Six French Frizeurs

David A. Bell

  • The Perfidy of Albion: French Perceptions of England during the French Revolution by Norman Hampson
    Macmillan, 210 pp, £40.00, June 1998, ISBN 0 333 73148 4
  • Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders by Don Herzog
    Princeton, 472 pp, £18.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 691 04831 2

The moment in the 18th century when Anglo-French relations reached their lowest point was probably 29 May 1794 – 10 Prairial, Year II, as the French then styled it. On that day, the Jacobin Bertrand Barère delivered a typically long-winded and overheated speech to France’s National Convention on his favourite subject, English perfidy. He accused English soldiers of unprecedented atrocities in Europe, North America and India. He denounced English spies for trying to assassinate his dear friend Maximilien Robespierre (two months later, in Thermidor, the politically nimble Barère voted to condemn Robespierre to death, but that is another story). He called corrupt, commercial England the new Carthage facing France’s new Rome, and added that the sooner it shared Carthage’s fate, the better. ‘National hatred must sound forth,’ he trumpeted. ‘Young republicans should suck a hatred of the name Englishman with their mother’s milk.’ The English were ‘a populace foreign to Europe, foreign to humanity. They must disappear.’ It seems that he meant this last sentence all too literally, for he concluded by proposing a pithy little motion, which the Convention approved unanimously and without debate, instructing French commanders in the field to take no English or Hanoverian prisoners alive. Fortunately, the commanders mostly ignored the order, although Norman Hampson, in his valuable new book, has found a couple of unfortunate instances where they followed it to the letter.

Not a date to recall at official functions of the European Union, you would think. Yet, in a twisted way, Barère’s motion was actually something of a compliment to the English: the Convention approved no similar action in regard to the Prussian or Austrian forces with whom France was also at war. The reason was that, according to Revolutionary dogma, Prussian and Austrian soldiers were slaves, forced at bayonet point to fight for the loathsome despots who ruled them. The English were different. They were, if not exactly a democracy, still a sovereign people. They had control over their own destinies. If they were governed by that ‘enemy of the human race’, William Pitt, this was not their misfortune, but their fault. They had earned the right to extermination.

The motion carried by the Convention illustrates the resemblance between Anglo-French relations and the sort of marriage-gone-sour in which the partners indulge in extravagant public quarrels. The French and the English (as opposed to the Scots, with whom the French have traditionally had a more companionable relationship) treat each other to the highly-concentrated venom that only comes from love betrayed: the English should have known better. Aren’t they a free people? Couldn’t they have served as a model for France, as numerous French politicians hoped they might do at an earlier stage in the Revolution? Why don’t they treat us the way we deserve?

Of course, this peculiar pattern of love and hatred predated the French Revolution. During the Enlightenment, French writers developed the sort of inflated opinion of the English that was bound to lead to crushing disillusionment. England, Voltaire rhapsodised in Letters Concerning the English Nation, was the country of religious toleration, robust self-government, vibrant commerce and advanced ideas. Montesquieu’s dithyrambic praise of the English constitution in The Spirit of the Laws, like Diderot’s for Samuel Richardson (‘O Richardson, Richardson ... I will keep you on the same shelf with Moses, Homer, Euripides and Sophocles’) caused French hearts to beat even faster. A steady supply of political pilgrims made their way across the Channel to observe the miracle of English government in action, while a fast-spending set around the younger princes of the French royal family turned English-style horse-racing into a fad. Words like ‘le club’ and ‘le jockey’ entered French, and Franglais was born.

The disillusionment was not slow in coming. One wave began on 28 May 1754, in the woods of the Ohio Valley, when British colonial militia killed a French-Canadian army officer, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, who had supposedly been travelling under a flag of truce. A short time later, a large French force led by Jumonville’s brother defeated the British, and forced their cocky commander – a 22-year-old Virginian named George Washington – to sign an embarrassing confession that nearly brought his promising military career to an end. War was on with a vengeance, and French propagandists exploited the incidents for all they were worth, pummelling the English as ‘barbarians’ whose cowardly and perfidious behaviour had shocked even savage but honourable Indians.

