Memoirs of Terror: a new spin on the cause célèbre
June 11, 2010 2 Comments
My recent reading has uncovered an interesting connection: memoirs of the Reign of Terror (1793-94) are clearly indebted to and sometimes written by the same people who penned the famous causes célèbres of the Old Regime judiciary. One writer who lived in both worlds, and achieved a certain literary fame right after the end of the Terror in what is called the Thermidorian period, is Pierre-Anne-Louis de Maton de La Varenne (1761-1813). A well-respected lawyer and member of the Parlement de Paris, Maton de La Varenne gained early fame during the Revolution for his espousal of civil status for the family of the executioner Sanson, but was arrested during a purge of suspected royalists and imprisoned in La Force right before the massacres of September 2-3, 1792. Maton de La Varenne’s memoirs, published in 1795, focus primarily on the grisly events of September 1792 when the Jacobins, under orders from Marat and Robespierre (according to Maton), orchestrated the mass slaughter of thousands of clergy and royalist sympathizers being held in Paris prisons.
Like the mémoires judiciaires penned by the author during his former life, his memoir uses the literary technique of dramatic suspense and revelation in the service of political persuasion. Minute by minute and paragraph by paragraph, the reader relives the prisoner’s anguish as he hears the shrieks of the dying amid the metallic clink of axes falling, and cringes at the heavy tread of the guards outside his cell. When his own turn arrives, the author dexterously shields his royalist tendencies from sight, citing the personal integrity he had developed through years in the legal profession as proof of his innocence to a dumbfounded judge and awe-struck crowd of murderers. His narration of leaving the make-shift tribunal stages a melodramatic coupling of Good and Evil that is mirrored in the gory frontispiece to the book (See illustration):
I cringed in horror at the sight of an enormous pile of naked cadavers lying in the gutter, filthy with blood and mud, upon which I had to take an oath. … I was saying the words they demanded from me, when one of my former clients fortuitously passed by. He recognized me, swore for me, embraced me a thousand times, and even brought the killers to my side. (1)
Note how the good lawyer avoids sullying his honor by sidestepping the oath, and how he is saved by a symbol of his former power (a satisfied client of the royal court). Right and Wrong, Good and Evil are clearly legible in this text, and reveal its debt to the mémoires judiciaires.
That genre, as Sarah Maza has noted, deftly employs the melodramatic mode to go beyond an obvious appeal to readers’ or viewers’ hunger for strong sensations: it works to visualize and simplify morality. (2) The stark juxtaposition of a weirdly calm Marat pontificating in front of his murderous butchers, while the cautious lawyer picks his way out of the fray, build upon the melodramatic urge to assign unambiguous moral labels to situations fraught with political complexity.
Les Crimes de Marat went through three editions in 1795; most interesting to us are the successive editorial changes Maton de La Varennes made to his book, because they reveal how a death threat, and the alarm it spawned, were employed to confer authenticity and political urgency on his work. Psychological manipulation of readers was widely and effectively employed in Thermidorian fiction; it may explain for some of the upsurge in novel reading after the Terror. Maton de la Varenne claims that one person was so enraged on reading the first edition of Les Crimes, and seeing the name of a friend amid the list of ignominious deputies who egged on the September massacres, that she announced: “I will be for the author another CHARLOTTE CORDAY.” Although he suppressed G…’s name in this edition, and admits taken precautions against his would-be assassin’s “pretty project,” Maton de la Varenne also enlists the reader on his side, and cites a stirring quote from Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois to defend their freedom of speech from persecutors. Dire threats raise book sales, as we know. The death threat against the author may very well have revved up sales of his other two books advertised on the inside cover of Les Crimes…
(1) P.A.L. Maton de La Varenne, Les Crimes de Marat et des autres égorgeurs, ou Ma résurrection (Paris : Chez André, An III (1795). (available on-line via Gallica, catalogue of the BNF, Paris)
(2) Sarah Maza, Private Lives and Public Affairs : The Causes Célèbres of Prerevolutionary France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).