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^ The Place du Theatre is right on the road from the station. The
Rue de Rapporteurs runs into the little square on its northern side, and
the house of the Robespierres is the long white house on the left of the
first corner. It must be remembered, by the way, that all my description
of this as a long-inhabited freehold of the family's is debatable matter.
There is proof in Arras that the Robespierres possessed other houses
at various times, but I do not think it so certain that they lived in them
or that one need necessarily doubt the universal tradition, including
that of the family itself, that the White House was a family freehold
of long standing.



DESCENT AND YOUTH 45

having lost everything in the '45, took to mysticism, he
founded, among others, a lodge of the Rosicrucians at
Arras in 1757 and gave the headship of it to the son of
the barrister in the Rue des Rapporteurs, the uncle of
the Revolutionary.^ That Catholic, quasi-noble and
emigrant tradition, continued also in the growing in-
timacy between the family and the cathedral, but strong
as the sentiment was it could not survive the effect
of many years in which hard work had brought no
fortune. The "de" which the ancestors had clung to
so firmly became merged in the name,^ and another of
those unfortunate marriages which had already marked
the decline of their pretensions came in this same year
of 1757 to lower them further.

It was a love match. Maximilian-Bartholomew, the
old barrister's son, a man of immediate impulse, fell into
a violent and lifelong passion for the daughter of a
brewer in the suburb of Rouxville, by name Carrault ;
his father strongly opposed the union. An intrigue
hastened the marriage; by that, in all probability, the
father's objection was overridden, and the race was
continued on the insufficient dowry and the lower blood
of this alliance.^

It is probable that Robespierre's birth (he was the
eldest of four children of the marriage) broke down part
of the old man's prejudice. At least he stood godfather

^ In the archives at Arras the first proceedings of this lodge are signed
"Ch. Stuwart" and "Deberkley " 1 It is interesting to those who follow
the crop of secret societies which developed in the last century and their
connection with freemasonry to know that the present "Constancy"
Lodge at Arras claims, and can, I believe, establish a direct descent from
Charles Edward's whimsical foundation.

^ Robespierre's father and grandfather both sign "Derobespierre."
He himself, successful and rising to public oflfice in the capital, re-
assumed the separate particle, and did not finally drop it till as late as
June 1790.

' That the marriage rather impoverished than helped the Robespierres
is proved by the son's inability to set up a house of his own and by the
lack of resources at the father's death.



46 ROBESPIERRE

at tlie Churcli of tlie Madeleine when Lenglart baptized
the child some few hours after its birth ; and the names
given to him were Maximilian-Mary-Isidore.^

Coming from such a family, Kobespierre should have
left some sequence of administration to influence through
his posterity, or his collateral descendants, the new era
at whose creation he assisted, and of which he falsely
imagined himself an author. It was the honourable fate
of many of his contemporaries to hand down a tradition
with their name and to claim over a society that is
tenacious of ancestry and descent the special precedence
due to their own labours and eminence, and to their
legacy of public talent. Danton, had he returned to
the France of which he had been the defender, could
have seen his nephew professing in the University
whose new vigour had arisen under the hand of the
Convention ; and though by an accident of celibacy
his own son's name was not preserved, yet his family
is still represented in the administration of his native
town, and continues to exercise upon a higher plane
the functions in which his own father had served Arcis.
Cambon, a principal architect of the constrictive Revo-
lution, sees in his descendants an example of the same
fortune, profitable alike to his family and to the state.
The sound bourgeois stock from which he, the municipal
officer, the merchant, and the financier, drew was the most
vital in France, and it was on such a strip that the new
administrative class was grafted. Of this characteristic
in the Revolutionary tradition Carnot again gives a yet
more conspicuous example. Himself of the legal ancestry
that played so great a part in the reform, a mind in
which the engineer and the soldier combined to design
and to fortify liberty, his great legend was fruitful beyond

^ Who was his godmother? All we know of it is the name "Marie
Antoinette " written right across the register in a large, round and some-
what illiterate hand ; probably that of a child.



