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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

“Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution”, by Simon Schama


948 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0394559483

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution is a truly wonderful example of narrative historical writing, a “tremendous performance” to borrow a favorite expression of Simon Schama. The author prefers a more old-fashioned interpretation of the French revolution, which presents the revolution as a drama and focuses on the characters that determine the unravelling of the plot. This choice provides the book with all of the most memorable stories – such as the royal family’s tragically feckless flight from Paris in 1791 – that make it such a delightful read. It is a liberating experience to find a general historical survey that does away with the conventional, stultifying analytical distinctions between economic, social and political factors. Instead, the reader can interact directly (as well as chronologically, which makes it easy to dip in and out of) with the actors and the events without having to navigate around tedious discussions of causal significance or complex arguments with other historians.

One gets to know with almost casual familiarity the important personages in the ancien régime, including those working behind the scene; regardless of what you have been led to believe, the earliest revolutionaries were not bourgeoisie, but nobility and high clergy, many of them functionaries in the old regime. Intoxicated by idealism and Rousseau’s sublime concepts of virtue, reason, equality, etc., they had set out to correct real or perceived iniquities in France. Louis XVI’s ministers saw the dangers lurking ahead, but seemed impotent to effectively protect the monarchy and solve the problems afflicting France, particularly the looming, serious financial problems and the threat of national bankruptcy. Nevertheless, these old regime functionaries, for the first time, are seen by the author as people of flesh and blood, although with all the frailties of ordinary men when all too often in times of crises – unlike other books in which they are portrayed almost anonymously as faceless aristocrats imbued not in human virtue, but only suffused of arrogance and other vices of idle and luxuriant living.

This book argues persuasively that the old regime was of itself undergoing changes of modernity in trade, technology, and laissez faire capitalism influenced by the teachings of the physiocrats, and these changes, rather than being openly welcomed by the people because of the advent of greater economic freedom, were actually decried and resented because these changes brought them insecurity and incertitude. The common people wanted cheap bread and regimentation whereas the lesser nobility wanted to hold onto the only thing left to them – their titles of nobility and what remained of their ancient land privileges, poor as most of them had become. It wasn't the lesser nobility or the bourgeoisie who led in the revolution.

From the outset of the revolution, for the most part, the liberal elite coming from the upper crust of the high nobility and clergy pushed for progressive change from above (operating in the voice of Mirabeau, Siéyès, Tallyrand, etc.) leading, whereas the poor and displaced persons militated from below. The destructive winter of 1788-1789 had forced the destitute and other disaffected elements of society to tread in the path of the revolution. The bitter harvest of 1787, the scarcities that followed, and the concomitant high prices for grain, bread, and other commodities did not help the looming economic and financial crisis. Mr. Schama certainly provides good evidence and persuasive arguments that those men of the nobility and clergy who were making war against their own classes set the revolution in motion - a tumbling, violent cascade that later they were unable to control.

One must visualize the French Revolution from its inception in 1789 to the end of the Terror on 9 Thermidor as a speeding log moving from left to right representing first the alleged enemies of the people, the aristocrats, the refractory priests, then the constitutional monarchists and foreigners, then the Feuillants, Girondins, Dantonists (and the Cordeliers), Hébertists, even more moderate or inconvenient Jacobins, and finally the Robespierrists - devoured by their own revolution. This log is ever being mounted by fresh radicals on the left while it continuously moves and is turned into lumber on the right by the circular saw of the revolution. (Only the Hébertists were out of sequence in the political spectrum only because the dictatorship of Robespierre outflanked them in the struggle for power.)

But it is the skill with which Schama recounts events like the fall of the Bastille that makes this book unique and easily the most enjoyable modern history of the revolution in English. The embellishing vocabulary (readers are advised to have a dictionary to hand), the recurring motifs (the revolutionary obsession with heads, whether on pikes or as busts) and the vivid build-up of tension are the true strengths of this so-called chronicle. It is perfect for the novice reader and the enlightened amateur alike. Citizens demands re-reading for the richness of its description to be fully appreciated, especially its masterful reconstruction of the fascinating and sometimes disturbing culture of the old regime, which is probably the most accessible that exists. The only disappointment is that it ends with Thermidor, in 1794. After 800 pages, one is still hoping for more, which is the highest recommendation possible for this genre of historical writing.

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