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.