Interview with Susanne Alleyn

This year marks the bicentenial of Charles Dickens’s birth and the event is being celebrated around the globe. The BBC has already aired its new Great Expectations and adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  But aside from a stage production in Greece this summer, no new version of A Tale of Two Cities is in the works.  What a relief.  Who can deny that the book’s opening is one of the best in English literature and its last line ain’t bad either, but, as a French historian attempting to teach it, I have cursed the clichés Dickens so brilliantly entrenched about the Old Regime and French Revolution.

It was therefore with a great deal of pleasure that I read Susanne Alleyn’s recently republished spin on the classic, A Far Better Rest, which imagines the story through Sydney Carton’s eyes and turns him into a participant in revolutionary events.  Although Alleyn maintains the contours of Dickens’ plot, Madame Defarge appears only fleetingly, and revulsion against the crimes of decadent aristocrats (including their victimization of Dr. Manette) now serves to drive revolutionary reform rather than the sanguinary vengeance of the sans-culottes.  Students will enjoy it with or without comparisons with Dicken’s classic.

Susanne Alleyn has continued her exploration of revolutionary Paris in a series of mysteries featuring Aristide Ravel, a “free-lance” investigator who helps the police solve gruesome crimes that may or may not be politically motivated.  Readers will appreciate her recreation of the Revolutionary Tribunal in Palace of Justice, but my personal favorite is the “prequel” set in 1786, Cavalier of the Apocalypse.  Ravel helps Commissaire Brasseur unravel a plot involving Freemasons, veterinarian Honoré Fragonard’s anatomical exhibits, and, bien entendu, the Diamond Necklace Affair.

I asked Susanne Alleyn to share some thoughts about her writing.

LV: How did you get to the French Revolution?

SA: Essentially I am a history geek trapped somewhere between the creative arts and academic scholarship. The natural result of this is to become an author of historical fiction. I actually began as an actor/singer, but by the midpoint of my undergraduate years, I’d begun to suspect that I was better suited to be a writer than a professional performer.

I’d already become interested in the Revolution in high school, though. I’d always liked history, and after reading A Tale of Two Cities and seeing the wonderful old Ronald Colman movie, I knew I wanted to learn more about the French Revolution. So I went to the public library, took out whatever looked interesting (including Paris in the Terror by Stanley Loomis—a horribly biased book, but a gripping narrative that really hooked me on the various fascinating Montagnard figures), and devoured it.

By the time I was at NYU and having a wonderful time dipping into their library, I knew I wanted to try writing something “serious”; Darline Gay Levy, whose French Revolution course I took, provided me with the opportunity by allowing me to write some of a historical drama about Saint-Just and Robespierre as my term paper for the course. That play went through many drafts, eventually had a couple of staged readings with actor friends in New York City, and now, a quarter century later, much of it is being reworked once again, into parts of my two-volume novel-in-progress.

LV: Can you explain how you view the Revolution and how fiction might convey what historical writing cannot?

SA: The very short answer is that (as someone with a background in dramatic literature) I’ve always viewed the French Revolution as a real-life classical tragedy, complete with several tragic heroes. My play always focused on Saint-Just as deeply flawed tragic hero (I know that, among historians, there are violently differing views of Saint-Just—but that’s mine for the purposes of fiction, take it or leave it . . .).

And that leads to the use of fiction. Fiction, of course, among other things, gives you the opportunity to explore controversial historical figures like Saint-Just—or obscure, spottily documented figures like Charles-Henri Sanson, the executioner of Paris, who is the central character of my current work in progress. Fiction lets us get inside their heads, try to analyze and interpret their motives with more freedom than academic writing allows. Historical writing frowns on extrapolation, but sometimes extrapolation is the only way you can take some established but very minor facts about someone and use them, along with a lot of “what-ifs,” to explain, or at least provide a transition to, a later action or situation.

Fiction, also—if done well—can perhaps allow the reader a greater feeling of recognition with people of the past. If we read a novel about people trying to control the Revolution, we’re reading about them as people who have desires, ambitions, and neuroses just like ours, and we can relate to them, rather than seeing them just as stiff portraits with funny-looking hair—or as the one-dimensional monsters or saints that many pop histories have made them.

