Four decades ago, Robert Darnton popularized the study of forbidden books under the ancien régime as a resource for understanding the subversive political and philosophical ideas that came to fruition in the French Revolution. Cultural historians on both sides of the Atlantic have followed eagerly in his footsteps ever since. In 2002 Vivian Gruder of Queens College coined the phrase "the ‘pornographic’ interpretation of the French Revolution" to describe the work of Darnton, Lynn Hunt, Sarah Maza and others, and raised a note of skepticism about the role forbidden books really played in bringing down the French monarchy. Yet those doubts served only to deepen research in what remains a fascinating field.

The Devil in the Holy Water, Darnton’s new book on the history of slander in France from Louis XIV to Napoleon, is long, complex and important. To understand it, we need to keep the author’s clearly stated purposes in mind:

Almost any book about eighteenth-century France is bound to bear on classic questions about ideology, politics and the first great revolution of modern times. This book has implications for those questions, but it pursues a different purpose. It is meant to explore a body of literature and the subculture that generated it. I want to understand the lives of libelers, the relation of their publications to their milieu, the way their texts worked (in the use of images and typography as well as rhetoric), the interconnections of libels as a corpus of literature, and, to the extent possible, the reactions of their readers.

Darnton is similarly explicit about his exclusions:

I do not intend to go over familiar subjects such as Jansenism, the parliamentary opposition to the crown, the ideology of absolutism, the state-sponsored reform movement, and the application of Enlightenment ideas to political issues. Instead, I want to strike out in a different direction, one that leads into the problematic area where history and literature shade off into anthropology.

The Devil in the Holy Water is very ambitious. As the range of subjects that Darnton classes as "familiar" suggests, this is a book for experts on eighteenth-century France; but it is also lucid and scurrilous enough to have much wider appeal. The spectacle of a public figure cut down to size by revelations–true or false–about her or his private life is a literary genre that continues in rude health when more refined forms of writing–literary fiction, criticism and poetry, for example–threaten to become obsolete. Readers will find much to titillate and shock in the slanders that brought les grands of eighteenth-century France to their knees. But there is also a contemporary resonance to consider: as our own voracious yellow press goes from strength to strength and life-writing converges on celebrity biography, the more defamatory the better-selling, what can the history of slander and libel teach us?

Darnton’s exploration of libelous literature is not a comprehensive survey of the kind he compiled in earlier books like The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982) and The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1995). Instead, he uses a number of carefully chosen examples to dissect and illuminate the kinds of publications that the French classified as libelles. Before 1789 there were no newspapers as we know them in France, so the main sources for information about politics and public figures were gossip and libelles. Darnton argues that a surprising proportion of prerevolutionary bestsellers were libelles: on his retrospective bestseller list five of the top twelve were libelles, successfully jostling for places alongside books by Rousseau, Voltaire and other philosophes. These libelles ranged in form from slanderous biographies of public personages to inflammatory accounts of contemporary history, and a titillating variety of journalism known as chroniques scandaleuses.

Darnton’s first example is Le Gazetier cuirassé ou anecdotes scandaleuses de la cour de France (1771): part shocking slander of the great (Voltaire, for example, is mocked as a sodomite) and part amusing puzzle book, requiring the reader to crack its codes like a modern-day crossword. Voltaire, not surprisingly, cursed the book: "A satanic work has just appeared in which everyone, from the monarch to the last citizen, is furiously insulted, in which the most atrocious and absurd calumny spreads a hideous poison over everything that one respects and loves." The author was a mysterious armor-plated gazetteer, who was exposed and libeled in a subsequent work that tracked the supposed transformation of the gazetteer into a Parisian police spy operating from London. Le Diable dans un bénitier (The Devil in the Baptismal Font), from 1783, described Receveur the policeman running around London like a headless chicken trying to repress the French libelers who published their works at a safe distance from Paris and the infamous Bastille, where they might be imprisoned and interrogated if caught. Darnton explains that the expression "le diable dans un bénitier" was not suggestive of satanic forces undermining sacred institutions to eighteenth-century French readers, for whom it simply denoted frantic yet ineffective agitation. The phrase appeared in the priest J.B.L. Gresset’s mock-heroic poem Vert-Vert (1734). The poem is about a parrot, the cloistered pet of a convent who is sent on a visit to another, learns profane expressions on the way, shocks the nuns on arrival and is sent back in disgrace to repent and die:

