“If I were God and had two sons, the eldest would have to be God after me,
but I’d make the second King of France.”
—Ascribed to Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor
The subtitle of this handsome illustrated volume, “A Historical Geography From the Revolution to the First World War,” usefully indicates the book’s historical dimension, which the title alone does not convey. While a quick glance at the work suggests more of its scope, only careful reading can reveal its enormous variety and interest of topics, wealth of detail, and stylistic liveliness.
Robb, an historian living in Oxford, has written previously on 19th-century French subjects, notably in biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Rimbaud, and his knowledge of the period must have been solid. The present work resulted from his determination to increase his personal acquaintance with France by bicycling through it—a journey, he writes, of 14,000 miles in the saddle. To create this book, his impressive odyssey was complemented by four years in libraries. The efforts were not misplaced.
Conceived as an historical guidebook, the volume is not a narrative of Robb’s own travels, nor even organized as an armchair tour of France, though, as he notes, it does identify locations of unusual interest. While the orientation is toward the past, the present is not neglected; he surveys, for instance, the current status of numerous groups, sites, trades, languages, and traditions examined first in an historical context. Even readers who know France well in one or more ways will make discoveries in these pages.
Robb’s investigation shares certain principles with those of the school of historiography centered around the journal Annales: Sociétés, Economies, Civilisations, founded in 1929. Illustrated most famously by Fernand Braudel, the Annales approach emphasized longue durée and almost timeless, or slowly changing, social and historical features, sometimes geographical ones—in contradistinction to histories concentrating on major figures, regimes, wars, and other events and the changes they brought about (a viewpoint seen by many 20th-century historians as reductionist and elitist). Asking different questions and putting aside the standard sorts of documentation used in political and military history, Annales historians and similarly minded researchers drew on other sources of information, usually at the micro level, such as village and church archives, additional lists and inventories, and personal records of ordinary (if literate) people. The long-duration approach thus came to involve what has been called the “worm’s eye view” of history. They adopted as well somewhat different expository modes. While their approach has its own limitations, it can offer a large number of perspectives, and this multiplication of complementary vantage points, even modest ones, remedies partially the quasi-impossibility, to which contemporary philosophers and historians are particularly sensitive, of seeing the whole, broadly.
In the same spirit, Robb forgoes the features of standard political histories as well as traditional geographic surveys. His concern is with France as it was known and experienced by those who found themselves in her territory—natives, migrants, visitors—from the mid-18th century (in fact, a bit before his terminus a quo, the 1789 revolution) to the early 20th, and what this experience reveals about the land and the evolving nation as a cultural, ethnological, and historical entity. In other words, what were things like, in Provence, in the Béarn, in Britanny, along the Rhône, in the Massif Central? He draws on recent historical monographs, but particularly on obscure sources, contemporary with the period studied, some anonymous, a few produced by the government; he also adds the fruit of his own observations and interviews. Quite rightly, he emphasizes the multiple pays of France, not the pays as nation but rather its discrete components—the regions, often very narrowly defined, that were seen by natives, before centralization and erosion of cultural distinctions, as “home” in opposition to all the rest.
The study is flexibly, though not capriciously, organized; its basic arrangement is topical, but the exposition proceeds now chronologically, now geographically, now in a blend of the two modes, moving gradually toward the early 1900’s. This flexible organization allows for wide-ranging considerations, numerous digressions, and pertinent supporting examples and statistics. (Robb relishes facts and provides innumerable curious and enlightening ones. For instance, as late as 1863 a quarter of all army recruits were said to speak semi-incomprehensible patois, or dialects. And in 1843, when Victor Hugo, on holiday, stopping in Rochefort, an Atlantic port, learned from a newspaper that his beloved daughter Léopoldine had drowned in the Seine, it took him 74 hours to reach Paris.)
The author initiates his study by considering France as being until the late 19th century (part of) an “undiscovered continent,” ill known, where most of the population was invisible—not just rural but hidden away, whether by forests, narrow valleys, moors, nearly inaccessible mountains, or fear or xenophobia (its or others’). Robb then looks at the “tribes of France” —ethnologically and culturally—in the period under review, as they can be known now, and the multitude of languages spoken then and, in some places, still today. It is clear that the contemporary French should feel no need to look elsewhere for cultural and tribal diversity; the nation was never homogeneous in terms of racial makeup and traditions, not even in religion. Only in the 19th and early 20th centuries were regimes sufficiently powerful and concerned with national unity—through centralizing impulse and self-aggrandizement, and as means to other ends—to attempt to impose homogeneity. In this attempt, they succeeded to varying degrees and via assorted means and policies—education, language laws, economic policies, cruel repression—and thanks to modern means of transportation and communication, and war. In recent decades the earlier distinct identities have come to be valued, and the French have spent enormous sums and exerted great effort to try to decentralize authority and institutions (museums, for instance) and restore local tongues and traditions.
