Disclaimer: I do not own Hetalia. I do not own the French Revolution. I do not own the people involved in the French Revolution. I do not own any people at all, oddly enough. I do not like green eggs and ham.
Summary: In the immediate aftermath of the 2010 UK general election, France takes the opportunity to educate England and America on the nature of the 1879 French Revolution and, inevitably, on the nature of its most notorious figure: Robespierre.
Pairings: Hints of England/America, but not the main focus. Possibly one-sided England/France, though exactly which side is difficult to tell.
Rating: PG 13, for some swearing, some violence, but overall pretty tame.
Warnings: Be warned. This fic contains POLITICAL OPINIONS. Decapitation will feature sooner or later, but that's hardly surprising given the subject matter.
The 'modern' setting is during the UK General Election, which is when I began writing this fic. So, not technically present day, but close enough.
Present day, 7th May, 2010
"What's his problem?" America queries to France, jerking a thumb in the general direction of England. He is crouched in the corner, head cupped in his hands with the air of someone who has been caught on microphone calling a voter a bigot. Or, at any rate, someone who is exceedingly depressed.
France tilts his head as though caught in an imaginary noose and makes an ostentatiously loud strangled noise. To which America squints in confusion. "Hung Parliament," France clarifies. "He has no government."
A disgruntled muttering can be discerned from the corner.
"Oh yeah, the election thing," says America, vaguely. The flippancy with which he speaks provokes an offended splutter from the aforementioned corner. "What happened there anyway?"America asks. England removes his head from his hands to glare sullenly at him, and is about to speak before France smoothly interjects.
"Allow me to summarise the situation," he grins, slinging an arm around America's shoulder (England's glare intensifies). "Amongst the good people of Angleterre, who are disillusioned with their current government's lack of finesse, there has been a movement towards greater support for the party of toffs. Presumably, they feel that toffs are the best people to run a country – quite why is beyond me, but it is clearly not beyond the British electorate. Unfortunately for the party in question, this pro-toff trend has not been widespread enough to guarantee a toff majority, despite their advantages under the joke of an electoral system. Therefore the toffs and the non-toffs are currently in a tiff as to who comes out on top."
America digests this information, somewhat perplexed. "So who won?"
France laughs gleefully, whilst England groans. "Well, the toffs have a fairly tough position in the tiff. But both the toffs and the non-toffs have claims that are tough. As tough as Teflon, you could say. It remains to be seen whether the members of the third party are predominantly pro-toff." He punctuates every 'toff' with a tap on America's shoulder. The latter is looking decidedly uncomfortable.
"Oh, shut up, you interminable bore of a pathetic excuse for an alliterative frog," England mumbles, more out of habit than enthusiasm.
"That was mangled garbage," retorts France, releasing America, but adding impishly: "I suppose you couldn't choose between insults. Sort of the same way you can't choose a government. Indecision is the road to banality, Angleterre!" Then, because he can't resist the opportunity to go too far, he continues with: "You can chalk this result up to disillusionment with your politicians in general."
"The problem with you is that you've never had a revolution," America adds mischievously, just as France knew he would (when the squabbling commences between the three nations, France can normally trust America to side with him). Nothing could have been calculated to irritate England further.
"I did have a revolution, you historical dunce," England snaps. "The Civil War."
"Not a proper one," says France. "You brought the monarchy back in seconds, practically. I call that half-hearted. Again, moderation and indecision destroy you...!"
"It wasn't half-hearted! There were heads on pikes and everything!"
"Ah," says France, sagely, "if your criterion for its success is the resultant decapitation, then you don't even begin to understand revolution. Plus, when it comes to that, I beat you hands down. Or heads down, anyway."
"Yes, you and your butcher Robespierre," says England, disdainfully. "A true man of decision. His decisiveness was a triumph, wasn't it? The oh-so-noble Terror."
"Once again, your capacity to turn a complex situation into over-simplified idiocy astounds me," says France, playfulness slightly overtaken by hostility at the mention of Robespierre.
