I first became fascinated with the French Revolution while reading Daphne du Marier's The Glass Blowers. While most people associate her with Gothic
romance and horror with books such as Rebecca, The Glass Blowers is an historical novel, actually based on her own family heritage. Then I worked on the coloring
book by Tom Tierney,
Empire Fashions, and became even more
interested. The next logical step was obviously to read a book about the French Revolution itself, and this one is good for starters. The Dover edition is
abridged from Carlyle's huge three volume work, but still retains his unique and intriguing style of relating historical events. While some histories may be
dry and humorless, this is anything but that. A. H. R. Ball, who edited and abridged Carlyle's original work offers important insight on this volume in the
One may think poetry and history don't mix, but in fact, Carlyle's writing is pure poetry, while getting the facts mostly accurate. Carlyle was born in Scotland in 1795, the year the Reign of Terror ended. His book was first published in 1837, and he died in London in 1881. He did volumes of research for the project. And in addition, while a typical history book relates the facts in an impartial manner (although that can never really be true—there is always partiality!), Carlyle has no qualms about letting it be known that he has an opinion!
He begins with the death of Louis XV in 1774, and his observation of moral decline to such a point that massive change was inevitable, in both the palace and the church, while the common people struggled to survive. (Ah, sounds familiar. . .) But the way he conveys this idea is a delight to the senses. (And one most definitely forms strong mental visuals while reading this book!)
The church, which in its palmy season, seven hundred years ago could make an Emperor wait barefoot, in penance-shirt, three days, in the snow, has for centuries seen itself decaying; reduced even to forget old purposes and enmities, and join interest with the Kingship: on this younger strength it would fain stay its decrepitude; and these two will henceforth stand and fall together.
And about the common people:
With the flock, as is inevitable, it fares ill, and ever worse. They are not tended, they are only regularly shorn. They are sent for, to do statute-labor, to pay statute-taxes; to fatten battlefields (named "bed of honor") with their bodies, in quarrels which are not theirs; their hand and toil is in every possession of man; but for themselves they have little or no possession. Untaught, uncomforted, unfed; to pine stagnantly in thick obscuration, in squalid destitution and obstruction: this is the lot of the millions;
When the financial deficit swelled to monstrous and bordering bankruptcy, steps to solve the problem were taken by a convocation of Notables.. Necker, who dared suggest taxation on the Nobility, had been dismissed, and next went Controller Calonne for his lavish expenditures:
Headlong Controller-General! Eloquence can do much, but not all. Orpheus, with eloquence grown rhythmic, musical (what we call Poetry), drew its iron tears from the cheek of Pluto; but by what witchery of rhyme or prose wilt thou from the pocket of Plutus draw gold?
Yeah, it is a history book, but you gotta laugh. And you sure get some amusing visuals on a situation that, of course, wasn't amusing at all! Calonne ends up marrying a rich widow and hightailing
it out of France!!
Next to be appointed to the finance position, even to Prime Minister, is the Archbishop of Toulouse, Loménie de Brienne, who unfortunately has no qualifications for the position, so he resorts to the same plans as the former ousted ministers! Doesn't it sound like the same insanity that's running our own modern U.S.A? Having accomplished not much of anything after nine weeks, the Convocation of Notables (the first since 1626), was dismissed. Sound a little like our Congress?
However, rumblings are heard louder from the formerly silent flock, which includes pamphlets. Loménie de Brienne is out, Necker is back, and the Notables convene once again in November 1788. This convocation lasts only a month, and is the last Convocation of Notables. Ever.
Nevertheless, the people (at least in theory) had gained something, and I had to go to Wikipedia to understand "Double Representation." Supposedly the three "Estates" (the clergy, the nobility, and the common people) would now be represented, but the common people would have double the representation. Unfortunately this became a moot point, since it was decided that voting would be by Estates, not by Heads, therefore, the common people would only get one vote of the three. They refused and began to meet on their own, calling themselves the "Commons."
How the whole People shakes itself, as if it had one life; and, in thousand-voiced rumour, announces that it is awake, suddenly out of a long death-sleep, and will thenceforth sleep no more!. . .The weary day-drudge has heard of it; the beggar with his crust moistened in tears. What! To us also has hope reached; down even to us? Hunger and hardship are not to be eternal? The bread we extorted from the rugged glebe, and, with the toil of our sinews, reaped and ground, and kneaded into loaves, was not wholly for another, then; but we shall eat of it, and be filled?
