Skip to main content

Book Review Flawed but fascinating

PAUL SIMON recommends a biography of the uncompromising 19th-century French revolutionary Emmanuel Barthelemy

The Murderer of Warren Street
by Marc Mulholland
(Hutchinson, £16.99)

THIS book's title is deliberately ironic in capturing the last, and in many ways least consequential, action of the French protosocialist Emmanuel Barthelemy.

The circumstances surrounding Barthelemy’s alleged murder of two Englishmen in 1854 at an address in London's Warren Street are confused and contradictory and provide little guidance either as to his past exploits or his future intended action — the assassination of Napoleon III.

By this stage he was clearly someone that the British government thought expendable as it tried boost its relationship with France during the ill-fated Crimean War.

Marc Mulholland describes the events leading up to a scandal that titillated mid-Victorian fears and sensibilities in a largely chronological and erudite account.

Barthelemy emerges as an almost Promethean working-class hero. Inspired by the Jacobin St Just during the French revolution, the young man was sent to the galleys for killing an agent of the Establishment in 1830 before his release to become a key barricade commander during the June days of 1848 as the red republicans strove to wrest control from the bourgeoisie in Paris.

One of many continental escapees to England, Barthelemy continued his uncompromising revolutionary agitation among the large emigre community. He met, among others, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Alexander Herzen and, almost inevitably, he fell out with the first two while maintaining an affectionate and close relationship with the latter, a stylish Russian emigre.

Mulholland’s account demonstrates that Barthelemy was not just a brave and smart fighter for the cause of the emerging French proletariat but also a reflective thinker, if not a full-blown theorist in the Marxist mode. His writing about the need for a parallel and militant-working class force to keep any reformist government on the right track has direct echoes in later writings by Marx and Engels.

And the author’s erudition allows the reader to comprehend the much wider circumstances in which Barthelemy operated and in which his fate was finally decided. Barthelemy’s specific French mindset at crucial moments overrode his revolutionary sensibilities, not least when it came to duelling — he fought the last fatal duel in England — and they are well documented.

Mulholland’s greatest weakness, echoing Barthelemy’s, is his inability to keep himself out of the picture. At times the editorialising is utterly unnecessary —Barthelemy’s focus on killing monarchs was, he tells us, “quite unjustifiable but it had a certain perverse logic.”

Worse still, Mulholland employs the anachronistic device of using Barthelemy to settle political scores surrounding events that took place nearly a century after those he records, including the juvenile assertion that “there was as yet no Stalinist party with the monolithic control” to eradicate individuality.

Yet, these flaws aside, this book provides much needed detail about a man usually confined to the footnotes in histories of 19th-century revolutionary movements.

If Barthelemy is a character to be admired for his partisanship and utter commitment to the revolutionary cause, he's also a reminder of what happens when the individual separates himself too readily from the mass of that same movement.

 

OWNED BY OUR READERS

We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 5,907
We need:£ 12,093
18 Days remaining
Donate today