The French Revolution and English Culture

The Insurrection of 10 August 1792 was one of the most pivotal moments of the French Revolution. Irate and antimonarchial Frenchmen, including members of the National Guard of the Paris Commune and the fédérés from Marseille and Brittany, attacked Tuileries Palace and arrested King Louis XVI of France.


This scared the bejeezus out of the English nobility.

Britain was already losing its collective mind over the Enlightenment philosophies of personal liberty and democratic reform. The French Revolution, like the American Revolution, was hailed by progressives as the dawn of a new political era and the beginning of a just society, while conservatives decried the whole thing as the downfall of civilization and the end of law and order.

intense debate on fundamental questions in politics fought out in over three hundred pamphlets – including Thomas Paine’s, Rights of Man, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Man, and James Mackintosh’s Vindiciae Gallicae – and spilling over into novels, poetry, popular song, and caricature.

With the arrest of King Louis XVI things had gotten much too real for the upper-crust and a lot of the middle-class. England had killed a king just a 150 years before and no one, absolutely no one, wanted another Reign of Error by a would-be Oliver Cromwell. Nor were people convinced that the American system of democracy was altogether a good thing – it let stevedores and tradesmen vote, and encouraged Jack to think he was as good as his master. What was next? Would women being allowed to vote? Was there no limits on the insanity, for God’s sake?

Something had to be done. First, the progressives had to be revealed (and reviled) as the radical anarchists they were, and then punished suitably.

The establishment of the Association for the Protection of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers helped turn the tide by encouraging provincial correspondents to communicate with the London base, enjoining the denunciation and prosecution of local radicals, and circulating loyalist tracts and pamphlets to the middling and artisan classes … reformers attempted to organise a National Convention to express popular support for reform … the notorious Judge Braxfield reacted punitively to the leaders of the Scottish and British Conventions of 1793 by sentencing them to transportation … in May 1794, the government arrested leading members of the SCI and LCS on suspicion of treason.

Secondly, political and social reform had to be tied to a Breakdown in Moral Order. People were warned that all that the radical nonsense about equality would lead to atheism and then to the death of decency. People would be allowed to divorce, popular media would run rife with trashy tales, and soon Loose Women would be cavorting in churches. One of the most popular purveyors of these dire prophecies was Hannah More, whose “Cheap Repository Tracts were specifically designed for distribution among the poor, who, it was hoped, would absorb their messages about the benefits of good Christian morality, hard work and deference to authority in contrast to the perils of French Revolutionary ideas.”

burke-cartoon sans culottes french revolution

In short, the British public was assured that the French rebels were Godless sluts and if reform continued in England then all Brits would become Godless sluts as well. Soon anything remotely “French” was viewed with suspicion, including luxury, good food, and talking back to toffee-nosed prats as though you had human rights. The English may have suffered under the yoke of inequality and stagnant wages and waves of famine conditions, but at least they weren’t going to be French about it!

The French Revolution and the English backlash against modernity profoundly affected Jane Austen’s later works as well. In both Mansfield Park and Emma the antagonists (or those who designed to be the foil for the protagonists moral superiority) were depicted as having a “French” lightness and unconcern for serious English values. In Mansfield Park, Mary and Henry Crawford were the destroyers of moral order and English stability with their loosey-goosey take on marriage and the church, while Frank Churchill’s duplicity and conduct in Emma was in direct contrast to the upright Ideal English Gentleman, George Knightley.

Eventually, the British took the anti-French, anti-Enlightenment attitudes a little to far and became Victorians, which is the worst punishment I can imagine. Victorian England sucked for almost everyone … not even counting those cultures unfortunate enough to be colonized by Victorians. And don’t get me started on the Victorian attempted genocide of Irish Catholics.

But at least people weren’t embracing French culture. 

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