June 19, 2013
"That "Demmned Elusive Pimpernel"
On this day in 1793 the French Revolution's "Reign of Terror" officially began. Over the next eleven months the Committee of Public Safety would arrest over 300,000 and execute 17,000 before Robespierre and nineteen other leaders were themselves put to the guillotine. The last six weeks of "Red Terror" were the worst of the worst of times, with over thirty people a day executed in Paris alone.
Such events inspired not only the well-known fiction and verse but also some of the world's most enduring political and philosophical writing. In 1790, Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France warned of the "fire and blood" that was to come, and argued for stability and slow change. The essay's last sentence is almost as famous a plea for cool detachment as any rampart slogan, and as masterful as any of Dickens's rolling parallelisms. In it, Burke asks his reader to accept that his arguments for temperance are based on "long observation and much impartiality":
They come from one almost the whole of whose public exertion has been a struggle for the liberty of others; from one in whose breast no anger, durable or vehement, has ever been kindled but by what he considered as tyranny; and who snatches from his share in the endeavors which are used by good men to discredit opulent oppression the hours he has employed on your affairs; and who in so doing persuades himself he has not departed from his usual office; they come from one who desires honors, distinctions, and emoluments but little, and who expects them not at all; who has no contempt for fame, and no fear of obloquy; who shuns contention, though he will hazard an opinion; from one who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end, and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise.
Those who like to lose their equipoise might head for the last few chapters of Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, wherein the beautiful Marguerite and her "demmned elusive Pimpernel" totter on the French cliffs, trying to save love and life from Citizen Chauvelin and the guillotine:
There was the edge of the cliff, and some way below was the hut, where presently her husband would meet his death. But the moon was out; she could see her way now; she would see the hut from a distance, run to it, rouse them all, warn them, at any rate, to be prepared and to sell their lives dearly, rather than be caught like so many rats in a hole....