Stories About the French Revolution by Those Who Lived It

Stories about the French Revolution frequently begin with the fall of the Bastille because it was a pivotal moment that happened on 14 July 1789 when revolutionaries stormed the prison that had once been a fortress. For many of them, the Bastille was a symbol of Louis XVI’s tyranny and monarchical despotism and therefore important for them to overthrow.

Storming of the Bastille. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Among those who thought of the Bastille in such a way was Madame Tussaud’s uncle and mentor, Philippe Mathé Curtius. He had been among the first to wear the uniform of the citizen soldiers and was soon elected a captain. The day before the Bastille was attacked, he had joined with those who became known as the vainqueur de la Bastille and was with them searching for weapons before the Bastille fell. However, he was not with the revolutionaries when the Bastille was stormed, although he did arrive there shortly afterwards.

Despite his lack of involvement, Curtius found it too irresistible not to brag that he had been with the revolutionaries when the Bastille fell. In 1790, he published a thin pamphlet about his heroic feats called Services of Mr. Curtis (Services du Sieur Curtius vainqueur de la Bastille depuis le 12 juillet jusqu’au 6 octobre 1789). It was full of exaggerations and read as if he had seized the prison single handedly.

As if taking a page from Curtius, Madame Tussaud also provided an interesting exaggeration in her memoirs, written by Francis Hérve and published in 1838. Once the Bastille was stormed, the prisoners were released and paraded through the streets and supposedly among them was the Comte de Lorges, a white haired, long-bearded man. However, he was a fictional character invented because he was a powerful symbol for revolutionaries, which made the storming of the Bastille a memorable act and served as reminder of the tyrannical power of the old regime. Yet, in Madame Tussaud’s Memoirs and Reminiscences of France Hérve stated:

“The most remarkable among them [taken from inside the Bastille] was the Comte de Lorge, who was brought to Madame Tussaud, that she might take a cast from his face, which she completed, and still possesses amongst her collection. It is the whole length resemblance take from life. He had been thirty years in the Bastille, and when liberated from it, having lost all relish for the world, requested to be re-conducted to his prison, and died a few weeks after his emancipation.”[1]

Madame Tussaud at age 42. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Other stories about the French Revolution appeared in newspapers and one of the most popular newspapers at the time was Révolutions de Paris published by 27-year-old Elysée Loustalot. His paper offered shocking and sensationalized accounts of violence based on eyewitness accounts with “vehement editorializing.” One story he reported on with fervor was the death and decapitation of Joseph-François Foullon de Doué (a French politician and a Controller-General of Finances under Louis XVI who was deeply unpopular) and his son-in-law, Bertier de Sauvigny. Loustalot reported:

“Already, Bertier is no more; his head is nothing more than a mutilated stump separate from his body. A man, O gods, a man, a barbarian tears out his [Bertier’s] heart from his palpitating viscera. How can I say this? He is avenging himself on a monster who had killed his father. His hands dripping with blood, he goes to offer the heart, still steaming, under the eyes of the men of peace assembled in this august tribunal of humanity. What a horrible scene! … This body, so delicate and so refined, bathed in perfume is horribly dragged in the mud and over the cobblestones. … Frenchmen you exterminate tyrants! Your hatred is revolting, frightful … but you will, at last, be free. I know my dear co-citizens, how these revolting scenes afflict your souls … but think how ignominious it is to live as slaves. Think what punishments should be meted out for the crime of lèse-humanité. Think, finally, what good, what satisfaction, what happiness awaits you and your children.”[2]

Portrait of Bertier. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The London Times published several stories about the French Revolution. For instance, carnage seemed to be the order of the day or at least that is what the paper reported:

“The streets of Paris, strewed with the carcases of the mangled victims, are become so familiar to the sight, that they are passed by and trod on without any particular notice. The mob think no more of killing a fellow-creature, who is not even an object of suspicion, than wanton boys would of killing a cat or a dog. … In the massacre last week, every person who had the appearance of a gentleman, whether stranger or not, was run through the body with a pike. He was of course an Aristocrate, and that was a sufficient crime. A ring, a watch chain, a handsome pair of buckles, a new coat, or a good pair of boots in a word, every thing which marked the appearance of a gentleman, and which the mob fancied, was sure to cost the owner his life. EQUALITY was the pistol, and PLUNDER the object.”[3]  

Another of the interesting stories about the French Revolution happened after the insurrection on 10 August where armed Parisian revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace. The royal family escaped to the Legislative Assembly but were then placed, supposedly for their own safety, in the Temple. It was a rundown four-story-high building that had served as a fortress and would now serve as their prison. Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France, daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, provided the following information about this event:

