Home > 2000, 21st Century, Chateaubriand François-René de, French Literature, History of France, Hugo Victor, Non Fiction, Winock Michel > Voices of Freedom: militant writers in the 19th Century by Michel Winock – France between 1815 and 1885.

Voices of Freedom: militant writers in the 19th Century by Michel Winock – France between 1815 and 1885.

December 16, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Voices of Freedom. Militant writers in the 19thC century by Michel Winock (2001) Not available in English. Original French title: Les Voix de la liberté. Les écrivains engagés au XIXème siècle.

After reading an anthology of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs From Beyon the Grave, I decided to finally pick from my shelves Winock’s Voices of Freedom. Militant writers in the 19thC. It’s a 600 pages essay that describes how writers fought for the freedom of speech in France from 1815 to 1885.

It goes from the fall of Napoléon to the death of Victor Hugo. Since several of you liked the timeline I included in my Chateaubriand billet, here’s a new one with political regimes in France from the birth of Chateaubriand to the death of Victor Hugo. I chose these two writers because they have been involved in public life during their whole career. Chateaubriand was well-respected and Hugo wanted to be Chateaubriand or nothing.


Political Regime





Hugo’s age



King Louis XV

King Louis XVI

1789-1799: French Revolution


Not born


First Republic



1792-1802 Revolutionary wars


Born in 1802





Napoleonic wars




Constitutional Monarchy

King Louis Philippe

King Charles X





Constitutional Monarchy

King Charles X

July Revolution




July Monarchy






Second Republic


Abolition of slavery




Second Republic

Louis Napoléon Bonaparte

12/1848 : Louis Napoléon Bonaparte is elected President




Second Republic

Louis Napoléon Bonaparte

Coup d’état




Second Empire

Napoléon III





Fall of the Second Empire

Third Republic


War with Prussia

France loses Alsace-Moselle terrirories




Third Republic



1871 Commune de Paris



It’s not going to be easy to sum up this book and I’ll concentrate on my reaction to it.

Winock’s angle in his essay is the fight for the freedom of speech and for free press but he ends up writing up 70 years of public life in France. He takes the word “écrivain” (writer) is a broad sense, including literary writers (Hugo, Lamartine, Chateaubriand), historians (Michelet), political science writers (Tocqueville, Guizot, Quinet, Prévost-Paradol), theology and religion thinkers (Renan, Veuillot), journalists (all of them!), social writers (Flora Tristan) and “socialist” theorists (Proudhon, Saint-Simon). Let’s use the anachronistic term “intellectuals” to embrace them in one word.

It tells so much about where France comes from and explains our vision of a secular State, our attachment to political and religious caricatures and our idea of freedom of speech as a cardinal value of the republic.

Winock takes us through the political battles, revolutions and theories that involved writers between 1815 and 1885. These are fascinating 70 years. The country had to recover from the Revolution and the Empire, political thinkers and writers started to research the revolutionary years and assess these years and especially the Terror. What good did the Revolution do? They all agree upon one thing: going back to the old absolute monarchy isn’t possible. The French society has changed too much.

During these years, intellectuals researched and wrote about the best regime for the country. Parliamentary monarchy? Empire? Republic? Various strong currents pulled or pushed one way or the other and the Catholic church meddled in the discussion. Monarchy and religion go hand in hand. For the monarchists, the country must be catholic and the power in place an alliance between church and politics. (The Pope Pie IX played a role too) In opposition to the monarchists, how strong political currents developed under the “secular” banner, to keep faith and religion private and out of public affairs. Tocqueville travels to America and comes back with ideas. There were a lot of debate about voting and which citizen should qualify to vote. 

These seventy years also see the industrial revolution settle in France and modern capitalism building lasting roots. Writers start to pay attention to the poor: Victor Hugo writes Les Misérables; in spite of him, Eugène Sue becomes the champion of the destitute with his Mysteries of Paris and Zola too, with L’Assomoir or Germinal.

Feminism finds voices in Flora Tristan, George Sand and Louise Michel.

