First we establish the year, which is nowhere explicitly mentioned. However, we learn immediately that Fouquier-Tinville is public prosecutor, a post he held from March 10 1793 until July 28 1794. Since the novel opens in March, the only possibilities are 1793 and 1794.
But the scene depicted in Chapter I could not have occurred in March 1793, let alone in February 1793 ("Just so, a month ago, had her father been rent from them…"), for the Reign of Terror had not yet begun in earnest—it is typically dated from late in 1793. Indeed, the Revolutionary Tribunal is explicitly mentioned, but it was not so named until October 1793. So the year is 1794.
To get precise dates, we start in Chapter V, where we learn that Mme. de Montsorbier escaped from Chauvinière on a March morning which we know to be a Sunday. (They leave Paris on Thursday and their chaise breaks down on the Saturday that they should have arrived in Nevers; the escape is the next morning.) Chauvinière proceeds to Nevers and spends a week there, after which he "took up his neglected duties" and "in that month of April, the Nivernais came to shudder…". So the possibilities for the Sunday of escape are March 30 and March 23, in the latter case with Chauvinière taking up his duties at the very end of March.
We identify the more likely of these possibilities by examining Cléonie's account of her travails [Chapter VII]. The day after escaping she was given shelter by peasants, then she made a practice of travelling by night, was twice more discovered by peasants and given shelter, had been driven to steal, and so forth. Following all of this, she lost her way. This could have happened no later than April 9 because she subsequently travelled the wrong direction for two days, became ill, recovered for ten days, and then after another week of travel encountered Corbal on (as we will see) April 28. It doesn't seem possible that the events preceding her loss of way, including "some days" spent with the first set of peasants, could be packed into at most ten days. We conclude that the date of escape was Sunday March 23.
Working backwards, we find that Mme. de Monsorbier escaped from the asylum on Thursday March 20, having been transferred there that morning from Baziret's hospital. She was visited by Chauvinière the preceding day, itself a week after the opening scene, which was therefore March 12.
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Copyright © 2007 Larry Denenberg