9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Disappointingly unbalanced Too many questions unanswered,
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This review is from: Citizens: A Chronicle of The French Revolution (Paperback)
I have read and seen enough of Mr Schama on TV to know him as not a very fond "friend" of jacobinism or the French Revolution for that matter. His heart belongs to the "Glorious Cause", meaning the American Revolution. For what such a watershed event in history as the French Revolution represents, I have felt all along the reading of this book a profound disappointment. I really cannot understand the positive reviews. Likes and dislikes aside, I expected something different from this book, something more explanatory given its massive 800 pages. No doubt the depth and detail of its investigative research is astounding, but I think Mr. Schama here dwells too much on, to my mind, personal prejudices and irrelevant minutiae: the narrative of the chapters always starts promisingly just to end up bogged down in minor details which make the pace of the book excruciatingly slow. There is a recurrent flaw in this book that I found most irritating (besides his evident revisionism): Events succeed one another without the slightest trace of a cause-effect explanation. Too many whys are left unanswered. For all the investigative work Mr. Schama has an incredible inability to produce a single logical answer to the question Why did it come to happen. If, as he so eloquently argues in favour, the Ancien Regime was so good at social mobility, if it was more modern than we imagine, and so on... How on earth did it occur that the Parisians a certain 14 of July stormed and razed to the ground a symbol of royal authority as the Bastille was? What was the ferment of so much ire? Just the sultry summer heat? Not a single word is written about the abusive exemptions of the priviliged classes, why the king stubbornly refused to summon the Estates General until it was too late to solve France's problems, and nothing is mentioned about the dogged resistance of the court, the Queen (she was less the romantic figure that novellas have made of her and more a political actor in this show) and the king's brothers against any change that might make the slightest dent on the royal authority (During the riots of the 12-13 July, the Count of Artois went so far as to say about the demands of the Third Estate that if the crown went on handling the affairs of state with the same weakness shown up to the date, France would be submitted to an "ABSOLUTE DEMOCRACY", an interesting choice of words, and he urged the king to use force to quell the protests and re-establish order). Here as the historian Michel Vovelle notes in his book "La Chute de la Monarchie" the language and the vocabulary introduced are revealing traits of the interpretation made of this period. Yet, Mr. Schama has many words of condemnation for The Terror, Robespierre and the members (or loonies as he once called them) of the CSP. This book has left me so deeply unsatisfied that I had to complement it with others to really understand this eventful period whose far reaching consequences die down finally (I believe) with the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Comune.
If you have a "Scarlet Pimpernel" vision of what the French Revolution was, this is your kind of book; but personally, I would recommend readers really interested in the FR to steer away from it as it is too biased and has in my view a clear revisionist agenda. There are other books on the French Revolution, with less pages but more balanced and informative.