There are innumerable topics of historical study, but an historian has, I believe, to choose among three styles of history.

The first, seemingly the most popular among academics these days, concentrates on facts (i.e., physical evidence).  The difficulty with this history is its avowed loathing of any interpretation of the facts by the historian; the facts are supposed to speak for themselves.

Unfortunately, any given item becomes historical fact only when related in an intelligible way to others; every history is a story.  The past has left an infinite number of traces, however, so that a purely factual history amounts to an endless recording of an infinite number of tidbits without beginning or end.  This is so obvious that the average academic generally ends up selecting from that ocean of tidbits some that he deems more important than others and which are apt to lend some kind of order to their mass.  But then, here stops the historian who postures as scientific, halfway between merely tape recording the sound and fury of the world and regarding that world as a book that needs to be deciphered (whether men be the unwitting tools of some hidden hand or of some inner logic that carries them onward, even as they perceive it as a product of their will).

This is, in part, exactly what Alistair Horne does.  For the sake of brevity, I will take only one example of his approach: the reign of Louis XIV.  Reading through his pages, we learn that the young Louis XIV had to flee a revolution endangering the throne (1652); the same year, reentered a Paris in shambles; chastened the parliament with his famous “L’état c’est moi” (1655); ended the wars with Spain (1659); and entered Paris again triumphantly as a newlywed (1660).  He then proceeded to eliminate his minister of finance (1661) before starting on a long train of love affairs and suffering over the poison scandal (1670), which did not prevent him from embarking the country on a course of remarkable prosperity under Colbert (though “the majority of Frenchmen underwent an era of hardship full of despair and untimely death”).  Next came the building of Versailles (1682), where Louis le Grand appears in his utmost splendor and vitality (his bowels were later discovered to be twice the normal length), as well as the renovation of Paris (fortifications were raised to lay out the Champs Elysées) and the modernization of the police, aimed at making the capital safer.  While the poor suffered, the affluent engaged in gambling as well as theater going (a passion of Louis XIV).  The king patronized well-known literary figures, and 600 novels were published in Paris between 1660 and 1700.  Yielding to his passion for glory and also his greed, he had started (1672) a series of disastrous wars, while his second wife’s piety induced him to persecute his own Huguenot elite brutally (1685), as well as the “holier than Jesuit” Jansenists.  Finally, splendid boredom settled on Versailles while Europe was becoming French.  But the French armies were defeated by Marlborough, and the common people froze and starved to death, even as the king’s heirs (daughter, granddaughter-in-law, brother, son, and grandson) died of various diseases.  Louis became depressed and soon succumbed to gangrene.  He had shown himself to be “the most absolute of absolute monarchs.”

All this is well worth knowing (even if, some decades ago, every French 11th grader knew as much), but it ends up leaving the reader somehow mired in the middle of a huge swamp of facts.

If this is all history is about, we may say that it is fun at the beginning, but you can only take so much of it.  To refer only to Mr. Horne’s choice of events: It would probably be more interesting to see the restlessness of the high nobility coupled with that of the Paris parliament; the wealth and power of the finance minister (topping those of the king himself); the Jansenists’ doubting the validity of anything human, including monarchical institutions; or the Huguenots having their own towns and provinces and threatening to become a state within a state.  All these events, to which many more could be added, can be seen as different manifestations of what was perceived by Louis as the same threat, that of disintegration of the whole kingdom.  Or to see that his wars were not necessarily the result of his passions but the product of his ambition to unify the territory of France into a solid whole.  Nothing new in this; it was the policy pursued by 35 kings of France before Louis XIV.  Unfortunately, there were two ways of bringing unity to the kingdom: by federating the amazing diversity of regional energies, which had been the only aim of many of Louis’s predecessors, or by clamping some kind of uniformity upon diversity—by centralizing all powers or by channeling them, which was his ambition.  Now, when one realizes that France used to comprise more or less independent provinces, each with its own history, customs, even language, it had to be a waste to try to disrupt all this moral and material wealth in the name of unity, and a delicate balance should have been attained between unity and diversity.  (This view was still defended by French royalists only a century ago.)  The true strength of this diversified land was its very diversity, the spirit of France obviously lying in the variety of its citizens, and the love of each one for his own particular region, symbolized by the quintessential French farmer’s attachment to his small plot of land.  So finally, there is a very good case to be made for Louis XIV being not a great king, the most illustrious of all kings of France, but one of the grave diggers of traditional France, a man who wanted to build too much and did not realize his job was also to preserve and conserve.  Louis XIV, unknown to himself, was a revolutionary.

From time to time, the author seems to allude to some such Ariadne’s ball of thread.  Thus, we learn that the French monarchs had started on the path of absolutism since the days of Bouvines (1214), in contrast with the English Plantagenets bent on granting freedoms to their subjects.  Or could it be that Anglo-French rivalry provides the link among centuries of French history?  If this is the case, it remains to be seen whether what started, after all, as a family feud has anything to do with what ended as a more or less one-sided mistrust of a sea-faring and commercial nation toward a continental power always suspected of dreaming of casting England off from Europe.  In any case, unraveling French history as if it were a sort of continuous drama does not seem to be Mr. Horne’s main preoccupation.

All in all, he seems to be more interested in a third type of history, which he obviously relishes, and for which he shows an indisputable talent.  If the reader does not drown under the torrent of facts flowing through the book, he will enjoy the exhibits provided by this historical cruise, much like a visitor going through Madame Tussaud’s or a spectator viewing Sacha Guitry’s film Si Versailles m’était conté.  Mr. Horne excels at rendering the atmosphere of a period (even though he deals rather freely with the chronology of the facts he uses to describe it).  In each chapter, one is driven through an ever-changing landscape, full of vivid details—some funny, many gruesome (Mr. Horne has a weakness for sexy and gory scenes, naughty stories, and detailed accounts of the various ways of dismembering a human body)—and the author depicts characters with the lively intensity of a talented storyteller.  (As he likes details, I should point out that Horne accumulates a long list of erroneous ones, from the color of Bismarck’s uniform at the famous proclamation of the German Empire to Bergson’s philosophy being positivistic, which is total nonsense.  Also, his references to colloquial French are somewhat hazardous: I have never heard of “droit de jambage” but rather “droit de cuissage,” which is rather more explicit; a perron has nothing to do with a train-station platform; and so forth.)  The book obviously does its best not to appear too academic, and fully succeeds in this respect: There are more pages devoted, for instance, to the siege of Paris than to the history of the Second Empire, or to the revolutionary events of 1848 than to the period from 1815 to 1848.

All the same, it is difficult to feel entirely satisfied with the book as a whole, however you look at it.  There is too much history for the reader avid for gore, and too much gore for the reader trying to understand what the history is all about.  Readers should have been shown what la Belle France stands for.  It is disputable to claim they should know how the lovers of Philippe le Bel’s daughters-in-law were eviscerated, especially when it is not mentioned that the horrors of their deaths were necessary to impress the vulgar with the sacredness of the royal function.  And it is rather hazardous for a serious historian to consider François Mitterand a great statesman (“a new start for France”).  He should have waited a little bit to document this claim—to say the least.

We in the West are indeed in need of historical culture, which means particularly a vision of history that is encompassing enough to give us a sense of what we could and should stand for.  History is about facts, and we need people to relate what happened—in the American Civil War, for instance.  The need, however, is a lot more acute, I think, for historians who can place the Civil War in the general framework of what the United States of America is all about.  Mr. Horne’s endeavor is by all means to be praised.  But we are still in need of a short history of la Belle France.


[La Belle France: A Short History, by Alistair Horne (New York: Knopf) 512 pp., $30.00]