A Terrible Beauty

Liberty or Death by Peter McPhee cover
Liberty or Death: The French Revolution
by Peter McPhee
Yale University Press
$55.95 AU
Published April, 2016
ISBN 9780300189933

I began writing this review of the latest book by an eminent historian of the French Revolution coincidentally, but rather appositely, on 14 July 2016. And if it were not sufficiently paradoxical that the modern French state commemorates one of history’s most shocking events as a day of governmental authority, this year a horrific occurrence has graphically echoed the event’s unsettling contradictions – only hours before, over 80 civilians were murdered, during a quatorze juillet celebration in the city of Nice, in what was being described, at the time of writing, as an act of terror.

The word terror has become firmly attached to the narrative of the French Revolution – a rather sensationalist and, to my mind, dubious BBC documentary was simply titled Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution (2009). It should come as no surprise that, particularly since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, many journalists and lay commentators have prefaced, framed, or at least peppered their accounts of the latest terrorist outrage with allusions to la Terreur of more than 220 years ago. Consider, for example, this bizarre article in the Weekly Standard, which purports to chart the uninterrupted course of the heroic Anglo-Saxons’ ‘war on terror’, first against the regicidal French and then against fanatical Arabs; or this equally absurd piece in Al Arabiya, in which the author, in a Saudi-backed publication, proposes that the speeches of Maximilien Robespierre – and not, say, Saudi Arabia’s official Sunni fundamentalist state ideology of Wahhabism – can best account for the Islamic State’s barbarities.

Serious historians of the Revolution have very little patience for these trite analyses. In his terrific biography of the Jacobin leader, Robespierre (2013), Peter McPhee laments the ‘fanciful parallels’ that have been drawn between Robespierre and the likes of Osama Bin-Laden’. And in one of the best recent studies of the Revolution, Sophie Wahnich states unambiguously: ‘To make a moral equivalence between the Revolution’s year II [the period of the so-called Reign of Terror] and September 2001 is historical and philosophical nonsense’.

I am in complete agreement with these historians, yet I also believe that the French Revolution cannot and should not be relegated to a remote and extraneous absolute past. One can dismiss the crass and transparently ideological abuses of the Revolution by today’s mediocre commentators, but it would be a mistake to assume that an event as central to the foundation of the modern milieu as the French Revolution is not deeply relevant to the politics, beliefs and dynamics of the contemporary world. One must reject the patently nonsensical depictions of Robespierre as a quasi-Islamist terrorist ringleader; but, as the historian Michel Biard has noted, Robespierre’s ideas remain a ‘hot topic’ (Fr. ‘actualité brûlante’) and many of his radically egalitarian values continue to form ‘a horizon of expectation’ for us today.

Peter McPhee – possibly Australia’s most important historian of the French Revolution, and former Provost of the University of Melbourne, among other things – is quite aware of the Revolution’s proximity to our current struggles and crises. In the introduction to his substantial new book Liberty or Death: The French Revolution, he writes:

The consequences of the events of 1789 were so complex, violent and significant that reflection and debate on their origins and course show no signs of concluding. The Revolution continues to fascinate, perplex and inspire. Indeed, the two great waves of revolutionary change since the 1980s – the overthrow of regimes in eastern and south-eastern Europe and the ‘Arab spring’ – have served to revivify our interest in the world-changing upheavals of the late eighteenth century.

I would add to McPhee’s list the widespread opposition to economic austerity and neoliberal politics in Europe and elsewhere since the 2008 global financial crisis. As seen in this hilarious satirical video, some of the activists in the current Nuit debout protest movement against President François Hollande’s labour reforms openly compare their struggle to the fight against the privileges of the nobility during the Revolution. A graffiti message scrawled on the wall of a city during one of the protests draws an unambiguous, and ominous, parallel between the beleaguered president and the last monarch of the ancien régime: ‘Louis XVI, Hollande, même destin …’

The last sentence of McPhee’s book asserts, rather poignantly, that the Revolution’s ‘achievements and triumphs’ as well as its failures ‘live with us still’. His emphasis on its ongoing significance is part of an elaborate response to what he sees as a key question regarding the legacy of the Revolution: ‘Was the French Revolution a major turning point in French – even world – history, or instead a protracted period of violent upheaval and warfare that wrecked millions of lives?’.

