JOKING ALL THE WAY TO THE GUILLOTINE
Daft analogies. Ill-judged larkiness. This crude account of the French Revolution reads like Simon Schama rewritten by Jeremy Clarkson
The French Revolution & What Went Wrong Stephen Clarke Century £25
There is, writes Stephen Clarke, in his bluff, tell-it-like-it-is, saloonbar manner, ‘a lot of romantic nonsense talked and written about the French Revolution – mainly by the French themselves’.
Far from being glorious, the Revolution was, he argues, a bloodthirsty disaster. ‘Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité may have been the initial aims of the Revolution,’ he writes, ‘but for several years the reality was more like Tyranny, Megalomania and Fratricide.’ And, he concludes, after it was all over, and 300,000 men, women and children had been slaughtered, the poor were left worse off than they had been before, and the old social divisions were as strong as ever. The killing had been all for nothing.
Clarke begins his narrative way back, with the creation of Versailles by King Louis XIV more than 100 years before the Revolution, in the 1660s. It was, by any standards, absurdly over-the-top. The grounds contained 2,000 fountains and waterfalls, and 150,000 plants. They featured a version of the Grand Canal, just under a mile long, complete with a dozen gondolas crewed by authentic Venetian gondoliers. The king also commissioned a miniaturised royal fleet, with a 13-metre galley complete with 32 cannons, and a barge large enough to hold him, a small orchestra and a team of rowers.
The king’s court consisted of 10,000 people. His staff included 500 people working solely in the kitchens. His daily rituals were as extravagant – and, bizarrely, as public – as can be. When he went to the loo in the morning, he would be observed by any number of witnesses, all of whom considered themselves so fortunate to be given this privilege that they paid him 200,000 livres for it, which, if Clarke is to be believed, was the equivalent of the price of 1,000 houses in the average French town.
Versailles and all the king’s other extravagances were, of course, financed by taxes, most of them designed to bypass the wealthy and land on the poor. Somehow, Louis XIV managed to pull off this trick: his supreme self-confidence gave his over-spending an air of inevitability and meant that his subjects held him in awe. But his successor, Louis XV, was more easily embarrassed. He cut down on luxuries and servants, and undertook to perform his bowel movements in private. Perhaps as a consequence, standards went speedily downhill: domestic rubbish was thrown out of the windows, and began clogging up the fountains. The magic was absent: monarchy had lost its majesty, and could no longer command respect. When Louis XV died in 1774, his coffin had to be taken out of Versailles by night, so as to avoid jeering crowds. The future of the monarchy was in jeopardy.
‘A modern parallel would be 1997 in Britain,’ says Clarke, who likes nothing so much as drawing modern parallels. After the death of Princess Diana, the Royal Family were seen as aloof, but then the Queen made a deft TV broadcast, and things returned to normal. Well, yes – but, then again, no. The trouble with modern parallels is that they may be modern, but are rarely parallel. Later, Clarke suggests that when the new queen, Marie Antoinette, declined to accept gifts raised from taxes, this was ‘an easily understood news item that told everyone who this new queen really was, in exactly the same way as Princess Diana would later shape public opinion by shaking hands with an Aids patient in the Eighties’.
Eh? This seems a huge leap, not only in time but in circumstances, intent, motivation and just about everything else. EXACTLY the same way? More like, very slightly the same way, give or take 100 differences. As the book goes on, Clarke also grows keener and keener on dropping the phrase ‘Fake News’ into his narrative. I’m all for historians being unstuffy, but this whizzy up-to-dateness simply jars. It’s rather as if a character in a Jane Austen film were to be spotted at Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s ball wearing a T-shirt and a bandana and dancing the Macarena.
