Born into an aristocratic family in 1768, Charlotte Corday grew up reading Rousseau and Corneille. Some scholars believe that encountering these works at a tender age molded her into a hopeless idealist so isolated from the realities of the day that she believed a single violent act could restore order to France. Whether or not her action was justified, no one denies that her beauty, tranquility, and stoicism make her an intriguing Revolution-era figure.
Although many people have seen Jacques Louis David’s startling painting of Marat’s death, they may not know what circumstances led to his bloody demise. Along with Robespierre and Danton, Marat claimed that only revolution could create a new state, and so unleashed the Reign of Terror, during which aristocrats and republicans alike met their fate at the guillotine. Determined to stanch the blood of her fellow citizens, Corday gained access to Marat’s Parisian home under the pretense that she had information regarding uprisings. Marat was bathing to soothe inflammation caused by a skin disease, so he could not defend himself when Corday plunged a knife into his chest.
Ten days short of her twenty-fifth birthday, Charlotte Corday ascended the scaffold. The executioner then brandished her severed head for the audience to behold and slapped it across the face, whereupon she reportedly flushed scarlet. Although most witnesses attributed this to a rosy July sunset, the story remains a graphic example of the myth that sprang up around her. In killing Marat, Corday ironically turned him into a hero for the Revolutionary cause and gave his supporters an excuse to execute more dissenters. Still, she continues to arouse adoration from those who regard her as a secular version of Joan of Arc.