on 16 May 2014
Having recently watched a programme about the French Revolution on BBC 2 I wanted to learn more...
Is this (as some of the Amazon 'one star' reviewers claim) an inaccurate and 'biased' telling of the French Revolution? I don't know enough about the history and the views and analysis of other credible historians to say. However, in light of the Arab Spring and the varied and complex attributions to causes and influences, what the author captures about the French Revolution - at least in terms of context-setting and events leading up to 1789 (not to stretch comparison with recent events and their legacies too far) - feels surprisingly contemporary and relevant (the book was published in 1989).
It is convincing, brilliantly written and an engrossing read. Yes, it is a very large book and in places perhaps a tad too detailed, but you do not have to be a devoted reader of history books to find this enjoyable, worthwhile and thought-provoking. I was at first sceptical about the value of including a large amount of contemporary illustrations, but they add relevant texture, explanation and interest (perhaps the equivalent of reflecting the use and influence of social media today?). Highly recommended.
on 5 November 2010
The French Revolution is such a massive subject, and that itself makes a massive problem both for readers and writers - how to steer a course between a simplification which will mislead the reader into supposing that it was so simple, or on the other hand a full presentation in which most readers will eventually just get lost. Simon Schama, who confesses in his preface that he isn't given to writing short books, opted for the fuller style. For my money, he was right and I'm glad to have this book and to have read most of it (maybe I'll go on and finish it too, some day). Don't go to this for a light holiday read, but if you're prepared to give it time, you may find it, as I did, very rewarding.
on 22 September 2013
This is a curious book as it doesn't know if its a novel or a history textbook. This is not necessarily an issue except that there can be an uneasy trade-off between trying to explain the Revolution versus trying to provide an account of the Revolution as events unfolded. This book probably is better at achieving the latter and given that it would probably not suit the purpose of being a historical primer on the Revolution. There are lengthy passages devoted to the then popular aristocratic pastime of ballooning, or to the lewd rumors circulating about Parisian high society but there might also be dry lengthy accounts of political machinations. It is undoubtedly incredibly well-researched and entertaining to read but will not suit a reader who only has high-school knowledge on the subject.
on 21 August 2004
Citizens is a truly wonderful example of narrative historical writing - a "tremendous performance", to borrow a favourite expression of Simon Schama. The author prefers a more old-fashioned interpretation of the French revolution, which presents the revolution as a drama and focuses on the characters that determine the unravelling of the plot. This choice provides the book with the memorable stories, such as the royal family's comically feckless flight from Paris in 1791, that make it such a delightful read. It is a liberating experience to find a general historical survey that does away with the conventional, stultifying analytical distinctions between economic, social and political factors. Instead, the reader can interact directly - as well as chronologically, which makes it easy to dip in and out of - with the actors and the events without having to navigate around tedious discussions of causal significance or complex arguments with other historians.
But it is the skill with which Schama recounts events like the fall of the Bastille that makes this book unique and easily the most enjoyable modern history of the revolution in English. The embellishing vocabulary (readers are advised to have a dictionary to hand), the recurring motifs (the revolutionary obsession with heads, whether on pikes or as busts) and the vivid build-up of tension are the true strengths of this so-called chronicle. It is perfect for the novice reader and the enlightened amateur alike. Citizens demands re-reading for the richness of its description to be fully appreciated, especially its masterful reconstruction of the fascinating and sometimes disturbing culture of the old regime, which is probably the most accessible that exists. The only disappointment is that it ends with Thermidor, in 1794. After 800 pages, one is still hoping for more, which is the highest recommendation possible for this genre of historical writing.
on 21 July 1999
This is essential reading for anyone interested in France, history and the Enlightenment, - exactly how much light was brought to mankind by the cast behind the French Revolution of 1789? And,conversely, how dark was the ancien régime really? All the answers in this immensely readable book. If you can only read one book about the crucial moment of European history, this is the one.
on 25 November 2013
Why read fiction when factual stories are so amazing? This is a major book by an academic but it works well both for a knowledgeable curious reader and someone keen to learn about the amazing events in France between 1789 and 1793. Schama knows how to tell a tale (an overly academic `historiographical' approach could ruin this story) . In the same way that you would say goodbye at the end of a good novel, you miss this massive book when you finish it.
