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.