It all started with book covers: a discussion with a Robespierriste reader

This exchange exceeded the iron-clad 3,000 character limit for comments, set by my blogging software. Yet it seemed a pity not to publish Suzanne Levin’s remarks, which I found most interesting. I certainly look forward to reading her historical novel when it is completed.
Suzanne’s continued remarks regarding my prior book cover post (I recommend that you first read the comment trail there)

Your explanation of why you chose the cover image you did, seems to me entirely reasonable, and it is surely no less appropriate for your book than the others, especially not with the modifications. It only seemed a curious detail to me, and I wondered if you were aware. I would highly recommend both Margerit’s series of novels and those by Alleyn, especially the former, if you ever have the chance to read them. (Margerit’s La Révolution even won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française in 1963, so you’ll see that I do not exaggerate its merits.)

No modern author, as I said, can compete with Victor Hugo. I personally consider Quatre-vingt-treize to be the greatest novel of the Revolution, if not always the most
accurate, and I am sure no one will ever be able to best it. But I mentioned it because I noticed one particular quality that your novel shares with it, which is an ability to present multiple views of the Revolution without demonizing any, and yet clearly demonstrate that the prejudices of the ancient régime belong to the past in a way that the ideals of the Revolution do not.

Not being able to get through Dickens is no fault, in my estimation. I think his writing is best described as vastly overrated. A Tale of Two Cities is among the worst of his works however, because it (and this is true for The Scarlet Pimpernel as well) never manages to outstrip British propaganda of the Revolutionary period in accuracy. I have found, sadly, that this is the case for all too many English language books on the Revolution. Obviously, the same cannot be expected of anyone with any ties to France as it would be very strange for anyone from France to lend credence to anti-French propaganda. I admit I would be very surprised if I ever came across a French novel even remotely resembling A Tale of Two Cities or The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Robespierre Labille Guiard

Robespierre Labille-guiard

Perhaps I expressed myself badly when speaking of your choice of a protagonist. I did not mean to suggest that there exists any character, from any background, whose story cannot be well and accurately written in the hands of a capable author, merely that I have too often seen aristocratic main characters used as vehicles for reactionary books in which the facts of the Revolution are distorted or at best clumsily oversimplified in order to condemn the Revolution without the least nuance. I never seriously expected Mistress of the Revolution to fall into this category, but after my negative experiences, I sometimes cannot help fearing the worst before I have the opportunity to read a book. What I mean to say is just that I was gratified to see that your book was quite the opposite of those. (Which is not of course to say that those authors do not have the right to publish whatever they wish, but I have much more respect for writers of historical fiction who themselves respect history.)

Having just finished reading your book, I can say that my opinion of it remains very high. I found the ending, in particular, moving. As one of that rare species—especially in the US—of admirers of Robespierre (an incorrigible Robespierriste, as some have called me), I greatly appreciate your care in accurately portraying his opinions are actions, though I do think you may have exaggerated his importance. Happily, I can think of at least two perfectly legitimate reasons for this, one of which you hinted at in the historical note at the end of the novel. The Revolution being the complicated series of events that it was, is indeed, if it is not simplified in some degree, likely to lead to novels thousands of pages long, very confused readers, or both. Especially in the case of a story which is set during the Revolution, rather than being about the Revolution per se, simplification is not only understandable, but necessary.

Furthermore, this particular story is written from a first person, rather than an omniscient point of view, which may for two reasons, one general and one specific to this particular character, explain Robespierre’s
exaggerated prominence. The first is simply that, while Robespierre had no more real power than the other members of the Committee of Public Safety, he was better known than some of the other members of government, which may well have led to the general perception that his power was greater than it was; moreover, it may seem that way, in the novel, to Gabrielle in particular, since Coffinhal was a friend and supporter of Robespierre.

Of course, this is all speculation on my part. I would be interested to know whether I have touched on any considerations you may have thought of in the writing of this book; or, if not, how you did decide what level of precision to employ in Mistress of the Revolution.

Suzanne

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My response

Dear Suzanne,

Indeed you touch on issues I had to ponder upon and resolve while writing Mistress of the Revolution. If this is all right with you, I would like to publish your email,
since it exceeds the limits of the comments (over which I unfortunately have no control) as a guest post in my blog.

