Thursday, 11 November 2021

Revolutionary deaths

Tu montreras ma tête au peuple (Folio) Tu Montreras Ma Tete Au Peuple is a gem of a book, but as yet only available in French, the language of its author François-Henri Désérable. It contains ten bite-sized stories, myths and legends of the French Revolution.

The title of the book is taken from the supposed last words of Danton who is the subject of one of its fictionalised accounts. These are based on a variety of reported last moments, some apocryphal, some invented, of the unfortunate souls who were guillotined during the Terror (generally from 1793 to mid-1794). Each is told from a different perspective, jailers, onlookers, relatives, friends, and even an executioner.

The first story is one of the most memorable, about Charlotte Corday who murdered Marat. She remains standing in the tumbrel because she wants to look the crowd in the eyes, after all, "you only die once", and as the French proverb says, "C’est la fin qui couronne l’œuvre".

Le Banquet was moving too in its depiction of 20 Girondins, "whose virtues were only equaled by their talents". They sang the Marseillaise together in the tumbrel and continued singing until the choir lost a voice, one by one with every fall of the blade.

Other executions that stick in the mind are the scientist Antoine Lavoisier's "elegant" death, the "jeune fille belle, noble, impudente - en un mot: coupable" who saved herself by getting pregnant, the older woman Madame du Barry who pleaded "Pas tout de suite, encore un moment monsieur le bourreau". The most horrific tho' was not ordered by the Revolutionaries, but by Louis XV in 1757. After that, one can only agree with Sanson the executioner that the guillotine is "le mode d’administration de la mort le plus sûr, le plus prompt et le moins douloureux".

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