The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Red Cockade: A Novel (1896)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Red Cockade: A Novel was written by Stanley J. Weyman. The British Weyman (1855-1928) was an unsuccessful lawyer who turned to writing to support himself. With the help of Andrew Lang Weyman’s first book, House of the Wolf (1890), was published and his fortune made. Throughout the 1890s Weyman was enormously successful, producing one memorable historical novel after another and earning himself the nickname “the English Dumas.”
Victor, the Vicomte de Saux, is an impetuous, passionate, immature and headstrong twenty-two-year-old noble in France on the eve of the Revolution. He is a forward thinker, or at least as much of one as a member of the French nobility could have been in those days: he removes the carcan, the pillory, from his estates and believes that the nobles' tyranny of the people cannot continue forever. However, when the troubles start, the Vicomte is conflicted. He can't decide whether he wants to support his fellow nobility, who have an unwonted superiority complex and are generally unlikeable--something the Vicomte himself sees and acknowledges--or The People, who are brutal and coarse and not nobility, which matters to the Vicomte. Complicating matters is the presence of Denise, Mademoiselle St. Alais, a lovely seventeen-year-old fresh from the convent. She has been promised to the Vicomte in marriage since both were children, and almost as soon as they see each other they realize they still have feelings for each other. Denise's brother, Louis, the Marquis St. Alais, is a staunch Royalist and the Vicomte's old friend, but when the Vicomte refuses to automatically support the nobility and suppress the rebellion, Louis cuts him off and forbids his marriage to Denise.
When the Revolution begins nobles who Victor knows and likes are attacked and killed. Victor only saves Denise from a mob by wrapping herself and himself in the Tricolour, the new revolutionary flag–even the mob has too much respect for the flag to attack those who wrap themselves in it. Victor declines the offer to join the revolutionary Committee, but Louis is angry with Victor for the trick he used to rescue Denise from the mob. and Louis makes Denise tread on the Tricolor. Louis then sneers at Victor, prompting Victor to snatch the royal ribbon from Louis’ and tread on it. This causes the final break between Victor and Louis, who forbids his sister to see Victor any more. Victor befriends M. Hugues, a soldier who served in America and who has returned to France to organize the troops into a militia to keep the peace, but Hugues is provoked into a duel with Louis and is killed, which further angers Victor with Louis. The peasants who watched the duel and who liked Hugues (and dislike the superior, arrogant Louis) attack Louis, but the Curé of the Cathedral where the duel took place saves Victor and Louis. Louis hesitantly tries to repair the break with Victor, but Victor liked Hugues, and Hugues’ blood is still warm on Louis’ sword, and Victor insults Louis again.
The duel between Louis and Hugues begins a riot which spreads through Cahors, and the local Committee is unwilling or unable to prevent the rioters from burning the local nobles’ houses. Thinking that he has the best chance to save Denise, Victor rushes to the house of the St. Alais and tries to take possession of it in the name of the Committee, but he mob ignores him and storms the house. An elderly guest of the St. Alais briefly holds off the mob before being killed, and in the fight Victor is knocked out. Months pass as Victor recovers in his own house. Tribunals, municipalities, and Committees rule the land, and church privileges have been abolished. Victor has not heard what happened to Denise St. Alais and decides to travel and look for her. He goes to the town of Milhau and meets the Baron de Géol, an impoverished Protestant who is extremely cynical about the changes in government. Victor is told that the town of Milhau is holding prisoner a disguised monk who was traveling with two women. Victor meets the women, who are Denise and her mother, the extremely unpleasant Madame St. Alais. The trio cleverly fool the Mayor of Milhau into releasing them. As they do so Victor and Denise pretend to be engaged, and the vows of love they exchange quickly move from fake to genuine. But as soon as they are free of Milhau Madame St. Alais is cruel to Denise for her “unmaidenly” and “immodest” behavior. Madame hates Victor for having sided with the peasants rather than the nobility, and she scorns Denise for being “the first St. Alais that ever wooed a lover!”
