La Vendée, Chapters 21 - 25
Robespierre, More Trollope and Scott, The Private Realm and the Women; Trollope's Identification with Cathelineau & Denot

To Trollope-l

October 9, 2000

Re: La Vendée, Chs 21-25: Robespierre and Marie Antoinette

This week's chapters bring us the two in the novel most often quoted by those who have read or written about the novel: the portrait of Robespierre and foreshadowing of Robespierre's death. The first is pure Walter Scott -- those who have read Quentin Durwardwith its brilliant portrait of the Spider King, one of the Louises, or Ivanhoe with its great fictional types, Brian de Bois-Guilbert & Isaac, will know what I mean. It became a stock device because it's like listening to a virtuouso aria when well done.

I'm afraid the death scene which Trollope alludes to was even more harrowing than what one imagines of a gullotined human being. Trollope suggests it is peculiarly shameful that Robespierre should have attempted to avoid the public shame and terror of execution. He tells us, as if in excuse, that the bottom half of Robespierre's face was shot off by someone else; that suicide was thought cowardly or shameful. (The religious perspective on suicide is still strong in our society today.)

It is not clear what actually happened. Robespierre had become a hated and feared man. The Montagnards followers of Danton (already executed) organized a coup supported by soldiers which demanded the arrest and death of Saint-Just and Robespierre. Saint-Just was executed; Robespierre was found lying near the session chamber with the lower half of his face shot off. He probably tried to kill himself and missed (didn't quite have the courage). He was in terrible pain for hours; some memoirs described him as mocked and jeered at. Someone decent got a box to help him hold his head together so he could submit to the guillotine.

The long portrait of Robespierre that takes up Chapters 24-5 is built against the backdrop of this scene. I retell it partly because Trollope expects the reader to know how Robespierre died, and what had been his behaviour which led to others to kill him to stop the killing.

I suggest Trollope sets himself the problem of asking why Robespierre came to this end. As those who have written about these two chapters say -- and Todd suggested -- Trollope shows the man more sympathy than one might expect. Trollope tries to see the world from Robespierre's point of view. Robespierre did have a brother to whom he was very close; there was a woman whose name was Eleanor Duplay, though Robespierre's latest biographer describes him as one of those intensely ambitious men who are sexless. By presenting the man with her, by talking of the brother Trollope humanises him. He also goes through Robespierre's many fine qualities: brilliant, bold, understanding morality: La Vendée, ed. McCormack, p. 301)

Industry, constancy of purpose, temperance in power, love of country, courage -- you name the virtue, it was Robespierre's. Yet he died in "silent agony and despair" (p. 302). The reason:

"because he wanted faith! He believed in nothing but himself, and the reasoning faculty with which he felt himself to be endowed. He thought himself perfect in his own human nature, and wishing to make others perfect as he was, he fell into the lowest abyss of crime and misery in which a poor human creature ever wallowed" (p. 303).

As we read on, it seems to me faith comes to mean trust in others: "the wretched man was tortured by distrust". I don't see faith here as religious in primary meaning, but humanistic. Robespierre was a paranoid, suspicious, not a man who could build alliances, trust anyone. Trollope's idea is the "weight upon" Robespierre's mind drove him to become a madman. 'The wretched man was tortured by distrust'. Rightly. Trollope means to show more the madness of man who insists those who are not for 'us' are against us. The problem here is the rhetoric is so shallow, so emptied of meaning. In fact, there was slavery at the time, whipping, scourging, serfdom; Trollope imitates the rhetoric as if it has no content: "Remember that the prosperity of every aristocrat has been purchased by the infamy of above a hundred slaves' (p. 307). Why it's hard to forgive Trollope here is there was slavery in 1650. Impressment. And it was horrible. There are curiously sympathetic phrases: Trollope refers to the "realities of his troubled life" (p. 308).

That Trollope really believes a man's private morality controls his conduct in public shows he lived outside politics. He says Robespierre lacked faith and distrusted all. So too did de Sade --- is this distrust of people a surrogate for nihilism? De Sade ended up pretty badly too. I think it is a case where the circumstances shapes the people because the stress of the time and extremes of emotion and conduct become common and are thus encouraged.

The two chapters have a little comedy. Poor Eleanor wants to save people and finds herself suddenly distrusted (p. 310). The opening is meant to be ironic even if Trollope proceeds to half-apologize for Robespierre:

"Yet it is not impossible that some apologist may be found for the blood which this man shed; that some quaint historian, delighting to show the world how wrong has been its most assured opinions, may attempt to vindicate the fame of Robespierre . . . Are not our old historical assurances everywhere aserted? Has it not been proved to us that crook-backed Richard was a good and politic king? that the iniquities of Henry VIII are fabulous? whereas the agreeable predilections of our youth are disturbed by hearing that glorious Queen Bess, and learned King James, were mean, blood-thirsty and selfish" (p. 301).

