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First review in Les Nouvelles de l’Estampe #258

A first review of my monograph has been published in the most recent issue of Les Nouvelles de l’estampe. It’s so new in fact that the website hasn’t been updated yet, but I found out through the magic of Twitter:

The editor, Rémi Mathis, very kindly sent me a PDF of the whole review.

It was written by none other than Annie Duprat, whose research I have long-admired and, thankfully, it ends on this very generous note indeed:

Très bien composé et très détaillé, ce livre, qui comporte un appareil critique considérable (notes, bibliographie, index) rendra de très grands services à tous ceux qui s’intéressent à l’histoire culturelle de la Révolution française.

[Translation:] Very well composed and very detailed, this book, which contains a considerable critical apparatus (notes, bibliography, index), will be of great service to all those interested in the cultural history of the French Revolution.

Couldn’t ask for better, frankly.

Hunting in the shadows of the French Revolution

My blog post ahead of my monograph’s impending publication!

Voltaire Foundation

ose-2016-10-50pcResearching prints of the French Revolution can sometimes feel like ghost-hunting.

Unlike other forms of art, such as paintings, which are usually signed, the majority of etchings are authorless. Sometimes, sheer luck, or the right accumulation of clues, can lead you to an artist – a most satisfying conclusion.

This was the case with ‘Dupuis, peintre’, an artist commissioned twice by the Comité de Salut Public to create prints central to my book, Satire, prints and theatricality in the French Revolution. His identity evaded me for several years. I had several candidates for him, and my original thesis, the basis of my book, included this footnote:

Chûte en masse: ainsi l'étincelle electrique de la liberté, renversera tous les trônes des brigands couronnés (François Marie Isidore Queverdo). ‘Chûte en masse: ainsi l’étincelle electrique de la liberté, renversera tous les trônes des brigands couronnés’, by François Marie Isidore Queverdo (Stanford University Libraries).

‘The identity of Dupuis remains mysterious. He could be issued from an illustrious family of engravers, including…

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Review of Richard Clay’s Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris


Richard Clay seems to be destined to divide academics. His clear-sighted BBC documentary, The French Revolution – Tearing up History drew criticism for being too populist and over-eager to draw comparisons between revolutionary Paris and contemporary events. However, these same detractors should prove eager to read his densely written and meticulously researched monograph, Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris.

Clay’s book is an invaluable addition to French Revolutionary historiography, examining through a semiotic lens the ways in which iconoclasm was represented, created, championed and opposed across the spectrum. It aims to raise the status of Parisians ‘who have been condemned as barbarians by previous historians’ (5), by demonstrating that their behaviour was based on a sophisticated understanding of the symbolic power of these representational objects in relation to the public space they occupied. In Clay’s hands, iconoclasm is shown to be both an act of creative destruction and the securer of Revolutionary civilisation. Clay demonstrates throughout a refreshingly egalitarian approach to sources, whether verbal, textual, or visual, to observe the tensions between official and non-official attempts to gain control over iconoclastic actions.

The study is largely chronological, considering acts of iconoclasm on a year to year basis from 1789-1795, and richly illustrated by mostly prints. The range of representational objects covered, as well as the diversity of decoding and recoding methods employed, are impressive – from the Barrière de la Conférence which was looted and burned, its marble representation of Normandy decapitated, to the destruction of coats of arms on buildings. Particularly fascinating is Clay’s section on post-thermidorian reactions to the iconoclasm of the Terror, demonstrating how revolutionary iconoclasm could be utilised not only as an example of revolutionary excess, but also as a means of mediation between politically and religiously diverse communities. Clay’s insistence on the polyvalent and polysemic nature of the statues of kings is another highlight of this book, demonstrating the impossibility for any authority to take full possession of any iconoclastic action.

Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris ends on a curiously apologetic footnote, in which Clay explains the various ways in which the book might have been improved had he had the ‘time, energy and intellectual capacity’. He certainly seems to be lacking in neither energy or intellect, and one can only hope that he will pursue further the avenues he’s outlined, particularly the suggestion to study iconoclasm within a ‘more detailed consideration of sections’ demographic’ (282). Iconoclasm remains as pertinent today as it did then, with the erasure of the ancient city of Dur Sharrukin, or the debate surrounding the Rhodes statue, Clay’s book not only addresses an important aspect of French revolutionary history but should encourage further critical elaboration on how different kinds of vandalism shed light on the processes of history.