A reader may miss the subtlety of this question, and wonder if the Revolution could not have been both ‘a major turning point in history’ as well as a ruinous upheaval; William Blake’s innocent Lamb as well as his fearsome Tiger; an event which has given us representative democracy and human rights, as well as total war and, yes, terror. This ostensibly neutral version of the Revolution recalls the six-hour-long film La Révolution française, released to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Revolution in 1989. In an attempt to convey both sides of the Revolution’s story, the film is neatly divided into two parts – one for the brilliant years, in which the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is passed by ebullient legislators in a rather melodramatic scene; and another part for the terrible years, which features either a guillotine or a decapitated head in much of its mise-en-scène.

The more familiar version of the Revolution, at least in the English-speaking world, is that it was a theatre of horror and cruelty. Although most famously represented in works of fiction such as A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel – and wonderfully parodied by the cult Blackadder comedy series – this image of the Revolution has also gripped the imagination of many an Anglophone historian, such as the popular BBC personality, Simon Schama. His Citizens (1989) depicts the Revolution as an unrelenting bloodbath and very little else.

This perspective is, needless to say, much beloved by capitalist culture industries. The 2006 Hollywood movie adaptation of Antonia Fraser’s sympathetic biography of the widely despised queen, Marie Antoinette, ends with the hapless royal being forcibly removed from her palace by the mean revolutionaries. Even the arthouse Nouvelle Vague director Éric Rohmer could not resist the temptation of using the Revolution as the frightening backdrop for a romantic drama in L’Anglaise et le Duc (2001). A mention should also be made of the recent video game Assassin’s Creed Unity, set in revolutionary France, which, in the words of an eager player, ‘shows tons of blood and some disturbingly gory scenes, including hangings, impalement, and beheadings’.

The alternative to these interpretations of the Revolution has long been provided by France’s foremost historians of the Marxist or so-called Classic school. Historians such as Albert Mathiez, Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul have formulated what has been described as the ‘dominant interpretation of the French Revolution for much of [the twentieth] century’. Although varied in emphasis and heterogeneous in methodology, the historians of this tradition see the Revolution as an inevitable, necessary and progressive phenomenon resulting from the irreconcilable socio-economic antagonisms of the ancien régime.

Lefebvre, in one of the most influential studies of the Revolution, Quatre-Vingt-Neuf (1939), which has been translated into English as The Coming of the French Revolution, identifies socio-economic classes – and not flamboyant individuals or abstractions such as freedom or justice or, come to that, bloodlust – as the forces that produced the Revolution. Following the political confrontation between the King and the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie came to ‘assume leadership of the Revolution’, only to be later joined by ‘the forces of the people … beneath whose blows the Old Regime went down beyond recall’. Although desisting from defining ‘the people’ as a working class per se – admitting that, in the eighteenth century, ‘the wage workers had no clear consciousness of class’ – Lefebvre nevertheless proposes that workers in cities and peasants in the country did loosely coalesce as ‘the mass of the people’ in response to extraordinary economic hardships which affected them all.

In one of the most lucid and tangible explanations of why millions of ordinary French men and women launched history’s most powerful socio-political transformation, Lefebvre writes that on the eve of the Revolution:

unemployment worked its ravages at the very moment when the cost of living was going up. Workmen could obtain no increase in wages. In the best of times wage increases were hard to get; it has been calculated that between 1726-1741 and 1785-1789 prices rose 65 per cent while wages went up only 22 per cent.

It is perhaps in anticipation of the so-called revisionist school of interpretation that Lefebvre concludes this section of his classic study by asking rhetorically: ‘How can one fail to suspect a connection between this ordeal and the fever of insurrection that gripped the population at the time?’ His version of the French Revolution is a deeply sympathetic one, very much corresponding with Marx’s central thesis in The Communist Manifesto: the Revolution, though it was initially led by the bourgeois vanguard of capitalism against feudalism, the clergy and the aristocracy, enabled the masses and the incipient proletariat to progress towards emancipation from misery and exploitation, towards creating a more just and egalitarian future.

For anti-Marxist revisionists, such as the ex-Communist François Furet, and many key British historians, the Revolution was neither led by the bourgeoisie in the first instance, nor was it driven by the masses’ economic imperatives. As noted by one commentator, the revisionists have ‘[turned] away from seeing the revolution as having anything much to do with the underlying social conditions of the mass of people’, shifting the focus towards ‘the language, ideas and symbols of the revolutionaries and their opponents’.

