A French Revolution in fragments

  • Themes: Books, History

Robert Darnton compellingly evokes the atmosphere of pre-revolutionary France, but a focus on short anecdotes over grand narrative means his new book is sometimes less than the sum of its parts.

Louis XVI received by Jean Bailly, Mayor of Paris, after the fall of the Bastille, July 1789.
Louis XVI received by Jean Bailly, Mayor of Paris, after the fall of the Bastille, July 1789. Credit: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

The Revolutionary Temper: Paris, 1748–1789, Robert Darnton, Allen Lane, £35

This is the best of books; it is the worst of books – well, not quite, but it is remarkable how a superb book – which this is – can also be profoundly frustrating. Darnton’s subject is a fine one: Paris in the 40 years before the Revolution of 1789. More specifically, his subject is the development of what he calls a ‘revolutionary temper, the emergence of a determination to destroy the old order and rebuild the social world anew’. His exploration of this subject has two striking features. First, he is interested in the circulation of news – whether in the form of books, journals, news-sheets, popular songs – not just of what happened but of what people understood or believed to be happening. Second, he tells his story through 46 short chapters, each dealing with a particular event, crisis, or popular enthusiasm, from the expulsion from France of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart Pretender, in 1748 (as required by the terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle) to the storming of the Bastille in 1789. This is, as he acknowledges, ‘event history’; at first sight, the very sort of history rejected by French historians in the postwar years. But it is not the sort of history to which they were opposed, one which took individual events too seriously in order to construct specious grand narratives; rather it is a postmodern, fragmentary history, a sort of magic lantern show.

French historians in the 18th century were obsessed with what they called ‘anecdotes’: secret details that cast a light on the inner workings of court and state; and their anecdotes, because they were secrets, all carried with them uncertainty about their reliability. Anecdotes from the 18th century tended to be very short, but, when added together like the tiles in a mosaic, they made a picture of court corruption. Darnton’s history is similarly anecdotal history. It invites the reader to imagine a larger picture, while at the same time refusing to provide one.

What Darnton does he does exceptionally well. He writes sparely, but effectively. He conjures up the world as seen by diarists such as Siméon-Prosper Hardy or as reported in news-sheets such as the Gazette de Leyde. If you want to get a feeling for France in the second half of the 18th century, if you want to understand the origins of the Revolution, there is now no better book. There are flaws in the execution, but they are, for the most part, minor. There are problems with translation, where words either remain in French where there are perfectly good alternatives (a papal Jubilé is a papal Jubilee), or are mistranslated (in French the word couvent applies to both monks and nuns; in English, monks live in monasteries not convents). In discussing the dissolution of the Jesuit order in France Darnton frequently uses the words ‘monastic’ as if the Jesuits were a cloistered order, which of course they were not. Voltaire’s catchphrase écrasez l’infâme predates the Calas affair. These are mere blemishes.

The major problem is that although we can follow, vividly, the course of events, there is not only no overarching narrative, there is no overarching explanation. In a ‘Bibliographical Note’ at the end Darnton rejects some obvious explanations. He doesn’t agree with William H. Sewell, who holds that the revolutionary concept of civic equality ‘derived from the experience of commercial capitalism’. He disagrees with Jonathan Israel,  ‘who treats ideas as autonomous, self-sufficient forces’. Rather he agrees with Timothy Tackett ‘who allows for the importance of contingency’, who, in other words, eschews explanation.

Strikingly, the greatest of all books on the origins of the Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), is never mentioned. Tocqueville argued that the absolutist state had prepared the ground for revolution by weakening all the forces that had simultaneously both supported and resisted it, above all the Church, the Parlements, and the nobility. His argument would have been easily understood by Montesquieu, whose Spirit of the Laws (1748) had insisted that the French monarchy needed these semi-independent powers to buttress it, otherwise it would degenerate into despotism (a term he more or less invented). Fear of despotism was precisely what brought about the Revolution, but we are not offered a Montesquieuian or Tocquevillian reading of the fall of the ancien régime.

Let me take two examples where it seems to me that Darnton goes astray. First, the Calas affair. Jean Calas was executed in Toulouse in 1762 for having killed his son in order to prevent him from converting to Catholicism. Over seven pages Darnton gives an account of Voltaire’s campaign to have the sentence against Calas struck down and his family (charged with being accessories) vindicated. We get a powerful account of how Voltaire adopted the personae of the surviving members of the family, wrote their accounts for them, and organised lawyers to appeal to the king’s council. Reading Voltaire’s pamphlets, reading the arguments of the lawyers, reading Darnton, you come away with the impression that no one had written about the case before the execution of Calas, and that Voltaire and the lawyers he set in motion were starting from scratch. This is the impression Voltaire and his lawyers wanted to give, for they wanted the reader to believe that Calas had never been given a chance to defend himself.

