When a writer composes his or her memoirs while in prison awaiting execution, we owe it to ourselves to consider what they have to say. It may be a cliché that the prospect of death focuses the memory and concentration, but it is a cliché that is powerfully true. In Chapter 5 of Thirty-Seven, I discussed the fate of Boethius, who wrote his Consolation of Philosophy while languishing in a dungeon (and awaiting execution) for a crime he did not commit. I recently heard of another last testament written during captivity: the poignant memoirs of Jeanne Manon Roland (1754–1793), known to history simply as Madame Roland.
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