"Listen to him! He's still making excuses for that bloodthirsty dictator," says England, appealing to America. As a debating technique, this is fairly ill-advised.
"Whoa. Not taking sides here," America responds. "Everyone knows when you two start arguing, the only thing to do is sit back and watch you tear chunks out of each other." He proceeds to do so, as England and France begin sniping at each other in earnest.
"You've been listening to your historians too much," says France. "Imbecile. You were there. You know Robespierre was never a dictator."
"Isn't it funny how we always forgive the patriots? The ones who identify themselves with the country. No matter how many people they kill," England needles. "It is amazing how egotistical we are. A man or woman can be as bloodthirsty as they like, yet if all is done in the name of their country or, worse still, 'the people', we can't help but romanticise them. Robespierre is a prime example. You were obsessed with that nasty piece of work."
France rolls his eyes. "What do you know? You haven't even managed to get rid of your monarchy. Get back to your 'election thing'" – here America snickers – "I've half a mind to write my own biography of L'Incorruptible."
"L'impitoyable, rather," mocks England (with deliberate and excruciating mispronunciation). "Well, why don't you?" France moves towards the door. "What are you doing?"
"Finding a pen and paper."
"You're going to write a biography. A nation, writing a biography. Why?"
"Because someone who was there should, and there's no one else who qualifies, given the slight inconvenience of human mortality," France says, rolling his eyes.
"Mortality induced by the Revolution itself," England drawls back. "You know, if I realized you were going to do what I suggested, I'd have recommended you go jump off a cliff instead."
"Really? How unimaginative of you. The road to banality, Angleterre," France all but sings. With that, he flings himself into a chair, pulls a nearby desk forward and begins, with a flourish, to write.
I suppose I am writing this because of Robespierre, rather than because of the Revolution. Though on the outset, it is in fact because of England – the fact that I'm bothering with this little memoir, that is. We were arguing about something deeply relevant and important, whose nature I forget, when England said something he probably imagined was profound and cutting, about patriotism. Suffice to say that this is the result. And it's probably more about the Revolution than Robespierre. England rarely understood revolution – he viewed it, and continues to view it, as some temporary irrationality that manifests in mass murder and ends in dictatorship. Probably the subject touches a nerve with him – perhaps several nerves, located around 1642 and 1776. A sensitive plant, our Angleterre.
This isn't about actions so much as ideas. And, writing this, I begin to realize that it is about both the Revolution and Robespierre. The two are inextricably linked, at least in the former's perspective.
The beginning occurred in 1775. Or, at any rate, it's a good enough place to begin. I won't tire you and myself with the rest. Even 1775 was only the beginning retrospectively, for at the time I did not see its significance. England's 'recollection in tranquillity' thing at work here, I guess.
Upon acceding the throne, Louis proclaimed 'I wish to be loved' – a wish not uncommon amongst most people, but rarely put into practice amongst most rulers. Still, in accordance with this sentiment, he decided to grace the Parisian college Louis-le-Grand with his presence on the way back from his coronation at Reims.
Perhaps it was exhaustion after a ceremony which was both heavy on the decorum and politically tense; perhaps it was residual pessimism brought on by the June rain (well, it's easy to attach meanings in hindsight). Probably I was just tired. Regardless, I decided to stay behind and wander back to the palace by foot instead of travelling with the royal couple. The visit itself had been perfunctory at best – a student had given a fleeting speech outside, whilst the King and Queen remained in their coach and drove away within seconds of its conclusion. Did I mention that, in terms of omens, nothing boded well that day?
