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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books


French Exile Journalism and European Politics, 1792 - 1814

Burrows, Simon. French Exile Journalism and European Politics, 1792-1814. (Royal Historical Society Studies in History; New Series.) London: Royal Historical Society, 2001. 288 pages. ISBN# 0861932498. 35.00. Hardcover.

It is perhaps ironic that only in the days of modern instant communication and political spin doctoring that much more is becoming known about the role of "Grub Street" in the war effort of 200 years ago. Napoleon's own contribution to spin is well-known, so here Simon Burrows examines the efforts made by French emigres to shift opinion both within France and outside to the restoration of order through the turbulent 1790s.

The papers began with the mass exoduses from France of 1792-3 and this is the story of the sometimes hand-to-mouth existence of a relative handful of publishers who tried to keep various papers going. Although at this time, the London times was already becoming established, the migr papers were more akin to modern magazines, relying on subscription income and mostly being produced at fortnightly or longer intervals with circulations of less than a thousand. However, having started as a mix of culture and politics, the papers increasingly moved towards pushing particular political lines as the factions jockeyed for power in Paris.

Given the private nature of these operations, a surprising amount of material has survived and it is possible for Burrows to paint clear images of several proprietors, especially Mallet du Pan; although many of those involved remain shadowy figures, as do their links with the Bourbons. Having dealt with the rather complex (and sometimes rather Byzantine) business angle, Burrows goes on to explain the propaganda war and sets out a framework upon which doubtless more will be written.

The book is a joint publication between the Royal Historical Society and Boydell & Brewer, publishers of Elizabeth Sparrow's book: Secret Service, so it is interesting to see several of the minor characters from Sparrow's work also showing up in this, revealing the links between the open and more clandestine migr efforts.

The newspapers themselves were also translated into English to keep British opinion with the migrs as Britain struggled with the costs of war in the 1790s. The author gets a little ahead of himself in the propaganda section taking the story up to 1810 before returning to the detail of the 1790s, which can mix up the national policy considerations with rivalries amongst the various migr factions. Nevertheless, the failure of the migrs to form any kind of cohesive unity is clear and, like today, various papers followed their own viewpoint.

As with so many aspects of the period, the competing ideas and factions shift to a direct focus on the new regime of Napoleon Bonaparte following the coup d'etat of November 1799. The British government begins to take a greater interest in several papers and arranges substantial subscriptions to keep the favoured papers going, while at the same time, Bonaparte's regime seeks to close down any free press in the territories it controls and limit criticism from elsewhere. The struggle reaches its high point in the libel case brought on behalf of the First Consul against Peltier, publisher of L'Ambigu (the title itself reflecting the mixed reaction to Bonaparte) in late 1802.

The British government had tried to keep the lid on the press whilst preserving its freedom in the period immediately following the Treaty of Amiens, but the pressure both of Napoleon's efforts to suppress adverse comment and the confusion in emigre ranks caused by his invitations to return. Some migr papers were favourable, while others become even more opposed to the French government. The journalistic output of this period provides an extra angle to the breakdown of relations between Britain and France within a year of Amiens. Then the British government increasingly supports the anti-Bonaparte papers as tools of propaganda across Europe and even into the American continent as the now Imperial French regime tightened its grip on its own press.

Napoleon's struggle with the Pope also became a key part of migr reporting and the journalistic background to several key events provides a new angle on them. The book concludes with an assessment of the creation of the Black Legend of Napoleon. In noting its origins amongst the migr press, Burrows demonstrates how this extreme attack actually stifled a more reasoned critique of the Bonapartist regime and thereby allowed the romantic notion to come to fruition both in the reign of Napoleon III and today's revival.

Further reading would include W.J. Murray's The Right-Wing Press in the French Revolution 1789-92 from the same publishers, British Periodical Press and the French Revolution, 1789-99 by Stuart Andrews and Wayne Hanley's forthcoming The Genesis of Napoleonic Propaganda, 1796 to 1799. Although this is book is expensive, it is a hopeful sign - the cost is higher because this is on a short run, but at least some publishers are prepared to print worthwhile material and there is more in this book than many of the standard popular histories of the period. An illuminating and worthwhile, if rather complex, read, which shows there is little new in the press of today.

Reviewed by Dave Hollins
November 2001