DESCENT AND YOUTH 47

that of any contemporary; tlie exile and tlie death in
poverty to which the meanness of the foreign garrison
drove him had no evil effect upon the chances of his
family, and did little even to promote its success. By
a kind of natural inheritance his son took his place
in '48, and continued till his death to exercise in the
senate an influence as firm and wide as it was ill-adver-
tised. A Carnot of the third generation occupied, with
honour and devotion, the chief magistracy, and was killed
in the midst of its duties ; those of the fourth are rising
to a continued eminence in the service of the Republic,
a mixture still of the soldier with the man of letters
and of science, and still proving the vigour of their
Burgundian blood. The Cavaignacs, son and grandson
of a less famous Convention nel, yet take their place upon
the long Republican tradition, and if their stoicism, touch-
ing as it does the boundary of the puritanical, is too
high for their contemporaries, it yet continues to earn for
their present as it will for their future representative the
universal respect of the nation.

Robespierre should, then, have left some kind of
family thread for history to pick up, if his fortunes had
proved in any way parallel to those of his colleagues.
They had been regicides as he had ; they were without
exception members of the band that was at once the
advanced guard and the general staff of the Revolution ;
and if that prime factor in the permanence of political
influence be considered — I mean the solid origins of
ancestry combined with a long tenure of local govern-
ment — his claims to such a posterity were, as the last
pages have shown, superior to those of the men I have
cited. But it is the note of Robespierre's life and of the
subsequent chances of his house that his position and
his legend were as unique and exceptional as his charac-
ter. Whether it was the horror that the eddies and the
backwash of opinion threw up upon his name, or more



48 ROBESPIERRE

probably an instinctive recognition of how unpolitical
were bis qualities, the generations that succeeded bim
took no heed of bis collateral descendants, a name tbat
might have at least fascinated by terror, and that even
proved attractive to the extremists of 1848 was allowed
to fall into obscurity. The very rank of which the
French of that class are so tenacious was let drop with-
out an effort, and in these last years that family has, so
far as I can trace it, disappeared through the death of
most inconsiderable representatives/

Charlotte, indeed, the elder of his two sisters, lived on
into the reign of Louis Philippe,^ dependent upon a small
pension that Bonaparte had granted, and that the routine
of a government department continued, though somewhat
diminished, throughout the changes of the restoration
and those of the monarchy of July. A silent and
dignified figure, she maintained to the close of her long
life a reserve that was a little marked by the bitterness
which had warped her character in youth. Here and
there at rare intervals her name startled the ear of
some chance visitor who might enter the poor flat of
her friend and protectress, and there are yet living, or
but lately dead, several men who have told how, as boys,
they turned their heads suddenly at the introduction to
a Kobespierre.^ This last representative of the House

^ The last near collateral descendant of Kobespierre's — a great-great
nephew — was run over by a train near Carvin two years ago. He was a
local chemist, and with him ended the family. But there still lives in
Grenelle, or did recently, in the Kue de la F^d^ration, a great-grandson of
Robespierre's first cousin, also born near Carvin. This gentleman who,
oddly enough, has preserved the " de " attaching to the family, is a coal
merchant, and has or had a son in the 8th Hussars. This is, I think, the
only stock of the name even remotely connected with the Revolutionary.

2 It is in the Archives of the twelfth Paris Arrondissement that she
died at four in the morning of August 4th, 1834, at the age of seventy-four
years, at No. 3 Rue de la Fontaine.

^ The late M. Jules Simon mentioned in his memoirs, published in The
Temps newspaper, a visit paid by him to Mademoiselle Robespierre in 1831,
three years before her death. He went with his tutor, Lebas, of whom there



DESCENT AND YOUTH 49

at Arras did not die without leaving for history the most
valuable materials. Her notes upon her brother's youth,
collected and amplified (not without rhetoric and ready-
made phrases) by Laperronaye,^ yet form the best original
we possess on which to found our idea of the sombre
adolescence and more contented early manhood which
preceded his last five Revolutionary years.

