The one that was so terribly short it got lost

Balzac, An Episode under the reign of Terror (1830)

I just realized I totally forgot to write here about a terribly short book I read… back in March (awful pun, I know, but I have a 7yo who laughs at the mere mention of fart and a toddler who laughs at anything his brother does… yeah, boys…).

I just realized it as I did a small spring cleaning of my Kindle, deleting finished books and transferring a new large bounty from Gutenberg.net (ah, free books…!)

I read this novella by Balzac after I read the account of the royals fleeing Paris during the Revolution. Back then, I was kind of curious to learn more about what normal people went through during that very disturbed time. Balzac’s story is not really about normal people, but about people from the clergy who have been forced into hiding by the new regime, because it required them to swear obedience to the state (and basically renounce their faith, later on). The new regime forced the convents open and disrobed nuns and priests.

Not to excuse anything, but you’ve got to know that the new state deeply distrusted religious establishment because they sided with the nobility, the king and the traditionally God-approved old structure of the country. It was civil war, and it’s never pretty. But things got out of hand in France because of a bunch of extremists, and during a number of months there were massacres and lots of nobility or any suspect people were beheaded (I never understood everything in details, because their interpretation is very much influenced, still today, by the historian’s liberal or conservative stand).

Anyway, the novella starts with a very suspenseful scene where a frail old woman walks in a snowy street and thinks she’s being followed. It’s really a modern stalking scene! The paranoia is very well portrayed, people couldn’t trust each other and it’s an atmosphere akin to that described in books about the Stalinist regime or the Nazi regime, where people guarded their words, their looks and gestures in order to avoid betraying any genuine thought or emotion.

Of course, Balzac being Balzac, it can’t be all contained, and there’s a grand finale full of emotion at the end, centered on the trauma and guilt for the king’s death.

But how was life for ordinary people during the French revolution? I have made little progress in my quest.

I’m not even sure whether the memoir or book I’m looking for exists at all. Maybe people didn’t write about their own thoughts and feelings during historical events with such a modern sensibility, the kind that would make me understand “what it was like”. I’ve heard recently about Abigail Adams’ letters during the American revolution, perhaps I’ll try in that direction. What do you think?

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