Literary Hub

On the Modern American Obsession with French Revolution Narratives

marie antoinette

Will we ever run out of stories to tell about the French Revolution? Edward Carey’s recent novel Little is the second novel in a decade to examine that period through the eyes of Marie Grosholtz, better known as Madame Tussaud; it’s preceded by Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution. Before Hilary Mantel chronicled the palace intrigue surrounding Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, she explored intrigue among revolutionaries in her novel A Place of Greater Safety. And Emma Orczy’s 1905 novel The Scarlet Pimpernel has been adapted for literally every medium possible, including a 1999 BBC series starring Richard E. Grant as the title character. And that doesn’t even touch on other novels about upheaval in France in the years following the French Revolution, from Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night and the grand-pere of them all, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

Certainly, there’s an Anglophone appetite for tales of Francophone tumult, particularly when it comes to Americans embracing narratives about the French Revolution. All of which begs the question: why? Arguably, it comes down to two competing impulses: living vicariously through the lives of royalty, and living vicariously through the lives of revolutionaries.

While the United States doesn’t have a royal family of its own, it doesn’t stop a significant percentage of its population from avidly following the exploits of the Windsors on the other side of the Atlantic, or for immersing themselves in the historical travails of royalty. The last decade has brought us acclaimed films like The Favourite, The King’s Speech, and Mary Queen of Scots, as well as multiple television series starring Doctor Who alums that explore the British royal family: The Crown and Victoria. There’s also an enduring fascinating with the Kennedy family that hasn’t really abated in recent years, given high-profile films like 2016’s Jackie and 2018’s Chappaquiddick. (Arguably, continued speculation over whether Chelsea Clinton will run for office would also fit into this camp.) 

At this point, American fixation on royals might as well be an immovable object. And the French Revolution offers plenty of opportunities for storytellers to echo contemporary life: Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, based on Antonia Fraser’s book Marie Antoinette: The Journey, is one prominent example. Intriguingly, while numerous British authors have been drawn to the French Revolution, readers may not have followed suit; when asked about her own foray into the genre, Hilary Mantel said that, “I had no idea how little the British public knew or cared or wished to know about the French Revolution.”

As Marie becomes aware of her own exploitation, so too does the French proletariat become increasingly aware of its own tenuous connection to the nation’s rulers.

Every immovable object needs an unstoppable force, and ours is class war. And the French Revolution offers plenty to delight in, and a host of possible interpretations that can be tweaked to fit a reader’s own ideologies. If the revolutionary spirit moves you, you can embrace the “up with the people” energy that led to its inception; if you’re more fundamentally conservative, you can point to the Revolution’s shift into tyranny and fear as a lesson in the importance of maintaining the status quo. And there’s also a sense of distancing: the timeframe of the French Revolution keeps it at a remove (unlike, say, those in Russia or Cuba). And while the Revolutionary War also retains its hold on the popular imagination, it doesn’t allow for the joint pleasures of seeing an opulent aristocratic society in full flourish, and then seeing that society righteously smashed by a popular uprising.

The scope of Edward Carey’s Little spans decades, beginning with its protagonist’s birth in 1761 and covering the breadth of her life. And while hers is a life that both overlaps with that of the royal family and runs afoul of certain revolutionaries, Marie is also firmly a part of the exploited working class. For much of the book, she is employed by a widowed business owner who profits from Marie’s talent at creating wax figures; the widow also spends much of the book denying Marie any payment for her labor.

As Marie becomes aware of her own exploitation, so too does the French proletariat become increasingly aware of its own tenuous connection to the nation’s rulers. The parallels aren’t direct: Marie’s encounters with the royal family—she is appointed as a tutor to Élisabeth of France—helps her to understand her own gifts and talents. And while Marie is certainly not enamored with the social stratification of late-19th-century French society, her revolution is a more subtle one than that which involves guillotines.

For other novels covering a similar milieu, evocations of the Revolution can come in concentrated narrative doses to potent effect. Andrew Miller’s Pure opens in 1785 and follows the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer tasked with removing corpses from the cemetery of Les Innocents. Miller’s novel ends before the Revolution begins, but there’s more than a little foreshadowing of it. This happens in ways both overt and implicit: at one point in the narrative, one Joseph-Ignace Guillotin makes an appearance. For Miller, Guillotin’s presence serves as foreshadowing enough, connecting the task at the heart of Pure with the bleak days to come.

Perhaps every political moment finds the French Revolution it’s looking for.

More broadly, Miller draws a host of parallels between Baratte’s task—of removing bodies in the service of powerful institutions—with the onslaught of deaths that await Paris in the coming years. As is the case with Little, Miller spotlights a politically disenfranchised protagonist, showing how their limited agency frustrates them, and leaving the reader to draw the necessary conclusions about societal frustration.

Little is a novel that’s politically charged, though its author largely eschews dogmatism for a more measured, layered approach. Then again, this is a novel set during a paradoxical time. At one point, Marie notes a pair of signs hung by the Assembly after the French royal family attempts to escape and is captured. One reads “ANYONE WHO APPLAUDS THE KING WILL BE BEATEN.” The other? “ANYONE WHO INSULTS THE KING WILL BE HANGED.”

Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety is a sprawling epic of the period, focusing on a trio of historical figures who helped ignite the Revolution—and were then consumed by it. (In 2015, it was reported that the BBC was adapting Mantel’s novel for the screen.) Its view of history is from several of the primary participants—but even then, Mantel makes it clear that the events taking place were more seismic than anyone might have expected.

A Place of Greater Safety makes a fascinating contrast with Miller and Carey’s novels: while those show how the Revolution affected everyday people, Mantel’s nominally focuses on those making policies that changed the nature of society. But even then, she describes a system by which even leading revolutionaries can find themselves denounced, tried, and executed. It’s both a jarring contrast from other novels of the period and jarring in terms of how the same societal currents upset kings, revolutionaries, and working people alike.

There are countless modern-day echoes of that sentiment. Carey’s novel is perhaps the most attuned to them; there are elements of it that mark it as a novel of the French Revolution while also being one of a modern age in which populism turned authoritarian. In Little, Marie and her mentor Doctor Curtius find themselves under suspicion by some of the revolutionary authorities due to their origins in Switzerland, for instance.

Carey doesn’t go too far on this point of comparison; there are no direct evocations of Donald Trump or Nigel Farange to be found here. But this aspect of his novel helps to explain just why this period is so attractive to writers of all disciplines. Consider Stephanie Zacharek’s review of the 2000 film Quills, another work set in the era of the French Revolution. At the time of the review, Zacharek found parallels between one of the film’s characters and onetime Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. Perhaps every political moment finds the French Revolution it’s looking for—or perhaps it’s a sign of a moment in history that still has plenty of lessons and warnings to offer.

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