Friday, October 26, 2018

La Vendée by Anthony Trollope

Counterrevolutionary romance
Anthony Trollope
The historical novel La Vendée is not one of English author Anthony Trollope’s more highly regarded works. Originally published in 1850, it was Trollope’s third novel out of the dozens of books he produced during his prolific career. While Trollope mostly wrote novels of manners set in English country villages, stylistically similar to the works of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, here he directs his pen farther afield to tackle the French Revolution. More specifically, this novel tells the story of a royalist rebellion against the French Republican government in 1793, commonly known by the name of the region in western France where the uprising took place: la Vendée.

After the Republican revolutionaries overthrew and executed Louis XVI, they established a secular Republican government in Paris, headed by Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. Not everyone in France was pleased about this, however, and many citizens in the provinces were unwilling to give up their Catholic faith and their loyalty to the monarchy. When the new French government sent troops to conscript more soldiers to fight its wars, the Vendeans refused to give up their young men to the Republican cause. Instead, they launched an uprising against the Republican forces, or Blues, as they are called after the color of their uniforms. Trollope depicts la Vendée as a holdout of medieval feudalism where the peasants love and faithfully serve the noblemen who preside over their lands. The story focuses on three nobles—Henri de la Rochejacquelein and Louis Marie de Lescure, both actual historical figures, and Adolphe Denot, a brooding fictional antihero reminiscent of Heathcliff from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. In addition, several characters of the working class also figure prominently in the story, including Jacques Cathelineau, a lowly postillion who becomes a commanding general of the Vendean forces.

Though I don’t know for certain, it seems to me that Trollope likely wrote this novel for serialization because each of the book’s 35 chapters feels unnecessarily drawn out to satisfy a length requirement, as if Trollope were being paid by the word. Though the story is interesting, it would have been a lot livelier if it were not bogged down by so much tedious dialogue. Almost every chapter features some protracted discussion in which a simple theme—“I love my country,” “I love my God,” “I love my woman.”—is repetitively rephrased in order to fulfill the word count.

French authors, while acknowledging the brutality of The Terror, usually celebrate the democratic values of liberté, egalité, and fraternité espoused by the Republican cause. (Balzac was a monarchist exception. His novel Les Chouans covers a similar counterrevolution in Brittany, to better effect than this.) British novelists, however, often favor the monarchy to a fanatical extent. (The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fine example.) Here, Trollope paints a relentlessly rosy picture of the feudalistic class structure that reflects his own beloved English class system. Though war can be a great leveler of classes, sometimes elevating servants, merchants, and laborers like Cathelineau to hero status, such heroes must learn that their rise is finite and temporary, and they mustn’t even think of marrying beyond their station. Trollope provides a very romanticized treatment of the Vendean rebellion—a romantic comedy, really—in which the freedom fighters are constantly victorious. In the epilogue he emphasizes that “La Vendée was never conquered,” but in truth, the Vendeans certainly didn’t triumph either. Trollope is not the least bit sympathetic to the Republican cause, yet the one-sidedness of his novel is less offensive than the fact that it is just rather boring. Readers with an avid interest in the French Revolution will find some tidbits of historical knowledge to appreciate, but the typical Trollope fan should probably steer clear of this one.

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