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“In the name of that sharp female newly born and called La Guillotine, why did you come to France?”

The guillotine, named after its inventor (Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin), is the famous instrument of execution used by the French Republic; it was especially active during the Reign of Terror. Carlyle describes the advent of the “newly born” guillotine (though proposed much earlier, it was not put into use until 1792) as follows:

For, lo, the great Guillotine, wondrous to behold, now stands there; the Doctor’s Idea has become Oak and Iron; the huge cyclopean axe “falls in its grooves like the ram of the Pile-engine,” swiftly snuffing out the light of men! (513)

From this point onward in The French Revolution, the guillotine appears more and more frequently, the Doctor’s “Idea” quickly becoming emblematic:

The Guillotine, we find, gets always a quicker motion, as other things are quickening. The Guillotine, by its speed of going, will give index of the general velocity of the Republic. The clanking of its huge axe, rising and falling there, in horrid systole-diastole, is portion of the whole enormous Life-movement and pulsation of the Sansculottic System! (667-8)

It is for this that Doctor Guillotin, “respectable practitioner,” is introduced, early in The French Revolution, as a man

…doomed by a satiric destiny to the strangest immortal glory that ever kept obscure mortal from his resting-place, the bosom of oblivion! Guillotin can … in all cases of medical police and hygiène be a present aid: but, greater far, he can produce his “Report on the Penal Code”; and reveal therein a cunningly devised Beheading Machine, which shall become famous and world-famous. This is the product of Guillotin’s endeavours, gained not without meditation and reading; which product popular gratitude or levity christens by a feminine derivative name, as if it were his daughter: La Guillotine! “With my machine, Messieurs, I whisk off your head (vous fais sauter la tête) in a twinkling, and you have no pain”; – whereat they all laugh. Unfortunate Doctor! For two-and-twenty years he, unguillotined, shall hear nothing but guillotine, see nothing but guillotine; then dying, shall through long centuries wander, as it were, a disconsolate ghost, on the wrong side of Styx and Lethe; his name like to outlive Caesar’s. (121)

The few words that he caught from this man’s lips, first made it known to Charles Darnay that the king was in prison, and that the foreign ambassadors had one and all left Paris.

King Louis XVI was imprisoned in the Temple beginning on August 13, 1792, and foreign ambassadors in France did, upon this instigation, leave Paris. As Carlyle describes it in The French Revolution, “French Royalty vanishes within the gates of the Temple: these old peaked Towers … do cover it up…. Foreign Ambassadors, English Lord Gower have all demanded passports; are driving indignantly toward their respective homes” (502). However, if the imprisonment of the King were enough to set ambassadors packing – an act expressive of European disapprobation for France – the execution of Louis XVI early in the following year had even more pronounced effects: England, disgusted, expelled the French embassy in Britain:

At home [in France] this Killing of a King has divided all friends; and abroad it has united all enemies. Fraternity of People, Revolutionary Propagandism; Atheism, Regicide; total destruction of social order in this world! All Kings, and lovers of Kings, and haters of Anarchy, rank in coalition; as in a war for life. England signifies to Citizen Chauvelin, the Ambassador or rather Ambassador’s-Cloak, that he must quit the country in eight days. Ambassador’s-Cloak and Ambassador, Chauvelin and Talleyrand, depart accordingly. Talleyrand … thinks it safest to make for America.... England has cast out the Embassy: England declares war…. (600)

The horrible massacre, days and nights long, which, within a few rounds of the clock, was to set a great mark of blood upon the blessed garnering time of harvest…

The “horrible massacre” to which Dickens alludes here is the “September massacre” or “September massacres” of September 2-6, 1792, in which Parisian mobs stormed the Prisons of the Abbaye, La Force, Châtalet, and the Conciergerie, slaughtering over 1,000 prisoners (most of whom had been arrested as royalist sympathizers, aristocrats, emigrants, etc.) (Carlyle 529, 537). The massacres were partly the result of a public panic over the Prussian invasion of France, and some modern historians contend that they were directed mainly against criminal prisoners suspected of being part of a counter-revolution (possibly in collusion with the foreign invaders) (Maxwell 469). Carlyle, however, tends to emphasize the relation of this panic over Prussian invasion to the old conflict between revolutionary commoners and the toppled aristocracy:

At Paris, by lying Rumour which proved prophetic and veridical, the fall of Verdun [to Prussian forces] was known some hours before it happened. It is Sunday the second of September; handiwork hinders not the speculations of the mind. Verdun gone (though some still deny it); the Prussians in full march, with gallows-ropes, with fire and faggot! Thirty-thousand Aristocrats within our own walls; and but the merest quarter-tithe of them yet put in Prison! Nay there goes a word that even these will revolt. (524)

Dickens does not describe the causes of the September massacres, and this decontextualization has the effect of representing the massacres as the result of an irrational, vengeful kind of revolutionary malice. However, though Dickens gives an oversimplified version of the historical events in question, his September massacres are fictionally consistent with his representation of the French Revolution at large, and foreshadow the brutality of the coming Reign of Terror.



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