When Maximilian was but seven years old, and before
the youngest child, Augustin, could speak, the first blow
of the many that were to drive his character inward fell
upon him. His mother died, and his father, a man
whose extreme sensibility had half unfitted him for
assiduity and entirely for success, saw slip from him in
a moment the affection for whose sake he had mis-
shaped his career and checked the fortunes of his family.
The shock did but hasten the process that his whole
life had discovered. He could work no more. His
practice left him, and by an impulse that is not un-
common to such men tortured by memories, he broke
from the ruins of his duty and the associations with
which his house was surrounded, to wander aimlessly
beyond the frontiers, in Germany and in England, living
at random on chance lessons and on such small sums as
his relations could send him. He left his children to
the more sober guardianship of their mother's family.
His despair killed him ; and the news of his death,
reaching Arras when Maximilian had barely entered his
tenth year, produced a yet more profound impression
upon the boy than his mother's loss of less than three

is some mention in this book. I also have it on the authority of M. Aude-
brand that M. Joigneux, the senator for the C6te d'Or, who died five years
ago, met her several times in 1830, and I have based part of my descrip-
tion on his notes.

^ I have no space in a footnote to prove the genuineness of these
memoirs upon which I have not hesitated to base my appreciation of
Robespierre's boyhood, but a long note at the end of the book develops
the argument in their favour. They have been thought false upon curiously
little evidence.

D



so ROBESPIERRE

years before. In the situation where he had now fallen
many things combined to stamp permanently upon his
habit of thought the hard directness which continued to
distinguish it. His misfortunes had come just at the
age when a precocious imagination may be most vividly
affected. They were not so ample as to force him into
quick and active observation. His poor father had left
untouched the little patrimony at Arras; the youth
that lay before him would necessarily be one of some
humiliation and of continued labour, but of an assured
if moderate success. To many the effect of such an
introduction to life would be to breed a determination
for material advancement, and a mere end in the recovery
of wealth; but there ran round Robespierre's mind a
covering of idealism which, if thin, was crystalline. It
constrained his energies to particular channels, and gave
misfortune the power not only to spur, but also and
chiefly to mould and bend the mind. Thus early he
began to consider his own self and his rights, and his
isolation. He brooded and lost his boyhood. The eldest
of that little family of orphans, perceiving already that
the protection of his mother's people, for all their dignity
and kindness, was something a little lowering to the
name he had inherited from his grandfather, he took on
responsibility and a habit of disappointed but persistent
thought. It made him at last a scholar, then a lawyer,
but it forbade him to forget or take life well.

There was at that time in Arras a bishop of the
name of De Conzie, a great noble of course, as every
bishop was before the Revolution/ but full of judgment
and of heart, wise and willing to examine. An applica-
tion was made to him to use his influence for the boy,
and he very readily assented. Two generations of inti-
macy and good relations between the Robespierres and

1 Of the 154 bishops that France enjojed before the Revolution, bub
three were of the rank of the apostles j all the rest were territorials.



DESCENT AND YOUTH 51

tlie see of Arras, and the memory of official connections
throughout the province, made it easy to find the help
that was needed. The great abbey of St. Waast, which
was lord of a third of the town, and a coequal power
with the king and the bishop in its government, pro-
cured him a scholarship in the University of Paris. I
need not detail here the secular conservatism by which
founders still disposed of the scholarships in those
colleges, nor detail the story of the college of Arras.^
It is enough for my purpose to mention that this little
foundation had been merged into the great institution of
Louis le Grand, which still keeps its place after the vast
reconstruction of this hundred years. It was to those
high walls and narrow courts that he passed in his
twelfth year, and it was the Jesuits that trained for
twelve years, as he passed into a pale manhood, the
exact deductions of his mind.

