Robert Gildea, professor of modern history at Oxford, is the author of some half-dozen volumes dealing with France after 1800 or, in one case, Europe as a whole. Most are broad studies or learned surveys (the terms are not intended as pejorative), very detailed, usually concentrating on one or more aspects of the picture. One of these books, Marianne in Chains, which concerns life in France under the German occupation, was awarded the Wolfson Prize for history. Gildea’s works have appealed to reviewers and readers outside historians’ circles; the New York Times and the Boston Globe, and The New Yorker and The Atlantic, all had praise for Marianne in Chains.
The present study (reprinted from the Penguin edition in Great Britain) displays and draws on Professor Gildea’s vast reading in modern French history and incorporates original reflections and assessments. The organization combines chronological and topical principles effectively. General readers need not feel intimidated by the author’s erudition, which enables him to present a broad and authoritative view of France over the period in question. While the Introduction assumes considerable knowledge, that characteristic can be seen as an invitation to greater familiarity, like the prologue to a play or the opening chapter of a novel, which one understands much better after knowing the whole.
The words children and revolution in the title suggest several features of the work. That all of modern France has been, in various ways, the product of the watershed 1789 revolution and subsequent regime changes is not an idiosyncratic thesis, but it is particularly emphasized here. As for children, the author’s emphasis on the privileges and burdens of inheritance—political, military, social, economic—and the conflicts between succeeding generations allows him to furnish especially good insight into the complex history of France from the consulate up to the Great War. (Some European historians view 1914 as the true conclusion to the 19th century.) The identification of these generations in cultural, political, and social terms is itself a significant matter, to which the author adds his particular understanding. Politics, governments, revolutions, insurrections and riots, wars, administration, commerce, and trade—the chief concerns of many histories—all receive attention here; but the study is directed toward illuminating the characteristics of French society and institutions and, often, the experience of being French.
Thus, without following slavishly the tenets of any school of historiography, the author provides both overviews of pertinent topics, seen as it were from above, and close-up views, at the village or workshop or family level. One can read about Paris versus the provinces; education and literacy; the condition of workers; the family; art and literature; publishing; French views of, and relationships with, other nations; the status of the Church; women’s condition; the army as an institution; the development of leisure activities and spread of new consumer goods; and the features of various classes, including a nascent proletariat, and the adversarial relationships among classes and groups, including three rival factions of the upper aristocracy (the Legitimists of the ancien régime, the Orléanist branch, and the Napoleonic noblesse d’empire). Well-chosen statistics and other facts, revealing anecdotes, and apt quotations support and illustrate the writer’s assessments. Numerous glossy black-and-white illustrations add interest; they include reproductions of portraits (paintings or photographs), street and crowd scenes, magazine covers, and cartoons. Representative are an anonymous print showing an Auvergnat peasant’s family; Gustave Doré’s engraving of an old street in Paris before Haussmann’s scheme of boulevards was carried out; Edouard Détaille’s painting of Paris under siege by the Prussians; a photo of men going to fight on the Marne and the taxis that transported many; a portrait of Charles Péguy, a poet and journalist who died in that battle standing up (literally and figuratively) for the France he viewed as the cradle of Christendom and a torch to the world; and a 1912 photograph of Madeleine Pelletier, a feminist agitator, wearing men’s attire, defiant and quite frightening.
Chapter 4, on religion and revolution, may be of special interest to Chronicles readers, who may appreciate the following quotation from Chateaubriand (1768-1848). In connection with Islam and what he called “Oriental despotism,” Chateaubriand wrote that it was a question of
which would triumph on earth, a religion that was the enemy of civilization, promoting ignorance, despotism, and slavery, or a religion that had revived the genius of learned antiquity among modern peoples and abolished servitude.
And two other judgments may hold similar appeal. “The masses, sheer numbers, are always stupid; what we need above all is a natural and therefore legitimate aristocracy.” So wrote Flaubert, a scion of the upper bourgeoisie, to George Sand. Ernest Renan, who came from a very modest background (indeed, “underprivileged”), added, “Let us cure ourselves of democracy. Civilization began as an aristocratic creation . . . and its preservation is an aristocratic task also.”
In short, Professor Gildea’s study will be useful both to readers wishing to refresh their acquaintance with modern French history and to those generally unfamiliar with it, who will find laid out before them a broad but lively picture of France. Those better acquainted with the subject who want to find particular data or interpretations can make use of the effective organization of the material as well as the Index (to which they may wish to add an entry or so, as I did, while reading).
It is an unpleasant duty to recognize here, lest readers suppose otherwise in view of the author’s position and authority, that the expository style of this study is well below par, or at least what par should be. While, with respect to style in the sense of “fine style,” one must report that there is none, that is forgivable; scholars are not all gifted with language, and their intellectual contributions do not depend on elegant writing. The exposition here is, however, marked by numerous mechanical failings. To blame are those associated with the book, starting with the Penguin editorial staff (three names are mentioned in the Acknowledgments), one of whom is a copyeditor. To be sure, the author is at the beginning of the project, its originator and the one who is intellectually responsible; but it can be easily imagined that an historian, even one at Oxford, as he becomes tied up in countless details and observations and is nonetheless anxious to continue the thread of his narrative, may forget, as he puts in his verb, that the grammatical subject is singular, not plural, or use whom instead of who by neglecting his own syntax, or overlook the vexing ambiguity of antecedents for pronouns as his sentences run on, or omit needed commas, which are really useful little things in helping readers make out meaning. Careful rereading usually identifies such errors. Other failings are matters of expression: forgetting (apparently) how the sentence began and thus writing such phrases as “How to form a governing class . . . was no easy matter,” “Although nationalist agitation . . . ceased criticizing,” and “ . . . as some fantasies believed.” Since when can a fantasy believe anything? Such solecisms are too frequent. Stylistic flaws lead to readers’ distraction, sometimes confusion. The author may be forgiven these shortcomings, and I will always pardon a minor factual error; à chaque pécheur, miséricorde. Copyeditors, however, are supposed to read so closely and dispassionately, not to say with such wariness, that they identify errors in grammar, punctuation, and expression before the book hits the street or library. Ultimately, the publishers are responsible for their products; following Penguin, Harvard University Press has given its august imprint to a history marked by elementary expository errors of the sort that I did not tolerate from my students (who often had to rewrite their compositions or thesis chapters).
An unkind assessment is not the point of this review. Professor Gildea’s fact-filled study, not overburdened with detail but appropriately learned, provides a very good sense of France in the 19th and early 20th centuries. At $35 and with illustrations and an attractive dust jacket, it is a bargain. It belongs on the shelf of general readers wishing to brush up on their acquaintance with modern French history as far as the Great War and deepen their understanding of the nation’s political and cultural inheritance. France is a puzzle, if not quite the “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” that Churchill called Russia in 1941. As America’s traditional friend and England’s traditional enemy, then ally, and now, with Germany, the dominant power in the European Union—and still everyone’s charming but rather unpredictable, occasionally arrogant, acquaintance—France, both past and present, needs, for us, all the elucidation she can get.
[Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914, by Robert Gildea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 540 pp., $35.00]