A Touchy Lot

Lynn Hunt

  • The Devil in the Holy Water, or, The Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon by Robert Darnton
    Pennsylvania, 534 pp, £23.00, December 2009, ISBN 978 0 8122 4183 9
  • Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech by Charles Walton
    Oxford, 348 pp, £32.50, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 536775 1

There is no doubt an art of political slander, as Robert Darnton terms it, and in many places something like what Charles Walton calls a ‘culture of calumny’. But in what ways are they particular to a time and place? How different, for example, are the charges of lesbianism and Machiavellian manoeuvring levelled against Hillary Clinton from those published two centuries earlier against Marie Antoinette (leaving aside for the moment the rather different outcomes for the two women)? True, Hillary was not accused of committing incest with her child, but she was linked with various financial scandals and even portrayed as ordering the murder of the deputy White House counsel Vince Foster (who committed suicide in 1993) in order to cover up her transgressions. John Knox was surely right to label his 1558 diatribe against powerful women only The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, so well developed is the tradition of denigrating women thought to exercise influence from behind the throne.

The particularity of slander matters because Darnton and Walton hang a great deal on its late 18th-century French version. Darnton argues here, as he has in a series of acclaimed books, that the libels proliferating like kudzu in the 1770s and especially the 1780s choked off the oxygen of legitimacy necessary to the survival of the monarchy. He endorses Pierre Bayle’s remark of the late 17th century that ‘the tongue and the pen of one man alone are sometimes more useful for a cause than an army of 40,000 soldiers,’ though Darnton has in mind not one man but a few handfuls of hacks. Walton, a student of Darnton’s, wants to push the effects of calumny further into the heart of the French Revolution. For him, the culture of calumny explains the violence of the Terror.

Although Darnton maintains that political smut eroded the authority of the French monarchy, he admits to being more interested in the ‘rocambolesque tale’, the adventures and misadventures in the lives of the libellers, and the hugger-mugger of illegal publishing than he is in explaining the origins of the Revolution. He has done more than anyone else to make the 18th-century history of the book – not their contents so much as the making and circulation of them – read like a John le Carré novel, hardly a likely development for a field bedevilled by bibliographilia. Scholars had always known that the great figures of the French Enlightenment – Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau – had had to publish their works outside France, most often in some Dutch city where refugee Protestants gleefully churned out anything that might infuriate French kings and Catholic clergy. But even Enlightenment scholars failed to detect the rising underground stream of vulgar pamphlets and books that recounted Louis XV’s satyriasis, Louis XVI’s impotence, Marie Antoinette’s nymphomania, the courtiers’ general turpitude and the clergy’s lasciviousness.

Darnton’s nose for a good story led him to this subterranean reservoir of defamatory pseudo-journalism. While tracing the fortunes of the Enlightenment’s great manifesto, the Encyclopédie, published legally, then illegally and then legally again between 1751 and 1772, he discovered that thousands of copies were pirated by Swiss publishers. He tracked down the circuits linking publishers with booksellers back in France, and not satisfied with that, he went on to ask what else the booksellers were offering under the counter to clients in the know. He discovered that in addition to Voltaire and Rousseau, the bestseller list of forbidden books included explicit pornography, attacks on religion and political slander. Having uncovered the practices of the publishers, the book smugglers and the sellers of banned books, and considered some of the more philosophical of the pornographic works, he turns in The Devil in the Holy Water to those who wrote and marketed political slander, a genre whose allusions are difficult to decipher more than two centuries later. In political slander everything is of the moment, and only someone as immersed as Darnton is in the particularities of 18th-century publishing, politics and cultural life could possibly do justice to its noisome unruliness.

The libellers, Darnton’s focus here, were an unsavoury lot. Bankrupts, extortionists, police spies who turned coat, defrocked priests, desperate expatriates and various international adventurers could be found in their ranks. Downward social mobility seems to have been their signal characteristic, for among them were former doctors, lawyers, clergymen and booksellers. Having fallen on hard times for whatever reason, but still possessed of intelligence and wit, they were tempted by a form of literary speculation that promised a quick return in exchange for a life of constant anxiety. The only thing that was certain was that an agent of the French government would be looking for you, whether you worked out of London, Brussels or Amsterdam.

Unless, of course, that agent was himself a secret libeller, like one Jacquet, whose twists and turns make the plots of 18th-century novelists seem tame by comparison. Jean-Claude Jacquet came from an upstanding family and studied law. Bored with life in the provinces, or perhaps already in trouble, he came to Paris and enlisted as an inspector in the book trade, a post that took him abroad to ferret out salacious libels and if necessary buy up entire editions of the most outrageous of them. In 1779, the king’s ministers had paid the colossal sum of 192,000 livres to remove from circulation all the copies of a particularly vicious attack on Marie Antoinette published in London. Needless to say, this pay-off only increased the potential allure of such activities.

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