So far his childhood at Arras had had little good
and had languished. His sisters, placed by a similar
care in an excellent convent (perhaps a trifle above their
station), saw him from time to time, playing alone and
especially devoted to his birds, his pet pigeons. Such
lessons as he did showed his aptitude and precocity, and
he went up to Paris expected to do well enough in his
studies, with a character from his former masters of a
rather melancholy taciturnity. But he was gentle. The
entry into Paris, which is always a new pain to the French
(for their hearts have roots at home) was perhaps a
third grief to the child. He had lost both father and
mother, now his home, and for two years he saw no more
of his birds or his sisters. But a cousin, a Canon of
Notre Dame, a De la Roche, a petty noble, in rank and
sort what he was, often leoeived him and left a tradition
of gratitude until his death. In Paris at last he found

^ I have a short note on it upon page 388 of my essay on "Paris"
(published by Mr. Edward Arnold).



52 ROBESPIERRE

the sustenance for which his mind was fitted ; he attained
scholarship, or rather a very ready familiarity with his
authors, a very wide field of classical reading, and a
special exactitude in his knowledge of the texts and of
the history of the old civilisation. It is customary, and
on the whole just, to decry the portentous number of
antique allusions that flood the Revolution, and that are
nowhere more thickly sown than in Robespierre's own
speeches, but they are proof at least in their volume and
accuracy of the training through which he passed, and
illustrate the academic success upon which was founded
his future eminence.

His delicate, if still morbid and narrowly furnished
mind, his refined if restrained and unboyish manner, left
him free to earn the esteem of his superiors and perhaps
the neglect of his equals, saving that Camille Desmoulins,
a mad-cap from Guise, witty, ebullient, pleasing in his
health and vivacity, a genial stammerer, three years his
junior, became his fast friend, and had for him, it seems,
a kind of hero-worship, such as later he inspired for a
time in the high youth of St. Just. But of the two it
was Robespierre (though later he left so inferior a mark
upon the letters of his country) that greatly excelled in
his studies.

From his sixteenth year he was the head of his
school in composition, latinity, and a judgment of his
classics, and saving that he had not yet approached
philosophy, was already regarded as the first scholar of
the foundation. In his seventeenth, the honours he had
acquired received a reward which is of curious interest
to the student of the Revolution.

Louis XVI., a young king returning from his corona-
tion at Rheims, made a progress from Notre Dame up
to St. Genevieve on the hill of the university, and took
for his station on the way the great college that led the
Latin quarter. He made a kind of state entry, and a boy



DESCENT AND YOUTH 53

had to be deputed to read him a Latin speech. Robes-
pierre was very naturally chosen. The speech, such as
it should be for such an occasion, revised moreover by
the obsequious care of an efficient master, contained
nothing of any moment, and is, I believe, destroyed
The contrast, however, of this unknown child nervously
reciting his panegyric in the magnificent but fatigued
presence of what held all France, should stand perma-
nently in the history of the time ; because, taking them
each simply as they were, brute accident was to set
them against each other; a rare and momentary light
was to put these two in view for ever ; the fame of each
vastly exceeding his natural obscurity; the one by the
unhappy inheritance of a crown, the other by the pure
chance of violent change were to be heard of after and
remembered.

Nothing remains of his further studies. His scholar-
ship presupposed a course of law ; he bent himself to
it for the three years that followed his degree. When
he was twenty- two, in 1781, his connection with the
college ended. He had earned its gratitude and patron-
age ; his younger brother, Augustin, a boy of insignificant
abilities, was permitted to succeed to the endowment,
and he himself was voted a sum of ;^2 5 by way of
a prize that was sometimes granted to those who had
done best on the foundation. He wisely returned to
Arras, where tradition, good-will, and some patronage
awaited him, and where he had been familiar in the
summer vacations since the death of his host and cousin
in Paris. He took up an even life in the family house,
harboured his sister, was easily enabled by his every
limitation and virtue to adopt a laborious daily habit.
There lay like a restricted, clear, monotonous road before
him a career that fitted his persistent character. Its
goal was the old legal position and social prestige that
his family had earned, and of which he now took up



54 ROBESPIERRE

successfully the tradition his father had imperilled. It
was able to satisfy that craving for recognition which
was no determining character of his, but certainly an
enduring foible. He was in reach of and could enjoy
the station he demanded ; it suited him to the full
to admit the conventional superiority of some, and to
receive the equally conventional solicitations of many more
in his native town. The intense political convictions
which underlay his mind would at the worst have seemed
but an amiable exaggeration of words, at the best (and
most probably) would have remained unheeded ; for he
was a man that found no necessity for their active
realisation in the existence about him. His ambition
was but to be the respected and successful lawyer of the
Artois. He more than fulfilled it.