As for me, I wandered for a while, outside. In the rain. Yes, it was one of those moments, in which I took the time to, for want of a more elegant term, brood. Well, to be frank, sulk. That was what it amounted to during the day, clothed both literally and metaphorically in the warmth of your traditional, indulgent aristocratic lifestyle. Of course, at dark, the nightmares were wont to set in. I was bombarded with visions of starvation, desperation and - more recently - fury. I would be kneeling in the freezing mud, with the hostile air searing across my face. I would be crouching in the gutter, scarcely noticing the muck and deluge with which I was surrounded, feeling only the pangs of hunger which wracked my body. Briefly, I would glance upwards to the lofty city towers, or else the remorseless country sky – and realise just how low I had been brought by comparison. Usually, the dreams would conclude with a sort of resigned hopelessness. Lately, fatalism had been replaced with fury, a completely undirected and beyond my control – this, I knew, was a link to the people. My people. All my people. Equally my people. And, in my dreams, I was one of them. And was I ever resentful of the ruling class.
Nevertheless, during the day, what was piercing, breathtaking rage in my dreams became, to all intents and purposes, sulking.
(Elegant, Romantic and broodingly attractive sulking, but sulking nonetheless...)
Mercifully, my thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a boy, slight and fastidiously dressed. The same one who had delivered the speech. He didn't appear to notice me.
I wondered if he was disappointed by the monarchs' quick departure. "It's a shame they didn't stay," I said, deciding I would be kind. "You learn not to expect much from kings." That much was true.
He turned towards me, surprised; I don't think it had crossed his mind to be upset.
"It was all a show today, anyway," I shrugged. "Poor Louis. Condemned to a life of veneer. Not that he realises. 'I wish to be loved', for crying out loud... Provided a man is not mad, he can be cured of every folly but vanity," I added, without thinking. Then, uneasily, I realised what I had said.
Fortunately, he did not look disapproving or shocked – on the contrary, he was suddenly animated rather than distant. "You are a follower of Rousseau?" he asked, excitedly.
"... No," I answered, carefully, though not as firmly as I should have done. This was perhaps a little dangerous. But then, who could be genuinely scared of Louis and Antoinette? Resentful, perhaps. But the royal pair did not intimidate me. I resolved to cease being so abominably careful about what I said.
"No? Why not?"
"I have little choice in what to believe," I said, flippantly enough. "Let's say that I am what my boss makes of me." The idiots. Let them try to regulate me.
He nodded, comprehending. Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. I wondered how this applied to anthropomorphic nations. Messily, I suspected. "It is terrible when you cannot believe what you choose," he said, with enough restraint for me to surmise that it was only politeness that kept him from arguing back more forcefully in favour of free speech and Rousseau, who I guessed was an idol of his. Me too, I thought, wryly.
"Perhaps. But what if I don't know what I want to believe?" At the moment, I was nostalgic for long discussions on political theory with Jean-Jacques.
"I find that difficult to understand, Monsieur. Everyone has a belief in something." Ah. A zealot in the making, I observed.
(The unsettling accuracy of that observation is not lost on me.)
Oddly, this veiled, cryptic little conversation over a banned philosopher was the closest I had come to expressing the rebellion that mingled with anger from my nightmares. "I suppose so. Injustice may burn away at the soul," I proclaimed, grandiosely, with more than a touch of facetiousness, "yet here and now, we do as we are told because there is no other way. It is not what we would necessarily choose, but has there ever been a choice?"
"Burning is not the answer," he replied, with a dark sort of chuckle. "That's all I know." I laughed, appreciatively. I preached fatalism aloud, but nothing could ever make me believe in what I said. It was what I thought that mattered – and my thoughts tended towards rebellion.
- Upon reflection, this is irrelevant. My first meeting with Robespierre is appealing only in terms of narrative chronology. It was brief and probably uninteresting - its implications only struck me years later. But now is not the time to debate how to tell a story. I mean to begin properly now. This is not only about Robespierre, but also the Revolution. Let us therefore commence with the Revolution.
France becomes aware of both England and America peering irritatingly over his shoulder at his scrawled efforts.
"You've been here writing for hours. I had no idea that creating something so irrelevant could also be so riveting," remarks England, scowling. Obviously things are not going well with him.
