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Radical Translations

'The internal View of the Castle of the Bastille', from The history of the castle of the Bastille (1790) British Library

In 1790 appeared The history of the castle of the Bastille, a cheap re-edition of a history of the famous Paris prison, first published in French in 1774. It was now extended with a chapter celebrating its capture and fall at the hands of the French revolutionaries. As another extra, the new edition contained two rather coarse engravings, depicting the capture of the fortress and the liberation of its prisoners. The second engraving is especially sensational (see above). It shows the labyrinthine inside of the fortress as a place of gloomy oppression and sadistic punishment. Invading revolutionaries liberate two emaciated prisoners whose long beards indicate the interminable time they’ve spend inside the prison. One of them is helped down from a high wall against which he hangs cruelly suspended. Other walls are lined with skeletons of previous prisoners who have been less lucky. In the background, a pair of workers immediately sets about destroying the castle with pickaxes.

In Britain as well as in France, the events of 14 July 1789 had a strong cultural impact. The British stage, for example, saw a true craze for Bastille re-enactment shows, often spectacular affairs involving smoke, pyrotechnics, and other theatrical devices. The history of the castle of the Bastille, albeit far less sensational, surfed on the same wave. It was one of several translations and adaptations of a booklet that first appeared in France in 1774, Remarques historiques et anecdotes sur le château de la Bastille & l'inquisition de France by Joseph-Marie Brossays du Perray. The booklet, which was banned in France, consisted of a history and description of the castle, including a plan of the building, and of a series of anecdotes on famous prisoners. It contained bitter accusations against the French kings’ ruthless despotism, of which the Bastille was the embodiment. In his preface, the French editor wrote: 'I shall, regardless of personal considerations, beat the alarm to my fellow-citizens, and direct their attention to those shackles and bolts by which they have been so intolerably oppressed during three successive reigns'. The English prison reformer John Howard confirmed this bleak picture in his preface to the first English translation of 1780. He claimed he secretly smuggled a copy out of the country and had it translated to show his countrymen what horrors despotism can do in countries without a free constitution. The book enjoyed a second wave of interest in the aftermath of 14 July 1789: Howard's translation was re-edited and adapted and two additional translations saw the light, enriched with accounts of the capture of the infamous fortress.

The British public’s interest in the fall of the Bastille was undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that it already functioned as a symbol of the dark side of French politics well before the French Revolution. At the same time, the accounts of the Bastille tied in with the contemporary British taste for the gothic. Tales of gloomy castles and medieval cruelty were all the rage. The first novel in that genre, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, was tellingly set in a forbidding castle. Dozens of gothic novels elaborated on similar themes in the late eighteenth century. The engraving from the 1790 edition of The history of the castle of the Bastille suggests that British depictions of the Bastille were informed by the gothic fashion. The skeletons and similar visual elements can easily be related to the dark, even morbid imagination that pervaded gothic novels. But gothic novels and histories of the fall of the Bastille often shared something else, too: a radical subtext. Their tales of cruelty and injustice, so at odds with contemporary Enlightenment ideals, suggested a strong criticism of Old Regime Europe. In the case of the translated histories mentioned here, the message was made explicit in prefaces and extra chapters that welcomed the fall of the Bastille as the birth of a new age of liberty.

Animated skeleton1.jpg
Image from Le château d'Albert, ou Le squelette ambulant (1799), André Cantwell's translation of the gothic novel The Animated Skeleton British Library