Thermidor Fun Facts Day Eight: La Nuit de Varennes

The 1982 film by Ettore Scole, La Nuit de Varennes, describes the events of June 20-21, 1791, when the royal family fled Paris and was arrested in the eastern city of Varennes. The originality of Scole’s film is that he never shows the king directly, but rather portrays events from the perspective of other travelers on that same road that same night. Which one of the following people is not a character in Scole’s film?
a. The American patriot Thomas Paine, played by Harvey Keitel
b. The noted seducer Casanova, played by Marcello Mastroianni
c. The novelist Restif de la Bretonne, played by Jean-Louis Barrault
d. The orator Georges-Jacques Danton, played by Gérard Depardieu

Revolutionary comfort. The Jacobins must be spinning in their graves…

Air France Revolutionary ComfortThe new campaign that is being launched by Air France to American consumers juxtaposes two incongruous terms: “revolutionary” and “comfort.” This marketing ploy would have been inoffensive, if the artist had not coiffed the model with a revolutionary bonnet rouge complete with cockade, placed her in an gilt chaise, and set the whole scene in the most famous symbol of wealth and privilege: the Versailles gardens. The French revolutionary tradition has sold out in the name of comfort, this ad seems to suggest. Vive le capitalisme?

What do women want? Invisibililty

Riding coat RedingoteSophie Hicks wears Celine 16womens-well-philo-slide-H2S5-slideThe latest version of women’s styles en travesti, exemplified by yesterday’s dour black and white portrait of London architect Sophie Hicks looking stern in Céline, brings to mind the fashion’s most outspoken proponent during the 1780s and 1790s: Marie-Antoinette. While Caroline Weber championed the queen’s “heroic” adoption of equestrian styles in her 2006 book, suggesting that dressing as a man was proof of her strong character and visionary fashion sense, Marisa Linton in her 2013 book reminds us of another reason for dressing like a man: invisibility. As the New York Times article states, “Invisible. That is what Phoebe Philo’s clothes for Céline make you feel. … Simply invisible. A woman in a perfectly cut shirt and a pair of pants. And, oh, what a relief!” What better reason to dress like a man, especially if one needed to sneak out of the castle at night to attend meetings of the Austrian Committee.

Revolution beer, an intriguing newcomer to the market

Revolution beer clenched fists for saleA visit to the website of Revolution beer, brewed in Chicago, makes for an interesting foray into the ambiguities of revolutionary popular culture as it is understood today in the USA. The brewery’s icons, which draw heavily on Soviet propaganda and Maoist imagery (brawny hunks and clenched fists feature prominently), promote the drink primarily as a working man’s brew. The few women included such as on the “Bottom Up Wit T-Shirt,” available through its gift shop, are also defined by their hard bodies and toughness, as her slogan declares: “This working woman don’t drink no girly beer.” But what makes Revolution beer revolutionary? The website tries to make capitalism sound compassionate by stressing the founder’s ties to the neighborhood: “He worked to promote local businesses and manage the Logan Square Farmers Market. While working at the Chamber, he found a cool, old building on Milwaukee Avenue with a nice tin ceiling.” As fellow admirers of the revolutionary spirit, we wish the folks at Revolution Brewing well. But we hope that in the future they might do something really revolutionary with their clout, instead of becoming yet one more trendy product vying for the beer-drinker’s cash. How about it, CEO Cibak?

Re-invigorating Teaching the French Revolution: the role of Lego? by Kate Astbury

devise for Astbury

Kate Astbury has been working with school pupils aged 9 and 10 as part of a scheme to teach them research skills. The pupils had a day at the University of Warwick where they learned how to evaluate historical sources and where they were introduced to the collection of Revolutionary prints held at Waddesdon Manor (see
The pupils particularly enjoyed hunting for the hidden images of the royal family in prints from the post-Terror period.
They then returned to school to undertake their own research projects. They were asked to
– Work in pairs to take one event or theme of the Revolution and examine how the prints can be used to reflect what people felt at the time
– Present their findings as a story board or a newspaper front page or a news bulletin or an essay.
Pupils from Allesley Primary School, Coventry, produced the stop animation video ( ) using Lego figures.
You can see more about the Revolutionary prints in a video made by Dr Astbury:

Two Thumbs down for Maureen Dowd

ImageJust in case this does not make it into the New York Times, I reprint it here for the readers of “A Revolution in Fiction.”

