AFTER SUCH KNOWLEDGE WICKED COMPANY: FREETHINKERS AND FRIENDSHIP IN PRE-REVOLUTIONARY PARIS
By Philipp Blom (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 361pp £25)
WICKED COMPANY IS a group biography of the philosophes, whose courageous and radical thought helped prepare France for the seismic political upheaval of 1789. Philipp Blom deftly delineates the friendship through which Denis Diderot and the Baron d’Holbach pursued philosophical truth and collaborated on the eighteenth century’s most ambitious publishing project: the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (which ran to twenty-eight volumes between 1751 and 1772, covering topics as diverse as azymites and tailor ing). The aim of the Encyclopédie’s editors was ‘to collect all the knowledge that now lies scattered over the face of the earth, to make known its general structure to the men among whom we live, and to transmit it to those who will come after us’ – to make men not only wiser but also ‘more virtuous and more happy’. The relations of both Diderot and d’Holbach to Voltaire and Rousseau (whose posthumous reputations have fared somewhat better in the Anglophone world) are also carefully drawn; as are their connections with foreign writers and intellectuals (Friedrich Grimm, David Hume, Ferdinando Galiani and Count Beccaria) and their interactions with rare examples of freethinking women, the brilliant and wealthy Louise d’Epinay especially.
Denis Diderot was born in 1713 in the small town of Langres in northern Champagne. He was sent to Paris, aged fifteen, to complete his education and train for the priesthood, but rebelled and decided to become a playwright instead: ‘What did I have in mind? To be applauded? Perhaps. To live on familiar terms with the women of the theatre whom I found infinitely lovable and whom I knew to be [of] a very easy virtue? Assuredly.’ The Baron d’Holbach, ten years younger than Diderot, arrived in Paris from Edesheim, in the German Palatinate. He was a precocious child under the supervision of his ennobled uncle. By the time the two men met (in late 1749 or 1750), Diderot was already a famous author, daring to question the Christian faith, and d’Holbach had spent time studying natural science in the Netherlands.
The Encyclopédie began modestly. Struggling to earn money, Diderot was hired to help translate Ephraim Chambers’s English Cyclopaedia of 1728. The project grew when he decided to add commentaries to the original text, and persuaded a syndicate of three booksellers to finance a larger collaborative work, far over-
s p i l l i ng t he l imi t s o f Chambers’s or ig inal, that would become a definitive repos i t o r y o f c e r t a i n knowledge and sceptical thought. D’Holbach, with his understanding of mine r a l ogy, metallurgy and physics, was a very promising potential contr ibutor. The brilliant mathematician, Jean-Baptiste d’Alembert, already a member of the Academy of Sciences, also became involved: his name and social connections – he was the illegitimate son of the great salon hostess Mme de Tencin – helped reassure the booksellers that their sizeable investment would be safe.
D’Epinay: not just a pretty face
The novelist Louise d’Epinay was one of the few women to contr ibute to the Encyclopédie. From an impoverished aristocratic family, she had been married at nineteen to her wealthy cousin. She and her husband l ed s eparate l ive s , and i n her countr y house La Chevrette, at Grandval, she accommodated both Grimm (her lover) and Rousseau (with whom she shared an interest in education). Diderot described a portrait of her as ‘the very image of tenderness and voluptuousness’. Rousseau, infamously, quarrelled with d’Epinay, Grimm, and Diderot. D’Epinay wrote to him, challenging his paranoia: ‘You make me pity you. If you are sane, your conduct horrifies me on your behalf, because I do not think it straightforward. It is not natural to spend one’s life suspecting and wounding one’s friends.’
Diderot edited the Encyclopédie from his Par isian home, crammed with paper s . When the volumes became f ashionable, the hostess Madame Geoffr in bought him a sumptuous new dressing gown to write in, inspir ing his essay ‘Regrets About My Dressing Gown’ (1769). The old gown, comfortable and inkstained, had ‘announced the author, the wr iter, the working man’. In the new one, Diderot complained: ‘I look like a rich idler. Nobody knows who I am.’ Blom reconstructs the fear of falling prey to their own reputations, and the difficulties of living up to them, that dogged the philosophes through the 1760s and 1770s.
Blom succeeds in conveying a lot of detailed information about the philosophes’ fr iendships and amorous adventures to the general reader in engaging and readily accessible prose. He is on less certain ground in summar ising the content of their arguments, essays and books. He relies throughout on the ter m ‘ radical Enlightenment’ without precisely defining it. He does, however, refer in the endnotes to Jonathan Israel’s work, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of
LITERARY REVIEW September 2011
Modernity 1650–1750 (2001). Israel’s focus on the drive toward secular isation has heavily influenced Blom’s understanding of the Enlightenment.
