The one where the King of France has no backbone

Alexandre Dumas, The Flight to Varennes (1860)

M. Smithereens knew I’d had a ball with Dumas’ Twenty Years Later, so he chose this audiobook for me last time at the library, a book that’s part travelogue, part reconstitution of the 1791 King Louis 16th’ flight from Paris and his arrest in the Argonne area, halfway between Reims and the German border.

I enjoyed it, but it was clearly less fun than a real novel, especially because of Dumas’ insufferable pretension. He starts with explaining at length how all the historians who have written about this episode all had it wrong, and that he, the great Dumas, was the only one to go there and get first-hand witness to give him an account. Needless to say, he comes out as a major prick.

If you get past that tone of his, you get an interesting story about a turning point of the revolution. You follow the events mile by mile and you get to realize how big events that make it into History books (with an upper-case H) are just a string of tiny, mundane moments: at each single point, things could have gone differently if someone had just said something different. Without a series of delays and little mistakes, the flight could well have succeeded. After all, they were stopped but 30 miles away from their destination, a fortified fortress full of loyal royalist soldiers. And the perspective of alternate history is just bewildering. As Dumas states:

“Had Louis XVI not attempted to fly, or had he attempted it and succeeded, quite other events would have followed in place of those which actually transpired. There would have been no civil war, no war against neighboring states, no September 2nd, no Terror, no Bonaparte, no Elba, no Waterloo, no St. Helena.”

Dumas shows how events were messy, and that there’s no clear-cut interpretation. Even people who stopped the king and his family don’t seem all fanatical republicans. They are less moved by big ideas and ideals, and more by hesitation and improvisation and trying to do what’s proper or what looks good for them.

Even though Dumas spends time describing places he visited, the most interesting part is the portrait of the royals. King Louis 16th and Queen Marie-Antoinette come out as petty, boring bourgeois without much (any?) grandeur.

All along it seems like they can’t really make up their minds, or when they finally have, that they have never realized that they needed to change their ways or disguise themselves or make do with outside constraints. It’s a weird experience to look at them so stuck in their old habits, and at the same time, so mediocre and vulgar. For example, they delay the day of departure in order not to miss their monthly allowance. They are stuck on decorum and prefer bringing a lady higher in the protocol ladder in their carriage than an armed guard who could have come in handy. The Queen even got lost in Paris because she insisted she knew the way better than the postilion, and he couldn’t possibly challenge her.

We know that they are running for their lives, but they definitely don’t. They are afraid of any violence, and don’t want to take any risks, while basically doing the thing that will incense the whole country. Dumas explains how remote the royals were from their people, especially as they were made to marry foreign princesses from a very young age. The fact that they were basically betraying the country they were supposed to be ruling by God’s will hasn’t obviously crossed their minds.

Eventually, I couldn’t clearly understand Dumas’ feelings about the royals themselves. He seems to despise them as persons, but seem overall favorable to monarchy, especially compared to the excesses of revolution and the Terror that came after these events.

This book came timely as I had finished the awesome Swedish DVD series “Anno 1790”. It made me interested to read more about the people living during French revolution. Any recommendation?

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One thought on “The one where the King of France has no backbone

  1. Pingback: The one that was so terribly short it got lost | Smithereens

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