“Truth isn’t in accounts but in account books.”
Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time
You’d think that a history geek who’s passionately interested in a particular historical period, and who has made something of a career writing about it, would be delighted when she discovers more fiction set in her favorite period.
Unfortunately, my response to novels set in the French Revolution is often that of clutching my head and quietly moaning “No, no, no . . .”
We’ve probably all read A Tale of Two Cities or seen one of the various swashbuckling stage or screen adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Which is really too bad, since most English-speaking people’s perceptions of the French Revolution seem to be based entirely on the simplistic, lurid, wholly negative portrayals those two works give us of one of modern history’s most significant events.
One of the general rules for historical fiction writers in my guide to avoiding common errors and anachronisms is “Don’t Just Swallow the Propaganda and the Clichés.” Which translates to: Just because a hostile or worshipping historian (or novelist) made a certain eye-popping claim, twenty or fifty or two hundred years after an event, that doesn’t necessarily make his claim accurate. The propaganda and established clichés of later eras, intentional or not, can give us false impressions of almost anything, from the relatively trivial (such as the myth that nobody between the fall of Rome and the nineteenth century ever bathed) to the enormously important (misrepresenting entire historical events). Opinions and strong feelings run deep about controversial periods of history—usually ones that involve clashing political or religious ideologies—and can distort interpretations in all kinds of ways.
The French Revolution is still, after two hundred-plus years, a very divisive subject among some people (mostly right-wingers, professional historians, and the French). Thousands of books have been written about it, many of which claim it was the clear precursor of modern totalitarianism, as if Hitler and Stalin couldn’t have come up with the idea of massacring millions without the Revolution’s (far tinier, numerically speaking) example showing them the way; while many others argue that it was—despite its violence—inevitable and necessary in its legal reforms, and the beginning of the modern Western world.
And the predictable, clichéd Big Fat Falsehood I see in at least three-quarters of all historical fiction written in English and set in this period is the gratuitous exaggeration of “the horrors of the French Revolution.” These hysterical, way-out-of-proportion depictions appear in everything from A Tale of Two Cities, the Top Literary Classic, to the witless romantic fluff of the Pimpernel novels, to a recent train wreck that I sampled not long ago, whose third-rate-sappy-romance author seems to be firmly convinced . . . no need to look up pointless things like facts . . . that even Nazism couldn’t match the evil, evil French Revolution in sheer bloodshed.
This particularly egregious, evidently research-free “historical” novel’s first two pages (I couldn’t stand to read any farther) featured indiscriminate, wholesale massacres, without trial, of hundreds—if not thousands—of saintly aristocrats in 1789, via (the author now compounding jaw-dropping factual errors with sheer absurdity) portable guillotines on wheels that the satanic revolutionaries rolled, fully assembled, down the streets into the unlucky aristos’ houses.
Oh, sufferin’ succotash, where to begin?
Needless to say, none of this ever happened. Particularly not in 1789, when the Revolution was a largely positive event, immediately abolishing an enormous number of antiquated customs and abuses and greeted with euphoria even by the majority of French aristocrats. No guillotine whatsoever would exist in France for another three years, its first use being in 1792. And there has NEVER been any such thing, anywhere, as a genuine, functional guillotine on wheels, particularly one small enough to fit inside someone’s front door. (A real one is about 12-15 feet tall and you disassemble it to transport it.) Ms. Sappy Romance, the totality of whose French Revolution research apparently consisted of watching a bad Scarlet Pimpernel movie, is evidently as engineering-challenged as she is history-challenged.
In all these novels and (alas) many others, the Revolution is reduced to the Terror and only the Terror, and Paris is invariably a slaughterhouse: everybody is in constant fear and up to their ankles in blood, and thousands of innocent, innocent nobles are always trying to flee the city and are being captured by vengeful, evilly cackling peasants and immediately packed off to the guillotine, which is chopping off a hundred heads a day for a couple of years, morning till night. (Clutches head, quietly moans.)
There are about nine major historical howlers in that paragraph. Yes: nobody, including me, will deny the French Revolution was a bloody business, and that a fair number of blameless people suffered. But it wasn’t nearly as bloody (and unjust) as Victorian novelists and their literary heirs, with their disproportionate fixation on the Terror in Paris, assumed it was.
And why did Victorian novelists assume all this? Because they used, for their background research, a lot of early-nineteenth-century histories and memoirs of the Revolution, and believed everything in them. (It’s a history book, so it must be right, right?) But most of the histories were written by conservative, Francophobic English historians, and most of the memoirs were written by émigré French aristocrats (usually hard-line royalists who’d been abruptly deprived, poor things, of their unearned class privileges). The French émigrés had an axe to grind because they’d hated every single thing about the Revolution from the beginning—long before the Terror—even while the rest of France had been delighted by the reforms it brought about. These émigrés, a.k.a. the eighteenth-century One Percent, had usually lost all their wealth when they had fled France and were understandably bitter; but if you don’t take that furious bitterness (and their passionate, blinkered, and often self-interested devotion to the dysfunctional, clueless French monarchy) into account when you read their memoirs, you’re going to get a very skewed idea of the French Revolution.
The trouble with buying unquestioningly into nineteenth-century English histories of the Revolution, meanwhile, is that the English and the French have had a long, long history of officially hating each other, from the Middle Ages until at least the Battle of Waterloo. Many nineteenth-century English historians were ready to believe any kind of lurid account that made the French and their revolution look bad, because they’d all grown up hearing from their nannies that “Boney [Napoleon] would get them if they weren’t good” and hearing from their schoolmasters that those nasty French revolutionaries—who had overthrown their king and queen and, what’s more, insulted them before chopping their heads off—were to be looked upon with horror, fear, and disgust. And since the French were traditional enemies of the English to begin with, it wasn’t hard to think the worst of everything about the Revolution (“such a disgraceful event wouldn’t happen here—we’re English!”).