Soon, the Anglophile literature of the Philosophes was being pushed off the booksellers’ shelves by such robustly patriotic novels as Robert-Martin Lesuire’s Les Sauvages de l’Europe (1760), in which a young French couple travel to England, the land of advanced philosophy, only to hurry back home after near-fatal experiences with English riots, prisons, highway robberies and insane asylums, not to mention the dreadful cooking. ‘The only difference I see between the English and the savages of Africa is that the latter spare the fair sex,’ Lesuire’s hero concluded. (Rather bizarrely, an enterprising London publisher rushed an English translation into print, perhaps thinking the novel a joke.) French poets and playwrights, stirred by an agreeable combination of patriotic indignation and generous government pensions, produced reams of verse about the ‘martyred’ Jumonville and other examples of English beastliness. Predictably dreadful, this literature nonetheless made a lasting impression. The now-forgotten poet Lebrun got his ‘Ode aux Français’ off to a rousing start with the line ‘Aux armes, citoyens!’ while his colleague Lefebvre de Beauvray told the English: ‘Et de ton sang impur [tu] abreuves tes sillons’ – lines that the military engineer Rouget de Lisle later adapted in the Marseillaise. It is fitting that the most bloodthirsty line in the French national anthem was written with the English in mind.

Meanwhile, the English were engaging in their own contortions over things French. In the 18th century, the French were the great cultural imperialists, and if the English upper classes, unlike their Russian and German counterparts, did not actually speak French in preference to their native tongue, they were every bit as eager to wear French fashions, buy French luxury products, eat French food, travel to France on the Grand Tour and affect what they called the ‘ton’ (French ‘tone’). According to a 1789 story in the Morning Post, quoted in Don Herzog’s book, the Earl of Scarborough kept ‘six French frizeurs, who have nothing else to do than dress his hair’. Even Edmund Burke could not help admitting that ‘France has always more or less influenced manners in England.’

Yet co-existing with this French influence was what Linda Colley has called a ‘vast superstructure of prejudice’, directed generally against Catholics, but particularly Catholics of the French persuasion. ‘It should flatter us,’ wrote the French novelist Fougeret de Montbron in 1757. ‘Every foreigner in London is called a “French Dog”.’ In sermons, novels, political broadsheets, moralising treatises and popular engravings, the French were portrayed as mangy, corrupt, effeminate, ignorant, indolent, immoral and lecherous, as well as vain and superficial. Hogarth repeatedly invoked the stereotype, his print The Gate of Calais, for example, portrayed repellent Frenchmen salivating at the sight of a good honest English joint of beef. And so did Tobias Smollett, who sent one of the characters in his novel Ferdinand Count Fathom prowling vainly through Paris in search of the same totemic meat. ‘A true-born Englishman,’ this hero declared, ‘needs not be afeard to shew his face, nor his backside neither, with the best Frenchman that ever trod the ground.’ To inoculate Britain against French infection, a group of self-proclaimed patriots founded the Laudable Association of Anti-Gallicans. The establishment by scholars of an English literary canon, and even the publication of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1768, had roots in Francophobia.

The French Revolution did not simply intensify cross-Channel love and cross-Channel hate, but raised both to the level of ideology. As Burke would strikingly put it, ‘it is with an armed doctrine that we are at war.’ At first, though, the prevailing melody was liberal and pacific. The early leaders of the Revolution, devout readers of Montesquieu for the most part, followed his example in loudly admiring the English Constitution. English onlookers admired their admiration, and England’s Revolution Society confidently proclaimed that the year 1688 had finally dawned in France, 101 years late. But discordant notes disrupted the symphony almost immediately. Burke, in the magnificent Shakespearean cadences of his Reflections, denounced the French Revolution as an epic tragedy in the making, a real-life King Lear in which foolish intentions would inexorably melt into blood (‘in the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows’). A swelling number of French counter-revolutionaries agreed with him, hoping in vain to forge a new, conservative Franco-British entente.

