19th Century

The History of the Bastille | G.W.M. Reynolds

By George W.M. Reynolds (Transcribed by Stephen Basdeo)

The history of the Bastille is too intimately connected with that of the great French Revolution to be passed over without due notice and attention.[1] In proffering an account of that terrible fortress many authors would have fallen into a series of horrible detail and elaborate description of sufferings only calculated to disgust or shock the reader. This error Mr. Davenport has carefully avoided; and in laying before the public a faithful account of the Bastille and of its principal inmates, he has only so far touched upon the revolting subjects that necessarily came under his cognizance as the nature of the task compelled him to do. The work under notice is, therefore, replete with interest and instruction: it is perspicuously and impartially written, and is happily divested of that manifestation of deeply-rooted but ridiculous prejudice that almost invariably characterizes the volumes which the English pen relative to French novels, manners, institutions, or histories. The “History of the Bastille” will be perused with pleasure by all classes of readers; and its style, in- dependently of its subject, will place it amongst the standard productions of the British Press.[2]

There have been many brief and detached accounts of the Bastille current in the English sphere of literature; but this is the first connected and important history that has hitherto satisfied the curiosity of the public regarding an event that must be considered with no ordinary degree of attention. The throne of him whom the French deemed a despot was only to be essentially shaken by the destruction of the worst engine of its tyranny; and when the adamantine bars of the gates of that terrible castle were destroyed—when the secrets of the prison-house were displayed—when the dark dungeon of slavery was illuminated by the torch of popular vengeance—then emanated from that dismal abode young Liberty, clad in all her gayest garments. The effects of that glorious revolution which gave so vast an impulse to the energies and intelligence of the French, have been subsequently felt by all the other nations of Europe; and while Burke aimed his thunders against those principles which restored a desponding people to freedom, light, and happiness, a slow but certain change in popular feelings and opinions was originated by the explosion of that volcano which extended its influence throughout the atmosphere that surrounded it. From the burning plains of India to the peaceful regions of the Western world—from the howling shores of Lapland to the Southern extremity of Africa, will that influence, spreading with irresistible though gradient march, eventually be felt and acknowledged; and as the new light pierces more deeply into the mazes of obscurity through which it is penetrating by degrees, men must duly consider and determine to what extent their future felicity may be affected by the anticipated change. May we not say, in the expressive and beautiful language of Victor Hugo,—

Are they, for whom that unknown sun is bright,

Unborn as yet, or winding on their way?

Are we, invested in this sad twilight,

To feel the blessing of its cheering ray?

There is a gentle hum—a murm’ring sound—

Is it the wings of them that soon must dwell

In other realms, amid a space profound?

Or is it Earth that sorrowing says, “Farewell?”

That gentle sound, which falls upon the ear,

Soft as a breath, and sweet as lover’s tale—

Is it the token of an Eden near?

Or is it Earth that gladd’ning sings, “All hail!”

The forests rustle—and the bird’s shrill song

Re-echoes loudly—and the sounding main

Mixes with music as it rolls along,

And leaves no doubt the motive of the strain.

Oh! In such hours philosophy may teach

Calmness, but vainly, to the soul of man,

Useless for hoary fanatics to preach,

From ancient books their eyes can scarcely scan.

It is, indeed—or ought to be, a matter of deep consideration how soon those political changes, to the chances of which we of the present generation or our heirs of the next appear to be destined, may involve us in a wide maze of doubt, speculation, and uncertainty. That a new era is in our horizon—big with mighty events—there cannot be a doubt: but at what time the crisis may commence, who shall dare hazard an opinion? Let us, however, turn from the contemplation of that which certain reminiscences have awakened in our mind, and direct the reader’s attention to a few passages in the work under notice. As an illustration of its style, we should reprint the first chapter, and lay before the public a concise history of the origin of the Bastille; but as we intend rather to amuse than instruct our audience in the present instance, we shall carefully abridge that portion of the work which relates the sufferings and escapes of De Latude, occasionally introducing the language of the author, and indicating such extracts through the usual medium of inverted commas.