Dramatic finances: Jacques Necker etched as a charlatan

I have a bit of a twisted fascination for Revolutionary characters that suffer a dramatic downfall after a large amount of popularity. One of these is three times minister of finances Jacques Necker who, frankly, did not have the easiest ride. His infamous Compte rendu au roi (1781) was a document in which Necker manipulated the accounts to present a more positive image of finances. Through this, he gained a tremendous amount of popularity, sometimes depicted as a saviour of France (there was an outcry when he was dismissed on 11 July 1789, just before the storming of the Bastille). By 1790, however, it was clear that he was not up to the task and his popularity evaporated.

I want to draw attention to two prints from 1790 which depict Necker as a charlatan. They’re part of a much wider trend of prints that are fascinated with the concept of unmasking (but that’s a whole other story).


The first print is called ‘Et ne devrait-on pas à̀ des signes certains reconnaitre le cœur des perfides humains’ (1790). The title comes from lyrics taken from Act 4 scene 2 of Rachine’s Phèdre, which immediately adds a dramatic layer to the image.

(roughly, it translates as ‘and shouldn’t we recognize from certain signs the deceitful hearts of humans’)

This etching was an illustration in the book Necker jugé par le tribunal de la lanterne (1790), people must have been a bit confused about it as an explanation was also printed (translation mine):

We read the following: “The King accuses Necker of quackery. In his anger, he flipped the table on which were the instruments, such as cups, nutmegs, wand, etc. The gaze of the king is mingled with indignation and surprise, and he looks ready to burst out in anger against Necker. Necker is depicted with the charlatan apron. He wears a hand to his forehead to mark his humiliation, and the other to his heart, and seems to say to the king “ah! Sire, if you knew my heart!” Through one of his eyes, a mocking laugh escapes, which shows that this adventurer trusts the king’s weakness. A deity embraces with one hand a gallows, and on the other, she directs the rays of the lantern to the chest of Necker, where we see snakes emanate, symbols of the passions that animate this minister. The figure of the deity seems to laugh to mark the joy she feels at having unveiled the heart of this false and corrupt man. Both verses that are at the bottom of the print, are ideally suited to the subject. The French should not regret to have not known sooner the uselessness and vices of this minister, that they had adored so blindly.”[1]

The lantern was used very frequently in 1790 prints, in part because this word has a double meaning, referring on the one hand to the illuminations of a magic lantern, and on the other to lynching. Both senses are used here.


Let’s look at another print, ‘Compte Rendu au roy’, which was published in May 1790 in the Révolutions de France et de Brabant of Camille Desmoulins. The image is without a legend, but earlier in the newspaper, the following appears (my translation again): ‘Necker asked again on Monday for 20 million […] he is always asking for money […] we ask him for accounts, accounts, and he never hands in his accounts […] I demand that […]  Necker the charlatan should be arrested.’[2]

This print is less obvious than the previous one in its satire, until you look at the framed text in the background (‘New way to regenerate France: borrow 1774 / borrow 1775 / borrow 1776 […] product of these operations: deficit’). In the foreground Necker makes a game out of the accounts – but it looks like the king is not convinced.

For now, at least, artists are still willing to give Louis XVI the benefit of the doubt.

Charlatans, as the ultimate manipulators, are no strangers to brutal reversals of fortunes, and Necker’s own iconographical evolution deserves its own study, alongside the more popular Marat, Mirabeau, or Louis XVI.

[1] BNF, De Vinck, 1396.

[2] 7 mai 1790, p. 539.

The Return of the Academic Hat


I’ve been a bit quiet on this website for the last few months – my poetry and editing hat have rather taken over while my academic one has been gathering dust. This week, these things have turned around, partly because my tour has finished for the year, and partly because I’m off to the Paris archives tomorrow, to work on my monograph Staging Satire: Theatrical Metaphors in Prints of the French Revolution which is nearing completion. I’m very excited about this – my thesis has been hanging over me like a Damocles sword – and I’m glad that my gamble to take time off from regular paid work has worked out for the best where this is concerned!


The other two bits of news that are bringing me back into the academic arena are that firstly my copy of the special issue of Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies on the Clair-Obscur has landed on my doorstep, and that secondly I am frantically transforming a conference paper into an article for the Actes du Colloques: Théâtre et charlatans dans l’Europe moderne to be published by the Presses Universitaires de Rennes.

