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A Brief Historical Detour… (plus the I-word again!)

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A Very Short History of the French Revolution by William Doyle

Yes, I *know* I’m meant to be reading “Crime and Punishment” – and I am getting on really well with it, loving it very much and the end is in sight – but sometimes the book itch gets you and you get distracted, and that’s what’s happened to me here…

You might have noticed that I’ve been a bit absorbed with documentaries and utopias/dystopias and iconoclasm and all that sort of stuff recently at the Ramblings; and although many of my non-fiction interests lean in the direction of Russian history and particularly the Revolution, I have also been drawn towards the French Revolution in all its bloody glory. It’s a subject about which I have a fairly sketchy knowledge (taken no doubt from “A Tale of Two Cities” and watching programmes about the Romantics) and I rather felt that if I was planning to explore it further, particularly the iconoclasm involved, I needed to have a little more of a factual background. Reading “War and Peace” prodded me a bit more in that direction, too, as of course Napoleon is a main player, and so I thought I’d cast around for a good book to widen my knowledge.

That turned out to be a fairly alarming bit of searching and surfing, as a quick look in local bookshops and then online revealed that there is a positive plethora of works about the French Rev, covering umpteen different aspects and viewpoints, and frankly I was a bit over-faced. In the end I decided to plump for something I thought might give me the overview I needed, and that was the OUP’s “A Very Short Introduction….”

And yes it’s short and yes it’s an introduction, so it really was the ideal read to whet my appetite on the subject. In a series of chapters with titles such as ‘Why It Happened’ and What It Started’, Doyle looks at the situation in France pre-revolution and outlines the circumstances that led to the breakdown of the old order in the country, followed by years of war and conflict, and eventually ending up with Napoleon and “War and Peace”! Where this book succeeds, obviously, is in giving a concise overview of what caused the French revolution, what happened and what the consequences were. The conflict was a huge one, the first really modern challenge to the old feudal ways of life, and it gave hope to those who were looking for a rational society, not based on religion or privilege. Many intellectuals were caught up in the turmoil, and as Doyle notes, Wordsworth wrote:

“Not in Utopia, subterranean fields
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us…”

As Doyle goes on to opine, “If the mighty French monarchy, the nobility, and the feudal law from which it justifies its pre-eminence, not to mention the Catholic Church itself, could be challenged and rejected on grounds of rationality, utility and humanity, then nothing was beyond challenge. Dreams of all sorts were achievable.”

Yet the aspirations of the revolutionaries had their flaws: despite the presence of women on the frontline of the fighting, there was nothing in the proposed new laws and constitution to improve their position; and the same applied for those trapped in slavery. However, the revolution *did* change the world quite profoundly, as Doyle reminds us:

“Quite literally, nothing was any longer sacred. All power, all authority, all institutions were now provisional, valid only so long as they could be justified in terms of rationality and utility. In this sense, the French Revolution really did represent the triumph of the Enlightenment, and ushered in the mental world in which we still live.”

One of the most thought-provoking chapters was the final one, in which Doyle explored in depth his view of the legacy of the Revolution, and the changing perceptions of its influence as the world alters around us. Like so much of history, there are shifting interpretations depending on where and when you are at the time you consider it….

For a relative newbie like me, the book filled in plenty of gaps and gave me plenty to think about, but I confess I did come away feeling I wanted more. Doyle is reasonably even-handed in his discussion of the issues although he does lapse a little in his discussion of the legacy; I prefer objectivity in a historian as frankly I get fed up of reading right-wing reworkings of past events. However, because of the necessary brevity of the book I never felt I got to know the personalities of the main movers and shakers, or got the feeling of living through cataclysmic events (which they certainly were). Names like Marat, Danton and particularly Robespierre came across as almost incidental, which is not how I perceive them.

