LAST LETTERS: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution, 1793-1794 by Olivier Blanc

LAST LETTERS: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution, 1793-1794

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Prison culture during the Reign of Terror as seen in the light of letters from the condemned to friends, associates, and relatives; originally published in France in 1984. The guillotine, said Danton during the Revolution, represented the true ""executive"" power in France, and his observation proved to be grimly accurate. Following the Jacobin victory in the National Convention in 1793, and in the midst of growing fear of a foreign invasion following the execution of Louis XVI, droves of suspected monarchists, Girondists, spies, and financial agents were rounded up and incarcerated in ad-hoc prisons throughout Paris. Though the machinations of revolutionary tribunals moved slowly at first, as revolutionary France coalesced into a militaristic state, trials and summary executions escalated to the point where, between June 8 and July 30 of 1794, a total of 1,370 death sentences were passed. Before making the trip from the notorious Conciergerie to the scaffold, many of the condemned wrote letters--on posts, knees, or dictated to friends--having no way of knowing that most of these would be intercepted by the Committee of Public Safety (!) and lie unread for the better part of two centuries in the Archives Nationales. Blanc has presented 150 of these, fitting them into the context of the Revolution's prison system, and introducing each with a short biographical note. Genuinely moving portraits ranging from the last thoughts of Marie Antoinette to the 20-year-old condemned to die for an impudent remark; excellent presentation.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1987
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux