Tackett (History/Univ. of California, Irvine) describes the failed attempt by Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette to escape revolutionary France in June 1791, astutely assessing the consequences.
Beginning with the climax—the capture of the French king and his party in Varennes (“not a particularly distinctive town”)—the author then flashes back two years and leads us forward once again to that astonishing moment. Tackett cogently sketches the two principals and displays a fine historian’s eye for engaging detail: e.g., Louis killed nearly 200,000 animals in his active career as a hunter (he kept meticulous records in a hunting diary), and as many as 40,000 of 700,000 Paris inhabitants were prostitutes. The author sketches as well the revolution’s early days, the removal of the royal family from Versailles to virtual house-arrest at the Tuileries, and the dilatory king’s dawdling in planning his escape. Count Axel von Fersen and Marquis François-Claude-Amour Bouillé, who organized the escape from Tuileries and the journey toward the Austrian border, get fuller treatment than usual. Tackett outlines such royal errors and miscalculations as the decision to flee in an ostentatious coach and relates in suspenseful fashion the actual hours of escape and the ensuing chase. (Lafayette’s unannounced arrival for a late-evening chat with the king nearly forestalled it all.) When the news of the king’s disappearance began to spread throughout Paris, loud waves of shocked conversation washed through the city’s neighborhoods. Even more compelling than his account of the escape, however, is Tackett’s analysis of its myriad effects. It turned the average citizen against the still-popular king and created surges of paranoia and hysteria: mail was opened, strangers were imprisoned without due process, hard-won rights were suspended.
Exciting, provocative, instructive: popular history at its finest. (3 maps, 24 halftones and line illustrations)