Many books have been written about it, but I loved your comment, in your presidential address to the American Historical Association that “every great interpreter of the French Revolution – and there have been many such – has found the event ultimately mystifying”. He sees this as trying to do something really important, coming up against enormous obstacles in the course of trying to do it, failing, but completely understanding why this would happen in this particular way. The book argues that although the industrial revolution is often portrayed as a catastrophic event that led to environmental problems, harsh working conditions and child labor. He maybe veers towards the Furet position, but it doesn’t have any of the analytical panache of either Tocqueville or Furet, because he’s telling a story, and wants to tell an interesting story. They’re institutional changes, so the things that Tocqueville says don’t happen, the things that Furet says don’t happen and lead the revolution to veer off into totalitarianism, he’s showing they are changed by the revolution, and remain an important part of French life right up to the present. So make a clean sweep, have no mercy. They are completely serious and sincere and authentic about wanting to do that. And now I come to the absolute central one for anybody interested in politics—Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution. One fact he mentions that surprised me, given the number of people he sent to their death, is that Robespierre started out as an opponent of capital punishment. Neither of these are weekend reading: they are very serious books, but they are both in fact beautifully written, and both well translated. What aspect of the French Revolution has most relevance today, in your view? So much in Tocqueville has had such an enormous influence on social scientific thinking about social and political movements. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years. Divorce is instituted in 1792. He’s extremely critical of the revolution isn’t he? A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1859) is a novel by Charles Dickens, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. It’s very difficult to penetrate; things spiral in a direction you don’t expect. This interview was published on August 6th, 2009, Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. Read You just think, “Wow. He writes about the woman activist Theroigne de Mericourt, who goes mad. From the great Latin poet Ovid, to the poet of the 17th century English republic, John Milton. Was there a sense, do you think, in which Napoleon imagined himself as a condottiere? It covers all Europe during the revolutionary period, though events in France naturally take first place. Yes. What is so great about Tocqueville is that he looks at archives and studies the events, but he applies to it an amazing synthetic and analytical intelligence. Read. Yes, and he’d been a member of the same cell as the leading communist interpreter of the French Revolution. Yes, you could argue that it led to Napoleon, it led to military dictatorship. by RR Palmer In Ireland you know we would have simply killed all the Irish. As the above poster suggests Marissa Linton’s, ‘Choosing Terror’ is excellent and the ‘Longman Companion to the French Revolution’, edited by Colin Jones is … That’s because Schama is really not interested in an extremely important part of it, which is that there are thousands of people who get involved in the revolution. Palmer’s Twelve Who Ruled is my single most favourite book on the French Revolution. And Burke died before the big social changes. Some of these are considered as the French revolutions. It’s written in a drippingly ironic and satirical mode of rhetoric. As a view of the revolution, Schama’s book is anathema to Eric Hobsbawm. Let’s look at Tocqueville, because here is someone who was absolutely personally involved in the historical process. It rips off the veil of tradition and says that the only justification for government is that it makes sense, that it’s fair, that it’s equal, that it’s just. Yes, I mean there are essays about freedom and about class issues and so on but I think it’s a marvelous counterpoint to reading these 18th and 19th century…. So when you see Wall Street being occupied, do you think of the French Revolution? What Machiavelli was saying to them was, you can’t rely on any sense of decency. He points to the fact that it’s not a France that’s in misery, it’s a France that’s getting better and better off. It had a staggering impact on the way historians viewed the French Revolution, because he was an extremely effective polemicist. The Ancien Régime and the Revolution I mean Machiavelli would say if you’re going to get rid of your opponents don’t just get rid of a few, get rid of the whole lot of them. Read You see in Italy at the time, the new people, the new warrior princes like the Medici and so on, they were coming to power without any royal tradition behind them. