Penned in Prison: The Bohemians and the Bastille

In this Bastille Day essay, Penn Press intern Alli Hoff considers the creative power of imprisionment.

Out of the represssive, sunlight-deficient, and dehumanizing walls of the eighteenth-century Bastille emerged several literary gems. The Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom (Les 120 journee de Sodome) and the beginnings of Voltaire’s La Henriade were two of the best-known. Less celebrated, but now available for the first time since its original publication in 1790, was The Bohemians (Les Bohemiens), penned by the Marquis De Pelleport from within the confines of the Bastille.

While we certainly have every reason to celebrate the 222 years since the demise of the Bastille, Vivian Folkenflik's translation of The Bohemians forces us to consider the prision's merits as a creative bastion. Robert Darnton, who discovered the unknown book while researching its author, introduces the novel with an exploration of its origins that brings such paradigm shifts into sharp relief.

The Marquis De Pelleport was born into the aristocracy but sank to a class of creative drifters that we now know as bohemians. Along with many of his French fellows, De Pelleport frequented London’s notorious Grub Street, where he networked with similarly outcast characters. De Pelleport’s rise to infamy came with his involvement in a ring of political libelers.  He ultimately became the best known of the libelers and was lured by the authorities to the Bastille as part of blackmail negotiations.

De Pelleport endured an unusually long term in the Bastille. Darnton describes the dark conditions of his life there and the extent to which the hopeless atmosphere inspired the creation of The Bohemians. While the specific dates are somewhat fuzzy, De Pelleport was released before the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. When his novel was released the following year, it lacked political content­– and, therefore, social currency– and was largely forgotten. 

Now, as we observe both Bastille Day and the discovery of this long-lost work of literature, it is interesting to consider the changes that bring us to a day in age where incarceration is rarely an opportunity for creative expression. Can we attribute the literary output of the Bastille simply to the prison’s supply of writing material, or was it the mindset of men in such despair and frustration that created works like The Bohemians?  No matter the reason, Bastille Day provides an apt opportunity to honor the celebrated, lost, and newly-rediscovered literature of the eighteenth-century fortress.

Alli Hoff is a senior at the George Washington University, where she is studying journalism. The Bohemians will be available in paperback this summer.