Did Emotions Cause the Terror?

Everett Collection
Dirk Bogarde (right) as Sydney Carton at the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities, 1958

In 2015, the French literary world was eagerly devouring Temps glaciaires, the latest thriller from the eminent crime novelist Fred Vargas.1 Its plot revolves around the doings of a fictive Association d’Étude des écrits de Maximilien Robespierre (an evident spoof of the Paris-based Société des études robespierristes, the scholarly society dedicated to the history of the French Revolution). The president of the association wears a necklace decorated with teeth from the mouth of his alleged ancestor, Maximilien Robespierre. In an incident (probably attempted suicide) during his arrest in July 1794, Robespierre shot a hole in his jaw and lost and loosened many of his teeth. He was put out of his agony later that day by the guillotine erected on the present-day Place de la Concorde.

Vargas’s literary success is a reminder of the fascination that the French Revolution of 1789 continues to exert, not simply among historians, but among a wider public. It is also symptomatic of the Revolution’s broader cultural reception that the novel focuses particularly on the Terror of 1793–1794.2 In France under the Terror the government deployed institutionalized violence and decreed the mass execution of political opponents. Robespierre was, as a member of the Committee of Public Safety that governed France in these years, one of the Terror’s foremost leaders, its principal ideologist, and one of its most striking victims.

In the Anglophone world, the vein opened up by Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1903) is still eminently exploitable. Those novels developed a particularly lurid, hyperemotive version of the Terror: the brusque Kafkaesque tribunal proceedings, the world-turned-upside-down of Revolutionary prisons, the nerve-racking preparation for the scaffold, the tumbril ride through jeering Parisian streets, the swish of the guillotine blade, and the severed head clunking into the basket, then being held aloft for the crowd’s approval.

Before Wolf Hall established Hilary Mantel as one of the great historical novelists of our times, her A Place of Greater Safety (1992) brilliantly evoked Revolutionary Paris under the guillotine’s shadow in ways that built on this inheritance. In a rather different register, the recent books and films about Queen Marie Antoinette, who lost her head in 1793, show the vitality and increasingly transnational dimensions of public interest in the period. The furor in France caused in 2014 by the Assassin’s Creed Unity video game, which provoked an angry response from the French parliamentary left over what were perceived to be flagrant historical inaccuracies in its portrayal of Revolutionary Paris, suggests that the Terror myth has reached the international gaming community.3

Because it is so often the sanguinary aspects of the Terror that catch wider media attention, it is worth noting that, measured purely by the number…

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