I feel like a bit of a rogue academic sometimes, so this is a nice reminder that my research is of interest. Now, anyone fancy hiring me?

The Shipwrecked House – Guest Blog by Claire Trévien

Here is a quick glimpse into my ‘other’ life as a poet. I’m about to tour across the UK The Shipwrecked House, a show based on my poetry collection. More details on tour dates here.

It’s such an honour for me to be on Kim Moore’s blog, of which I am a huge fan. As well as being an excellent poet herself, the blog is always full of exciting poems and interesting thoughts both about poetry and brass bands. Highly recommended.

Kim Moore

Evening folks – another extra blog post that I hope will counter the last rather negative and depressing post about The Wordsworth Trust.  This is the first in what I hope will be a random series of guest blog posts.  I’m going to hand over to Claire Trévien in a minute to explain how her first collection ‘The Shipwrecked House’, longlisted in the Guardian First Book awards came to be transformed into a touring show.  This seems an amazing achievement to me – surely the poetry equivalent of a novel being turned into a film?  And if there was a poet that would be likely to do such a thing, it would be Claire who seems always to be doing something exciting with poetry – recently writing a 100 poems in one day to raise money for Refuge for example.

Claire Trévien is one of those people who frequently puts her…

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Popular Reaction to Napoleon’s 100 Days: Print, Satire, Song and Theatre

I was back in the British Library for the first time in a while yesterday having decided over the last few months that I can’t afford a career in French academia. Working long hours for free or a pittance, spending a fortune on travelling and conference fees, not to mention the cost of image rights and publications have taken their toll, so I’m concentrating on the bright lights of poetry…! Yesterday reminded me however of the upside, the sheer joy of finding out new things, of diving headlong into a rabbit hole… I love research, of course I do!

The thing that prompted my return was an unexpected day free of rehearsals for The Shipwrecked House to prepare a talk I agreed to give at a one-day conference next week: Popular Reaction to Napoleon’s 100 Days: Print, Satire, Song and Theatre. The whole day is completely up my alley, as my thing is popular culture! My thesis was on popular culture during the French Revolution, particularly satirical etchings but also songs, plays (both performed and not), pamphlets, etc. What’s new this time around is the Napoleonic setting.

Now, I think I’m a bit territorial about my thesis and will argue until the cows come home that French Revolutionary prints are the best thing.


Goodness me do I love Napoleonic prints too, especially ones featuring the man himself: dressed as Pierrot, riding a lobster, eating snakes, falling off a cliff, being a bossy boots,… They’re gloriously vivid.

For the conference, we’ve each been asked to pick an object from Napoleon’s 100 days (i.e the 100 days in 1815 in which Napoleon escaped from Elba, made a grab at power and was eventually defeated at Waterloo). The one I picked is this splendid print of Napoleon’s return to France:


Isn’t it great? Even better are the two members of the anxious Bourbon party wearing extinguishers on their heads. It refers to a term, ‘chevaliers de l’éteignoir’ used by the satirical paper Le Nain Jaune to mock those belonging to the old French regime. Quite literally, they are trying to extinguish the flames of enlightenment! Le Nain Jaune was pro-Napoleon so this depiction is rather apt.

Here are some more éteignoirs, just because:


What drew me to this print however is that I recognized in it a leitmotif found in two French Revolutionary prints from 1791:

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T0000001_large (6)

Yes, the Standford link will say the print dates from 1792-1794, but this is wrong. The courrier des 83 départements of 3 June 1791 announces it so it pre-dates the Marie-Antoinette print.

Not so flattering, eh? The first one depicts Marie-Antoinette escaping the Tuileries palace, the other Catherine II of Russia taking a conquering stride. Both are rather lewd, in the first the comtesse de la Motte-Valois (of the affair of the diamond necklace) holds up a necklace up Marie-Antoinette’s skirt which is both a reference to the affair and to sexuality (jewels in French refers to female genitalia), Catherine II is bare-breasted, and in both cases everyone is looking up their skirts.

Whereas in the case of Marie-Antoinette and Catherine II female agency is seen as a negative trait to be mocked, it is celebrated in Napoleon. Some things never change, eh?











