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  • Representing Violence in France 1760–1820 ed. by Tom Wynn
  • Sanja Perovic
Representing Violence in France 1760–1820. Edited by Tom Wynn. (SVEC, 2013:11.) Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2013. ix + 287 pp., ill.

Correlating violence to its many representations is difficult in late eighteenth-century France. As the Introduction notes, everyday violence was declining, but the French Revolution ushered in a new period of violence, challenging any straightforward mapping of changing attitudes towards violence onto changing values. The principal burden remains the Revolution itself. As David Andress has noted, the tendency is either to normalize Revolutionary violence by assimilating it to a general condition of war, or to pathologize it completely (‘Objects of Study or Agents of History: The Continuing Academic and Moral Conundrum of the Violence of the French Revolution’, <>, 25 November 2014). In either case, as Tom Wynn argues, the result is a severing of the Revolutionary years from preceding decades. To rectify this, this edited collection embraces a longer chronology (1760–1820) and a variety of texts, including fiction, correspondence, pamphlets, and theatre. It covers four themes: violence and the crisis of reason; violence and the (re)writing of history; violence and institutions; violence and morality. Most of the essays, however, refract the question of violence through literary genres and authors: the roman noir (Pierre Saint-Amand, Michel Delon), Sade (Wynn, Michèle Vallenthini, [End Page 397] Will McMorran, Jean-Christophe Abramovici), émigré literature (Stéphanie Genand, Catriona Seth), sentimental fiction (Malcolm Cook), Revolutionary pamphlets (Rebecca Sopchik); but the collection also includes a consideration of gambling in earlier fictional life-stories (John Dunkley). These essays show how a distinctly literary sensibility permeates our grasp of past violence. Violence is variously identified with the primitive and atavistic (popular violence and mob mentality, as Olivier Ritz shows), but also the scientific and modern (the guillotine; scientific debates about mesmerism; new public trials, as opposed to deliberations behind closed doors). The Bastille remains a privileged site of real and imagined violence, not just in Sade but also in the unfortunate case of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s imprisoned brother (Odile Jaffré-Cook). Another connecting thread is the commemoration of violent acts. Seth shows how 10 August 1792 is remembered in émigré novels as the day that dissolved all conventional reference points. In contrast, Rousseau’s entry into the Panthéon expressed ‘a refusal of political violence’ (p. 184) and became a rallying cry for all factions, as Ourida Mostefai argues. In a neat pairing, Yann Robert and Pierre Frantz focus on Revolutionary theatre and its ambiguous re-enactment of violent events. Robert’s account of the re-enactment of the trial of Calas highlights the malleability of collective memory, which resonates with today’s fascination with re-enactments and courtroom dramas. Frantz considers a number of Revolutionary plays that foreground the role of the spectator as participant in Revolutionary violence and theatre as lived experience. Intriguing nuggets and references abound. But it is McMorran’s contribution that highlights what is arguably missing in an exclusively ‘discursive’ treatment of Ancien Régime violence: the implied reader’s body. Conventional readings of violence tend to privilege the eye-witness. McMorran, in contrast, focuses on the ‘mind’s ear’ (p. 238), highlighting the difference between seeing and hearing violence. By showing how one’s sensitivity to violence is activated by the ‘sensory and somatic power’ of the text, McMorran draws attention to this indispensable element of any representation of violence.

Sanja Perovic
King’s College London


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pp. 397-398
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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