We know how the French Revolution begins, in proclamations and riots and the storming of the Bastille, how it develops into tumbrils and terror, and ends with the rise of Napoleon; or perhaps, years later, on the battlefield of Waterloo. How the later restoration of the Bourbons (who in Talleyrand’s words famously, learned nothing and forgot nothing), simply led to the Revolution of 1848, which led to Napoleon III and history repeating itself as farce. At least that’s what we know if we take our history from novels!
Years ago, at school, I saw a photograph of a barefoot and filthy Russian child in a ragged dress in front of a log cabin. The caption said she was a countess, indistinguishable from the rest of the poor. The image stayed with me, as did memories of being made to eat my way through a fifteen course meal in France. The Last Banquet opens in the early 1700s with Jean-Marie d’Aumout sitting beside a dung heap in the ruins of his father’s chateau eating beetles, and ends after endless feasts, in the shadow of the Terror. In between it takes in Voltaire and de Sade, European and American politics and Jean-Marie’s obsession, food…
There is - for me at least - something haunting about historical novels that deal with points where we say the world changed. The novels below, given in date order, because anything else effectively announces this chalk is better than that cheese, deal with the changing of the world, why it changed, how it changed, and what came after.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Morality tale, shocking expose of aristocratic corruption or tragic love story? Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ scandalous 1782 novel featuring Vicomte de Valmont, the Marquise de Merteuil and perversity at war with innocence exposed to an avid French public the squalor and malice of court life (and may or may not have helped bring the revolution closer). In 1985 Christopher Hampton reworked it as play and it’s been the basis for several films.
The Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ One of the most famous historical novels ever written, and, with 200 million copies sold, probably the most successful, Dickens’ dour 1859 A Tale of Two Cities unfolds the story of dissolute English barrister Sydney Carton and honest French aristocrat Charles Darnay, doppelgangers, whose fates become fatally linked. Les Mis without the songs (Les Mis is the 32 revolution or it would be on this list.)
The Scarlet Pimpernel - Baroness Emma Orczy
Sir Percy Blakeney has a secret from his estranged French wife Marguerite and the rest of high society. He’s a handkerchief waving wealthy fop to those who don’t know him; to the very few who do he’s the steely-eyed leader of a group of English aristocrats dedicated to saving their French counterparts from the dreaded guillotine. Baroness Orczy’s 1905 bestseller was followed by other Pimpernel titles, none quite so wonderfully ridiculous, overheated or successful as the original.
The Duel – Joseph Conrad
‘To the surprise and admiration of their fellows, two officers, like insane artists trying to gild refined gold or paint the lily, pursued a private contest through the years of universal carnage….’ Based on a real series of duels fought with swords, rapiers and sabres over the course of 19 years beginning in 1794, Conrad’s 1908 novella brilliantly mirrors the absurd rise and fall of Napoleon. Ridley Scott’s 1977 film is almost as good.
Scaramouche - Rafael Sabatini
The accidentally perfect existential pot boiler is pretty niche but Sabatini nails it perfectly with this 1921 historical novel. Andre-Louis Moreau is a swashbuckling young lawyer who becomes a revolutionary to avenge a friend’s murder, using his dead friend’s words to whip up the crowd, and promptly finds himself on the run. The novel’s opening line, ‘He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad,’ is carved on Sabatini’s grave.
The Glass Blowers – Daphne du Maurier
Most novels of the French Revolution take place at the centre, in Paris or Versailles. Du Maurier’s heartfelt 1963 reworking of her family history concentrates on the War in the Vendee, the brutal Royalist counter-revolution that raged in the mid 1790s. Told through the eyes of Sophie Busson, the daughter of a master craftsman, it deals with a family excitedly swept up in revolution and the heartache of trying to rebuild life afterwards
Napoleon Symphony – Anthony Burgess
Bad breath and genius… Structured around Beethoven’s Erocia, which the composer originally dedicated to Napoleon, believing him to embody the virtues of the French revolution, Burgess’s ‘misunderstood’ 1974 novel in four parts covering Napoleon’s early victories, rise to first consul and coronation, empire and fall is obviously an experiment. In what is never quite explained.
A Place of Greater Safety – Hilary Mantel
If you’re planning to write the definitive French revolutionary novel then grabbing Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilien Robespierre as characters is a good place to start. Mantel’s 1992 work introduces them as newly arrived provincials and uses the originals’ own words as dialogue. Although not as great as her later work, the greatness is already there.
Our Lady of the Potatoes – Duncan Sprott
If Boucher hadn’t painted Irish immigrant Marie-Louise O'Murphy naked on a bed when she was fourteen it’s unlikely she’d be even a footnote to history. Duncan Sprott’s elegant 1995 novel brings the young Irish girl and the tawdry glamour Versailles to life, outlines her rise to Louis XV’s mistress and takes her and us through the last days of court life and into revolution.
Pure – Andrew Miller
In his 2011 novel that folds the corruption of the ancien regime into the corruption of Les Innocents Cemetery in Paris, Andrew Miller has his hero, Breton engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte, clear the rancid graves as a metaphor for what will have to be cleared when the revolution comes; brilliantly making the political personal for his characters.