Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Embarrassment of Fish-Wives and the Most Veracious Baron

Fish-wives march on Versailles

Those who know the story of the Three Musketeers in full would remember how they nearly succeeded in saving King Charles I from being beheaded.  The annual celebration of la prise de la Bastille, France's national day, reminded me of a similar story, though less well known in English-speaking countries. 

Munchausen by Doré
For some unfathomable reason The Original Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a hilarious collection of tall tales written by R.E. Raspe, has not quite caught the imagination of the people who are generally proud of their subtle sense of humour. According to the stories,  the Baron's astounding feats included riding cannonballs, travelling to the Moon, and escaping from a swamp by pulling himself up by his own hair.

So, the most veracious Baron is en route back to England who he adopted as his home country when he learns of the mortal threat to King Louis XVI. Munchausen rushes to the rescue. He goes to the National Assembly, drives them all out of the house, and, locking the doors, puts the key in his pocket, after which he goes to the King and promises to protect him. This is what happens next:
'At that moment I perceived a party of the National Assembly, who had rallied with the National Guard, and a vast procession of fish-women, advancing against me. I deposited their Majesties in a place of safety, and with my drawn sword advanced against my foes. Three hundred fish-women, with  bushes dressed with ribbons in their hands, came hallooing and roaring against me like so many furies. I scorned to defile my sword with their blood, but seized the first that came up, and making her kneel down, knighted her with my sword; which so terrified the rest, that they set up a frightful yell, and ran away as fast as they could for fear of being aristocrated by knighthood. As to the National Guards and the rest of the Assembly, I soon put them to flight...'

Then the Baron goes the Pantheon where the revolutionaries and the fish-wives are in the middle of a pagan-like ceremony trying to 'invoke Voltaire, Rousseau and Beelzebub'.

'...and Rousseau, Voltaire and Beelzebub appeared, three horrible spectres: one all meagre, mere skin and bone, and cadaverous, seemed death, that hideous skeleton, - it was Voltaire, and in his hands were a lyre and dagger.  On the other hand was Rousseau, with a chalice of sweet poison in his hand; and between them was their father Beelzebub!

I shuddered at the sight and with all the enthusiasm of rage, horror, and piety, rushed in among them. I seized that cursed skeleton Voltaire, and soon compelled him to renounce all the errors he had advanced; and while he spoke the words, as if by magic charm, the whole assembly shrieked, and their pandemonium began to tumble in hideous ruin on their heads.

I returned in triumph to the palace, where the Queen rushed into my arms, weeping tenderly. 'Ah,  thou flower of nobility,' cried she; ' were all the nobles of France like thee, we should never have been brought to this!'

Munchausen advises the King to flee and accompanies his party to within a few miles of Montmédy on the North-Eastern border of France.

'I left the King eating a mutton-chop. I advised him not to delay, or he would certainly be taken; and setting spurs to my horse, wished them a good evening, and returned to England. If the King remained too long at the table, and was taken, it was not my fault.'

Voltaire in the Pantheon
The fish-wives (poissardes) really did march on the Royal Palace which was one of the turning points of the French Revolution. And there is a statue of Voltaire in the Pantheon (pandemonium in Baron's story) and the King did try to flee to Montmédy only to be captured in Varennes, indeed a few miles from the border town-fortress. And the escape was planned by a Baron at the court of Louis, though not Munchausen.

What is also fascinating is how embarassed the sympathetic accounts of the revolution seem to be about the role of the fish-women of Paris. Simon Schama, the left-leaning British historian, claims in 'Citizens' that   the word itself is derived from 'poix' - pitch, not even mentioning the obvious 'poisson' - fish, and uses  'market women' rather then fish-wives. The popular Russian rendition of Munchausen's Travels by Kornei Chukovsky has no mention of this last of the Baron's feats.


Steven Lubman said...

I had no idea that the book has these episodes. I wonder why Chokovsky left them out.

Alexander Anichkin said...

re Chukovsky: 1930s, it says all.

And popular French adaptations of Munchausen by Théophile Gautier also omit the chapter.

Thanks for the comment.

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