LV:  Your first novel, A Far Better Rest, recast Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities from Sydney Carton’s perspective and you “filled in” his “missing years” by making him an active participant in the French Revolution.  What dissatisfied you about Dickens’ version?  Was it his approach to the Terror?  To Sydney Carton’s famous sacrifice?

I’d have to say it was all of the above, historical inaccuracy combined with the very first idea that inspired me to write the novel—an additional motive for Carton’s sacrifice (you’ll just have to read the book). Don’t misunderstand me—I am a huge fan of A Tale of Two Cities, or I never would have come up with the idea and the desire to write A Far Better Rest. Fan fiction, for me just as for the people who write original fan stories about the Star Trek universe, is a way to add to the original—to enhance it to make it even richer for ourselves and (we hope) other fans.

Dickens’s simplistic and exaggerated depiction of the Revolution (which for him is the Terror and only the Terror) was certainly one of the biggest factors driving me to reimagine the story. I’d gone through my teenage years recalling his lush descriptive passages such as this one:

Every day, through the stony streets, the tumbrils now jolted heavily, filled with Condemned. Lovely girls; bright women, brown-haired, black-haired, and grey; youths; stalwart men and old; gentle born and peasant born; all red wine for La Guillotine, all daily brought into light from the dark cellars of the loathsome prisons, and carried to her through the streets to slake her devouring thirst.

I was quite startled when I read some hard facts and found that—during the period he’s describing at the end of Tale, December 1793, when he implies that fifty or sixty people a day, every day, are losing their heads—in fact the Revolutionary Tribunal passed 69 death sentences during the entire month. An unpleasant number, to be sure, but a good deal fewer than the 1500 or so, if you add it up, that Dickens suggested.

Dickens shows only the worst of the French Revolution (and of the ancien régime, for that matter): he jumps straight from prerevolutionary decadence featuring bitter, brutalized cartoon sans-culottes and arrogant, dissipated cartoon aristocrats to the fall of the Bastille (no explanation of why the Bastille is attacked) to the September Massacres and the Terror . . . with not a mention of the happy and generally positive first couple of years of the Revolution, except for a dismissive “In such risings of fire and risings of sea . . . three years of tempest were consumed”—which weren’t, for the most part, years of “tempest.” There is just no balanced view of the Revolution and its causes in A Tale of Two Cities. And since most readers retain more history from novels and movies than they ever did from classes, a history geek can’t help herself in wanting to set the record straight. So I decided to present the story of A Tale of Two Cities in a more authentic historical framework.

LV:  Can you say a little more about why your Carton is swept up by revolutionary events from the moment he arrives in France in late spring 1789?

I think I essentially intended to give an overview, through Carton’s eyes, of the whole Revolution, 1789 to 1794, to show “how—and why—it really happened” as opposed to Dickens’s abridged and one-sided view. (This was long before I conceived of writing a whole series of mystery novels set in the period, in which I could concentrate on one specific part of the Revolution or prerevolution at a time, but eventually creating a whole multi-volume fictional history.) And naturally I had to bring my leading characters into the thick of events. Carton, of course, being the depressed, inactive character he is throughout much of A Tale of Two Cities, had to be dragged into events despite himself, but sees (or unwillingly participates in) much of the Revolution while still—as one of the many Englishmen in Paris—remaining an outsider looking in, with an outsider’s clear and rather cynical eye. Throughout both A Tale of Two Cities and A Far Better Rest, he remains without illusions about anything—neither his own flawed character nor the flawed revolutionary leaders he becomes acquainted with nor the flawed progress of the Revolution.

LV:  You introduce real historical figures in your novels. What sort of research did this entail? You seem to be particularly sympathetic to Camille Desmoulins: can you explain?

When I introduce a real historical figure into a novel, it’s usually because I was already interested in that person and had absorbed a good bit about him/her from various sources. So my further research is generally to make sure I can fit that person into the story in the way I’d like. One of the few exceptions was Herman, the president of the Revolutionary Tribunal, who shows up in the Aristide Ravel mystery Palace of Justice. I knew next to nothing about the man, but I needed someone in authority at the Tribunal or the Ministry of Justice to agree to a certain plan Ravel concocts to trap a killer, so I looked up Herman and found a brief but intriguing character sketch about him in Lenotre’s The Tribunal of the Terror. I ended up writing a scene featuring him that was somewhat longer than I’d planned, because he struck me as embodying many of the contradictory elements of the Jacobin republic, as one of those respectable, balanced, well-meaning people who accepted and employed the Terror to save the Republic because they chose to believe that the ends justified the means.

