved by the fact that a careful search in the local court registers has failed to disclose the name of Marat or any name bearing a resemblance. It is only feebly corroborated by the statement of one of the members of this Debtors’ Relief Society that he recognised his old protege in the person of Marat in the Convention in 1792, after twenty years! – as Mr. Morse Stephens has observed, considering the circumstances, an incredible story enough!

The next we hear of this imaginary Marat is that he was teaching embroidery au tambour at Edinburgh under the name of John White. Here again there is no evidence that Marat was in any way identical with John White. It is further stated that, falling into debt, this John White fled from Edinburgh to Newcastle, where he was imprisoned. The incident of his pecuniary troubles in Newcastle is founded upon a legal document, called a cessio bonorum, which has been traced in that town, and which is the chief authority for the statement that Marat, whom he was believed to be, was a master at Warrington. The cessio appears to have been refused by the creditors. They, however, eventually wearied of the affair and set the debtor at liberty after some months, who then resided for a while in the environs of Newcastle.

Such are the traditions. From a chronological point of view, they will hardly bear investigation. That Marat at an early period of his career might have been in money difficulties is conceivable, but we know for a positive fact that in the year 1776 he was practising as physician in a fashionable district of London with an honorary degree that had been conferred on him the previous year, and it is in the highest degree improbable that he should have been reduced to pecuniary straits shortly afterwards. The stories as to his debts rest on the weakest evidence. Were there a germ of truth in them, it still must not be forgotten that imprisonment for debt was in the last century the lot of many a worthy man, and that its infliction was a means often resorted to by creditors as a regular thing for the most trivial delays in payment.

The identification with the thief Le Maitre, so utterly unfounded and wanton, is clearly a piece of anti-Jacobin spite. The accusation of stealing contradicts the whole tenor of Marat’s character, for his disinterestedness in money matters has been admitted even by the more honest of his adversaries. Moreover, Marat himself at a later period in the Ami du Peuple, in defending himself against certain personal attacks, expressly challenges his enemies to search the court records of any town where he had resided for evidence of his having been so much as accused of any crime. Brissot, too, subsequently Marat’s bitterest enemy, was at this time in London and well acquainted with Marat, and would certainly not have kept silence on even a suspicion against the “People’s Friend” had he ever heard of such. But apart from this, chronological evidence alone suffices to render the attempted identification of Le Maitre with Marat ridiculous. The date of the sentence passed on Le Maitre is given as March 1777. Now it so happens that it was on the 24th of June of that year that the Count d’Artois appointed Marat the physician of his Bodyguard. Surely no one can credit the notion that such a post in the household of the French king’s brother could be obtained by an escaped convict, or indeed by any man whose personal character and career were not vouched for beyond all shadow of doubt.

As for the nature of the appointment, there is reason to regard it as one of high distinction. An official residence was placed at its holder’s disposal. The name of this residence, Aux Ecuries, gave rise to the nicknames that Carlyle is so anxious to fasten upon Marat’s memory of “dog-leech”, “horse-leech”, etc., as though his duties need have been veterinary in character merely because his official house was near the stable-yard. It may be taken for granted, on the other hand, that he was the resident medical man of the royal household, and we learn from other sources that he was allowed to have at the same time an outside practice amongst the aristocratic and wealthy. His admitted success in this practice hardly accords with the common notion of a surgeon whose attention has been mainly directed to horses or dogs, and we can therefore dismiss with contempt Carlyle’s malignant determination to attach to Marat’s work the various labels drawn from the stables and kennels.

We may mention that, while in London, Marat became a Freemason. A diploma given him in this capacity is described as “a diploma on parchment as member of the Grand Lodge of Freemasons of London, delivered to Marat on 15th July 1774., the day of his reception”. On the back there is a certificate of the affiliation of Marat to the Lodge La Bien-Aimée of Amsterdam, dated 12th October 1774. This Lodge, according to Mr. H. Sadler, was constituted in 1753, probably by the Grand Lodge of England, but in 1776 it was under “The Grand Lodge of the Seven United Provinces”. Marat’s name has not, however, yet been traced in the register of the London Lodges, most of which did not at that period record the names of their members.

