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Paris: Notes from Underground

Private Collection
Frontispiece of Pierre Manuel’s La Police de Paris dévoilée (The Paris Police Unveiled), 1790, one ‘of a series of sensational assaults on the Old Regime political establishment’; from Robert Darnton’s The Devil in the Holy Water

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.”1 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,2 “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.3 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 de Morande, uncharmingly presented as having “a mouth from whose corners there is a constant trickle of livid pus.” Morande’s career—which is also finely illuminated in Simon Burrows’s recent biography4:—offers an excellent introduction to the Old Regime world of slander.

A cavalry officer during the Seven Years’ War, Morande thereafter spent a dissolute and debauched youth in Paris—gambling, opera girls, homosexual pimping, extortion, and so on—before fleeing the police in 1770 and establishing himself in London. The English capital’s Grub Street milieu was even more powerful than its Parisian counterpart and it housed a phalanx of French expatriate authors, many of them publishing through the Genevan bookseller David Boissière on St. James Street. It was from this well-defended bolt-hole that in 1771 Morande published an epically slanderous work entitled Le Gazetier cuirassé (The Armor-Plated Gazeteer).

Much of Morande’s slander was expressed in what were known as anecdotes. These were more than simple anecdotes or droll stories. Anecdote was a term of art, used to describe shards of information about the private lives of public figures that were somehow too scandalous to print in any legitimate form, but that were of putative political importance. Thus Le Gazetier cuirassé combined an apparently serious political purpose—namely an attack on the alleged “ministerial despotism” of Louis XV’s government—with the recounting of salacious tittle-tattle about the private corruption, domestic infidelity, and freewheeling and sordid sexual antics of pretty much the entire political and religious establishment, in a style combining verve with humor and mockery.

The effect was all the more breathtaking in that, though much of his book comprised unconfirmable innuendo and manifest falsities, Morande also seemed worryingly well informed about the world he described. Besides pumping former cronies back in France about elite vice and sexual deviation, he was also well connected in London through the notorious transvestite the chevalier d’Eon.

Many of the lofty characters in Le Gazetier cuirassé were referred to in code or under cover of anonymity. This playfulness only added to the fun: keys to the code circulated, and in any case most Enlightenment readers liked riddles and puzzles, and rose accordingly to the challenge. As Darnton puts it, the work “shock[ed readers] by slandering the great, and it amuse[d] them by hiding the slander in allusions that [had] to be puzzled out.” In an odd, backhanded way, this seemed to many a more inclusive form of politics than anything the Bourbon dynasty could offer. The libelle purported to be “unveiling” (the term was widely used) vital information of public interest that the government was withholding from public view.

In the event, Le Gazetier cuirassé traded in shock and amusement so effectively that it made Morande a fortune. It went into numerous editions and became one of the most popular clandestine texts circulating in France in the 1770s and 1780s, alongside the most daring philosophical works of Voltaire and d’Holbach.

In addition, the work’s success also gave Morande the means to make a second fortune. For his corruscatingly piquant and mockingly vicious tales had frightened the French political elite: more secrets might come into the open, more skeletons might be paraded outside their closets. Responding artfully to this apprehension, Morande developed a sophisticated line in blackmail, informing potential targets that he possessed harmful information about them, and inviting them to pay him to prevent its publication.

In 1774, he went for broke, extending his system to the very highest level: Louis XV and his principal mistress, Madame du Barry. He let it be known from across the Channel that he had even worse tales to tell about them both in a work to be entitled Mémoires secrets d’une femme publique—an overt allusion to du Barry’s past as a courtesan. After several fruitless attempts to bring him to heel, the royal government dispatched to London the playwright-adventurer Caron de Beaumarchais on a secret mission to intimidate Morande, or else to buy him off. The latter stratagem did the trick, handsomely. Morande deigned to receive what was effectively a king’s ransom, and also an annual pension from the crown that could be withdrawn at the first sign of misbehavior. Beaumarchais remarked to the Paris police chief Sartine that he had converted Morande from poacher to gamekeeper. Over the next two decades, Morande produced regular reports on libelous activity going on in London that was blackening the French crown. He thereby became the sworn enemy of most of his fellow denizens of Grub Street in both Paris and London.