It's certainly not a perfect book - but the events described here are so intriguing as to be almost unparalleled. Later Schama books show less concern for his academic colleagues tut-tutting - in this one, you can feel him wanting to ignore the needs of the `I have to do this for school' readers (the ones who only care about ticking boxes on the current consensus view of the French Revolution) but not quite having the courage. If it is interesting and intriguing, tell us Simon - ignore the consensus of your colleagues - and if you think it is pretty irrelevant, just mention it en passant without feeling the need to say you why you think it is irrelevant.
Schama possesses the gift of the (written) gab - he can write and tell a great story. In his hands, the famous `Diamond Necklace Affair' could be a modern political running story - in fact Marie Antoinette repeatedly declined to acquire the famously expensive bit of bling but the cover up, confusion and lies are part of what created seething hatred towards her. You almost feel you are there as Schama describes the failed escape of the Royal Family. The story of how the anthem, the Marseillaise, came about is as relaxing to read as watching a really good TV documentary on the writing of `All You Need is Love'. As the ghastly prosecutor of the revolutionary tribunal, one `Citizen Fouquier-Tinville', is finally himself brought to the guillotine after he has done so much to turn Paris into the bloodbath of `La Terreur', so Schama tells us `twentieth century readers will recognise ...the mild mannered family man who pleaded that he had always obeyed the law and done his duty'. Schama also follows the observations of the relatively unknown minor aristo, the (apparently!) lovely Lucy de la Tour du Pin, who gives a sort of Samuel Pepys view of the revolution before she escapes to North America, heartbreakingly leaving her Dad to get his head chopped off.
Schama is at his best with Talleyrand, the ex-bishop (and later Napoleon's Foreign Minister) who famously had all the allies eating out of his hand after the French defeat at Waterloo in 1815. In the way that Shakespeare can make us enjoy a villain like Iago, of whom we thoroughly disapprove, Schama teases us with Talleyrand. Throwing away history, the book cleverly begins comparing two reactions to the second revolution in Paris against the Bourbon monarchy, this time in 1830. It contrasts Talleyrand, with the principled romantic Lafayette. While Talleyrand quickly removes his name from his Paris house and lies low, Lafayette (the idealist soldier revolutionary whose deft behaviour leading the National Guard in 1789 helped affirm the Revolution) rejoices and makes speeches left, right and centre (well certainly Left and Centre) once again welcoming an anti-monarchical revolution. The book goes on to trace Lafayette, from his support of the American Revolution, his role in the early years of the Revolution until his imprisonment by the Austrians when he is also seen as an enemy of the later Revolutionaries.
And yet this is where Schama fails. Lafayette is to the modern mind surely an idealist, who risks life and limb (and aristocratic inheritance) for his beliefs - like so very many others. He is always loyal to France and the early revolutionary ideals but not to the later blood-soaked totalitarian revolution (the feeling was mutual, Austrian imprisonment saved his head from the guillotine). After a horrendous time behind bars, the US President, Napoleon and the Austrian Emperor finally work together to release him, but Lafayette refuses to sign an unconditional document as France has, in his view, `sacred rights' over him. Schama, our historian guide to the French Revolution, describes this as `silliness' on Lafayette's part. Surely, after all Lafayette's deprivations, this could equally be seen as bravery and courage above and way beyond duty.