The problem here is Robespierre does nothing in our novel; he appears, waves and gets off the stage. Scott's world-historical characters involve themselves in the action; so do Thackeray's in Henry Esmond and George Eliot's in Romola. Still Robespierre is presented as at the apex of what happened, the highest who couldn't escape -- or control -- what he had helped to begin and in true Scott fashion he must be presented, analysed, and given the bravura of a portrait in panache.

The language of these chapters has verve and great style. The thought is accurate enough: we have already seen Trollope's understanding of why the King and Queens kept conspiring against their keepers, how what the keepers called treason the monarchs believed was to act rightly on their own behalf. They were taught to think themselves these special persons at the head of special persons.

Like Burke, Trollope waxes indignant at the death of Marie Antoinette. She was convicted in a witch-hunt trial and the charge is reminiscent of our modern witch-hunts in day-care centers; she was accused of incest with her son, of corrupting him. This is interesting. In the US we know of a woman who is the President's wife and is somehow hated and all those terrible things said about her. Still incest? And it is just the sort of thing women in power have been accused of: something having to do with transgressive sex. Why do human beings reach for this crime when they want to be sure no one will gainsay them; what in their imagination makes them think of it? Guilt nowadays and what then? Resentment against the luxuriant female who the male aristocrat prided himself on owning replaces resentment against the male. Perhaps because the working class male wishes he had such a woman?

Top women, powerful women become symbols and are hated. Top men, powerful men become symbols and are hated. What does it matter how they got there, if they suffered, whether they be Republicans (Robespierre) or Aristocrats (Marie Antoinette)? There's a disillusioned reading for you, one which one can drawn from Trollope's text. That I can draw it and feel it's there suggests why I see a strong connection between how Trollope saw the world and how Samuel Johnson did.

I really will be interested to see what Balzac made of these events of counter-revolution within revolution.

Ellen Moody


La plus perdue de toutes nos journées est celle ou on n'a pas ri [The most lost of our days is one when we have not laughed] --------Sebastien-Roch-Nicolas Chamfort (a philosphe who committed suicide just after the terror, 1741-94)

Re: La Vendée, Chs 21-25: The Private Realm, the Women & Denot

Like others I find Denot the most compelling character as a character, especially when judged against the perspective of fully imagined human beings in the way Tolstoi did later in the century. Still there are other things to notice. Not everything need be communicated to us by psychological mimesis. So here are a few comments on how Trollope conveys themes and ideas through dramatic scenes, dialogue, a woman's perspective and events.

The first of this week's chapters (21) gives us perspective of women upon these wars. Madame and Marie de Lescure are fleeing from Clisson towards Durbellière when they are met by Jean Stein who has been sent by Henri de Larochejaquelin to tell them the latter place is probably no more safe than the former. Madame's speech hits the chapter note: 'Oh heavens! what are we to do? . . . we are running from one hostile army into the middle of another' (Oxford La Vendée, ed JMcCormack, Ch 21, p. 279). The two women are told the safest place is Michael Stein's forge. They hasten to shelter themselves there.

The next day Michael comes back from Durbellière, to report that there had been a local uprising in favor of the château, and Santerre and Denot are now prisoners. Jacques Chapeau was in charge when Monsieur de Lescure and Henri de Larochjaquelin arrived. He tells our ladies all is for the time being well.

Upon being told that the men are thinking of releasing Santerre, Marie de Lescure brings up how 'horrid' a 'monster' is Santerre (a king killer who 'urged on the mob' is what she has heard). She is, however, checked by Annot Stein, daughter of Michael, engaged to Jacques Chapeau. Annot reminds Marie of how generous and benevolent Santerre really was, how protective of Agatha, and that it was Denot who was the vicious traitor to his friends. The conversation then turns solely to Denot. Trollope invites us basically dismiss Santerre from our minds. As a character he has played his role, and all that is left is to reiterate (what might really have been Trollope's belief as it is found in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica) the idea that Santerre is not so 'black' as he is painted, and to tell the reader when Santerre is dismissed to whatever would be his fate (Ch 21, p 281).

The character we care about is the wholly fictitious Denot. The debate in the next chapter (22) will continue the one brought up here (21): whether to kill Denote because he betrayed his friends and associates. There we have a long incident in which the men revolt against the aristocrats led by Henri who want to spare his ex-friend, Denot. In Chapter 21 the women discuss how badly Denot treated Agatha in the castle; in Chapter 22 we see Agatha rise to the occasion and herself go out and talk to the men, telling them she has forgiven Denot so they must. We are to believe that her speech changed their minds. This is silly stuff. No mob would listen for a moment; she would not make such a speech. I suppose Trollope thinks he is making her into the perfect heroine: lover of Cathelineau, threatened by rape, loyal to her father, and now a strong speech-maker.

