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September 27, 1987|Edward Berenson

LAST LETTERS: PRISONS AND PRISONERS OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION by Olivier Blanc; Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: $22.50; 250 pp.). Occasionally an accident of research produces a book more interesting than the one the historian originally intended. While shuffling through some dusty documents from the French Revolution, Olivier Blanc came across a stack of letters written by prisoners about to face the guillotine. It seems that revolutionary authorities routinely intercepted all correspondence from the condemned, stuffing hundreds of farewell missives into bureaucratic files where they have remained to this day. Blanc's was quite a find, for these documents provide a fascinating new human dimension to the momentous events of 1789.

About half the book consists of the letters themselves, elegantly translated by Alan Sheridan, the other half of how the historian sees them. Most are as interesting for what they do not say as for what they do: curiously, few of them expressed any deep religious sentiment. This may seem strange, as the opponents of revolution have often been depicted as stalwarts of the church. But recent historians have argued otherwise, and the farewell notes collected here appear to bear them out.

What did concern the condemned was money and property. "I owe citizen Sassier . . . seven livres , ten sols ," wrote one prisoner to his daughter, "pay them to him." "Be so kind," a son asked his father, "as to tear up the note of the money that you were good enough to lend me."

The tone was sober, even business-like, but not entirely. Many of the doomed wrote movingly to ease the grief of family members and to ask that their short lives be remembered. Thanks to the vagaries of archival preservation, we can remember them still.

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