Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The French Revolution & What Went Wrong

The Daily Mail reviews Stephen Clarke's new book, which shows the Revolution to be the genocidal bloodbath it was. Need I point out once again that Marie-Antoinette's love of crazy fashions as a young girl did not cause the Revolution or the royal bankruptcy. It was when the Queen tried to simplify the fashions that everyone had a fit; it was seen as being pro-Austrian and beneath the dignity of a French Queen. It was the French help of the Americans against the British is what precipitated the bankruptcy. The  King and Queen were not indifferent to the plight of the people and the starvation brought on by failed harvests, grain speculation and corrupt officials. Both Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were personally active in extensive charities to help the needy, in spite of many obstacles. To quote:
Clarke argues convincingly that far from being a self-centred, money-grabbing monster, Louis XVI had actually been a benevolent, reforming monarch. Under his rule, literacy improved, wars lessened, there were huge medical and scientific advances and comparatively little censorship. Before the Revolution, he had gone along with a democratically elected parliament, which had been responsible for initiating fundamental social reforms.

Clarke also argues that the mob who stormed the Bastille in 1789 and came to be seen as the heroes of the Revolution were in fact loyal to the king. ‘The mob violence was mainly inspired by hunger, impatience with politicians and false rumours about an imminent attack by royal troops, but at its heart there was a desire to protect the king’s interests.’ This, he continues, ‘is the complete opposite of what modern France would have us believe’.

He lives in France, so presumably knows what he’s talking about. But, here on the other side of the Channel, his view of the Revolution is, I would say, pretty standard. Nearly 30 years ago, Simon Schama wrote a widely read masterpiece called Citizens, which served as a corrective to any idealism that may still have been attached to the French Revolution. For some reason, Stephen Clarke fails to mention this book, but Schama’s conclusions are strikingly similar to his own. Of the same events, Schama wrote: ‘The repeated invocations of the king’s august and beneficent name by people about to commit or threaten violence suggest how deep their foreboding was of the emptiness opened up by the collapse of royal power.’

Schama argued, all those years ago, that Louis XVI was a reforming monarch, and that successive generations of French historians have been so anxious not to appear reactionary that they have underestimated both the reforms he made, and the revolting extent of the violence wrought by his enemies. Even in the little corrective details that Clarke presents as his own, you find that Schama got there first. For instance, Clarke says that Louis wrote the word ‘Nothing’ in his diary on the day of the storming of the Bastille and that French historians have used this to argue that he was cut off from real life, whereas it was, in fact, simply his hunting diary, and ‘Nothing’ meant that he shot nothing that day. All very interesting, but it’s a point made, rather more gracefully, by Schama: ‘On July, 14 1789, Louis XVI’s journal consisted of the one-word entry “Rien” (nothing). Historians invariably find this a comic symptom of the king’s hapless remoteness from political reality. But it was nothing of the sort. The journal was less a diary than one of his remorselessly enumerated lists of kills at the hunt.’ (Read more.)
Here is a podcast by the author from History Extra. Share


Helen Davis said...

I can really only think of one revolution that was positive-- the American.

elena maria vidal said...

And ours was more of a War for Independence than a Revolution.