Louis XVI, writes Clarke, ‘has gone down in history as what would nowadays be called a nerd’. He was an unremarkable, rather indecisive character, with a low sex-drive and a penchant for constructing wristwatches. His wife Marie Antoinette, on the other hand, was much more vivacious. She brought all the most fashionable flibbertigibbets to Versailles, where they indulged in daft party-games and even dafter fashions. Their wigs, for instance, grew bigger and bigger, and before long women were wearing ribbons, flags, feathers, stuffed birds, flowers and fruit and veg in their hair. Many had wigs so large that for the journey from Paris to Versailles they had to kneel on the floor of their carriages, just to make room for them. Marie Antoinette herself sported hair dressed in the shape of a four-masted frigate in full sail, complete with jewelled portholes and tasselled rigging.
All of these details are marvellously comi-
cal, and Clarke narrates them with suitable merriment. But he doesn’t know when to stop. Once the terrors begin, he is still quipping away. The title of the chapter in which the executions get under way is: ‘If You Can Keep Your Head…’ From then on, he becomes addicted to constructing daft analogies drawn from French cuisine: the various political factions ‘divided and subdivided until they were as thinly sliced as a courgette in a Parisian kitchen’; the aristocrats were ‘like the fromage de la soupe – the cheese baked on top of the bowl, weighing down both the croutons and the onion bits floating below’; the governor of the Bastille gives a rioter ‘a hearty kick in the profiteroles’. And so on. As the book progresses, the more ill-judged such light-heartedness becomes: seconds after the governor kicked the rioter he was stabbed to death by the mob, and then his head was cut off and placed on a pike.
Nevertheless, Clarke argues convincingly that far from being a self-centred, moneygrabbing monster, Louis XVI had actually been a benevolent, reforming monarch. Under his rule, literacy improved, wars lessened, there were huge medical and scientific advances and comparatively little censorship. Before the Revolution, he had gone along with a democratically elected parliament, which had been responsible for initiating fundamental social reforms.
Clarke also argues that the mob who stormed the Bastille in 1789 and came to be seen as the heroes of the Revolution were in fact loyal to the king. ‘The mob violence was mainly inspired by hunger, impatience with politicians and false rumours about an imminent attack by royal troops, but at its heart there was a desire to protect the king’s interests.’ This, he continues, ‘is the complete opposite of what modern France would have us believe’.
He lives in France, so presumably knows what he’s talking about. But, here on the other side of the Channel, his view of the Revolution is, I would say, pretty standard. Nearly 30 years ago, Simon Schama wrote a widely read masterpiece called Citizens, which served as a corrective to any idealism that may still have been attached to the French Revolution. For some reason, Stephen Clarke fails to mention this book, but Schama’s conclusions are strikingly similar to his own. Of the same events, Schama wrote: ‘The repeated invocations of the king’s august and benificent name by people about to commit or threaten violence suggest how deep their foreboding was of the emptiness opened up by the collapse of royal power.’
Schama argued, all those years ago, that Louis XVI was a reforming monarch, and that successive generations of French historians have been so anxious not to appear reactionary that they have underestimated both the reforms he made, and the revolting extent of the violence wrought by his enemies. Even in the little corrective details that Clarke presents as his own, you find that Schama got there first. For instance, Clarke says that Louis wrote the word ‘Nothing’ in his diary on the day of the storming of the Bastille and that French historians have used this to argue that he was cut off from real life, whereas it was, in fact, simply his hunting diary, and ‘Nothing’ meant that he shot nothing that day. All very interesting, but it’s a point made, rather more gracefully, by Schama: ‘On July, 14 1789, Louis XVI’s journal consisted of the one-word entry “Rien” (nothing). Historians invariably find this a comic symptom of the king’s hapless remoteness from political reality. But it was nothing of the sort. The journal was less a diary than one of his remorselessly enumerated lists of kills at the hunt.’
Schama was subtle and elegant, while Clarke is crude and forceful. You could almost be forgiven for thinking that The French Revolution & What Went Wrong is Citizens rewritten by Jeremy Clarkson.
The execution of Marie Antoinette in 1793. Left: the queen and Louis XVI