As far as Desmoulins goes, I’ve always related to him as a person. I think many people who write fiction about the Revolution tend to identify with him (witness his starring role in both Hilary Mantel’s brilliant A Place of Greater Safety and Tanith Lee’s less successful The Gods Are Thirsty). He was very much a particular type of creative personality: talented, intellectually brilliant, but temperamental, impulsive, and emotionally immature, always seeking approval.

He was a natural fit for A Far Better Rest, because the Camille/Lucile love story works excellently as a parallel to the fictional Charles Darnay/Lucie Manette story (can it be a coincidence that Dickens named his heroine Lucie?). Dickens suggests that Lucie Manette might willingly die beside her husband; Lucile Demoulins did, indeed, gladly die by the guillotine a week after Camille did, and I wanted that example to stress the urgency for my Sydney Carton to rescue the Darnay family by whatever means necessary. (On the other hand, Desmoulins ended up with a brief role in The Cavalier of the Apocalypse simply because I needed someone to discuss 1780s French Freemasonry with Ravel. Desmoulins’s biographies tell us he became a Freemason around the time of the novel, and I thought I might as well use him in the scene, as someone whom other French Revolution fans would immediately recognize, rather than some throwaway fictional character.)

LV: Aristide Ravel, the “free-lance police investigator” who is the hero of your revolutionary mysteries, is a natural déclassé yet well bred and hence able to navigate France’s complex social hierarchy.  This was particularly important for the book set in 1786.  How hard is it to convey Old Regime rank and social distinctions to a modern audience?

It’s certainly not easy, and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up giving what editors call an “info dump”—a long, indigestible lump of necessary information or backstory. The best way of conveying such distinctions, I’ve found, is to show them in other people’s reactions and/or attitudes. Get into the head of, say, Inspector Brasseur, who is from the lower middle class, and convey his attitude toward his social superiors (before the Revolution) by showing readers that he knows an influential aristocrat suspected of murder has all sorts of ways of evading prosecution, and that he’s somewhat resigned to the fact—it’s just a part of day-to-day business for him, an annoyance to overcome somehow if he can. This conveys the facts of 18th-century society and class distinctions to the modern reader much more painlessly than does a pause to dump a paragraph about the inequities of the ancien régime in the reader’s lap.

To get across the flavor of a world like prerevolutionary France, you, the author, have to place yourself in the head of a period character and (with research, of course) understand what is, for him, normal, natural, and expected—things he wouldn’t even think about. Ravel, with the background of a well-brought up young man from the professional bourgeoisie, simply knows whom to call Monsieur (most people) and whom to call Monseigneur (upper clergy and very high-ranking aristocrats).

I do usually cheat by trying to avoid the grandest nobility (a brief appearance by the duc d’Orléans did sneak into The Cavalier of the Apocalypse) and, heaven help me, the court. Ravel will never, ever visit the court at Versailles except as a tourist—trying to navigate that world would be too much for me. I’ve also cheated by making most of my aristocratic characters quite liberal; I imagined that such people would be less fussy about etiquette, and have a slightly more casual attitude toward class distinctions, which would make them less alien to modern readers.

LV: In Palace of Justice, you explore revolutionary justice through the trial of the Brissotins. You treat them as essentially well meaning but out-of-touch with popular demands, unlike the Jacobins/Mountain who are “pandering” to them.  What do you want your readers to get from this?

I do think that that, in an extremely simplified nutshell, is how the Revolution evolved. The Brissotins (and others), while having a vague, general sympathy for “the people” in the course of setting up the Constitution of 1791 and the constitutional monarchy, were more concerned with Liberty than Equality. They were fairly out of touch with the working and agrarian classes—clueless and a bit nannyish (“the lower classes can’t be trusted to think intelligently enough to participate in a democracy”) rather than indifferent. The Jacobins, on the other hand, included in their ranks more of the lower middle class, and, I think, were more realistic.

