The French Revolution: Timeline, Causes and Effects on English Literature

The French Revolution: Causes and Effects on English Literature

The French Revolution

The French Revolution, which broke out in 1789, had affected not merely the political and social destiny of France, but exerted a far-reaching and profound influence in shaping the destiny of the whole continent. Centuries of oppression came to an end. People everywhere were inspired with democratic ideals, and the power of the king and the aristocrats came crumbling down. A wonderful humanitarian enthusiasm and gorgeous dreams of progress and perfections were thus kindled in ardent young soul. As Wordsworth puts it:


“But Europe at the time was thrilled with joy

 France standing on the top of golden hours

And human nature seeming born again.”


The Causes of French Revolution


There were several causes for the French Revolution:


  1. The French society consisted of three orders or ‘estates’- the clergy constituted the First Estate; the nobility (advocates, doctors or merchants), the Second Estate; and the rest of the population (almost 95%), belonged to the Third Estate. The first two estates enjoyed special privileges (e.g. Exemption from paying taxes) while the Third Estate suffered untold misery and poverty.


  1. The court of Louis XVI was known for its extravagance and pomp. The king believed in the divine right of theory and ruled in an arbitrary manner. Besides Queen Marie Antoinette was an arrogant and irritated the already frustrated mass.



  1. A bunch of writers-cum-philosophers like Rousseau, Voltaire with their writings left exercised a tremendous impact to ignite the revolutionary spirit.


  1. The American War of Independence also supplied the oxygen to the French people.


All these brought matters to a boiling point and with the attack of Bastille on 14th July in 1789, the French Revolution began. When the concept of absolute monarchy was rejected Louis XVI sought foreign help. This enraged the mob and the horrifying September Massacre took place. Thousands of royalists, priests and nobles were killed on the street. Louis XVI was beheaded. From 1789 to 1799 there was a Reign of Terror.


The Effects of French Revolution


  1. Before the French Revolution, Catholicism had been the official religion of France. The French Catholic Church had been very powerful and nearly all of France’s population had been Catholic. However after the French Revolution France’s churches had lost much of their power.


  1. The French revolution destroyed the social discriminating class system in France and declared equality for all. The revolution came up with the equality and career open to talents.


  1. This revolution led to the declaration of rights of man and citizens. The constitutional assembly or parliament came out with the document of human rights. It granted political liberty, like freedom of speech, press, association, worship and ownership of property.


  1. The Bourbon monarch that had ruled France for over 400 years came to end by the French revolution. The monarchy rule was abolished in 1792 and replaced it with the Republican form of Government.


  1. The French revolution contributed to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to power without which he would have died a common man. He provided the strong military leadership.


  1. The revolution gave birth to the revolutionary ideas of  “liberty, equality and fraternity” which is the base of democracy of the world.


The French Revolution stirred the British people and affected their literature in a major way. There was a complete break with the Age of Reason and a new kind of literature known as the Romantic Revival came into exist with the publication of Lyrical Ballad (1798). Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Byron, Shelley and Keats were the poets who specialised in this style of poetry. The prose literature of the time was illuminated by the works of Lamb, Hazlitt, De Quincey.

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The drastic change from the rural to the urban that was brought about by the Industrial Revolution had repercussions on literature also.

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