Picks and Pans Review: Last Letters: Prisons & Prisoners of the French Revolution

updated 11/23/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Olivier Blanc

"My Deare Anne-Lise, human nature is nothing, man appears for an instant and his soul must fly off to the bosom of his creator." A man condemned to death wrote those lines to his wife during the Terror that gripped 18th-century revolutionary France. Last Letters is a collection of these tragic adieus, written on rags and scraps of paper, sometimes only minutes before the prisoner was hauled off to the guillotine. Of the 150 letters in Blanc's book, 113 have never before been published. He discovered them one day while prowling through a collection of dusty boxes at the National Archives in Paris. The letters were sent but never reached their final destination. They were intercepted en route by the feared public prosecutor for the Republic, Fouquier-Tinville. (Fouquier-Tinville himself ended up under the guillotine's blade, but not before he too scrawled a final note, protesting his innocence.) The condemned wrote of debts to be settled. They bade their families not to forget them: They enclosed collar studs, epaulets and handkerchiefs in their notes. One man told of swallowing his wedding ring. The beautiful young Comtesse de Monaco cut her hair with a piece of glass and sent it to her children. Blanc, a historian, vividly describes the Paris prison system in 1793. During that terrible year, the second of the Terror, some 7,000 prisoners were charged with crimes against the new Republic, from speculation to sending money abroad. Makeshift prisons sprang up all over Paris, in schools, barracks, monasteries and lunatic asylums. At the Abbaye, class lines were still in place. The aristocracy lived in relative comfort upstairs while hapless lower-class convicts were dumped into cramped rooms near a stinking cesspool. A startling number of the prisoners were women, many of them accused of transferring family fortunes abroad, and even in the face of death society women kept up their toilette, changing costumes three times a day. At the Conciergerie, which housed the doomed Queen Marie-Antoinette, one observer wrote, "I am persuaded that at that time no promenade in Paris afforded a view of such elegantly turned out women as the courtyard of the Conciergerie at noon. They were like a flower bed in full bloom, yet framed in iron." Blanc's descriptions, buttressed by firsthand reports, are telling, and in the end the letters composed in extremis give the book an unforgettable urgency and power. "Farewell, my brother, tomorrow I shall be no more," wrote a prisoner named Riguard. "The peace of my heart is a sure sign of my innocence. The tribunal has decided that I am guilty and must die. Die! At 36 on the scaffold. It is a terrible, unbearable idea." (Michael di Capua/Farrar Straus Giroux, $22.50)

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