Mme de Pompadour by Francois Bucher (Wikimedia Commons)

A silly attempt at imposition upon the Marquise de Pompadour plunged Latude, at the age of five-and-twenty, into the dungeons of the Bastille. There he was robbed of his money and valuables clothed in rags, and confined in the Tour du Coin. The day after his incarceration, Latude was interrogated by the lieutenant of Police; and so deeply did the prisoner work upon the feelings of that functionary, that his sufferings were materially alleviated by the society of a comrade—a Jew, named Abuzaglo—whom the lieutenant suffered to dwell in the same apartment with him. A speedy friendship sprung up between the fellow-prisoners; and as both had more or less hopes of liberation at an early period, they mutually agreed that the one who should first taste the delights of freedom, should immediately exert his influence in favour of the other. Four months elapsed—and Latude was one morning informed that he was free.

“Abuzaglo embraced him, and conjured him to remember his promise. But no sooner had the joyful Latude crossed the threshold of his prison, than he was told that he was only going to be removed to Vincennes. Abuzaglo was liberated shortly after; but believing that Latude was free and had broken his word, he ceased to take an interest in his fate.”

Latude, on the other hand, believing that Abuzaglo had forgotten his engagement, determined to effect his escape from an imprisonment which the marchioness of Pompadour destined to be perpetual. No less than nine long weary months passed away, ere he could find the opportunity.

“The moment at length arrived. One of his fellow-prisoners—an ecclesiastic—was frequently visited by an abbé; and this circumstance he made the basis of his project. To succeed, it was necessary for him to elude the vigilance of two turnkeys, who guarded him when he walked, and of four sentinels, who watched the outer doors—and this was no easy matter. Of the turnkeys, one often waited in the garden, while the other went to fetch the prisoner. Latude began by accustoming the second turnkey to see him hurry down stairs, and join the first in the garden. When the day came on which he was determined to take flight, he, as usual, passed rapidly down the stairs without exciting any suspicion, his keeper having no doubt that he should find him in the garden. At the bottom was a door, which he hastily bolted to prevent the second turnkey from giving the alarm to his companion. Successful thus far, he knocked at the gate which led out of the castle. It was opened; and, with an appearance of much eagerness, he asked for the abbé, and was answered that the sentinel had not seen him. ‘Our priest has been waiting for him in the garden more than two hours,’ exclaimed Latude: ‘I have been running after him in all directions to no purpose. But, egad! he shall pay me for my running! He was allowed to pass; he repeated the same inquiry to the three other sentinels, received similar answers, and at last found himself beyond the prison walls. Avoiding as much as possible the high road, he traversed the fields and vineyards, and finally reached Paris, where he shut himself up in a retired lodging.”

From that seclusion he addressed a petition to the king, acknowledged his fault, humbly solicited pardon, and mentioned the place of his concealment. But instead of experiencing the clemency he so fondly anticipated, he was again arrested, and consigned to the Bastille. At the expiration of about a couple of years he was once more allowed the society of a fellow-captive; and, as on the former occasion, a perfect communion of feeling instantaneously sprung up between them. Circumstances soon convinced them that Madame de Pompadour was inexorable; and in spite of the almost insuperable difficulties to be overcome, the two friends resolved upon effecting their escape. In order to do this, they must either pass through gates ten-fold guarded; or else ascend, through the strongly grated chimney, to the top of the tower in which they were contained—descend from that dizzy height of more than a hundred and fifty feet, into the ditch—and then break through the outer wall in order to obtain their liberty. The celebrated smuggler, Captain Johnson, who invented the submarine boat which was to convey Napoleon from the shores of St. Helena to those of his own idolised France, has escaped in his time from the Fleet, from the condemned cells of Newgate, from the Marshalsea, and from Horsemonger Lane gaols; we however venture to suggest an opinion that even he would have shrunk before the dangers which Latude and D’Alegre proposed to encounter. But those two individuals “trusted to time and perseverance, the efficacy of which has often been proved.”

