Louise Michel: Rebel Lives

“But above all, I was in love with the revolution.”

If ever a woman seized her century, it was “The Red Virgin”–Louise Michel. Born in 1830, the illegitimate daughter of a serving girl, Louise was brought up on the estate of her father’s family. Here she must have occupied a peculiar zone–firmly in the servant class and yet favoured but unacknowledged by her father’s family. Louise was educated as a teacher, and apart from her idiosyncratic teaching style, she led a normal life until she suddenly morphed into a revolutionary.

The meaty introduction by Nic Maclellan is an overview of Louise Michel’s life. As France plunged into turmoil and war, she began attending demonstrations against the Second Empire. Eventually she became a major force in the siege of the Paris Commune that existed from March until May 1871. Following the siege, she was arrested, tried and exiled to New Caledonia (islands just off the coast of eastern Australia). Even in exile, Louise made a name for herself while promoting the rights of the native population.

The book explores Michel’s life through excerpts from her memoir, letters to her lifelong friend, Victor Hugo, the play The Days of the Commune by Bertolt Brecht, and essays written by Karl Marx, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, Howard Zinn and Friedrich Engels. (An excellent essay by Engels analyzing the two-party political system in America is included). Succint and informative at 155 pages, for those unable to tackle Louise Michel’s memoirs, this book is an alternative. Bear in mind, however, that the book is one in a series of ‘remarkable lives’ in the Rebel Lives series, and this series includes Einstein and Helen Keller. This explains why the book almost has the feel of a school primer at times.

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