Twilight of the Old Order, 1774-1778
If indeed the dying Louis XV said “Après moi, le dêluge,” he was not only very lucid but he was perhaps the only prophet in France in 1774. It is easy for us with perfect hindsight to study the advent of the French Revolution, but to its contemporaries the Revolution had already occurred: a revolution in the minds and in the hearts of a great nation. The philosophers of the French Enlightenment felt that the developments in science and in what we would now call sociology and political science would free mankind of its problems and correct all social evils. If it was not a perfect world yet, it certainly had improved, and time and patience would increasingly develop the seeds sown of this Enlightenment.
Our popular historical misconceptions are often filled with pictures of general poverty, misery, and resentment of the established order. But Manceron’s book shows that this was not a winter of great discontent as is often suggested, but in fact, as the English title implies, a Götterdämmerung. Twilight is a time when light and darkness coexist, a prelude to complete darkness and an eventual dawn. This was a period when a few changes had already occurred but not enough to signify a new social system. It was a period of uncertainty and transition. Revolution is not an event but a process which is often almost imperceptible but nevertheless unalterable, determined, and unavoidable. And the French Revolution is no exception. A great many changes had already occurred in France and many more, still imperceivable, were germinating. Manceron, though not a Marxist, dialectician, recognizes the confrontation of the old and the new and draws the readers into this process through a series of events, anecdotes, and character studies as well as political and social developments.
The seeds of revolution had definitely been sown in the confrontation of two systems: the absolute monarchy and the Enlightenment. But at that time the two systems were not understood as opposites. There were a number of nobles and ministers who accepted a great many ideas from the philosophers. Turgot, for example, was highly praised by Mirabeau and Voltaire for his economic policies. And there were a number of reassuring situations: weren’t Catherine the Great and Frederick of Prussia enlightened monarchs? England had been for a great many years a participatory monarchy, and surely the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and France would imminently follow suit. In fact, while it was not yet the perfect society, the promise of great improvements was definitely perceptible. A new world was slowly being born. But no one, especially in France, was yet aware that its birth pangs would flood the country with so much blood and suffering.
Claude Manceron, a teacher and historical novelist turned historian, creates an impressionist mosaic in this first of eight volumes on the French Revolution. At its beginning, we are still fifteen years away from the events of 1789. Louis XV is dying and the country is in a period of relative peace and prosperity. Manceron uses his talents and the techniques of a novelist in this first volume, as he sets the stage for things to come by explaining the structures of society and by developing the characterization of the cast which will be instrumental in bringing out the new order. In fact, France is the protagonist, as it tries, in this volume, to adjust to a new king, Louis XVI, to solve its problems, to incorporate new ideas, to reform, and to grow. The author is not so concerned with the major historical events of these four years as he is with presenting a select but illustrative series of people and situations which capture the pulse of the nation.
Manceron’s method is thorough. There are ninety-four short chapters in this book and hundreds of personages: some are universally known and others are historically insignificant, but all are judiciously chosen to express the mood, tempo, and totality of this period. The important figures are fleshed out and, surrounding their important acts with documented anecdotes, the author gives them the necessary depth to make them live again in our minds. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette are a young couple trying to live up to their royal destinies. Louis is young, untrained, shy, hesitant, and caught in a crossfire of ideas and demands that are beyond his ken. His wife, ever a dutiful daughter, tries to live up to her mother’s expectations but also struggles to assume her full identity as a queen, a wife, and a woman. Manceron shows that the early discord between Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI was not only political in origin but also sexual. This will give the reader a better understanding of the situation by showing the royal couple as deeply human and vulnerable. Louis, ignorant in sexual matters, was not only frustrated but increasingly indifferent to his wife. She was equally ignorant and hounded by her mother, Maria Theresa, to produce an heir, to be a better wife, and to stay out of politics. Marie-Antoinette, embarrassed by her “inadequate womanhood,” tried to compensate by becoming a political companion to her husband and influencing his decisions and imposing her friends and protégés, as in the behind-the-scene fights concerning Turgot, Choiseul, Maupeou, and others. It was only after a visit of Joseph...
(The entire section is 2172 words.)