The first step towards the execution of their scheme was to discover a proper hiding-place for the tools and materials which must be employed. Circumstances soon convinced Latude that there was a hollow space between the floor of his chamber and the ceiling of the one immediately beneath; and calculation enabled him to ascertain that the depth of that vacuum was from four to five feet and a half. There, then, was sufficient room to conceal their implements. But of what were those implements to consist? Such was the question of D’Alegre —and such will doubtless be the interrogation of our readers.

“ ‘What!’ said Latude, ‘have I not in my trunk a vast quantity of linen—thirteen dozen and a half of shirts—many napkins, stockings, night-caps, and other articles? will not these supply us? we will unravel them, and shall have abundance of rope.’ ”

The first attempt at tool-manufacturing upon which the two prisoners entered, and to which they devoted all their energies both moral and physical, was to extract two hooks from a folding-table, and grind them to an edge on the tiled floor, They then converted a portion of the steel of their tinder-box into a knife, and with that useful instrument made handles for their hooks, by which latter agency the tiles of the room were shortly raised, and it was thereby ascertained that Latude’s calculations relative to the vacant space were correct. The threads of two shirts were then drawn out, one by one, tied together, wound into small balls, and subsequently formed into two larger balls, each composed of fifty threads, sixty feet in length. These were ultimately twisted into a rope, from which was made a ladder of twenty feet, intended to support the captives, while they extracted the bars by which the chimney was closed.  * * *  Six months’ unremitting toil was bestowed upon this single object.

“Having opened the passage up the chimney, they proceeded to construct their ladders. Their fuel, which was in logs of about eighteen or twenty inches long, supplied the rounds for the rope-ladder, by which they were to descend from the tower, and the whole of that by which they were to scale the outward wall. More tools being required to cut the wood, Latude converted an iron candlestick into a saw, by notching it with the remaining half of the steel belonging to the tinder-box. To this implement he afterwards added others. They then set to work on their wooden ladder, which it was necessary to make of the length of twenty or five-and-twenty feet. It had only one upright, three inches in diameter, through which the rounds passed, each round projecting six inches on either side: the pieces of which it consisted were joined by mortises and tenons, and each joint was fastened by two pegs, to keep them perpendicular. As fast as the pieces were finished, the rounds were tied to them with a string, that no mistake might occur when they were put together in the dark. They were then carefully hidden under the floor.”

Here we may pause for a moment—even though it be in the most approved style of romance-writers and novelists—to appeal to the sympathies of our readers, and interrogate them as to the state of mind in which those two daring individuals must have toiled during the period necessary for the completion of their work. Can the Englishman, who calmly peruses the history of their labours in that most horrible and hopeless of prisons, for one moment picture to himself the awful state of uncertainty and dread in which Latude and D’ Alegre existed? Surrounded as they were by spies, at the mercy of a turnkey who was at liberty to enter their room at any moment, and subjected to a perpetual surveillance, how their hearts must have beat at every footstep that echoed in the passage adjoining their cell—how acute must have been their anxiety—how horrible their suspense!

But to continue.

“It now remained for them to make their principal rope-ladder. This was an arduous and almost endless task, as it was more than a hundred and eighty feet long; and consequently double that length of rope was required.”

Latude, however, commenced his enterprising work by unravelling all his linen; and when he had thus acquired a sufficient quantity of threads, he and D’ Alegre employed themselves in twisting them into ropes, To be brief, the whole of their manufacture amounted to more than fourteen hundred feet of strong rope; and the preparation of this and other materials essentially necessary to ensure the practicability of their flight, occupied another year and a half. Such perseverance, ingenuity, and almost unparalleled courage, were indeed deserving of eventual success!

“All was now prepared for their flight, and they had only to decide upon the day for attempting their hazardous enterprise. The 25th of February, 1756, was the day which they close. A portmanteau was filled with a change of clothes, the rounds were fastened into the rope-ladder, the wooden ladder was got ready, the two crow-bars were put into cases to prevent them from clanging, and a bottle of brandy was prudently added to their baggage, to hearten them while they worked in the water—” an operation to which local circumstances would compel them—“for the Seine had overflowed, and at that moment there were from four to five feet water in the moat of the Bastille, and ice was floating upon it.”

