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 Mail on Sunday - Event - - BOOKS - CRAIG BROWN HIS­TORY

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

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