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  • Victorian Children and The French Revolution:Views from Below
  • Margaret R. Higonnet (bio)

For Victorians, the French Revolution was "the greatest, the most animating event in history" (Matthew Arnold, cited by Marcus 10). They read their own history, whether complacently or with prophetic fear, through French history. Through fictions about the Revolution, they also sought to give their children a vision of an ideal social order and an understanding of historical processes. For historical fictions rarely have documentation as their sole intent. To be sure, the particulars about events or historical personnages serve to color in a historical moment and thus to preserve one image of the past, among many possible images. In the same mirror, however, we read ourselves and the present. After the Chartist riots of 1831, [End Page 196] writers like Thomas Carlyle saw "a second edition of the French Revolution" as "distinctly within the realm of chances" for England (Froude 2:221, cited by Goldberg 100).

What type of historical vision might a nineteenth-century English or American child encounter? We must bear in mind that the boundary between adult and children's texts was not clearly drawn, nor was that between scholarly and popular texts.1 Patterns of reading in family circles meant that authors even of "high" literature, encrusted with political philosophy and moral reflections, also deployed melodramatic incidents, romances, and slapstick that might appeal to children. As a result, young people then read writers like Wordsworth and Hugo whom we now think of as addressing adults, while other, more popular writers such as Dickens or Dumas found their works adopted as children's classics.

A second point to be made is that the line between history and fiction was less clearly drawn then than it is today; history was not just a science but an art. Influenced by Sir Walter Scott's novels, the historian Carlyle strove to avoid the "mere abstractions and dead formulas" of Mignet and Thiers (CME 4:3). He struggled to record the "life-tumult," "the bodily concrete colored presence of things," in bold strokes, so "that it may look like a smoke-and-flame conflagration in the distance" (LW 114; see Goldberg 104).

One of the tools of seduction that Carlyle and his contemporaries drew on in interpreting the French Revolution was metaphor. They used organic and other natural imagery to imply that an inevitable process had led to this sequence of events. They evaluated that process morally: a violent deluge had inundated and wiped out a corrupt and effete system, whose royal and noble leaders had, as a class, provoked a historical retribution not unlike that which swept Noah's fellow men from the face of the earth. Victorians could not know the kind of evidence historians have subsequently compiled—that the September massacres struck poor and petty criminals as well as nobles or clerics, that the "white terror" of counter-revolutionaries was as costly in human lives as the official Terror, or that the property system survived virtually intact through this period. Instead, what fascinated them was the tensions between their sympathy for a Revolution that seemed divinely justified at the outset and their horror at the bloodshed that marked 1792 and subsequent years.

These were the two sides of the picture drawn by the poet laureate Wordsworth in his autobiographical epic, The Prelude, written between 1798 and 1805 but not published until after his death in 1850. A Girondin sympathizer and follower of Godwin, Wordsworth reacted with fervent idealism to "France standing on the top of golden hours,/ And human nature seeming born again." At first he defended the September massacres as a "return" of the "tide": "all things have second birth;/ the earthquake is not satisfied at once" (10:83-84). Gradually, however, in respose to the "tyranny and implements of death" of the Terror, he charted a turn away from hopes of political reform, toward introspection and a belief that "brotherhood" could be found only in the bosom of nature (12:87). He closed—or foreclosed—his experience of the Revolution by a return to "Home at Grasmere," where the sisterly love of Dorothy restored him to his love of nature and sense...


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pp. 196-200
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