Colin Jones

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Colin Jones

The Com­ing of the Ter­ror in the French Revo­lu­tion by Ti­mothy Tack­ett. Belk­nap Press/Har­vard Univer­sity Press,

463 pp., $35.00

In 2015, the French lit­er­ary world was ea­gerly de­vour­ing Temps glaciaires, the lat­est thriller from the em­i­nent crime nov­el­ist Fred Var­gas.1 Its plot re­volves around the do­ings of a fic­tive As­so­ci­a­tion d’Étude des écrits de Max­im­i­lien Robe­spierre (an ev­i­dent spoof of the Paris-based So­ciété des études robe­spier­ristes, the schol­arly so­ci­ety ded­i­cated to the his­tory of the French Revo­lu­tion). The pres­i­dent of the as­so­ci­a­tion wears a neck­lace dec­o­rated with teeth from the mouth of his al­leged an­ces­tor, Max­im­i­lien Robe­spierre. In an in­ci­dent (prob­a­bly at­tempted sui­cide) dur­ing his ar­rest in July 1794, Robe­spierre shot a hole in his jaw and lost and loos­ened many of his teeth. He was put out of his agony later that day by the guil­lo­tine erected on the present-day Place de la Con­corde.

Var­gas’s lit­er­ary suc­cess is a re­minder of the fas­ci­na­tion that the French Revo­lu­tion of 1789 con­tin­ues to ex­ert, not sim­ply among his­to­ri­ans, but among a wider pub­lic. It is also symp­to­matic of the Revo­lu­tion’s broader cul­tural re­cep­tion that the novel fo­cuses par­tic­u­larly on the Ter­ror of 1793–1794.2 In France un­der the Ter­ror the gov­ern­ment de­ployed in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized vi­o­lence and de­creed the mass ex­e­cu­tion of po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents. Robe­spierre was, as a mem­ber of the Com­mit­tee of Pub­lic Safety that gov­erned France in these years, one of the Ter­ror’s fore­most lead­ers, its prin­ci­pal ide­ol­o­gist, and one of its most strik­ing vic­tims. In the An­glo­phone world, the vein opened up by Charles Dick­ens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Baroness Or­czy’s The Scar­let Pim­per­nel (1903) is still em­i­nently ex­ploitable. Those nov­els de­vel­oped a par­tic­u­larly lurid, hy­per­e­mo­tive ver­sion of the Ter­ror: the brusque Kafkaesque tri­bunal pro­ceed­ings, the world-turned-up­side-down of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary pris­ons, the nerver­ack­ing prepa­ra­tion for the scaf­fold, the tum­bril ride through jeer­ing Parisian streets, the swish of the guil­lo­tine blade, and the sev­ered head clunk­ing into the bas­ket, then be­ing held aloft for the crowd’s ap­proval.

Be­fore Wolf Hall es­tab­lished Hilary Man­tel as one of the great his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ists of our times, her A Place of Greater Safety (1992) bril­liantly evoked Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Paris un­der the guil­lo­tine’s shadow in ways that built on this in­her­i­tance. In a rather dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter, the re­cent books and films about Queen Marie Antoinette, who lost her head in 1793, show the vi­tal­ity and in­creas­ingly transna­tional di­men­sions of pub­lic in­ter­est in the pe­riod. The furor in France caused in 2014 by the As­sas­sin’s Creed Unity video game, which pro­voked an an­gry re­sponse from the French par­lia­men­tary left over what were per­ceived to be fla­grant his­tor­i­cal in­ac­cu­ra­cies in its por­trayal of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Paris, sug­gests that the Ter­ror myth has reached the in­ter­na­tional gam­ing com­mu­nity.3

Be­cause it is so of­ten the san­guinary as­pects of the Ter­ror that catch wider me­dia at­ten­tion, it is worth not­ing that, mea­sured purely by the num­ber of vic­tims, the im­pact of the Ter­ror was less than of­ten imag­ined. Dur­ing 1793 and 1794, the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Tri­bunal in Paris ac­counted for no more than 2,700 deaths. Over­all dur­ing the Ter­ror, the gov­ern­ment was re­spon­si­ble for 30,000–40,000 deaths across France through ju­di­cial and sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions, lynch­ings, fa­tal­i­ties in pris­ons, and the like. Deaths in civil war con­di­tions in 1793–1794 within and around the Vendée depart­ment in west­ern France should be added to the tally. Count­ing vic­tims on both sides of the con­flict, more than 250,000 died.4