On finding contemporary francophone poets

While my taste in anglophone poetry has always been contemporary, my taste in francophone poetry has always been decidedly more 19th and early 20th century. My reasons for this are potentially nostalgic, in spite of spending two of my adult years in Paris, I more readily associate France and its literature with my childhood and tweens, when romantic and fin-de-siècle literature was a school and college staple, and England with my growing into adulthood and discovering the contemporary poetry scene.

Yet, I have been making a concerted effort in the last few years to find francophone poetry that engages me. Being bilingual is my USP to many publications and I have reviewed my fair share of translated contemporary poets, but these have rarely excited me in the same way that, say, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Clare Pollard, or W.N. Herbert might (to choose three very different voices). This, I should add, was not through lack of persistence; I have yet to find a French bookshop with a good selection of poetry. A few, thank goodness go beyond Gallimard and its promotion of said dead white poets, and if you have any recommendations (of either bookshops or poets), I’d love to hear about them.

When I was asked by Oxford Brookes to design a semester-long module of textual commentary of French texts, my immediate fall back was to return to the authors that I love in some sort of nostalgia-fest: Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Edmond de Rostand,… It quickly became apparent to me however, that they were a) men b) white and c) dead. These are three things that I try to avoid in my ‘poetry’ life, or at least balance out as much as possible, so why wasn’t I doing the same thing here?

I did an emergency twitter call out for people’s favourite non-male and/or non-white, contemporary francophones, and got an amazing array of suggestions, though mostly of fiction and non-fiction. Accompanying this, I reinstated my subscription to the wonderful Modern Poetry in Translation and scoured the Printemps des poètes for gems.

Here are some favourite poets that emerged from this search:

Vénus KhouryGhata

Vénus Khoury-Ghata

Vénus Khoury-Ghata

Libanese-born Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s poetry spoke to me from the start. I fell on her by chance, clicking her name on the Printemps des Poètes, and her highlighted poem was like a lightning bolt. It features a father whose anger is so strong that it has overturned the house, where life is described as a straight line of noises, where the dead grow old like paper…. I brought it to my students and it got an uncharacteristically warm reception:

C’était hier
il y a très longtemps
la colère du père renversait la maison
nous nous cachions derrière les dunes pour émietter ses cris
la Méditerranée tournait autour de nous comme chien autour d’un mendiant
la mère nous appelait jusqu’au couchant

ça devait être beau et ce n’était que triste
les jardins trépassaient plus lentement que les hommes
nous mangions notre chagrin jusqu’à la dernière miette
puis le rotions échardes à la face du soleil

She’s been translated by Marylin Hacker many times, you can find one of her translations here alongside a fairly comprehensive biography.

I recommend Nettles, which is the work I bought, in which you can see the French and English side by side.




I stumbled upon Haitian-writer Frankétienne in my copy of MPT, which I then found on the Poetry Translation website, also translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely:

Chaque jour, j’emploie le dialecte des cyclones fous.
Je dis la folie des vents contraires.
Chaque soir, j’utilise le patois des pluies furieuses.
Je dis la furie des eaux en débordement.
Chaque nuit, je parle aux îles Caraïbes le langage des tempêtes hystériques. Je dis l’hystérie de la mer en rut.
Dialecte des cyclones. Patois des pluies. Langage des tempêtes. Déroulement de la vie en spirale.

To me, there is something wonderfully muscular to this poem, it’s visceral in a way that feels earned. I would even venture that there is something a bit Ted Hughesque about the way Frankétienne is content to let everything hang out.

Tahar Ben Jelloun

Tahar Ben Jelloun

Tahar Ben Jelloun

Another Printemps des poètes discovery, whose take on what makes a town speaks to my own aesthetics:

Il ne suffit pas d’un tas de maisons pour faire une ville
Il faut des visages et des cerises
Des hirondelles bleues et des danseuses frêles
Un écran et des images qui racontent des histoires

Il n’est de ruines qu’un ciel mâché par des nuages
Une avenue et des aigles peints sur des arbres
Des pierres et des statues qui traquent la lumière
Et un cirque qui perd ses musiciens

Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in Morocco, and like Vénus, eventually found his way to France. What I love about this pile up of images of what makes a city is the way that they are alternatively fragile, surrealist, and moving.

