The contingency, confusion, and many contradictions inherent in revolutionary moments are often hard to capture in written histories. As historians, after all, we know the outcomes; we can identify many constraints contributing to and consequences of decisions actors at the time were making with imperfect information. The benefit of a fuller perspective granted by time, distance, and access to many vantage points is one of the most crucial components of historical investigation. Yet, it can be hard to convey the truly tumultuous, chaotic, and downright intense nature of events in the past, especially as revolutions raged. As we grasp with living through times we can often sense are historically significant and yet hard to comprehend, thinking about the history of revolutions feels especially relevant and urgent.
Two recently published books on the French Revolutionary period experiment with different methodological and narrative approaches in ways that help highlight the uncertain and highly contingent course of events. Colin Jones’s The Fall of Robespierre walks readers through the 9th of Thermidor, hour-by-hour in the present tense, capturing the unpredictability and volatility of that pivotal day. Timothy Tackett’s The Glory and the Sorrow follows one man’s experience through the Revolution to bring to light the often-conflicting views and emotions of someone trying to make sense of unanticipated events. We connected with these authors to ask them more about how their approaches led them to think about the Revolution in new ways. Read Katlyn Carter’s interview with Timothy Tackett here.
In The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris, Colin Jones takes readers through 24 hours in Paris that proved to be a major turning point in the French Revolution: 9 Thermidor of the Year II. Written in the present tense and proceeding hour-by-hour through this pivotal journée, Jones offers a new perspective on the Terror and nature of the Thermidorian Reaction. The unconventional narrative structure and style bring contingency to the fore and, in so doing, lead to new interpretations not only of Maximilien Robespierre’s downfall but of the course of the French Revolution. The book also raises questions and poses possibilities for how we write histories of revolutionary moments more broadly. What follows is an interview I conducted with Jones about his book.
Katlyn Carter (KC): You discuss this briefly in the acknowledgements and afterward, but I wonder if you could elaborate a bit on how you decided to write about 9 Thermidor?
Colin Jones (CJ): I had my eye on writing the history of this day for some considerable time. Most of my publications have had a longue durée perspective, so the possibility of a drastic shift in scale seemed attractive. When I was a postgraduate, I heard a brilliant talk by Martyn Lyons (later a famous article) on 9 Thermidor, in which he demonstrated that the parliamentary coup against Robespierre came from the Left, from his fellow Montagnards, rather than the Right. I loved the drama of the day and I have always been very disappointed how conventional histories pass quickly over it as if there was not much to draw our attention. I also thought there was much more to say about the state of Paris on the day. Indeed, I thought one big element of my task was to explain what I took to be the apathy of Parisians towards revolutionary politics. As it turned out, I discovered to my considerable surprise that Parisians were anything but passive and apathetic. I ended up concluding that 9 Thermidor was a Parisian journée, which would have had a different outcome had Parisians not fought actively against Robespierre and the Commune.
KC: And how did you decide to structure the book as an hour-by-hour account of that day? Did you decide on the narrative structure before you began the research, during, or later in the process once you had gathered and read the bulk of your material? I’m curious whether, if you decided to write the book in this way early on, you think it influenced how you read sources or what you sought out?
CJ: For quite a long time into the research, I imagined I would be writing a fairly conventional account of the day in terms of form. Three things made me change my mind completely. First, my growing sense that the outcome was anything but certain. Indeed, it looked more likely at the start of the day that Robespierre would prevail. He had cowed the Convention and his colleagues in government, he appeared to be highly popular in the city, his nominees led the Commune, his ardent supporter (Hanriot) commanded the National Guard, and the Revolutionary Tribunal was stacked with his nominees. If nothing was pre-determined, then there was a big story about the day that needed to be told in a way that got the point across. Second, I became aware of the huge cache of very detailed accounts of the day on which I could draw. I wanted to develop a way of incorporating this rich material into the story. I didn’t think a conventional approach would do it justice or allow me to chart the turning of the tide across the day. Third—and this was the clincher—I was well into my research when one evening my wife and I watched an episode in the old TV series 24. She turned to me and suggested I write my book in the same as-if-real-time way. After (I confess) dismissing this out of hand, I woke up the next day with the thought: why not? It looked like a challenge I would enjoy.
