One of my books about the Netherlands contains a description of a journey through northern France and Paris. The journey was made by Samuel Ireland in the autumn of 1789 and the book, A Picturesque Tour Through Holland, Brabant; And Part Of France, was published the next year. One of the many beautiful illustrations in the book shows the state of the Bastille as seen by the author when he visited Paris in September 1789. This was only a couple of months after the storming of the Bastille, which had taken place on 14 July and was the starting point of the French Revolution. A year after this etching was made there was nothing left of the prison that had such a fearsome reputation.
I am surprised how easy it was for a foreigner to travel around in France, while it was in turmoil. In Paris the situation was fairly calm, under control of the new Commune de Paris, but in the rural parts of France members of the aristocracy were in fear of their lives and many fled their estates for England. The way the author describes the situation is not exactly like we were taught at school. It brings it home that nowadays, with violent conflicts being televised live on the TV in our living room, we know so much more about what is going on the the world. It all seemed simpler in 1789 when Samuel Ireland wrote:
“… we are now in the midst of a people created, as it were, anew, who are boldly judging and acting for themselves; from a revolution formed with less effusion of blood, and I believe in a shorter period of time than can be parallelled in the annals of the history of the world.
The humble and gentle manners of the lower orders of the people are now totally changed; every man is become a soldier and feels the happy truth
That love of liberty with life is giv’n And life itself’s th’ inferior gift of Heav’n
The industrious peasant, who when groaning under penury and wretchedness was scarcely heard, even to whisper his grievances, now speaks aloud, and imputes his miseries to their true cause, a government formed on principles inimical to the dearest rights of mankind.”
Samuel Ireland was an interesting character. His first job was as a weaver in Spittalfields, London, and this may explain his favourable view of French society just after the revolution. Later on he taught himself drawing, etching, and engraving and once exhibited in the Royal Academy. He started to collect books, pictures, and curiosities and gradually this turned into an all consuming passion. In 1794 his son, William Henry, claimed to have discovered some documents by the hand of William Shakespeare, including the manuscript of King Lear and an unknown play called Vortigern and Rowena. His father displayed these documents at his house in London, where famous visitors like James Boswell and the Poet Laureate Henry James Pye declared them genuine. Shakespearean scholars of the time, however, quickly denounced them as forgeries. Samuel stood by his son at first, but in 1797 William Henry confessed to the forgery. His father never recovered from the ignominy and was widely ridiculed. He died in July 1800, and Dr. Latham, who attended him, recorded his deathbed declaration, “that he was totally ignorant of the deceit, and was equally a believer in the authenticity of the manuscripts as those who were the most credulous”. He was never reconciled to his son. (adapted from Wikipedia)