Vive la Révolution – encore, et toujours?

Folie-titon_10Revolution is one of the great stories of modernity. Much of the last two centuries has been taken up with politics that revolves around revolution – whether it is good, or bad; whether, indeed, it is inevitable and structural, or only ever the fruit of conspiracy and meddling in the natural order of society. A generation ago, the question seemed resolved in the rather paradoxical revolutions against Revolution that ended the reign of Soviet communism – ‘velvet’ revolutions that (mostly) rejected violence in favour of simply performing the redundancy of the supposedly guiding organs of Party and State. But in the decades since, the revolutionary script has been returned to time and again: from Ukraine and Georgia to Lebanon, and even Iceland, politicians and media have placed the ‘revolution’ label on a wide range of upheavals.

In the past few years, revolution has of course taken on once more a harder, bloodier edge: the ‘Arab Spring’ has ranged from relatively peaceful regime-collapse in Tunisia, to violent but ultimately negotiated confrontation in Egypt, armed insurrection in Libya, and now full-blown civil war in Syria. While the latter conflicts have tragically crossed from the political into the military domain, Egypt has been noticeable for the extent to which the ‘script’ of revolution has replayed classic tropes of hope and disillusioncharge and counter-charge, and disquieting returns to the notion that revolutionary virtue should trump constitutional process.

What is most remarkable for historians viewing this is how closely it echoes the experience of the ‘original’ modern revolution of 1789. The mythic story of revolution is one of a volcanic eruption of discontent, erasing the old order, cleansing society and leaving the way clear for a fresh start. But the historical experience of revolution has often been of years of turbulence and trauma.

Andress-bookcoverIn our new volume, Experiencing the French Revolution, we explore some of the many dimensions of what it meant to live through such times – whether as a consummate political survivor like Jean-Lambert Tallien, or one of the committed Jacobin leaders whose idealism carried them to mutual extermination; whether as a common soldier caught in the gears of ‘revolutionised’ military justice, or a low-ranking official similarly entangled with the dreaded Revolutionary Tribunal. We examine how rhetorics, and realities, of civic sentiment and material generosity became fuel for allegations and extortions, and how ‘Terror’ ingrained itself in the psyche of a generation, with long-lasting, if sometimes unpredictable, effects. We also see how revolution remained a bearer of ideals that expanded beyond the boundaries of France, embracing traditions of liberty in other nations, and carrying the threat of overthrow to oligarchies even in the British Isles.

As 14 July comes round again, and as other nations wrestle to understand what it means to experience revolutionary change, the French Revolution, and the entirely unexpected consequences of its historic leap into the dark, will continue to resonate, perhaps long into the future.

– David Andress

Advertisements

Judging a book by its binding

Photo by irene

Waddesdon Manor

Anyone who has visited Waddesdon Manor will have been struck by the Morning Room, in which rows of impressively large books are carefully encased in cabinets. For most visitors, these books remain nothing more than particularly expensive decorations since there is little opportunity to handle or open them.

Thankfully, recent projects have been lifting the covers (as it were) on the contents, revealing satirical and rabble-rousing content that contrasts with the seemingly royalist surroundings. Waddesdon Manor was built in the late nineteenth century in a neo-Renaissance style by Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleurs for the baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. Ferdinand was a historian fascinated by early modern France and Waddesdon Manor features many royal relics including Marie-Antoinette’s desk, and the large state portrait of Louis XVI by Callet. With rooms filled with Sèvres porcelain, and tapestries from the royal Gobelins and Beauvais workshops, Waddesdon exudes opulence rather than radical politics.

This fascinating disparity was exploited by my colleague Paul Davidson and me, when we co-curated an exhibition at Waddesdon in 2011, called ‘A Subversive Art: Prints of the French Revolution’, to demonstrate the radical content of four such volumes: The Tableaux de la Révolution. Our method to entice visitors to the exhibition was to create a treasure-hunt-like trail throughout the manor, leaving incendiary prints of Louis XVI, Madame de Polignac, Marie-Antoinette, and the Duc d’Orléans next to their rather more grandiose depictions. While the exhibition is now over, you can still consult the contents of the volumes online, and through these series of videos featuring Katherine Astbury as well as Paul and me.

These are by no means the only books at Waddesdon Manor whose content may surprise you. The Saint-Aubin Livre de Caricatures tant Bonnes que mauvaises is an incendiary book from the age of enlightenment. A mixture of politically astute commentary and scatological sketches, it is also available to consult online, and is the subject of an important study edited by Colin Jones, Juliet Carey and Emily Richardson.

image-medium

However, if the binding itself intrigues you as much as the content, then Waddesdon’s Catalogue of Printed Books and Bookbindings, edited by the Voltaire Foundation’s late founder Giles Barber, will certainly be of interest. This catalogue of French 18th century books and bindings at Waddesdon will be published later this year.

