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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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text 2014-01-27 03:07
Reading progress update: I've read 240 out of 1200 pages.
Robespierre - Javier García Sánchez

The book starts slowly (although the whole setting the ambiance around the guillotine is amazing) but now it has definetely picked up and it's hard to put it down. The author's detailed research is showing as he comments on the figures around the Terror and Thermidor.


Pretty amazing book so far.

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review 2014-01-13 00:00
In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution
In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution - Sophie Wahnich,Slavoj Žižek

Excellent essay on the Terror and on revolutionary violence. Not for those unfamiliar with the Revolution and a bit short in relation with the complexity of the subject.


Slavoj Žižek's Introduction is particularly rousing and interesting (qualities I find in all his writings)  although it is a bit chaotic, but that is common in Žižek's work. I appreciated the analysis he did of Corolianus.


All in all, a provocative and enlightening analysis of not only the Grande Terreur but also of revolutionary violence.

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review 2014-01-08 00:00
City of Darkness, City of Light
City of Darkness, City of Light - Marge Piercy

I did enjoy the book, but I think the first part (1789-1791) was stronger. The POVs varied in quality, I found Pauline, Danton, Claire and Robespierre's stronger than Manon and Condorcet's. There were some characterisation choices I don't agree with: I think Danton lacked some strenght and I am not so sure about Robespierre's portrayal of ever-increasing insanity, as well as his treatment of Elèanor.

The prose was flat at some points but it was good at showing the material realities of Paris in the late 18th century, especially between the lower classes.

All in all, a good book that I enjoyed, but lacking in some areas.

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review 2010-09-07 00:00
Concise History of French Revolution
Concise History of French Revolution - This is a fabulous book - for one looking (like myself) for a reliable and sturdy refresher course on the French Revolution; and for its focus and intelligence and analytical clarity, albeit in brief format (a plus).

Neely writes without sentiment. She is generally sympathetic to Louis XVI (who does emerge as a surprisingly sympathetic figure here), and is clearly horrified by the excesses of the Terror. But her scalpel is used on all-comers.

According to Neely, the Revolution was not an inevitable consequence of vast historical forces, but came about because of specific factors that could have turned out otherwise. The principal factor was the economic crisis of the 1780's (government debt) and the political inability to deal with it through taxation. This led to a political and financial crisis, that was then compounded by the famine of 1789 (after two consecutive years of crop failure). She rejects what she calls the 'Marxist' view that the Revolution was the inevitable result of class conflict (that is, a Bourgeoise Revolution).

On the Terror -- she rejects Burke's claim that the Terror was due to the Enlightenment's rejection of religion, and also the view (of supporters of the Revolution) that it was to be blamed on the opponents of the Revolution -- who forced their hand. She then looks at François Furet's belief that the Terror emerged from the rhetoric of the early Revolution (which she finds wanting and reductionist; p. 219), and concludes instead that none of these later events would have taken place had it not for the War -- that it was the War (and the suspicions it fostered) that especially disordered everything and which eventually brought the country to the extreme dictatorship of Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety.

I can't judge of any of this, of course -- but I can at least say that the book is much better than Hibbert's (which is pretty useless), and positions the reader to tackle more ambitious works.

Neely has also written what looks like a fascinating account (and I have the book in front of me) of Lafayette and the Restoration. Lafayette, too, emerges as a central and sympathetic figure.

This is a good place to repost my favorite French Revolution film - in case anyone's missed it --
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