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount. Here, philosopher David Edmonds, author of The Murder of Professor Schlick, introduces us to their ideas, their milieu and the poignant background to their lives and thinking. No. The book offers good coverage of the origins, outbreak, course and results of the French Revolution to 1802. I’m not saying this is sufficient, but one should definitely start with Michelet, Taine, Tocqueville. by Hippolyte Taine 1 He was trying to be the new-style king, but in a situation in which it turned out to be impossible for him to push that through as a project. He died in October 2020, aged 96. So it seems to me that even if you regard the French Revolution as having done more harm than good, you can still see that it was in fact inspired by idealism, however squalid and brutal the eventual form that it took. Well, he was a great idealist, and, I suppose, a pragmatist. by Jules Michelet He thought having a ruling class which was rich and hereditary was a good thing. He’d certainly been to France because everybody had been to France, but he never worked in France or anything. A lot of English people, English politicians like Charles James Fox, with whom he had a great battle, I mean they were both Whigs but their personalities were very different, cheered the French Revolution. Read. In my view, that’s the trouble today: so few politicians do know any history. Twelve Who Ruled by Niccolo Machiavelli He was a 'high Tory' and a staunch defender of aristocratic government. And to read Montaigne, a 17th century writer writing in this completely sort of uninhibited way, is very cheering. I mean a prime minister today is almost in the same position, in that he can’t afford to think the public are going to give him a second chance. He was born in the Napoleonic period, and he says, “How can this be? But he did worry that America didn’t have that aristocratic element and that a democracy without that aristocratic element would not work. That would be a thought for today—if Gordon Brown were to start mugging up on his Machiavelli, then he’d have to kill off David Cameron mighty fast. They propose doing it and it was a blueprint for the future. The French Revolution is one of the most important events in modern history. They've had an enormous impact on modern philosophy, partly because the arrival of fascist rule in Austria scattered them around the world. We publish at least two new interviews per week. By far the best single-volume history of the French Revolution, Doyle's book is suitable for all levels of interest. My problem with most of the stories is that they tend to be fairly negative. But just to throw in one book as a bonne bouche and it’s just such a pleasure, and I didn’t read it until I was quite old and I regret it…, Read “It’s hard for people to understand, today, how an interpretation of the French Revolution could lead to this level of personal vituperation.”. Many people have tried to explain why the French Revolution is the way it is. For Napoleon I would recommend you look for anything by David Chandler; he's one of the best authors for that period. How did that happen in that way?”. Yes, because looking back from the present, the guillotine and the bloodshed is not understandable, but he’s trying to get us to see that it was understandable in the circumstances. Read This was in the 1970s, before the collapse of communism, and it seemed part of a general pulling away from a Marxist position, towards, and the question then was, what was the towards going to be? Paul Lay, editor of History Today, recommends his favourite history books of 2020. That’s because he has done something that a few other historians have been able to do – and only a few – and that is to tell a story that’s sufficiently absorbing that people want to read it. Well, he certainly came from nowhere didn’t he? He wrote in a sociological mode. You do it in order to get a democratic political life, but you don’t have the infrastructure in place to make that possible. There of course you get the conservative case at its most formidable—against change, in favour of tradition, in favour of hierarchy. He makes you think that despite its high ideals, the French Revolution was an absolute disaster. Tocqueville’s book had an incredibly wide influence in a variety of fields, with a variety of readerships. It’s not that he’s just kind of around. He’s sublimely profound but they’re so reposeful, so thoughtful, so reasonable, they represent civilisation. For example, in interpretations of the Russian Revolution there’s a complete division between those who feel that communism took over the basic characteristics of Tsarist rule – which was incredibly centralised and authoritarian, and relied on the secret service – and those who believe that Marxism completely changed everything. In that sense, it has an enormous impact. 5 They eliminate torture in the judicial process for ever. There’s a collection of his essays in English and it’s the most civilised reading you could have if you want to know how a civilised, educated honourable, religious—progressive but deeply religious—man can think about the human condition. Absolutely. This site has an archive of more than one thousand interviews, or five thousand book recommendations. These histories bring all of the problems of social organisation into perspective. He’s actively involved, and yet he’s able to deliver this analytical tour de force. He's the guy behind The History of Rome podcast, and does a really good job … He’s suggesting it’s a broader problem, that it’s really about internal contradictions in the political system. You say it completely changed the way historians viewed the French Revolution. Maybe I’m obsessive about this, but the whole question, “Does the revolution fail?” or “Why does the revolution fail?” is a misguided one. One of the things that