Victor is ready to abandon Madame St. Alais, but Madame tells him that as a gentleman he must travel with both her and Denise to protect them, which Victor reluctantly agrees to. The trio travel south. They meet the Baron de Géol, a Royalist. Madame wants to travel with the Baron. Victor, who holds a commission of the revolutionary government, does not want to. Later Victor is betrayed, robbed, and detained in a rural village, allowing Madame and Denise to proceed on their way to the city of Nîmes. Victor is eventually rescued by the Baron de Géol, and Victor travels to Nîmes, intending to rescue Denise from her mother. After a brief and painful meeting with Louis, in which both Victor and Louis are so happy to see the other that they momentarily forget about what has happened, Victor discovers that Denise is engaged to Froment, a conspirator, and a bourgeois, ambitious, and corrupt. Victor eventually finds the house Denise is held in and sneaks in to see her. She tells him that she only agreed to marry Froment because her mother told her that Victor was dead, and now that he is alive she is happy to marry him. Victor is caught and turned over to Froment, but there is a general uprising in Nîmes, and Froment, knowing that the rebels will eventually lose, lets Victor go to rescue Denise. The nobles in Nîmes are slaughtered by the rebels, but the ladies are allowed out before the killing begins. Victor and Louis survive the massacre, and Victor and Denise marry and move to England.
Stanley J. Weyman was the greatest of the Yellow Nineties historical novelists (see: The Historical Romance) and The Red Cockade is one of his best works. The Red Cockade lacks the pleasantly cynical humor of From the Memoirs of a Minister of France, but in all other ways it shows Weyman at the height of his power. The Red Cockade is not a swashbuckler, but rather a character study. Weyman focuses on Victor, who is never the master of any situation, and who is more often acted upon than the controller of actions. He can be passive and wishy-washy, but he is real in a way that a character like Amyas Leigh (see: Westward Ho!) is not.
Befitting the subject matter, The Red Cockade is generally a more serious novel than From the Memoirs of a Minister of France. There are fewer witticisms and more sober and even somber material. Although Weyman does not attempt (and likely didn’t want to) present a grittily realist portrayal of the events of the Revolution, he does not sugarcoat the ferocity, barbarity, and cowardice of the era. The novel’s conclusion, with pike-wielding rebels of Nîmes cornering the Vicomte, the St. Alais, and the nobles in an alley, is not a scene of joyous dueling, but the occasion of a slaughter. Weyman does not take sides. He is gently cynical about the ideals of the Revolution and the naive hopes of the peasants, but he also sees the attitudes of the nobility which led to the Revolution. Weyman is (slightly) more complimentary of the nobility than the proletariat, but Victor’s pride and class assumptions take a beating. Weyman’s characterization is solid and is delivered through realistic dialogue and simple, economical, well-expressed thoughts. And Weyman creates and maintains an uncertain and tense environment, nicely conveying to the reader the danger of the times.
The Red Cockade is a good example of the late-Victorian attitude toward the French Revolution. The Revolution had been met with horror in contemporary England, but the immediate terrors caused by the Revolution began to fade within a decade. However, Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution (1837) and especially the European revolutions of 1848 renewed the English perception of the French Revolution as being both uniquely horrible and threatening to Great Britain itself, so that by the time Weyman wrote The Red Cockade the English audience’s sympathies were firmly on the side of the Aristocracy and had been for decades. (This would continue into the twentieth century, as seen in the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel [1903-1905]).
The Red Cockade is not a swashbuckler, but it has the occasional nakedly heroic moment. When the elderly guest of the St. Alais is confronted by the mob, his reaction is the equal of a younger and more virile hero:
For a second the old noble’s presence and fearlessness imposed on the vilest; and they stared at him, cowed by his eye. Then he stirred. With a quiet gesture, as of a man saluting before a duel, he caught up the hilt of his sword, and presented the lower point. “Well,” he said with bitter scorn in his tone, “you have come to do it. Which of you will go to hell for the rest? For I shall take one.”1
Print: Stanley J. Weyman, The Red Cockade. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.
1 Stanley J. Weyman, The Red Cockade: A Novel (New York: Longmans, Green, 1898), 204.