At least half a dozen pamphlets had been published during the course of the investigation and trial of Jean Calas defending him and his co-accused. To a large extent, all Voltaire and his lawyers did was repeat what had already been said – but with different results. In Toulouse, the arguments in defence of Calas had been brushed aside, for his guilt was taken for granted; in Paris they were powerful and persuasive. Why? Because Toulouse was a city the Enlightenment had not yet reached, while Parisians were already familiar with Enlightenment scepticism. Voltaire was clear about all this. His strategy was to move the Calas case from Toulouse to Paris, from an un-Enlightened city to an Enlightened one, because he was confident that he could win if he was appealing to Parisian, that is to say Enlightened, public opinion. Voltaire thought that Enlightenment ideas were ‘autonomous, self-sufficient forces’; it was precisely because he thought that that he was able to develop a strategy for having Calas’ conviction overturned. Darnton can’t give a satisfactory account of Voltaire’s strategy because he is unwilling to acknowledge Voltaire’s belief in the power of ideas. His Voltaire performs a tour de force of literary impersonation, but Voltaire was not just a superb tactician; he also had a strategic vision.

Let’s take another case from early in Darnton’s history. In 1750 the king set out to tax the clergy, who had been previously immune from taxation. A flood of pamphlets defended king or clergy; but one, by Daniel Bargeton, stood out. Bargeton had been paid a great deal of money by the ministry to write it; but no sooner had it appeared than they banned it. It went through numerous foreign and illegal editions thereafter, and in those editions (in a break with past practice) the decree banning it was always reproduced. For why would the king ban the book that put forward the strongest defence of his own policy? The book he had commissioned and paid for? The answer is simple. Bargeton argued that government existed to ensure the security and happiness of the people; that the people had a right to be treated equally; that privilege could only be justified if it served the common good; that past precedent was irrelevant in the face of the welfare and rights of the nation’s citizens. In other words, the French Revolution is already present, like a snake coiled up inside an egg, in Bargeton’s book.

The monarchy in 1750 faced a choice: it could go forward along the lines laid out by Bargeton, forward to enlightened despotism, and, perhaps in the future, a Tocquevillian revolution if the people decided to exercise power for themselves; or it could retreat, as Montesquieu thought it must, into the world of feudal privilege and antiquated custom. The banning of Bargeton’s book was followed quickly by a deal with the Church. The king had retreated, but Bargeton’s arguments had hatched from their egg. Darnton knows about Bargeton: he devotes a single sentence to him. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that from 1750 to 1788 the monarchy repeatedly faced exactly the same choice, and what it demonstrated, over and over again, was that it was incapable of choosing. One can represent each of these crises as a series of contingent events; much better though to see them as repetitions of the same seemingly insoluble dilemma.

Darnton has been publishing great books on 18th-century France since 1970. He has had this one in mind since he completed his DPhil in 1964. It embodies a lifetime spent exploring the archives, reading, and thinking. It is, in many respects, the best of books, but it also exposes the inability of the sort of cultural history that he (inspired by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz) believes in to rise above anecdotes illustrating mere contingency and offer an explanation of the course of modern history. Darnton’s best qualities are his own; his worst are those of our times. The 1960s and 1970s, when he established himself as an historian, were in many ways the best of intellectual times; but they contained within themselves the seeds of present failure. Historians ceased to believe in progress; and at the same time they ceased to be able to explain social, political, and intellectual change. The Revolutionary Temper perfectly captures Paris before the Revolution, but also our present intellectual predicament, for its short chapters are the shards of a larger story that can no longer be told, the story of the making of a revolution. Instead we have the making of a ‘frame of mind’, of a temper in the sense of an ‘actual state or attitude of the mind or feelings’. In place of grand narrative we have, not the endless repetitions of Braudelian history, but ‘collective consciousness’ and subjective experience, laughter (represented by Voltaire) and tears (represented by Rousseau) – though the antithesis is a false one, for Voltaire expected the audiences at his tragedies, and the readers of his pamphlets in the Calas affair, to weep copiously, as he did himself. Perhaps it is no longer appropriate to ask for anything more. Like 18th-century Parisians, we must make do with anecdotes.


David Wootton