Readers have to remember that characters’ opinions are not necessarily those of the author, and not necessarily unbiased: the Brissotins in Palace of Justice who are speaking bitterly about the Jacobins are, after all, imprisoned and heading for trial and, very likely, the guillotine, so are not feeling particularly generous about the people who put them there. My suggestion that the Mountain was pandering to the sans-culottes reflects the probable opinion of my Brissotin characters at the time; my own feelings are that the majority of the Jacobins were sincere but simply farther to the left. Readers will have to decide for themselves!

LV:  Ravel is close to the Girondins [Brissotins], because he comes from Bordeaux and knows the leaders personally.  He is also “working for Danton.” How does he manage to escape revolutionary justice?  Are you satisfied with keeping him always on the sidelines?

Ravel, by the time of the Terror, is a disappointed liberal. He’s finding politics distasteful by 1791—and downright revolting after the Brissotins’ trial. His job, in his eyes, is to pursue and catch genuine (non-political) criminals, nothing more—and hope, while he’s doing it, that the people in power recognize his neutrality.

I imagined that Danton, who wasn’t rigid about people’s loyalties, would recognize Ravel’s abilities and make use of them without caring who his friends might be, or how political alignments are changing. I haven’t yet decided, though, what will happen to Ravel over the course of the Terror. My next projected Ravel story will send him back to Bordeaux in November 1793, where I’m sure he’ll meet Tallien and become entangled in affairs there and probably get into some trouble. It’s quite possible, also, that he will be labeled a Dantonist in Paris in 1794 and get into some sticky situations. But Ravel’s complete lack of desire to get involved in politics will probably keep him out of real danger—and his abilities make him too valuable a resource to be squandered. Perhaps the Robespierrists or the Committee of General Security will pressure him into working for them for a time. We do know he survives into the Directoire, at any rate.

LV: You aren’t keen on sappy heroines and tend to introduce smart, spunky alternatives. Can you talk about your approach to gender in your work?

Ah, the challenge of creating appealing yet realistic female characters in a historical novel for a 21st-century audience. Modern readers (two-thirds or more of whom are female) don’t want to read about passive, languishing women, even when said women exist in a thoroughly male-dominated society. A sappy female character may be all right in a supporting role, but modern Western attitudes simply don’t allow readers to identify with bland, drippy, utterly sweet heroines any more. (Is there any living fan of A Tale of Two Cities who isn’t irritated by Lucie’s eternal, bland, passive perfection? The most active attribute you can apply to her is that she has “quiet strength”—though she never does anything much with it except bear up and be lovingly encouraging to her menfolk. Yet she was obviously Dickens’s—and many other Victorian readers’—ideal woman.)

I think we first have to assume that human nature and behavior hasn’t changed much over the millennia, and that the same proportion of smart, strong human beings to dull-witted, submissive human beings (of both sexes) existed two hundred years ago, or two thousand years ago, as exists today. The challenge for the historical author is to create a fictional woman who has the same appealing intelligence and strength of character as the heroine of a 21st-century contemporary novel, without giving her an unrealistic, overly independent or defiant 21st-century mindset.

The realistic historical female character may very well be smarter and braver than most of the men around her—but she doesn’t (unless she is the heroine of a bodice-ripper romance) get fed up with the empty frivolities of her womanly role and run away from her aristocratic home to become a cross-dressing highwayman (er, person); she uses her brains and courage to work within the confines of her world, and the boundaries that the male-dominated society has set, to achieve her ends. (My cross-dressing character in Game of Patience—loosely based on a real woman of the time—after a series of harsh experiences that have driven her to it, has gone far, far beyond the accepted boundaries and knows it, and is beyond caring—she knows there will be no happy bodice-ripper ending.)

As for Ravel, I envisage him as being slightly neurotic and intensely cerebral to the exclusion of almost everything else. He’s somewhat withdrawn from society—being the son of an executed murderer in 18th-century France will do that to you—and just not that interested in sexual relationships. I’ve always pictured him as being rather like Robespierre in that respect—that he feels there are more important and/or interesting matters in his life and career, like solving intricate crimes, than messy sexual relations or romantic entanglements. (He also tends to find himself attracted, when he does feel attraction, to the wrong woman—usually one as conflicted and neurotic as he is.) Brasseur is a friend and professional partner but also something of a father figure to Ravel, particularly as Ravel has lacked a father since childhood.

