Propaganda, Clichés, and History by Susanne Alleyn

Posted by on Sep 17, 2012 in 18th Century France, Featured Book, Historical Research | 17 comments

 “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.”

Vivid, yes?

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.



  1. Nice post, Suzanne. I’m a stickler for accuracy, too. Whenever I have to trample on history–like adding an extra Pope in Cruel Music–I make that clear in an author note. BTW, talking of The Scarlet Pimpernel, I love the Richard E. Grant version. All he has to do is look through that lorgnette and say, “Sink me!” and I’d fall into his arms. Also, good luck with Medieval Underpants–great advice in that book.

    • An extra POPE ???? Great heavens! 🙂 I don’t think I could go that far. A few fictional “major revolutionaries” is as daring as I get.

      My favorite Pimpernel has to be Anthony Andrews, who also has an excellent “Sink me!”. I have a strong objection to the whole Pimpernel universe for the reasons ranted about above, but he and Jane Seymour are just so pretty together…

  2. Great post, Susanne. Confession time: both the hubby and I adore every variation on the Pimpernel. This isn’t my time period at all, so I probably wouldn’t blink over the whole hordes of nobles being executed thing. I’ve definitely learned something new here. All I can add is that I now REALLY want my own portable guillotine for the house! Sounds like it would come in handy for pesky neighbors and the like.

    • I’ve wanted one for a while. 🙂 But 12-15′ high . . . a little inconvenient. And the durn blade weighs 60-80 pounds. Hard to move. Rats.

  3. Wonderful post, Susanne. Having read it, I realise that I have never questioned the authenticity of accounts of the French Revolution. As a fellow historical novelist who endeavours to always reference two sources when researching my books, I should rap myself over the knuckles!

  4. I read your post with interest because I’ve just finished Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (in which heads are rolling at the rate of one a minute by the end). So we’re actually talking about two a day? I guess Mantel didn’t have access to those archives back in the early 90s.

    What do you think about the Mantel novel?

  5. Thanks for this!!!! This was so interesting & fascinating.

    I just bought one of the Baroness Orczy novels that is one of the Pimpernel sequels and have a “Scarlet Pimpernel” DVD in my tote from the public library to see it again.

    BTW, the history I remember reading as a teen after discovering “The Scarlet Pimpernel” was of the ilk you describe, Susanne.

    I wonder if the Wallon books are available through Google’s out of copyright e-book access. (I’m off to check on that.)

    • Some volumes of the Wallon set are available as free pdf downloads from Google Books. (In French only.) I don’t know about reprint availability in paper. I was fantastically lucky to buy my own very handsome leatherbound set as part of a professor’s huge collection for my online book business. 🙂

    • The Wallon volumes are also available in their entirety on – scroll down on this page:

      They can be read online or downloaded (various formats).

    • Also available (again, in French only) at Gallica:

      So glad I took French for all those years at school!

  6. Mantel’s novel is, IMHO, the best (English-language) novel ever written about the French Revolution. I bow before it! She does get her facts pretty much right throughout the book (except for a few places where she deliberately takes some liberties with personalities who are subject to interpretation).

    However, the time you mention, the ending of APoGS (April 1794), is not the time I’m talking about in the blog (autumn 1793), and which Mr. Abbott, our tedious Victorian author, was making up “facts” about to please himself. The pace of executions during that winter did speed up–gradually. But it didn’t get to the 10-and-more average per day until well into spring 1794–often there were still only two or three executions a day, balancing those occasional political purges of one or two dozen–and the Terror didn’t reach those Pimpernellian proportions of 30+ per day until June ’94, when a very ill-conceived law was passed, which made it simple to try and condemn defendants in groups rather than individually. However, that (the “Grande Terreur”) lasted for only about seven or eight weeks, until the end of July ’94.

    The rate of executions per day (in Paris) exceeded 50 exactly twice during that entire period of September 1793-July 1794. The way Victorian historians and novelists described the Terror, though, you’d think there were 100+ executions a day, every day without fail, for months or years on end!

    BTW, only about 12% of guillotine victims were actually aristocrats in any way at all.

    Once again, not trying to excuse the Terror, just presenting the cold hard facts.