Bien vite il sut jurer et maugréer
Mieux qu’un vieux diable au fond d’un bénitier

(Very soon he learned to curse and fume
Better than an old devil in the bottom of a baptismal font.)

Darnton argues that Le Diable dans un bénitier is the richest source of information we have about slander under the ancien régime. Understanding who wrote it and why requires reference to a third connected text: La Police de Paris dévoilée (The Parisian Police Unveiled), from 1790. And the author of this third text, Pierre Manuel, can be comprehended only through a fourth: Vie secrète de Pierre Manuel (The Secret Life of Pierre Manuel), from 1793. It is Manuel who carries the four linked libels that Darnton showcases into the Revolution, where Manuel forged a prominent political career before being guillotined on November 14, 1793.

Born in 1753 in Nemours, Manuel was raised in Montargis and sent to a seminary in Sens. Instead of becoming a priest, he left the church for the book trade. A printer in Paris in the rue Serpente gave him a room in exchange for help in the shop. Manuel wrote libels and supplied them to peddlers. After the Revolution in 1789, the peddlers of his district elected him to the Commune, where he lined his pockets dealing in the archives of the newly demolished Bastille. In his own texts, he specialized in "unveiling" not only the police and the ancien régime’s iconic fortress but also the clergy. His greatest coup was the publication of the letters of the unofficial leader of the Commons (or Third Estate), the comte de Mirabeau, who had been incarcerated in the Bastille before the Revolution at the request of his family. After the collapse of the monarchy, Manuel tried to save Louis XVI’s life by rigging the Convention’s voting procedure. All his efforts to hide his ill-gotten gains failed, and he was in prison awaiting trial and execution when the Vie secrète de Pierre Manuel was published as a cautionary denunciatory tale.

Darnton presents the Vie secrète de Pierre Manuel as a new genre: the Jacobin libel. But he connects it to the tradition of hostile biographies that ran throughout the eighteenth century with titles like "Vie privée de…" or "Vie secrète de…" The continuity, Darnton argues, is not surprising, "because all libels slandered their victims in the same way, despite the variations in their tone and context." When the Robespierrists needed to win public support during the Terror, they sought not only to guillotine their opponents but also to destroy their reputations. The blade may have been sharper than the pen, but the pen, when honed by political turbulence, could cut a name to shreds. To do this the Robespierrists used the same printers, and relied on the same literary traditions, as the hack writers under the ancien régime.

After setting out the content of the Vie secrète de Pierre Manuel, Darnton skillfully extracts from it the factual content couched inside the libel. In his time, if not in the eyes of posterity, Manuel was one of the best-known deputies elected to the National Convention intended to design a new, republican form of government for France after the collapse of the monarchy in August 1792. Previously he had gained notoriety by writing an open letter to Louis XVI that began, "Sire, I do not like kings." During the September massacres that marked the passing of the monarchy, Manuel, as public prosecutor of the Commune, saved the intellectual Madame de Staël from being murdered by the mob. She found refuge in Paris in his office in the Hôtel de Ville and sat watching from the window as blood-splattered executors of the people’s vengeance went to and fro, reporting to the Commune on the massacres. Madame de Staël was the daughter of Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s minister of finance on the eve of the Revolution, and she had sat watching from a window in Versailles as the deputies to the Estates General processed to their first meeting in 1789. In just three years the Revolution had delivered her into the hands of a libeler like Manuel, whose portrait by Ducreux hung above his desk in the Hôtel de Ville, the paint probably still wet.

