Letters Written in France,
in the Summer 1790, to a Friend in England;
Containing Various Anecdotes Relative to the French Revolution;
and Memoirs of Mons. and Madame du F—
Now, that's a title.
It's 1790. You live in England. You've heard rumors of revolution and violence over in France, but you don't really know what's going on. Any information you do know has come from Edmund Burke, statesman and author. Then Helen Maria Williams enters the scene. She's in France for the festival celebrating one year since the Bastille fell. She's in France as the revolution is happening, sending letters to England which are being published for all to read, an early form of journalism.
Helen Maria Williams, 1792
I arrived at Paris, by a very rapid journey, the day before the federation; and when I am disposed to murmur at the evils of my destiny, I shall henceforth put this piece of good fortune into the opposite scale, and reflect how many disappointments it ought to counterbalance. Had the packet which conveyed me from Brighton to Dieppe failed a few hours later; had the wind been contrary; in short, had I not reached Paris at the moment I did reach it, I should have missed the most sublime spectacle which, perhaps, was ever represented on the theatre of this earth.
If you're like me, you've heard enough about the French Revolution to make you curious. For instance, you've read Les Miserables and Winterson's The Passion, or even Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel, or maybe you've played the game Guillotine--and so the French Revolution seems like a thing you should know about, but you're pretty hazy on the details.
Helen Maria Williams' Letters from France is an engaging first-hand account that will give you details without sounding like a history textbook. Actually, it reads like a gothic novel. Some of my cohorts were saying that Williams is like Ann Radcliffe only she doesn't go on for ten volumes.
The first half of the Letters takes place in Paris and is a pleasurable telling of the Festival of Federation and other goings-on of Parisians and the National Assembly. Williams is wonderful at including anecdotes and witty repartee spoken by the Frenchmen around her. She also includes women's role in war and revolution. "Let me do justice to the ladies of France..."
The second half of the Letters takes place in Rouen, and is largely an account the family du Fossé. Forbidden love, imprisonment, near-starvation—all that good stuff happens to the family du Fossé. Only it's not a gothic novel. Monsieur and Madame du Fossé actually existed and lived through this stuff.
If you're interested in the French Revolution (not that the only reason toread the Letters is if you're interested in the French Revolution) you should also watch John Green's vlogs about it. John Green is amusing as ever, and this time is amusing while taking up the slack left by our history teachers.
Fun fact about Helen Maria Williams: She was a member of the cult of feminine sensibility. Man, that sounds like a cult I could get behind.