The Duchesse d'Elbeuf's Letters to a Friend, 1788-94

Lead Research Organisation: Queen Mary, University of London
Department Name: History

Abstract

The French Revolution has always occupied a place of choice within general anglophone culture as well as among the historical community. From Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution (1837), Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and the Baroness d'Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel series (from 1903) through, more recently, to TV, film and other media - such as the controversial 2015 Assassin's Creed video-game - particular interest has focussed on the personal experience of the Revolution by ordinary people.

This Project introduces into discussions and debates a character who could have walked straight out of a Dickens or d'Orczy novel: the dowager duchesse d'Elbeuf (1707-94). A completely unknown set of six notebooks in her hand in the form of letters to a friend, discovered by Colin Jones in the Archives Nationales in Paris, provide a running commentary on France's Revolution from late 1788 through to the violent turmoil of the Terror of 1793-94. They are remarkable not only for being written from the perspective of a woman of high aristocratic status articulating overtly Counter-Revolutionary views, but also for having been composed largely at her Parisian home, the Hôtel d'Elbeuf, situated a matter of yards from the authorities running France from the Tuileries Palace complex. Above all, they are of interest as a unique critical commentary from the heart of Revolutionary Paris on the daily development of the Revolution, and especially the Terror, written at a period when politically unorthodox or Counter-Revolutionary views were increasingly being silenced - and when such statements could lead their authors to the guillotine.

The project aims to bring this extraordinary document into scholarly discussion of the Revolution and making it widely known among the general public. The first task is to provide a full transcription of the Letters: they will be published in entirety in French as a scholarly edition and select passages will also made available in English translation on an open-access online site. This effort will combine an investigation of the circumstances in which the Letters were composed, and how the manuscripts survived, with reconstructing the author's biography, and a study of the authorial voice and commentary which emerges from the text.

The Project team will then seek to diffuse knowledge of the Letters as broadly as possible so as to stimulate interest in their content and what they reveal about the French Revolution. The scholarly community will be targeted via seminars, lectures, conference talks and articles in peer-reviewed journals (besides making the Letters readily available for the first time). The team will also hope to stimulate interdisciplinary reflection on the Letters and on the Revolution more generally, notably by an international conference on the theme, 'Historical Witnessing', targeted at a literary as well as a historical audience. In addition, the Project will seek to stimulate interest in and discussion of the French Revolution among the general public and in particular among trainee historians, undergraduates and A-Level students. This will be achieved notably through an exhibition to be co-curated with the Art Museum at University College London; by making a selection of letters in English translation available on the Project website; by an H-France 'Webinar' aimed at graduate students; and by a conference aimed at A-Level teachers and students. The Blog will facilitate conversations spanning all audiences and provide a hub for promoting Project outputs. Articles placed in history trade journals such as History Today as a starting point for developing wider impact through the media. Finally, the project will enhance the development of two scholars of the French Revolution - the Co-Investigator and the Postdoctoral Research Assistant attached to the project - both at an early stage in their careers.

Planned Impact

The French Revolution is a topic that engages a huge worldwide audience among scholars and the general public. A good deal of that interest - ranging from Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859) through to the controversial 2015 Video-game, Assassin's Creed - focusses on personal experience of the Revolution, a topic which the Duchesse d'Elbeuf letter series strikingly illuminates. An unknown figure of aristocratic extraction, the eighty year-old dowager duchess maintained a running commentary on the events of the revolution from 1788 to her death in 1794. This letter series is all the more striking for expressing strong counter-revolutionary sympathies, while being written a matter of a hundred yards from the Tuileries palace complex which housed the National Assembly and then the Revolutionary Government.

ACADEMIC BENEFICIARIES of the research comprise specialists in the French Revolution in Great Britain, France and the extra-European anglophone and francophone worlds, plus more generally historians of modern Europe. The project has been designed so that the outputs will also interest specialists outside the discipline, working in eighteenth-century studies, literature, the emotions, women's writing and the epistolary form. The main peer-reviewed outputs will be an edition of the Letters published in French (an English translation will also be made available gratis online), 5 learned journal articles and an international interdisciplinary conference in London towards the end of the project. A 'Webinar' on H-France - the largest scholarly organisation for Francophone history and culture in the anglophone world, with around 3,500 members from 40 nations worldwide - will be targeted particularly at graduate students in French history. The Co-Investigator and Postdoctoral Research Assistant will also be academic beneficiaries, and the experience of organising the research and its impact will be significant in their career development, which will be under the mentorship of the PI Jones.