Darnton returns insistently to the question of how these libels were read. He admits that there is no simple answer: "How to get inside the minds of people who tried to make sense of the printed word more than two centuries ago?" Undaunted, he assembles the evidence he has trawled for in marginalia, police reports and other fragmentary records of reading as a social phenomenon. Particularly helpful is Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s description, in his Tableau de Paris, of the bouquinistes: booksellers who sold everything, even recently prohibited books that they kept "behind the boards" of their shops. Darnton contrasts Mercier’s description of the formation of public opinion with the conventional Enlightenment view of rational illumination and emerging consensus. Instead, Mercier described public opinion as a cacophony that swirled through the streets and erupted in the Palais-Royal: "It is there that fantasies become realities, that one imagines alliances, fabricates treaties, ousts ministers, and makes sovereigns live or die." Darnton supplements this account by recovering the apolitical kinds of reading that persisted alongside it. Reading for amusement, then as now, encompassed many forms: épigramme, épitaphe, épithalame, étrennes, bouts rimés, question, fable, parodie, anecdote, allégorie, portrait, boutade, bon mot, placet, brunette, chansonnette. All these were word puzzles with seemingly "no purpose other than amusement and the exercise of wit," Darnton writes.

Nevertheless, it is the political role of slander that grips Darnton, and he is drawn back irresistibly to the police archives, which disclose that the real author of Le Diable dans un bénitier is Anne-Gédéon Lafitte, marquis de Pelleport: "a thoroughly wicked ne’er-do-well, and a very talented writer." Pelleport was that most dangerous person under the ancien régime: a déclassé. Born an aristocrat, he had sunk to the ranks of the libelers. He was a close friend of Jacques-Pierre Brissot, a Revolutionary journalist, campaigner for the emancipation of slaves and member of the Girondin faction. Pelleport translated into French the English pamphleteer David Williams’s political tract Letters on Political Liberty (1782), and he started on a translation of Catherine Macaulay’s radical eight-volume History of England but abandoned it. Le Diable dans un bénitier was the supreme libel of his career. He was ambushed and arrested and then imprisoned in the Bastille from July 11, 1784, until October 3, 1788. In Darnton’s estimation, Les Bohémiens, the two-volume autobiographical novel Pelleport wrote in the Bastille and published in 1790, ranks with the Marquis de Sade’s Justine: an endorsement of sorts, though not to everyone’s taste. (The book now exists in English as The Bohemians, in a translation by Vivian Folkenflik and with an introduction by Darnton.)

Les Bohémiens can be read as a Bildungsroman, libertine treatise or anticlerical tract, but it is also indisputably a novel of ideas: one in which the early French school of economists known as Physiocrats and the proponents of natural law are pitted against advocates of enlightened despotism and theorists of predatory self-interest. Brissot’s utopian Rousseauism is also pilloried. Once again, sodomy is central to the slander, and the novel includes the cryptic scurrilous remark "A mouse who has only one hole is soon caught." Darnton embarks on a feminist interpretation:

While elaborating a discourse on natural law, Séché [one of the novel’s philosophers] goes so far as to argue that men should own women as a form of property that can be bought, sold, traded, rented, and inherited. To be sure, this burlesque episode reads more like a satire against the subjugation of women than an argument in favor of it. The narrator constantly presents women as objects of male desire, yet he also attributes an aggressive sexual energy to them, for the same élan vital courses through all forms of life: women are for the taking, and they help themselves to men.

