Farewell from the Bookshelf!
Please note that GLBT Bookshelf -- the community wiki which was the parent to this fiction blog -- went offline on May 31, 2016, after seven years' service to members.
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"The Bastille (..) was a fortress-prison in Paris, known formally as Bastille Saint-Antoine—Number 232, Rue Saint-Antoine—best known today because of the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, which along with the Tennis Court Oath is considered the beginning of the French Revolution."
"The Bastille” was a fortress-prison in Paris, known formally as Bastille Saint-Antoine—Number 232, Rue Saint-Antoine—best known today because of the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, which along with the Tennis Court Oath is considered the beginning of the French Revolution."
This quote from Wikipedia's entry on The Bastille tells you what happened on that monumental day. A more detailed and scholarly piece could tell you all the events that led up to the storming and about many of the people involved. But history in the hands of a knowledgeable and talented historical novelist can do more. It can tell you what the day to day was like leading up to le 14 Juillet; how someone living in Paris would learn about the event, how it would impact his own life and livelihood, and how he would feel, whether triumphant, fearful, hopeful, or sad. This is the case with Anel Viz's riveting novel The Memoirs of Colonel Gérard Vreilhac, which stretches from just before the revolution, through the Reign of Terror, into the time of Napoleon to Waterloo, and thence through the turbulent and ever-changing next decades in the life of France.
The following is an excerpt from the novel. You can find a review posted on That's All She Read.
From Part I, chapter 3:
Two celebrations from those days stand out in my mind. The first occurred on the twenty-first of September 1792. The day before, we had ceased being a constitutional monarchy and become a republic.
It was a crisp autumn day. The crowds began arriving early at the Champs de Mars to honor the infant Republic. People came dressed in their best clothes and carrying picnic baskets. They played games, partied, toasted the Republic, and congratulated one another on the nation’s achievements. Nobody gave thought to the armies massed at our borders. The festivities went on all day, and there was a display of fireworks in the evening.
It seemed as if the entire population of Paris had turned out to celebrate, though of course they could not all have fit even into so large an area. I am told almost as many people gathered at Vincennes and a smaller crowd in the Tuileries Gardens. I went with Artémis, Monsieur Leforgeron, Sandrine, Clément, and Thierry, with Brotteaux tagging along behind. Philippe and Thomas went on their own, I assume so they would have a free hand to flirt with the ladies and perhaps find a couple they could screw on the banks of the Seine after dark. Old Madelon and her grandson stayed home, afraid she would be jostled by the crowd and lose her way among them.
We wandered about the grounds in search of old friends, smiling and laughing. Brotteaux stopped to chat with everyone we passed, and we soon lost sight of him. Everybody seemed to know and like him. That didn’t surprise me. I have seldom met a man more friendly.
Citizen Brotteaux had nothing but praise for the Republic, which he compared to Ancient Rome, and for the new constitution that would now be written, and was unwisely generous in his suggestions as to the system of governance he hoped it would establish. On the other hand, he had nothing but ridicule for the proposed Republican Calendar, which he called pompous and foolish. “How disappointing they should waste their time on such trivialities when so much needs to be done!” he said. “What will people in the deserts of Arabia think of a month with the name Pluviôse, or of Thermidor on the frozen tundra, when we bring the Revolution to the rest of the world? And it is our aim to share its blessings with all mankind, is it not?”
I could not have agreed with him more, but I nonetheless praised their “sublime logic” and words like July or April never passed my lips for as long as the calendar was in force. For some bizarre reason I even remember some of the things they used to replace the saints in order to banish religion from it. Under the new calendar my name day became the ox, Julien’s knotgrass, and it flattered Artémis’s vanity to learn that hers was the amaryllis. (I believe Citizen Brotteaux’s was the grape.) Ironically, the calendar proved the most long-lasting of their accomplishments, though even most Jacobins paid no attention to the idiocy of a ten-day week.
The second was not so much a celebration as a spontaneous outburst of wild joy that seized hold of the mob when the guillotine severed Louis XVI’s head from his body on the Place de la Révolution.
