Last night I watched a Netflix/History Channel documentary on the French Revolution .
The French Revolution must have impacted “our” time period. The English aristrocracy must have looked with horror upon the events of the Revolution, especially the Reign of Terror during which 16,000 to 40,000 people were guillotined.
Knowing what happened during the French Revolution helps me understand the draconian measures the British Parliament invoked during the social unrest after the Napoleonic Wars–suspension of habeas corpus, the Seditious Meetings Act, the restrictions on newspapers, etc.
(The conflict between social justice and social stability was essentially the conflict between my heroine and hero in Chivalrous Captain, Rebel Mistress, by the way.)
Random thoughts after watching the documentary:
1. Something had to give. The disparity between the suffering of the poor and the excesses of the monarchy were too great. Desperate people do desperate acts. I cannot blame the French people for the revolt, nor the French people’s pride in seizing control of their fates.
2. Helping to fund the American Revolution helped to bankrupt France and led to the suffering of the French poor. How ironic is that?
3. There was a mix of altruism and fanaticism in the Revolution. Marat seemed to always have been a fanatic, spurred on by his own internal rage, having little to do with reality. Robespierre seems to have been an idealist who was corrupted by his own power.
4. I don’t like Marat. He gratified his need to be important by stirring up the people with plots and conspiracies which did not exist. Ironically, his murderer, Charlotte Corday who only wanted to stop Marat’s influence, made him a Revolutionary icon.
5. How did the Revolutionary heroes like Robespierre justify the Reign of Terror? Even 16,000 people executed is a massive number. And how could he justify killing men who were once allies, just because they disagreed with him? (of course, he wasn’t the only one in history to do this…)
6. How scary it must have been for even ordinary people at the height of the Reign of Terror. It seemed like almost anyone could get a person guillotined just by saying they were against the Revolution.
7. Robespierre sealed his own fate. When those close to you fear that they are next on your list, you rise to number one on their list!
8. I feel sorry for Marie Antoinette. Surely she had no power and no understanding of what the lives of the poor were like.
Do you have any random thoughts about the French Revolution? What do you think was its affect on the Regency?
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I must confess my knowledge about the French Revolution mostly came from Les Miserables. The great dividing gap between the poor and the rich doesn’t seem to have improved, even in today’s world.
My Darcy Mutates…
From what I’ve read, the French Revolution scared the pants of the English aristocracy and led to a lot of the darker aspects of the Regency era (like the Peterloo Massacre).
It also led, in the early days, just after the enshrinement of the Rights of Man, to an even larger gap between the Whigs and the Tories. The Tories were appalled and very frightened by what was happening in France (and by what had just happened in America). The Whigs, on the other hand, were very pro-Revolution, right up until the Terror . . .
I wouldn’t call myself an expert on the French Revolution, but I’ve been trying to study up on it the last few years. My last several manuscripts have had French characters in major roles, so I felt like I needed to understand the upheaval they’ve lived through to be able to write them properly.
Most of my French characters are people who’ve risen higher in the world than would’ve been possible for someone of their birth without the Revolution, and a debate I occasionally let them have with my English characters is whether it was worth it, to have so much bloodshed to give them power over their destinies. So far I haven’t let either side “win” the argument or change the other’s mind, because I can’t decide myself who’s right!
Looking at the Revolution doesn’t give me more sympathy for the Tory POV in England (I would’ve been SUCH a Whig), but it does allow me to understand how otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people could’ve held reactionary, elitist views that utterly appall me. (Wellington, you know I love you, but I’m looking right at you.)
I remember reading Crane Brinton, a Harvard professor who studied the French Revolution. He said that revolutions generally happen during periods when the situation for the underclass is actually improving somewhat. When people are totally oppressed, they can’t imagine a better future and so don’t revolt. Don’t know if current historians agree with this POV, but thought it interesting nonetheless.
The arguments around social stability versus social equality/advancement go on today. Think about the discussions of prison versus rehabilitation, foreign aid versus military aid, where our government money goes (defense versus education) — some things don’t change.
I’ve been to see Buchner’s ‘Danton’s Death’ at the Royal National Theatre, London. Written in 1835 and using transcriptions taken from Revolutionists, the play illustrates the fragmentation of The Convention.
Georges Danton and Robespierre had been the architects of The Terror. When Danton became increasingly sickened by the never ending bloodshed, he and his supporters were tried and found guilty of treason. They were beheaded in 1794. Ironically, Robespierre and his equally fanatical henchman, St Just, followed Danton to the guillotine in July 1794.
My husband loves the history channel and I try to retain some of what I’ve learned. The French Revolution was a great cause for democracy and the end of the Monarchy. Maybe the British people should have paid more attention! It can never be good when a certain elite few rule over the majority who have a great deal less. That was one of the main reasons we broke away from the English. Seems like every government ends up the same way.
The effects of the French Revolution are staggering- they rippled around the world and are part of what creates today’s world.
For France, it led to more than 100 years of instability in government as the country repeatedly switched between monarchies and democracies. France came to accept as a matter of course that if the people became tired of their government they overthrew it and tried a different kind.
It provided the environment that resulted in Napoleon, who marked the highpoint for France as a world power but who also resulted in his time being the last time that France was a significant world power.
The Napoleonic Wars resulted in the first great western alliance, a prelude to the alliances that would define the world wars of the 20th century. It also created major changes in the style of warfare, which had a great effect on the way the Civil War in the US was fought.
The French Revolution had effects on society besides the political ones. Culture changed as Napoleon explored Egypt and brought back ancient artifacts. Clothing changed dramatically. Acceptable behavior was re-defined.