This brings to mind Angela Carter’s feminist reading of the Marquis de Sade’s novels in The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1978). Carter saw Sade as a moral pornographer: someone for whom sex was a manifestation of power in a society built on force. But unlike Carter, who presented Sade to a late twentieth-century audience as a resource for thinking about modern gender relations, Darnton emphasizes the gulf that divides the eighteenth century from the twenty-first. He insists that it is virtually impossible to know how contemporary readers (few in number as they were) responded to Les Bohémiens. Its publication was a "non-event situated at the heart of the most eventful period of French history. Even if a few copies made it into the hands of readers, they can hardly have provoked much of a reaction." It is difficult to gauge how much interest there was in 1790 in a satirical account of a republic of letters that no longer existed; people were perhaps more interested in the revolutionary politics that was bringing about the invention of a new form of republican government at the heart of the French state. Darnton ventures that we in the twenty-first century might be better placed than its contemporary readers to appreciate Pelleport’s novel as "the first full embodiment of bohemianism." But it is also possible that the power of its satire is simply lost on readers for whom Brissot was just another revolutionary dreamer destined to die beneath the guillotine.

One of the most engaging features of Darnton’s historical writing is his modesty and skepticism about what it is possible to know. "To follow a few lives from the Ancien Régime into the Revolution is to tell a story, not to explain the general nature of the changes that swept through eighteenth-century France," he affirms. Plenty would shy away from such a frank admission of the limitations of their erudition, however sizable. Darnton has identified forty-two "private lives" published between 1789 and 1800. They vary in quality, length and political orientation, but they are all continuations of the basic techniques of defamation under the ancien régime: they reduce politics to personalities and in doing so, Darnton writes, obscure "the fundamental conflicts of principles and interests that ran through the Revolution." That–in short–is why all libels look the same, whether printed in clandestine pamphlets or newsstand tabloids. The Revolution, Darnton argues, kept the form but changed the substance of a genre derived from the court of Louis XIV and fitted it onto a new, unruly body politic. Libels were reassuring insofar as they reduced political complexity to a simple story line centered on questions of personality. Above and beyond its highways, byways and detours into the forgotten history of eighteenth-century French literature and culture, The Devil in the Holy Water reminds us that when journalists reduce political analysis to a clash of personalities, almost everything we need to know, past and present, gets lost.

 

 

Four decades ago, Robert Darnton popularized the study of forbidden books under the ancien régime as a resource for understanding the subversive political and philosophical ideas that came to fruition in the French Revolution. Cultural historians on both sides of the Atlantic have followed eagerly in his footsteps ever since. In 2002 Vivian Gruder of Queens College coined the phrase "the ‘pornographic’ interpretation of the French Revolution" to describe the work of Darnton, Lynn Hunt, Sarah Maza and others, and raised a note of skepticism about the role forbidden books really played in bringing down the French monarchy. Yet those doubts served only to deepen research in what remains a fascinating field.

The Devil in the Holy Water, Darnton’s new book on the history of slander in France from Louis XIV to Napoleon, is long, complex and important. To understand it, we need to keep the author’s clearly stated purposes in mind:

Almost any book about eighteenth-century France is bound to bear on classic questions about ideology, politics and the first great revolution of modern times. This book has implications for those questions, but it pursues a different purpose. It is meant to explore a body of literature and the subculture that generated it. I want to understand the lives of libelers, the relation of their publications to their milieu, the way their texts worked (in the use of images and typography as well as rhetoric), the interconnections of libels as a corpus of literature, and, to the extent possible, the reactions of their readers.

Darnton is similarly explicit about his exclusions:

I do not intend to go over familiar subjects such as Jansenism, the parliamentary opposition to the crown, the ideology of absolutism, the state-sponsored reform movement, and the application of Enlightenment ideas to political issues. Instead, I want to strike out in a different direction, one that leads into the problematic area where history and literature shade off into anthropology.

The Devil in the Holy Water is very ambitious. As the range of subjects that Darnton classes as "familiar" suggests, this is a book for experts on eighteenth-century France; but it is also lucid and scurrilous enough to have much wider appeal. The spectacle of a public figure cut down to size by revelations–true or false–about her or his private life is a literary genre that continues in rude health when more refined forms of writing–literary fiction, criticism and poetry, for example–threaten to become obsolete. Readers will find much to titillate and shock in the slanders that brought les grands of eighteenth-century France to their knees. But there is also a contemporary resonance to consider: as our own voracious yellow press goes from strength to strength and life-writing converges on celebrity biography, the more defamatory the better-selling, what can the history of slander and libel teach us?