Letter to the editor, Sunday Review, New York Times

July 7, 2013

Dear Editor,

Can you spell trite?  I am very disappointed that the NYT would stoop to print the essay by Maureen Dowd (“Goodbye Old World, Bonjour Tristesse”).  A journalist with any moxie would have sought out the French people who are pushing beyond these old clichés and fueling the intellectual marketplace with events that put a novel spin on the past and embrace all kinds of people into a multi-cultural present-day France.  Consider Martial Poirson whose new exhibit at the Musée de la Révolution française joins together popular culture from around the world to show how people have repurposed the past to harness present-day hopes for democratic change.  Or Laurent Loty, the mastermind behind the big banners wrapping the walls of the Université Paris-Diderot, which reproduce quotes of the 18th-c. philosopher Diderot in order to prompt enlightenment of a non-sectarian sort, quotes such as “Élargissons Dieu” (which can mean either “Let’s release God” [as in, from prison], or “Let’s give more space to God” or “Let’s make God bigger”).

Get real, Maureen Dowd.  France is vibrant, exciting, and full of talented active people.  It just takes a more talented reporter to find them.

Bastille Day quiz 2013


1. The “Rive Gauche” of Paris only took on that name during the Revolution, in 1789. Before 1789, the neighborhood to the South of the Seine was called:
a. Là-bas, or “over there”
b. La Rive du Sud, or the “South side”
c. Le Méridional
d. L’Outre-Petit-Pont or the “other side of the Petit-Pont.”

2. What Danish-born author revered Robespierre as a young person and wrote about France as the “holy land” of freedom?
a. Søren Kierkegaard, author of Fear and Trembling and The Concept of Irony
b. Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa and “Babette’s Feast”
c. Hans Christian Andersen, author of The Little Mermaid and Thumbelina
d. Niels Bohr, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his understanding of atomic structure and quantum mechanics

3. This event of 1870-71 is widely considered the last gasp of the French revolutionary tradition.
a. The Algerian War
b. The slow assassination, by poison, of Émile Zola
c. The Civil war known as “La Fronde”
d. The Commune

4. What novel published in 2013 features a ventriloquist’s dummy made in the image of Madame Defarge, the malevolent tricoteuse of Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities?
a. We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
b. Bad Monkey, by Karl Hiaasen
c. The Powers, by Valerie Sayers
d. 1q84, by Haruki Murakami

5. Where can the aficionado of the French Revolution find a treasure trove of dolls, manga, T-shirts, cheese wrappers, and other icons of the spirit of ’89 from global popular culture right now?
a. At Georgetown University in Washington, DC
b. At the Farragut, TN, Folklife Museum
c. At the Louvre in Paris, France
d. At the Musée de la Révolution française in Vizille, France

6. Which rock song features lyrics that sound like an account of Louis XVI’s last days?
a. The Rolling Stones, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”
b. Hall and Oates, “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)”
c. Coldplay, “I Used to Rule the World”
d. Gilbert O’Sullivan, “Alone Again, Naturally”

7. According to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), one of the most demeaning affronts dealt to King Louis XVI and the royal family in October 1789 was that they were brought back to Paris and forced to live in a royal mansion that was converted into a ….
a. Pig sty
b. Bastille
c. Meeting hall
d. Brothel
8. What company was raked over the coals as “Marie-Antoinette’s Favorite Airline” in a January 2013 article by the Wall Street Journal?
a. American Airlines
b. Delta
c. Air France
d. United Airlines

