The Reign of Louis XVI
The first part of this story takes place around the year 1774, or roughly the time when Louis XVI ascended to the throne. For more than a century before Louis XVI’s reign, France had suffered under the rule of the self-indulgent monarchy. Wars and poor management of the country’s wealth had burdened the population with increasing debt. Those in power— the nobles and the clergy—benefited from the status quo, and so they worked to suppress any measures to make the system more fair. Heavy taxes were imposed upon the peasantry, with attempts to revise the tax codes, such as increasing taxes on property owners, defeated by aristocrats. Religious worship other than in the Catholic Church was severely punished, such as the episode young Hamilton Lindsay describes in “Melon,” in his letter to his cousin, about seeing a Protestant minister hanged in the marketplace for the crime of conducting religious services. By 1788, the country was bankrupt. Louis XVI, who was not a strong king, was forced to take some step to address the social inequality that made life miserable for the majority of the population. He convened the Estates-General in 1789 for the first time since 1614. This group consisted of the clergy (First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate), and the bourgeoisie (Third Estate). Though the Third Estate included commoners in theory, they were in practice excluded.
The Estates-General convened in May 1789. After fighting off challenges to structure and methods to be used, the body eventually decided to vote themselves a National Assembly, answerable not to the ruling establishment but to the people. They agreed to remain in session until France had a new constitution. The king reacted by locking them out of the hall where they met and then restructuring his ministry on July 11. Violence broke out in Paris three days later, when angry mobs forced their way into the Bastille prison. They only released seven prisoners, but the symbolic act of defiance against the established regime ignited the passions that had been seething for so long. The mob went on to take the city hall and kill several government officials, including the mayor of Paris.
After this, the king and his followers backed down, and tensions subsided for a few weeks. The spirit of revolution began, though, and violence broke out in various places throughout the country. On August 4, 1789, the old political order collapsed when the National Assembly declared an end to feudalism: those who had been in power, such as clergymen, and certain politicians, lost their standing and were forced to flee for their lives (the story specifies August 8 as the day that the Duke of Dorset abandoned his embassy and headed back to England). Louis XVI, his family, and his supporters, were held under arrest at Tuileries Palace. They lived there for two years, escaping in June 1791 by dressing in peasants’ clothes, but they were recaptured before they could reach Varennes. Their attempt to escape made it clear that, despite their proclamations, they opposed the revolution. In January 1793, Louis XVI, was executed; his wife, Marie Antoinette, a regal woman who openly disdained the common people, was beheaded before a cheering crowd on October 16 of that year, her body thrown into an unmarked grave.
The French Republic
In 1793, the other monarchies of Europe, fearing that the revolutionary spirit that overran the French government would spread, opposed the new order in France. The new government went to war against Great Britain, the United Netherlands, Austria, and Spain, losing in each. To keep up military strength, conscription laws required military duty of hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen: this, along with the rejection of the Catholic clergy, fueled the counter-revolutionary spirit.
The government responded in June 1793 with actions so repressively brutal that they came to be known as the Reign of Terror. New laws were passed to punish those who opposed the centralized government, and tribunals were convened across the country with the power to sentence insurgents to death. People were as likely to be executed for suspicion of crimes as for actual treason. The government that had fought against the injustices of the old feudal system was only able to stay in power by its own injustices.
In 1799, General Napoleon Bonaparte, the commander of the army and one of the most brilliant military strategists the country had ever known, staged a coup, taking control of the French government, seizing control of the legislature, and having himself appointed First Consul. Later, after suppressing a coup against him by the Bourbons, the relatives of Louis XVI, Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France, a position that he held until he was forced to abdicate in 1815. Louis XVIII, the brother of the former Louis XVI, took the throne after the fall of Napoleon.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Julian Barnes, Published by Gale Group, 2006