The best books to understand the terror of the French Revolution

Graeme Fife Author Of The Terror: The Shadow of the Guillotine - France 1793-1794
By Graeme Fife

Who am I?

I have been a professional writer for over 40 years. Much of my work has been focused on biographies and historical drama for radio. Both topics involve extensive research. The French Revolution has always fascinated me. The stories about the wild extremes of human behaviour exercise a morbid power on the imagination. I have written much on the subject and the people caught up in, and often generating, the madness and inhuman folly. I have, I believe, developed a particular feel for the period and the lesson it teaches us. My book about the Terror is the culmination of many years of study and deliberation. I write well, vividly, and forcefully and I speak and read French.

I wrote...

The Terror: The Shadow of the Guillotine - France 1793-1794

By Graeme Fife,

Book cover of The Terror: The Shadow of the Guillotine - France 1793-1794

What is my book about?

In my book, I seek to lay out, in as clear and uncomplicated a fashion as possible, the origins and development of the revolution, from the early promise of a buoyant slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ to its trashing when a cruelly vindictive spirit took over and perverted the tone and mission of a movement towards a new compassion and consideration of public welfare. 

Meticulously researched and drawing on many French sources the story is here in as direct a form as I could make it. A big sweep of history, by no means comprehensive – that would become unreadable – but it covers all the signal events from the storming of the Bastille and onward. 

The books I picked & why

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Paris in the Terror

By Stanley Loomis,

Book cover of Paris in the Terror

Why this book?

Loomis bases his account on the life and work of three principals in the Revolution: Jean-Paul Marat, the sanguinary demagogue, self-styled ‘People’s Friend’ and proponent of some of the grimmest excesses of the Terror; Danton, the moderate, whose increasing distaste for those excesses and his clash with Robespierre ultimately took him to the scaffold; Robespierre, the prissy, virginal, orphaned lawyer who had once argued passionately against the death penalty and then oversaw the herding of droves of citizens – mostly not aristocrats but largely what the French call the "menu peuple", humble artisans, shopgirls, social nobodies – to the guillotine. Inflexible as a Commandment, he became increasingly obsessed with ‘virtue’ in the twisted belief that legislation alone can enjoin decent behaviour or "civisme". Danton, the ebullient bon viveur rebuffed this nonsense cheerily: ‘Virtue,’ he said ‘is what I do with my wife every night.’

Loomis writes vividly, his book is replete with anecdote – some of it of rather dubious provenance, admittedly – but he evokes brilliantly the claustrophobic atmosphere of a time of overheated emotions, the propensity for wild hyperbole, inflammatory rhetoric, distorted manipulation of fact, wildly engrossed report, overblown journalism, the paranoia and toxic climate of suspicion, and the sheer horror of living in the French capital through one of the nastiest periods of any nation’s history.

The Gods Will Have Blood

By Anatole France,

Book cover of The Gods Will Have Blood

Why this book?

I have read no better evocation of how the mechanics of the Terror actually proceeded and intruded on the populace. The story is compelling, the characterisation vivid, the overall effect to make the reader shudder with disbelief that such disgusting activity should have been fenced round with nay, enshrined in, the supposed legitimacy and defence of law, the very safety of a government’s measures to protect the public. Cicero invoked, here: the supreme point of law is the safety of the people. The reference of the title is to the human sacrifices in the Inca culture. At one point, such was the volume of bloodshed from the guillotine in the Place du Trône [present day Place de la Concorde] a veritable river, as the merciless blade of the ax (the sword of justice’) plunged down in it its grooves onto one neck after the other, day after miserable, gory day to the dry-throated beat of the funerary kettle drums, that plans were laid to build a sluice, a sangueduct, to carry it away.

Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution 1793-1794

By Olivier Blanc,

Book cover of Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution 1793-1794

Why this book?

Blanc discovered in the National Archives in Paris a remarkable cache of letters kept in an old tin labelled as the property of Fouquier-Tinville, the Public Prosecutor of the French revolutionary Tribunal. He was a man who in sending off the last batch of victims to be beheaded, even after hearing that Robespierre was dead and with him, the Terror, said ‘justice must run its course’

The letters, written by prisoners on the eve of their own execution, to wife, family, plangent pleas to be remembered – some containing a little keepsake: a shirt stud, maybe – were never delivered, but, on Fouquier’s order, impounded as possible evidence. Post mortem? What was the point? The letters are heart-rending, sad, pathetic, drained of hope, but as poignant a souvenir of the effect of the vicious law which was sending their authors to the scaffold as any you will read. Fouquier, whose own unapologetic letter is here, once declared that ‘the ideal time to elapse between arrest and death is 24 hours’. Summary justice indeed. Appeal? The thought…

Pauvre Bitos ou Le Dîner de Têtes

By Jean Anouilh,

Book cover of Pauvre Bitos ou Le Dîner de Têtes

Why this book?

Anouilh shapes his play in parallel reference to two of the most traumatic periods in French history: the immediate aftermath of the 1945 Liberation and the end of the Terror with the death of Robespierre. In post-war France, a group of friends hit on a plan to explore what twisted logic shapes the individual who gets caught up in the violence of oppression. They invite a local man, one Bitos, to attend a masked dinner where each of the guests will take on the role of a prominent figure of the Revolution, Bitos himself, who has greatly profited by collaboration with the occupiers, to take on that of Robespierre, whom Thomas Carlyle referred in his magisterial History of the French Revolution as the ‘sea-green incorruptible’, from the tinted spectacles he wore.

Carlyle’s prose is lush, baroque, strong meat but well worth dipping into. The idea is brilliant as a vehicle to probe motive, the thinking that lay beneath the florid rhetoric and to expose the man whose very first sight of the guillotine to which he had consigned thousands was from the tumbril that carried him there. One day, he inadvertently encountered the public executioner, Sanson, the man who worked the dread machine, and, in the words of the chronicler, his face froze as if he’s just seen a snake.

Anouilh doesn’t peddle judgement, rather he allows admission to carry its own self-condemnation.

The Three Musketeers

By Alexandre Dumas,

Book cover of The Three Musketeers

Why this book?

An odd choice of book, maybe, when talking of the French Revolution, but Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers is an excellent portrait of the France that was desperately in need of social reform. It’s a cracking story, too, and gives a fine insight into how the influence of the royal court wormed its way into all aspects of ordinary life, as well as giving a plangent sense of how all-invasive was the power of the monarch’s secret police, managed by his arch minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Dumas makes it very clear how open to manipulation and manoeuvre the ordinary people of France were and how remote the aristocracy was from common life, the king at the centre of a glittering court, spending vast sums of money on frippery, money drawn from the inequities of taxation. I recommend the book as a perfect curtain-raiser to the essential need for a revolution in 1789, and the demolition of monarchic despotism in a ramshackle kingdom of such imbalance in wealth and provision.

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