Tuesday 26 September 2017

An Englishman meets Robespierre

The Recollections of  the army surgeon and author John Gideon Millingen (1782–1862) first published in 1848 contain a rare and fascinating personal account of an interview with Robespierre at the height of the Terror.  Millingen, himself outlines the circumstances of their meeting. Millingen's father Michael Van Millingen, who was Dutch in origin, had moved to Paris at the beginning of 1790 and taken lodgings in the Hôtel de France, rue Vivienne (p.25).  The family was favourably  disposed towards the Revolution but came under suspicion when the war with England began; the elder son James, who was a clerk in the Mint, was arrested and detained first in the Luxembourg, then in the Collège des Écossais which served as a prison during the Terror.  The parents, ordered to leave Paris, moved to St-Léger.  Vouched for by the Albitte brothers, Montagnard deputies, they were subsequently allowed to return to the capital. Although only ten or eleven at the time, the young John attempted to intercede with various members of the Convention to secure his brother's release from prison.  He reports that saw Robespierre "two or three times"  and was received distanty but cordially, but that he talked often to his sister Charlotte and to Eleanore Duplay (p.292).

In Chapter 10, Millingen recounts his initial meeting with Robespierre.

My brother still remained a prisoner in the Collège des Écossais.  Having been successful in obtaining the recall of my father, and his liberation when arrested, through the exertions of the Albittes, I did not despair of being equally fortunate in favour of my brother.  The Albittes afforded me the facility I needed, to see the most influential personages of the day, and my first visit was to Robespierre.

He lived in an obscure house, No. 396, in the Rue St. Honoré, at a carpenter's, of the name of Duplay, with whose family he boarded. Strange to say, I observed, over the street entrance, a wooden eagle, that looked like a figure-head of a ship. A singular coincidence in the dwelling of a man who, beyond a doubt, aimed at dictatorship. I was ushered into a large room on the rez-de-chaussée, at the bottom of a timber-yard, and was most kindly received by an intelligent young man with a wooden leg, whom I thought was his brother, but found to be a nephew of the landlord, and Robespierre's secretary: I read to him my memorial, but when he saw that it was in favour of an Englishman, he shook his head, and frankly told me, that I had but little prospect of succeeding in my application.  He himself ushered me into Robespierre's cabinet.  He was reading at the time, and wore a pair of green preservers: he raised his head, and, turning up his spectacles on his forehead, received me most graciously. My introducer having stated that I was un petit ami de Dorival Albitte,—un petit Anglais.

Que veux tu ? que demandes tu ? was his brief and abrupt question.  I referred him to the contents of my memorial, on which he cast a mere glance, and then said, " If it were in my power to liberate an Englishman, until England sues for peace, I would not do it—but why come to me ? Why not apply to the Comité ?  Every one applies to me, as if I had an omnipotent power."  Here a strange twitching convulsed the muscles of his face.

At this present moment I recollect the agitation of his countenance.  He then added, "Your brother is much safer where he is.  I could not answer for the life of any Englishman were he free.  All our miseries are the work of Pitt and his associates; and if blood is shed, at his door will it lie.  Do you know, enfant, that the English have set a price on my head, and on the heads of every one of my colleagues?  That assassins have been bribed with English gold—and by the Duke of York—to destroy me?  The innocent ought not to suffer for the guilty, otherwise every Englishman in France should be sacrificed to public vengeance."

I was astonished. After a short pause he added, " Do you know that the English expected that this Duke of York would have succeeded the Capets? Do you know Thomas Paine and David Williams?" he continued, looking at me with an eagle eye; " they are both traitors and hypocrites." [See note 1]
He now rose, and paced up and down his room, absorbed in thought ; he then suddenly stopped, and, taking me by the hand, said," Adieu, mon petit, ne crains rien pour ton frère.” He then turned off abruptly, and my guide led me out.

