By Jenny Sutton
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The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia

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Issue 416

This graphic novel tells the story of a remarkable woman, Louise Michel, one of the key figures of the Paris Commune, the world’s first working class revolution. Beautiful ink and watercolour drawings bring the events and characters vividly to life.

In 1905 American feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman arrives in Montmartre, Paris. Gilman is met by Monique, a young woman whose mother had been educated by Louise Michel in a school for the poor. Monique relays the story of Louise’s life.

She starts in the bitter winter of 1870 as Prussian troops are besieging Paris. Louise, a socialist and feminist, is teaching in Montmartre and organising to feed her students and the community. She rails against the profiteers stockpiling flour as the poor starve and the rich feast on the occupants of Paris Zoo.

In January 1871 the Prussians bombard Paris. More afraid of Parisian workers than the occupying army, the fragile bourgeois government refuses to arm the citizens to defend the city. When the French army attempts to disarm the Parisian National Guard and remove the capital’s cannons, the workers resist, take control and on 28 March declare the Paris Commune.

For 72 days the workers run a revolutionary government. They take over the factories and turn the workshops into cooperatives. Vacant properties are requisitioned, rent arrears cancelled, hospitals and schools run by the people. Louise is at the centre of the Commune, one of a fearless minority who argue (unsuccessfully) to march on Versailles and topple the government.

She organises food distribution and champions women’s rights and the education of girls. Inspired in part by utopian novels and the amazing new technological and scientific advances of the period, for ten weeks Louise struggles tirelessly to frame a new collective society. When the French and Prussian armies unite to crush the commune, she fights on the barricades.

The ruling class wreak a bloody revenge, slaughtering some 30,000 Parisians. Louise demands to be executed along with other captured communards, but instead is deported to the French penal colony New Caledonia. On the long voyage she is won to anarchist ideas.

Louise thrives in the colony. She teaches the children, befriends Algerian deportees and supports an uprising of local indigenous people against colonial rule. At this point in the relaying of the narrative, Monique and Gilman have been joined by Monique’s mother, Eliane, who is listening. When Gilman expresses shock that Louise had “not stuck to her own kind”, Eliane explodes, “She WAS sticking with her own kind! She stuck with indigenous people, just as she always stuck with the oppressed!”

Louise returned to France in 1880 in a general amnesty for Communards. She received a hero’s welcome, but spent her final years in and out of prison, never ceasing to fight for revolution.

I highly recommend this beautiful and enjoyable read that will make you want to learn more about the Paris Commune and Louise Michel.

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