As the Revolution became more radical, English Jacobins and French Montesquieuians alike grew thin on the ground, and hopes for a convergence of liberal political systems vanished under a tide of ideological denunciation. Louis XVI made a pathetic break for freedom, was caught, and in due course dethroned and decapitated. Most of the English looked on in consternation, ever more convinced that the French were bent on the wholesale destruction of social order and religion. Most of the French, for their part, came to see the English as perversely and maliciously thwarting their wholly altruistic attempts to spread Enlightenment to the world. Mere weeks after Louis’s execution, in early 1793, the inevitable war broke out and lasted, with only short interruptions, for 22 years. Efforts on both sides to distinguish the enemy doctrine from the enemy people came to nothing. Lord Sheffield called France ‘the vilest of all nations’, and Robespierre replied in kind: ‘In my capacity as a Frenchman, a representative of the people, I declare that I hate the English people.’ It was only a short step to Barère’s call for extermination.

In The Perfidy of Albion, Norman Hampson does his usual learned and economical job of laying out this story cleanly, instructively and with a great deal of quietly pawky wit. On the young Marat: ‘He began a novel, whose characters were somewhat constrained by the extreme nobility of their sentiments.’ Hébert, editor of the foul-mouthed Père Duchesne, ‘specialised in the picturesque exaggeration of whatever happened to be radical orthodoxy’. On a French claim that English secret agents flaunted ‘counter-revolutionary clothes’: ‘It seemed rather conspicuous behaviour for a spy.’ The book is centred on France between 1789 and 1794, but ranges back over the last decades of the old regime, as well as covering English attitudes to things French. Though largely based on printed sources, it brings to light some interesting new material on the execution of British prisoners, and on the activities of British spies, including the mysterious Baron de Batz (Hampson also thinks there is a possibility that Hébert himself was on the British payroll, as his executioners later charged). Much of the basic political history Hampson reviews has lain largely untouched for decades, and his account should now become the standard one.

Hampson does not, however, go much beyond this basic, indeed sometimes rather skeletal political history. Drawing above all from the speeches of the major revolutionaries, he is thin on popular attitudes towards the British, and on opinion in the Army. There is also little on literary depiction of the English, or on caricature (admittedly, the French had nothing to compare with the ferocious hilarity of Gillray, who liked to portray the French as cannibals). Hampson does not compare French views of the English with their views of other foreigners, as the French historian Sophie Wahnich has done to interesting effect, particularly in regard to French perceptions of the British as a sovereign people. Finally, he has scant inclination to speculate about the larger meaning of French Anglophobia: its place in the history of the Revolution and of European nationalism.

It is worth remembering, however, that the same Jacobins who so viciously denounced the English were simultaneously engaged in trying to remake, or as they liked to say ‘regenerate’, the French nation. Only a few months before demanding the field execution of British prisoners, Barère had expressed in radically utopian terms what he thought the Revolution had achieved: ‘We have revolutionised government, law, habits, manners, customs, commerce and thought itself.’ The Convention passed measures transforming the calendar, education, dress and even language, declaring the necessity of eradicating minority tongues like Breton and Basque, the better to ‘melt all citizens into the national mass’. Only in religious movements was there a precedent for such an ambitious attempt to reshape human nature. From this perspective, the reaction to British resistance can perhaps best be seen in terms of a zealot’s reaction to a heretic or Jew who has stepped forward and brazenly asserted his resistance to the Revealed Truth – is it entirely a coincidence that the French so often likened the British to those grasping, commercially-minded Semites, the Carthaginians?

As Colley has argued, it was in the struggles with France in the 18th century that the British forged a new national identity. In those same struggles, the French forged a very different sort of identity, grounded not in long and idiosyncratic national tradition, but in the pure exercise of political will, and capable of being spread by diligent evangelisation to every continent. As the revolutionary Boissy d’Anglas dizzily told the French: ‘To set the destinies of the world, you have only to will it. You are the creators of a new world. Say “let there be light,” and light will be.’ Hampson, here embodying as well as analysing British attitudes, has relatively little patience for such messianic folderol, and puts more emphasis on the nitty-gritty of espionage, even while admitting that many English plots existed only in the fevered Revolutionary imagination. Yet it was precisely the new and overblown ways of talking about politics which made new political practices thinkable, including some fairly hideous ones. The Jacobins demonised as ‘enemies of humanity’ not only the English, but also the inhabitants of the rebellious Vendée, who did not have the Royal Navy to protect them. As many as 200,000 were killed. The journalist Louis-Sébastien Mercier wrote in 1798 (in a passage Hampson quotes in a different context): ‘They wanted to make new men of us, and turned us into virtual savages.’