None of this is very typical of 18th-century French attitudes, I agree (although, again, I could hold up Robespierre as an example). But I do have people, particularly the drinking-and-whoring police spy François, constantly teasing Ravel about being monkish—he doesn’t drink much, either. Well, he doesn’t care. He has more interesting things to do, after all.

LV: You clearly relish recreating the old Paris. How difficult is it?

All I can say is, thank heavens for the reproduction 1789 map of Paris that I bought at the Palais-Royal in 1989. I could barely afford it but it is one of the best research investments I ever made. Between that and Dictionnaire du Paris Disparu and Hillairet’s Connaissance de Vieux Paris, I can find my way pretty well around eighteenth-century Paris. The “vertical stratification” of the time is always interesting to readers—that rents decreased on upper floors and neighborhoods weren’t as rigidly delineated into classes as they later became, and therefore allowed more contact and communication between the classes. I do try to give a rough idea of the dominant demographic in an area, though: artisans and working class in St. Antoine, the very wealthy in St. Germain, students and bohemians and somewhat liberal bourgeoisie in the Latin Quarter, working-class slums toward the edge of the city, and so on.

(One of the more interesting facts I’ve discovered in the midst of “map research” is that, often where there is now a small park or square set down in the midst of modern central Paris, there was once a medieval cemetery on the site—cleared in the 18th or 19th century and its inhabitants banished to the Catacombs!)

LV:  Can you say something about the Sanson project?

I grew fascinated with Charles-Henri Sanson very early in my Revolutionary obsession. The essential contradiction of the man—by all accounts a well-educated, kindly, decent human being who was forced by birth to become the official who would carry out both the brutalities of ancien régime justice and the bloodletting of the Terror—and the moral dilemmas he must have had, have always seemed like the perfect subject for a novel. The dramatic ironies in his life were simply incredible. The most significant, of course, was that he spent decades as executioner for the king before unwillingly becoming executioner of the king—but so many other, lesser ironies abound that I hope readers will believe them all.

Right now, since it’s quite long, I’m planning Sanson’s story as two novels. The first, which my agent is about to shop around—with the working title The Executioner’s Heir—takes Sanson from 1753, when he was obliged to become his father’s deputy at fourteen, to 1766 and the trials of the comte de Lally and the chevalier de La Barre. Running parallel to Sanson’s story is the story of La Barre himself, and we see how the two stories converge until the connection between them becomes horribly obvious. The second volume will take Sanson from the 1770s through the Revolution and the Terror.

LV: Would you ever consider writing “history”?

I think I’m too much of a “creative” writer to be trusted with any major kind of straight historical nonfiction. I’ve considered writing a “Short Irreverent Guide to the French Revolution” for the layperson—a sort of “French Revolution For Dummies” affair using slightly tongue-in-cheek modern parallels to personages and events (“marrying Marie-Antoinette to the future Louis XVI was akin to forcing the most popular and most bubbleheaded cheerleader in the high school to date the hopelessly nerdy president of the math club”). That may yet happen.

An ongoing project of mine has been a new translation into English, with lots of annotations, of the hoary, apocryphal 1862 family history, Sept générations d’exécuteurs, published by Charles Sanson’s grandson. The only existing English translation was first published in the 1870s and is highly abridged and terribly Victorian. I do think, at this point, I’m well qualified to annotate it with clarifications, background, additional information from new source material that came to light long after the original book was published, and the like, and to provide educated opinions as to what in the book is possibly true, probably true, or just plain lurid potboiler fiction.

LV:  Many thanks to Susanne!


Susanne Alleyn lives in Albany, NY, and is known to many H-France subscribers as Susanna Betzel of Tricolor Books.  She is the author of A Far Better Rest (orig. pub. 2000, Bella Rosa Press reissue, 2010), Game of Patience (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2006), A Treasury of Regrets (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2007), The Cavalier of the Apocalypse (Minotaur Books, 2009), Palace of Justice: An Aristide Ravel Mystery (Minotaur Books, 2010).

Author website:

Amazon Author Page:

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,