Last Farewells

Linda Colley

  • Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama
    Viking, 948 pp, £20.00, May 1989, ISBN 0 670 81012 6
  • The Oxford History of the French Revolution by William Doyle
    Oxford, 466 pp, £17.50, May 1989, ISBN 0 19 822781 7
  • The Shadow of the Guillotine: Britain and the French Revolution by David Bindman
    British Museum, 232 pp, £14.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 7141 1637 8

On display at the British Museum at present is one of the most brilliant propaganda campaigns ever launched. Something very different from the glossy philistinism of Saatchi and Saatchi (‘An ace café with some quite good marbles attached’ perhaps?); something more sinister and more powerful. Wander in and you can see wax models of the severed heads of Maximilien de Robespierre and Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, dabbled with painted blood and based – or so Madame Tussaud claimed – on the mutilated originals. For the more sentimentally-inclined, there are paintings, prints and ceramics showing the agony of men and women on the eve of their own slaughter. Louis XVI embracing his family before his execution, his daughter swooning in his arms; or Camille Desmoulins, most elegant of revolutionaries, weeping with manly sensibility as he writes his last letter to his beloved wife. Harshest and most searing of all, however, are the cartoons. In James Gillray’s Un petit souper à la Parisienne, published in 1792, a scraggy woman bastes the body of a baby dangling over a fire; her companions squat bare-arsed on the dismembered carcasses of their victims, feasting on their flesh. One devours an eyeball; another tears at a heart. Some children gorge themselves with human offal piled up in a tub. And if you look carefully, you can see that these characters are not human at all. Their nails are turning into claws, their teeth into fangs. French revolutionaries are becoming monsters before our eyes.

As this exhibition, The Shadow of the Guillotine: Britain and the French Revolution, forcefully demonstrates, the claim that such a ghoulish transformation was actually taking place at some level was central to British counter-revolutionary propaganda. There were good tactical reasons why this was so. Before 1789, most Britons had regarded most Frenchmen as sad and suffering creatures oppressed by Catholic priests, exorbitant tax-collectors, and absolute and irresponsible monarchs. So initially many Britons felt only condescending sympathy when the Bastille was stormed. Naturally the French had revolted. It was surely about time. But as the Revolution grew in scale and subversion, it became more important for conservatives to undermine this easy sympathy. They did so with stunning success by shifting the public’s attention from the causes of the Revolution to its more unpleasant and violent manifestations. In particular, from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France onwards, conservatives employed stories of actual or invented human suffering (Marie Antoinette’s plight, for instance) to undermine enthusiasm for any political or social virtues the Revolution might possess. The result, David Bindman writes in his excellent catalogue of the exhibition, was ‘to establish in British consciousness, in place of the myriad complexities of the real French Revolution, a series of simple pictures and stereotypes which have proved virtually indestructible ... the guillotine, innocent aristocrats and brutish sans-culottes’.

These images acquired a life of their own and became a part of Anglo-Saxon chauvinism. Men and women in this country glossed over the civil commotion and regicide in their own past, and congratulated themselves for not engaging in any of these horrid Continental extravagances. Such attitudes have persisted. Confronted in 1989 with the bicentennial of the French Revolution, we may still feel inclined to see that event through the complacent, uncomprehending and too easily condemning eyes of a Sidney Carton or a Scarlet Pimpernel. And this is deeply unfair. Yet traditional British distance from – and distaste for – the French Revolution has had at least one positive consequence. It has given some British historians of that event the detachment and disenchantment necessary to shatter accepted orthodoxies. Thus Richard Cobb’s vivid writings have shown how little the Revolution affected many of the poorest and most peripheral Frenchmen. More subversive still, it was another British scholar, Alfred Cobban, who demolished the long-accepted Marxist notion that the Revolution had been caused by a rising bourgeoisie, and had led to the triumph of capitalism. Now, in these books by William Doyle and Simon Schama, we have two further reappraisals of this event written by British-born scholars.

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