Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review: Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution by Olivier Blanc

Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution by Olivier Blanc is an exploration of prisons and prisoners of the French Revolution through first-hand accounts, memoirs and--as the title would suggest--last letters written by condemned prisoners. The first section of the book details the conditions of the numerous prisons in revolutionary France, which ranged from horrendous to relatively livable, especially for wealthy prisoners during the earlier years of the revolution. Many prisons were in fact refubished chateaus, which were seized from emigrees, prisoners or those who had already been executed. These prisons often afforded prisoners more freedom and luxuries than the than the prisons being used in Paris, which were overcrowded, damp and increasingly restrictive as the revolution went on. This first half includes many excerpts from contemporary resources, usually the prisoners themselves, detailing their daily lives, escape attempts, and the general atmosphere of the prisons which grew increasingly restrictive and dangerous as the revolution bore on.

The second half of the book is, in my opinion, where the real "meat" of the book comes in. The second half is entirely "last letters," or the last letters written by condemned prisoners before they were executed.The letters were written to husbands, wives, children, mothers, fathers, neighbors, and even sometimes government officials. Common themes include forgiveness, debts, innocence and love--a testament to human nature. Almost all of the letters included in this volume were intercepted before delivery and never given to their intended receipiants, adding an entirely different layer to the already somber nature of these letters.  Blanc typically provides an adequate background for each letter, detailing the person's lives, their crime or supposed crime, and occasionally reports of their behavior on the scaffold from contemporary newspapers.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the French Revolution or the study of prisons and prisoners. It is also a moving read for anyone interested in social and personal history.

I've written out one of the shorter letters in the book. It was written by Gabriel Rochon de Wormesele, who was condemend to death for supporting the General Council of the Department of the Gironde, who in June of 1793 declared that the Natioanl Convention in Paris was corrupt and needed to be removed. The General Council also declared that they would form their own People's Commission for Public Safety that would not dissolve until the “liberty is re-established at the heart of the National Convention.”

to Citizeness Wormeselle, rue du Temple, no 1
12 Brumaire.

These are the last letters that my hand will trace. In a few hours I shall be no more. I am condemned to death. My wife, whom I have always lovingly cherished, I die full of love for you. I do not ask you to remember me; I know your fine soul, your loving heart, no, you will never forget me. But go on living for our poor children. Remember me to them. May I serve as an example to them, may they be better than I. Raise them in the practice of the virtues. My property has been confiscated; there was so little that it will be no great loss to them. Raise them in the love of work. Lavish upon them all the love that you had for me. Farewell, a thousand times farewell. Wipe away your tears and concern yourself only with our children.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Review: Dairy Queens: The Politics of Pastoral Architecture by Meredith Martin

(Originally published at Reading Treasure.)

[I was provided a review copy of this book upon my request by Harvard University Press.]

Meredith Martin delves into more than two centuries of French history in her book Dairy Queens: The Politics of Pastoral Architecture from Catherine de Medici to Marie Antoinette, which seeks to place the French pleasure dairy back in its historical context, shattering the myths and assumptions about the role of pleasure dairies in elite society.

The assumption that pleasure dairies were built by royal women as a way to pretend at being peasants while not actually living like one has permeated books, films and pop culture for years. Marie Antoinette is still accused of pretending to be a peasant while drinking dairy from porcelain cups and milking perfumed cows -- a true example of a "Let them eat cake" (which no, she never said) state of mind. However, Martin puts the pleasure dairy of Marie Antoinette (along with several other prominent French women such as Madame de Pompadour and Catherine de Medici) in their historical context, dismissing the notion that the dairies were there for the frivolous play of the elite class.

