Le Miroir des événemens actuels (1790) is an allegory written by François-Félix Nogaret (1740–1831), a one-time courtier, poet and author of erotic prose, who adopted a ‘republican’ position during the French Revolution. He published the work during the most optimistic moment of the Revolution, when the Festival of the Federation gathered thousands of Frenchmen in oaths of loyalty to the king and the nation.
Le Miroir tells of a contest launched to stimulate innovation in a long-ago time and place where the people were living under oppressive rule. For the inventor of the most appealing machine, the prize would be the judge herself: a good-natured though poor girl named Aglaonice. Six inventors compete. They represent state-of-the-art science and technology under the Old Regime, by using microscopes, telescopes and hot-air balloons.
While the political message of Le Miroir was obsolete by the time it was reprinted in 1795, the contest narrative still interests readers because it may have inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). The fifth inventor is announced as Wak-wik-vauk-on-son-frankénsteïn, later as simply Frankénstein. His invention represents the peak in period robotics: in keeping with his middle name Vaucanson (a famous French engineer and automaton maker), the inventor presents Aglaonice with a life-size male robot made of metal who plays the flute. The moment when the robot encounters the heroine is striking to modern readers because, by describing a flautist playing a song so sweet that it makes the heroine swoon, the author suggests that emotion may be communicated from machine to human – the ultimate puzzle to engineering.
After the Revolution of 1789–94 was over, Le Miroir was forgotten until the scholarship of Julia Douthwaite brought it back into circulation. A new generation of scholars is thus exploring Frankenstein’s origins and ties to Revolutionary France.
Label written by Julia V Douthwaite.
Relevant works by Julia V Douthwaite:
The Frankenstein of 1790 and other Lost Chapters from Revolutionary France (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2012)
Le Frankenstein français et la littérature de l'ère révolutionnaire. Trans. Pierre André and Alexane Bébin. Preface by Jean-Clément Martin. (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2016)
With Daniel Richter, ‘The Frankenstein of the French Revolution: Nogaret’s Automaton Tale of 1790’, European Romantic Review 20, 3 (2009), 381–411. This article won the Best Article of 2009 award given by the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism and the European Romantic Review (2010).