I am reading A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel–24th on my #readwomen2014 shelf– and am still very early in the book, when the future leaders of the French Revolution are all young men starting out in their careers. As Hilary Mantel has it, young Maximilien de Robespierre was a quiet, well-groomed, workaholic lawyer who often worked pro bono, was kind to his sisters, and kept his domestic affairs rather spartan. It is difficult to reconcile this unassuming, slightly tedious young man with the better-known and widely vilified historical memory of Robespierre as persuasive orator and terror apologist. (I am comfortably certain that the next 700 pages will explore this evolution in depth.)
Another detail which seems incongruous with either version of Robespierre: Hilary Mantel, who loves humanizing history’s monsters, tosses off a wry reference to a poem he wrote as a young man, an ode to tarts.
The full version in French is included in The Life of Maximilien Robespierre by George Henry Lewes (life partner of George Eliot!):
Je te rends grace, ô toi qui d’une main habile,
Faĉonnant le premier une pâte docile,
Presentas aux mortels ce mets delicieux.
Mais ont-ils reconnu ce bienfait precieux?
De tes divins talens consacrent la mémoire,
Leur zèle a-t-il drésse des autels à ta gloire?
Cent peuples, prodigiant leur encens et leurs voeux,
Ont rempli l’univers de temples et de dieux:
Ils ont tous oublié ce sublime génie.
Qui pour eux sur la terre apporta l’ambroisie;
La tarte en leurs festine domine avec honneur,
Mais daignent-ils songer à son premier autheur!
There’s a rhyming translation floating around Tumblr which I think is reasonably faithful to the French:
I give thee thanks who first with skillful hand
Did fashion paste and pastry to command,
And gave to mortals this delicious dish
So nothing more was left for them to wish.
Have they raised altars to thy glorious name,
All consecrated to thy talents’ fame?
Hundreds of lands are prodigal of vows
The universe, its groves and temples, shows;
But of thy genius they have little ken,
Who brought Ambrosia on the earth to men
Pies reign in honour at their festal board
But thou’rt forgot as if by one accord.
Lewes offers some background for this odd little verse. Robespierre in his early twenties wrote and recited poetry with a literary circle who called themselves Les Rosatis, so an off-the-cuff poem is not out of character. The tart rhapsody was written in a letter to some friends after he visited Carvins, a town in the Artois province of France. “Ever since last Saturday I have been eating tarts,” Robespierre writes.” For reasons best known to his hosts, a bed was placed for Robespierre in a patisserie, forcing him to exercise supreme mastery over his passion to eat tarts all night long. He writes to his correspondent of building a temple to the inventor of tarts, and jokes that he counts on powerful support from the clergy for this project. Robespierre had written elsewhere that he does not feel that pleasures are real unless they are shared; in regard to his pie passion, he adds, “To eat tarts is nothing. One must eat them in good company.” Segue to a headcount of all the lieutenants and persons of note he broke pie crust with in the tiny town of Carvins.
An admittedly hurried skim of The Food Timeline did not reveal what an Artesian tart might have looked like at the end of the eighteenth century, so please enjoy this toppling brioche painted in approximately the same period by our good friend Chardin.