Latude was the first to commence the perilous undertaking. With pain and difficulty he clambered up the chimney; and on his arrival at the summit, let down a rope, through the medium of which he drew up the ladders, portmanteau, ropes, and other implements fabricated for the occasion. D’Alegre shortly followed his friend; and in a few minutes they breathed together the fresh air of heaven on the platform of the Bastille.

The remainder of the incidents connected with this marvellous escape must be told in the concise and lucid language of Mr. Davenport himself:—

“As the Tour du Tresor appeared to be the most favourable for their descent, they carried their apparatus thither. One end of the rope-ladder was made fast to a cannon, and the other was gently let down. The safety rope was next passed through a firmly fixed block, and it was tied securely round the body of Latude. The daring adventurer now commenced his fearful descent of more than fifty yards, D’Alegre meanwhile slowly letting out the rope. It was well that they had taken this precaution; for at every step that he took, Latude swung so violently in the air that it is probable he would have lost his hold, had not the safety rope given him confidence. In a few moments, which however must have seemed hours, he reached the ditch unhurt. The portmanteau and the other effects were then lowered to him; and he placed them upon a spot to which the water had not risen. D’Alegre himself followed; and, as Latude applied all his strength to steady the ladder, the descent of his companion was effected with less annoyance and hazard than his own had been *** As they heard a sentinel pacing along at the distance of ten yards, they were obliged finally to relinquish the scheme of climbing the parapet, which they had still cherished a hope of carrying into execution. There was, therefore, no resource but to break a hole through the wall. They accordingly crossed the ditch of the Bastille, to the spot where the wall separated it from that of the Porte Saint Antoine. Unluckily the ditch had been deepened here; and the water, on which ice was floating, was up to their arm-pits, They, nevertheless, set to work with a vigour which can only be inspired by circumstances like those under which they were placed. Scarcely had they begun, when, about twelve feet above their heads, they saw light cast upon them from a lantern carried by a patrol major; they were compelled instantly to put their heads under water, and this they had to do several times in the course of the night. The wall at which they were working was a yard and a half in thickness; so that although they plied their crow-bars without intermission, they were nine mortal hours in making a hole of sufficient size for them to creep through. Their task was ultimately achieved; they passed through the aperture, and were speedily beyond the walls of their prison. But even at this moment of exultation, they had a narrow escape from perishing. In their way to the road by which they were to go, there was an aqueduct; it was not more than six feet wide, but it had ten feet of water and two of mud. Into this they stumbled. Fortunately, Latude did not lose his upright position; having shaken off his companion, who had mechanically grasped him, he scrambled up the bank, and then drew out D’Alegre by the hair of his head.

“The clock struck five as they entered the high road.”

For a conclusion of the adventures of Latude and his friend D’Alegre, we must refer our reader, whose curiosity will doubtless have been awakened by these interesting extracts, to the work itself; and in taking leave of “The History of the Bastille,” we can only repeat that which we said in the commencement of this notice, that it is replete with interest and instruction. Although the oriental fruit-hawker may cry, “In the name of the Prophet—figs!”—or, in other words, parturiunt montes nascetur ridiculus mus—there is no analogy between the former fact, or the latter fiction, and the performance of the author of the volume under notice. If his aim were lofty—his execution is worthy of that aim; and in signalizing one single portion of the book to submit to the penalty of refutation, we select the first eiaht lines of the ‘“ Advertisement” or ‘‘ Preface,” a reference to which will exemplify the precise nature of our criticism.

[1] Original citation: G.W.M. Reynolds, ‘The History of the Bastille’, The Monthly Magazine, March 1838, 280–86.

[2] By R. A. Davenport, Esq. No. lxiv. of the “Family Library.”’ Thomas Tegg and Son, London.

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