E. Belfort Bax November 1910

The French Revolution

Source: New Age, 10 November 1910, p. 32-33;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The fascination exercised on the human mind by that great episode of universal history known as the French Revolution, shows no signs of abating. Every year the publishers’ lists offer their quota of works on the French Revolution, for which an adequate public is presumably found, and this not alone in France, but in other countries as well, not excepting England. The actors in the great drama, the Robespierres, Marats, Dantons, Desmoulins, Chaumettes, Vergniauds, Barbaroux, Louvets, and the rest, still haunt the imagination of the student of history in the twentieth century from out the dim past of the eighteenth, in a manner peculiarly their own. The man who has once specialised on the French Revolution can never quite shake off the glamour of the period, its dramatis personæ and the atmosphere in which they lived.

Since the publication of the second volume of Mr. Morse Stephens’ unfortunately still unfinished history, no more important work on the Revolution as a whole has appeared in the English language than the translation in four volumes of Professor Aulard’s Political History,” just issued by Mr. Fisher Unwin. Professor Aulard is well known as the man who, of all others, is most conversant with every detail of his subject. Of his scholarly researches he has given ample proof in his previous works, not to speak of the articles from his pen in the French review devoted to revolutionary history which is edited by him, and elsewhere.

Considered as a study in revolutionary history, taken by itself, M. Aulard’s book is undoubtedly a great work. Nevertheless, knowing the lifelong labours of M. Aulard on this subject we must confess to perhaps a shade of disappointment at the absence of any strikingly new points of view. In dealing with a man of the scholarship of our author, however, we may rest assured that if we do not find the events he is concerned with presented in any sensationally new light it is because there is no such light in which to present them. M. Aulard is a solid student, and his business is, as he doubtless regards it, not so much to put forward speculative theories as to the secret springs of actions and unsuspected meanings of events, without adequate evidence, as to stick close to the actual facts as elicited by his own laborious researches. But in spite of the author’s restraint, the reader of revolutionary history will find his ideas clarified on many points. The details of prominent events and of those which led up to them, touched off by a masterly hand, he will find in well-nigh every chapter.

Let us take, for example, chapters 4 and 7 of volume I., with its admirable sketch of the rise of the republican movement on the king’s return to Paris after, his abortive flight to Varennes. Amongst the monographs published during the last few years on different aspects of the Revolution, a fairly thick volume has been written on this very point, but we venture to assert that the origin and inwardness of the movement will be found as adequately presented in chapters 4 and 7, some sixty pages in all, as could be the case in a lengthy treatise. M. Aulard shows how originally the democratic party, in spite of its thoroughly republican sentiment, did not specially contemplate the institution of the republic. This, it may be said, we all knew before, but our author illustrates the point with a wealth of quotations which will certainly be fresh for many. He further shows that the first talk of a republic was heard in one or two salons, and that a republic was sporadically advocated in a few obscure journals towards the end of the year 1790. But it remained the dream of a few littérateurs and journalists till June, 1791, after which the movement rapidly grew, so rapidly that by the 17th of the following July, the day of the manifestation in the Champs de Mars, it had become general, though the celebrated petition which was the cause of the manifestation, confined itself to demanding the abdication of the king and the convocation of a new representative body “to judge the guilty and, above all, to reorganise anew the executive power.”

From the dispersal and “massacre” of the “patriots” by Lafayette and Bailly, M. Aulard dates the breach between the Constitutional party of the wealthy bourgeois and the small bourgeois and workmen constituting the French town democracy of that day. A further interesting point made by M. Aulard is that the Jacobin Club was originally, and under the Constitution of 1790, a body composed of more or less well-to-do middle-class members. Its membership was confined to those on the roll of active citizens for which the Constitution of 1790 demanded a not inconsiderable property qualification. Nevertheless events and a few of its leading men, notably Robespierre, early led it to throw in its lot with the advanced popular party of the Revolution. The Cordeliers Society, on the other hand, from the first recognised no difference between active and passive citizens, and even admitted women.

Let us take again our author’s treatment of the de-Christianisation movement as given in chapter 3, vol. III. Here we have again an admirable example of clear condensation. M. Aulard has dealt with this subject at length in a previous work, “Le culte de la Raison et de L'Etre Suprême.” But all that is necessary for the average student of the Revolution is contained in this chapter, which traces the anti-Christian movement from its earliest inception to the 9th of Thermidor. It should, however, be read in conjunction with chapter 6, which deals with the relations of Church and State after the Thermidorean revolution.