  7. I must admit, I love A Tale of Two Cities for its emotional intensity and psychological insight, especially in the portrayal of Sydney Carton. I really love the 1935 movie version, with Ronald Coleman. But it’s not the best historical guide to the Revolution, to be sure. The Scarlet Pimpernel novels are great fun, it has to be admitted, if you take them in the right spirit. The trouble is, people so often get their idea of history from such things!

    Actually, a novel which has become a great favourite of mine, is one that you wouldn’t first imagine, namely the novel Jacobin’s Daughter by Joanne Williamson. Although it’s a romance aimed at a ‘teen’ audience, it shows more insight into the period that a lot of more adult novels. Lovely portrayal of Robespierre – I particularly like the allusion to ‘that queer unhappy look in his eyes’ at the time the Tribunal was being set up. Nice to see him portrayed as a basically decent guy who made some grave mistakes, instead of the ‘bloodthirsty tyrant’ myth. Also the chapter in which 18-year old Simon Duplay reflects on his feelings before the battle of Valmy, after joining the army full of delusions of glory is masterful -so understated. His subsequent embitterment is also wonderfully portrayed. Amazing that a novel aimed at teenagers can outdo ‘adult’ works that are far more well-known.

    • I, too, liked Jacobin’s Daughter quite a lot and my main complaint is that it is not long enough! (Also the handling of the ending–bad authorial choices, IMO.) But as an honest treatment of the Revolution, it’s excellent and refreshingly balanced.

      I’ve considered writing a similar novel, stealing the idea of writing from the POV of Elisabeth Duplay–a longer novel, of course, to keep myself happy!

      • I agree that Jacobin’s Daughter is better than a lot of what’s out there, especially in English (including, in some ways, APoGS, which I dislike for a number of reasons, but you have to admit that when it comes to the Duplays, and Elisabeth in particular, it’s flat-out character assassination…). That said, it oversimplifies and gets a number of basic facts wrong and I have always felt that Elisabeth Le Bas deserved better. Especially since her true strength of character is really only fully revealed with Thermidor and Williamson completely cops out there!

        If I ever do get around to writing a novel from the point of view of her sister Eléonore, I’ll try to do her better justice. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge you the chance to write from Elisabeth’s POV though. (Especially since there’s no way I’ll have time to do any creative writing while I’m still in grad school.)

        Unrelatedly, I thought Mme Roland’s first name was Manon… Doesn’t she even talk about how she felt that it wasn’t suited to her in her Mémoires?

  8. Suzanne,
    Manon Roland’s given names were Marie-Jeanne (somehow I left off the Marie there) but she was always nicknamed Manon.

    I’ll always worship Hilary Mantel but I do agree that her presentation of the Duplays, especially Elisabeth, was pretty nasty. A deliberate interpretation for the sake of the plot, alas.

    And Williamson’s unforgivable cop-out with the ending and the events of Thermidor is, well, unforgivable. Speaking as a writer, I can’t understand how her editor let her get away with such a lame ending–even with a book for YA’s–it’s not as if teens can’t handle political coups and a bit of gore.

    I read Jacobin’s Daughter quite a while ago so I should re-read it and see what else she got wrong. Overall, though, still a good novel.

  9. Excellent post, Susanne. And it highlights the point that sensationalism sells. Revolutions are usually pretty bloody anyway, but if you scratch the surface of just about any revolution in history, I’m sure you’ll find numerous distortions added in by historians to amplify the horrors. I run into this all the time, researching for my series set during the American Revolution — which technically wasn’t a revolution but was still bloody and horrible.

  10. Loved this post, but then, I was a history major and have been suspicious ever since! I love The Scarlet Pimpernel as a story of romantic adventure (oh, the part in which he kisses the stairs where Marguerite has stepped!) but think all the dramatizations of it have been lacking because they don’t follow the book closely enough, especially toward the end.

    The same sort of historical laxness permeates stories of the U.S. Civil War (to take but one example), in which the southerners all seem to be gentlemen from large plantations (but frequently too honorable to own slaves–yeah, right!) rather than small farmers.

    It may seem like tilting at windmills, but keep sticking to the facts (as far as they can be ascertained). There are those of us who appreciate it!