Personality clashes, in particular resentment of Robespierre’s chilly and imperious style, proved more influential than questions of revolutionary principle. Far from being parties to a carefully worked-out conspiracy, his accusers in the Convention had no concerted plan of action and were blindsided when Robespierre’s arrest was challenged by his supporters within the Paris Commune. They ‘were improvising throughout the day’, and Robespierre’s allies were equally unprepared.
It is in the vivid detailing of these improvisations – chaotic, heroic, sometimes farcical – and the response to them by the Parisian citizenry that Jones’s book comes into its own. ‘The tendency among many historians’, he writes, ‘to see the night as one in which Parisians revealed political indifference is quite wrong.’ The outcome ‘depended on a million micro-decisions made by Parisians across the expanse of the city’.
Jones reveals how close those Parisians came to conferring victory on Robespierre and his partisans. By nightfall on 27 July, they had not only rescued their hero from his Convention-appointed jailers but also deployed a force over two thousand-strong to the streets near the Tuileries palace, where the Convention, still in session in the palace’s former theatre, was at their mercy. But again there was no clear plan. Lacking any orders as to what to do next, the force’s hapless commander decided to withdraw his troops and return to the Maison Commune (just two kilometres to the east) for further instructions. The Robespierrists’ strategic advantage was never recovered.
These fatal difficulties in communication affected the day’s outcome at least as much as attitudes towards the Robespierrian regime. ‘Torpidity in the traffic of information seems to have been critical,’ writes Jones. Amid the confusion over the legality of orders, which side was prevailing and what the crisis was really about, control of print was vital. When it came to issuing orders, the Convention had a sophisticated printing establishment just two hundred metres away in the Place Vendôme; in contrast, ‘word of mouth and manuscript transmission’ were ‘pretty much all the Commune [could] manage’. Changes of side were frequent, as
Robespierre at the Hôtel de Ville on 9 Thermidor, painted by Jean-Joseph Weerts, 1897
in the case of the artillery officer Cosme Pionnier, who at 8pm had his Robespierrist guns primed to bombard the Convention but by the end of the night had them aimed at the Maison Commune. So numerous were these ‘changes of heart’ that they undermine any explanation of 9 Thermidor simply in terms of ideology or popular hostility towards ‘the Terror’.
Jones handles this vast cast and the multiple locations with formidable directorial skill. Emancipated from the traditional chapter structure, he builds the narrative (and the tension) by cutting from scene to scene, observing his actors and bringing details into focus like a master of cinéma vérité. Even his use of the narrative present tense (usually the hammiest of literary devices) actually works.
If all this evokes the world of cinema, it is even more striking how clearly Jones’s drama manifests the formal characteristics of a tragédie, as prescribed by Corneille and Racine. It strictly observes the ‘three classical unities’: of action (a single great event), time (twenty-four hours) and place (Paris). Even its five-part structure corresponds to the five-act format insisted upon by the tragedians of the grand siècle.
Although this model is never overtly acknowledged, Jones is far too thoroughly steeped in French ancien-régime literature for this classicism of form and exposition to be entirely coincidental. Indeed, the book’s tragic dimension is essential to its revisionist purpose. Post-Thermidorian polemic dehumanised Robespierre as an animalistic ogre. As the tragic protagonist of Jones’s drama, Robespierre is not exonerated from the revolutionary regime’s excesses. But he is restored to his humanity and endowed with a kind of flawed greatness – a man of nobility and goodness who, in pursuit of a fine ideal, is induced to do what is monstrous and wrong.
This is not an airbrushed Robespierre. But in Jones’s account, Robespierre is, controversially, a figure of real pathos: a man whose earlier championing of Enlightenment principles, universal male suffrage, religious toleration, rights for women, emancipation for slaves and even (ironically) the abolition of the death penalty offered an ‘inspiring vision of a new, regenerated world of political virtue’. Robespierre was the man who expressed the ideals of the early French Revolution ‘most luminously’ and ‘in a way that can speak to us still’.
Those are fighting words, and it is not the least of this book’s virtues that they are destined to provoke much skirmishing on the historical barricades – not only about Robespierre, but also about the relative virtues and evils of the Revolutionary Government of Year II and whether there was a better future for France which those twenty-four hours of 9 Thermidor tragically foreclosed.
july 2021 | Literary Review 7