France’s Terror: Les dieux ont soif

D.M.G Sutherland

University of Maryland

Academic historians probably read historical novels in two ways: as general readers and as experts on a period. At a guess, Anatole France’s Les dieux ont soif (1912) is not likely to satisfy under either heading. The academic historian can probably get over the historical goofs: active citizens in 1793, Federalists as decentralizers, the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris not having a jury, and so on. It is much harder to get over the novelist’s failure to master his theme until very late in the book. Dickens, of course, did this superbly well, much to professors’ irritation. Beyond the lachrymose plot, Dickens had a point to make about the unleashed mob, vindictiveness, and bloodlust. He did it  by creating a caricature of the Revolution, stripping it of its great complexities to produce a simplified, almost comic version. And there is no denying the effectiveness of this depiction because most people in the Anglo-Saxon world still share it.

Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize is no caricature. Many passages in this book about the Vendean and Chouan wars show a serious acquaintance with real events: the abortive Granville landing in October 1793 (reset in the novel to the coast of northen Brittany), the attempts to land money and men from the Channel Islands, the workings of military commissions, and so on. More generally, while he clearly favored the Republicans, Hugo conveyed the heroism of both sides, each one deeply committed to their principles. In retrospect, Hugo showed great sophistication because the vast number of histories that were coming out at the same time as the novel (1874), republicans and royalist historians had nothing good to say about each other. It is also a great story about loyalty and betrayal.

Finally, Balzac’s The Chouans explored similar themes of love and betrayal in Brittany during the second chouan rising (1799-1802). Like Quatrevingt-treize, it displays a strong sense of place. The many descriptions of the chouans’ guerilla-style warfare and the anonymity of the average chouan fighter accord perfectly with contemporary descriptions of the wars of the West. The physical description of the foreboding bocage of the West is unsurpassable.

At its best, Les dieux ont soif only compares favorably with Dickens, Hugo, and Balzac intermittently. There are many passages where the unbelievable parts of the novel interfere with any historical understanding. There is no sustained story line. The characters develop interminable disquisitions on improbable subjects in impossible places like food lines. The central character, the fantasically named Evariste Gamelin, is a down-and-out but rigidly opinionated, artist who gets the idea of redesigning playing cards but suffers no disappointment when told someone else has beat him to the idea. Perhaps he is really interested in having an audience because there are long passages where Evariste condemns Old Regime art and praises David. At its most charitable, passages like these are dated. He is also a fanatical admirer of Marat but Anatole France does not tell us what his hero’s reaction is to Marat’s assassination. Then, quite unexpectedly and with no detailed explanation, Evariste becomes a judge on the Revolutionary Tribunal.

Again, this seems like a stretch but at this point– more than half way through the novel– things get interesting. Anatole France finally developed a theme that would undoubtedly satisfy his readership. He made the Revolutionary Tribunal central to the last third of the novel. This was very clever because as anyone who lived through the Bicentennial of the Revolution in 1989 knows, as any college professor knows, le grand public wants to know about the Terror, not the Rights of Man.

The gullibility of the main character, Gamelin, becomes the theme. He is successively an unquestioning admirer of Mirabeau, Lafayette, the Girondins, Pétion, and all the rest. Without any self-reflection as these heroes’ reputations are crushed, Gamelin fixates on Robespierre who is never unmasked like all the others in Gamelin’s mind because Gamelin goes down with him. Not only is Gamelin forgotten, so, after Thermidor, is his art.

Gamelin’s gullibility is not naive, it is malicious. Gamelin’s capacity for self delusion is so great that he persuades himself that he has fulfilled a patriotic duty worthy of the ancient Romans, when he condemns his sister’s husband to death and when he condemns a man he is convinced is his lover’s former lover. The massive abuse of his judicial authority aside, Gamelin is also wrong about the former lover. We catch a glimpse of him at the theatre in the closing pages. He is a grenadier, a patriot soldier in other words. But Gamelin extends his wrath widely, to ordinary folk and to people like army contractors who must be guilty because the entire group had an unsavory reputation.

Gamelin’s lover, Elodie, is a strange character too. At times an innocent, at other times she has a disturbing dark side. France hints at her masochism here and there, but when Evariste wants to leave her, it emerges clearly. She begs he execute her, a thought that makes her flesh melt “in an ecstasy of sexual horror.”

France has also done his homework on the Tribunal. He provides a vivid description of the great political trials– of the Queen along with an allusion to the repulsive accusation of incest; of the Brissotins, once brilliant orators now totally rejected; of generals, tried and executed for losing; and of the Robespierre supporters on the General Council of the Paris Commune, over 70 of whom were executed on 10 Thermidor, the biggest mass execution the Revolutionary Tribunal inflicted on a single day. He also catalogues the progressive degradation of the Tribunal’s procedures. He provides a convincing description of trying individuals who did not know each other under the same indictment. Improbably, such strangers were accused of plots. (This actually happened, by the way). He also makes the interesting point that the Law of 22 Prairial simplified procedures and standards of guilt so much that uneducated sans-culotte judges would not longer be confused by legal complexities.

This is compelling reading. It is also a salutary example to academic historians who want to talk about anything but the repression of the Year II. Or, when they do, to insist there was nothing exceptional about the Terror, that repression in the Vendée, for example, was no different from repression of peasant rebellions anywhere in Europe in the Old Regime. Yet mostly, the professionals prefer to skip past the subject quickly. It is amazing that the last general book on the revolutionary tribunals was Henri Wallon’s, published in 1886. It is equally amazing that Greer’s apologia published in 1935 has gone with no challenges generation after generation. Greer and those who followed him, insisted the justice these courts meted out was fair, that most of the victims were guilty anyway, that despite the absence of due process, the judges were humanitarians, that Jacobin clubs intervened on behalf of the accused, and so on.

One can try too hard. After all, if the revolutionary tribunals were no more threatening than Traffic Court, the Terror was a failure. In some senses, the Terror was indeed a failure but not in the way its apologists mean. Some courts failed to capture or prosecute the vast majority of Federalist opponents. In some places, the Terror wrecked the civic order it was supposed to protect. Anatole France knew some of this because he remarks from time to time that the public was tiring of the endless executions.

In the end, Anatole France had a compelling and useful vision of the Terror that professional historians could well consider.

France, Anatole and Frederick H. Davies. 1979. The Gods Will Have Blood (Les dieux ont soif). Harmondsworth, Engl, New York: Penguin Books.

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