on 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.
on 21 August 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.
on 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
on 21 July 1999
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.
on 22 September 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.
on 5 November 2010
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.
on 19 August 2013
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.
on 3 January 2003
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.
on 25 November 2007
Schama believes that the Revolution ended with the end of the Terror. This is simply not true and a marker for the sort of angle he has taken on the matter. Whilst undeniably well written, Schama offers little or no explanation for why events took place. How he manages to get away with this is a miracle, given the wealth of debate on the matter. Engaging primary anecdotes aside, that do indeed 'bring characters to life', there is little here of worth.
Anger an historian you know by gushing about how you love his lyrical prose, but don't use this to write an essay. There are works which go much deeper in markedly fewer pages. William Doyle's 'Oxford History of the French Revolution' makes up for what it lacks in style with significant benefits of analytical reasoning. Doyle is the historian's guide to the revolution.
on 6 November 2008
I bought this book because of the number of glowing reviews on the cover. However a number of these reviews are from other historians of this period and Schama's quoting of these authors in his book makes it seem like self-interested back-slapping ..."you praise my book and I'll praise yours!"
This book is probably excellent if you are already familiar with the FR, but if, like me, your knowledge is scanty (which is why you need a book)then this might not be the one.
Schama's knowledge of the period is undoubtedly impressive; however, he is not a good story teller. He has managed to turn an electrifying period of history into a processional drudge of facts.
Personally I like Schama when he is on TV; as this medium forces him to be succinct and highly focused, and this is when he is at his best. In print, it is almost as if he wants to demonstrate just how much he knows. If he cut this book from 700 odd pages to say 3-400 it would be vastly improved; even then, I'm not sure if he has the descriptive powers to make this highly readable.
So, 5 stars for content but just 1 for readability. Hence 3 stars.