Claire Trévien

Experiencing Revolution

SVEC-2013-05-smallIt’s fair to say that we live in a news-overload age. I for one am guilty of tuning out of events that seem very far removed from my own day-to-day life. This is how I sometimes find myself reacting to news from Syria. But I soon realized that this reaction stemmed in part from not being able to comprehend what it is like to live in a country undergoing such a raw and immediate upheaval. How can I understand their experiences when I am not living them?

Time is a powerful thing, and we can better judge past events through the lens of history, but, as David Andress notes, ‘how we mediate experience recorded in fragmentary and assumption-laden evidence into present-day conclusions will always be a delicate question’ [1], which is why he argues for a plurality of approaches in his new edited book Experiencing the French Revolution.

Indeed it is this kaleidoscopic view of one of the most significant revolutions to hit Europe that is so engrossing. To pick out one contribution above all others would be an injustice to all authors, as the book moves from analyses of broad cultural trends to very personal insights. However, from a completely biased perspective, tinged with a certain hiraeth, I’ll admit to being totally engrossed by Ffion Jones’ contribution on how the Revolution affected not just the French but also my own compatriots in Wales [2]. She highlights the religious persecution of the growing community of Dissenters, who were cast in the same light as ‘dangerous’ French revolutionaries following a quickly quashed invasion of French soldiers on the Pembrokeshire coast. Revolution abroad was clearly convenient for the Establishment to rein in its own subjects.

So where does this leave me? The knowledge that everyone’s experience is different and that everyone’s synthesis of another person’s experience will differ.

Lyn R.

[1] Experiencing the French Revolution, edited by David Andress (SVEC 2013:05), p.4.

[2] Ffion Jones, ‘The silly expressions of French revolution…’: the experience of the Dissenting community in south-west Wales, 1797’, in Experiencing the French Revolution, p.245-62.

The Online Republic of Letters

Moll_-_A_new_map_of_the_whole_world_with_the_trade_winds

Welcome to the Voltaire Foundation’s first blog. We are the publishers of the first critical edition of Voltaire’s Complete Works, as well as monographs in the SVEC series touching on all aspects of eighteenth-century culture, history and literature. As a publisher and research department of the university of Oxford, we are fascinated by networks. After all, if Voltaire were alive today he would no doubt be a prolific social networker, blogging incendiary material, fuelling large Facebook thread debates and over-using #infâme on twitter.

In this spirit, this first post is a gateway to the online eighteenth-century community with links to interesting blog posts, databases and projects, to further encourage a network of exchange.

Network Databases

  • Epitomising the spirit of this blog post is the Mapping the Republic of Letters project. Based at the University of Stanford, this interdisciplinary and international project has been shepherding huge amounts of data acquired from the correspondence, travel and social networks of early-modern writers. To see this research in action, you can watch Scott Spillman and Julia Mansfield’s paper on Benjamin Franklin. For access to eighteenth-century letters, there is of course Electronic Enlightenment, an online collection of edited correspondence, which gives users access to over 60,647 historical documents.
  • Also focused on networks is The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe project, which uses database technology to map the trade of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel, a Swiss publishing house that operated between 1769 and 1794 and published Voltaire among others. The database allows you to see for instance when and where books were sold and is an invaluable tool for understanding how the book trade operated in eighteenth-century Europe.
  • Candide, the ultimate Bildungsroman, built from a network of tales from across the globe, is now available as a free enriched digital edition thanks to a collaboration between Orange, the BnF and the Voltaire Foundation. We were present at a talk on 24th March at the Salon du Livre in which the BnF’s Thierry Grillet spoke of Candide as a blank page printed upon by his experiences and the characters he encounters. This idea of a base text enriched by layers is one that translates to this app, which can be used as a simple book but really rewards further exploration with its additional materials: videos, iconography, and opportunities for further discussion.

Trading Diseases

Finally, for a different type of networking, here is a blogpost by Alun Whitney on James McKittrick Adair’s 1790 book Essays on Fashionable Diseases, in which the physician discusses the contagion of heroic suffering. As Whitney writes:
‘letters became filled with narratives of illness, commonly with the writer fashioning themselves into the role of embattled victim, wrestling with almost overwhelming symptoms and constantly surprised that they even had strength to hold a pen.’
Sounds like Voltaire!

 9780729410656-cover

If this tickles your fancy, you might be interested in our latest SVEC monograph, Medicine and narration in the eighteenth century, edited by Sophie Vasset, which explores the overlapping narrative strategies in the writings of novelists and doctors.

What are your favourite eighteenth-century online resources? Do make the most of the comment box to share.

Claire Trévien, research editor.