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  • The Storming of the Bastille in English Newspapers
  • Norbert Schürer

Discussions of English responses to the French Revolution usually concentrate on the "pamphlet controversy" between such texts as Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, Paine's The Rights of Man, and Wollstonecraft's Vindications.1 The earliest texts most contemporary critics mention are Burke's seminal Reflections, which "precipitated a debate over the French Revolution that has continued for two centuries," and Richard Price's Discourse on the Love of our Country, which was delivered on 4 November 1789.2 As Stephen Prickett correctly asserts, these "descriptions and images of the French Revolution debate conditioned the ways in which observers actually perceived those events."3 At the same time, "descriptions and images of the French Revolution," or at least of individual events that constituted it, were available to British citizens several months before November 1789. The fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, in particular, elicited many reactions in England in such media as print, caricature, and drama. For instance, in August 1789 "a 'Bastille war' took place in London as managers of the minor theatres staged rival representations of the events of the Fourteenth of July."4 All three dramas were favorably disposed to the storming of the Bastille. On August 31st, the Sadler's Wells Theater in London put on a play with the title Gallic Freedom; or, Vive la Liberté. Two weeks previously (17 August), the Royal Grove Amphitheatre under the direction of Philip [End Page 50] Astley had offered Paris in an Uproar; or, the Destruction of the Bastille. Even earlier, the Royal Circus, managed by Charles Hughes, started the series of theatrical versions with John Dent's The Triumph of Liberty; or, The Bastille on August 5th, barely three weeks after the fall of the Paris landmark.5 Yet even these were not the first responses in Britain to the events at the Bastille on 14 July 1789. In the first two weeks before the commencement of dramatic representations, the English public was informed about the situation in France mostly through the daily, biweekly, triweekly, and weekly press—a coverage in newspapers and magazines that paved the way for later reactions to the French Revolution and that was remarkable for its tremendous variety. Depending on which publication readers perused, the storming of the Bastille looked completely different.

For this reason, the analysis of journalistic reports from the first two weeks after the news of events in Paris arrived in London shows on one level that it is almost impossible to ascertain in retrospect some details of what really happened in Paris on 14 July 1789. On a different level, a complex attitude can be discerned in this immediate reaction to the fall of the Bastille, often in the same publication: praise of the French people's supposed attempt to rid themselves of aristocratic tyranny; and condemnation of the rabble's purported usurpation of power and overthrow of the social order, which resulted in a bloodbath. In other words, the reactions are anti-French, but also anti-mob. These two responses, which form the underlying scope for the following article, built on basic perceptions in Britain of the Bastille that had been established over previous centuries and reinforced in more recent publications. These responses are visible in the specific portrayals of two aristocratic figures involved in the events surrounding the Bastille—the prison's governor, the French Marquis de Launay, and its supposed prisoner, the British Earl of Massereene—who are depicted differently in different reports. A similar reaction is visible in two conflicting representations of the Bastille—either as a regular prison no different from British jails or as a cruel institution, unimaginable in England, housing victims of French despotism—articulating the political positions of the various British newspapers in this instance.

Some critics do address newspaper coverage of the storming of the Bastille at least briefly.6 Hannah Barker, for instance, contends, "Newspapers served both to publicise the events of the revolution, and, in these early years at least, to present them in a favourable light."7 She argues that most Britons initially welcomed the French Revolution and adds, "Faced...


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