Threshold of Terror: The Last Hours of the Monarchy in the French Revolution. – Review

Threshold of Terror: The Last Hours of the Monarchy in the French Revolution. – Review – book review

William Doyle

Threshold of Terror: The Last Hours of the Monarchy in the French Revolution. By Rodney Allen. (Stroud, U.K.: Sutton Publishing, 1999. Pp. viii, 248. $34.95.)

The last hours of Louis XVI’s monarchy are not exactly an unknown episode. The revolution of 10 August, which founded the first French republic amid scenes of massacre as the king’s Swiss Guards defended an empty palace, has often been described and analyzed as befits an episode of world-historical importance. Most of the studies devoted to it have, however, been in French. Rodney Allen has spotted the opportunity to write the first detailed account in English of events far less well known than the Terror, but without which that more famous bloodletting might well not have occurred. The author writes in a brisk, spare style that easily carries the reader along. His book is handsomely produced and abundantly illustrated with mostly contemporary engravings, including a rare photograph of a ninety-year-old man who had been a drummer boy in the Swiss Guards and narrowly escaped with his life. A wide range of sources is drawn upon, including Swiss archives. Judgements, when they are made (as in estimating the number of casualties), are invariably sober and sensible.

Nevertheless, there is no concealing where the author’s sympathies lie. He finds it hard not to pity the “benevolent ruler” who lost his throne that day, and to admire the brave and confused Swiss soldiers who died for nothing. He is as horrified and disgusted as were all detached observers at the time (including the young Napoleon) by the pillaging and drunkenness of the insurgents and the vindictive mutilations visited on the Swiss corpses by sans culotte women. His contempt for the vacillations of the politicians is also scarcely disguised.

All this adds color to what he describes as his “tapestry.” What it does not do is promote understanding. The book tells a very detailed story, tells it well and scrupulously, but it offers next to no analysis of why the whole drama came about and what its wider significance might be. In order to preserve the classical unities of high tragedy, attention is concentrated on the detailed events of 24 hours rather than on why those events were important. The drama of it does not by itself make this self-evident, and it is not enough to imply that if the French had been wise enough to do things the British way such unpleasantness need not have happened.

Those who thrill to French revolutionary bloodthirstiness can happily move on to this book when they have finished A Tale of Two Cities. Those who genuinely wish to explore what it was all about will need a different sort of guide.

William Doyle

University of Bristol

COPYRIGHT 2001 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group