Eve Ottenberg in In These Times:
In The Devil in the Holy Water, Darnton, a Harvard professor and director of the Harvard library, explores “how the experience of literature under the Ancien Regime [of France’s Bourbon kings] fed into the radical politics of the revolution.” With summaries of many famous libels, Darnton’s book teems with intrigue, deceit, double-dealing, disguises, blackmail, bribery, extortion and smut.
“For all their venality and disingenuousness, libelers prefigured in some ways the modern investigative reporter,” Darnton writes. Indeed, the French Revolution ushered in an era of a free press with a vast multiplication in the number of newspapers. It also brought with it the full flowering of libel literature—the denunciation of someone as a counter-revolutionary. In 18th-century France, such attacks often led to the guillotine. More recently, under Hitler and Stalin, they have led to gas chambers and labor camps.
Darnton writes that like novels “about real people … libels came to occupy an important sector of the book market by the end of the 17th century.” He leads readers through the slums, garrets and “tawdry cafes” of 18th century London and Paris to illuminate how libelers culled news from their sources, mixed fact and fiction and, with no concept of copyright, lifted from each other extensively. Most news traveled by word of mouth. The libelers then patched together anecdotal rumors and bits of gossip into pamphlets, which sold like hotcakes.
These writers were exquisitely personal in the damage they inflicted, though their aims were often political. “The inability of aristocrats to propagate their line provided a libeler with a favorite theme, along with venereal disease transmitted from brothels to the court,” Darton writes. What better symbol of royal rot than sterility and VD?