KC: Related to the structure of the book, I’m curious to hear your reflections on writing in the present tense, or from “up-close” as you put it in the book. How did this narrative choice shape your interpretation of events? Did writing in the present tense influence your thinking about contingency, or even more broadly about the nature of history and maybe especially how we understand revolutionary moments?
CJ: The use of tenses was something I thought a lot about. My first decision on this front was to banish the future tense. I wanted to see events through the eyes of participants and I didn’t want to spoil this by endlessly chipping in with comments on what happened later. I wanted the many ironies and un-predictabilities of the day to emerge by themselves rather than through authorial interventions. Initially I was loath to use the present tense, as generally I regard historians’ recourse to it as something of a pose. However, I soon realized that the present tense could work well with my material. In the 24 hours of 9 Thermidor, individuals were faced with a series of questions, the biggest of all being whether to support Robespierre and the Commune or else the Convention and the Committee of Public Safety. The present tense seemed best-suited to give a sense of the felt experience of making choices. I believe it also helps to underline the dramatic nature of those choices.
KC: As a follow-up: A lot of the story you tell in the afterward of the book brought to mind the rioting at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 and the subsequent fights over framing the narrative and understanding of that event. Do you think writing history in this way can, or should, help us better comprehend contemporary events and the way meaning gets ascribed to them?
CJ: The book was already in the press when 6 January occurred, but I have thought since about parallels and differences. My sense is that future histories of 6 January will devote a lot of space to what actually happened on the day. For my own project, most existing histories of a single day that I have read are more concerned with context, causes, preconditions, etc., or else aftermath, consequences, and so on. I wanted to give a greater sense of the “day-iness” of the 24 hours that a more structural account would have missed or underplayed. Maybe there is no one-size-fits-all model of historical explanation, and perhaps short, sharp and momentous events benefit from a different kind of approach.
KC: What was the biggest challenge you faced writing in this way? What do you think was the biggest payoff of the narrative structure?
CJ: Writing a history in which each of the chapters covers one hour of the fateful day and each is roughly the same length meant throwing out of the window a great deal of what I have always practiced in my writing and trying something very new for me and very much off-the-wall for any historian. It forced me to use my imagination and creativity in new ways. That was the biggest challenge—but it was also what made the project so much fun.
In the introduction to the book, I mention being inspired in the 24-hour concept by the “writing under constraint” approach advocated by the Oulipo group of authors, who preach and practice the imposition of arbitrary formal constraints on their writing. I found that they are right when they say that writing under constraint stimulates rather than shackles the imagination, and opens up rather than closes down lines of thought. It makes you not only think harder about organizing the material but also, as a consequence, about the material itself.
The Oulipo approach also influenced me in another form of constraint that I don’t actually make explicit in the book, but I would hope would be a bit of a slow-burner, so to speak, and contribute to continuing interpretative debates. This self-administered constraint was a refusal to use the expression “the Terror” in the narrative of these 24 hours. After all, the concept was only invented after 9 Thermidor, so it was meaningless for the day’s combatants and could not come into their calculations in that form. So 9 Thermidor simply could not be a day aimed to “end the Terror.” Rather, I try to show, it was a day that targeted—as my title suggests—the fall of Robespierre.
KC: I also noted the lack of footnoting and the way in which citations of source material were all placed at the end of the book (in great detail!). Can you elaborate on how you made the choice to cite sources in this way and how you think that might impact the way a reader processes the book?
CJ: As you observe, I have profuse end-notes; I do not signal the presence of notes in the text; but readers can check out the scholarship on any page or paragraph by referring to the back of the book where notes are presented under particular phrases from pages in the text. It is not new as a method, but it suited this account particularly well. Because I was taking a risk in writing this way, and also making some big claims about the day that would be open to challenge, I realized that I would need to supply scholars with notes that gave chapter and verse. So the end-notes are in essence my Get Out Of Jail card! By not stinting on them I also wanted to give all readers a sense that they could trust me not to make stuff up. This was especially because—and I hope I am not sending fellow-historians into a state of shock by saying this—I really wanted readers to follow the story with the attentiveness and unbroken concentration that they would accord fiction.
KC: In writing the history of this event in this way, you opened up a lot of possibilities for conjecture, or places where you as the author would lay out different decisions that might have been open to historical actors at any given point, or asked rhetorical questions as a tool to give context. Can you talk about how you approached this and what you think it does for our understanding of an event such as this one?
