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review 2016-11-09 02:37
The Black Count
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Pulitzer Prize for Biography) - Tom Reiss

The name Alexandre Dumas is well known, but before the author and his playwright son was the General.  Tom Reiss brings the little known founder of the Dumas family into the spotlight in The Black Count, a born slave of noble blood turned Republican general in the service of France.  This giant of a man both of stature in the view of his novelist son cast a long shadow since his death.

 

Born in modern Haiti as a slave to a French nobleman father, Alexandre life suddenly changed when he joined on his father’s return journey to France to take is family title.  However after years of dealing with his father behavior, Alexandre joined the French army and with the coming of the French Revolution into Republican government.  His daring feats in the field and dedication to the ideals of republicanism sent him quickly up the chain of command to General.  Continuing his lead in front style, Alexandre was sent to lead men on every front that France needed him.  But it was his feats during the Italian campaign that truly brought him his greatest fame and yet began his long cold relationship with another General, Napoleon.  After more spectacular feats in Egypt and yet more conflict with Napoleon, Alexandre decided to return to France but was then captured in southern Italy only to emerge two year later into a new France in which his desire to service his country was rejected by its new leader.  Five years after his release, Alexandre died leaving his young son bereaved.  Yet, the legendary events of his life would inspire young Alexandre with a lot of material for his epic heroes including one Edmund Dantes.

 

The Black Count is a thrilling ride following a mixed raced former slave fighting for the republican ideals of his new homeland even as radical political events shift all around him, yet Alexandre Dumas quickly became a hero to the French until his capture and release into an entirely different France that didn’t appreciate him.  Tom Reiss brought to life of a little known French Republican general that had a long lasting impact on history outside of the military and political sphere to the enjoyment of readers around the world.

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review 2016-01-14 07:24
A prescient critique built on a shaky foundation
Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford World's Classics) - L.G. Mitchell,Edmund Burke

This is a work which I had long planned to read for two reasons. The first was its historic importance, as Burke's book has long been held up as an important early critique of the then-ongoing French Revolution. The other was its citation as an ur-text of modern Anglo-American conservatism, one of the sources that shaped the mold it would have for the next two centuries. Yet it wasn't until recently that a variety of factors combined to propel it to the top of my reading list.

 

What amazed me in reading it is how terrible it is. Burke's criticism of the French Revolution suffers from a glaring flaw from the outset, which is that he never acknowledges the reason why it took place. In his view, the changes France needed could have been addressed within the kingdom's existing institutions, with no need to demolish them as the revolutionaries were in the process of doing. What Burke fails to appreciate, however, is the degree to which the institutions themselves were part of the problem. After all, how could the French adopt a representative institution that existed exclusively in the mind of Edmund Burke?

 

Just as annoying is the English chauvinism of Burke's arguments. This is less problematic overall, though, especially when considering the context in which Burke was writing. As Leslie Mitchell pointed out in his excellent introduction to the edition that I read, one of Burke's driving concerns behind writing this book was that the revolution underway in France might spread across the Channel and break out in Britain as well. In this respect, emphasizing English superiority to his readers was not a bad strategy at all. Yet this belief in English superiority rested on an extremely slanted reading of English history, particularly the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, which Burke holds up as a model. Setting aside the fact that the replacement of James II by William and Mary was in contrast to some of Burke's own arguments, the act itself was a military operation given a retroactive spin into a bloodless shrugging-off, one that Burke presents uncritically. Whether this reflects the contemporary interpretation of events passed a century ago or a deliberate misrepresentation is difficult to say, but either way the results are the same.

 

So if the book is as flawed as this, then how did it assume the outsized role it possesses today? The answer lies in his arguments, as beneath the flaws Burke can lay claim to a degree of prescience. Burke's concerns about the emergence of a strong man left me wondering what he would have thought about Napoleon Bonaparte. Would he have been a sign of the fever gripping France or a welcome return to the stability Burke sought throughout this book? Unfortunately, Burke's death in 1797, just as Napoleon was racking up victories in northern Italy, meant that he never had the opportunity to embrace or reject Bonapartism. Thus we will never know whether Burke regarded the Little Emperor's emergence as irrefutable evidence that he was correct or whether he would fall under Napoleon's spell as had so many others.

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review 2015-10-09 22:49
My love affair with Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

I thought it was time that I come clean about my adoration of Charles Dickens. It all started with Nicholas Nickleby and it definitely snowballed from there. However, that wasn't my first foray into all things Dickensian. Like many people, it was compulsory to read Great Expectations while in school but I don't think that's the way to lead someone down the path of Dickens admirer. At least it wasn't for me. I know that Dickens is an acquired taste and for many of you reading this your interest in any of his novels is minimal at best. But I hope you'll hear me out as I gush about my favorite Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Yes, it's his most famous work. That is for a very good reason. It's absolutely phenomenal. The story is told before and during the French Revolution and focuses on a key group of characters who one instantly feels are real. Your heart aches for Dr. Manette, you stand a little straighter with Darnay, and you are filled with hope for the future by Carton. A story of loss, love, and liberty; A Tale of Two Cities can't be beat.

