Megalomaniac and Loser

Norman Hampson

  • Beyond the Terror: Essays in French Regional and Social History 1794-1815 edited by Gwynne Lewis and Colin Lucas
    Cambridge, 276 pp, £22.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 521 25114 1
  • Chouannerie and Counter-Revolution: Puisaye, the Princes and the British Government in the 1790s by Maurice Hutt
    Cambridge, 630 pp, £60.00, December 1983, ISBN 0 521 22603 1
  • Britain and Revolutionary France: Conflict, Subversion and Propaganda edited by Colin Jones
    Exeter, 96 pp, £1.75, June 1983, ISBN 0 85989 179 8

Recent news from the French Revolutionary front is mostly about people who, for one reason or another, regarded the whole business as a disaster. No doubt as we approach 1989, things will change, and a chorus of pious commemoration will drown the irreverent voices of those who express their reservations about the quality of the Emperor’s tailors. This is as it should be: historians, however scrupulous and dispassionate, usually derive from the present the incentive to persevere in their arduous exploration of a past whose significance depends to some extent on the angle from which it is illuminated. If they were to stop changing their minds and disagreeing with each other, we should know that they were all dead.

The volume of essays, edited by Gwynne Lewis and Colin Lucas in honour of Richard Cobb, deals mostly with the later years of the Revolution, between the fall of Robespierre and the advent of Bonaparte. The period has always been rather an embarrassment to historians who are looking for patterns. If the Terror represented some kind of proto-socialist ideal society, one has to explain how it can have been destroyed by a civil war within the Committee of Public Safety and the execution of half a dozen deputies. If Thermidor and the Directory marked the triumph of a (never defined) bourgeoisie, why were the new men such incompetent actors of their historical roles? When politics had at last been brought into line with the economic base, why did the new ruling class so quickly abdicate in favour of a military adventurer? If one looks at the period from above one is very likely to find it a rather messy mystery. The Lewis/Lucas team, true to the man they invoke as their friend and guide, go for the grass roots. Their concern is with the provinces, the peasants and the poor.

Seen from this angle, the whole experience of the Revolution takes on a different colouring. What mattered was not the ideology, the sense of making all things new, but the way the Revolution affected age-old habits and the daily preoccupation with making a living or at least staying alive. From this point of view fine words, almost literally, buttered no parsnips, and good intentions, even if they could be understood by those who were very slow to learn the new language, were something for Sundays or, in 1793-94, for Décadis. Colin Jones shows how the noble intention of the revolutionaries to substitute a national policy of bienfaisance for the erratic charity of the Ancien Régime fell victim to the consequences of expropriating the Church and the insatiable demands of total war. This confirms the findings of Alan Forrest in his recent book, The French Revolution and the Poor. Forrest’s contribution to the present collection of essays looks at the war from the viewpoint of those who would have preferred not to take part in it: a far cry from the patriotic bombast of Brissot or the icy abstractions of Saint-Just.

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