I did not attend executions often, but my absence at so important an event would be noticed. Not to go would be taken as a sign that I did not support the majority’s decision. I was right; I could see that everyone who recognized me made a mental note of my presence. The size of the crowd was unprecedented, and I thought that many people had come there for the same reason I had. I realized my error when I saw their reaction.
People had shaken their fists, yelled insults, even hurled mud at him when the procession rolled by them in the streets, and the crowd gathered around the scaffold was abuzz with holiday expectation. But when he stepped from the tumbrel a hush fell over the Place de la Révolution. It seemed as if everyone had stopped breathing at once, as if in awe, or perhaps all were afraid of missing the tiniest detail, as we sometimes see in the theater. The wheeze of the descending blade sounded like a consumptive struggling to inhale, and the noise of it hitting the wood as it fell into its slot and of the head when it rolled into the basket sounded like a suspended heartbeat.
The throng surged forward en masse, carrying me with them. People reached into the basket to grab the head, and the lucky woman who was first to sink her fingers into his thinning hair held it high in the air and let the blood pour down over her. Others pushed in close to her to share in the gory shower. Still others seized the bucket of collected blood and thrust their arms into it, then pulled them out and smeared their faces with it or licked their fingers clean. Some gathered up the blood in their cupped hands to spray on the people who pressed in on all sides but were unable to reach their goal. They howled with joy and turned to wipe their hands on the shirts of those standing closest to them. They hugged each other and laughed. They danced in the streets and sang “Ça ira” and the “Carmagnole”. Those who had brought their children held them up so they could see better. This uncouth and primitive behavior subsided in an hour or two, but the excitement lasted for days.
A general panic set in with the uprising in the Vendée. Almost overnight people began to see spies and traitors at every turn. The arrests multiplied, and trials were held almost round the clock. My fellow clerks had been right in saying that Robespierre had an iron memory. On his recommendation I was given a position as court recorder for the Revolutionary Tribunal. The jurors’ bench was perpendicular to the judges’ table, a few yards to their left. I sat at a small table to the right of the judges, where it was my responsibility to write down every word spoken at a trial or hearing. Artémis called it a high honor.
Recording the proceedings was less difficult than it sounds. People seldom had a chance to speak in their own defense, and since we had so many cases to get through, the prosecutor soon stopped giving speeches denouncing the sedition and wickedness of those accused. He simply read through the act of accusation, a copy of which had been given me in advance, the judges pronounced sentence, and that was that.
The inordinate number of accused soon made it impossible to grant everyone a preliminary hearing, and once the Terror was in full swing they often dispensed with a trial as well. I was none too happy with my new job, in spite of a significant increase in salary and the chance to associate with the heroes of the Revolution, which made my situation less precarious at a time when it seemed no one was above suspicion.
My first day on the job reassured me somewhat. By chance, about a quarter of the crimes we had to judge were not political. (I say “we” because just being present at a trial made me feel implicated in every execution they ordered, though I had no say in the matter.) Among the first to face the Tribunal was Jacques Gombert, accused of raping a ten-year-old boy. I immediately thought, not of what he done to me, but of Julien’s sexual initiation by the Jesuits. The child’s mother testified, and the details she gave were horrific. The doctor who treated him confirmed what she said. The people in the stands wept openly.
There was no doubt what the verdict would be; all Revolutionaries considered the protection of children a sacred trust. The presiding judge even delivered a speech on the heinousness of his crime. They sent Gombert to the guillotine, and he wept when he heard his sentence. I felt an enormous satisfaction in having participated in bringing a criminal—especially that criminal—to justice, and I told Artémis about it. She spat and called him a vile man. We went together to see him guillotined.
I don’t believe I ever again volunteered information on a trial, although Artémis was ever curious and pressed me for details, in which case I had to speak about it. On the other hand, she often came to observe the proceedings and sat in the first row with a dozen or so women and their knitting, who glared at the accused and invariably clamored for their death. That evening in the kitchen she would tell everyone what happened, turning to me to confirm what she said.
The Memoirs of Colonel Gérard Vreilhac by Anel Viz is available from Amazon.com and Dreamspinner Press.