Darnton’s exploration of libelous literature is not a comprehensive survey of the kind he compiled in earlier books like The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982) and The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1995). Instead, he uses a number of carefully chosen examples to dissect and illuminate the kinds of publications that the French classified as libelles. Before 1789 there were no newspapers as we know them in France, so the main sources for information about politics and public figures were gossip and libelles. Darnton argues that a surprising proportion of prerevolutionary bestsellers were libelles: on his retrospective bestseller list five of the top twelve were libelles, successfully jostling for places alongside books by Rousseau, Voltaire and other philosophes. These libelles ranged in form from slanderous biographies of public personages to inflammatory accounts of contemporary history, and a titillating variety of journalism known as chroniques scandaleuses.

Darnton’s first example is Le Gazetier cuirassé ou anecdotes scandaleuses de la cour de France (1771): part shocking slander of the great (Voltaire, for example, is mocked as a sodomite) and part amusing puzzle book, requiring the reader to crack its codes like a modern-day crossword. Voltaire, not surprisingly, cursed the book: "A satanic work has just appeared in which everyone, from the monarch to the last citizen, is furiously insulted, in which the most atrocious and absurd calumny spreads a hideous poison over everything that one respects and loves." The author was a mysterious armor-plated gazetteer, who was exposed and libeled in a subsequent work that tracked the supposed transformation of the gazetteer into a Parisian police spy operating from London. Le Diable dans un bénitier (The Devil in the Baptismal Font), from 1783, described Receveur the policeman running around London like a headless chicken trying to repress the French libelers who published their works at a safe distance from Paris and the infamous Bastille, where they might be imprisoned and interrogated if caught. Darnton explains that the expression "le diable dans un bénitier" was not suggestive of satanic forces undermining sacred institutions to eighteenth-century French readers, for whom it simply denoted frantic yet ineffective agitation. The phrase appeared in the priest J.B.L. Gresset’s mock-heroic poem Vert-Vert (1734). The poem is about a parrot, the cloistered pet of a convent who is sent on a visit to another, learns profane expressions on the way, shocks the nuns on arrival and is sent back in disgrace to repent and die:

Bien vite il sut jurer et maugréer
Mieux qu’un vieux diable au fond d’un bénitier

(Very soon he learned to curse and fume
Better than an old devil in the bottom of a baptismal font.)

Darnton argues that Le Diable dans un bénitier is the richest source of information we have about slander under the ancien régime. Understanding who wrote it and why requires reference to a third connected text: La Police de Paris dévoilée (The Parisian Police Unveiled), from 1790. And the author of this third text, Pierre Manuel, can be comprehended only through a fourth: Vie secrète de Pierre Manuel (The Secret Life of Pierre Manuel), from 1793. It is Manuel who carries the four linked libels that Darnton showcases into the Revolution, where Manuel forged a prominent political career before being guillotined on November 14, 1793.

Born in 1753 in Nemours, Manuel was raised in Montargis and sent to a seminary in Sens. Instead of becoming a priest, he left the church for the book trade. A printer in Paris in the rue Serpente gave him a room in exchange for help in the shop. Manuel wrote libels and supplied them to peddlers. After the Revolution in 1789, the peddlers of his district elected him to the Commune, where he lined his pockets dealing in the archives of the newly demolished Bastille. In his own texts, he specialized in "unveiling" not only the police and the ancien régime’s iconic fortress but also the clergy. His greatest coup was the publication of the letters of the unofficial leader of the Commons (or Third Estate), the comte de Mirabeau, who had been incarcerated in the Bastille before the Revolution at the request of his family. After the collapse of the monarchy, Manuel tried to save Louis XVI’s life by rigging the Convention’s voting procedure. All his efforts to hide his ill-gotten gains failed, and he was in prison awaiting trial and execution when the Vie secrète de Pierre Manuel was published as a cautionary denunciatory tale.