While I was trying to avoid dead white men, I hadn’t set out to find poetry written by folk born outside of France and yet, these are the voices that spoke to me, perhaps because I myself am the product of uprooting. There is something vibrant about all three poets, even though none of them are in their first youth (born 1937, 1936, and 1944, respectively). I see much of contemporary French poetry as either over-intellectualized or soaked under water by spleen and its abstract nouns. Compared to the minimalism so favoured by many of their peers, their bright jagged lines and surrealism are a breath of fresh air. I look forward to discovering more of their ilk.



Mirabeau meets Voltaire and Rousseau in the underworld

Voltaire Foundation

‘Mais le voilà donc ce prétendu égoïste, cet homme dur, cet impitoyable misanthrope, que ses lâches ennemis déchirent plus que jamais après sa mort!’ (Mirabeau to Marie Thérèse Sophie Richard de Ruffey, marquise de Monnier, on the subject of Rousseau’s acts of kindness during his lifetime.)[1]

Today marks the 223rd anniversary of the death of Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, the comte de Mirabeau. A courter of controversy, Mirabeau is famous for being a nobleman who joined the third estate for the Estates General and became rapidly popular thanks to his oratory skills.[2] He died of a suspected inflammation of the diaphragm, on 2 April 1791, though some did question the rapidity of the illness and wondered if he had been poisoned.[3] Other than for a few individuals, such as Marat, who publicly rejoiced at his passing, Mirabeau’s death seems to have been overall a source of sorrow, provoking numerous displays of affection including prints…

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Transforming your thesis into a book: week 4

I have vague memories of first stumbling on the word ‘procrastination’ as an undergraduate, thinking it sounded like a very sophisticated way of labelling an unsophisticated activity. Many of my friends have found ways to at least bring healthiness to their lives via procrastination: they clean the house, they bake cookies, they knit jumpers, they go for a run. None of these things have ever appealed to me, even at my worst levels, because doing domestic or healthy chores will always be far lower in the food chain than the thesis. My weakness is, I think, far more dangerous because it does not have a clear ending: poetry.

I should probably elaborate: poetry projects.

There is a reason, other than passion (and it is there, obviously), why I often find myself juggling poetry projects. For the same reason why a baker-procrastinator may choose a workspace far removed from a kitchen, I deliberately tried to put a lid on projects during the writing up phase of my PhD. I even handed over the reins (temporarily) to Sabotage Reviews so that the distraction of copy-editing and promoting reviews wouldn’t be my excuse for wasting the day. Did that work? Not entirely, Penning Perfumes was thought up, organized, and launched as an anthology.

Why am I sharing this? I normally try to keep my two worlds, poetry and academia separate, but they do find a way to overlap, and this is a struggle I am facing currently. When I laid out my ambitious plan to revise one chapter a week, I completely neglected to take into account my poetry commitments. Currently I am juggling several projects including the creation (and funding application) of my one-woman show based on my poetry collection The Shipwrecked House, planning the launch of the next issue of Verse Kraken, planning the impending Saboteur Awards as well as the day to day admin of copy-editing and organizing reviews, juggling several writing commissions, planning writing courses, and a new exciting anthology of contemporary poetry inspired by history.

This isn’t a list of excuses, truly, it isn’t, but I am still working out ways in which to make both sides of my life compatible and productive. Things that I’ve realized during this teething phase of the revising process, and which may be useful to others, are that the following things work:

  • waking up at dawn (5/6am) and going into a different room to work on the thesis. No one is online, the house is quiet, and a bonus is the wonderful feeling of having achieved something by 9am. The danger lies in allowing the smugness take over the rest of the day.
  • jotting down thoughts immediately instead of acting on them. This has made a world of difference. Where before I’d suddenly remember ‘oh I forgot to reply to so-and-so’, go on emails, do it, then fall into the vacuum of the internet, this way I get to plough on reassured that I won’t forget. This also goes for enthusiastically thought-up poetry projects.
  • setting aside days or chunks of days to get things out of the way. This may seem like a cop out, but if you get built up guilt like me, it works a treat.

Any other tips?

I’m definitely not saying I’ve worked out a way to balance things well yet, but over the last few days I finally feel like progress is made. At long last my mammoth chapter can be put to (sort of) rest, which was the main structural change I wanted to operate. The work is far from over, I feel like both the introduction and conclusion need some serious work done to them, while the other chapters also deserve some attention. It’s a milestone of sorts though.