2 MARCH 1929, Page 43

Dagger and Guillotine

Charlotte Corday, and Certain Men of the Revolutionary Torment. By Marie Cher. (Appleton. 10s. 6d.) THESE two books have sad stories to tell ; each of them describes the same circumstances from a different aspect. The first, Mlle. Marie Cher's descriptive study of Charlotte Corday, brings before us the irreconcilable ideals and ambitions

of men ; and sets them in one of the most poignant and tragic scenes of human history. Although Charlotte Corday herself, with her- unflinching sense of self-righteousness, is the main figure of the book, its atmosphere lies in the conflicts between Marat, Danton, and Robespierre.

There is nothing of new historical importance in this study.

It is written, however, with skill ; personalities of the French Revolution are vividly drawn, and there is a feeling of breath- lessness as we change from one scene to another and the destinies of the characters draw to their close. Perhaps it is natural that of all these figures, Mlle. Cher's kindliest feeling should go to the most flourishing and spontaneous, to the almost romantic Danton. Robespierre is more harshly

treated. His vanity was colder, his method of working was iufitier and more patient. it is hard to -see Marat himself in a sympathetic light. The eczema with which he was dis- figured alienated him from his fellow-men. In a way he was the most gifted of the three revolutionaries. We can, perhaps,

admire the detenninatiOdand courage with which he subdued his diseased and feverish body ; but for a figure so grotesque we can find in ourselves little emotion but pity.

It is Charlotte Corday herself who is the most tragic of these persons. Her own vanity came out during her imprison- ment. She petitioned that her portrait should be painted so that there should be a record of herself for posterity. Perhaps, however, we cannot call this consciousness of a historic mission, approaching hallucination, mere vanity. We are left puzzled and sad in considering what strange prompting should occur to this provincial girl to make her see herself as the avenger of the world. There can be no doubt of the sincerity of each of these four persons. It was an idealism which buoyed each of them up ; but the discrepancy of their ideals involved them in hatred and terror.

It may be thought that M. Lenotre, who has done so much research in the French Revolution, has a still more unfortunate subject in "his latest book. Little has been written or known of " the necessary man " of the Terror, the servant of the guillotine. M. Lenotre has examined the state archives and traced the history of executioners in France. It is an office which has inspired almost all men with horror ; and yet it is an office which has been sanctified by the State. One of the most powerful arguments against capital punishment has always Meer' that humanity has repudiated the executants of its own " commands. Aristotle raised executioners to the dignity of magistrates ; but in social life their profession has been held in abhorrence.

The office of executioner descended in France from genera- tion to generation. This circumstance did not depend upon privilege or by law. An executioner and his family were so exiled from common life that they became, as it were, untouch-

able. The son of an executioner could find his livelihood in no other profession. The families intermarried ; for they could find no other families with which to join themselves. No doubt, too, they had some sour pride in the repulsion they excited. They became dynastic ; they guarded their own

prestige within the limits they set to their social activities. The Revolittion came as a blow to this strange guild. Their ancient rights under the Empire ceased and their position had to be considered anew. Moreover, there was, for a time, the awful spectacle of the amateur headsman ; who, under the idea of patriotism and liberty, tried to find- license for an enthusiastic cruelty. At first the hereditary families found themselves in the severest difficulties ; their petitions for reasonable treatment make the queerest reading.

It has been noted that professional executioners, in their private lives, have often been men of exemplary character. Many tales have been told of the kindness and consideration shown by the most famous of them, Charles-Henri Sanson, the chief executioner of Paris. The office had been in his family- since 1688. He himself showed no enthusiasm for it,

and it is probable that as early as he could he delegated the actual executions to his assistants. At the time of the Revolu- tion he was the doyen of his profession ; and he was, perhaps, the only man during the Terror who dared to express his own mind freely and without reserve.

The sons of the Parisian executioner took up, by necessity, the office of their father: The oldest, Henri Sanson, seems not to have been morose or troubled in his office. He knew that he was exiled from the ordinary contacts of men, and he arranged his life in accordance with his circumstances. A journalist who visited him described him as having " a face of remarkable candour, gentleness, and serenity : his tall figure, his fine head and his regular features gave him the appearance of a patriarch." He was courteous, and without affectation or embarrassment ; but he kept his own distance from other men.

" When I left him, after a long visit that had blinded me to the identity of the person whom I had come to see, I was moved by the natural and unthinking impulse that prompts us in the presence of all kinds of misfortune, and I held out my hand. He took a step back and looked at me with an expression of astonish. ment that was almost confusion."

It is significant, in considering this aspect of our human affairs, to remember that the Dr. Guillotin who gave his name to the notorious and efficient machine was a philanthropist, and was moved in his proposals only by humanitarian motives. The six articles he read in the Constituent Assembly in 1789, were designed to alleviate the horrors of execution. He, too, shares in the infamy which attends upon capital punishment ; it was inevitable, perhaps, but it was sadly unjust. Our standards seem to be overwhelmed when we consider the " necessary man " 'and all his works, and we cannot avoid feeling that something is wrong with the world.