Darnton regards Le Gazetier cuirassée as the starting point for a system of political slander that developed apace and became increasingly important in subsequent decades. Morande had laid the egg, but owing to his well- remunerated change of political tack, other libellistes hatched it. A large group of texts emerged, building on and elaborating Morande’s legacy. These were often published at length and over a long period. Although some were single volumes, there were ten volumes to L’Observateur anglais, ou correspondance secrète entre Milord All’Eye et Milord All’Ear (1777–1778), and no less than thirty-six to the Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la république des lettres en France (1777–1789). These and similar texts shared the qualities of being, in Darnton’s expert view, “slanderous, tendentious, wicked, indecent, and very good reading.” “Secret histories” chockful of bite-size anecdotes henceforth were in strong demand, which the royal government failed to stifle.

The Morande story line would be replayed on a number of occasions under Louis XVI, who succeeded to the throne in 1774, as the world of slander took an increasingly farcical turn. French ministers labored to stop salacious stories at the source, conniving in blackmail attempts, chasing down French nationals in London, and doing everything in their power to stop what proved to be an unquenchable source of scurrility. Threats, censorship, arrests, and arbitrary embastillement provided tested methods of keeping a measure of control over such works within France. In London, the crown also tried bullying, kidnapping, assassination, and pressuring Parliament into changing the English libel laws. Despite the reformed Morande’s very best efforts, London became an essential outpost of Paris’s Grub Street. Operating with apparent impunity from an indeterminate location, it generated a transnational flow of scurrilous anecdotes.

Morande’s career is an excellent point of entry into the intriguing world of Old Regime slander, in which Darnton entertainingly revels. Although Darnton wears his learning exceedingly lightly, an extraordinary amount of painstaking primary research has gone into the production of this book. Just to riffle lightly through its lengthy footnotes is to discover that Darnton has lost none of his archival energy and ingenuity. This allows the reader to follow at close hand the intersecting careers of his numerous dramatis personae, often puffed up with their own loquacious braggadocio—though the lives of the figures are sometimes so picaresque, so full of passages into and out of clandestinity, across the Channel and back, into and out of royal favor, and so replete with zigs and zags, simulations and dissimulations, and ruptures and reconciliations that the effect is dizzying.

The issue is compounded in that Darnton’s two aims sometimes compete and conflict. On one hand, he uses a historical, diachronic approach in order to measure the political impact of the libelles. On the other, his analysis of the morphology of early-modern slander is done in quasi-anthropological, largely synchronic mode. The mix makes for a surprisingly difficult (considering Darnton’s exceptional expository skill) yet ultimately rewarding and thought-provoking book.

The genealogy of slander can be traced back to antiquity. Darnton locates the earliest direct antecedent of the libelles in the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius’ Anecdotal History, and also cites as early exemplars the pasquinades of Pietro Aretino in Renaissance Italy and the mazarinades of the Fronde, France’s abortive seventeenth-century civil war. Libelles could take many forms—chronicles, biographies, poems, dialogues, or correspondence, for example—and shaded into journalism at one end, fiction at the other.

The golden thread that unites them all—including more modern versions—is that they were adept at reducing “complex events to the clash of personalities.” Their authors realized that “names make news,” and they narrated politics through individual adventures, true or false. Collectively, they constituted “an outlook on political authority that can be characterized as folklore or mythology.” Darnton approaches the “folklore” of Old Regime scandal in much the same way that Vladimir Propp tackled Russian folk tales and Roland Barthes the “mythologies” of France in the 1950s—that is, in a manner that is more alert to the repetitions that identify the genre rather than to differentiating characteristics between the works in question.

  1. 1

    See especially Robert Darnton, “The High Enlightenment and the Low Life of Literature in Pre-Revolutionary France,” Past & Present, No. 51 (1971).

  2. 2

    See “Finding a Lost Prince of Bohemia,” The New York Review, April 3, 2008.

  3. 3

    The Bohemians, translated by Vivian Folkenflik, with an introduction by Robert Darnton (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). The French version, Les Bohémiens, is published by Mercure de France.

  4. 4

    A King’s Ransom: The Life of Théveneau de Morande, Blackmailer, Scandalmonger, and Master-Spy (London: Continuum, 2010).

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