Why was there a revolution in France in 1789? Historians have rarely been in consensus about the answer and most currently credit a variety of factors including economic hardship, financial crisis, political mismanagement, and cultural and ideological transformation. Robert Darnton wants to add to the list. His latest book, The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon, focuses on the literature of calumny, which took the form of scandal sheets known as libelles.
The work of Paris’s Grub Street of impoverished writers, libelles played a major part, Darnton maintains, in shaping public opinion in the years leading up to 1789, and they contributed significantly to the character of the subsequent Revolutionary regime. He remains true to a position with which his work has been associated for nearly forty years—that “low literature” had a bigger impact on the outbreak of the Revolution than the “High Enlightenment.” The Devil in the Holy Water modifies and adds nuance to this view but largely maintains it. Yet the book also has a larger ambition, namely to provide a thorough analysis of the literature of calumny by raising issues of freedom of speech and access to information that have wider relevance, including to our own world.
In these pages two years ago, Darnton introduced readers to one member of the rum group responsible for the production of Old Regime libelles: Anne Gédéon Laffitte, marquis de Pelleport, “a scoundrel, a reprobate, a rogue, a thoroughly bad hat” in his estimation. Pelleport was the author of the work, Le Diable dans un bénitier, that gives Darnton’s book its title. This déclassé nobleman’s prior small claim to fame was that in the 1780s he inhabited a cell in the Bastille adjacent to the Marquis de Sade’s. While the latter was writing The 120 Days of Sodom, Pelleport was composing his own picaresque and obscene novel, Les Bohémiens.
The book bombed. Only a handful of copies are extant, and it seems to have been almost wholly unread until Darnton rescued it from obscurity by publishing it last year in English translation and this year in French—and by hailing it as a literary masterpiece. This may strike its modern-day readers as a generous verdict on what seems to me an amorphous and somewhat tedious work, which pays only turgid homage to Rabelais, Lesage, Voltaire, and Sterne.
Yet whatever the literary merits of Les Bohémiens, the novel also has significant documentary value. It provides a vivid, colorful, and, Darnton believes, largely plausible account of the Parisian Grub Street that is the subject of his new book. This includes a vicious and full-out assault on one of Pelleport’s principal adversaries, the libelliste Charles Théveneau …