Darnton presents the Vie secrète de Pierre Manuel as a new genre: the Jacobin libel. But he connects it to the tradition of hostile biographies that ran throughout the eighteenth century with titles like "Vie privée de…" or "Vie secrète de…" The continuity, Darnton argues, is not surprising, "because all libels slandered their victims in the same way, despite the variations in their tone and context." When the Robespierrists needed to win public support during the Terror, they sought not only to guillotine their opponents but also to destroy their reputations. The blade may have been sharper than the pen, but the pen, when honed by political turbulence, could cut a name to shreds. To do this the Robespierrists used the same printers, and relied on the same literary traditions, as the hack writers under the ancien régime.

After setting out the content of the Vie secrète de Pierre Manuel, Darnton skillfully extracts from it the factual content couched inside the libel. In his time, if not in the eyes of posterity, Manuel was one of the best-known deputies elected to the National Convention intended to design a new, republican form of government for France after the collapse of the monarchy in August 1792. Previously he had gained notoriety by writing an open letter to Louis XVI that began, "Sire, I do not like kings." During the September massacres that marked the passing of the monarchy, Manuel, as public prosecutor of the Commune, saved the intellectual Madame de Staël from being murdered by the mob. She found refuge in Paris in his office in the Hôtel de Ville and sat watching from the window as blood-splattered executors of the people’s vengeance went to and fro, reporting to the Commune on the massacres. Madame de Staël was the daughter of Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s minister of finance on the eve of the Revolution, and she had sat watching from a window in Versailles as the deputies to the Estates General processed to their first meeting in 1789. In just three years the Revolution had delivered her into the hands of a libeler like Manuel, whose portrait by Ducreux hung above his desk in the Hôtel de Ville, the paint probably still wet.

Darnton returns insistently to the question of how these libels were read. He admits that there is no simple answer: "How to get inside the minds of people who tried to make sense of the printed word more than two centuries ago?" Undaunted, he assembles the evidence he has trawled for in marginalia, police reports and other fragmentary records of reading as a social phenomenon. Particularly helpful is Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s description, in his Tableau de Paris, of the bouquinistes: booksellers who sold everything, even recently prohibited books that they kept "behind the boards" of their shops. Darnton contrasts Mercier’s description of the formation of public opinion with the conventional Enlightenment view of rational illumination and emerging consensus. Instead, Mercier described public opinion as a cacophony that swirled through the streets and erupted in the Palais-Royal: "It is there that fantasies become realities, that one imagines alliances, fabricates treaties, ousts ministers, and makes sovereigns live or die." Darnton supplements this account by recovering the apolitical kinds of reading that persisted alongside it. Reading for amusement, then as now, encompassed many forms: épigramme, épitaphe, épithalame, étrennes, bouts rimés, question, fable, parodie, anecdote, allégorie, portrait, boutade, bon mot, placet, brunette, chansonnette. All these were word puzzles with seemingly "no purpose other than amusement and the exercise of wit," Darnton writes.

