Issue 5 April 2011
Neither Saint nor Whore
In Candide (1758), Voltaire famously quipped that France and Britain are at war “over a few acres of snow around Canada” – many Canadians can even quote this part in the original French: “pour quelques arpents de neige vers le Canada.” – “and that they are spending more on this beautiful war than all Canada is worth.” Not even counting the costs of actual war, the colony of New France had long been an expensive proposition for the French monarchy. When faced with a choice, the Duke of Choiseul did not hesitate to bargain with Britain to keep the sugar colonies of the Caribbean instead. After all, Saint-Domingue was rapidly becoming the most lucrative colony in the western hemisphere. But New France became Canada, a member of the G-8 group of nations and the United States’ largest trading partner, so its humble origins have been gaining significance over time. Now there’s a novel that sheds fascinating light on many of the earliest French women forced to take part in the monarchy’s colonial project in North America. But Suzanne Desrochers, Bride of New France, is more than simply fiction. As our in-house reviewer explains, it blends important new scholarship with the author’s own archival research. If there is a danger here, it is no longer the relative obscurity of the subject, but that students might be so enthralled that they would describe this as “better-than-history social fiction.”
To read the review…
Parot’s Eighteenth-Century Mysteries
Robert Muchembled, in his latest book, Les Ripoux des Lumières, corruption policière et révolution (2011), argues that the eighteenth-century Paris police was a hotbed of corruption, exploiting its knowledge of the city’s decadent underbelly to manipulate, spy on, and blackmail its denizens, falsifying documents (hence our precious judicial archives might just hide a series of lies), and leaving false trails. The ancien régime itself would collapse from the rot and debauchery that he deems endemic. After 500 pages and counting, Muchembled’s real-life inspector Jean-Baptiste Meusnier, mastermind and knave, seems highly implausible, whereas Jean-François Parot’s fictional hero, Nicolas Le Floch, who navigates the same terrain, shows why the Paris police was deemed the best in Europe. Is truth then stranger than fiction or is this a matter of perspective? Parot’s old regime functions despite its foul sides; there is no fragrance in Muchembled’s world.
To read the review…
Beaumarchais l’insolent and Ridicule
Historical romps are fashionable these days, and the French six-part, over-the-top miniseries, 1788 et demi that aired this past winter, outdid all the anachronisms Sofia Coppola threw in to enliven and modernize her Marie Antoinette (2006). Perhaps history has only become palatable as farce, being too “boring” otherwise. Since the above productions did not have the classroom in mind, but a public of their own choosing, it is churlish to complain. On the other hand, and despite their own anachronisms, we suggest two movies that would work well, or have already worked well, in courses covering the Old Regime. Ridicule has proven irresistible to many of us and Beaumarchais l’insolent deserves to be reissued. Both films appeared in 1996 and both reflected contemporary trends in scholarship on the Enlightenment. (How often can that be said of periodized costume dramas?) Ridicule may caricature late eighteenth-century courtiers, but it provocatively raises issues of contested gender roles (both male and female), royal representations, and the often confusing idea of an aristocratic elite divided between enlightened reformers and self-interested grandees. Moreover scholarly interest in the consequences of cultural production, from the subversive libellistes of “Grub Street” to the melodramatic representations of courtroom causes célèbres, make Beauchmarchais a great figure for students to begin exploring. After all, his personal story is true and fashionable too.
To read the review…