Newpapers bloom or survive, according to the times and how tight the power in place takes the reins of freedom of speech. Newpapers may need an approval before publication or not. Books and articles are published abroad, mostly in Belgium and Switzerland and cross borders secretly. Napoléon III was especially ferocious against freedom of speech. For example, the newspaper La Lanterne crossed the border between Belgium and France hidden in Napoléon III busts. They got busted when one of the sculptures broke at the border and the smuggling was discovered.

In parallel to political thinking, technical and social progress improve the people’s access to newspapers. At the beginning of the century, political opinions traveled through songs written by political singers like Béranger, who was a huge star at the time. There were also reading cabinets, where readers could borrow papers and read. Between 1815 and 1885, more and more children went to school. In 1832, 53% of twenty-year olds couldn’t read. Their number dropped to 8.5% in 1892. The press soared, as Maupassant describes it in Bel Ami and technical progress in printing and assembling articles for print concurred to its growth.

The book is a vivid rendition of these years, moving from one writer to the other, showing their personal development and the course of their thinking. Lamartine was instrumental to the Second Republic. Balzac had ideas that were really backward and Winock points out that his books had the opposite result to what he expected. Flaubert stayed away from politics but stirred some trouble with Madame Bovary. Stendhal wanted to be consul in Italy. We see Constant, Chateaubriand, Baudelaire, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Vallès, Sand and many other writers and their position on events.

Victor Hugo is truly a monument of the century. Romanticism applied to theatre plays (the battle of Hernani) fought against the theatre rules imposed by classicism (Corneille, Racine) It was an oblique way to champion the Revolution and its ideals. Hugo led that battle. His exile in Guernsey for as long as Napoléon III was in power increased his prestige. Like Chateaubriand, he didn’t change sides when it was convenient. Les Misérables was a literary bomb and what I discovered about his political views warmed me to him as a man and a thinker. Already dreaming of the United States of Europe in the 1880s! He was always on the side of the poor and that endeared me to him.

I loved this journey among militant writers in the 19th century. It showed me how hard earned is our current freedom of speech, why our streets have these names, where our contemporary vision of the republic stems from. These seventy years are a cauldron of thoughts, of theories that founded our modern society. It’s the development of today’s capitalism, the roots of communism and socialism, the birth of social thinking (unions, benefits for the poor, solidarity between the haves and the have nots), the political development that discarded monarchy forever and settled on republic for the country and the real beginning of education for the masses and mass communication through newspapers.

A fascinating read. Now I need to read Les Misérables, Bel Ami and Les Mystères de Paris.

  1. December 16, 2020 at 7:43 am

    This is *brilliant*, Emma.
    Topical, clearly argued, and a passionate assertion of the right to free speech.


    • December 16, 2020 at 10:33 pm

      Thank you, Lisa. It was a fascinating read.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. December 16, 2020 at 11:54 am

    If Australians had even once fought for free speech they mightn’t give it up so easily. I don’t think the intrusive controls and surveillance to which we have been subject since, first 9/11 and now Covid-19, will ever be lifted this side of a revolution.
    Let us know if you ever see this book become available in English. I have Sartre, Barthes, Cohn-Bendit and Frank Jellinek (The Paris Commune) on my shelves, but no Proudhon, sadly. I’m sure I’ll retire and start catching up on my reading and philosophy one day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 16, 2020 at 10:40 pm

      The French really have a tradition of fighting for it and demonstrating.
      I’m worried about all the freedom we’re letting go for the sake of security too.

      I’m not sure it’ll ever be translated but someone must have written a book about this in English too. All the writers you mention are from the 20thC.

      I’m more interested in the 19thc probably because this century is the foundation of our modern world and also because I find such a contrast between what Romantic writers wrote and their political career. (Chateaubriand, Lamartine)


  3. December 16, 2020 at 12:43 pm

    I have read Flora Tristan’s Peregrinations of a pariah, and have often thought of re-reading it to have it on my blog. A fascinating woman.

    Thanks for this great post, Emma. I loved studying modern history, and one of the main topics in that was Revolutionary France. Fascinating, but I’d forgotten some of it in the ensuing years. I loved your timeline, and your analysis of what this writer says about the foundations of modern France.