Bouchardon’s statue of Louis XV – which suffered a little at the hands of the Parisians…

 

From what I’ve been picking up lately, it seems there are many differing readings of the French Rev, much as there are of the Russian one, and it can often be your political sympathies which decide how you interpret. For example, getting back to the vexing subject of iconoclasm, Doyle opts to use the word ‘vandal’ when describing the destruction of statues and churches which took place, wholesale, throughout the conflict; the word was resurrected from its ancient use specifically to be coined as a term to describe mob action in France. However, an alternative and intriguing reading’s been put forward (most persuasively by Dr. Richard Clay, as far as I’ve seen) which argues that the statues and religious symbols were perceived as instruments of control by the French people and as such had to be removed to demonstrate that they meant business in their demands for a fairer government. We look at these works in a completely different way with the benefit of hindsight and our modern views on art, but the iconoclasm undertaken by the mob was not just random destruction by a bunch of savages. The revolutionaries, who were in the main ordinary people, didn’t perceive the artworks as aesthetic objects but as symbols of power which had to go.

I’m getting a little off-topic here (because I’m supposed to be reviewing a book, not discussing iconoclasm!) and certainly “A Very Short…” does do what it says on the tin – I did end it feeling that I knew the facts of the French Revolution, which was the intention. So my first proper look at what really could be regarded as the events that created much of the modern world was a fascinating one, aided and abetted by this readable little book. I hadn’t realised quite how radical and wide-ranging the changes the Revolution brought actually were: from the dissolution of the monarchies and the monasteries, dechristianisation, the granting of religious freedom, the crippling of the power of the Catholic Church, the removal of tithes, the crushing of the feudal system – this really was a dramatic and profoundly changing series of events. I’m now very keen to explore more on this subject, and Doyle lists a number of suggested further books in the back, but I still find myself flummoxed by the range of works available – does anyone have any good suggestions of books to move onto next that go into a little more detail and depth on the French Rev?

And in the meantime – onward and upward with “Crime and Punishment”! :))

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In a weird case of serendipity, I discovered after scheduling this post that the “Tearing Up History” documentary featuring Richard Clay’s arguments was being repeated last night, so there’s an ideal chance for anyone interested in the iconoclastic element to check it out, as it’s currently on the iPlayer here. (*whispers* if you can’t get the iPlayer, look here…..)

 

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A bit of an epiphany

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In my spare time (what spare time, you might ask) when I’m not reading or wasting precious moments watching YouTube, I have an extreme fondness for BBC documentaries – BBC4 usually, but sometimes those on BBC2 and even BBC1 as well. And I have to say that I’ve been rather well-served over recent months.

Particular standouts were (and are – some are still ongoing) Richard Clay’s Utopia 3-part series on BBC4; the Alan Yentob BBC1 “Imagine” programme on Margaret Atwood; Simon Reeve’s “Russia” series; Suzy Klein’s BBC4 three-partner on classical music under totalitarian regimes; a sweet little half hour on the same channel covering Philip Larkin‘s sideline as photographer; and a veritable slew of fascinating programmes on poetry that hit the BBC at the beginning of the month.

The epiphany I refer to came during a fascinating look at W.H. Auden‘s work and its continuing resonances in our fractured times. I confess I’ve read very little Auden, so this was a real eye-opener featuring some amazing verse, some lovely comments from other writers (Alan Bennett was a treasure) and powerful reminders of just how relevant and immediate poetry can be.  I found myself responding quite emotionally to some of the work and it sent me off digging in the stacks, because I was sure I had an Auden book somewhere – and fortunately I do!

I think it arrived recently, and I can’t remember what prompted me to order it, but I’m very glad I did. I can see I shall be dipping into this volume and I thought I would share one particular verse that spoke to me (for obvious reasons, most likely…) and it’s called “Epitaph on a Tyrant”:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

I’d recommend tracking down any of these which are still available on the BBC iPlayer, as they don’t stay there forever. Meanwhile, I’m off to check the TV listings pages; because I find if I’m too tired to read but still want intellectual stimulation, BBC documentaries are just the ticket! 🙂

(And memo to self – you need to read more poetry!!!)

 

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