"You do realise you're using pen and paper?" adds America. "You know, there is such thing as word processing now. And by that I don't mean typewriters – Luddite much?" England displays an amusingly disorientated 'good-grief-America-actually-remembers-something-about-British-history' look, which modulates even more hilariously into a 'why-do-I-feel-so-absurdly-pleased-at-that?' expression, shortly followed by 'somebody-fetch-professional-help-quickly'.
France takes advantage of England's confusion to snap: "Go away, both of you. Laisse-moi tranquille!" Besides, writing by hand has somehow far more ambience than impersonal typeface could ever manage.
"Geez, no need to be so tetchy about it," says America.
"This is my house!" yells England, who apparently thinks that now is the perfect time to be tetchy. For a second, France gives the latter comment genuine consideration. Then he shrugs, and resumes his writing.
He is dimly aware of America asking: "So what's up with your election thing, anyway? Has that Clegg guy made up his mind yet?" The response is (worryingly) a guttural growl.
Consider the last instalment to be a prelude of sorts - to coin an accurate cliché, the calm before the storm. Now, flash forward a handful of years, sling in more hunger, more abuse, an incompetent monarch, an unprecedented American War of Independence, the resultant mounting national debt, and essentially the result is this: the hopeless, undirected fury turns to determined, lucid outrage. To give England his due, I have perhaps maligned him a little too much for his lack of understanding about revolution. There have been times where he came extremely close to understanding. Knowing him now, many younger nations are surprised when I tell them England was once an unscrupulous pirate; personally, I think they would be more surprised to learn that he was once a scrupulous Romantic. As for America – well, his own revolution had been an inspiration to me, to Robespierre and the rest. But we took it further than he – we did not stop with replacing the institution; we changed the very purpose of government.
... Because this was a revolution built firmly upon class lines – let historians tell you otherwise, but ours could be described as a precursor to poor Russia's February 1917. This was truly a revolution of the people – not people of wealth, but people of poverty. And yes, the phrase 'the people' has been bandied about to and fro until it has become meaningless - but blame that not on the original movement, for this was truly a revolution in the name of all people. It was both ahead of its time and curiously behind; it was vindicated and vilified, celebrated and condemned as madness. And, indeed, it was bliss to be alive in that dawn.
This was a time when, finally, the ordinary man or woman could stand, face their oppressor and spit in his face. It is taken for granted nowadays because nobody remembers a time in which that was not possible – in which any action that was not conformity was unthinkable. To say that 'people stayed in their place back then' has lost its meaning, but I remember a time in which people were chained to their miserable, cramped existences, even if some nations have forgotten. The Revolution was more than just a struggle for democracy.
... You must think I am being uncharacteristically serious, no? But I was serious then.
"This is drivel, frog."
"Shut up, Angleterre."
"Are you ever going to write about what happened, or are you going to perpetually philosophise over the nature of revolution?"
"Shut up, Angleterre."
"Is this a biography, or a pathetic attempt at an epic novel?"
"Angleterre? Shut up."
I was serious then. What kept running through my mind was, oddly, an event which had occurred two whole Louis ago. Namely, the Sun King's proclamation of 'l'etat, c'est moi'. At the time I had brushed it off indulgently. Now – I was seething. The damned arrogance of that man – one who was, after all, no more than one man! The current Louis – and his stuck up wife, with her frivolous expenditure and her diamond necklaces – clearly had similar aspirations. Well, I would no longer be passive and watch my people suffer - nor would the people themselves.
Of course, I was still waiting to tell the royal couple as much before the meeting of the Estates General in May 1789. Initially, I had made some effort to be charming – or, failing that, civil. A few years into Louis' reign and my efforts were waning. They guessed as much through my growing surliness. Nations and rulers have strange relationships at best; generally we stay loyal, even though we may dislike them. We fear the consequences otherwise – thus, it takes a special sort of frustration to spark a nation-led revolution. Luckily, I was plenty frustrated.
