Story type: Essay
To speak in the simplicity of truth, caring not for party or partisan, is not the France of this day, the France which has issued from that great furnace of the Revolution, a better, happier, more hopeful France than the France of 1788? Allowing for any evil, present or reversionary, in the political aspects of France, that may yet give cause for anxiety, can a wise man deny that from the France of 1840, under Louis Philippe of Orleans, ascends to heaven a report of far happier days from the sons and daughters of poverty than from the France of Louis XVI.? Personally that sixteenth Louis was a good king, sorrowing for the abuses in the land, and willing (at least, after affliction had sharpened his reflecting conscience), had that choice been allowed him, to have redeemed them by any personal sacrifice. But that was not possible. Centuries of misrule are not ransomed by an individual ruin; and had it been possible that the dark genius of his family, the same who once tolled funeral knells in the ears of the first Bourbon, and called him out as a martyr hurrying to meet his own sacrifice–could we suppose this gloomy representative of his family destinies to have met him in some solitary apartment of the Tuileries or Versailles, some twilight gallery of ancestral portraits, he could have met him with the purpose of raising the curtain from before the long series of his household woes–from him the king would have learned that no personal ransom could be accepted for misgovernment so ancient. Leviathan is not so tamed. Arrears so vast imply a corresponding accountability, corresponding by its amount, corresponding by its personal subjects. Crown and people–all had erred; all must suffer. Blood must flow, tears must be shed through a generation; rivers of lustration must be thrown through that Augean accumulation of guilt.
And exactly there, it is supposed, lay the error of Burke; the compass of the penalty, the arch which it traversed, must bear some proportion to that of the evil which had produced it.
When I referred to the dark genius of the family who once tolled funeral knells in the ears of the first Bourbon, I meant, of course, the first who sat upon the throne of France, viz., Henri Quatre. The allusion is to the last hours of Henry’s life, to the remarkable prophecies which foreran his death, to their remarkable fulfilment, and (what is more remarkable than all beside) to his self-surrender, in the spirit of an unresisting victim, to a bloody fate which he regarded as inexorably doomed. This king was not the good prince whom the French hold out to us; not even the accomplished, the chivalrous, the elevated prince to whom history points for one of her models. French and ultra-French must have been the ideal of the good or the noble to which he could have approximated in the estimate of the most thoughtless. He had that sort of military courage which was, and is, more common than weeds. In all else he was a low-minded man, vulgar in his thoughts, most unprincely in his habits. He was even worse than that: wicked, brutal, sensually cruel. And his wicked minister, Sully, than whom a more servile mind never existed, illustrates in one passage his own character and his master’s by the apology which he offers for Henry’s having notoriously left many illegitimate children to perish of hunger, together with their too-confiding mothers. What? That in the pressure of business he really forgot them. Famine mocked at last the deadliest offence. His own innocent children, up and down France, because they were illegitimate, their too-confiding mothers, because they were weak and friendless by having for his sake forfeited the favour of God and man, this amiable king had left to perish of hunger. They did perish; mother and infant. A cry ascended against the king. Even in sensual France such atrocities could not utterly sink to the ground. But what says the apologetic minister? Astonished that anybody could think of abridging a king’s license in such particulars, he brushes away the whole charge as so much ungentlemanly impertinence, disdaining any further plea than the pressure of business, which so naturally accounted for the royal inattention or forgetfulness in these little affairs. Observe that this pressure of business never was such that the king could not find time for pursuing these intrigues and multiplying these reversions of woe. What enormities! A king (at all times of Navarre, and for half his life of France) suffers his children to die of hunger, consigns their mothers to the same fate, but aggravated by remorse and by the spectacle of their perishing infants! These clamours could not penetrate to the Louvre, but they penetrated to a higher court, and were written in books from which there is no erasure allowed. So much for the vaunted ‘generosity’ of Henry IV. As to another feature of the chivalrous character, elegance of manners, let the reader consult the report of an English ambassador, a man of honour and a gentleman, Sir George Carew. It was published about the middle of the last century by the indefatigable Birch, to whom our historic literature is so much indebted, and it proves sufficiently that this idol of Frenchmen allowed himself in habits so coarse as to disgust the most creeping of his own courtiers; such that even the blackguards of a manly nation would revolt from them as foul and self-dishonouring. Deep and permanent is the mischief wrought in a nation by false models; and corresponding is the impression, immortal the benefit, from good ones. The English people have been the better for their Alfred, that pathetic ideal of a good king, through a space of now nearly a thousand years. The French are the worse to this hour in consequence of Francis I. and Henry IV. And note this, that even the spurious merit of the two French models can be sustained only by disguises, by suppressions, by elaborate varnishings; whereas the English prince is offered to our admiration with a Scriptural simplicity and a Scriptural fidelity, not as some gay legend of romance, some Telemachus of Fenelon, but as one who had erred, suffered, and had been purified; as a shepherd that had gone astray, and saw that through his transgressions the flock also had been scattered.