The People do find a leader to elect, although history still questions whether he was a great spokesman for the commoners or a traitor
Honoré Gabriel Riqueti comte de Mirabeau was imprisoned several times by his father Marquis Victor Mirabeau, and was also involved in numerous scandals.
However, at the time he became a national hero and died as such, in 1791, shortly after his rise to fame. Wikipedia has an in-depth article on Mirabeau
and his role in the French Revolution.
It is interesting how so many of the key people from this era have left an indecisive memory in history. Were they heroes or criminals? Maximilien de Robespierre is another questionable figure. Though known for his opposition to the death penalty and support of equality of rights, some blame him as the "Soul of the Terror," according to Wikipedia, for which he was executed.
And of course we must not overlook another well-known name from the era; that of Dr. Joseph Guillotin will be forever remembered for the gruesome machine he invented:
"With my machine, Messieurs, I whisk off your head in a twinkling and you have no pain."
The reigning king at the time was
Louis XVI, grandson
of King Louis XV, who died in 1774. The queen,
Marie Antoinette, at
first beloved and beautiful, by this time had become grey and tired. She had married then Louis-Auguste, Dauphin of France at age fourteen, and became queen four years
later. (And she is another of whom history has differing opinions, but it seems likely that she really wasn't guilty of any crime deserving the beheading she
It was when the Third Estate, the voice of the common people determined to meet and write the Constitution in a session known as the Oath of the Tennis Court, (where they were forced to meet) that the rumblings of the Revolution began. King Louis, already annoyed, announced that if the Three Orders could not agree on the "Five-and-Thirty Articles," then he would effect them himself. While the "National Assembly" of the Third Estate, was almost ready to accept this as defeat, a lone journalist with a bad stutter, Camille Desmoulins, who had written a radical pamphlet, lit the final fire. This was followed by the Fall of the Bastille, and the Revolution thus began.
So while the King and Queen were basically under lock and key in Paris, the National Assembly was busy working on the new Constitution. After 29 months and twenty-five hundred Decrees, they declared their work completed on September 23, 1791.
Though the reasons for the revolt of the people were complex, one core issue was for the abolition of feudalism, and the monarchy, which officially ended during the Insurrection, an attack on Tuileries Palace and the massacre of the Swiss guards.
When the rest of Europe realized this cause was to be become reality, plus the fact that the king and queen were held prisoner, they also realized that this French uprising would affect them. On April 20, 1792, France declared war against Hungary (Austria) and Bohemia, and on July 26, Prussia declared war on France. And it is here that the horror, the terror, the blood and gore (and savage butchery, including one massacre of about thirty priests) of the French Revolution truly begins.
But it was 1793 that was perhaps the bleakest for the French. King Louis XVI was guillotined in January, followed by England expelling all French ambassadors and England, Spain and Holland all declaring war on France, and France mutually on them. Marie Antoinette was executed in October, and the Reign of Terror began. There was little law and order or fair trials. All Royalists and Girondins were guillotined.
But then the leaders of the Revolution began fighting amongst themselves. The Feast of Reason glorified atheism and clergy gave up their priestly garb to become a "citoyen." When the wind blew in the opposite direction, all the atheists were then guillotined, with Robespierre in power. But Robespierre's head soon rolled into the bucket, and with him the end of the Jacobins and the end of the Reign of Terror. Messy stuff, this Revolution.
Finally the Revolution is petering out and the people are tired and want peace and a return to life. Peace comes between France and Spain. And a young unemployed Artillery-Officer is named commander of the army in Italy. His name is Napoleon Bonaparte, and thus begins the next chapter in the history of France.
Incidentally, over four thousand French people, (nine hundred women) were guillotined or slaughtered during the Reign of Terror. And that is not counting the ten times as many who were killed in battle (according to Carlyle). And on a positive note, the Constitution that was created during this period is the one that still rules France.
Though I found this book quite entertaining and illuminating in its poetic and picturesque manner, I also must admit that in order to truly understand the French Revolution, additional research must be done. (And there are also discrepancies between Wikipedia's account and Carlyle's.) There are some very helpful appendices in the back which supply definitions of terms, information on people and places, and a chronology of events. One other note: Carlyle's history was an important influence on Charles Dickens in his writing of A Tale of Two Cities.
Incidentally, if you wish to read Carlyle's entire original unabridged three volume complete work, you may access it for free to read online or with an e-reader at Project Gutenberg.