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A Book Set in the French Revolution Examines Capital Punishment

State of the Arts

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Marc Estrin
  • Marc Estrin

Although many heads ultimately rolled during France’s years of political disarray, leaders hotly debated the morality of state-sponsored execution in the revolt’s idealistic early days.

Unusual elements often fuse in the alchemy that inspires a work of fiction. Burlington writer and activist Marc Estrin cites two catalysts for his latest project, The Good Doctor Guillotin: An Anatomy of Five, that seem completely unrelated: an interest in the case of the Vermonter sent to death row, and the desire to read a popular tome about the French Revolution. Capital punishment is the topic that linked them. Although many heads ultimately rolled during France’s years of political disarray, leaders hotly debated the morality of state-sponsored execution in the revolt’s idealistic early days, just as Americans do today.

Most of The Good Doctor Guillotin is a historical novel, set in the tumultuous years just before and at the dawn of the Revolution. Estrin traces how the lives of five characters intersect at a gruesome hour on April 25, 1792: the first execution by the newly unveiled guillotine. Brief nonfiction essays, in which Estrin opines on past and present political topics, introduce each series of chapters.

“The initial inspiration was the work that I’m doing with Vermonters Against the Death Penalty, which started with the Donnie Fell case a couple of years ago,” Estrin recalls. (Federal prosecutors successfully secured a capital sentence against Fell in 2006 for taking a Rutland murder victim across state lines in 2000.) Book projects often become the “focus for research and reading that I’ve been wanting to do for a while,” Estrin confesses. He’d been “looking for an excuse to read” Simon Schama’s Citizens, a sprawling history of France’s first flirtation with democracy.

This began a six-month path of research. Four of the novel’s five principals are real historical people. “There wasn’t much about anybody,” Estrin explains. “So I had to make up a lot of stuff” to flesh out skeletal biographical materials. The characters feel authentic because they inhabit a world thoroughly grounded in period detail. They also interact with other historical figures about whom more is known, such as Mozart, Robespierre and the Marquis de Sade.

The novelist creates a rich inner life for each character. Most compelling is that of the doctor, who is also a political reformer and ardent opponent of capital punishment. He doesn’t think enough fellow National Assembly delegates can be persuaded to abolish the death penalty, so he proposes creating a swifter and supposedly less painful method than those used at the time: a mechanical decapitation device.

Guillotin doesn’t invent the tall wooden frame with the efficient triangular blade — it is based on Scottish and Italian designs already in use. Nor does he build it; a German piano maker living in Paris does. But, as Estrin writes, “the good Doctor Guillotin [is] a man doomed by laughing fate to immortal scorn. He wanted an egalitarian justice system, a more humane method of execution. In return he was haunted by repulsion and sniggering, by dirty pointing fingers and hands going chop-chop at the neck.” Guillotine is a feminine noun that implies the death machine is the humanitarian’s daughter.

Capital punishment wasn’t outlawed in France until 1981. The last execution took place in Marseille, in 1977. The method? The only one used in that country since the French Revolution: guillotine.

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