The generous grant I was awarded by the Friends of the Princeton University Library allowed me to conduct research in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in the spring and fall of 2010 as part of a larger project which aims at understanding how the French Revolution of 1789 prompted writers to reflect on the nature and potential consequences of fear. Although historians have long stressed that fear played a powerful role in setting the course of the French Revolution, little work has been done on how representations of this emotion pervaded the literature of the time. My goal is to understand what the novelists, playwrights, memoir writers, poets, and other men and women of letters writing in France during the 1790s had to say about fear. What role did it play in the stories they told and in the arguments they put forward? What did their writings imply about its impact on the lives of individuals and about its influence on societies?
Before residing in Princeton, my research had focused mainly on the so-called “emigration novels” penned in the late eighteenth century — novels that depicted the fate of French exiles who fled the Revolution. I had explored the political benefits that novelists found in representing émigrés as fearful. I had observed that emigration narratives often used fear as a mitigating circumstance, which made the flight of aristocrats look devoid of any partisan thinking. I had also started analyzing how writers of such narratives borrowed from and reshaped earlier discourses about fear, including scientific theories on its physiological impact.
This generous grant gave me access to rare documents that enhanced my understanding of the changing conceptions of fear in France during the last decade of the eighteenth century. Two great collections of French revolutionary materials owned by the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of Princeton University Library turned out to be of prime interest to my project: the Cornwell Burnham Rogers Collection of songs from the revolutionary period and the Library’s collection of French revolutionary pamphlets, most of those I read belonging to the W. D. Weaver Collection.
My research was greatly facilitated by the descriptive catalog compiled by Carla Hesse and Laura Mason with the assistance of Stephen Ferguson entitled Pamphlets, Periodicals, and Songs of the French Revolutionary Era in the Princeton University Library and published in 1989 by the Princeton University Library. Its indexes were especially valuable in helping me select the most relevant materials to my project in the library’s collection of over 3,200 French revolutionary pamphlets, which cover a wide range of texts, including memoirs, satires, legislation, and speeches by revolutionary leaders. I was thus able to locate a corpus of personal narratives pertaining to life in prison during the Reign of Terror that showcase interesting assumptions about the conditions in which people were most likely to be taken over by fear. Published shortly after the Ninth of Thermidor and usually running to about one hundred pages, these narratives led me to investigate how various writers generated and manipulated representations of fear in order to achieve specific ends. Honoré Riouffe’s Mémoires d’un détenu pour servir à l’histoire de la tyrannie de Robespierre, Joachim Vilate’s Causes secrètes de la Révolution du 9 au 10 Thermidor,and the anonymous Almanach des prisons, ou Anecdotes sur le régime intérieur de la Conciergerie, du Luxembourg, etc., all of them published in year III (1794-1795), provided me with the most significant depictions of fear in that regard.
The Rogers Collection’s 139 imprints of verse and songs also proved to be of great interest in shedding light on the specific ways fear invaded the cultural imaginary of the time. Its approximately three hundred songs from the revolutionary era, one of the largest such collections in the United States, allowed me to further reflect on the received ideas about this emotion in France during the 1790s. In addition to pamphlets and songs, my research benefited from the opportunity to consult several items in the Princeton Library Rare Books’ Theatre Collection. Plays such as J. S. Quiney’s La Journée du dix aoust 1792, ou Le Siège des Thuileries (Paris, F. Benoist, year VI), offered yet more examples of the various ways fear was depicted and used in France during the revolutionary decade.
I am truly grateful to the Friends of the Princeton University Library for giving me the financial means to explore its collections on the French Revolution. The kindness and professionalism of the staff in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections contributed to making my stay in Princeton an extremely productive experience. My most special thanks go to Stephen Ferguson, whose vast knowledge and generous advice I highly appreciated. The materials I collected during the course of the four weeks I spent in Princeton, as well as the exceptionally pleasant conditions I had the opportunity to work in, have been a great stimulus for me to carry on with my research project.