Writing Revolution: Michelet's History of the French Revolution
Jules Michelet ( 1798-1874) today stands out as the Gargantua of French historians. His massive, protean seventeen-volume Histoire de France, concluded in 1876, and his earlier Histoire de la Révolution Française, published between 1847 and 1853, are brilliant examples of a hybrid discourse commonly known as "romantic history." This history is neither entirely fact nor fiction, at once romance and history, a strange offspring of the romantic aesthetic that produced Quasimodo--what you might call, in homage to Hugo hunchback in Notre-Dame de Paris, "un discours historique à peu prés" (an almost historical discourse), both sublime and grotesque, monstrous yet awesome, inspiring emotions of dread, veneration, and wonder in the reader. On the relationship between history and the novel, the French Romantic poet Alfred de Vigny had this to say, and one cannot help but think of Michelet:
By a sort of fusion which has produced confusion, the work of fiction, or the novel, has borrowed from history the exactitude and the reality of the facts, whereas history, which is the work of memory and of judgement, has taken some of the novel's passion, of its tragic and comic ways, and detailed descriptions. 1
Some readers distrust Michelet's emotional style and the freedom with which he interprets certain documents, but most admire this odd and at the same time intriguing mixture of genius and patent absurdity, and are quite content to read if not history proper (if indeed there is such a thing), then at least his-story of the French Revolution. Michelet began researching the subject in 1841 and interrupted his magnum opus, the Histoire de France, in 1846 to start writing. Only two historians had ever attempted to write on the French Revolution before him ( Mignet and Thiers), so Michelet's concern for careful documentation is understandable, although the contemporary reader often wishes that Michelet might have included references to his sources. Actually, Michelet needed less than a year to complete the two first volumes; however, the following volumes dragged on, and the work was not completed until 1853. The Histoire de la Révolution Française was not an immediate success with the public and did not become widely read until the Third Republic.
As Hayden White has pointed out in his monumental study on nine- teenth-century historiography, 2 Michelet worked at a time when history as an