There was something singularly strange and fantastic in this extraordinary man, at least, so it appeared to me.  He smiled with an affected look of kindness ; but there was something sardonic and demoniac in his countenance, and deep marks of the small pox added to the repulsive character of his physiognomy.  He appeared to me like a bird of prey—a vulture ; his forehead and temples were low, and flattened ; his eyes were of a fawn colour, and most disagreeable to look at;  his dress was careful, and I recollect that he wore a frill and ruffles, that seemed to me of valuable lace.  There were flowers in various parts of the room, and several cages, with singing birds, were hanging on the walls and near the window, opening on a small garden.

 There was much of the petit-maître in his manner and appearance, strangely contrasting with the plebeian taste of the times.  I was told that, in the society of women, he could make himself very agreeable; and the hand which, perhaps, one hour before, had signed the death-warrant of many of his supposed enemies, would indict sonnets and acrostics: while the voice that had eloquently denounced hundreds of victims, would sing gentle romances and love-sick ditties.

A few years before this sad epoch, he had got his portrait painted, with one hand upon his heart, and the other holding out a nosegay, with the motto, " à celle que j’aime." [See note 2]

On taking my leave, his secretary told me that he was certain Robespierre would be glad to see me, if ever I needed his assistance.  I availed myself of this permission, and called upon him several times, although I only saw him twice after my first introduction;  indeed, it was very difficult to obtain access to his presence.  On these occasions I never observed about the house those bands of ruffians by whom he was said to be guarded, although his door was crowded with wretched postulants who claimed his protection and influence. (p.281-5)

Millingen's subsequent account of Robespierre's personality is a mixture of first-hand impression, reportage and, inevitably, retrospective assessment. 

He notes, with accuracy, that Robespierre's domestic arrangements were "anything but comfortable".  His attachment to Eleanore Duplay was the "source of much discord" since his sister wanted him to reside with her and did as much as possible to create trouble with the Duplays.  Opinions differed as to whether he and Eleanore lived together as man and wife (p.285)

Whilst endorsing  the view that Robespierre behaved with arrogance and aspired to dictatorship, Millingen characterises him as hesitant and  pusillamous:  "Of an atrabilious temperament, he was morose an apprehensive of constant perils; inflexible in his passions, he was wavering in his determination....Although eloquent and volcanic in his language, he was anything but a man of action"(p.286) / "All his relatives asserted that from his childhood he had been of a timid character, and naturally humane" (p.286-7) 

Robespierre's capacity for cruelty had surprised all who knew him. He was apprehensive of falling victim of his opponents; in constant fear of evil, he showed little scruple about the means of obtaining his ends. He had sacrificed his friends, including " women he had loved" (p.289) . Millingen suggests he was troubled by conscience: he  uttered the names of his victims in his sleep and became  particularly agitated when Madame Roland was mentioned (p.289-90).

Despite his intellectual grasp, Robespierre's critical faculties deserted him. He became "what Parisians call a gobe-mouche",  believing even the most absurd assertions (p.290). He imagined Pitt and his gold everywhere -  this despite admitting to Millingen  his admiration for English institutions and remarking on his own descent on his mother's side, from an ancient Irish family (p.291).

In another passage, Millingen includes further personal details:

For hours he would rest his forehead on both hands, and often complained of violent headache, that obliged him to compress his brow with a tightened handkerchief.  His eyes, although they seemed to scintillate with ardour, were painful and impatient of light;  he therefore wore green preservers.