9. A New York Times article of March 2013 (“You May Now Kiss the Computer Screen”) mentioned Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette as precursors of a trend that is rising in the USA. What trend is that?
a. The habit of kissing a computer screen (or, in the 18th-century, a life-size human replica) instead of a real person.
b. Unconsummated unions (le mariage blanc)
c. Proxy marriages via the Internet
d. All of the above

10. Which one of these revolutionary-era child icons has been turned into a verb?
a. Gavroche, hero of Hugo’s Les Misérables
b. Louis-Charles, aka le Dauphin, pretender to the Bourbon throne
c. Joseph Bara, the boy hero immortalized in Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Bara
d. Kung Fu Panda, hero of Kung Fu Panda’s French Revolution by Kaylee Mcgrew


1. d. L’Outre-Petit-Pont. The South of the Seine was called « the other side of the Petit-Pont » because the Petit-Pont was for many years the only bridge that led from the Ile de la Cité to the area lying to the South of the Seine. The Rive Droite was called L’Outre-Grand-Pont (since the Grand-Pont—what is today called le pont Notre-Dame—was the only bridge that led from the Ile de la Cité towards the Northern neighborhoods).
2. b. Isak Dinesen was a life-long Francophile, as seen in “Babette’s Feast” and Letters from Africa: 1914-1931.
3. d. The Commune. Although the Commune of spring 1871 was relatively short-lived (73 days), the brutal suppression of the rebel communards had long-term ramifications. From the successful Russian Revolution of 1917 to the failed 1989 revolution on Tianenmen Square, those who have sought political change have looked to the Commune for inspiration.
4. a. Karen Joy Fowler, We are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
5. d. The exhibit called “Popular Cultures of the French Revolution, 20-21st century” is on display from June 2013 to April 2014 at the Musée de la Révolution française in Vizille (near Grenoble). The show will likely travel to the US and Canada afterwards, so stand by for more news on that!
6. Any of the above. But today’s audience would probably choose c., the British rock band, Coldplay, “I Used to Rule the World” track from their 2011 album Vida la Vida. Lyrics include: “I used to rule the world / Seas would rise when I gave the word / Now in the morning I sleep alone / Sweep the streets I used to own /People couldn’t believe what I’d become / Revolutionaries wait / For my head on a silver plate / Just a puppet on a lonely string / Oh…who would ever wanna be king.”
7. b. Bastille. Burke describes the royal family’s trek from Versailles to Paris as a funeral march: “After they had been made to taste, drop by drop, more than the bitterness of death, in the slow torture of a journey of twelve miles, protracted to six hours, they were, under a guard, composed of those very soldiers who had thus conducted them through this famous triumph, lodged in one of the old palaces of Paris, now converted into a bastille for kings.” (Reflections on the Revolution in France, Paragraphs 100-124).
8. a. American Airlines was criticized in the Wall Street Journal for declaring bankruptcy all the while holding onto a luxury home for the use of its executives on one of London’s wealthiest streets. (It apparently sold for a cool $23 million.) It is interesting to see how feudal privilege has translated into shorthand for capitalist excess…
9. c. Proxy marriages. The article reads, “These are called proxy marriages, a legal arrangement that allows a couple to wed even in the absence of one or both spouses. They date back centuries: one of the most famous examples was between Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who were first married in her native Austria in his absence, before she was shipped to meet him in France.” See Sarah Maslin Nir’s article of March 6, 2013.
10. a. Gavroche, the brave street urchin of Les Misérables. The verb is found in the couplet, “Paris sous cloche / ça me gavroche” in the 2007 song by Thomas Dutronc, “J’aime plus Paris.” He is describing what Paris has become: a city for well-off people cut off from lower classes. “Gavrocher” means to “make mad” or “infuriate.” Check it out!

Julia Douthwaite is Professor of French at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Frankenstein of 1790 and Other Lost Chapters from Revolutionary France (University of Chicago Press, 2012). The Bastille Day quiz is a regular feature of “A Revolution in Fiction” since 2011.