In some respects, the political theorist Don Herzog’s Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders, a book about the conservative reaction to democratic practices in Britain between 1789 and 1834, and therefore, to a large extent, about British reactions to the French Revolution, can be seen as a counterpart to The Perfidy of Albion. Yet in other respects the two books could not be more different. Indeed, they stand at diametrically opposite ends of the Humanities today. In his cool, sensible empiricism, Hampson is what might be called a ‘pre-theorist’, Herzog a ‘post-theorist’, a burgeoning academic species of late. Here, it would appear, is an author who has plunged deeply into the darkest thickets of Post-Modern theory and come out the other side, blinking in the sun and somewhat the worse for wear.

Herzog’s project is easily enough described. He thinks contemporary liberals have failed to take conservative critiques of liberalism and liberal society seriously enough, and hopes that an examination of conservatism’s origins will show why, while also suggesting some new liberal responses. Conservatism, he argues, initially arose as a response, not only to the French Revolution, but also to democratic trends in Britain itself: particularly the increase of political debate in newspapers, coffee-houses, debating societies, lending libraries, educational institutes and nascent workers’ movements. Historians of this process have generally given it a heroic Whiggish halo, and dismissed the conservative reaction as a simple instinctual defence of class interest. But in doing so, Herzog believes, they have committed a grave error, for their approach has papered over the deep problems inherent in instituting reasoned, democratic political debate – the problems which Burke and others perceived from the start.

For instance: is reasoned political debate compatible with equality, as liberals would like to think? It’s certainly not compatible with an absolute freedom of speech, including offensive and incendiary speech. But can equality be sustained if some particular group or individual has the authority to exclude certain forms of speech, and perhaps even certain speakers? Eighteenth-century writers, Herzog points out, were constantly trying to claim such authority for themselves, to delimit the political arena according to their own specifications. Given this problem, the argument of Burke and others that political debate should properly remain in the hands of a small élite – that equality should simply be sacrificed in the name of political reason – cannot be so easily ignored.

Then there is the problem of ‘contempt’. Can any sort of political equality, and any sort of reasoned democratic debate, survive when certain groups systematically deny others basic human dignity? The early conservatives said no, and did their best to prove the point by advertising their own boundless contempt for most of the population. But here, too, Herzog insists, the problem cannot be dismissed merely by repeating the mantra of ‘class prejudice’. Convection currents of contempt flowed everywhere in 18th and early 19th-century British society, despite the growth of democratic practices. The radicals and workers who cried most loudly for democracy themselves had deep reservoirs of contempt for women, for blacks and for Jews, and Herzog pillories scholars who have supposedly tried to disguise or minimise this fact, first and foremost E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams. (He takes special delight in exposing Thompsonian heroes such as William Cobbett and William Blake as racists and misogynists, less convincingly in the second case.) How can contempt be overcome? How can low and abused subjects become equal and respected citizens?

These are troubling and important questions, but Herzog’s method of pursuing them, post-theoretical to an extreme, undercuts the project almost entirely. It consists, essentially, of throwing vast numbers of long quotations at the reader, in no obvious order, and pausing now and again to make short, ironic observations of his own. As if afraid his historical credentials won’t be taken seriously, he includes no fewer than two thousand detailed footnotes, to everything from Burke and Boswell to the diary of Mrs Harriet Arbuthnot and the radical journal Pig’s Meat (while at the same time undermining those credentials by indiscriminately mixing passages from the early 18th and early 19th centuries, and justifying the practice with the absurd statement that ‘change in this period was glacial’ – Barère and Robespierre might beg to differ). The book has only a vague structure, and reaches few firm conclusions.