It remains to say a few words as to Marat’s political activity while in England. Although doubtless begun previously, this culminated in the publication of his Chains of Slavery in 1774, from the preface to the French translation of which, issued eighteen years later in 1792, we get the following facts. “At a time,” writes Marat, “when the French had no country, I was anxious to contribute to the triumph of liberty in a country which seemed its last asylum. A Parliament notorious for its venality was reaching its close, and upon the new one about to be elected all my hopes rested.” The Parliament referred to was the first Parliament of Lord North. Marat, in accordance with the view above expressed, determined to throw himself into the struggle, selecting the polemical essay as his weapon. The object was “to paint the inestimable advantages of liberty, the frightful evils of despotism, etc.” Mindful of the insularity of the English nation, he states that he took nearly all his illustrations from English history. “To devour,” he writes, “thirty mortal volumes, to make extracts from them, to adapt the work, to translate and to print it, was all a matter of three months.” During this time he laboured regularly twenty-one hours a day, allowing scarcely two hours for sleep, and keeping himself up with an excessive use of coffee, which, as he considered, more than the work itself, contributed to the nervous collapse which ensued on the completion of his book. Immediately after having sent the MS. to the printer, Marat, as he relates, fell into a kind of stupor, all his faculties dazed, his memory gone, and in short lay in a deplorable mental and physical state for thirteen whole days, only recovering “by the aid of music and repose”. As soon as he was in a condition to attend to his affairs, his first concern was to ascertain the fate of his book. To his astonishment and disgust he found it had not yet appeared. He went from one publisher to another; none seemed inclined to undertake negotiating the advertisement or sale of the book – not even on Marat’s offering to advance the money for expenses himself. Only one so much as hinted at a reason. This was a Mr. Woodfall, who suggested that the “discourse to the electors of Great Britain”, which served as an introduction, and which we shall give in extenso in another chapter, might have something to do with the refusal. “It was only too obvious,” says Marat, “that these men had been bought up.” To test the matter, Marat offered ten guineas for a single announcement instead of five shillings, the usual figure. The anxiety of the Prince of Wales’s bookseller to have his name struck off the list of subscribers to the book set Marat on the right track. He discovered that the minister, Lord North, had put pressure on all concerned in the publication; that the Scotch printing firm employed was attached to Lord North’s service, and had sent on the proofs to him. The printer himself appears to have advised Marat to withdraw the book, as it would only lead to unpleasantness for him. “Instructed,” says Marat, “by the case of Wilkes of the things of which an audacious minister is capable, and not being disposed to peaceably sell him the right to outrage me, I slept during six weeks with a brace of pistols under my pillow, determined to receive suitably any State emissary who might be sent to seize my papers. But nothing happened. The minister, informed as to my character, thought it prudent to confine himself to cunning, the more so as being a foreigner he might presume me to be ignorant of the means of disconcerting his plans.” Finding it impossible to circulate his book in the ordinary way through the market, Marat determined to present almost the entire edition to the patriotic societies of the north of England, these being reputed “the purest of the kingdom”. The copies were sent by the “public coaches”. But Lord North got wind of this. Marat found himself, as he states, surrounded with spies, who endeavoured to corrupt his landlord and his servants. In addition, all his letters, even those from his family, were intercepted. The sudden suppression of his correspondence was too much for Marat. He determined to play the Government a trick, so going to Holland from London, he returned immediately to a port in the north of England, seizing the opportunity of visiting the patriotic societies to whom he had sent his book. He betook himself successively to Carlisle, Berwick, and Newcastle. There he learnt more about the tricks of the Government concerning him. He found that three of the societies in question had sent him “letters of affiliation” in a “golden box”, which had, during his absence, been left with his publisher, and removed thence by the ministerial emissaries in his name. The Newcastle society in addition insisted on contributing to the expense of the edition. All the societies decreed him the “civic crown.” But the Government had at least succeeded in stopping the circulation of the book in time for the elections. In fact, Marat states that he was subsequently informed by one of his patients, who was a member of Parliament, that Lord North had expended more than eight thousand guineas in achieving this object. Afterwards the Government relaxed its energy. Marat concludes by comparing the persecutions he had suffered eighteen years before under the Government of George III, with those he had recently had to endure under that of Louis XVI.


To sum up the facts and probabilities respecting Marat’s ten or twelve years’ residence in London:- He came, probably not without introductions, about 1765 to establish a medical practice in the British metropolis. This he succeeded in doing. At the same time, in addition to occasional excursions into politics, he took an active interest in general science, particularly experimental physics, as well as in philosophical literature, and, as he seems to imply, in music. While in London he was a welcome guest in the best scientific, literary, and artistic circles of the time, amongst them in that of Angelica Kaufmann, in Golden Square. His practice and his name as a physician increasing, his reputation spread far beyond his immediate circle, till at length the post of physician to the Garde du Corps in the Comte d’Artois’ household becoming vacant, the Comte was advised to offer it to the distinguished French-speaking doctor then practising in London. This was done. The offer was accepted, and Marat left London for Paris in the early summer of 1777.

Last updated on 29.2.2004