I have said little of the happy changes that his
temper suffered by this transition from a morbid boy-
hood to academic success and local distinction: they
must be imagined from what I have barely detailed
of his adolescence. But that boyhood must be re-
membered, because men in great crises — sometimes by
the mere waste of years — are found ever returning to
the springs of their childhood ; and so at the end to him,
who had to pass through such a furnace to such a
death, there returned the self-pity, the tenacious assertion
of his rights, sufferings, and convictions, which certainly
early misfortunes had branded into his mind. For the
moment this destiny was peaceably obscured. He lapsed
in his twenty-third year into the polite discussion that
passed for the intellectual life, and into the minute
graces that were the true interests of his rank and place
and time. The atmosphere was native, and he continued
increasingly to enjoy what was best in the Artois. It was
not unwise to find enough in the good life of his town ;
it entered into him very fully, and when all such
clothings were forgotten he maintained by a kind of



DESCENT AND YOUTH S5

instinct up to the scaffold the little methods that were
inherited from these eight years.

The life into which he entered had for its foundation
that kind of practice at the bar of his province which, in
its weight and yearly increase, is the mark of a prosperous
future in the courts; it had literary occupation for its
permanent satisfaction, and for its flower the conversa-
tion and manners of a sound society. That would be a
very false judgment which would find nothing but the
mean or the ridiculous in the narrow sphere wherein his
professional industry triumphed, and whose careful pro-
vincial urbanity at once charmed, flattered, and trained
him. It is true that centralisation had already reached
its worst effects in the social spirit of France, and espe-
cially that the drain upon the economic resources of the
country towns had struck them with lethargy. The tran-
sition from that state to the activity and local patriotism
which distinguishes the modern municipalities of the
country could only be forced by the Revolution : to the
court and to Paris, Arras, or Guise, or Caen were little
stagnant marshes. But there were features in the life of
such towns w"hich, while inferior in value to the political
qualities they have since developed, yet redeemed their
influence and made them specially fitted to be the train-
ing ground of the revolutionaries. Corruption and decay
had but enhanced the position of the privileged classes
within them ; the guarantees surrounding leisure pro-
tected the growth of that conviction in abstract verities
without whose presence reform is meaningless/ Philo-
sophy of one school became a religion in these distant
places, and they could furnish in a small way the spirit
of academies. Had the change, which was a mechanical

^ Allusions to the "Eights of Man," "Natural Law," &c., are five
times more numerous in the Cahiers of the priests and nobles than in
those of the Commons, and are practically absent in the agricultural
petitions.



S6 ROBESPIERRE

necessity for the close of tlie eighteentli century, sprung
from centres less vain and somnolent, France misflit have
fallen into a confused tangle of immediate and merely
practical remedies ; she would never have founded those
general principles which can be applied to every trans-
formation under which political or economic injustice
may hide itself. Democracy, being creedless, could not
have survived ; for, in the things of the mind, a creed is
the condition of endurance.

Moreover a great charm lay in the stiff decencies
of their ritual. This charm you may yet recover in the
avenues where discussion lingers under the elms of the
Mall, or in the moats upon autumn evenings when you
see waters covered with still leaves. The rivers of the
French, which are slow streams full of memories, slip
under the old walls of their cities and carry on con-
tinually a light draught of the past. The spirit that
haunts them was once a breath for living men; it
tempted but it partially excused the universal desire for
the formal and emotional expression of ideals ; and this
desire which is the spring of literary mediocrity sur-
rounded and inspired the youth of Robespierre ; it
furnished him with companions of his kind, led on and
permitted his ceaseless and valueless exercise in composi-
tion ; all that circle of " de's," wigs, coloured coats and
swords, as it were, compelled a man to write.



Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 5 of 32)