I think the word that I am required to use here – by law, no less – is “magisterial”.
The book is 875 pages,each chock full of ideas, events, facts and emotion. This is serious, “high” history in the tradition of Gibbon, Norwich, and Massie. There are all authors given to enormous historical tomes that span huge topics like “Venice” “The French Revolution” “WWI”, etc in one book. Yet possess some magic for making it all come alive and come together in a historically rigorous narrative.
You might be surprised to hear this, but how one writes history is a controversial topic, or at least one of some debate. You see, ideology and politics are involved here. In the nineteenth century (book-ended with Napoleon and Nietzseche) history was seen as a general slow progress towards higher level of civilisation, with most events being dominated by “great men”. You know: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Voltaire, Newton, Napoleon; all those big names that you recognise.
This conception, while not exactly in-favour in academia, has its ideological decendants and off-shoots that if they do not exactly claim that history is the record of “great men” bending the world to their will, then they at least strenuously deny the opposite.
The rival idea, the academic name is “structuralism”, argues that history is an open-ended process, produced by large institutions. In more ideological terms, this means a very sort of socialist and even a classically Marxist perspective. This is a world where economic class is everything; the “Base” of the economy dictates the “Superstructure”. Structuralism has also fallen out of favour, being replaced successively with “post-structuralism”; and even post-structuralism has been extensively modified and riffed off of by the likes of Michel Foucault and others.
Meanwhile there is still a debate over the role of the individual in history. The chain of causality and the problem of free will make it almost impossible to disentangle where one man’s will begins and ends. In practical terms, there is no answer here. It is safe to say that the “great men” in history where simply the right men at the right time in the right place. Instead of bending the world to their vision of the future, they can be accurately seen as men surfing a series of much larger forces and processes.
On the other hand, it is clear that the individual does matter. Individual choices matter. We might be trapped by our socio-economic context, but it is possible to break out of these contexts. This, combined with the human cognitive need for narrative, sequence and order implies that as history will only make sense to us as a narrative, we might as well tell it as a narrative.
Thus, Simon Schama aside from being an astute historian and talented writer, displays an sagacious knowledge of the historiography of the the French Revolution and the intellectual history that has shaped political and historical debate. I greatly appreciated this aspect; it enriches the book and increases its value. It makes me feel comfortable saying that Schama’s book here is probably the Gold Standard of histories of the French Revolution.
Schama’s basic technique is to paint a portrait of key individuals, such as Lafayette, Talleyrand, Robespierre, Danton, Louis XIV, etc. He copiously quotes from private letters. For example, he quotes from several private letters from a typical deputy to the National Convention, which vividly depicts the shift from slightly a naive, cheerful nationalist/royalist with a faith in human reason to an “ultra”; a radical democrat, convinced that a royalist plot to over through the Republic is everywhere.
The French Revolution emerges as a maelstrom of violence; mob riots, propaganda, political terror, war, and the sinister operation of the guillotine. A crisis in the elite (the aristocracy and the royal Court) matched up with a series of draughts and famines; people came to believe their own increasingly extreme rhetoric, and even after a republic was declared, it was easy for demagogues to outflank those in power with ever-more radical rhetoric.
The whole thing dissolves in a bloodbath, really. But I gained a new appreciation of how the French Revolution is also the height of the power of political theatre; controlling the mob was everything for about three solid years in Paris.
What strikes me about the French Revolution is how modern it seemed at times. Louis XIV is crowed with the same old medieval babbling formulas for absolutist monarchy; but the Revolution itself unleashes not just things like “nationalism” and some “democracy”, it is the reveal of new ways of thinking and doing things; ultimately, new ways of organising and thinking about society.
Thus the political terror of the French Revolution is eerily predictive of the 20th century totalitarian horrors and Revolutions and political terrors. From the Dictatorship of Virtue to the Committee of Public Safety; these eerie bureaucratic names echo our own experiences today (like “Patriot Act” and “Homeland Security”). The problem then and now is that the theoretical logic cannot account for the basic realities of life. The price of food is the price of food, regardless of the purity of the Revolutionary government. Traitors are thus seen everywhere to account for the shortages, the failures, and the disappointments.
Schama ultimately steps back from heavy analysis of the French Revolution in terms of “lessons for today”. He contents himself with his in depth, yet swift narrative-driven account, which ends promptly after the Thermidor (the end of the Revolution and the beginning of a series of popular dictatorships of various forms, most notably Napoleon).
It is a very accessible book, enjoyable and insightful, and I would recommend it to the lay person and the most jaded, suspicious academic alike.