To find a cred­i­ble com­par­i­son for body counts, we might first look at the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary and Napoleonic wars, which caused nearly a mil­lion and a half French fa­tal­i­ties be­tween 1792 and 1815, and per­haps five mil­lion through­out Europe as a whole. The im­pact of the At­lantic slave trade was just as bru­tal to­ward African pop­u­la­tions, with be­tween four and six mil­lion peo­ple trans­ported to the Amer­i­cas over the eigh­teenth cen­tury. To the death rate of around 30 to 40 per­cent on the jour­ney should be added high mor­tal­ity on ar­rival.

The repub­li­can gov­ern­ment that over­saw the Ter­ror in France abol­ished slav­ery in 1794 (though Napoleon later re­in­stated it). That fact may serve as a re­minder that no­tions of the French Revo­lu­tion and the Ter­ror in West­ern cul­ture are rooted less in crude de­mo­graph­ics or in a pop­u­lar ob­ses­sion with blood and gore than in a deep and con­tin­u­ing sense that the Revo­lu­tion mat­ters po­lit­i­cally. Even if the num­ber of rev­o­lu­tions since 1789 has in­evitably di­min­ished its aura, for two cen­turies France’s Revo­lu­tion some­how seemed to pre­fig­ure mod­ern times—a sta­tus that even the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion of 1917 gen­er­ally seemed to en­dorse.

This may be chang­ing as a re­sult of the rather dif­fer­ent rev­o­lu­tions of the late twen­ti­eth and twenty-first cen­turies. But it is strik­ing how much of the de­bate about these rev­o­lu­tions is still haunted by the two fun­da­men­tal ques­tions that have al­ways pre­oc­cu­pied his­to­ri­ans of the French Revo­lu­tion: Why Revo­lu­tion in 1789, and why Ter­ror in 1793–1794? In other words, why and how did France’s an­cien régime col­lapse so spec­tac­u­larly in 1789? And then, why was the Revo­lu­tion trans­formed from what in 1789 had seemed an up­lift­ing and in­deed epochal mo­ment in the his­tory of hu­man­ity into the dark, fore­bod­ing Ter­ror of 1793–1794? An­swers to these ques­tions have al­ways di­vided opin­ion. While those on the left have re­joiced in 1789 as the found­ing mo­ment of rights-based demo­cratic pol­i­tics, the right has viewed the events of the fol­low­ing years as a kind of moral­ity play that showed how revo­lu­tion in­ex­orably leads to vi­o­lence and op­pres­sion. Gen­er­ally, the left has tended to see the shift to­ward ter­ror as a prod­uct of the ex­treme sit­u­a­tion in which the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies found them­selves. The gravedig­gers of the an­cien régime dis­cov­ered that their prin­ci­pal vic­tims (royal court, no­bil­ity, clergy) re­fused to be in­terred and that many were pro­vok­ing coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary ac­tiv­ity through­out the coun­try.

The sit­u­a­tion was se­verely ag­gra­vated by the wars with the rest of Europe that started in 1792. At the very mo­ment in mid-1793 when the in­sti­tu­tions of ter­ror were be­ing ac­ti­vated, France faced for­eign troops ad­vanc­ing on its ter­ri­tory from ev­ery di­rec­tion, a block­ade of ports by the Royal Navy, pro-monar­chist civil war con­di­tions in west­ern France, and ve­he­ment op­po­si­tion to gov­ern­ment pol­icy in many other re­gions. Swerv­ing away from the val­ues es­poused in 1789 and in­sti­tu­tion­al­iz­ing ter­ror seemed the only way, the ar­gu­ment goes, to save France from crush­ing de­feat, vast ter­ri­to­rial losses, and the re­turn of the monar­chy. Con­versely, other an­a­lysts have dis­missed this so-called “the­sis of cir­cum­stances” out of hand—in some cases for at­tempt­ing to ex­cuse and jus­tify the un­for­giv­able. As the his­to­rian François Furet noted, there is no lack of ex­treme na­tional crises in French his­tory—but there was only one Ter­ror. The shift to ter­ror was some­how in­scribed in the DNA of mod­ern revo­lu­tion from 1789 on­ward. From this uni­fied per­spec­tive, 1794 was merely, as Si­mon Schama once fa­mously put it, “1789 with a higher body count” (al­though as we have seen, body counts can take us only part of the way to­ward po­lit­i­cal un­der­stand­ing).5