    • December 16, 2020 at 12:59 pm

      Sue and Emma, far be it for me to dictate when you post stuff. But. I’m thinking of making my next Gen week (Jan.2022) Gen 0 – that is women, not Australian of course, whose ideas led to the first generation of Australian women writers being such free thinkers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • December 16, 2020 at 1:14 pm

        Ah, then that might be my prompt. I can live with that Bill! (You’ll have to remind me though! Haha.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • December 16, 2020 at 10:44 pm

        Would George Sand qualify for that category? I should read Indiana, I’ve never read it.


        • December 17, 2020 at 12:49 am

          Yes Sand! And writers of whom I have never heard. My biggest problem is guessing which writers C19th Australians actually read, most of them only admit to Shakespeare and Byron. Anyway, we have a year to tease this out.


          • December 19, 2020 at 10:29 pm

            You’re going to work on a list, then?

            According to my notes, in her autobiography, CH Spence says that she’s read Austen, Dickens, Alphonse Daudet, Zola, Balzac, Racine, Molière, George Moore.

            Liked by 1 person

            • December 20, 2020 at 12:38 am

              Thank you Emma, I can’t believe you noted that! We’re on our way.


              • December 20, 2020 at 10:08 am

                When you read ebooks, you can highlight everything you want and get the quotes in a Word file. Easy.
                And I like knowing the writers who influenced the writer I’m reading. She sure read a lot of French lit.


    • December 16, 2020 at 10:43 pm

      I’ve read Tristan’s thoughts about her trip to London. I should read more by her, she was a fascinating woman.

      Winock also mentions Madame de Staël and she’s also a writer I’ve never read. She had a very interesting life too.


  4. December 16, 2020 at 2:04 pm

    I haven’t read or even heard of Flora Tristan, to my great shame. Fascinating post – and yes, a very impressive set of people. I think there was more militancy in writing in the 19th century/early to mid 20th century in Britain too, but it seems to have all but died now.


    • December 16, 2020 at 10:52 pm

      I’ve read Tristan’s Promenades dans Londres and I liked it. I should read Périgrinations d’une paria. She had a fascinating life.

      I wonder if Sartre killed militancy in writing. He was so vocal and so, so wrong. His blindness toward communism is unforgivable. To be so intelligent and so stupid at the same time.

      Worse : the militant writers still exist but cannot be heard because complex thinking has no place on social networks and on TV and in commercial press.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. December 16, 2020 at 3:31 pm

    Thank you for this excellent post Emma. I’ve read a little about publishing history and how publications, books, etc. would be printed in various locations and moved across borders, but it would be interesting to see it placed in this broader context. (Love the story about the paper being smuggled in Napoléon III busts!)


    • December 16, 2020 at 10:54 pm

      I loved the cheek of smuggling papers in Napoléon III busts.

      I think I’d like to read something about the story of publishing too. In Europe, I think that the places to publish controversial books were Switzerland, Holland and Belgium.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. December 16, 2020 at 8:44 pm

    I read his quite enjoyable biography of Flaubert and it seems I should follow it up with this one. It’s always interesting and useful to be reminded where what we see as basic social values come from and what struggles were needed to embed them (sort of).


    • December 16, 2020 at 10:58 pm

      I’m not sure I’d like to read a biography of Flaubert but I think Winock’s writing is easy to read for non academics.
      I was shocked by what he said about Balzac. It’s the kind of books that leaves you thinking about which writer you would have liked to meet.
      Not sure I would have liked to meet Balzac, Baudelaire or Stendhal but Victor Hugo, Chateaubriand, George Sand, yes.

      As a French, I thought it put some things in place in my head, telling me why we think that way and why we are different from other European countries.


  7. December 16, 2020 at 10:05 pm

    Wonderful post Emma. I wish this book was available in English, but anyway you certainly enthuse me to read all those wonderful French books of that era I have on the shelves!!


    • December 16, 2020 at 11:01 pm

      Thanks. It sure pushes one to read French classics.

      When I reread Madame Bovary as an adult (along with Guy, so billet on the blog), I realized how offensive Flaubert was in his novel. Winock gives other clues.

      Liked by 1 person

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