Doonesbury and Marat

2012 David Maratdoonesbury and marat db130421
This article picks up where the discussion on Go Comics and other sites left off: with an informed linkage to the revolutionary original.

Trudeau’s cartoon strip memorializes his hero just as David did with his 1793 portrait. Subtle differences reveal a less glorious message however: where David put an enigmatic smile on Marat’s death mask to reveal his serenity and wisdom, Trudeau’s hero Razil is portrayed with the gaping stupor of an idiot. Like Razil, Marat wrote quickly, did little research to back up his views, and subsequently few if any of his writings are worthy of reading today. The only reason Marat lives on is David’s masterful portrait and its mysterious aura. Razil will not fare so well; the dopey expression Trudeau inscribed on his face says it all.

The French aristocracy today, according to Anna Gavalda and Albin de la Simone. Facile satire or signs of an authentic paradigm-shift?

albin_de_la_simone_03Albin de la Simone, “Mes épaules”
Two popular artists are dealing an interesting curve-ball to the hidebound prestige of the French aristocracy today, although the ultimate meaning of their works remains ambiguous…

1. Anna Gavalda

Q: Where can you find a living, breathing counter-Revolutionary from the Vendée today?
A: In Anna Gavalda’s novel, Ensemble, c’est tout.
His name is Philbert Jehan Louis-Marie Georges Marquet de la Durbellière ; he was born in 1967 in La Roche-sur-Yon, and as a child, he fought off bullies by swinging a satchel armed with a Latin dictionary.

Gavalda must have had a good time inventing his quaint speech patterns for this book! When he finally gets over his stuttering enough to introduce himself to the down-on-her-luck heroine, he explains: “Vous avez devant les yeux un magnifique exemplaire d’Homo Dégénéraris, c’est-à-dire un être totalement inapte à la vie en société, décalé, saugrenu et parfaitement anachronique!” (163). It is thanks to his family’s cavernous apartment on avenue Émile Deschanel (one of the capital’s most prestigious addresses, bordering the Champs de Mars, Paris 7e), that the group of oddballs joins forces in this delightful saga of three misfits who find each other and, against all the odds, form a lasting, loving, “recomposed family.”

Philibert is a caricature of hilariously outmoded habits. When the trio writes up a list of rules for the household, he pulls out a signet and stick of wax, and seals the document with his family’s arms. He is hopelessly incapable of battling it out in the rough-and-tumble capitalism of the twenty-first century, and makes a paltry living by selling postcards of Paris monuments on the street. The history lessons he conducts on their road trips are peppered with deadpan asides on his family’s ties to the French throne (Marguerite de Valois being one of his mom’s cousins). The rest of the Marquet de la Durbellière clan is equally ridiculous; the dead fauna hanging on their walls brings images of The Adams Family to mind, but it is a cold, dusty kind of Gothic here without a touch of humor or gore. Their outdated speech habits (le vouvoiement oblige) and austere home life underline the aristocracy’s inability to evolve, as does their soul-less Catholicism. (The Easter blessing of “Bénissez-nous Seigneur… et bla bla bla” being symptomatic! 545) The author stresses their impervious blindness to economic realities at a boorish banquet at which the marquis and his wife lord it over their son’s friends while serving tasteless canned peas on dishes of priceless china, accompanied by elegant crystal glasses of cheap wine. Baffled by the presence of these lowbrow strangers, the marquise trills, “Comme c’est pittoresque” (541), as if her son was indulging in a bit of Belle époque encanaillement (hobnobbing with the rabble).

The weekend would have been ruined, if Franck (the foul-mouthed, talented cook who is Philou’s best friend from Paris) hadn’t taken charge of the kitchen and whipped up a fabulous Easter dinner, inciting the marquis to share some exquisite bottles of his uncle’s wine, and to get a little drunk and tell funny old stories of his hunting days. On the return trip to Paris, Philou suddenly recalls the reason why he had wanted to visit home: his engagement to a girl from the working-class neighborhood of Belleville, and which he forgot to mention. Significantly, they do not turn the car around. Nor do any members of the Marquet de la Durbellière tribe attend the sweet nuptials, celebrated in the Town Hall of the 20th arrondissement.