“The persons who were shut up with us in this fatal place were the Princesse de Lamballe, Mme. de Tourzel and her daughter Pauline, M. de Chamilly, my father’s head valet de chambre, M. Huë, in the service of my brother, Mmes. Cimbris, Thibaut, Navarre, and Bazire, waiting-women to my brother, my mother, my aunt and myself. My father was lodged above on the third floor … My aunt occupied a kitchen with Mlle. de Tourzel and Mme. Navarre; my mother lodged below in a salon, with me and afterwards Mme. de Lamballe; and in a third room was my brother with Mme. de Tourzel his governess, and his maid, Mme. Cimbris; this was a billiard-room. Mmes. Thibaut and Bazire slept below. In the kitchen of the château, destined for our service, were Turgy, Chrétien, and Marchand, men long attached to the king’s household, who brought the dishes for our meals to the Tower.”[4]

The Temple. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The London Times also provided more stories about the French Revolution and the royal family’s time in the Temple. The following account came from a gentleman who claimed to have escaped from France disguised as an English maid in service to a woman whose real maid had been killed a few weeks earlier. According to the Times, the escaped gentleman had a servant in the Garde Nationale who had served Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette while there were in the Temple and he gave the following account of their time there:

“The KING and Queen are never permitted either night or day to speak together but in the presence of one of the Municipal Officers, who when they walk, goes between them; when they eat, he sits between them; and at night they sleep in different rooms. In each of these are always four guards, who to avoid being seduced are changed every half hour. As the new guard has orders to see themselves that the KING and QUEEN are in their beds, on entering their rooms, they always ask Monsieur Louis, Madame Antoinette, etes vous dans votre lit? They ask this question until the KING and QUEEN answer, — Yes. … The victuals given to the KING and QUEEN is worse than that of any of their guards, and the jailors study to oblige them to eat such dishes as they knew they dislike most. They drink the same wine as their guards.

The linen ordered by the Municipality for these Royal personages — are six coarse shirts or shifts. A new national great-coat has been made for the KING; which with that he had on the day he was arrested, is all he has: but the rest of the ROYAL FAMILY have only one change of cloaths.

The National Guards smoke their pipes, and eat and drink in their prisoner’s apartments, as if no one was there; and their conversation is particularly ordered to be directed to the arrest; — the death of the King’s friends; — the reports of the defeat of the Austrians; — insurrections;-desertions in their armies, and other such false rumours, in order to augment the miserable situation of the ROYAL FAMILY.”[5]

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Public domain.

Jacques-René Hébert became a voice for the working class and was highly influential because of his paper, Le Père Duchesne, that was claimed by some people to be written in gutter language. Hébert also became a leader during the revolution and had thousands of followers called Hébertists. Stories about the French Revolution that appeared in his paper included many related to King Louis XVI. In addition, as the Royal Family languished in the Temple, Hébert called for the King’s execution stating:

“Yes, damn it! the traitor Louis, shut up like an owl in the Temple tower, would not be so complacent there, if he did not have a strong following in Paris. Already, damn it, they have tried more than one surprise attack to release him. The courtesans, who sneak themselves in everywhere, have more than once got into that famous tower, by greasing the paw of some of his keepers. It is fortunate that we have some sturdy chaps at the commune, who have their eyes everywhere, and who know all that is going on. … It must not happen that the greatest scoundrel that has ever been should remain unpunished. It is good that the sovereign people become used to judging kings. … What a splendid sight to see three guillotines placed in a row with the horny head of paunch Capet, and those of Frederick and Francis, held in the trap and ready to fall at the one time.”[6]

Stories of the French Revolution - Jacques René Hébert.

Jacques René Hébert. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

It wasn’t just newspapers that offered stories about the French Revolution. Letters were written to loved ones by those who were accused of being traitors or disloyal to the revolution. One person who wrote a last letter to his wife was Alexandre de Beauharnais, husband of the future Empress Josephine. Alexandre was imprisoned at Carmes, a former convent turned prison. It was an uncomfortable, dark, and airless place filled with toxic latrine odors. Knowing what the future held and that he would meet the guillotine on 23 July 1794, he wrote a hasty goodbye letter that in part stated:

“It appears from the sort of interrogation to which a fairly large number of detainees was subjected today that I am the victim of villainous calumnies brought against me by several aristocrats, so-called patriots … Presuming that this infernal machination will follow me to the Revolutionary Tribunal, I have no hope of seeing you again, my friend, nor of embracing my dear children. … Farewell … console yourself with my children, console them by enlightening them, and above all teaching them that it is on account of virtue and civic duty that they must efface the memory of my execution and recall my services to the nation and my claims to its gratitude. Farewell, you know those whom I love, be their consoler and by your care make me live longer in their hearts.”[7]

Stories of the French Revolution - Empress Josephine

Empress Josephine in 1804. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Alexandre wasn’t the only person to write a farewell letter. So did Olympe de Gouges. She was active in revolutionary politics and author of the pamphlet, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen, that was written in September 1791 and dedicated to Marie Antoinette. Gouges was first imprisoned at La Petite Force then transferred to maison de santé and executed on 3 November 1793. Nonetheless, before her execution, she wrote a last letter to her son noting that she was innocent of the charges and declaring:

“I die … a victim of my idolatry for the fatherland and for the people. Under the specious mask of republicanism. … I die innocent. All laws have been violated for the most virtuous women of her century … Farewell, my son, I shall be no more when you receive this letter. … always remember the good advice that I have given you.”[8]