goes on in the revolution is that things are laid out on the agenda which will remain on the agenda for generations to come. He was an outsider, he was not a grandee, but he did flatter the English aristocracy in a way, by giving them a cleaner bill of health than they probably deserved. Simon is a very quick study and a fantastic writer and speaker. The biggest French revolution started on 5 May 1789 and end on 9 November 1799. The United States is developing it also. Precisely what he was doing—not perhaps in a clear conscious way, but that is what it amounts to. He was originally a specialist in Dutch history. What’s striking is that he is able to develop broad analytical categories that relate the French Revolution to the direction of modern society as a whole, which he sees as the destruction of the aristocracy and the coming of democracy. That’s a great story. 4 The best books on the French Revolution, as recommended by one of its greatest living scholars, Lynn Hunt. He’s incredibly good at giving you a sense of what these people are confronted with, the incredible difficulty of their situation and the unbelievable stress of the circumstances they find themselves in. As the world went into lockdown early in 2020, many of us without frontline jobs and lucky enough not to fall sick with Covid-19 found more time to read than usual. It’s absolutely crucial and probably the single most important thing that he is arguing. His position is much closer to my own position. It doesn’t underplay the horrors of the French Revolution, but neither does it underplay the horrors of the ancien regime. I think he puts the case for that as well as it could be put. by Edmund Burke Violence spread to the countryside, … All these books seem to me necessary, if you want to understand contemporary politics. He was a leading Whig in England during the French Revolution. The revolution raises the whole issue of how change takes place, and how much people should organise to insist that change takes place. That is such a great way of saying it.”. See more. He was afraid of what the war would do to the revolution. The Glass Blowers by Daphne du Maurier Most novels of the French Revolution take place at the centre, in Paris or Versailles. It has an internal, inherent tendency to lead to despotism unless there are certain conditions that prevent that from happening. Democracy in America There is something about the suddenness of the French Revolution that makes people come to the realisation that the way government is organised is actually just a convention. Read What goes on during the revolution is, in my view, an incredible upsurge of new kinds of democratic institutions. But he summarises, in a marvelous piece of writing, the case for tradition to a greater degree than any other writer I can imagine, and that’s an absolutely pure pleasure book to read: the language is absolutely glowing with eloquence and passion, and marvelous stuff. It’s been through several editions, and this is the best student textbook. The Oxford History of the French Revolution by William Doyle If you want to know what happened in the French Revolution, and why, read this excellent work from Doyle. Next, you’ve chosen Simon Schama’s Citizens. Yes, but he is able to stand back. The best books on The French Revolution recommended by Peregrine Worsthorne. But in any case anybody who reads Burke’s Reflections is in for a literary treat: it really is a historical work of genius so it’s not hard work: it’s a marvelous read. We shouldn’t have a republic because they all say we shouldn’t.” He really gets you to see the political stakes that are involved. Read 17 601 reviews from the world's largest community for readers. Louis XVI tried to reform, he tried to be a good king, he didn’t have any mistresses, he wasn’t wasting a lot of money buying baubles for members of his court. In the English case, it was more, “We had to do it, because of the circumstances.” It isn’t connected to any re-imagining of the entire political order. Buy The French Revolution New Ed by Hibbert, Christopher (ISBN: 8601300093253) from Amazon's Book Store. Absolutely. Eric Hobsbawm was also very critical about Citizens wasn’t he, saying it continued an English tradition (including popular books like Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities) of focusing on the negative side of the French Revolution? Your last book is The New Regime by Isser Woloch, who is Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia. For the best and the worst of reasons, the French Revolution has … Read We ask experts to recommend the five best books in their subject and explain their selection in an interview. In terms of his specific arguments, he talks a lot about the continuities between the Ancien Régime and the post-1789 world, especially in terms of centralisation of government. More than a trouble, it’s a disaster. He never found one. There’s immediate writing about why this is making a point. It’s just they don’t have time to totally take root. But his views were unpredictable and he was never dull. Your first choice is by one of the greatest interpreters of the revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville. Documentary about the bloody beginning, bloodier middle and unceremonious end of the French Revolution, an event that ended in blood the reign of kings in France and laid the foundation for a new - republican - … It’s a way of saying that