2. Albin de la Simone
A similar melancholy about the emptiness of the aristocracy haunts a song that is popular among French youth today, by Albin de la Simone, “Mes épaules.” Ostensibly a love ballad by a young father to his wife and baby, where anxiety over the role of breadwinner is symbolized by his skinny shoulders (“pas bien baraquées,” he swoons), the song also belies the singer’s unease with his particule-laden family name. “Le poids de mon nom ridicule / De ce fantôme à particule / Qui avance quand je recule,” the song goes. Typifying a particularly French strain of wimpy male singers whose penchant for self-pity surprises American audiences (remember Alain Souchon’s hit “Allô Papa Maman”?!), Albin de la Simone is nevertheless a favorite among young Frenchmen today, according to reliable sources in Paris. What is interesting is how he combines his worries over fatherhood with his sense of embarrassment over his aristocratic name.

Could it be that France is finally breaking free from the class-bound system of the past? Is Bourdieu’s paradigm in Distinction really due for a tune-up?

Or are these recent phenomena merely a pose, like the long tradition of rueful yet self-congratulatory writers who make up the French canon?

Update on ‘Babette’s Feast': A Parable of French Politics and Cookery from the Age of Revolutions

Babette's FeastBabette book cover DanishAs an epicurian (married to a chef-de-cuisine, how could I not be in love with food?) “Babette’s Feast” continues to haunt my thoughts. And now, with some recent discoveries, I am more convinced than ever of its debt to revolution. And the need for a remake!
A few thoughts on my discoveries, to intrigue you:

- On the feisty spirit that emerges in Danish!
Thanks to the great book by Frantz Leander Hansen, The Aristocratic Universe of Karen Blixen (2003), nowadays a more bracing and sober accounting is available to English-language readers. Hansen proves that Dinesen, in rewriting the tale for Danish audiences, reinforced the revolutionary tone and threatening aspect of her heroine. Fantastic linguistic analysis! Thanks FLH!*

- On “Babette’s” Sympathy to La Commune and its Ideals
The 2003 translation of the 1891 history of La Commune by Isak Dinesen’s father, Wilhelm Dinesen Paris sous la Commune, Translated from the Danish by Denise Bernard-Folliot, provides the historical subtext that was hugely important to Dinesen: a fact that has been ignored by most readers. WD was very sympathetic to the ideals of La Commune, and this book should be a “must” for anyone seeking a thoughtful eye-witness account of the terrible events. Thanks DBF!

- Third, tucked in the stacks of Hesburgh Library at ND, I found a copy of the 1952 Danish translation by Jørgen Claudi with the fabulous cover illustration featured here. This rendition makes a startling contrast with the tasteful and cleaned-up rendition presented by Gabriel Axel, no?

In my work-in-progress, these elements are juxtaposed to the film and show how much stronger and more menacing the heroine is in the original text (especially in Dinesen’s Danish version). Dinesen’s character does not forget the past or the utopian hopes she once harbored for La Commune. Rather she transforms them into the ultimate beau geste of a consummate artist and an unrepentant radical. For the last supper of Babette’s Feast is not a liturgical rewriting of silent sacrifice but rather a sadly misunderstood celebration of a lost era. However no one realizes it except Babette. (And her new readers today!)

Hope you enjoyed this little taste of work-in-progress. More to come… jd
(updated 3/15/13)

* Thanks are also due to Lise Kure-Jensen who notes that one of the interesting challenges of studying the work of Isak Dinesen is that, after writing her stories in English, she translated many of them back into Danish (her native tongue) and made significant changes along the way. Most notably, she made the Danish translation of “Babette” WILDER! See LKJ, “Isak Dinesen in English, Danish, and Translation: Are We Reading the Same Text?” in Isak Dinesen: Critical Views, ed. Olga Anastasia Pelensky (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993), pp. 314-321.


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