Talleyrand may have claimed that anyone born after 1789 would never know the ‘douceur de vivre’, but his peachy vision of the eighteenth century has long gone. Violence lurks everywhere in the period – how could it not in an age of vast inequalities?
The century ends, of course, with the bloodletting of Robespierre and Sade’s writing, but even from the first couple of decades the French recognised the thrill and lure of violence. Crébillon père aimed to renew tragedy through an emphasis on visceral savagery, and displayed a particular liking for the theme of infanticide. His son the novelist must have been bemused. In the book I have recently edited, Representing violence in France 1760-1820, contributors delve deep into a range of literary, historical and political sources to analyse the insidious and terrifying nature of violence.
Violence does not need to be this dazzling – indeed, it is at its most disturbing in its sudden irruption in a moment of calm. Look how Arlequin lunges out of the darkness towards Colombine in Watteau’s Voulez-vous triompher des belles? No wonder she rapidly covers her bosom when faced not just by that strange mask and that delicate but insistent hand, but by a man who is sliced in two at the middle, as if his desire has sundered him.
Recent fiction has shown little interest for the refined delights of the eighteenth century. Instead, bones and corpses are exhumed, with the resultant miasma seemingly provoking violence and madness in Andrew Miller’s Pure (2011). And all manner of animal and human flesh is eaten in Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet (2013), which concludes just before the narrator knows what it feels like to be cat food…