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.