Stories about the French Revolution - Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Like Gouges, women were becoming more prominent in the public sphere partly because women’s political clubs were increasing, most notably among them the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women in Paris. Men did not always approve of women’s participation or their clubs. Despite such disapproval, “although most women in the clubs proclaimed their adherence to the ideal of patriotic and republican motherhood, the very fact of their politicization eventually provoked attacks … [causing journalist and historian Louis-Marie Prudhomme’s newspaper to denounce] the provincial women’s clubs as a ‘plague to the mothers of good families.’”[9]

Charlotte Corday’s assassination of Jean-Paul Marat in July of 1793 also caused Jacobins to view women unfavorably. Yet, Jacobins were not the only ones critical of women invading male boundaries. Thirty-year-old Pierre Chaumette was the most popular orator at the Palais-Royal, a leader in the sans-culotte movement, and a worker on Prudhomme’s Journal des Révolutions. He was also a social reform, yet he denounced a group of women after they appeared before the Paris city council wearing the red caps of liberty:

“It is contrary to all the laws of nature for a woman to want to make herself a man. The Council must recall that some time ago these denatured women, these viragos, wandered through the markets with the red cap to sully that badge of liberty. … Since when is it permitted to give up one’s sex? Since when is it decent to see women abandoning the pious cares of their households, the cribs of their children, to come to public places, to harangues in the galleries at the bar of the senate?”[10]

Stories about the French Revolution - Corday's murder of Jean-Paul Marat.

Charlotte Corday’s murder of Jean-Paul Marat by Paul Jacques Aimé Baudry. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Women did gain certain legal rights during the French Revolution. For instance, divorce was legalized in 1792 and women were eligible to inherit property after legislation was passed in 1793 and 1794. However, under Napoleon Bonaparte’s Civil Code the few gains that women made during this time were lost because he viewed women as being subservient to their husbands.

Maximilien Robespierre had become highly popular with the san-culottes after the insurrection of 10 August. He was also elected to serve on the Committee of Public Safety, a de facto, interim, and executive government in France during the Reign of Terror. Robespierre dominated the committee and helped to institute the Reign of Terror that was eventually streamlined and accelerated to efficiently find and execute those people convicted of being enemies of the state.

Stories about the French Revolution - Maximilien Robespierre.

Maximilien Robespierre. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Unfortunately for Robespierre, not everyone was happy with him or his program of Terror. Many people began to worry about his unprecedented power, and, in fact, many in the National Convention feared that they might become a victim of the Terror. The Thermidor Reaction was the result and occurred when Thermidorians initiated a coup against Robespierre and his followers. Thus, this event brings me to the last of my stories about the French Revolution.

Everything came to head after Robespierre was not allowed to speak in the National Convention. He and his followers then took refuge in the Hôtel de Ville. The revolutionary government declared them outlaws and in the confrontation that followed, a portion of Robespierre’s jaw was blown away by a gunshot. He remained in agony all night before he and seventeen of his followers were executed the following morning. Historian Simon Schama provides the details:

“The end of the architects of the Grande Terreur was particularly gruesome, like some mad exorcism of horror. … Robespierre had spent the night helpless on the table of the Committee of Public Safety, where he had presided in icy discipline so many times. The fastidious prophet of Virtue was thrust onto a plank by Sanson, blood smeared over his coat and blotching his nankeen breeches. To give the blade of the guillotine an unobstructed fall, the executioner tore away the paper bandage that had been holding his jaw together. Animal screams of pain escaped, silenced only by the falling blade.”[11]  

Just like the American Revolution, the French Revolution was a momentous event that had a major impact on Europe and the New World. The French Revolution also served as a pathway for individual freedom, ended feudalism, and changed the course of human history. However, to achieve such a radical change, the deaths of thousands of French citizens was the cost and their stories about the French Revolution survive today as a reminder of the costs associated with their liberty.

References:

  • [1] F. Hervé, Madame Tussaud’s Memoirs and Reminiscences of France, Forming an Abridged History of the French Revolution (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838), p. 95.
  • [2] W. Roberts, J. L. David and J. L. Prieur, Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Louis Prieur, Revolutionary Artists: The Public, the Populace, and Images of the French Revolution (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), p. 108–9.
  • [3] London Times, “France,” September 10, 1792, p. 1.
  • [4] K. P. Wormeley, The Life and Letters of Madame Élisabeth de France: Followed by the Journal of the Temple (Boston: Brentano’s, 1901), p. 244.
  • [5] London Times, “France,” September 12, 1792, p. 2.
  • [6] J. T. Gilchrist, W. Gilchrist and W. J. Murray, Press in the French Revolution (New York: Ardent Media Incorporated, 1971), p. 153.
  • [7] O. Blanc, Last Letters (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987), p. 46.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 131–32.
  • [9] L. Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution, Berkeley (University of California Press, 1993), p. 118.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 120.
  • [11] S. Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), p. 845–46.

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