His mode of living was abstemious and frugal in the extreme, but he would occasionaly indulge in a free use of Burgundy wine.  He drank a great deal of strong coffee, which was followed by a petit verre, and I have been informed that he often took a dose of laudanum at night; his sister told me that he invariably carried poison about him.  He also rarely went out with pocket pistols, which had once belonged to the King, and a stiletto.[Note 3]  One these occasions he was always accompanied by a large dog, of the Pyrenean breed, of which he was very fond. Strange to say, several of these monstrous anomalies of the Reign of Terror, were most partial to animals; and the ferocious Couthon would shed tears when his favourite spaniel was ill.  Robespierre's dog always kept watch at the door of his master's bed-chamber

.......When boldly threatened, he was convulsed with concentrated rage and fear — his harsh features become more salient — he turned pale, and his whole frame shook in convulsive rigors ; his teeth chattered, his articulation became difficult, and foam issued from the angles of his mouth.  On such occasions, he has been known to thrust  one of his hands in his bosom, and lacerate it with his nails. 

Such was the violence of his passions, that he sometimes appeared threatened with suffocation.  This circumstance occurred during his accusation before the Convention, when one of the Duputies exclaimed, "Robespierre, le sang de Danton t'etouffe!".....That the wretch had moments of remorse, cannot be doubted:  often during the night he would start from his sleep, and pronounce the name of one of his victims....(p.288-9)

Millinge concludes only that Robespierre's personality was "a historical riddle";  he recalled returning home from his  interviews and reporting to his father that Robespierre appeared to be a madman (p.292). 

Portraits of other Revolutionaries

Millingen also recalls more briefly interviews that he had with Barrère and Danton:

p.298-9: At this period I also saw Barère, to whom I had been introduced both by the Albittes and my old friend, Dugazon, the comedian.  He lived in the Rue Saint Honoré, near the Place Vendôme, in an elegant apartment, the ante-chamber of which was ever crowded with petitioners, soliciting his assistance. He was a man of highly polished manners, possessing much suavity, and would have been thought of gentle disposition.  He spoke English tolerably well.  In his room was a collection of shells,  and when he observed that I was looking at them with a curious eye, he said, "As the son of a Dutchman, I suppose you must like shells;" and when he heard me remark on the beauty of some of his, he gave me some very valuable duplicates.  He made the same observation as Robespierre on my brother's imprisonment, and added, "that the English were much safer in a maison de détention than if they were at large in such troublesome times." (p.298-9)

The only member of the Government I saw, whose brutality revolted me, was Danton.  There was something inexpressibly savage and ferocious in his looks, and in his stentorian voice.  His coarse shaggy hair gave him the appearance of a wild beast.  To add to the fierceness of his repulsive countenance, he was deeply marked with the small-pox, and his eyes were unusually small, and sparkling in surrounding darkness, like the fabulous carbuncle......

Howbeit, this monster gave me but little consolation regarding my brother;  and, after having cast a hasty glance on my petition, he vociferated: "You may thank your starts, petit malheureux, that you and all you family have not been sacrificed to public indignation, to avenge the wrongs inflicted on us by your perfidious country!"  I need not add, that I was rejoinced when I left his room, and hastened down stairs much more rapidly than I had ascended them. (p.300-2)


John Gideon Millingen, Recollections of Republican France, from 1790 to 1801, vol.1(1848)

DNB entries: 
John Gideon Millingen 
James Millingen

Wilfred Breton Kerr, "Robespierre et le jeune Millingen" , Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 67 1935, p.38-45.  [Article on Stor]


Note 1: For the proposition by Carra that the Duke of York succeed to the french throne and Robespierre's denunciations of the "Hanoverian tyrant 

Note 2:  This painting is documentated by Buffenoir and others; see G. H. Lewes; Life of Robespierre (1849) p.51: "The earliest portrait of Robespierre, that is in M. St.-Albin's collection, where he is represented with one hand holding a rose, the other placed upon his heart.  Underneath are the words, Tout pour mon amie". 

Note 3: Robespierre's pistols.  This is cited as an error, but Fréron.too said Robespierre owned a pair of pistols and practised with them in the garden.  

1 comment:

  1. There's a lot of Carlyle colouring this, too… He had a huge impact on English-language works on the Revolution from the 1830s onward, and the retrospective shaping of memoirs.


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