Following the introductory chapters that set forth these considerations, two subsequent chapters deal with “Living in France”—the basic economics of life for most people at the time, their shelter, means of subsistence, mores, attitudes toward death, and other matters. Differences among regions, provinces, and even from village to village are emphasized, as well as isolation; many villagers rarely left home, going at the most a very few miles. (Even at that, 18th-century travelers, as historian Arlette Farge has shown, sometimes carried little memoranda in the form of parchment “bracelets” indicating vital facts in case they died elsewhere.) Robb also examines religious phenomena, notably the persistence of pagan beliefs, then surveys the experiences of travel on foot, or by horse, mule, or coach. Insofar as facts permit, an enlightening—and enlightened—chapter looks at the 60 million domestic animals (according to the 1866 census), their treatment, and the uses to which they were put.
Other topics receiving attention are the phenomena of migration and displaced workers and the centripetal forces that drove peasants and tradesmen to Paris; the cultural gulf between Paris and the provinces; the development of small-scale industry; “the wonders of France” and various natural features (escarpments, canyons) long hidden from most or all eyes; roads and road construction; attitudes of 19th-century French travelers (or “tourists”) toward those in different regions (the “natives”); and—one of the most interesting topics—18th-century cartography and the devising of the meter. Readers who take note of the great cycling competition in the Hexagon (as continental France is sometimes known) will be attracted to the chapter titled “Journey to the Centre of France,” which deals with early bicycling, grueling races, and the successful promotion of the inaugural Tour de France (1903), begun as a publicity stunt.
As befits his ethnological interest and particular historical approach, the author stresses the condition of groups living at the margin throughout the period in question. In his brief Epilogue, he likens the status of Muslims in the suburbs north of present-day Paris, often spoken of as “scum,” to that of earlier low-caste groups (provincials, 19th-century Paris slum-dwellers, and foreigners) and notes the willful blindness of most French to persecution, de jure or de facto, present and past. What some observers would view as the particular problems posed now by the huge numbers of Muslims in the country are not acknowledged; it could be asserted, doubtless, that all underclass and foreign elements have posed particular problems.
Despite the broad range of this investigation, with its inevitable generalities, and the attention paid to peoples and obscure figures in their peculiar settings, individuals stand out also—the Cassini family of cartographers, for instance, and Mme. de Genlis, author of a French-German phrase book for travelers. It will be noted how frequently Robb draws on information from well-known figures—scientists, and especially major 19th-century authors. Stendhal and Victor Hugo were travelers, and observant ones, who wrote up their experiences; Balzac, another source, knew well both Parisian and provincial mores; George Sand and Flaubert depicted their respective regions with great attention to detail and, it seems, accuracy; Mérimée, as the new inspector general of national monuments, traveled very widely and reported on what he saw. (R.L. Stevenson is another source of information on traveling in 19th-century France.) To call on Stendhal, Mérimée, Balzac, and others is appropriate. France was certainly a land of les petites gens—anonymous villagers, peasants, tradesmen, industrial workers after industry finally got established—and it is they, situated in their territories, whom Robb is most desirous of evoking; but France was also, and remains, a nation of great philosophers, scientists, and writers, who can be considered the mind, as well as the chief eyes, ears, and voice, of France as we know her.
The author should be commended for providing, as an aid to readers, occasional references in the text to topics and names treated more extensively elsewhere. A useful chronology, copious notes, a list of works cited, a general index, and a geographic index (which by itself indicates the wide scope of the study) complete the volume. There are black-and-white maps and 25 glossy illustrations, some reproductions of very old photographs depicting unusual scenes, and a dozen or so in color. No matter how artificially arranged the scene is, the naive colored image of Strasbourg, taken from a children’s book called Le Tour de France (1893), with its church spire, narrow streets, and children in Alsatian costume, is moving, 138 years after the “lost provinces” were seized by the Prussians, some 90 years after they were regained. Such sentimentality is not required, however, for a reader to take delight in this book, whose length should not deter buyers but attract them. Robb has fulfilled the classical ideal of belles-lettres by writing a work that pleases and instructs at the same time.
[The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb (New York: Norton) 457 pp., $27.95]