CJ: Conjecture is indeed one of the central themes of the book. I try to show that Parisians on the day became aware that they had a choice to make that was critical in terms of their own, let alone the Revolution’s future. Some individuals explained their choices after the event in ways that made their conjectures explicit: one individual in the Observatoire section, for example, opined that if Robespierre were successful, the Convention would simply regroup and mete out punishment on Paris in the same way it had done to Federalist Lyon. But of course there were many who didn’t give any explanation, and for them I was reduced to conjecturing about their conjecturing! Besides noting what course of action they followed, my general rule of thumb was that fundamental to their thinking through their decisions was what they heard of the news (and how), where they were in the city and what time of the day it was. “What if?” was part of a deeply personal reckoning dependent to a large extent on these variables. I also tried to convey the interrogative nature of this inward scrutiny by liberal use of question-marks.
KC: The importance of uncertainty and lack of reliable information for historical actors in the moment really came to the fore in this book. How important do you think this was and do you think it tends to get lost in histories? What is it about writing the history in the way you did that brings this element to the forefront?
CJ: My narrative offers a kind of up-close plotting of kinetic energies during these 24 hours, as I follow the movement around the city of men and women, National Guardsmen, pikes and cannon as well as of decrees, news, and rumors. I then aligned individual and collective decisions with those movements around the city, by the clock and on the map. Towards the end, a snowball effect came into play as individuals chose not to be on what seemed likely to be the losing side. But overall and very surprisingly, I did not find that Parisian’s choices about whom to support matched up with their prior ideological position. Individuals who seemed manifestly “Robespierrist” by past form could be found in numbers on the Convention’s side. It would thus appear that a kind of situational logic trumped prior ideological affiliations.
Information certainly counted, but so did lack of information, or information from sources judged untrustworthy. It says a lot that ultimately Parisians voted massively with their feet for the Convention rather than the Commune. This was built on a groundswell of continued popular and even sans-culotte respect for the Convention that Soboul’s still influential narrative underestimates. Parisians believed the Convention’s messages—conveyed to them by Barras and his adjuncts—rather than the poorly-ordered and contradictory messages coming out of the Commune. It is also relevant that Robespierre himself offered nothing but a few random expostulations across the whole day. He was silenced and by choosing to remain silent even after his release from jail failed to offer vocal support for the Commune at a time when his words could have counted.
KC: Another element that emerged as crucially important in understanding this event was the importance of place (the geography of the city, but also the architecture and layout of houses and government meeting spaces). Do you think this was, again, brought to the forefront due to the narrative structure of the book?
CJ: I wanted to do justice to the spatial as well as chronological aspects of the day. As I have suggested, where, as well as, when decisions were made was crucial to the story—and indeed the factors were closely interlinked. The topography of the interior and immediate environs of both the Tuileries palace and the Maison Commune (Hôtel de Ville) were absolutely vital elements in the story on a number of occasions, as I tried to show.
I must also confess, however, to indulging my nerdish side about Paris’s built environment. In the UK there is a well-known radio show called Desert Island Discs based on the idea that the “castaway” is marooned on a desert island and is allowed to take a certain number of their favorite records—plus one book, besides the Bible and Shakespeare. Without a scintilla of doubt, I would take Jacques Hillairet’s huge 2-volumed Dictionnaire historiques des rues de Paris. The pleasure of compensating for being denied access to Parisian streets by endlessly scouring those pages to discover more about the history of Parisian houses, buildings, streets, and monuments would be a delightful and absorbing way to spend my time while awaiting rescue. Needless to say, I raided Hillairet a lot for my book!
Katlyn Carter holds a PhD in History from Princeton University and is currently an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame. Her current research explores state secrecy and representative politics in the eighteenth-century Atlantic World. She is interested in the comparative study of revolutions and history of the book and media.
Colin Jones is Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London. He has published widely on French history, particularly on the eighteenth century, the French Revolution, and the history of medicine. His many books include The Medical World of Early Modern France (with Lawrence Brockliss, 1997), The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon (2002), Paris: Biography of a City (2004: winner of the Enid MacLeod Prize) and The Smile Revolution: In Eighteenth-Century Paris (2014). He is a Fellow of the British Academy and Past President, Royal Historical Society.
Title image: The execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794.