Last Letters

While doing research in archives from the period of the French Revolution, historian Olivier Blanc was particularly struck by the interest of one group of documents: letters by men and women condemned to death by the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal, written only hours or even minutes before their execution. Adding to their poignancy is the knowledge that these farewells to loved ones did not reach their destination: They are preserved in the archives because they were intercepted and turned over to the notorious prosecutor, Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville. From these letters, Blanc selected 150, of which 113 had not previously been published. The resulting book appeared in France in 1984 and is now available in English translation.

The volume begins with a long introductory essay (about eighty pages) entitled “The Prisons of the Terror and Their Inmates.” Here, Blanc presents a cross section of those imprisoned by the Revolutionary Tribunal, a thorough account of prison life and the spectacle of execution, and a sense of the intricate political intrigues in which both the jailers and the jailed were embroiled. The reader learns that, by twentieth century standards, the Reign of Terror was insignificant: The Tribunal passed “only” 2,639 death sentences. At the same time, the individual letters bring home the enormity of all revolutions gone awry.

Blanc prefaces each letter with a biographical sketch of the writer; among those represented are the famous and powerful (Marie-Antoinette, for example) but also the humble and obscure: Guillaume Leonard, a wine merchant and petty forger; Charlotte Noirette Blancheton, the wife of a second-hand dealer. The letters produce conflicting emotions: There is a disparity between the reality that underlies them and the largely conventional language in which they are written. For many readers, the interest of this book will lie in that tension.

The text is supplemented by a list of Paris prisons under the Terror, a chronology covering the period from 1792 to 1797, a table for converting dates from the Republican calendar to the Gregorian calendar, notes, a bibliography (all but a handful of the works listed are in French), and a useful name index which gives the occupation of each individual mentioned in the text.