on 10 August 2006
The Terror, by David Andress, tells the complete story of the bloody period of the French Revolution, where men and women could have their heads cut off by the guillotine just for having been suspected of harboring "counter-revolutionary" thoughts or expressing dissatisfaction with the ruling Convention. The book pulls no punches, explaining everything in excruciating detail and not hesitating to describe the executions of some of the more prominent figures of the day. Unfortunately, the book is marred by being overly politicized, as well as having some dreadfully boring prose. Combining these two issues together, you get a middle of the pack book that could easily have been a lot better.
Andress does a great job of covering the entirety of the Revolution, beginning with King Louis XVI's flight from Paris in June 1791. The first chapter delves into this issue, beginning with the event and then going back to fill in the details that led to it. In fact, this is a common technique in The Terror, with Andress jumping forward in time a bit (usually beginning with some notable event or other items of significance) and then painting the backstory. Thus, the book gets off to a rollicking start with the horribly planned and executed attempt to flee. It's almost comical if you don't realize where it's all going to lead. Andress then proceeds to go step by step through the Revolution, detailing the attempts to write a constitution (for the first year after Louis was recaptured, the revolutionaries did try to set up and get Louis to agree to a constitutional monarchy). When this failed, the National Convention assumed power. A form of legislature that had 745 deputies, it was always heavily factionalized and was often purged during the Terror that gripped France for the next couple of years. Andress brings many of the characters to life, from Robespierre to Danton and many others. Once things began rolling, things go from bad to worse as first one faction is eliminated and then another. Infighting was rife, yet the Convention was still able to keep the foreign armies, yapping at France's door, in check. This occurred despite massive food shortages, inflation, and awesome displays of violence and revolt in outlying French cities. The city of Lyon was utterly destroyed as an example when government forces finally cowed all of the rebels.
Andress writes all this in a very clear manner, but unfortunately it's also rather dry. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what's wrong with it, but I had trouble staying awake while reading this book. When I picked up this book, no matter how I was feeling, I would start yawning within a couple of pages. I loved the detailed information that Andress provided, so it had to be the prose that did it. I've rarely had that problem with history books, so I know I know it's not the subject matter. This made the book very hard to get through. According to the advertising copy, this is Andress' first book "for general readership," and I'm afraid it shows. The book is very bloody, with vivid descriptions of some of the beheadings, and maybe it was thought this would keep the book lively, but it doesn't work.
The other main problem with the book (and I'm aware that not everybody will find this a problem) is that the beginning and ending of the book are quite politicized. I agree that we can all learn from history and try not to make it repeat itself (except the good things, of course), but I really don't like history books that are written with an agenda. If you're going to make your case, let the events do the talking (though that can lead to some biased history books, so maybe that's not a great thing either). There's no need to handhold me through it. I'm sure it didn't help that I found some of the comparisons spurious anyway, so maybe if you agree with him, you won't be bothered by it. Personally, I think it really hurt what was an interesting book.
With that being said, I do have some compliments for the book. While I didn't like the way Andress presented it, I did love the exceptional detail he provides into all aspects of the Revolution and the Terror that occurred at the end. There are a lot of people involved, some betraying others and some friendly until circumstances decide otherwise, and Andress is able to keep it fairly clear. I did have some trouble following it, but that brings me to the other wonderful thing about this book. Also included at the end is a timeline of major events, a glossary of terms and organizations, and a cast of characters. All of these things are incredibly useful in keeping everything straight (I kept mixing up the National Convention with the Commune) and I'm really glad Andress included them.
Another great thing is that he covers a lot more than just the Revolution itself. Not much is heard about the many wars and battles fought during this time, with England, Austria, Prussia, and even Spain seemingly trying to take advantage of the turmoil, but Andress covers all that too. He details the counter-revolutionary forces that gave the Convention problems (both real and imagined) as well as some of the fighting. This isn't a military book, so the specific battles are glossed over a bit, but he gives the results and why they are important. I was very pleased that the book was this complete.
The Terror is not for the squeamish, and you may get bored. But if you have an interest in the French Revolution and the Terror that it sparked, this is a valuable book with lots of great information. It's worth trudging your way through the prose. And who knows? You may even find it easier than I did. I will say that you won't be disappointed.
David Roy (originally written in 2006)