In chapter 4 of vol. III., which deals with the 9th of Thermidor itself, although no specially new light is thrown on that epoch-making event, we find an admirably terse statement of the causes and nature of Robespierre’s popularity (p. 193). M. Aulard rightly emphasises the fact that in the Convention period after the fall of the Girondins “the Moderates formed the basis of the Robespierrist majority.” Later reactionaries like La Harpe and Bassy D'Anglas wrote enthusiastically of him. The hesitation to overthrow Robespierre and his Terror is explained by M. Aulard (p. 194) by what has now long been the generally accepted view. “It would not have been possible to overthrow him,” says our author, “without producing a state of disastrous confusion, without compromising the unity of the Government and the national defences.” This feeling lasted so long as the French frontiers were seriously threatened by the foreign enemy; the tension was relieved by the recent victories generally, and finally lifted by the battle of Fleurus. The pathway was now clear for the sweeping away of Robespierre and the monstrous Terror he had extorted from the Convention for his own purposes. For it must be remembered that Robespierre directed his weapon against his personal enemies irrespective of their opinions. To the Moderates, as such, he was lenient.

But it is impossible within the space of a NEW AGE review to call attention, however cursorily, to all of even the chief points of interest in the present work. It is sufficient to say that M. Aulard consistently carries out his plan of treating the Revolution rather from the standpoint of tendencies and movements than of personalities. And he certainly has done his work thoroughly and conscientiously even if, as already indicated, we miss any startlingly new points of view.

As regards the translation, so far as one is able to judge without having a copy of the original at hand to compare with, it seems to be fairly adequate, though we have come across some blunders which suggest gross carelessness. For example, in a note on p. 276, vol. I., the date 1741 is given for 1791. Again on p. 122, ib., also in a note, Jean Jacques Rousseau is represented as publishing an anonymous pamphlet against the French democrats in 1790, when, as we all know, his death took place in 1778, long before the French Democratic party had come into being. Yet again in vol. III., p. 372, there is surely some confusion in the Articles 37 and 38 of the Law of Fruictidor as translated. As a rule, however, Mr. Miall’s English is clear and reads smoothly enough. As for the small portions of the book for which he is directly responsible, however, the less said the better. Blunders strike one on almost every page. For example, in his summary of events we have the 9th of Thermidor given as the 27th of June! His translator’s preface consists of a rather bald statement of events preceding and leading up to the Revolution. His biographical notes are poor and in some cases worse than poor. For instance, in a note on Marat he coolly rehashes the impudent lies of the reaction about this great popular leader as though they were gospel. The statement that he, Marat, was “largely responsible for the worst features of the Terror,” is only amusing to anyone who knows the facts, to wit, that Marat was murdered before the Terror, properly speaking, had begun, and that of the few persons (most of them undoubtedly guilty of treason to the country) who fell by the guillotine before his death, not one had been so much as mentioned, let alone denounced, by the “People’s Friend.” Once more, Professor Fréron, who died in 1776, and who, therefore, had nothing to do with the Revolution, is given apparently under the impression that he is identical with Fréron the well-known Conventionnel. Such crass carelessness as this is inexplicable. Once again, in the notice of Thomas Paine, it is stated that he voted for the king’s death. It would look as though Mr. Miall had not read very carefully the author he is translating. But let us be charitable. Perhaps these miserable “notes” were compiled, not by Mr. Miall himself, but by some literary hack in whose labours Mr. Miall placed a confidence unjustified by the result.

For the rest as regards paper, print, and general get up, the four volumes before us do credit to the publishers, albeit, here and there, the “reading” and the punctuation leave somewhat to be desired. The “subject “ index, it should be said, is neither complete nor indeed particularly good so far as it goes.

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Of Carlyle’s French Revolution, the great prose epic, as it has been justly called, a new edition of which, illustrated by Mr. E.J. Sullivan, has been lately published by Messrs. Chapman and Hall, there is not much that is new to be said in the way of criticism as regards the work itself. The “great prose epic” will remain what it has been now for many a long year, one of the classics of English literature. Its defects, as a history of the Revolution, are patent and glaring. One blunder alone, that of describing Barbaroux, instead of Buzot, as the lover of Madame Roland, would be sufficient to damn any ordinary history and an ordinary historian. But with Carlyle, this, and the number of other inaccuracies, great and small, with which his book abounds, make no difference. We read Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution today not as a history, but as a work of literary art. And in this respect it is unsurpassed in any language in many of its great word-pictures (to employ an effective if somewhat hackneyed expression).

But Carlyle, whose prose, it is not too much to say, rises on several occasions throughout the narrative to something approaching the sublime, can be also on occasion not merely inaccurate from mere carelessness but also meanly malignant. Such is his characterisation of the devoted Simonne Everard as a “washerwoman.” Carlyle can have hardly failed to know that Marat’s unwedded wife was not a washerwoman, but the term came conveniently to hand to express opprobrious ridicule and thus to pander to class-hatred of the “People’s Friend.”

With respect to the get up of the book one is tempted to be rather mixed in one’s criticism. The printing is superb and leaves nothing to be desired. The paper is also fairly good, but the binding strikes one as cheap and poor. As to Mr. Sullivan’s illustrations there are some of them, e.g. Robespierre’s list, which are striking and full of imaginative power. Others again seem to betray a straining after effect. With all due respect to Mr. Sullivan’s undoubted ability as an artist, we should on the whole have preferred to have the work illustrated from contemporary print.