For some time now his­to­ri­ans have been striv­ing to find ways of steer­ing a mid­dle course be­tween the the­sis that unique cir­cum­stances caused the Revo­lu­tion and the view that the Ter­ror was its quintessential event. In The Com­ing of the Ter­ror in the French Revo­lu­tion, the dis­tin­guished his­to­rian Ti­mothy Tack­ett com­mend­ably

joins their num­ber. His book de­vel­ops an in­no­va­tive ap­proach to the emer­gence of the Ter­ror that fo­cuses on the col­lec­tive psy­chol­ogy of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, and that draws heav­ily on the bur­geon­ing study of the his­tory of the emo­tions.

It is hardly news, of course, that the French Revo­lu­tion evoked strong emo­tions. In­deed, this has been one of the rea­sons for its con­tin­u­ing cul­tural in­ter­est. Fear, anx­i­ety, panic, sus­pi­cion, anger, fury, rage—to high­light only the neg­a­tive emo­tions—ac­com­pa­nied ev­ery twist and turn on the road to ter­ror. Even dur­ing the most rhap­sodic phases of 1789, when heady hopes were ex­pressed for rad­i­cal re­forms, a kind of tsunami of panic—the so-called “Great Fear” (July–Au­gust 1789)—swept by word of mouth across the coun­try. The peas­antry were con­vinced that both po­lit­i­cal change and their pre­cious har­vest were threat­ened by (in fact nonex­is­tent) bands of brig­ands hired by the no­bil­ity. The up­shot of this col­lec­tive fan­tasy was the over­throw of the feu­dal sys­tem in the coun­try­side, a fait ac­com­pli that the Na­tional Assem­bly ac­cepted.

His­to­ri­ans in the past who have con­sid­ered the in­flu­ence of the emo­tions over the 1790s have fo­cused ei­ther on cer­tain Rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­ers (most notably Robe­spierre) for hav­ing a patho­log­i­cally ob­ses­sive fear of con­spir­acy, or else on the peas­antry and the ur­ban la­bor­ing classes. Ple­beian crowds were held to have been driven by ir­ra­tional feel­ings of fear, envy, and sus­pi­cion, re­sult­ing in the atavis­tic blood lust that so at­tracted (and re­pelled) Dick­ens and Or­czy. If we put aside these two crude, ide­o­log­i­cally driven stereo­types, how can we seek to un­der­stand thoughts and feel­ings in the past? His­to­ri­ans of­ten use mem­oirs as their guide. Yet nos­tal­gia, dis­en­chant­ment, re­gret, and the tricks of mem­ory of­ten cloud the view. Tack­ett adeptly cir­cum­vents the prob­lem by re­ly­ing less on mem­oirs than on pri­vate cor­re­spon­dence and diaries. These al­low us to glimpse or­di­nary men and women re­act­ing to the dra­matic events of their days, and to cap­ture at close quar­ters the flow of emo­tions usu­ally edited out of sub­se­quent rec­ol­lec­tions.

With the in­stincts and pas­sion of an ex­pe­ri­enced truf­fle-hunter, Tack­ett has snuf­fled his way through dozens of mu­nic­i­pal, de­part­men­tal, and pri­vate ar­chives through­out la France pro­fonde in a quest for let­ters and diaries from the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary pe­riod. He has dis­cov­ered a hugely valu­able hoard of new tes­ti­monies by men and women, Parisians and provin­cials. His fo­cus is on the bour­geois class that drove the Revo­lu­tion on­ward, rang­ing from in­di­vid­u­als elected to serve in suc­ces­sive na­tional as­sem­blies, to lo­cal of­fice­hold­ers and func­tionar­ies, through to the broader pool of lit­er­ate and vo­cal pri­vate ci­ti­zens.