just because things are the way they are doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. If you suddenly, violently and in a short period of time, destroy the church hierarchy and the political hierarchy, the aristocracy, the great historical governing orders of France—you break them, get rid of them, humiliate them, kill them—you leave a gaping hole. I always tell students, you have to read this book, because you have to see that it isn’t just Louis XIV redux, it really is a massive overhaul of French life. He comes to it, in part, because he is involved in the 1848 revolution, and he’s unbelievably disappointed by the rise of Louis Napoleon [Napoleon’s nephew, who became Emperor Napoleon III in 1852]. Five Books participates in the Amazon Associate program and earns money from qualifying purchases. Read But he’s just fantastic at getting you inside the rooms where these decisions are being made. Sophie Roell, editor of Five Books, takes us through her personal choice of the best nonfiction books of 2020. For him, what’s wrong with the revolution is that it’s all ideology and fighting over who is going to represent the general will of Rousseau and who is supposedly going to represent the people in democratic terms. Peregrine Worsthorne (1923-2020) was a journalist, writer and broadcaster. Did you pick this because it’s more of a popular history? Since then, he’s become interested in art history, he’s done a lot on the history of Britain, which also was not his speciality originally. It’s just punch after punch, and it was incredibly undermining of the whole Marxist social interpretation of the revolution because he made fun of it. And what it does, really, is to describe the ancien regime in a way that convincingly makes one clear that the Revolution had to happen. Let’s go through the books you’ve chosen. Fox of course was in favour of the French Revolution, and supported Napoleon. Reflections on the Revolution in France is a political pamphlet written by the Irish statesman Edmund Burke and published in November 1790. I would like a modern appraisal. Both of them are extremely serious historians. To a certain extent that was a devil’s advocate position. There are many reasons to distrust democracy, if you’ve studied the French Revolution. In any case those are two books that provide the pro and con of the French Revolution. I want to talk about Montaigne’s Essays. Machiavelli was an advisor to these princes, and this was his, so to speak, his realistic advice to them if they wanted to stay in power: never trust anybody. by Michel de Montaigne It's a revolution that still resonates and yet it resists easy interpretation. So we have to figure out how you make this transition. It is, however, an absolutely crucial book for making you understand that after Tocqueville, after Furet, after Schama – books that focus on all the problems of the revolution – here is one that concretely lays out the staggering number of changes that take place in this period, in every single domain of political and social life. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com. You don’t just broaden your knowledge of the particular subject, you begin to understand the richness of the human condition, and how interesting it is to study. People have higher expectations and then they’re more disappointed. But the revolution shows that governments are going to ignore this at their peril. They institute forms of legal inheritance for children, including girls, that will remain in the law for ever. The other thing that jumped out at me as I was reading it is that Tocqueville seems to rather like Louis XVI. Why does this keep happening in French society?”, What’s incredible about Tocqueville – and I’m not particularly sympathetic with his political point of view, necessarily – is his intelligence in grasping these fundamental categories and explaining them in the most amazingly penetrating, limpid and fascinating prose. The French Revolution (French: Révolution française [ʁevɔlysjɔ̃ fʁɑ̃sɛːz]) began in May 1789 when the Ancien Régime was abolished in favour of a constitutional monarchy.Its replacement in September 1792 by the First French Republic led to the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793, and an extended period of political turmoil. What’s amazing is that he is actually a minister in the 1848 government. But there was a way in which, in the French case, they celebrate having done it. He also gives you a sense that these were actually real people. What’s so striking about the French Revolution is that events unfold over a sufficiently long period of time that people can get a sense of how it is that events unfold in an unpredictable fashion. It is actually true of all events, it’s just that we don’t usually spend that much time thinking about every single event in our life. What he shows you is that all these different things change in ways that will never be turned back again. The sudden change to a slower gear also left more room to reflect on the state of the world and our place as humans in it. Read. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com. It reveals that if you try to push for democracy without having an adequate institutional basis for it, you will end up with terror, violence, and the suppression of dissent. What they discover is that the more they find out about it, the more they have questions. 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