Lucinda Elliot

Some Thoughts on the Terror…


Here’s some jolly pictures pertaining to the execution of aristocrats during the French revolution. That is a of the guillotine used circa 1793, I shouldn’t imagine the original was painted red, though I haven’t been able to find out…

I’m just breaking off here to make a few comments about the historical background to this story.

By the way, it does, I promise, become as Gothic and over-the-top as any Gothic addict could wish when Emile soon arrives in Wales, and encounters the would be time-travelling vampire, Kenrick, with his precious spectacles and habit of drooling on pretty girls’ hands; (of course, Sophie has already met this individual, once in the dining room, and once by her bed).

People’s perception of The French Revolution often seems to be on sensationalist lines – the looming guillotine, Charles Dickens’ lurid depiction in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ , thousands of heads rolling into buckets every day, frenzied crowds of sans cullotes cheering, the tumbrels rolling through the streets…

Two reservations are appropriate here: George Orwell’s comment that regarding the Napoleonic Wars, as many people were killed in any of Napoleon’s big battles as were killed during the years of the Terror, and that the guillotine, though peculiarly associated in people’s minds with the French Revolution, was merely a comparatively humane mode of execution (compared to the slow hangings favoured in Britain, for instance) introduced at that time and used until shortly before the death penalty was abolished in France in 1981 (last used in 1977).

It was a ferocious political reaction to the threat of invasion from the combined military might of the invading powers and internal crisis – inhumane and tragically mistaken, like most punative ractions to political crises.

For aristocrats, though, and unfortunately often for those among them like Emile who had opposed the outrageously unjust situation of the peasants in the old order – taxed to support the artistocracy and with no political representation – the threat of execution was a real nightmare, with the new government inflexible in its definitions of who was an ‘enemy of the state’ and what constituted counter revoluionary activity.

For sure, Emile’s parents have truly engaged in counter revolutionary activity, been arrested, and await trial . He tries to get them out through bribery and corruption, while lying low disguised as Gilles a journeyman employee in one Marcel ‘Sly Boots” workshop; this workshop serves as a front for the eighteenth century style protection racket to which Marcel and his men subject the better off’hucksters’. They know how to get round the form of conscription just introduced, the Grand Levee…

Emile of course -two of whose younger siblings have been acidentally killed when their family Chateau was set on fire – must always regard the Revolution with horror – yet as a natural democrat, had his family survived, it would be more in line with his general temperment to support the aims, if not the methods, of the Revolution.

2 Responses

  1. Blood-curdling stuff, Lucinda. The scale and extent of the Terror might have been exaggerated, but the imaginative strength of people’s perception of it – the tumbrel rolling through the streets, the baying mobs – is such that I doubt it will be reassessed any time soon. Knowing your political opinions, I’m rather surprised that you evidently had such sympathy for Emile and his family!

    1. That’s me, Mari, I am so wonderfully nice and fair minded, I make my hero (or anti hero} an aristocrat (and what a patriarch!). I always feel for the innocent victims of any Revolution, I think that because opponents tend to emphasize this aspect, supporters tend to downplay it, at the cost of losing human sympathies.††

      I know what you mean, Mari., about the popular notion of what the French Revolution means. It is a shame that Charles Dickens, who symapthised with the goals if not he methods of† the Revolution, painted such a lurid picture.


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