Friday, 4 October 2019

Novels of the French Revolution


Back in June, the Secret Victorianist attended the Historical Novel Society Conference in Maryland (read my full review of the event here). While there, I was lucky enough to receive a signed advanced reader copy of Ribbons of Scarlet (2019), a novel jointly written by six historical novelists depicting the lives of many of the women who played an important role in the French Revolution, which began in 1789.

Ribbons of Scarlet is now top of my TBR (to be read) list, but in honour of the novel’s release on October 1, in this week’s blog post, I’m straying out of the nineteenth century and back into the eighteenth to share with you some of my favourite reads set during, or inspired by, the revolution that rocked Europe and changed France forever.



A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859)

Dickens’s depiction of the revolution, written seventy years later, influences how its events live on in popular imagination to this day. Expect narrow escapes from the guillotine, long imprisonments and rampant blood lust.

Aside from being a classic, A Tale of Two Cities offers a great glimpse into British responses to the revolution on England’s doorstep. It also has one of the best openings of any novel in English (check out my close reading here). Bonus fun fact: I once appeared as Monsieur (yes, Monsieur, not Madame) Defarge in a school play.


The Glass Blowers, Daphne du Maurier (1963)

Daphne du Maurier dug into her own family history to inspire her 1963 The Glass Blowers, a wonderful novel that examines the revolution through the eyes of a middle class family in the provinces. The novel deals with the divisions within families occasioned by any civil war and the misinformation that fuelled much of the paranoia that dominated the French Revolution.

Her main character, an unobtrusive first person, is representative of many men and especially women of the period, who tried to maintain domestic normality, while war and political strife ravaged the country.


A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel (1992)

Reading Hilary Mantel’s dense and captivating novel is as close as we can come today to experiencing the French Revolution blow by blow. Focused on Paris, Mantel illuminates the lives of three of the conflict’s main actors—Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre—with a huge cast of supporting characters.

The novel is replete with interpersonal as well as political drama but this isn’t a story of ordinary people. If you want to dig into the nitty-gritty of factions, espionage and corruption, this is the book for you.


Pure, Andrew Miller (2011)

The most recent novel on my list, Pure isn’t really a novel of the Revolution at all, but of the years preceding it. Our protagonist is an engineer tasked with clearing the graveyard at Les Innocents in Paris, which is literally overflowing with corpses and therefore endangering the health of the city's residents.

The book captures the rising tensions in Paris in the 1780s, the bureaucracy of Versailles, the autonomy of different parts of the city and the fading influence of the Catholic Church. There’s even a cameo for Dr Guillotine himself as social discord rumbles, creating a dramatic stage for our central story. It’s dark, compelling, and beautifully told.


Other French Revolution related novels that are on my radar include Catherine Delors’s Mistress of the Revolution (2008), Edward Carey’s Little (2018), and, of course, Ribbons of Scarlet. But I’d love to hear what other books on the topic you’d recommend I check out! Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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