I had not forgotten the boy from Louis-le-Grand, though his name eluded me. Had I ever known it? Sneer all you will (I address this remark to England, who persists in reading over my shoulder) but in my head I referred to him as 'Petit Rousseau'.
In the hall on that first day of the Estates-General, I was positioned next to the King and Queen. Nowadays, there are few people who know who I am – that day, I am certain that every deputy in the hall knew that I was their country. In times of intensified political awareness, that tends to be the case - people become aware of their nation, perhaps because they identify with us more. At any rate, the tension was palpable, and I swear I could read the thoughts of the Third Estate: Is he with us, or against us? Will France remain neutral, or will he pick a side? Or perhaps this is just narcissism – certainly England (now laughing rather irritatingly – shut up, Angleterre!) seems to think so. At any rate, they sat so far to the back of the hall that it was difficult to discern much for sure.
According to protocol, the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobility) and the royals stood, removed their headgear, sat and then replaced their hats. Yet another pointless piece of ceremony, which stuck in my throat like a shard. To add a further layer of indignity to the whole proceedings, the representatives of the Third Estate were obliged to stand throughout the entire event.
They did not.
Oh, it was spectacular! One by one, they sat – true, they were positioned far away, but I could imagine the defiance written on each of their faces. Then, a handful removed their hats – more followed suit, until all were standing and all were hatless. The most perfect form of silent rebellion! It was then that I knew without a doubt where my allegiances lay; I was fully determined to express it. With a flourish, I stood, yanked my hat from my head and flung it to the side of the hall.
(It hit some poor aristocrat in the face. I did not bother to check his reaction, and history has been silent on the matter, so I suppose we shall never know who it was, or any resultant emotional scarring.)
Louis paled almost comically. "We tried to accommodate for them," he murmured, scarcely audibly. I knew that. I knew, in his own way, he had tried to balance the radical move of summoning the Estates General by maintaining the class system in the only way he thought possible. I dared a look at Marie Antoinette, and all I could see in her face was scorn. Well, that made things easy.
The time for people to stay in their place had passed. The time for countries to stand obediently by their leaders had also passed.
Ignoring the stares which I attracted – they ranged from quizzical to scandalized – I strode purposefully to the other end of the hall, my footsteps echoing madly throughout the building. What a cacophony to disturb that spread of silent faces! I reached the end of the room, and joined the ranks of the Third Estate deputies, taking an empty seat at the front of the crowd. Nobody broke the silence once the echoes finished resounding, for a few moments. Then, there was a torrent of hushed murmuring, whispered congratulations and beams. A few leaned over to clasp my hand in silent thanks. I caught the eye of the deputy next to me –
- And almost fell out of my seat.
Only not so petit anymore. Well, actually, still quite petit. Yet now an adult. To meet the boy from Louis-le-Grand once more, here of all places...
(Well, why not here? It made sense.)
He nodded slightly, in recognition, utterly composed. I blinked, astounded. How long had he known that the man he had talked to on the day of the coronation and his country were one and the same?
Meanwhile, Louis and his ministers seemed to have decided to carry on as if nothing had happened. Jacques Necker began to deliver what was to be the most boring and interminable speech I had ever heard on the state's finances. Ah, Necker - a reasonably competent minister, sympathetic to the Third Estate, but wholly useless as a politician. To add insult to the tedium, it was almost impossible to hear what he was saying from the back of the room. The deputies began to show signs of restlessness; I could hardly blame them. This was the man who controlled my fate?
"It's amazing to see you again," I leaned over and whispered to my neighbour. "We were never properly introduced that day. Do you remember? I am Francis Bonnefoy."
"You are my country," he replied – not in awe, but as a simple statement of fact. "I remember. I am Maximilien Robespierre." And, my friends (or, at any rate, the nations who still persist in reading over my shoulder like demented bookends), that is how I was properly introduced to l'Incorruptible for the first time. He seemed perfectly composed; I was... startled, to say the least.