Among the revisionists’ demands is that we see the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment, and not the dynamics of political economy, as the true instigator of the Revolution. Their version of the Revolution is clearly disparaging about the event’s outcomes, viewing the Revolution’s culmination in a republic dominated by the authoritarian Jacobins and the fearsome Robespierre as a betrayal of the Revolution’s initial liberalism and the harbinger of the totalitarianisms to come. This school of historiography has resulted in, among other things, the highly emotive charge of genocide being levelled at the First Republic by the historian Reynald Secher and some politicians of the Far Right, with reference to the suppression of the royalist Vendée rebellion during the Revolution.

How does McPhee’s addition to the voluminous body of work on the French Revolution correspond with the existing debates and perspectives? And does he succeed in providing a cogent answer to the question he poses in his introduction?

McPhee is anything but a newcomer to the arguments about the nature of the Revolution. He has made important contributions to the scholarship and teaching of the French Revolution and has intervened in public debates when necessary. Writing in The Guardian in 2014, for example, he objected to the use of his research by two forensic scientists, who had made a rather facile attempt to diagnose Robespierre with an auto-immune disease nearly 220 years after the Jacobin leader’s death. In his remonstrance, McPhee specifically chides the scientists for wilfully ignoring his own ‘historian’s caution’ by rushing to hasty, unwarranted conclusions.

Liberty or Death: The French Revolution is a cautious and considered undertaking. McPhee notes, for example, that ‘the history of modern representative democracy’ can be traced back to ‘the electoral system of revolutionary France’, but he also observes that voting was ‘limited by sex and property’, and that the French revolutionaries cannot take sole credit for this political innovation, as ‘the early American Republic’ had contributed to the creation of representative democracy. He proposes that the paper money or assignats issued by the National Assembly in 1789 resulted in inflation and led to ‘a time of chronic difficulty for wage-earners’ – a view shared by many other historians, such as Eric Hazan, who has noted that in 1791 ‘prices shot up [because] the assignat was losing value against “real” money’ – but McPhee notes that, nevertheless, during the Revolution and its immediate aftermath ‘the purchasing power of wages … increased between 10 and 20 per cent’.

Balanced and measured though he is, McPhee is aware that the French Revolution is too vital and controversial an event to be subordinated entirely to an historian’s caution. And it is his less cautious, more assertive comments and explanations which make this book not only a great source for learning about the Revolution, but also, perhaps more interestingly, an intervention in the debates surrounding the Revolution’s causes, conduct and consequences.

The book begins with an image of Louis XVI at the height of his powers. This brings to mind many well-known accounts of the Revolution, such as Christopher Hibbert’s popular history, The French Revolution (1980). But where Hibbert dramatises the disaster-prone King’s personal qualities – such as his ‘unusually brusque, cold and formal’ manners – McPhee emphasises the fact that the young King was carried to his coronation ceremony in Reims ‘in a massive new carriage weighing one and a half tonnes and costing at least 50,000 livres, about seventy times the annual stipend of most parish priests’. What is immediately discernible, in other words, is McPhee’s preference for the material and economic conditions over the quirks and characteristics of famous personae. Although his first chapter’s panoramic view of the French society on the eve of the Revolution is not dominated by a vulgar economic determinism, its depiction of the incoherent ecclesiastical, legal and administrative ‘patchworks of power and privilege’ under Louis XVI reveals an acute understanding of the indispensable role of labour, exploitation and consumption in the creation of a society.

After noting that ‘the backbreaking work performed in town and country to satisfy the needs of the household was the bedrock of the entire social order’, McPhee shows that the non-working classes (aristocracy and upper clergy) ‘drew a significant proportion of their wealth from the ownership of property, particularly in the countryside’. This enabled them to extract ‘regular payment of a proportion of the harvest’ from the peasants, as part of the former’s privileges or so-called seigneurial rights. McPhee clearly identifies this form of economic exploitation, and the legal and political frameworks which enabled it, as one of the key causes of the Revolution. He concludes this first chapter by citing the example of a day-labourer in Carcassonne, in southern France, who refused to pay obeisance to the local nobles, referring to them as ‘a huge load of scum, thieves’, as well as another obscenity which has sadly been redacted.

This approach aligns McPhee with the Marxist or Classic interpretation. Although in the book’s second chapter, titled ‘A World of Intellectual Ferment’, McPhee balances the Marxist leanings of the first chapter by elaborating on what revisionist historians see as the main source of the Revolution – the ideals of the Enlightenment – he emphasises that the progressive, liberal philosophes, with the exception of the outrageously radical Jean-Jacques Rousseau, could hardly be credited with instigating the Revolution:

The philosophes were not revolutionaries. The extent of their social critique was limited by what they saw as the ignorance and superstition of the masses: most intellectuals turned to enlightened monarchs as the best way of ensuring liberalization of public life. Similarly, despite their dismissal of what they called ‘superstition’, the majority of intellectuals accepted the social value of parish priests as guardians of public order and morality.