Anything you read about some event of the French Revolution that’s particularly bloodcurdling—if it was set down by a rabidly royalist French aristocrat or a conservative nineteenth-century Englishman (or even American)—needs to be looked into further before you swallow it whole. Postrevolutionary Anglo-Saxon historians were willingly buying into both the anti-revolutionary propaganda of their own time and the anti-French propaganda of past centuries, and we have to be very careful how we buy into their swallowed, digested, and regurgitated propaganda.
I found a blatant example of a distorted historical account quite recently, in Madame Roland, a nineteenth-century biography of French Revolutionary figure Jeanne Roland, originally published by American author John S. C. Abbott in 1850. (You can easily get it, if you really want to, as a free eBook from Project Gutenberg.) It’s clear, right from the beginning, that Abbott dislikes the Revolution but adores his subject. The book is much too tedious, hero-worshipping, and generally Victorian to discuss at length, but at the end, when Madame Roland is condemned to death, the author writes:
“The morning of the 10th of November, 1793, dawned gloomily upon Paris. It was one of the darkest days of that reign of terror which, for so long a period, enveloped France in its somber shades. The ponderous gates of the court-yard of the Conciergerie opened that morning to a long procession of carts loaded with victims for the guillotine. . . . The last cart was assigned to Madame Roland . . . .”
“. . . The long procession arrived at the guillotine, and the bloody work commenced. The victims were dragged from the carts, and the ax rose and fell with unceasing rapidity. Head after head fell into the basket, and the pile of bleeding trunks rapidly increased in size.”
(The stirringly melodramatic phrase “the Reign of Terror,” by the way, was invented and popularized not by the French, who never used anything but “La Terreur” during the Revolution, but by—surprise!—Abbott’s fellow nineteenth-century English-speaking historians.)
So after we pass over the fact that Abbott got the date wrong (November 8th, not 10th) and ignore the over-the-top, novelistic writing in what is supposed to be nonfiction, what we need to look at again are these straightforward, categorical statements of Abbott’s, describing an image oh-so-familiar from pop fiction:
“The ponderous gates . . . opened that morning to a long procession of carts loaded with victims for the guillotine. . . . Head after head fell into the basket, and the pile of bleeding trunks rapidly increased in size.”
But the “long procession of carts loaded with victims” and “the pile of bleeding trunks” which he describes so juicily and hand-wringingly, and which immediately recall blood-and-thunder scenes from The Scarlet Pimpernel, are entirely Abbott’s invention. Made up out of whole cloth and unblushingly presented to us as factual “history.”
The way he tells it?
It. Didn’t. Happen.
It’s too bad Mr. Abbott hadn’t been able, before he wrote his book, to visit Paris and look at the archives of the Revolutionary Tribunal (which was responsible for all the political trials of the Terror in Paris)—in other words, to research primary sources for his facts, rather than let his imagination run wild, influenced by hostile propaganda he’d absorbed from other people’s histories. Because if he had, he would have found out that the total number of people executed in Paris on November 8th, 1793—including Madame Roland herself—was . . . two.*
The average number of people executed per day in Paris in all of September, October, November, and December 1793, during the first four months of the Terror, was . . . two.*
Not a hundred per day, not sixty, not even a few dozen, any of which is pretty clearly what Abbott had in mind when he started describing “the darkest days of that reign of terror” and implying that this sort of thing had already been going on on a daily basis for months.
(No, an average of two executions a day, every day, is still not something we really want to see. But it doesn’t come remotely close to Abbott’s “long procession of carts loaded with victims.”)
So here’s Mr. Abbott, doing his second-hand research with his limited American resources, and buying into the shocked—shocked I say!—respectability of the Anglo-Saxon party line of the postrevolutionary era (“That horrible French Revolution was totally evil evil evil because they dared to abolish monarchy, and surely those wicked Frenchies killed off half the population of France!”). And so he doesn’t bother to look up hard numbers, even if he ever had access to them. And he goes on to assume and suggest to us that dozens or hundreds of lily-white innocents must have been guillotined every single day in Paris throughout the entire fourteen-month Terror—rather than the far, far smaller actual numbers, whose ranks included a significant proportion of the sort of sleazy profiteers, troublemakers, military deserters, and petty crooks whom any late-eighteenth-century British court, in the normal course of business, would have sentenced to hanging in a heartbeat.
So Abbott plunks down his shameless bit of hyperbole as if it were absolute fact. And this Big Fat Falsehood presented to us in an ostensible work of nonfiction, like many similar tall tales, finds its way into and colors the overwrought historical novels and becomes just one more lie reinforcing already-common misconceptions that distort the image of an entire event and era.
(It’s a history book, so it must be right, right?)
What’s a history geek to do, except try to write scrupulously researched historical fiction that, in the process of telling a good story, helps to set the record straight?
*Source: Wallon, Henri, Histoire du Tribunal Révolutionnaire de Paris [vol. 2]. Paris: Hachette, 1880. Wallon’s in-depth and definitive six-volume, 3,000-page scholarly study is based directly on the Tribunal’s records.
This post is adapted from “Don’t Just Swallow the Propaganda and the Clichés” in the author’s eBook Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (and Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths. Susanne Alleyn’s most recent novel is Palace of Justice (St. Martin’s, 2010), a mystery set in Paris during the Terror, in which there are absolutely no rolling guillotines.