Louis Antoine de Saint-Just or the Fascination of the Unknown
On August 25, 1767, in the old town of Decize, one of the most prominent figures of the French Revolution was brought into this world: Louis Antoine de Saint-Just. 254 years later, he remains one of the most controversial figures of his times, a blood-thirsty psychopath for some, a hero and a patriot for others, and the subject of (more or less accurate) biographies and works of fiction extending as widely as manga and video games. As his life remains shrouded in the veil of time and history, now it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, the man from the legend created by his short existence.
Little is actually known as absolute truth about his life, and this scarcity of exact and valid information is what fuelled, throughout the years, all the diverse (and sometimes quite far-fetched) theories surrounding his figure. It’s in the human nature to be fascinated by what we don’t know or know too little, to try deciphering and interpreting the secrets of a character who became larger than life. While all his biographers attempted to go beyond Saint-Just the politician and understand Saint-Just the man through his private life, the information at hand was insufficient and, in some cases, debatable. In the chaos following the events from 9 Thermidor, his detractors either destroyed many of his papers and belongings or invented libels that with the passing of time were taken and propagated as truths.
The early biographies were more biased opinions depending on the side their authors was on (dantonistes or robespierristes), and less the objective outcome of thorough research. However, as a result of the improved access to research materials and the refinement of research methodologies, some later works offered a more realistic image, without the absolutization attempted by some earlier historians who saw in Saint-Just either the ultimate hero or the evil incarnate.
I will skip obscure books such as Saint-Just ou Le Chevalier Organt (which seems the product of Madeleine-Anna Charmelot’s very wild imagination) or Claire Cioti’s Saint-Just – which resembles a sensationalist story rather than a biography. Unfortunately, sensational untruths prevail in most of the contemporary representations of Saint-Just in various fictional works. In Assassin’s Creed: Unity, he is a monster whose coat is made of human skin (this is so sick I can’t even…); in the manga Innocent, he is a sadist who despises and rapes women while they are tortured (what the heck!?); in the famous anime series Rose of Versailles, he is roaming around in pre-revolutionary Paris killing aristocrats on a whim (excuse me?). It’s sad how these authors and producers hurried to blatantly ignore basically everything related to the real person.
I understand the need for sensational in fiction. I know it is one of the main ingredients to attract customers to a commercial product. I also understand that it might be tempting to choose a charismatic controversial young politician and teleport him into a fictional work. But, for God’s sake, don’t turn a real person into something else when it is quite easy to just invent a new original character with all the dubious morality and traits the author desires. Such kind of inaccurate depiction is something I personally loathe. And no, “it’s just inspired from; it’s a form of art, etc” won’t do. If you use a historical character in your work, do it properly. Don’t just hunt for lurid lore. I can’t stress that enough.
To begin to understand Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, I believe one must start from reading his works. I have the Folio Histoire edition of his complete works (I don’t know if any of his works or biographies was translated into English), which is quite comprehensive, and in an easy to hold (and read) book format. It is a most interesting discovery journey, from his attempts to literary writing, up to his political essays and correspondence.
But what about biographies? Hamel’s Histoire de Saint-Just, Député À La Convention Nationale is, let’s say, heart-warming (and strongly biased). Marie Leneru’s Saint-Just is passionate (and quite thin). Dénise Centore-Bineau’s Saint-Just is very similar to Hamel’s book (I felt like reading Hamel all over again). Antoine Boulant’s Saint-Just, L’archange de la Révolution looks like an attempt to discredit Saint-Just rather than presenting new research findings. Since it’s a newer book as compared to the aforementioned ones, I (erroneously) expected more. I would call Yves Michalon’s La passion selon Saint-Just and Jean-Jacques Lafaye’s Saint-Just: l’ombre des chimères literary essays rather than biographies. If you read them as such, they can be quite enjoyable, as the reading experience is similar to reading a novel.
Bernard Vinot’s Saint-Just is my second favourite biography. The author is also the founder of L’Association pour la sauvegarde de la Maison de Saint-Just, in charge of Saint-Just’s house in Blérancourt. The Association’s work (besides the ongoing research conducted by its president, Anne Quennedey – reflected in her books, L’Éloquence de Saint-Just à la Convention nationale: un sublime moderne and Saint-Just, Rendre le peuple heureux) is invaluable for the renovation and preservation of the house on Rue de la Chouette (nowadays a museum).
Of all the (many) books I’ve read so far about Saint-Just, my favourite biography remains Albert Ollivier’s Saint-Just et la force des choses. It is the most comprehensive of all, an excellent analysis, and the result of extensive research, revealing new findings and theories. One of them is related to the famous episode of Saint-Just’s stealing his mother’s silverware and running away from home to Paris, which Ollivier deconstructs and explains in a completely different (and new) light. His book is an excellent depiction of both the politician and the man, in a way no other biographer succeeded before (and after) him.
This was only a brief presentation (and my personal opinion) of some of the books about Saint-Just. How I discovered Saint-Just and why I chose to write a novel featuring him as main character I’ve already explained in a previous post. Hopefully, in early 2022 I’ll be able to publish a first teaser. In the meantime, my author research will remain an ongoing process.