About British Reactions to the French Revolution
The importance of the British Reaction to the French Revolution is not to be underestimated as the political and geographical structure of the United Kingdom allowed commentators a particularly unique insight. Politically Britain and France had been intertwined for just over 700 years at the time of the Revolution and the centuries long feud between the two countries allowed a greater understanding of the revolution and a cooler critical reading of its ultimate conclusion. Britain was also insulated from the Revolution not only by the Channel that bordered the two countries but also by a political solidity granted it by the Civil War a hundred years earlier. Britain had undergone its own revolution during this Civil War and viewed itself as a model of constitutional monarchy and as such Revolutionary ideals were more intellectual than provocative. This security and insulation from the Revolution allowed British commentators to take a more measured and considered approach.
Trends of Discussion
Broadly, speaking British views of the Revolution was initially favourable because of the belief that the Revolution would weaken an old enemy and transform France into a constitutional monarchy. The discussion was in the beginning was divided between the Pro group led by the idealistic Thomas Paine and the Anti group whose greatest proponent was Edmund Burke, but in general, a negative view of the Revolution won out after Robespierre’s Terror appalled both the conservative and liberal commentators. Thomas Carlyle’s vitriolic account of the Revolution in the 1830s would cement the idea of the Revolutionaries being an impassioned, barbarous and murderous mob being. This view was to colour the discussion of the Revolution in Britain for a very long time.
Alfred Cobban’s revisionist view of the Revolution was written largely as a riposte to the prevailing Marxist view. He disagreed with the idea of the Revolution being a capitalist one and the categorisation of the Marxists. The Post-Revisionists followed up on his work by looking at cultural issues and the population as a whole and this is where the British reaction to the Revolution has settled. For a more detailed look at the British Trends of Discussion, please click here.
Public Reaction to the French Revolution
The first real first hand accounts of the French Revolution from members of the public originate from the early 1800s, when in 1802 a tacit peace agreement allowed curious British visitors a chance to explore post-revolutionary France. These tourists found France to be partially in ruins, the spectre of the Revolution still hanging in the air with every tri-colour spotted. The damage done to the infrastructure of France would do much to convince these visitors that Edmund Burke had been right in his skepticism of the revolution. But whilst rampant ‘Oh Dear’ism was the order of the day for nosy British tourists, the Revolution had inspired far more credible reactions back home.
The Revolution in British Media
At the height of the French Revolution many European countries essentially closed their borders to information coming out of France. There was a total information lock down occurring in some countries in mainland Europe, in an attempt to quell any spread of the revolution. This lock down didn’t occur in Britain, due to the previously mentioned insulation from Revolution provided by its geographical position and political history, and as such British newspapers were free to report on the Revolution without much censorship. In particular the London Times and Morning Chronicle are fascinating insights into how the Revolution was being relayed to the British public by its media.
The London Times, reporting on the September Massacres on September 10th 1792
“The GOTHS and VANDALS, when they levelled the gates of Rome, and triumphantly entered into the capitol, yet still retained those feelings which distinguished the mind of man from the ungovernable appetite of the brute creation. It is true, they commanded the Roman ladies to attend them with wine under the Plantain Trees, and insisted on the solders acting as slaves—but they neither violated the chastity of the one, nor deprived the others of life. Far otherwise has been the conduct of the French barbarians. They delight in that kind of murder, which is attended with cruelty, and rejoice in every occurrence which can debase and unsex the feelings of man.”
The Morning Chronicle, also reporting on the September Massacres on September 8th 1792
“Can we go with confidence to meet the enemy, and leave traitors in existence behind us?” [ . . . ] —”Let us cut the throats of every traitor!” Such was the horrid proposition made in the Assembly of the Federates, in the Hall of the Jacobins!—Such were the exclamations of the [—] that crowded the streets! The blood freezes in our veins while we relate the effects of this monstrous proposition. The mind revolts from the [—], as a horrible calumny on our common nature, but truth demands the sad and shocking reality.”
As you can see these two newspapers certainly had a Burke inspired view of the Revolution, although its worth noting that at the time there were literally hundreds of papers in circulation so its impossible to fully comprehend the true nature of British Newspapers views on the Revolution from these two articles. If you wish to read more articles from The Morning Chronicle and The London Times you can find a half dozen articles from the period here .
In the literary world the most famous British interpretation of the French Revolution is of course Charles Dickens’ classic novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ published over 31 issues of periodical in 1859. Inspired heavily by the writing of Thomas Carlyle the book was largely based on juxtaposition, not only of Paris and London but of the brutality of pre-revolutionary France and the Brutality of the Revolution itself. Equally shocked and appalled by the horrendous subjugation of the peasants by the artistocracy as he was by the violence of the Terror Dickens’ reignited the images of mob rule and mass slaughter during the Terror that had been so popular in the late 1790s.
The final moments of Jack Conway’s 1935 filmic adapatation of A Tale of Two Cities
Feeding into this idea of the brutality of the terror were the Scarlet Pimpernel novels of the early to mid 20th Century. These books, written by Baroness Emma Orczy, depicted a secret cabal of nineteen English Aristocrats who under the guidance of the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel smuggled French nobility out of the murderous grip of the revolution. Full of bravado, nationalism and a general disdain for the French the books were massively popular at the time and cemented the vision of the revolution as being an ugly and vulgar thing. This idea would never really be challenged and literary figures would instead focus on the Napoleonic Wars to represent the Revolution, rather than the revolution itself.
For those interested the original Scarlet Pimpernel novel can be found at Project Guttenberg here.
“We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.”
For more information on the British Media’s reaction to the Revolution Please Click Here
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790
Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History, 1837
Alfred Cobban, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution, 1964
William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 1990
Christopher Hibbert, The French Revolution, 1980
E.J Hobswam, The Age of Revolution, 1962
Gary Kates, The French Revolution (Rewriting History), 1997
Gwynne Lewis, The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate, 1993
Baroness Emma Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel Series, 1905-1940
Excerpts from the Morning Chronicle and The London Times taken from http://www.english.ucsb.edu/faculty/ayliu/research/around-1800/
Images taken, with the owners permission, from the following sites:
The Radical’s Arms is taken from the Online Archive of California
The London Corresponding Society Petition is taken from The National Archives
The Scarlet Pimpernel Image is taken from The Collectors Post