The epilogue, ‘A Stolen Revolution’, is an unfortunate end to this urbane book. Here Blom argues that the Revolutionaries let their radical Enlightenment predecessors down simply by not being interested in establishing a society of equals in which all citizens were encouraged to live happily and peacefully in harmony with nature. ‘Instead, the Revolutionaries wanted power, and like all proponents of violent ideological egalitar ianism, they were f ir m believers in a str ict chain of command.’ Needless to say, the worst of these lunatics, on Blom’s account, was ‘the implacably zealous and all-powerful Maximilien Robespierre, a byword for murderous terror
OUR MEN I N LAS PALMAS
FRANCO’S FRIENDS: HOW BRITISH
INTELLIGENCE HELPED BRING FRANCO TO POWER IN SPAIN
By Peter Day (Biteback 293pp £19.99)
THE WELCOME RELEASE by the National Archives over the last decade of a huge batch of wartime files from the Security Service (MI5), and the availability of previously secret documents from other agencies such as the Special Operations Executive – now matched by the publication o f t he ‘ o f f i c i a l h i s t o r i e s ’ o f MI5 and t he Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) – has led to the publication of a growing number of intelligence-related biographies and histories. Some are very good, but often the reliance on the files at Kew has led to lazy research and publications that are little more than histories of the files (which mostly have been weeded and should be treated as unreliable and self-serving) rather than histories of an event or organisation. Christopher Andrew’s history of the Security Service, which used openly published material to flesh out the anonymous files, was a success; but Keith Jeffery’s history of the Secret Intelligence Service, which relied totally on the Service’s still-secret registry files, illuminated very little. Sometimes it takes a journalist to identify what is interesting and dig out that extra piece of research that makes a book worthwhile.
Retired Daily Mail journalist Peter Day has produced an admirably short book primarily based on recently released files at the National Archives, which he has supplemented with other sources. He has managed to pull together a wonderful tale of British Catholic eccentrics, intelligence agents from the 1930s world of Eric Ambler, Richard in the name of high ideals’. In a couple of pages, at breakneck speed, Blom attempts to summarise the religious struggles of the Revolution. His biggest mistake in doing so is to conflate the cult of Reason with the cult of the Supreme Being, and to suggest that Robespierre, the ‘incorruptible’ dictator, was chief propagator of both. In fact, Robespierre despised the cult of Reason, was never a dictator, and was certainly not all-powerful.
As Blom himself has shown, the achievements of the philosophes are substantial enough to speak for themselves. There is no need to exaggerate the forces that were ranged against them in their own time or afterwards. Freethinking and f ree speech had enemies enough in the eighteenth century, as they do still today. To order this book for £20, see LR bookshop on page 20
Hannay-type adventurers, and wealthy Spanish fascist businessmen waging war on the Red menace.
A typical adventurer was the ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ Franco supporter Major Hugh Pollard, dubbed the ‘Spanish pimpernel’ by American Life magazine. Backed with funds from Spanish millionaire Juan March and in league with Luis Bolin, London correspondent for ABC (the Spanish monarchist Catholic newspaper), Pollard and his pilot, accompanied by ‘two blondes’ posing as tourists for cover, set off in their Dragon Rapide hired from Olley Air Services at Croydon air port to Las Palmas for a secret rendezvous with Franco.
The story of the Generalissimo’s clandestine flight in July 1936 from Las Palmas, where he had been exiled as a commander of the military garrison, to Morocco, where he took control of the African army, is well known and has been told before. But what had not been previously emphasised by historians of the Spanish Civil War was the degree to which this episode involved agents of MI6. And it is not just one or two – almost everyone who was party to the plot had been involved at some stage with MI6 as an agent, asset or informer. It is not clear if the flight was undertaken with the sanction of the Service itself but, even if it was not directed by MI6, the Service was happy to see it take place and took no action to stop it. This episode was, as the author suggests, to have monumental consequences. Officially, Britain was ‘neutral’ on Spain, even as Germany and Italy used the Civil War as the testing ground for the major conflict on the horizon. But MI6 was always at its core an anti-Bolshevik organisation and, at best, merely half-hearted in its anti-fascism.
In the 1930s, MI6 was a fairly amateurish service which relied on the myth of the greatness of British intelligence to cover its poor intelligence-gathering capabilities. However, as Franco’s escape illustrates, it could occasionally pull off an operation that justified its reputation. On the back of it, Pollard was chosen to head MI6’s sabotage section in Madrid at the beginning of the Second World War and to take charge of a British plot to restore the Spanish monarchy
LITERARY REVIEW September 2011