An Interview with the Author of The Republic of Virtue

Q: Where did the idea for The Republic of Virtue come from?

Jefferson Flanders: I’ve always been intrigued by the French Revolution, and greatly enjoyed its fictional depiction by Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities), and Victor Hugo (Ninety-Three), and by two romantic novelists of the 20th century, Rafael Sabatini (Scaramouche) and Baroness Orczy (The Scarlet Pimpernel).

The Republic of Virtue, the novel

Then, in reading about Thomas Paine’s life, I discovered that he had been a key player during the early days of the French Revolution, and that, in turn, led me to learn more about the role of Americans in Paris during that time. There seemed to be a story there centered around the American expatriates, and one thing led to another (including a few trips to Paris), and I found myself writing the novel.

I finished The Republic of Virtue more than a decade ago, and my then-agent shopped it to the major New York publishing houses, and while we came close to a deal, it didn’t happen. In the interim, I had written its sequel, The Boston Trader, but I decided to put both manuscripts in the proverbial desk drawer and I moved on to other projects.

Friends who had read the two novels kept asking me whether they would ever see the light of day. When I went back this year and re-read The Republic of Virtue, I decided that while it needed some tightening, it passed my personal litmus test for publication: it’s a book I would enjoy reading. I hope others will feel the same.

Q: The First Trumpet trilogy (Herald Square, The North Building, The Hill of Three Borders) deals with the early Cold War. How does writing fiction about the distant past, the end of the 18th century, differ?

Flanders: It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, there’s a universality to the human experience that transcends time. And by the end of the 18th century, the Enlightenment meant a fair number of people held relatively modern viewpoints about the need for reason, the importance of science, the value of representative government (although not always democratic government), and the role of women in society.

It’s surprising how well-traveled the elites of the period were—they were the equivalent of today’s jet-setters. Benjamin Franklin lived in Boston, Philadelphia, London, and Paris. Thomas Paine, also a cosmopolitan, spent time in numerous countries. And a merchant-trader like Calvin Tarkington, the protagonist of The Republic of Virtue, would have had the opportunity to sail to most of the known world.

Yet, the 18th century was different. How people lived, what they ate, how they thought—it was a different time and place. They were more formal, more deliberately conscious of class and status, more religious, and they were very aware of their mortality—life expectancy being as limited as it was.

So some aspects of life in 1793 are familiar, and some are not.

Q: Why did you set the novel mid-way through the French Revolution, in the summer of 1793?

Flanders: I wanted to capture that inflection point where the Revolution began to spin out of control, where suspicion and paranoia overwhelmed the revolutionary leaders. It was a pivotal time. The uprising of May 31-June 2 in Paris eliminated the more moderate Girondins and centralized power in the hands of the radical Jacobins.

Through much of the summer it looked like the Coalition—England, Austria, Spain—was going to snuff out the Revolution, which would have meant the sack of Paris and, most likely, mass executions of the revolutionaries. At the same time, there were uprisings led by the royalists in the Vendee. And there was the question of Toulon, home of the Great Fleet, and whether the French Navy would remain loyal to the Republic.

All of that made for a very tense time. I like to think the book captures that feeling.

Q: Does the narrative thrust of The Republic of Virtue speak to our own time?

Flanders: I’m fascinated by the human tendency to move to the extremes in crisis. Sadly, I think that speaks to all times and all places. Moderates get shoved aside. As Yeats once wrote: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst. Are full of passionate intensity.”

Civil wars often provoke horrific violence. That was true in the English Civil War, which also featured a regicide, in the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, and in the 20th century conflicts in Indochina and Central America.

We were spared much of that in the American Revolution, I think, because the same leaders guided it from start to finish—George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson—whereas their French counterparts (the constitutionalists) had been purged by 1791. The dynamics of the French Revolution were different and the goals changed over time—from establishing a constitutional monarchy to declaring a Republic to reshaping society into a “Republic of Virtue.”

Was Maximilien Robespierre the Pol Pot of this time? I think the answer is yes. And it was the ambitious young intellectuals, the lawyers and journalists and students, who not only led the charge but also countenanced the terror tactics and the killings, in both France and Cambodia.

There were decent people who supported the initial reforms—Lafayette, Paine, Brissot, and others—never imagining things could spiral out of control.

I think it was Lenin who said that revolutions attract the best, and worst, of humanity.

Q: What about The Boston Trader? Will it also see the light of day?

Flanders: It will, in 2015. In The Boston Trader, Calvin Tarkington heads to Ch’ing dynasty China, where he becomes entangled in the political struggle between East and West around the tea trade and, later, opium. Like The Republic of Virtue, it’s a historical thriller meant to engage and bring a different time and place to life for readers.

Copyright © 2014 Jefferson Flanders
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