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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review 2015-08-21 00:17
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
A Place of Greater Safety - Hilary Mantel

Whew....I made it.

 

As with Mantel's other novels, she throws out all the rules for writing a novel and comes up with an astounding result that is uniquely hers. She unapologetically assumes that her readers will already be familiar with the triple threat of the French Revolution and feels free to recreate them in her own style. Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Maximilian Robespierre go from awkward school children to gods of their own making in this epic novel.

 

I saw a lot of Mantel's future Cromwell in Camille. He was dark, glowering, arrogant, snarky, and somehow sexy. In fact, many of the turns of phrase and characterizations used for this character could fit very nicely into Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies.

 

Of course, it is heartbreaking. One spends 750 pages growing to love these bold characters only to see them snuffed out by their own policies. If you don't already know about the French Revolution before picking this up, you may want to give yourself a little lesson. I was admittedly not an expert and found myself frustrated in certain sections, wishing I had a better idea of what was going on.

 

I adore Mantel's Cromwell series, but reading this really opened my eyes to why so many others find her writing difficult. I didn't realize how much I was leaning on prior knowledge in order to enjoy those stories, but it became painfully clear in this one. Still, I loved her humor, her crazy style of writing that no one else can get away with, and her clever way of turning historical facts into a fresh story.

 

I hope to read this book again sometime when I am not so distracted by life - and after studying the events of the French Revolution in a little more detail. I feel certain that this is a book, like Mantel's others, that are rich enough in content to be enjoyed more than once.

 

This was read as part of a More Historical than Fiction monthly read. Join us next month!

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review 2015-08-06 06:00
The French Revolution in one volume
The Oxford History of the French Revolution - William Doyle

To most historians, the French Revolution is the key event defining the emergence of the modern world in which we live today. Its bicentenary in 1989 was the occasion for a slew of books that examined its causes, personalities, and consequences from several different ideological and chronological perspectives. Among the most prominent was William Doyle's survey of the French Revolution. A noted historian of the period, Doyle offered something provided in few other works produced that year: a narrative that ranged from the accession of Louis XVI to the Treaty of Amiens and Napoleon Bonaparte's confirmation as First Consul in 1802. In doing so, he offered an analysis of the origins, events, and historical impact of the Revolution within a single interpretive framework, one that serves as a starting point for anyone seeking an introduction to this historically critical event.

Doyle's analysis begins with a survey of France under Louis XVI. Here he portrays a country under strain, governed by a monarchy ill-equipped to face the challenges before it. Though he identifies the cause of the Revolution as the economic crisis created by the bad harvests of the 1770s and 1780s, these exposed many of the long-term systemic problems of the French government. Uppermost among them was the ineffectual king, Louis XVI, a man whose vacillation and weakness Doyle frequently highlights as key to the ineffectual response to the events that followed. He also takes the times to describe the rich intellectual ferment of the time, as the Enlightenment provided many of the ideas and concepts that were introduced in an effort to address the problems plaguing the country.

The core of Doyle's account, though, is the period between 1789 and 1794. This period takes up nearly half of the book, containing as it does the pivotal events of the Revolution itself. One of the great strengths of Doyle's presentation of these years is his inclusion of events outside of Paris, which provides a more comprehensive understanding of the revolution as a national event and how the reaction of the provinces influenced events within the capital. Yet his account makes clear that it was the Paris commune that was the single most important factor driving events, as representatives continually were forced to make decisions with the reactions of the Paris mob uppermost in their considerations. The men who emerged as leaders during this period were the ones who could win over these crowds, yet Doyle makes it clear that men such as Robespierre were more often driven by events than driving them themselves.

 

Doyle concludes his history with the Directory, the emergence of Bonaparte, and the contemporary impact of the Revolution upon Europe. His incorporation of a European perspective is another of the book's strengths, illuminating the role of international affairs on the Revolution while also providing a fuller account of its broader impact outside of France itself. By this point military affairs were a paramount consideration, aiding to both the government's survival and the exportation of revolutionary ideas. Yet curiously Doyle does not dwell on this part in his conclusion, which nonetheless explains just how the Revolution came to shape so much of the political landscape, down to the very concepts and language used today.

 

The comprehensive and insightful nature of Doyle's examination is one of the main reasons why, two decades after its publication, his book remains the best single-volume study of the French Revolution. Though somewhat dry in its presentation, it nonetheless gives readers a clear narrative of events and a framework for understanding the origins and developments of the revolution, both within France and Europe. For anyone seeking to understand such a pivotal event in history, this is the book to read.

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