TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 October 2008
"On the eve of the French Revolution, France was three weeks long ... and three weeks wide ... Journey times had barely changed since the days of the Romans."
Think you know France? Think again! Robb's argument is that "France was, in effect, a vast continent that had yet to be fully colonized." By turning his back on "the usual cast list of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French history", he seeks out the daily lives of "the faceless millions" and their attitudes to the France in which they supposedly lived. This is not a history of the French regions. Rather it is a history of how those regions culturally coalesced into the centralist state that is the France of today, "the celebration of home-grown diversity and the supreme importance of Paris as the guardian and regulator of that diversity."
The first part of the book is descriptive of the state of France prior to starting on that journey of centralisation; the second part seeks to describe the major stations on the journey itself. Both parts are cleverly linked by reference to certain events surrounding the Cassini expedition to map France in the 1740s. "Two men and their assistants had taken seven years to survey a narrow corridor of land. Instead of reducing the country to the size of a map ... they had shown how much France remained to be discovered."
Language is a prime key, for as the government discovered when disseminating news from Paris to the provinces, "large parts of France were barely French at all." Robb shows how "the official idiom of the French Republic was a minority language ... Educated travellers were constantly amazed to find that their French was quite useless." In Robb's fascinating review of the linguistic history and geography, we learn of the remarkable and now extinct whistling language of the Aas in the Pyrenees; of how Breton soldiers were shot in the First World War for supposed insubordination (they could not understand their orders); of the oïl/oc crescent; and why the names of the French departments are based on timeless geography.
The economic lives of the regional populations is also explored, their rhythms and their motivations. "Boredom was as powerful a force as economic need. [It still is.] It helps to explain so many aspects of daily life ... that it could form the basis of an academic discipline ... ." There is a whole chapter given over to migrants and commuters, but even then strong ties fastened the migrant to the home country rather than to any concept called `France' or even `Paris': "Mentally, they never left their pays ... In certain Paris streets, the sounds and smells of villages and provincial towns drowned out the sounds and smells of the capital."
Religion and superstitious beliefs also played a role in sustaining local cultic differentials: "The only certainty seems to be that France was a Catholic country in the sense that it was not a Protestant country." I'm not so sure about the validity of this sweeping statement, though, given the depth of feeling expressed in the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But it was amusing to read that, "... in the 1770s, a cure near Auch was heard to call out before mass, `Sorcerers and sorceresses, wizards and witches, leave thou the Church ere the Holy Sacrifice commence!' - at which some of the congregation stood up and went out."
Of course, the vast progress in means of transportation was the vital element in making France discoverable, of colonizing its plains with industry and urbanism, its waste with agriculture and forestry, "a complete and irreversible transformation." That much is obvious, but Robb shows how this process was not so straightforward, and how sometimes it even went backwards. For the advent of the railways meant that now "cows and chickens reoccupied the middle of the road." For those areas devoid of the new means of transport, "the outside world now [paradoxically] seemed to shrink away and vanish." Robb follows this up with a look at how the bicycle and then the car hastened "the rapid disappearance of undiscovered France." But as he says in his epilogue, there are still places uncolonised.
Tourism too played its part in this journey. No doubt Frenchmen and women began to explore more different parts of the country, but Robb makes no mention of the men of Napoleon's army already doing the same before the age of the railway, though there is some irony in the fact that Napoleon's new road system at least helped speed him along to Elba.
This is a fascinating book, and very well-written. Robb has criss-crossed the country on his bicycle over many years - he writes, "This book is a result of fourteen thousand miles in the saddle and four years in the library" - and it's a shame that there is little personal involvement in the narrative which is almost wholly written in the third person. Often Robb appears to stray from his route, but regardless, what he has to relate is never without interest. We learn things largely omitted from the usual history books: of the remarkable convoys of donkeys carrying drunken and unwanted babies to Paris; of the amazing smuggling dogs of Picardy; of the fact that half of the French recruits on the eve of the First World War did not know that their country had lost territory forty years before: "Alsace and Lorraine might as well have been foreign countries."
Chapters are often a series of vignettes about remarkable social customs and people, focussed on a particular theme. (Perhaps he should look to doing something similar to Britain.) His knowledge of France is clearly profound, but that's not to say there are no problems. His explanation for the origins of the Cagots, for example, is unconvincing (I prefer the Muslim convert theory), and I have already referred to other areas of disagreement, but these are more of emphasis rather than fact. It is that sometimes Robb pushes his argument too far.
But if the book does have a fault, it is one that is inescapably inherent in its subject, namely the jumping from region to region, from department to department. Not only does this make the map in the mind confused, it also makes the examples cited as well as the narrative itself occasionally inelegant and cumbersome. One example will suffice: "Until the mid- to late-nineteenth century, almost everywhere in France, apart from the Provençal coast (but not the hinterland), the north-east and a narrow region from Poitou to Burgundy, at least half the people working in the open air were women."
The book has two sets of plates, the first consisting largely of twelve atmospheric black & white photographs. The second set is in colour and features evocative maps, prints, paintings, and posters. Perhaps I should have looked at these first, because here are portrayed some of the features described in the book, such as the climb of Mont Cenis and a visual representation of the `schlitteur'. The book contains eight maps, all of significant value, but there is unfortunately no list of these cited at the beginning of the book.
There is a four-page chronology at the end, followed by thirty pages of notes that are themselves linked to the thirty-three pages of works cited. The book relies on reports of first-hand experiences "by foreigners and natives, from the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth." There is a general index that seems good, but is devoid of references to `schlitteur'; and there is a most-useful geographical index.