He doesn't impress the feminist Jane Nardin in her book He Knew She Was Right (centered on an interpretation of He Knew He Was Right). Nardin takes out time to write indignantly about La Vendée. Let us give her credit for having read the novel :).

Nardin is very angry at the scene where Henri rescues Marie and Marie loses the top of her dress. She's also angry at the near-rape of Agatha. She never mentions Agatha's heroism (Ch 22) or that of the de Lescure women in simply walking across the countryside in their exhausted state, nor their (later) participation in a siege. For this reader the bare bosom and checked rape are unconvincing; the strong sentimental forgiving speech is forced. They do not sustain arguments about values because they are unintentionally amusing.

Appropriately through the women, Trollope also reinforces a theme seen in the portrait of Robespierre, one which will begin to dominate the text: Annot asks 'what, after all, is the use of these wars? said she to herself. 'What do they get by taking so many towns, and getting so many guns, and killing so many men?' (Ch 21, p. 285). This is not meant just as a woman's perspective, but as one of the average person, someone who is not an aristocrat, someone who has no money, no property and nothing to die for. It's interesting that Trollope does not present the wealthy as articulating such ideas. Annot is a smith's daughter; the idea will be forcefully repeated by Cathelineau's mother (what did he die for?) and then finally by Michael Stein towards the end of the book.

For a modern analogue think of those who refused to die in Vietnam (US war, 1960s). Hell, no, we won't go. Who for? For an analogue of Trollope's time think of the Civil War. Draft riots in NYC.

Then there's the private realm of the great house: Durbellière is brought forward (Ch 22) Its most effective moments are those in which Denot appears. It was here I began to see how he connected to Trollope's non-historical novels. Cathelineau looks forward, however feebly, to Daniel Thwaite: he is the lower class male who falls in love with the upper class woman whom he is more than worthy of; the difference is Cathelineau's character is soft like Johnny Eames's. Denot's intense love for Agatha and the scene between them recalls Johnny Eames and Lily Dale except Denot is in character fierce, threatening, more like George Vavasour, a wild man. Now he's filled with intense self-hatred; he hated himself because he was a coward in battle; he fled the council when he was not promoted to be a head of the army because he failed to be courageous at the moment it was needed. He turned on his friends; and then tried to rape Agatha (a singularly unimpressive effort). So the self- hatred and shame are intense.

Trollope is here moving towards characters like the Countess of Lovel (in Lady Anna), the more than half-mad, self-destructing character who has been twisted by a combination of circumstance and character. The trouble is we see Denot from the outside (in Lady Anna we move into the Countess's mind again and again). The effect is melodramatic: Denot sits scowling, curling his lip, shewing his teeth, doesn't move or speak a word for 12 hours, won't eat and when Santerre "half jocularly told him to keep up his spirits":

'he had uttered such a horrible sound, which he meant for a laugh of derision, such as is heard to proceed from dark-haired, diabolical, provincial tragedians' (Ch 22, p. 288).

As the chapter and volume end, the mood is one of charity. Santerre is given his unconditional liberty; so too Denot -- helped to slink away to his house. They fear setting him free in the countryside lest someone kill him. All others begin to prepare for the coming of the Republicans once again and seige and battle.

This charitable note is so curious and really gives away why Trollope couldn't tell his chosen story adequately at all. Intellectually he was attracted to the material; he agreed intellectually with the pessmistic conclusions one is led to make when one reads about such counterrevolutions within civil wars that often erupt from revolutions. Emotionally he couldn't sustain what it was necessary to imagine to make the story come alive and believable and have what could be a nihilistic message affect a reader. This is truly dark territory that Trollope's imagination shrank from. Yet here he is presenting Robespierre for our delectation, and precisely at one of the most terrible moments of his life.

Ellen Moody


Tobias Wolff once said that all groups, families, companies, countries have their own official myths, and that all these myths are self-serving lies. -- John Mize (Former member of Trollope-l, whom I still miss)

Dagny Wilson was the first to reply:

Date: Sun, 8 Oct 2000 07:58:42 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: [trollope-l] La Vendée -- the pardoning of Denot

In last week's section we saw how Denot turned traitor and led the blues against the Royalists. I never was sure exactly what his reasons were, a combination all everything I guess--his freezing on the bridge, Agatha's rejection, his being rejected as a leader.

But how do the Republicans feel about him? It seems they do not respect him. He is watched and guarded against escape until he "proves" himself. But Santerre withholds Denot's reward of obtaining Agatha. When Agatha is defended by the little Chevalier Arthur and Denot has the better of Arthur, Santerre puts a stop to it.