However anti-egalitarian and reactionary Voltaire and Co. may in fact have been – despite many a bourgeois intellectual’s passion for their works – there is no denying that these thinkers’ general spirit of critique and liberalism did mentally prepare their readers for some kind of change in the state of things. Yet as McPhee points out, the ‘working people of Paris’ – that is, the people who would carry out the Revolution’s most daring and pivotal actions – became engaged in political debate not ‘because the writings of intellectuals filtered down to them but as a response to what they felt to be arbitrary rule of the monarchy and moribund claims to privilege’.

McPhee then chronicles the key events of the Revolution, beginning with the historic convocation of the proto-democratic legislative body, the Estates-General, in the wake of a severe economic crisis. The financial conflict between the King and the nobility, which resulted in the fateful meeting of the elected representatives in May 1789, has baffled a number of writers. The left wing English commentator and comedian Mark Steel, in his entertaining 2003 account of the Revolution, articulates this apparent paradox by observing ironically – and, alas, prophetically – that the absurdity of the French aristocracy instigating the Revolution was ‘a bit like a revolution in the U.S. beginning with a demonstration called by Donald Trump’.

McPhee provides a succinct explication of how the confrontation between the King and the aristocracy, in the immediate prelude to the French Revolution, ‘stemmed from the desperate, self-destructive attempts of most of the nobility to cling to privilege and fiscal immunity in the face of the state’s financial crisis’. Determined to undermine the sovereign’s resolve to make them pay their share of the taxes – the raison d’être of much political conservatism, then and now – the aristocracy supported the elections which, they hoped, would produce a legislative body whose commoner or Third Estate members would band with the aristocrats in denouncing royal ‘profligacy’.

This, of course, is not what happened. Even before they arrived in Versailles, the Third Estate deputies were assigned by their middle- and working-class electorates with the task of instituting ‘equality of taxation and opportunity, and the end of seigneuralism’ – that is, the system of privileges which enabled the land-owning nobles to live off the labour of the peasantry. The aristocrats turned to the King for support against the radical legislators; and when the King, alarmed by the revolutionary mood of so many of the Third Estate members, threatened to use force to placate the recalcitrant assembly, the Revolution broke out. Importantly, as McPhee emphasises in his book’s aptly titled fourth chapter ‘The People’s Revolution’, it was neither the King, the nobles, nor even the radically progressive bourgeois deputies of the Estates-General, but the working men and women of Paris who took command of the historical moment; it was the ordinary people who, in defence of their deputies, stormed the Bastille on 14 July 1789.

It is easy to agree with Ruth Scurr, who has noted in her review of Liberty or Death that McPhee seems ‘interested in revisiting classical and Marxist interpretations of the revolution’. In addition to his focus on socio-economic factors and the central role played by working people, McPhee espouses a version of the Marxist historians’ bourgeois revolution thesis. He demonstrates that the sweeping anti-feudal legal and financial reforms that followed the storming of the Bastille were driven by the bourgeois legislators, and ‘those who were among the major initial beneficiaries of the Revolution were bourgeois: particularly professional men and property-owners’. The nationalisation of arable church property on 2 November 1789, for example, made the land available for purchase by the entire population, but ‘it was purchased mainly by urban or rural bourgeois’. McPhee supports this observation by citing specific land sale records from a district in Provence, where ‘three-quarters of the property sold was bought by one-quarter of the buyers; 28 of the 39 largest purchasers were merchants’.

It is important to note, however, that McPhee’s concentration on the Revolution’s material prerequisites does not preclude him from engaging with its non-economic aspects. And it is while considering the spiritual, affective and ideological impact of the Constituent Assembly’s radical anti-clerical reforms that McPhee proposes what strikes me as a somewhat unique perspective regarding what he describes as ‘the moment that fractured the Revolution’. The Assembly’s approval of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy on 12 July 1790, almost exactly a year after the storming of the Bastille, has been seen by many as a milestone in the revolutionaries’ secularising agenda. This legislation – which demanded that all Catholic clergy declare their loyalty to the French state in lieu of expressing adherence to the Pope – has been described by another writer as the revolutionary legislators’ ‘most far-reaching measure’ in the first year of the Revolution. But McPhee’s account is almost novel in seeing the passage of this law and its implementation as a major, dramatic turning point in the history of the Revolution:

A Revolution that had begun with high hopes for the ‘regeneration’ of the Church now spiralled into reciprocal antagonism. A gulf of incomprehension divided ‘patriots’ from those opposed to the Revolution, both inside and outside the Church. This was not a simple question of vested interests, of winners and losers. Rather, on opposite sides of the gulf were communions of souls and communities of citizens.