NON-ACADEMIC BENEFICIARIES: the research will engage with a set of activities and events designed to promote knowledge exchange between academia and the general public including schools and higher education. We anticipate these being largely but not wholly in Great Britain and the anglophone world. An exhibition is planned at the Art Museum of University College London, which drawing on its collection of French Revolutionary prints has already has staged an exhibition on the earlier part of the Revolution in 2015, which achieved impressive levels of engagement. The exhibition will focus on the Terror and the Elbeuf letters will be used as a thematic thread through the exhibition as a whole. The British Museum has kindly agreed to make loans from its own collections. In addition, an English translation of select passages totalling 10K words via a free website managed by Exeter University Digital Humanities Lab. The website will also provide space for teaching materials, aimed at an undergraduate and A-level student audience. The Project will also seek to reach student audiences through two collective events. One of these will be targeted at A-Level teachers, to encourage feedback into the project that will maximise impact among students. The second will be a conference for the schools which we have identified as teaching the French Revolution to A-Level. Finally, we plan to publish at least three articles in trade publications in history (drawn from History Today, BBC History, the Historical Association's The Historian, and the Paris-based L'Histoire). These will bridge the two communities of academic and non-academic beneficiaries. We will use publication in these journals and the exhibition in order to to trigger a wider set of approaches to media outlets, which we will pitch under advice from QMUL's and Exeter's public relations offices. A Project Blog will also facilitate dialogue between and within academic and non-academic audiences.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley gave a Historical Association/Exeter College talk on the project on 11 February 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact There were around 40 attendees atthe talk that Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley gave a Historical Association/Exeter College meeting held at Exeter College, 11 February 2020
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley, Simon Macdonald and Colin Jones, Roundtable discussion of the Elbeuf Project, Zoom seminar, Institute of Histoical Research London 2 November 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Over 100 individuals attended by Zoom the rount-table discussion by Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley, Simon Macdonald and Colin Jones, as part of the Modern French History Seminar, Institute of Historical Research London 2 November 2020
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Colin Jones and Simon Macdonald spoke in Panel discussion, devoted to Revolutionary Paris at the 'La Nuit des Idées', Institut d'études avancées (Paris). 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Colin Jones and Simon Macdonald spoke along with Pascal Bastien (University de Quebec a Montreal, Canada) in a panel discussion, devoted to Revolutionary Paris at the 'La Nuit des Idées', Institut d'études avancées (Paris). It was organised through the Institut d'etudes avancees, Paris.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Colin Jones gave a schools talk at North London Collegiate, London: 12 March 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Over 100 schoolchildren attended the schools talk that Colin Jones at North London Collegiate, London on 12 March 2020
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Conference presentation, **Conference paper, 'La correspondance de la duchesse d'Elbeuf, 1788-94', Conference, at International conferece, 'Écritures masquées / Écritures révélées : La correspondance de Marie-Antoinette aux rayons X. Enjeux et résultats du projet REX', Archives Nationales, Paris, 22 January 2021. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Thee were around 50 participants at the session at which Colin Jones delivered a paper, 'La correspondance de la duchesse d'Elbeuf, 1788-94', at the international Conference, held by Zoom, 'Écritures masquées / Écritures révélées : La correspondance de Marie-Antoinette aux rayons X. Enjeux et résultats du projet REX', Archives Nationales, Paris.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description PLENARY LECTURE, 'RESISTING ROBESPIERRE, RESISTING TERROR' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Around 200 individuals attended what was a Plenary Lecture for the Annual Conference of the American Society for Eighteenth-century Studies (ASECS), held at Orlanddo, Florida on 23 March 2019. There was a great deal of interest in the poject, which was flagged up in the lecture.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Paper delivered by Zoom at an international conference on French history, entitled Postdoctoral Colloquium, 'An unemigrated emigree at the heart of Revoutionary Paris, 1788-94' on15 July 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Colin Jones delivered a conference paper, at a penel held as part of the joint conference, Society for French Historical Studies (US) and George Rudé Conference (Australasia). The organisation was done in Auckland, New Zealand but all sessions were by zoom. A recording was taken and posted on the conference website which was consultable by non-participants in the conference.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description SEMINAR PAPER, 'RESISTING TERROR, RESISTING ROBESPIERRE', UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact BETWEEN 20 AND 30 researchers from the University of Chicago and other local universities attended the seminar presentation that was held at the University of Chicago on 18 May 2019. There was good discussion of the project and helpful suggestions were made.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description SEMINAT PAPER, 'THE LETTERS OF THE DUCHESSE D'ELBEUF, 1788-94; HELD BY ZOOM 29 MAY 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Around 15 postgraduates, postdocs and academics from the University of Chicago and other local univrsities attended this seminar, 'The Letters of the Duchesse d'Elbeuf 1788-94' that was presented to the Mondern French history and Francophone studies Seminar, University of Chicago on 29 May 2020. The meeting was by Zoom
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description SIMON MACDONALD, Postdoctoral Colloquium, History department, qmul, "Nous portons toujours avec nous la Terreur en trousse: the diary of the duchesse d'Elbeuf in Revolutionary Paris, 1788-1794" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact PDRA Simon Macdonald delivered a paper entitled "Nous portons toujours avec nous la Terreur en trousse: the diary of the duchesse d'Elbeuf in Revolutionary Paris, 1788-1794" to the Postdoctoral Colloquium, History department, Qheen Mary University of London on 18 May 2020
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Seminar talk, 'La correspondance de la duchesse d'Elbeuf, 1788-94', Séminaire de recherche sur les Lumières, Institut historique allemand (Paris), 22 February 2021 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Colin Jones delivered a seminar paper, 'La correspondance de la duchesse d'Elbeuf, 1788-94', at the Séminaire de recherche sur les Lumières, Institut historique allemand (Paris). There were 12-15 participants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Simon Macdonald and Colin Jones spoke to the 'Minority Record' seminar, University of London, 2 December 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact There were around 10 participants at the seminar on the Elbeuf Letters given to the cross-university group, 'Minority record', on 2 December 2020
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Simon Macdonald gave a schools talk, St Paul's School, 3 March 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Around 30 A-level students attended Simon Macdonald's Schools talk on the peoject, held at St Paul's School. London: 3 March 2020:
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description WEBSITE: REVOLUTIONARY DUCHESS: THE LIFE AND LETTERS OF THE DUCHESSE D'ELBEUF 1788-94 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The website carries information about the project for interested audiences (listed above). It contains an ongoing blog and there are plans to develop the site particularly through the provision of English language translations of extracts from the source.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020,2021
URL http://revolutionaryduchess.exeter.ac.uk/