This week we see how Denot fares at the hands of the very people he betrayed; to me it seems he gets better than he deserves. Why is he forgiven? I can almost understand Henri since Denot was so often in their home as a brother to Henri, but on the other hand, it was Henri's sister Agatha which Denot wanted to coerce and defile. And de Lescure goes along with Henri's wishes, why? Only because Henri wishes it, or deeper reasons?


Then Richard wrote in:

Date: Mon, 9 Oct 2000 09:34:10 EDT
Subject: Re: [trollope-l] La Vendée -- the pardoning of Denot

In a message dated 10/8/2000 10:59:01 AM, writes: "Why is he forgiven? . . . And de Lescure goes along with Henri's wishes, why? Only because Henri wishes it, or deeper reasons?"

Within the confines of the chateau the "officially accepted" explanation for Denot's behavior is mental breakdown or insanity. In that little world insanity, apparently, is a forgivable sin. The knee-buckling experience is another, separate matter between de Lescure and Denot. De Lescure, the realist, knows that Denot would never want to show his face again in the chateau, so why not forgive him? And Denot later (unfortunately) comes to believe the "insanity" label. De Lescure senses this and is therefore doubly sure that Denot is out of the picture. Forgive me if I said too much, here. My opinion is that Denot is one of the few real human beings in the whole story, and the experience on the bridge is a real, touching moment.


Date: Mon, 09 Oct 2000 14:20:14 -0400
Subject: [trollope-l] La Vendée: The Pardoning of Denot

I agree with Richard that Henri and Agatha forgive Denot in part because they judge him to be insane. Also, as Dagny notes, Denot and Henri have been friends from childhood. But I would like to suggest another reason. Henri, Agatha and De Lescure are believing Christians, leaders among people who are fighting to preserve their religious heritage. Accordingly they try to live up to the Christian ideal of forgiveness and love. The crowd has little appreciation for these sentiments -- they would prefer a quick execution -- but then the crowd throughout the story has lacked discernment. In general, Trollope presents the Vendeans as compassionate toward their enemies. In this they make a contrast with the republicans, who engage in wholesale slaughter. I wonder if this his historically accurate or whether Trollope is stretching the truth here.


Todd then wrote again:

Date: Mon, 09 Oct 2000 15:56:35 -0400
Subject: [trollope-l] La Vendée: Robespierre

Among the items of interest from this week's chapters is Trollope's portrait of Robespierre, which is able to stand up on its own within the novel, a kind of independent character sketch and historical essay. He maintains that Robespierre was a man of extraordinary gifts whose life ended in despair and misery because he believed in nothing greater than himself and the authority of his own reason. “He wanted faith!”

There can be no question regarding Trollope's stand with respect to some of the leaders of the revolution. Marat was “the foulest birth of the Revolution, whose licentious heat generated venom and rascality, as a dunghill out of its own filth produces adders’ eggs...” Fairly strong, that. And yet Trollope is unwilling to make an absolute assertion regarding the judgment of history on any of these people. He notes that Robespierre has been nearly universally condemned, yet he knows that opinions do change regarding historical figures. Robespierre and his associates were certain that posterity would condemn Marie Antoinette, but “how little are men able to conceive what award posterity will make in judging of their actions.” Then taking the skeptical argument a step further, he adds that [even] “posterity is often as much in error in its indiscriminate condemnation of actions as are the actors in presuming themselves entitled to its praise.” This leaves me thinking that Trollope is willing to rethink the judgment of history on Robespierre.

As human beings, our knowledge and judgment are limited and imperfect. However, objective truth does exist -- I believe Trollope is suggesting -- though it may not be entirely discoverable by us. Trollope caps off his chapter with this statement: “Till the power of Satan over the world has been destroyed, and man is able to walk uprightly before his Maker, the virtues of one generation will be the vices of another.” We will all be judged -- Robespierre, Marie Antoinette, and the rest -- by God.


A final one from Judy Geater:

Date: Thu, 12 Oct 2000 07:22:31 +0100
Subject: Re: [trollope-l] La Vendée: Robespierre

I really enjoyed reading about Robespierre and like others am looking forward to seeing what Balzac makes of him, if at all.

I'm grateful to Ellen for her reading of the term 'faith' and its inclusion of humanity as well as religious belief. When I was reading this passage, I kept distracting myself with thoughts about Victorian atheism. Was Trollope part of the literary circle around George Eliot? When did Matthew Arnold write "Dover Beach"? I was thinking that there was an understanding and awareness about lack of faith in the world which Trollope inhabited and to attribute evil to it was rather old fashioned of him. Ellen's reading helps to redress those thoughts but he does clearly mean lack of religious faith too.

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