The Big Question: Ann Wroe picks a month that was invented during the French Revolution
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013
Brumaire is the second month of the twelve-month French revolutionary calendar; it runs from mid-October to mid-November. Its heyday lasted long enough to leave one date in history, 18 Brumaire (in Year VIII, roughly 1799), when Napoleon established the consular government that led to his despotism. Otherwise, like its companions—snowy Nivôse and rain-sprinkled Pluviôse, garlanded Floréal and Germinal of the green, growing shoots—it has faded into the fogs of human arrangements past.
It’s not just perversity that makes me choose it, but also a sense of dissatisfaction with Western months as they are: a dull march of gods, emperors and numerals, with no flavour or scent of the seasons they are meant to represent. Bengalis know that in Phalgun the dust flies like a harum-scarum boy down village lanes, and in Sraban the loud monsoon soaks the thatch; just as, in revolutionary France, Frimaire brought hoar-frost creaking under the sabots, and Ventôse the blasts of late winter roaring through the oaks.
Brumaire expresses—rather than marks—Keats’s season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. It is the quintessence of autumn, damps as well as brights, in a way neat October or pure November can never be. Its essence is stillness: the lull before the storm, the lit pipe, the comfort of apples laid up in newspaper and heavy barn doors shut. A quiet cloak of vapour announces the day, gathered in bushes and hanging in the trees. Through that mist colours appear, glowing like separated flames. The same fog enshrouds the sky, which clears slowly to a cold, deep blue before, in mid-afternoon, the air thickens perceptibly, as if filled with smoke from the pinkly burning sun.
Leaves still crowd the boughs, but they are falling fast, the trees shedding and reflecting themselves on the muddy ground. It was in Brumaire, give or take a day or two, that Dorothy Wordsworth saw her favourite birch tree, bright yellow against the dark mountains, swept by a "flying sunshiny shower", to become a spirit-tree. This is the moment the autumn palette spreads across the woods. Pale gold, dark crimson, yellow ochre, burnt umber, now join with lingering green, as if the leaves turned over in their minds their memories of the sun. Beside fresh-ploughed fields, stray straws and stubble still glint golden in the sunlight before bonfires consume them and the night mists rise.
This is a month of scarves and boots, when hope of any brief return to summer is finally put away. We batten down, and turn our faces towards the dissolving and vaporising and falling away of things. It is a month of letting go, as the trees do, the lighter to leap towards the spring—as if the dead weight of winter did not lie in between.
Ann Wroe is the obituaries editor of The Economist and author of "Orpheus: The Song of Life"