Indeed, Schama has no or very little sympathy for the idealism of the people who believed they were right as they overthrew an undemocratic, incompetent, unjustifiable self-serving Ancien Régime. Ultimately his judgement is of course right as the situation in 1793 was far, far worse than pre-1989. However, these revolutionaries were just as romantic, in their way, as the Scarlet Pimpernel aristocrats Schama seems to so admire, and his full narrative strengths do not help us to love or understand the minds of inspired well-meaning Leaders like Marat, Danton or the Girondins. It is an undeveloped aside that on their way to `La Terreur' some of these fanatic revolutionaries did a lot of good and they had ultimately flawed but nevertheless understandable and passionate views. This apparent lack of vision makes it difficult to empathise with (and thereby understand) the activities of the Revolutionaries while reading the book. Fighting and risking one's life for a set of beliefs is surely not deviant behaviour, it is what armies do to this day.
While the effect of the ghost of Rousseau in the years up to the Revolution, and the speeches in the Hotel de Ville, is made clear and gives us a clear narrative to follow in the book, the relationship between the debates among the revolutionaries and what Schama calls the `doomed attempt to reconcile political liberty with the patriotic state' do not come through which is a pity.
Also, if you are a reader looking for a narrative of the French Revolution from 1789, this is not the book for you. The Storming of the Bastille (the Revolution's starting point) happens half way through this long, long book. The events of the first half of the book leading up to the Revolution are naturally necessarily less gripping than the saga that takes us from the Bastille to the mass guillotining and State Terror. Indeed, Schama is at such pains to point out that France was indeed changing rapidly (generally for the better) under the monarchy, and that all the best reforms of the Revolution (and sensible demands of the revolutionaries) were well underway during the Ancien Régime (or at least put forward then), that the revolution comes as something of a surprise (you almost feel it was simply bad weather that `caused' it rather than created the hunger that let the pent up passions burst forth). Also, the book ends unfortunately in 1793, whereas it would be nice to end as Napoleon finally comes to power (perhaps Schama's initial project in his head was too ambitious and he had had enough of research he simply decided to just start writing! His research and scholarship is phenomenal).
Overall, one can understand how Hillary Mantel began her mega-successful history-based fiction career writing about the people who made the French Revolution (her book is called A Place of Greater Safety). Dickens's `Tale of Two Cities' about the French Revolution must be one of the best books ever written - and though I prefer fact to fiction 99% of the time, this book is not quite as good as Dickens. I'm no historian and other historians must surely emphasise different points, but Schama gives an interesting and different perspective on the Revolution, and quotes others' works selectively and very well. He impressively points out that though the famous `sans culottes' (aka the Paris mob) may not have had `culottes' they were more like upper artisans and journalist types rather than your actual typical starvin' poor. Even more well researched, is the aristocratic background of the revolutionaries and the sympathy that a majority of French aristocrats had for some form of revolutionary change prior to 1789. And although Paris was forever scarred and tarnished by the Revolution (and Lyons, for that matter, still tarnished from its treatment by Paris during the Revolution), Schama points out that the people who wielded power in many parts of France didn't actually change too much whatever was going on in Paris.
The story of the French Revolution is endlessly fascinating. Schama's book has a series of gems. Whenever I re-read parts I am again amazed. Despite its massive length, I hope to read it again and enjoy it as much the second time.
on 15 September 2003
It's fascinating to read the other reviews of Schama's books here on Amazon - to his detractors he's either too dry and so obsessed with minutiae, anecdotes and personalities that his work becomes difficult to read, or that his approach is too simplistic, too determined to appeal to the broadest possible audience and verging on the dumbed-down. For me the beauty of Schama's work is that he is always able to find exactly the right pitch between readable, enjoyable narrative and learned, impeccably-researched discourse. He avoids going too far in either direction, at any point, and never once looks in danger of falling into "for the general reader" narrative fluff without substance or insight, or lengthy dissertation dreariness on obtuse avenues of limited interest.