When Herzog keeps sufficient control of the material, the method does bear interesting fruit. He opens one chapter, for instance, by proposing that the British had an obsession with hairdressers. It seems unlikely on the face of it (even with the Earl of Scarborough and his six ‘frizeurs’). But gradually, a pattern emerges. Hairdressers had quite literal control over one of the most important markers of social status and fashion among the upper classes (and the upper classes knew it), but they themselves had an uncertain social status – not quite servants, but not professionals either – and so raised anxieties about status and social mobility. In their detailed knowledge of and attention to women’s toilette, they appeared effeminate and raised questions about gender boundaries. Barbershops, filled with newspapers and waiting clients, were spaces of social interaction and political conversation that had much in common with coffee houses. And here the barbers were, in an Age of Revolution, holding sharp blades to the throats of the aristocracy. So out of the torrent of quotation emerges nothing less than ‘the Barber: Embodiment of Democracy’. Herzog has taken materials usually relegated to the distinct realms of social history, cultural history and political history, and artfully braided them together into an offbeat meditation on democracy, social change and the anxieties they generated.

Most of the chapters do not live up to this standard, however. More often, the quotations pile up one on top of another like boxcars in a train wreck. ‘I need to quote it in hideously pornographic detail,’ he comments on one particularly virulent racist fantasy from John Bull, about the consequences of slave emancipation in the Colonies. And he does, at a length of nearly a thousand words (more than two full pages of indented quotation). The same chapter contains a hundred other quotations of almost equally nauseating content (if thankfully shorter length), but in the end, it’s hard to say what they amount to, except that ‘the contempt that women, workers, blacks, and Jews suffer isn’t merely the same damned thing over and over. Instead contempt’s structure depends on the target group.’ Did we doubt this before?

The relentless, studied informality of Herzog’s commentary only makes matters worse. ‘I don’t want too much to hang on the word citizenship,’ he writes in a typical turn of phrase. Or: ‘How do we know that Jacobin views are so crazy?’ ‘I’ll be turning to those fat and greasy Negroes soon enough,’ he writes, after quoting a passage from Cobbett that uses the phrase. And so on, in what sometimes seems less a book than the transcript of an endless seminar. In seminars, offhand, irreverent remarks can subtly encourage a more critical attitude towards subjects usually treated with excessive solemnity (full disclosure: reading this book reminded me of being taught introductory political theory, 18 years ago, by a gifted and wonderfully irreverent Harvard graduate student – Don Herzog). But in print the effect is lost. ‘Take for instance being a wimp,’ Herzog instructs us (do we have to?). ‘Now, though, I am attempting something sneakier.’ ‘I relish the irony, but I also want it for theoretical purposes.’ The remarks fall from the printed page like lead weights.

As Herzog might say, I don’t really mean to be this mean. In fact, I sympathise with his dilemma. During this century, political theory, like most scholarly pursuits, has grown steadily more insular, self-absorbed, abstruse and irrelevant. Its leading practitioners write in thick jargon for a small circle of professional peers, and have no impact on the thing they have supposedly devoted their lives to: politics. Compare this state of affairs to the period of the French Revolution when, as Hampson remarks, the leading politicians (at least in France) had a profound, passionate knowledge of the period’s most advanced works of political theory.

Herzog pokes a great deal of fun at the histrionic excesses of prose writers in the Revolutionary era, but I would guess that he quotes them at such luxuriant length, not just to expose, stretch and poke at their ideas, but because they are so quotable, even the most hideous of them (especially the most hideous of them), and because their words had such a marked impact on their readers. This writing must have strengthened his desire to do something, anything, to break out of dismal academic convention and to have a more substantial and personal engagement with those people who pick up his book.

It’s a pity, finally, that in discussing contempt, Herzog limits himself to the familiar academic trinity of race, class and gender and leaves out that all-time favourite target of English contempt, foreigners. This is not just because contempt for foreigners had such a crucial place in Early Modern British political culture, but because in modern politics, it is about the only form of contempt that remains openly tolerated. Rousseau himself laid down the principles: ‘Every patriot is hard on foreigners ... They mean nothing to him. This is an inevitable, and unimportant problem. The important thing is to be good to the people one lives with.’ British newspapers routinely talk about the French in terms that would bring condemnation crashing down on them if used about Jews, women or blacks. It can be argued that this sort of contempt doesn’t have much effect on its victims, and that, anyway, foreigners are not citizens, and therefore not part of the democratic political discussion with which Herzog is concerned. Yet a modern state is not a little hermetic Rousseauan polis. Today’s foreigners are tomorrow’s visitors and immigrants, and they can’t very well leave the contempt they have acquired behind at the border with them, or put it in quarantine along with their pets.