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.

Both see the Revolution as a tragedy. Both argue that the initial impetus was not social or economic change. And both are very much historians of their time in giving pride of place in their narratives to political and military events: great men and great battles are emphatically back at the centre of our historical vision, having been kept on the fashionable sidelines in the Sixties and Seventies. But in other ways these two books could hardly be more different. More than 900 pages in length, Schama’s volume is twice as long as Doyle’s; yet the former ends his story at the execution of Robespierre in July 1794, while the latter takes his account up to the Peace of Amiens in 1802. And in terms of style and avowed purpose, there is a massive divergence. Doyle has produced a wonderfully lucid, authoritative and balanced history, ornamented with all the scholarly apparatus one would expect from an Oxford history. Schama’s book is something else. Published first in the United States, it has already met with furious controversy among sections of the academic minority there and phenomenal sales among the vast majority who are not academics.

It is easy to see why. There are no footnotes in Schama’s book, though there is a good bibliography and a wealth of witty illustrations cunningly interspersed with the text. The style is quite simply unique, sometimes self-indulgent, unfailingly imaginative, usually irresistible. This is not so much a chronicle as an assemblage of brilliant set-pieces (the fall of the Bastille, the Tennis Court oath, the assassination of Marat) intermixed with little stories of some of the men and women caught up in these momentous events. The main cement is the author’s passionate dislike of the Revolution as it happened. Although he claims that his book is offered ‘more as witness than judgment’, this is not in fact the case. What we have here is one of the most powerfully emotive denunciations ever written of what Schama himself describes as ‘a great demolition’.

It was caused, he argues, not by the structural weaknesses of Ancien Régime France nor by its economic backwardness. France’s acute fiscal problems after the American War need not have proved lethal, and in terms of industrial development and overseas trade its economy was buoyant and expanding. Nor was the Revolution precipitated by a bourgeoisie contaminated with Enlightenment ideas. The rot started at the top and took the paradoxical form of a new kind of patriotism. From the Seven Years War onwards, writers, artists and moralists explored and expanded notions of citizenship – insisting, for example, on the close connection between maternal breast-feeding and civic virtue. By eroding the distinction between the private realm of the family and the public realm of the state, these innovators paved the way for a Revolutionary regime that would make unprecedented demands on its citizens’ lives and opinions. And by elevating Roman ideas of patriotism (as in Jacques-Louis David’s canvas The Oath of the Horatii), they forged a new cult of martyrdom, fanaticism and death.

Schama’s understanding of the inherent paradoxes of patriotism and of its enormous importance in 18th-century history has already been displayed in two of his earlier books, Patriots and Liberators and The Embarrassment of Riches. His insistence on its contribution to the French Revolution is one of the best and most significant parts of this latest work. But the new cult of the patrie is the only long-term cause of the Revolution he is prepared to concede. The other precipitants, he suggests, were immediate and highly specific. The monarchy’s reputation was undermined by Marie Antoinette’s real and rumoured excesses. Its symbolic and fiscal bankruptcy, together with the bad weather and food shortages of 1788-9, encouraged both wide-scale protest and inflated expectations of reform. And the riots in Grenoble and Reveillon demonstrated that the military was unable or unwilling to maintain the peace. The fall of the Bastille and the murder of its Governor, de Launay, only confirmed the vacuum of authority in the French state. These events also hinted at the gratuitous violence which was to be the essence of the Revolution.

Schama is openly contemptuous of those historians who would argue that violence was somehow incidental to the Revolution, or that to bring about political, cultural and social change on that scale, it was inevitable that lives would be terminated. He calls the third section of his book ‘Choices’, and seems confusingly to argue that the savage destruction of human life was at one and the same time a choice, and also inherent in the revolutionary art-form. ‘Bloodshed was not the unfortunate by-product of revolution, it was the source of its energy,’ he remarks of the slaughter of the Swiss guards in August 1792; while the massacre of 1400 people the following month is for him further chilling proof of the Revolution’s ‘dependence on organised killing to accomplish political ends’. The Vendée, the Terror and the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars which killed a million and a half Frenchmen, and millions of other Europeans, followed on inevitably from this original evil, this patriotic zeal and lust for violence and death.

Schama’s anger is made more emphatic by his belief that the Revolution accomplished very little. Far from making France safe for capitalism, he argues, it actually retarded for several decades the nation’s commercial and industrial growth. As for the organisation of the state, he agrees with de Tocqueville that survivals of pre-Revolutionary trends were more apparent than any overwhelming change instituted after 1789. The abolition of seigneurial rights and guilds, he claims, promised ordinary Frenchmen and women far more than they actually gained. And for those who were really poor, the Revolution proved an unmitigated disaster. It devastated the Roman Catholic Church’s charitable and educational foundations without in the short term establishing any adequate alternatives. As one of my colleagues at Yale remarked in a recent lecture, Schama’s verdict on the French Revolution is doubly damning: its achievements were small and it was horrible.

How far is something approaching this verdict (which is obviously by itself an oversimplification) appropriate? There is no doubt that Schama has written a stunning book, one that displays to the full his wide-ranging intelligence, marvellous prose style and acute visual sense. How many other historians would have recognised that the French cult of Benjamin Franklin, American patriot and experimenter with electricity, led to the equation of liberty and lightning: ‘so that in Jacques-Louis David’s pictorial account of the Tennis Court Oath, for example, a bolt of electrically-charged freedom cracks over Versailles as a great gust of wind blows fresh air through the crowd-filled window spaces.’ What we have here is a rather special way of seeing, a rare ability to coax the past out of its surviving images. The question that remains to be answered is whether the French Revolution itself is seen square-on in this book and what should ‘square-on’ mean in this context?