Yes, I had to leave out some major actors of the Revolution in my novel. I felt that it was a pity, in particular, not to include Marat, a fascinating character as a journalist and scientist. Danton is only mentioned a couple of times in my novel, and Camille Desmoulins not at all. Thank you for reading my historical note and understanding that, in a work of fiction, a complete overview of the French Revolution would simply overwhelm the reader.

The absence of major characters may have given the actors who do appear in the book, such as Robespierre and Hébert, a disproportionate importance. I did specify in
the novel, though, that Robespierre had been unwell and absent from most political assemblies and debates during the months that immediately preceded his fall and execution. It was Couthon, a close associate, who argued from the tribune of the National Convention for the passage of the set of measures that would lead to the Great Terror.

However, this does not bother me since my novel, as you point out, it is a first-person, necessarily subjective narrative. I had to put myself in the position of Gabrielle, my heroine, and wonder which public figures a woman like her could reasonably have met.

In the case of my particular story, since I had decided that Coffinhal was to be the male protagonist, and since there was a strong personal and political connection between him and Robespierre, the latter had to appear prominently.

Furthermore, Robespierre was during his lifetime, and remains to this day an emblematic figure of the Revolution. He clearly appeared as the Nation’s leader during the Festival of the Supreme Being. I agree that, in title, he was simply a member of the National Convention and the Committee of Public Salvation, but his symbolic importance, among his admirers and enemies alike, cannot be overstated. I strongly believe that image is power.

I must add that you are not the only American Robespierriste I have “met” online since the publication of my novel. I am also deeply flattered to hearmy book compared, in any regard, to Victor Hugo’s Quatre-vingt-treize.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share with me your questions and comments.

Best,

Catherine

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Suzanne’s reply

Eleonore Duplay

Eleonore Duplay

I would be honored if you were to publish my comment as a guest post, if you consider that it would be at all helpful or worthwhile for others to read. I say this especially since it is very clear that verisimilitude has been utmost among your concerns in choosing which personages and events to give emphasis to in the course of your novel.

Nevertheless, I must, while agreeing that Robespierre’s moral leadership was perhaps a more important factor than his official powers, say that, while some might argue that Robespierre was the de facto leader of the Republic for a short time in June 1794, I would not consider such a view to be obvious or clear. Most historians I’ve read have been of the opinion that the First Republic cannot truly be said to have ever had a single leader. Not to press the point, but I would say that Robespierre’s
power over the man in the street or his power over his fervent supporters and any influence he may have had over his colleagues are two different things. But in any case, I’m sure you are aware of this point, as you hint in your novel. (For example, the conventionnels en mission recalled for abuse of power, such as Carrier, would certainly have appeared immediately before the Tribunal if Robespierre had had his way.)

There are very few American Robespierristes, though I am far from imagining myself the only one; however,considering your attention to historical accuracy in writing about the Revolution, I am unsurprised that you, of all people, should have come into contact with, well, two, I suppose now.

On the subject, another detail of your book that amused me greatly was Coffinhal’s commentary on Robespierre’s relationship with Éléonore Duplay. I’m well aware that such beliefs as he expresses were very common in the 18th century, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen them used in a novel before. I was especially amused because the protagonist of the novel I want eventually to write would be Éléonore Duplay, who, I am pleased to say, I also found accurately portrayed, though her role was by necessity limited to a couple of lines. Believe me, I’ve seen authors take much more space to do this particular personage’s reputation far less justice. But I needn’t go into that here.

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions and comments.

Regards,

Suzanne

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  6. CATHERINE DELORS says:

    Well, Pam, if I had had any idea of the quality of the people I have met online in the course of the past few months (I am talking of their kindness, knowledge, depth of understanding) I would have began blogging eons ago.
    But, as long as God lends us life, as they say in French, nothing is ever too late…

  7. pam sheppard says:

    Catherine: I can only watch and marvel at the depth of knowledge that glows in the minds and hearts of the people you have met here online. How wonderful that you connect with those equal to your commitment to write the truth in the history. Will make your next books even stronger to have such support.

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