For me "Citizens" is a book that shows Schama at the absolute peak of his powers of both storytelling and questioning - it never once fails to fascinate, and never once feels even slightly condescending. If you've read a lot of studies of the French Revolution, there's still a huge amount in here to cast new light on that which you thought you knew, and to challenge long-held assumptions - and yet aside from the preface, it's not revisionist in tone at all. If you've never read anything about the Revolution before, this is also a good place to start - Schama's prose is as easy to read as ever, and the whole book is very similar in style and approach to "A History of Britain Volume II", with its rich character portraits adding to, rather than distracting from, the narrative explanation, and its complex and intricate matters unravelled and explained so simply that one wonders why they ever seemed complex and intricate in the first place. Outstanding stuff.
on 24 May 2010
I've read around 30-40 books on the French Revolution and all that i can conclude from this book is that Schama is, at least on this topic, a rather simple man. He adds nothing new in his reductionist narrative of individuals and scary mobs. I can admire the (not so) fresh debate a revisionist such as François Furet adds to the historiography of the French Revolution, even if i do not agree with all of their conclusions; and realise that Schama, as with most of his books, wants to make easy popular reads that will make money. However what is dangerous is that this accessible book is written with a deeply embedded prejudice that people may happily accept as a balanced review of the revolution - and my greatest fear is that will be the only book that they'll read and so their entire perspective of such a complex event will be reduced to Schama good/bad times, good/bad people, bad violence history.
If you want a quick introduction then try:
The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction by William Doyle
If you want a general introduction then try:
The French Revolution, 1789-1799 by Peter McPhee
If you want more on the provinces then try:
The Terror by David Andress
For left-wing balance try Geordge Rude or:
The French Revolution by Georges Lefebvre
And finally if you want history told as an accessible narrative of individuals without proper historiographical balance then perhaps some of the excellent historical-fictions rather than Schama's attempt at history.
A truly fantastic read (and well researched)is:
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
Otherwise try (but don't rely on for a proper historical analysis):
Fatal Purity by Ruth Scurr
The Gods Are Thirsty by Tanith Lee
on 19 June 2012
Some additions to my understanding - the ancien regime was more innovative than stagnant, Beaumarchais looks interesting - but overall it reduced and fogged my vision of the revolution in the swirl of personalities. Crucial developments are lost amidst dramatic episodes and vignettish digressions.
I would take the advice of others about better books, especially to start with.
BTW Dickens Tale of Two Cities which got me re-interested in FR is a cracking read.
This has got to be one of the best history books I have ever read. Unlike his other books, which all to often get lost in sensuous detail, this one is a perfect balance of analysis and portraits of the quirkiness of the human condition. In other words, you get a flavor for the vast array of people involved, while the narrative follows well trod lines. It is an immensely complex story. The result is a masterpiece and truly great.
Schama's take on the Revolution is that what happened was far more richly textured than the crude class-based analyses that have held sway for too long. In what I believe is a convincing performance, he shows that not only was (the politically inept) Louis XVI pursuing many progressive agendas for change, but that it was the aristocrat-intellectuals who formed the basis of the Revolutionary leadership and not bourgeois or working class heroes. What made it so violent, in this reading, was the collapse of the old order and then the struggles that ensued for the control of the instruments of military and police power. It was the birth of the popular army, he concludes, and not the abstract ideals enshrined in official propaganda, that was the real legacy of the Revolution and the basis for Napoleon's later military dominance.
What makes it all such a watershed event was that it was the first example of the passions unleashed by nationalist fanaticism: the jacobans led directly to the communards and then the more purified revolutionary violences of fascism and marxist-leninism. Reading of the horrors of the Terror, this is also convincing (and frightening).
One of the greatest pleasures of this book is the personalities that Schama describes in loving detail, as they appear and re-appear at crucial moments. You get the heavyweights Lafayette and Talleyrand, but also innumerable lesser known characters, whose lives and fates the author takes to symbolise the Revolution's legacy. If you know Paris, you learn who a lot of the people were whose names are on the streets and the institutions, such as Necker and de la Tour du Pin. That made it especially fun for me, but that is personal.
That being said, the book is occasionally uneven. Though Schama tells a great story in the most elegant of prose, there are sections that read as if it were written too fast. Moreover, the story is so complex that some basic details, such as what the people in the various factions actually thought and stood for, are lost or obscured by the endless succession of stories.