The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary years were an emo­tional roller-coaster for this group. High emo­tion ran like a red thread through the course of pol­i­tics from the Revo­lu­tion’s ear­li­est days. Anx­i­ety, sus­pi­cion, and panic were not sim­ply the pre­serve of the pop­u­lar classes, whipped up by ground­less ru­mors. Po­lit­i­cal cred­u­lous­ness and ex­pec­ta­tions of the worst were found in lit­er­ate as well as oral cul­ture and through­out the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary po­lit­i­cal elite—and in­deed beyond it both so­cially (the lower or­ders) and po­lit­i­cally (coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies). The Com­ing of the Ter­ror al­lows us into this mael­strom of emo­tion, high­light­ing in­di­vid­ual re­ac­tions well beyond the range of his­to­ri­ans’ usual sus­pects.

By re­fresh­ing the sources of French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary his­tory in a way that is likely to prove en­dur­ing, and plac­ing his find­ings within a lively, ro­bust, and up-to-date nar­ra­tive, Tack­ett has put all his­to­ri­ans of the Revo­lu­tion in his debt. Yet his am­bi­tions go beyond chang­ing the way we think about how the Revo­lu­tion was ex­pe­ri­enced. It was not just that po­lit­i­cal life brimmed with emo­tion from 1789 to 1794, he ar­gues. In ad­di­tion, high states of emo­tion contributed pow­er­fully to­ward the move to ter­ror. The course of events—pop­u­lar tur­bu­lence, the break­down of monar­chi­cal au­thor­ity, coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion, the ad­vent of war, etc.—stim­u­lated high lev­els of fear and mis­trust. By in­cre­men­tal pro­gres­sion from 1789 on­ward, Tack­ett ar­gues, those fears crys­tal­lized into a “men­tal­ité” (or, some­times, “mind­set”) that cre­ated a po­lit­i­cal cul­ture in which co­er­cion won out over le­gal­ity, vi­o­lence over con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity, and emo­tions of ter­ror over finer feel­ings.

Tack­ett sum­ma­rizes the col­lec­tive psy­chol­ogy of the po­lit­i­cal elite by 1793–1794 as “an ob­ses­sional fear of a ubiq­ui­tous mono­lithic ‘grand con­spir­acy.’” This was a fear, he notes, that had a strong ba­sis in re­al­ity—the rulers of an­cien régime Europe re­ally did want to top­ple the Revo­lu­tion and were plot­ting to do so, as were mis­cel­la­neous coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies within France. But the tip­ping point was sup­plied by a fan­tasy: the “grand con­spir­acy” as it was imag­ined sim­ply did not ex­ist. Still, fear and anx­i­ety drove the French po­lit­i­cal elite into feel­ing “ter­ror­ized.” In a po­lit­i­cal cul­ture of vi­o­lence, they came to see the met­ing out of stat­edriven co­er­cion as the only ad­e­quate re­sponse to their predica­ment. Ter­ror was the con­se­quence. Emo­tions were thus more than just an in­ci­den­tal ac­ces­sory to more “ra­tio­nal” po­lit­i­cal pro­cesses; they were de­ter­mi­nant. Their emo­tions height­ened, many mem­bers of the po­lit­i­cal elite col­lec­tively and emo­tion­ally trans­formed them­selves into “ter­ror­ists.”

This is cer­tainly a new and strik­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Ter­ror that will stim­u­late dis­cus­sion and, one hopes, fur­ther re­search. Is it, how­ever, plau­si­ble? It cer­tainly raises many ques­tions. What, first, are we to make of the term men­tal­ité, which plays such an im­por­tant part in Tack­ett’s scheme? Men­tal­ité was one of the buzz­words of the cel­e­brated “An­nales school” that dom­i­nated French his­tory from the 1940s to the 1980s. For the An­nal­istes, men­tal­ités were char­ac­ter­is­tic of a deeper his­tory than the cut-and-thrust of con­ven­tional pol­i­tics, which the mas­ter An­nal­iste Fer­nand Braudel some­what scorn­fully dubbed l’his­toire événe­men­tielle (“event his­tory”). A men­tal­ité de­noted an un­der­ly­ing col­lec­tive frame of thought rather than a set of ideas, and it was held to op­er­ate in the very long term (the longue durée). Braudel

him­self quipped that men­tal­ités were “long-term pris­ons”; it was im­pos­si­ble to will one’s way out of them.