Nevertheless, it is the political role of slander that grips Darnton, and he is drawn back irresistibly to the police archives, which disclose that the real author of Le Diable dans un bénitier is Anne-Gédéon Lafitte, marquis de Pelleport: "a thoroughly wicked ne’er-do-well, and a very talented writer." Pelleport was that most dangerous person under the ancien régime: a déclassé. Born an aristocrat, he had sunk to the ranks of the libelers. He was a close friend of Jacques-Pierre Brissot, a Revolutionary journalist, campaigner for the emancipation of slaves and member of the Girondin faction. Pelleport translated into French the English pamphleteer David Williams’s political tract Letters on Political Liberty (1782), and he started on a translation of Catherine Macaulay’s radical eight-volume History of England but abandoned it. Le Diable dans un bénitier was the supreme libel of his career. He was ambushed and arrested and then imprisoned in the Bastille from July 11, 1784, until October 3, 1788. In Darnton’s estimation, Les Bohémiens, the two-volume autobiographical novel Pelleport wrote in the Bastille and published in 1790, ranks with the Marquis de Sade’s Justine: an endorsement of sorts, though not to everyone’s taste. (The book now exists in English as The Bohemians, in a translation by Vivian Folkenflik and with an introduction by Darnton.)

Les Bohémiens can be read as a Bildungsroman, libertine treatise or anticlerical tract, but it is also indisputably a novel of ideas: one in which the early French school of economists known as Physiocrats and the proponents of natural law are pitted against advocates of enlightened despotism and theorists of predatory self-interest. Brissot’s utopian Rousseauism is also pilloried. Once again, sodomy is central to the slander, and the novel includes the cryptic scurrilous remark "A mouse who has only one hole is soon caught." Darnton embarks on a feminist interpretation:

While elaborating a discourse on natural law, Séché [one of the novel’s philosophers] goes so far as to argue that men should own women as a form of property that can be bought, sold, traded, rented, and inherited. To be sure, this burlesque episode reads more like a satire against the subjugation of women than an argument in favor of it. The narrator constantly presents women as objects of male desire, yet he also attributes an aggressive sexual energy to them, for the same élan vital courses through all forms of life: women are for the taking, and they help themselves to men.

This brings to mind Angela Carter’s feminist reading of the Marquis de Sade’s novels in The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1978). Carter saw Sade as a moral pornographer: someone for whom sex was a manifestation of power in a society built on force. But unlike Carter, who presented Sade to a late twentieth-century audience as a resource for thinking about modern gender relations, Darnton emphasizes the gulf that divides the eighteenth century from the twenty-first. He insists that it is virtually impossible to know how contemporary readers (few in number as they were) responded to Les Bohémiens. Its publication was a "non-event situated at the heart of the most eventful period of French history. Even if a few copies made it into the hands of readers, they can hardly have provoked much of a reaction." It is difficult to gauge how much interest there was in 1790 in a satirical account of a republic of letters that no longer existed; people were perhaps more interested in the revolutionary politics that was bringing about the invention of a new form of republican government at the heart of the French state. Darnton ventures that we in the twenty-first century might be better placed than its contemporary readers to appreciate Pelleport’s novel as "the first full embodiment of bohemianism." But it is also possible that the power of its satire is simply lost on readers for whom Brissot was just another revolutionary dreamer destined to die beneath the guillotine.

One of the most engaging features of Darnton’s historical writing is his modesty and skepticism about what it is possible to know. "To follow a few lives from the Ancien Régime into the Revolution is to tell a story, not to explain the general nature of the changes that swept through eighteenth-century France," he affirms. Plenty would shy away from such a frank admission of the limitations of their erudition, however sizable. Darnton has identified forty-two "private lives" published between 1789 and 1800. They vary in quality, length and political orientation, but they are all continuations of the basic techniques of defamation under the ancien régime: they reduce politics to personalities and in doing so, Darnton writes, obscure "the fundamental conflicts of principles and interests that ran through the Revolution." That–in short–is why all libels look the same, whether printed in clandestine pamphlets or newsstand tabloids. The Revolution, Darnton argues, kept the form but changed the substance of a genre derived from the court of Louis XIV and fitted it onto a new, unruly body politic. Libels were reassuring insofar as they reduced political complexity to a simple story line centered on questions of personality. Above and beyond its highways, byways and detours into the forgotten history of eighteenth-century French literature and culture, The Devil in the Holy Water reminds us that when journalists reduce political analysis to a clash of personalities, almost everything we need to know, past and present, gets lost.