"I wish that insufferable man would get to the point," I muttered, indicating Necker. I hadn't been able to decide what to say next, so I settled for finding common ground. Ordinarily, my initial plan of action when faced with an unusual social situation would be 'seduce'; for once, this hardly seemed appropriate. "What we need is nothing short of a reversal in the system. We need an end to this ridiculous apathy of the ruling class, and a government that sympathises rather than turning a blind eye, that doesn't tell the people they suffer due to their own idleness rather than the ruler's selfishness; all he's doing is spouting irrelevant facts and figures." This comment was louder than I had intended, but the deputies who heard me gave muted signs of agreement. I wished I had said it louder.
"You think so?" said Robespierre. "I am glad. You are with us. I knew you would be – after all, how could a country abandon his people?"
"I can't stand it," I confided. "I won't be passive. Whatever hope remains for me is rooted in the Third Estate. Absurd that the nobility and clergy control my fate," I murmured. I mused upon this for a second. "Bastards, the lot of them. What is he doing up there?"
"Necker? It looks as though he's about to finish." Robespierre turned slightly to face me. "He is for the people," he chastised.
"But he's too damn timid in showing it. He looks sick."
"Wait – what's happening?"
"He's... he's passing the script to someone by his side... he can't finish it! Listen – his voice is shaking." Necker, trembling, sat down, and some nonentity or other was obliged to take up the mantle of orator. "Good God," I said. "The man can't even finish his own speech without assistance."
"Nevertheless, he is the only one who might listen. It is due to his persuasion of the King that the Estates are even meeting in the first place. The question is what can we do? We outnumber the other Estates, but the vote distribution is weighted against us. If only the people could be heard..."
This deputy, Robespierre, seemed to mirror my own thoughts – eerily so. There was so much I wanted to discuss, yet I could hardly decide where to begin. Finally, here was someone who understood what was happening, and who was not blinded by convention or tradition – but, oddly, I could not focus on a single issue, and even if I could, I could not work out how to bring the conversation to it. All I could think of now was a single idea: that government should be for the people. But he must already know that. All I managed to say was:
"We are in agreement." Which, on paper, seems stuffy and vague. But, in reality, it meant more than anything else. It summed up perfectly how we both acknowledged the same ideas – neither of us were sure of exactly how 'radical change' must be achieved; all we knew was that it was necessary.
At that moment, the speech finished, and the deputies stood to leave. Momentarily disorientated, I turned, expecting to see Robespierre, but he had vanished in the crowd. Meanwhile, I was surrounded by enthusiastic deputies of the Third Estate; all were talking at once, and I could not discern individual words amongst the clamour, but the upshot was this: we are in agreement, and the country is on our side. I hadn't been happier in years.
"Once you have finished this," remarks England, "I'll go through and count the number of times you refer to 'the people'. Really, France, it's a meaningless phrase. 'The people' aren't some amorphous blob, like you seem to think."
"What a way you have with words, Angleterre."
"Idealism at its most damaging," says England. "You always looked on the verge of a mental breakdown back then."
"No he didn't," scoffs America. "If anything, he was just more hyper than usual."
"That's what I meant."
"Tch. Well I don't see what's wrong with wanting democracy. Kings suck," proclaims America.
"Actually," says France, "there were very few of us who wanted to get rid of the monarchy at that point. If you'd asked them a few years before 1879, most of the Third Estate deputies would never have dreamed of revolution, or starting a republic. It was always about the poor, and not necessarily about the actual concept of kings."
"Oh," says America, disappointed. "But – that changed."
"That came later," France assures him. "But that's what I mean, when I talk about 'the people'. It's just a way of expressing that one idea upon which we all agreed– that all should have an equal chance at life, and that government should be a force for good." England glances sceptically at him. "Well, when I say 'we', I mean those who sat on the left in the National Convention." England shrugs, noncommittally. "It was that one commitment to better the lives of the poor which motivated them the most."
England rolls his eyes. "There's the idea, but then there's what happens when it's put into practice."
"Quite," says France, darkly. "But that doesn't discredit the idea; only the method."