Given the term’s ge­neal­ogy, then, what is a rev­o­lu­tion­ary men­tal­ité and how does it func­tion? Gen­er­ally Tack­ett seems to mean by the word a cast of mind that pre­con­di­tioned ac­cep­tance of the need for state vi­o­lence and the ex­ter­mi­na­tion—more than, say, ex­ile or im­pris­on­ment—of po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents. He sees this as a short-term cre­ation—he dis­re­gards any longue durée in­flu­ence of En­light­en­ment ideas or feel­ings prior to 1789. But he also uses the lan­guage of in­evitabil­ity in a way that sug­gests he means that a rev­o­lu­tion­ary men­tal­ité is more than a back­ground fac­tor and in­deed has agency in its own right. This emo­tional de­ter­min­ism leaves lit­tle space for the use of rea­son—po­lit­i­cal ideas are given short shrift through­out the book. But one won­ders whether mak­ing the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies pawns of their pas­sions some­how ab­solves them of re­spon­si­bil­ity for their deeds. In the event, many of the “ter­ror­ists” of 1793– 1794 were sub­se­quently strongly at­tacked for acts of vi­o­lence. Some tried the “emo­tional de­fense” (“too fright­ened not to obey,” etc.) in var­i­ous forms, but it rarely got them off the hook. Tack­ett seems to be more in­dul­gent. Tack­ett de­picts the rev­o­lu­tion­ary men­tal­ité spread­ing through the po­lit­i­cal elite from 1789 on­ward in a way that re­sem­bles a psy­cho­log­i­cal pathogen that could be con­tracted wher­ever peo­ple were most vul­ner­a­ble. Yet to be con­vinc­ing, the epi­demi­ol­ogy needs to be able to move from the gen­eral to the par­tic­u­lar, from the col­lec­tive to the in­di­vid­ual. Did an in­di­vid­ual’s ab­sorp­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary men­tal­ité al­ways in­volve not just a com­mit­ment to a vague idea but also in­volve­ment or ac­tive complicity in acts of ter­ror? Was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary men­tal­ité al­ways acted out? Robe­spierre’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary men­tal­ité led him to send peo­ple to the scaf­fold; but he also tried openly to pro­tect over seventy of his op­po­nents sen­tenced to im­pris­on­ment for the du­ra­tion of the Ter­ror. Tack­ett’s panoramic broad­brush ap­proach does not al­low us the de­gree of dis­crim­i­na­tion re­quired to ac­count for this vari­abil­ity in be­hav­ior. The no­tion of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary men­tal­ité lead­ing in­evitably to ter­ror also gives the im­pres­sion that the Ter­ror was a ho­mo­ge­neous move­ment or po­lit­i­cal cul­ture. “The Ter­ror” as a term de­not­ing the po­lit­i­cal prac­tices of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment in 1793– 1794 only came into gen­eral us­age af­ter the fall of Robe­spierre in 1794. This use of the word also co­in­cided with the dis­man­tling of many of the in­sti­tu­tions of the Ter­ror and at­tacks on the “ter­ror­ists” of 1793–1794. The ten­dency to see ter­ror as an in­sti­tu­tion­ally uni­fied form of gov­ern­ment owes much to this con­dem­na­tory ret­ro­spec­tive vi­sion. Re­cent his­to­ri­ans have in fact been stress­ing how di­verse, un­co­or­di­nated, and even con­tra­dic­tory the poli­cies pur­sued in 1793–1794 un­der the aus­pices of ter­ror were, and how hard the cen­tral gov­ern­ment had to strug­gle to con­trol even its own agents. Fur­ther­more, many “ter­ror­ists” spent a great deal of time and en­ergy in 1793–1794 de­vis­ing ways of con­trol­ling acts of vi­o­lence among the lower or­ders.6 It is not clear how this kind of re­straint fits within a po­lit­i­cal cul­ture of vi­o­lence dom­i­nated by a rev­o­lu­tion­ary men­tal­ité. As Tack­ett notes, the gov­ern­ment of 1793–1794 also sought to de­velop a range of non­vi­o­lent and some­times vi­sion­ary ini­tia­tives cov­er­ing, be­sides the abo­li­tion of slav­ery, par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy, ed­u­ca­tional and wel­fare re­form, and re­li­gious free­dom. This sug­gests that there were lim­its to how ter­ri­fied and ter­ror­ized the “ter­ror­ists” felt. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary men­tal­ité is too blunt an in­stru­ment to de­scribe these as­pects of the Ter­ror or to un­der­stand the mo­ti­va­tions be­hind them.