Even before this antagonism was fully realised in the brutal civil war of 1793, the disturbances resulting from the ecclesiastical reforms contributed to further destabilisation of the nation’s precarious political state. Feeling ‘consumed with guilt that he had sanctioned the reforms to the Church’, Louis XVI, now a begrudging constitutional monarch living under virtual house arrest in Paris, decided to embark on an ill-conceived, unconstitutional escape to the sanctuary offered by counter-revolutionary émigrés near the border with the Austrian Empire on 20 June 1791. The sensational capture of the fleeing royal family by French National Guards in the town of Varennes and their ignominious return to Paris intensified the masses’ disillusionment with the monarchy, resulting in the attack on the King’s palace on 10 August 1792 and the declaration of France’s First Republic on 22 September of the same year.

Another refreshing aspect of McPhee’s book is his focus on the Revolution outside of Paris. So much of the historiography of the Revolution is premised upon the significance of the events taking place on the streets and public spaces of the French capital. It is often difficult to avoid viewing the Revolution as an exclusively Parisian affair. In McPhee’s account, however, a good deal of emphasis has been placed on the crucial developments and political movements in the provinces, and on the perspectives and politics of the participants in smaller centres and in marginal communities. To gauge the political impact of the flight to Varennes, for example, McPhee describes how the news of the royal debacle travelled and affected political sentiments across the entire nation:

News of the royal flight, first announced in Paris early on Monday 21 June, spread like wildfire across the nation, at five or six miles per hour. At times it was faster: the news reached the western town of Saintes, 310 miles from Paris, in thirty-six hours. It was received in Metz in the east and Nantes in the west by late on Wednesday; after five days, it had travelled as far as Perpignan and Toulon on the Mediterranean.

McPhee then cites the words of the members of the Jacobin Club of Montmorillon, a small community about 300 kilometres from Paris, as an example of the public anger with the King’s decision to abandon his nation: ‘the disappearance of the King has crushed all our hopes’. He registers the depth of the chasm that had opened up between the beleaguered ruler and his radicalised subjects as a result of this betrayal by noting that ‘news of the arrest of the king arrived in the bustling river-port town of Bergerac (population 11,700) on the River Dordogne on 24 June and was received “with joy”’.

Related to this nation-wide outlook is the book’s most innovative and effective methodological aspect: McPhee’s use of mostly obscure primary material, a great deal of which appears here for the first time for the anglophone reader. While there is nothing new in a history-from-below approach to the Revolution – a trope central to the Marxist school of interpretation – McPhee’s quotations from the letters, memoirs and journals of minor or politically marginal characters neither promotes a particular ideological slant, nor undermines the words of the more famous figures of the Revolution. It instead provides a multi-faceted, wide-ranging account. Alongside direct quotations from the well-known speeches of Robespierre and Georges Danton, the journalism of Camille Desmoulins and Jacques-René Hébert, and crucial documents such as the Constitution of June 1793 and the infamous Law of 22 Prairial – most of which have been cited in other accounts of the French Revolution – McPhee quotes the conservative painter Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, who describes in her memoirs her dismay at having to share a coach with a ‘a mad Jacobin … with an ugly, bilious complexion, who each time we stopped at an inn for dinner or supper made violent speeches of the most fearful kind’. He cites a speech given on 16 January 1793 by a group of young girls and boys from La Rochelle, who were donating items of clothing purchased with their savings to the soldiers defending the young revolutionary republic against the combined armies of Europe’s kingdoms and empires:

Citizens magistrates, you see before you a little society of young patriots … We took up a collection among ourselves, using our modest savings; we don’t have much to offer. Our efforts have so far only been able to extend to the purchase of 26 pairs of shoes and 29 pairs of socks, that we ask you to send to our generous compatriots on the frontiers. We will not stop offering prayers to Heaven for the success of our arms against the enemies of our Republic.

