Barnave, by John Hardman

Amie Strachan

A new biography of Antoine Barnave is engaging and important.
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Leading historian of the French Revolution John Hardman provides a compelling new biography of Antoine Barnave, the influential statesman who advocated for a constitutional monarchy in early revolutionary France. Frequently described as being politically two-faced, Hardman dissects the public career and private life of Barnave through a wealth of manuscript pages and correspondence with Marie-Antoinette.

Through tracing Barnave’s life as a youth in Dauphiné, Hardman is able to intricately pinpoint the origins of Barnave’s seemingly contradictory political career. By the very nature of his birth, Barnave would experience social friction first-hand. While his mother, Marie-Louise de Pré was a member of the nobility and his father, Jean-Pierre, was part of the haute bourgeoise, the family were peasants in every other aspect than their birth. Restricted entry to parlement as a result of the 1762 règlement in Grenoble, Hardman explains that Barnave’s entry into the political sphere was originally motivated not only by a desire for personal advancement, but also social change nationally.

 With the fall of Bastille, the revolution entered what Hardman calls the ‘decisive phase’, simultaneously marking a shift in Barnave’s political opinion. While Hardman likens Barnave’s Introduction à la Révolution Française to Marx’s later work, at this point Barnave took a centre-left political stance alongside the Bretons. Examining Barnave’s personal correspondences with peers and family, Hardman sheds light on the reasoning for this shift. In exchanging letters with his mother, whom had fled to Chambéry, she made sure to sign off as ‘de-Presle Barnave’ reminding him of his status as a half-noble. His respect for his mother and later Marie-Antoinette is particularly interesting given his blatant misogyny towards ‘feeble’ and ‘egotistical’ women. Undoubtedly, Hardman asserts, Madame Barnave influenced her son’s position as a reluctant monarchist.

Hardman excels in tracing Barnave’s rise and fall from power over the course of the revolutionary period. Playing a role in the establishment of the Feuillants, to acting as the mayor of Grenoble; the importance of Barnave’s involvement in political life, right up until his execution, cannot be overstated.

Most importantly, the author provides a wealth of information regarding Barnave’s private life, which he suggests undoubtedly influenced his political career. While seemingly cold and distant, he was also a hypochondriac; a nervous man, who would avoid eye contact with Antoinette upon their first meeting. This is an engaging read for anyone with an interest in French revolutionary politics. Barnave’s importance in advocating for a constitutional monarchy has been noted previously, however Hardman’s biography is a major historiographical contribution as the first detailed attempt to trace Barnave’s life.

Antoine Barnave: The Revolutionary who Lost his Head for Marie Antoinette, by John Hardman is published by Yale University Press and is out now. Amie Strachan is an Assistant Editor at Aspects of History.