How far historians should indict this or any other revolution for violence can only be a personal decision: and the line between necessary realism and excessive tolerance is always a fine one. Many other scholars, on both the left and the right, have attacked the violent aspects of the Revolution; and only recently another Harvard historian of France, Patrice Higonnet, wrote an anguished essay linking the Terror of the 1790s with the Holocaust of the 1940s. Stanley Hoffman’s reply to this latter piece in the journal French Politics and Society seems to me to be important: ‘Today, those who ask the anguished questions of Patrice either all too easily answer that the only original contribution of the Revolution was in the invention of totalitarianism, or use these questions to reiterate, in modern form, and with the help of dubious analogies from Stalinism, the old counter-revolutionary indictment of the whole revolutionary episode ... Because Marxist history was morally blind and sociologically distorted, should we now accept the view that the social achievements of the Revolution were insignificant or would have occurred anyhow? I doubt it.’ I doubt it also.

As The Embarrassment of Riches showed, Schama is par excellence a historian of family life and domesticity. And he hates the Revolution’s destruction of families, such as that of the Malesherbes. But he has also been trapped by his own methodology. He has chosen to write a history constructed out of tableaux vivants (a description he himself often uses) and accounts of the plight of individuals. Consciously or not, therefore, he has adopted an approach to the French Revolution that is very close to that selected by British conservatives in the 1790s. It is in fact striking how many of their favourite cameos are repeated in this book: here once again is Louis XVI’s last farewell to his family, here too is Desmoulins’s last lachrymose letter to his much-loved wife. As Burke and Gillray knew, evoking the manifestations of the Revolution would – unless its causes and abstract values were also taken into consideration – almost always provoke condemnation of it. And this is precisely what happens in Schama’s book. His modern evocation can therefore be profitably read against the wider and less passionate account supplied by William Doyle.

Doyle devotes far more space than Schama does to conditions in pre-Revolutionary France and is much less flattering about them. In particular, he supplies a statistic that is missing from the Schama volume: namely, that 80 per cent of France’s inhabitants before 1789 were peasants. Barely a third of them were literate; and most lived in the rural interior of the country, which was only slightly affected by commercial growth and industrial change. These men and women were intensely vulnerable to the bad harvests that occurred so frequently after 1760. And while the resulting social and economic tensions may not have caused the Revolution, they surely help to explain much of its bitterness and violence. As Doyle comments, ‘the vast majority of French people who were not destitute lived under constant threat of becoming so, and were prepared to use violence to avoid such a fate.’ The poverty of the countryside and the peculiar nastiness of its social relations were things that British visitors to pre-Revolutionary France almost invariably commented on: and I don’t think their reaction was merely chauvinism. The peasants who smashed seigneurial dovecots in 1789 and scattered the mutilated corpses over the manicured lawns of country estates had not been infected by a new Revolutionary cult of violence: they were acting out hatreds that had been nurtured over a very long time.

There was indeed something sick about Ancien Régime France, however old or new that regime in fact was. Even in Schama’s book we come across stray references to pre-1789 criminals being sent to the galleys and publicly branded. Offenders could still be publicly broken on the wheel, as Jean Calas was in 1762. And when Damiens tried to assassinate Louis XVI’s predecessor in 1757, he was tortured, his skin was pincered with redhot irons, and he was tied between four horses in an attempt (an unsuccessful one) to tear his body apart. It is now fashionable among certain revisionists to pass over these horrors. But to do so while indicting the Revolution for violence is surely to practise a gross double standard. Pre-Revolutionary France was already a violent nation, and a persistently warlike one. It had been regularly involved in large-scale European conflicts from Louis XIV’s reign onwards; and had rarely been at peace for long periods before that. Napoleon’s campaigns would be far more intensive and for a time more successful: but they represented a development of a strong military tradition, rather than a revolutionary new departure.

Even if the Revolution was not aberrant in its violence, did it actually achieve anything positive? Doyle’s last chapter in which he discusses this question is one of his best, and confirms that gift for synthesis which he demonstrated so splendidly in his earlier Origins of the French Revolution. He agrees with Schama that, in material terms, the struggle badly damaged the French economy and the living conditions of many of the very poor. But he also recognises that there were beneficiaries. The bourgeoisie may not have caused the Revolution, but many of them did gain from its re-distribution of Church and noble property, and from the proliferation of new bureaucratic posts. French soldiers may have been slaughtered in their millions, but the aristocracy’s stranglehold on the officer ranks was smashed for ever. And the ease with which Napoleon gathered together his last army in 1815 suggests that military men at least believed that the Revolution was worth it. The administrative reorganisation implemented by post-1789 regimes endured, as did many of their legal reforms, and the metric and decimal systems which were introduced in 1795. France’s Protestants and Jews secured a wider toleration; and for a brief time slaves in its colonies were liberated.

Doyle recognises that merely to draw up a precise account of the Revolution’s practical repercussions would be inappropriate, as it is inappropriate to spend too much time pondering its bad and good consequences. The two most important facts about the French Revolution are, first, that it happened at all, and second, that – to quote Doyle – ‘it transformed men’s outlook.’ Political thought, philosophy, music, art, literature and human expectations would never again be the same. Gillray’s monsters, if monsters they were, had been given new minds.