The landed gentry and nobility of England were concerned about the social and political effects of what occurred in France between 1789 and 1815, but it would take “The Great War” and its devastating effects on Britain to begin to really unravel that part of British life. The Second World War would complete the dismantling of British society as we see it in Regency stories.
Britain was ahead of the French in controlling its monarchy and restricting it’s privileges. Magna Carta, the deposition of Charles I and the Bill of Rights of 1689 had placed England in a position where the truly terrible excesses of the French monarchy and nobility were prevented in England. I would guess that, as a poster above pointed out, the French Revolution and all that followed did indeed “scare the pants off the English aristocracy”, but for the British people there was less cause for violence and also a certain sense of “been there, done that” that didn’t need to be repeated.
Susanna, I think even the English at the time were ambivalent about the French! I suppose there were those who worked to better their country and those who worked to better themselves.
Susan/DC, I like what that professor said. It makes a lot of sense.
SarahSiddons, the documentary mentioned Danton who apparently said, “Robespierre will be next” as he went to the guillotine.
catslady, I think the English avoided much of the mistakes France made. Even though imperfect, the Parliamentary system gave more of the people a say in the government. They also imposed enforcable controls.
LadyDoc, that was wonderful information!
One thing the documentary said was that France before the Revolution still had vestiges of the feudal system and that created more poor people paying lots of taxes and a monarchy who was exceptionally extravagant.
I think the influence of the French Revolution was huge. It was the 9/11 of its day. I wrote my first book, Dedication, about the generational divide of the those who supported it and the younger generation.
Diving back into writing.
Quick P.S. Nothing justifies the destruction of civil liberties, censorship, or the suppression of free speech in any society.
I have just taught the students in my honors seminar, The World of Jane Austen, the history of England and France from 1789 to 1800, I can understand why the British government was repressive in the 1790s and post-Waterloo. (I don’t necessarily agree, but I can understand.) What surprised me was that, even during the Reign of Terror, a number of prominent Whig politicians still extolled the virtues of the French Revolution. (Fox, for example, didn’t change his tune until 1804, when he became Foreign Minister and had to deal with Boney.)
One of the big differences between the French and British aristocracies was that the French aristocrats were ornamental–unlike their British counterparts, who run the country.
One of the biggest effects of the French Revolution on Britain in the first two decades of the 19th century was that, despite the war subsidies she was dispersing, she was more prosperous than ever before–selling more goods, in more markets, than ever had before. Also, by the Regency, the British army was winning battles on the Continent (in the Peninsula), and had shown the rest of the Europe that Bonaparte and his marshals weren’t invincible.
I could go on and on.
Further p.s. Marge Piercy wrote a mad, crazy, pretty good novel, CITY OF LIGHT, about the Revolution.
Janet, like SusannaC, I understand the repression of civil liberties that took place in England, but I don’t agree with them.
I like your analogy to 9/11. It seems like after the French Revolution everything changed.
The French Revolution was a desperate reaction to people just too clueless to see that their actions affected profound amounts of others. And would likely have been a wake-up call to Britain’s privileged elite.
But also British people have always spoken up, and it seems like the French were never allowed to, so they exploded in that bloody way. Even though some British people were harassed and likely persecuted, they had a history of being important to the aristocracy’s survival. Amanda could likely talk about it more, but I remember Elizabeth I having to worry about what ‘the people’ would say.
The French Revolution has been an odd fascination for me and something I have spent some time researching for a series I have been working on. There is such a long period of time to study from the famine (pre-revolution, but important) to the Estates General and Storming of the Bastille and everything that happened in the 3 years leading up to the Reign of Terror. Still, it is hard to comprehend the madness that resulted.
To me, the French Revolution is the perfect example of mob mentality gone crazy. The idea of bringing the aristocracy down a bit had merit. However, executions were not necessary. To say they got carried away is an understatement. Once the leadership of the ruling class were eliminated, it seems the leaders of the revolution went into a feeding frenzy needing little real cause to use Madam Guillotine on any poor soul. They then turned on each other.
When you have a similar governmental system and are so closely linked, it is understandable that you would fear the same type of problems to surface. Rather than addressing the social problem present in the country, England chose to become more restrictive and exacerbate the situation.
Just the thought of being in France during that time is frightening.
Interesting point, Megan, that the English people felt they had more of a say in what happened to them than the French did.
Amy, I can so understand the fascination with the French Revolution. From what the documentary said, the antecedents did stretch back years before. I can understand the uneducated, downtrodden people rioting, but I can’t understand how Robespierre could justify executing so many people.
librarypat, I think the repressions in England helped contain that “mob psychology” but it also slowed reform.
What I do find difficult to think about is England’s treatment of Ireland during the Potato Famine. But that’s a whole ‘nother story!
To me the Terror wasn’t like a 9/11 but more like the Holocaust. People were murdered for being who they are, not for what they’d done. And the people enforcing the revolution were the thugs.
Whatever may have been the impetus that led to the French Revolution, the people in power (whether red or blue blooded) behaved horribly towards the common man, who was still persecuted, still terrorized, still had no voice.
Keira, that’s a good analogy, too. One cannot help but think of Hitler and the Holocaust when one thinks of the abuses of power.
According to the documentary, Robespierre began the Revolution decrying putting the “enemy” or the king to death. Later he changed his mind. What made him embrace such wholesale murder? It foxes me.
I wonder if the French people felt terrorized by the Terror, or if they felt they had some power, too, because they could report somebody as a traitor and that person would then go to the guillotine.