Martin explores the political, social and gender politics behind the pleasure dairies, revealing a surprising role in the lives of the women or men who built and enjoyed them. Pleasure dairies were often ways for aristocratic or royal women to exercise a form of political power, while still working within their gender role by promoting their status as nurturing mothers and worthy estate managers. They were also a way to improve health, employing Rosseau's notion that aristocratic women should retreat to countryside estates and reap the benefits of fresh milk and air. The catch, of course, is that most pleasure dairies were not built in the true countryside but on the outskirts or even within cities, so that a woman could enjoy the benefits of the countryside without giving up her social obligations. However, the female influence on the pleasure dairy was, particularly by the 1780s, often criticized and made suspect. When the dairy at Rambouillet was built in 1787 (without input from Marie Antoinette) it was a noticeably different from her own dairy at the Trianon. Martin believes this was an intentional move by the male designer to, in a way, put Marie Antoinette back in her place. Marie Antoinette may have been the "goddess" at her Trianon, but not so at the 'male' dairy at Rambouillet.

In addition to discussing the historical role of the pleasure dairy from the 17th century through the French Revolution, Martin touches on the impact the pleasure dairy - and its political and gender ramifications - have had on modern society.

Martin's writing is clear, intelligently written and supplemented by many photographs, drawings and paintings. It's worth a mention here that the layout of this book is absolutely wonderful. I'll admit I was expecting a "dry" layout from a University press, but when I opened the book I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of images used. It's really a superb layout, and something that not only compliments Martin's writing but makes the book something worth looking through even after you've finished reading.

Overall, I definitely recommended this book to anyone interested in French history, especially Marie Antoinette and her much maligned pleasure dairy. It's an excellent addition to any library and I think most readers will find the insights about the often ignored pleasure diary interesting. The book was released earlier this year and is available at most online bookstores

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Review: The Expert Cook in Enlightenment France by Sean Takets

[I was given a review copy of this book by the publisher upon my request.]

The Expert Cook in Enlightenment France by Sean Takats fills a much needed gap in 18th century studies by exploring the history of cooks in 18th century France. There has been much written about French food and cooking methods during this period, but precious little has been published about the people behind the food. Takats places the French cook back into the spotlight, providing a concise and informative overview on cooks, their work, their precarious role in society and how they hoped to strengthen that role through cooking during the Enlightenment.

Cooks, as Takats explains, held a unique place in 18th century society. Both men and women worked as  cooks, and unlike other occupations which were primarily male or female, cooking was seen as neither masculine or feminine.  The occupation of a cook was not entirely domestic, like a house servant, or entirely professional, like an architect. This in-between occupation created a greater degree of autonomy and freedom for cooks when it came to looking for employment. They often bargained with employers for wages and other benefits, and had much more freedom when working in the home than a typical domestic house servant. Cooks also published cookbooks, recipes and other instruction manuals, which was not common outside of 'behavior' manuals written with domestic servants in mind.

However, their role in society was at times contradictory. Although employers gave cooks much freer 'reign' than a typical house servant, cooks were greatly mistrusted. Satirical prints and stories about dirty, evil, and sexually promiscuous cooks abounded in 18th century France. Cooks intended to improve their status by reforming methods of cooking, recipes, and the kitchen itself, however these reforms only inspired greater suspicion of cooks and cooking. When 'modern cuisine' was developed, it was intended to showcase the power that cooking and food could have on the body and establish cooking as a legitimate science. These attempts to establish the importance of cooking only caused greater problems - after all, reason followed that if food could be used to improve health, it could cause destruction and death as well. The poor reputation of cooks at the time only helped to strengthen the stereotype of the cook as a dangerous, secretive person. Unfortunately, efforts by cooks to improve their reputation in society generally fueled the suspicion and derision he general populace held for them. However, despite this setback, cooks played an important role with 18th century society and used the Enlightenment to help pave the way for French cooking as we know it today.

It is a slimmer book - about 145 pages of text - but it provides a good overview of the role of cooks during this period and Takats' writing is academic but accessible enough for the general reader to enjoy. It was a surprising read for me, as I hadn't thought about cooks during this time period as anything other than a typical servant. It was enlightening to read about their unique position, and the surprising poor reputation that cooks had in society. I definitely recommend it for 18th century libraries, French studies libraries, and anyone particularly interested in the role of cooks during the 18th century.