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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars spectacular panorama of a watershed
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...
Published on 18 May 2011 by rob crawford

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Excellent style, not so great for reading comprehension
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...
Published 15 months ago by History Nerd


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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars spectacular panorama of a watershed, 18 May 2011
By 
rob crawford "Rob Crawford" (Balmette Talloires, France) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Hardcover)
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.

Warmly recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable. Time-wise a demanding read, but worthwhile and relevant today., 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.
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88 of 97 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Tremendous Performance, 21 Aug 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.
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46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 1789 revisited, 21 July 1999
By A Customer
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a Sorry People, 24 April 2014
"What a sorry people to found a republic" wrote Charlotte Corday after despatching Marat in his bath. It is one of many telling judgements made on the generation of 89 in this excellent narrative of the French Revolution.

CITIZENS is a lengthy narrative history or chronicle, as the subtitle says. Personalities figure large in this account as they did on the historical stage. It is an exciting tale he tells. There is less attention paid to economic and social forces, but they too have their place. The fiscal crisis that precipitated the whole shebang is very well analysed and explained. The failure of the new statesmen to solve it sounded the tocsin for them, too.

Never mind how many histories have been written of the French revolution, there are numerous histories of the histories of the French Revolution. First published in 1987 CITIZENS did not chime with the anniversary mood in Paris. It presents a conservative position, not new but using modern research. The years 1789-1795 were violent and the author does not hold back from saying so. He asserts that violence was a key part of the revolutionary process, not an accidental side-effect. Further it could not be justified as the necessary labour pains of a new society; rather the revolution interrupted the economic transformation of France that was getting underway beforehand. The fiscal crisis that brought down Louis XVI was not insoluble; a constitutional monarchy was easily possible as late as 1792. In the name of "liberty" the rioting sansculottes looked backwards not forwards.

Other reviewers have dismissed CITIZENS because it is partial/one-sided/biased and its author is not a specialist. Some have suggested alternative accounts. I think that is fair. Many historians have spent their whole lives studying this topic, but despite or because their works are very lengthy and not easy to read. CITIZENS provides enough background for the reader to take on these more "serious" texts and indeed reassess the judgements of Simon Schama.

The author makes the reader really interested in the French Revolution. It is a much more gripping read than A Place of Greater Safety.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rocks and Hard Places - Paradise Visions turn to Hell, 2 Dec 2009
By 
Rowland Nelken (Nottingham, England, UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
The French Revolution was many things. Simon Schama is aware that, even in 875 pages, only some of those things can be told. This book focuses on individuals and their personal and political development. For all the variety of background of the main revolutionary players, there are some common threads.

Popular as well as academic culture had, in the 18th century, been promoting an idealised 'natural' way of life; the antithesis of the stilted rituals and dress of the Court at Versailles. Schama makes much of the enormous influence of Rousseau. Those revolutionaries with any education (most of them; the revolution was largely an aristocratic movement), had been taught to revere the great ideals of the Roman Republic. Many had also seen service in the American War of Independence. The French motivation for involvement may have focused on trouncing the old British enemy. Fighting for Republican ideals only to return to the Divine monarchy that was Louis XVI's France seemed like unfinished business.

Schama deals in depth with the mixed personality of the King. A reforming king, interested in the sciences, happy to abolish oppressive feudal practices, he was, nevertheless, a prisoner of his role. His coronation had acted out his Divine appointment. This mixture of reason and ancient superstition made him weak in practice. Time and again he would make quasi democratic concessions, only to renege later.

A picture emerges of a society so ill at ease with itself, that it feels it needs a complete cleansing and makeover. In practice that can only be done with a complete extinction of the population. For all the destruction of privelege, custom and people, Schama points out just how much of the old France survived for centuries. The Catholic Church has withered, but is still intact. Some great noble estates continue to be owned by the great nobility.

This book is a terrific introduction to a complex and confusing series of terrible events. It has inspired this reader to want to discover more.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Excellent style, not so great for reading comprehension, 22 Sep 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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A massive book!, 5 Nov 2010
By 
ECD (Great Britain) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Hardcover)
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.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent reading for experts and non-buffs alike, 15 Sep 2003
By A Customer
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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.
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116 of 138 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Steer Clear, 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
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Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution
Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama (Hardcover - Mar 1989)
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