An unassuming French pamphlet sits on the shelves at the New-York Historical Society. However, there is far more than meets the eye beneath its aged, brown wrappers. Premier rapport fait au nom du Comité de salut public, sur les moyens d’extirper la mendicité dans les campagnes, & sur les secours que doit accorder la République aux citoyens indigens (call no. Y1794 .Bar Pre), roughly translates to First report made in the name of the Committee of Public Safety, on the means of extirpating begging in the countryside, and on the relief which the Republic must give to the native citizens. It is written by Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac, a prominent French politician and notable member of the National Convention who chaired the trial of King Louis XVI in 1792-93. Published in 1794, Barère is steadfast in his belief that beggars are the sign of a corrupt government, and that poverty is the “leprosy of monarchy.” However, the work itself is not cause for fascination, nor is it anything particularly out of the ordinary, especially for the year and place it was published. The printer is another matter. Gleaned from the colophon, the printer information could be easily overlooked, and simply reads, “De l’Imprimerie de Charpentier, rue Denis, no. 62.” This printing shop was owned and operated by a woman, and not just any aristocratic or business-savvy woman, but a courtesan named Pierrette Jeanne Sophie Charpentier de Mailly.
Pierrette Jeanne Sophie Charpentier de Mailly was born around 1752 in Paris. There is little surviving information about this seemingly shrewd printer. She married and divorced Jacques-Charles de Mailly, a painter known for creating a miniature portrait of the Empress Catherine II of Russia. She also attempted to become an actress, but we can infer that life as an actress was unsuitable for Pierrette, and thus she went on to live the life of a courtesan and eventually took up printing.
As a printer she was active from about 1793 to 1798, right in the midst of the French Revolution and, in particular, the Reign of Terror. Prior to 1789, women were prohibited from opening publishing and printing houses in their own name. Then, in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the National Assembly professed the free communication of thoughts and effectively declared that any citizen may write or print freely. New printers, and clearly Pierrette, saw an opportunity to make their mark and create a business.
She also had relationships with quite an array of individuals such as Françoise Raucourt, an actress at the Comédie-Française, the national theater of France. Raucourt had a reputation as a notorious lesbian, as well as a favorite of Marie Antoinette. She was considered a Royalist during the French Revolution and imprisoned during the Reign of Terror. Another lover of Pierrette’s is, not so coincidentally, Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac. Pierrette’s relationship with Barère explains why she printed this Premier rapport fait au nom du Comité de salut public, as well as thousands of reports for the Committee of Public Safety (to which Barère was elected in 1793). Pierrette’s political inclinations are confounding since her two most well-known lovers stood on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Perhaps she was an open-minded person, or simply a very skilled courtesan. Or perhaps there is another explanation entirely.
In the memoirs of Paul François Jean Nicolas vicomte de Barras, Barras unexpectedly mentions Pierrette. Pierrette was more than a printer; she was a spy for England. Barras, a powerful French politician, discusses Pierrette when he writes, “there is a woman who deserves special attention: it is the woman Demailly, alias Charpentier, the former mistress of Barère, who . . . was in the habit of intrusting [sic] to her the secrets of the Committee of Public Safety; the said Demailly was in the habit of selling them to England.” Thus the anti-revolution political inclinations of Pierette are revealed. Her career as a spy explains the lack of information on our fearless heroine, as well as the initially surprising fact that the only things she published were writings by Barère or reports from the Committee of Public Safety. Barras goes on, “this Demailly has been paid by England since the beginning of the Revolution, in exchange for Government secrets . . . [and often] held counter-revolutionary committees.” Barras even mentions Françoise Raucourt when discussing the women paid by England, insinuating that she too was a spy selling secrets to England.
Premier rapport fait au nom du Comité de salut public is another reminder to never judge a book by its cover. What started as an exploration into a woman printer ends as a shocking dive into the underbelly of the French Revolution and the pre-MI6 days of British Intelligence.
This post is by Gina Modero, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.