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.