Rehashed Revolution

The French Revolution is a historical episode of apparently endless and enduring fascination. Much more so than the American Revolution, which displayed stronger continuities with the society and regime it supplanted, the French Revolution continues to engross our curiosity because of the dramatic reversals to which it gave rise. The Revolution shows us the birth of modernity, and the transformation in a few years of an apparently unshakeable monarchy, hedged about by tradition, custom, and divine sanctions, into a republic. It was the seed-bed of influential if not always well-conceived political and social theories, and its interpretation by generations of historians and philosophers has established it as one of the few world-historical events with which every educated person should be acquainted.

Ian Davidson’s new history of the Revolution has modest ambitions: “This is not an academic book, and I make no attempt to register the latest refinements in academic research. My aim is more modest: to tell the central story of the French Revolution in terms that are credible, economical and readable.” In The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny we are offered a narrative of the events of 1789 to the extraordinary days of Thermidor 1794, a few pages giving the outline of developments up until the establishment of the Napoleonic regime in 1799, and a further few pages on the significance of the Revolution. It is, apparently, based entirely upon secondary sources, and therefore does not represent fresh research.

Even a book which is so limited in its evidential foundations—which brings nothing new in the way of raw material to the conversation—may yet be valuable. It can tell a familiar story with fresh vivacity, if its author has the gift of narrative. It can press from the old material new insights, if its author has an unusual power and independence of mind. Unfortunately, Davidson, former Paris correspondent and chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times of London, is blessed with an insufficiency of both these talents.

The narrative Davidson has constructed is occasionally repetitious. For instance, on page 109 we read: “on August 23 the fortress of Longwy fell to the invaders; and on August 30 the fortress of Verdun was under siege.” Five pages later, we read that the “Prussians had captured the fortress of Longwy and were besieging the fortress of Verdun.” In case these developments had escaped our notice, three pages later we are told that “By the end of August the Prussians had captured the French fortress of Longwy and were besieging the fortress of Verdun.” A final careful read-through by either author or publisher would have caught such blemishes.

It might also have caught straightforward blunders, such as the assertion on page 246 that Napoleon III founded the Second Empire in 1871 (the year in fact of its downfall). Davidson more than once draws the reader’s attention to an analysis of mortality which he compiled in the course of his reading, in which the major actors of the Revolution are divided into those executed, those who suffered a violent death, and the rest. On the basis of this analysis he suggests that to have played a leading role in the Revolution brought with it a greater than 40 percent chance of dying either violently or on the scaffold.

A striking and plausible assertion, but when one looks at the table on which is based, one’s confidence is undermined. Louis Antoine de Saint-Just seems to have avoided both execution and a violent death (in fact he was guillotined in the aftermath of the fall of Robespierre). Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, too, was more fortunate in this book than he proved to be in life. Davidson has him, like Saint-Just, evading both the scaffold and a violent death; history, though, records his demise on the guillotine in April 1794.

Yet Mr. Davidson is nothing if not even-handed. To balance these retrospective reprieves, his analysis is pitiless towards others. Philibert Simond, it seems, enjoyed the unusual bad luck of suffering death twice, once by execution, once simply violently. The same cruel double jeopardy ensnared Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, at least in Mr. Davidson’s imagination—the Talleyrand, who, of course, was one of the great survivors of the Revolution, and died in his bed in 1838.

Some of the great interpreters of history have been careless when it comes to detail. In their case, one is happy to overlook occasional minor blunders in return for the intellectual exhilaration they offer. Here Davidson’s subtitle—“From Enlightenment to Tyranny”—raises the hope that he will offer some insights about the key interpretative crux of the Revolution, namely its relationship to Enlightenment.

Was the Revolution a pure product of the Enlightenment, and therefore are the violence and self-destructiveness of its course revelations of a dark totalitarian core hidden within and beneath the liberal and toleration professions of the enlightened? So thought Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, in an interpretation which builds on some strong contemporary foundations.

When Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were “panthéonisés” in July 1791 and October 1794, this was certainly the Revolution claiming that it was the child of Enlightenment—an opinion in which counter-revolutionaries such as Edmund Burke concurred. Many modern commentators on the Enlightenment wish to resist that interpretation, guided instead by equally well-placed contemporaries such as Germaine de Staël, who decried the Revolution as the enemy of Enlightenment, and saw it as posing a mortal threat to the Enlightenment’s values of emancipation and progress.

Where does Davidson stand on this great question? It is impossible to say, as he refrains from comment. One must regretfully conclude that the subtitle, as he uses it, does not refer to a conceptual or an interpretative problem so much as to a span of time which must be covered by narration. As such, it exemplifies the failure to grasp intellectual opportunities that characterizes this book.

Anyone who wants a reliable, enjoyable, one-volume history of the French Revolution should still be directed towards Christopher Hibbert’s The French Revolution (1980). It covers more ground than Davidson, and with greater reliability and insight.

David Womersley

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature and a fellow of St. Catherine's College, Oxford.

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