A Journal of the Terror – Jean-Baptiste Clery

I love reading eyewitness accounts of historical events. Helene Hanff in 84 Charing Cross Rd puts it beautifully when she says (after reading, & being underwhelmed by, the Canterbury Tales), “Now if Geoffrey had kept a diary & told me what it was like to be a clerk in the palace of Richard II – THAT I’d learn Olde English for…I’m a great lover of I-was-there books.”

Jean-Baptiste Clery was valet-de-chambre to Louis XVI & was the only servant permitted to accompany Louis & his family to the Temple where they were imprisoned in 1792. Louis & his family – Marie Antoinette, their children, the Dauphin & Madame Royale & his sister, Madame Elizabeth – were kept in very strict imprisonment. Their guards delighted in enforcing every petty rule & being rude & disrespectful. It was decided that the family should not have access to anything that could be used as a weapon so as well as knives & scissors, the guards removed pins, needles & bodkins from the women so they could no longer sew to occupy themselves. The guards took pleasure in taunting the King & being deliberately rude to provoke him but they were rarely successful. He remained calm & polite to his captors to the end.

Clery was able to see his wife occasionally & he devised many ingenious ways to pass on any news he learned to the King who was almost never alone. The family were eager to know what was happening in Paris & they were not allowed to have visitors or see newspapers. The guards did manage to leave lying around any newspaper articles attacking the royal family & Clery often tried to hide these to avoid distressing Louis.

Whatever one thinks of the causes of the French Revolution, the abuses perpetrated by the ruling class & the dreadful poverty of the working people, the punishment of the aristocrats was truly horrible. The royal family were quite fatalistic, having seen the fate of many of their friends & courtiers at the hands of the revolutionaries. Louis was eventually tried for treason & executed in January 1793. Marie Antoinette & Madame Elizabeth suffered the same fate. The little Dauphin died in prison, after suffering physical & psychological deprivation. Only Madame Royale left the Temple alive.

Clery’s account is brief, only 130pp. He revered Louis & the whole family & was obviously overcome by the honour of serving them so intimately. Clery reports every instance of kindness or condescension he receives from them. Louis is presented as an almost Christ-like figure, nobly suffering & always turning the other cheek, accepting his fate & going to his death with dignity. But, this is not just a hagiography. Clery also shows Louis as a loving husband & father, teaching the Dauphin, playing with him & acting as an example of strength to the whole family. It is these anecdotes of a loving family that are so very moving.

Louis is a much more dignified figure than the lumpish dolt so often presented in biographies & movies, more interested in taking clocks apart than making love to his wife & so removed from events in his kingdom that he wrote “Rien” in his diary on the day the mob stormed the Bastille. I’ve always thought Louis & Marie Antoinette were the unfortunate inheritors of their class prejudices & the social conditions created by the policies of former kings. The regime was unable or unwilling to change & when social conditions deteriorated, & the people’s suffering became unbearable, revolution was inevitable. This is a very moving account of dignity & loyalty under great stress.

3 thoughts on “A Journal of the Terror – Jean-Baptiste Clery

  1. Lyn – thank you for posting this really intelligent and clear sighted review of what sounds like an incredibly interesting choice. I too love eye witness accounts and similar work – I have Defoe's Journal of the Plague year waiting to be read at the moment.

    Happy Tuesday and thanks for sharing


  2. Will, it sounds fascinating but is it only available as a Kindle e-book? I'm afraid I don't have a Kindle. I'll have to have a look at the website instead. Thanks for commenting.


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