T he Com­ing of the Ter­ror in the French Revo­lu­tion shows us in spec­tac­u­lar style the ex­tent to which the pol­i­tics of the 1790s were in­fused with emo­tion. But it is also worth ask­ing, fi­nally, whether those emo­tions might have their own his­tory. This is a ques­tion that fre­quently chal­lenges prac­ti­tion­ers of the emer­gent dis­ci­pline of the his­tory of the emo­tions. Whereas many in the field (let us call them the “es­sen­tial­ists”) main­tain that the emo­tions are ba­si­cally the same in the past as in our own day, others (“the rel­a­tivists”) hold that they are cul­tur­ally con­structed. Tack­ett takes the es­sen­tial­ist po­si­tion: an emo­tion is an emo­tion, and for him it is a tran­shis­tor­i­cal emo­tion. Yet in fact, there is a very strong case for ar­gu­ing that the emo­tional life of this par­tic­u­lar pe­riod dif­fered quite markedly from our own.7

We only have to read some of the best sell­ers of late-eigh­teenth-cen­tury France—such as Sa­muel Richard­son’s Clarissa and Pamela, and Jean-Jac­ques Rousseau’s Julie, ou la Nou­velle Héloise—to see that they were sit­u­ated within an emo­tional world very far from our own. In­deed, many of us may well find that the hy­per­e­mo­tion­al­ity of such works makes them un­read­able. Tears well up from ev­ery eye (in­clud­ing the reader’s), sobs are man­fully sti­fled, while tremu­lous lips del­i­cately form into heart­break­ing smiles.

No French bour­geois home in the 1780s and 1790s was with­out at least one of these nov­els of sen­si­bil­ity. They were the kind of works that pro­foundly al­tered peo­ple’s sense of them­selves. Read­ing them could be per­ceived as lit­er­ally life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ences—as was in­deed the case, for ex­am­ple, with Robe­spierre, whose ut­ter de­vo­tion to the cult of Rousseau is well known.

We ex­pe­ri­ence a sim­i­lar feel­ing of af­fec­tive es­trange­ment from the past when we look at Jac­quesLouis David’s sketches for The Ten­nis Court Oath, record­ing the mo­ment on June 20, 1789, when the new Na­tional Assem­bly vowed to re­sist all royal ef­forts to dis­perse it and to re­main ac­tive un­til a writ­ten con­sti­tu­tion had been cre­ated. Here in David’s neo­clas­si­cal id­iom we see jut­ting jaws, stiff up­per lips, fixed gazes, oper­atic bod­ily ges­tures—again quite un­like, I would imag­ine, our own pub­lic and do­mes­tic lives in the 2010s.

The emo­tional past some­times re­ally is an­other coun­try. And in the case of the late eigh­teenth cen­tury the oth­er­ness ex­uded by nov­els of sen­si­bil­ity or David’s epic neo­clas­si­cal paint­ings is par­tic­u­larly worth ex­plor­ing, not least be­cause these id­ioms did not re­main on the page or on the can­vas but got in­side peo­ple’s heads and in­flu­enced the way they thought and felt and ex­pressed them­selves. We see this in the self-con­sciously sto­ical ges­tures of the deputies in the na­tional as­sem­blies and the volatile emo­tion­al­ity of de­bates.

But they also pro­vided mod­els to live by—and write by—at a more mun­dane level. Diaries and let­ters, both of them gen­res with very spe­cific con­ven­tions, were par­tic­u­larly strongly in­flu­enced by lit­er­ary ex­am­ple. In­deed, nov­els of sen­si­bil­ity were of­ten epis­to­lary or first-per­son fic­tions that some­times pur­ported to be “real” doc­u­ments. The emo­tion­al­ity that Tack­ett records ooz­ing so abun­dantly from his col­or­ful let­ters and diaries are not at all just straight­for­ward ex­pres­sions of an un­der­ly­ing emo­tional state or men­tal­ité. They are doc­u­ments writ­ten with great in­ten­sity that de­serve anal­y­sis in their own terms. Ex­am­in­ing the role of the emo­tions in the French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary decade re­quires us to take the emo­tions of the pe­riod as se­ri­ously as we take its pol­i­tics.

Dirk Bog­a­rde (right) as Syd­ney Car­ton at the guil­lo­tine in A Tale of Two Cities, 1958

Jean-Jac­ques Rousseau

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