32 of 40 people found the following review helpful
superb guide to a hard topic,
This review is from: Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Paperback)
This was the first history book that I read for pleasure, and all the way through, and as such occupies a special place in my heart. I read it during my A-levels studying the rise of the liberal nation state in Europe down to 1870. It wasn't until I read this book though that I had any context in which to place these events, an understanding of the French Revolution is essential to understanding Europe in the nineteenth century and, to a lesser degree, the whole modern world. Schama's history is an excellent place to start.
I was warned at my university course that Schama was controversial, post-modern even, this was before he made his name retelling televisually friendly grand narratives, but I could never really work out why. This is perhaps because, opposed to dryer academic accounts, he chooses to focus on the individuals involved and on minor characters, Malashearbes, Lucy de la Tour du Pin, as much as on the obvious biggies, Lafayette, Danton and of course Robespierre. He also displays an awareness that history and the past are not the same thing and that the former is in a constant state of flux whilst the former remains ultimately unknowable. All admirable traits to my mind.
That said Schama's thesis, whilst convincing seems unremarkable. He argues that the violence that finally consumed the revolution along with all its leading players, and a good few thousand others besides, was inherent from the start. For anybody who ever wondered why Britain's teeming cities and stygian factories never burst into this kind of revolt Schama makes very clear that oppression alone does not make for a revolution. The French revolution, to a greater extent even then the Russian, was the direct result of an internal crisis of the Ancien Regime which due to a massive loss of financial credibility coupled with, perhaps undeserved, scandal found itself without legitimacy.
Schama's main skill is though that he can outline these big themes, and others, introduce us and involve us with a whole plethora of characters and guide us through the convoluted course that the revolution took without losing anything along the way. The revolution is such an obviously massive topic with whole libraries of material devoted to it that a book of this sort had to be ambitious to be worth the effort. There are areas that Schama does not do full justice to, though not many, but that is inevitable. He is to be applauded for producing a coherent, readable and enjoyable book that manages to combine a synthesis of current historiography with original scholarship. All in all a very fine book.