Such quotations grant immediacy and tangibility to McPhee’s narrative, which is missing in works that are solely dependent on the perspectives of the powerful. Drawing on the points of view of ordinary people from across political and ideological divides also allows McPhee to address contentious historical questions with a level of impartiality and a good degree of plausibility.

Was Robespierre, the man who came to be seen as the Republic’s unofficial leader, really the heartless, bloodthirsty tyrant one finds in reactionary propaganda and rightist historiography during and after his short life? Not according to the ordinary people living during Robespierre’s so-called Reign of Terror. McPhee cites one Marie Monnard who, as a teenage seamstress, attended the Festival of the Supreme Being on 8 June 1794 in Paris. This festival is often depicted by conservative authors as the height of Robespierre’s odious megalomania, and yet we find that Monnard – ‘no enthusiast for the Revolution’ – wrote in her memoirs that: ‘nothing could be compared to the beauty of this festival’. We also learn that after the brazen coup which toppled Robespierre and the Jacobins many people remained loyal to the ideals of the revolutionary leader, despite facing the ‘White Terror’ of the new reactionary authorities. One working class Parisian woman, Marie-Pierre Deffaut, would proudly admit to the police that she ‘had wept over the fall (of Robespierre) because she believed him to be an honest man’.

What, finally, is McPhee’s verdict on the French Revolution? Was the Revolution merely a ‘violent upheaval’? McPhee is not in denial about the number of people who lost their lives during the Revolution, but he also notes that the spontaneous eruptions of violence following the collapse of the monarchy in early September 1792 – the so-called September Massacres – were, in part, due to the ordinary people’s response to ‘the real menace of the counter-revolution and the mixed emotions of panic, outrage, pride and fear’, particularly as ‘the outbreak of war [with European powers] transformed political divisions into matters of life and death’.

McPhee believes that depicting the period of the Jacobins’ and Robespierre’s ascendency as the ‘Reign of Terror’ is simplistic and in many ways incorrect:

This was a period of sweeping governmental measures to win a civil and foreign war, rather than the ‘reign of Terror’, a descriptor first used only afterwards. It has often been caricatured as a dictatorial, even totalitarian regime imposed by ideologues, particularly Robespierre and Saint-Just, to create a ‘virtuous’ society based on the violent exclusion of the ‘other’ … but the Jacobins were a mixed group of republicans applying exceptional laws in extraordinary circumstances as they grappled both to create a republican society and to defend it against its enemies.

The book’s final chapter presents a strong case for a view of the French Revolution as a momentous event with an important and, in many cases, positive modern legacy. McPhee observes that the Revolution can be seen as the first, troubled stage of modern representative democracy. It was ‘the democratic “apprenticeship”’, according to which ‘unprecedented numbers of people came to assume that public office drew its legitimacy and dignity from the remarkable act of voting’. The 1792 divorce law led to a ‘change in the legal position of women’; and the Jacobin Constitution of 1793 was the first in the world ‘to codify public responsibility for social welfare and education’.

I do have a few minor reservations about some of the points made in this book. I am not confident, for example, that the legendary female revolutionary Théroigne de Méricourt was, as McPhee has claimed, one of the ‘spontaneous leaders’ of the famous Women’s March on Versailles on 5 October 1789 – according to her biographer, Elisabeth Roudinesco, de Méricourt was not a significant presence at the March, and she ‘had no part in this episode of Year I of liberty, in which women had played so momentous a part’. But such qualms are negligible. Based on the authoritative, compelling account of the Revolution presented in Liberty or Death, one can only agree with McPhee’s assertion, on one of the final pages of the book, that ‘the French Revolution was a turning point in world history’.


McPhee, Peter. Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life. (Yale University Press, 2013).
Georges Lefebvre. The Coming of the French Revolution, translated by R. R. Palmer (Princeton University Press, 2005).
Hazan, Eric. A People’s History of the French Revolution, translated by David Fernbach (Verso, 2014).
Hibbert, Christopher. The French Revolution. (Penguin, 1982).
Roudinesco, Elisabeth. Madness and Revolution: the Lives and Legends of Théroigne de Méricourt, translated by Martin Thom. (Verso, 1992).
Steel, Mark. Vive la Revolution. (Haymarket Books, 2006).
Townson, Duncan. France in Revolution. (Hodder & Stoughton, 1998).
Wahnich, Sophie. In Defence of Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution, translated by David Fernbach (Verso, 2012).
Winik, Jay. The Great Upheaval: the Birth of the Modern World 1788-1800. (Simon and Schuster, 2009).