Several years ago a friend of mine was headed to Paris and asked for a recommendation of a book that would give her a clear account of the French Revolution.* Somewhat abashedly, I suggested my own book on the history of socialism which I believe gives a clear account of the various iterations of the French Revolution from 1798 through 1871.** (Luckily, she agreed.) If she asked me today, I’d probably recommend Ian Davidson’s The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny as an introduction to the first French Revolution.
The French Revolution is a journalist’s account of one of the most complicated and confusing events of the long eighteenth century.*** Davidson uses the skills he developed as a foreign affairs correspondent for Financial Times to create an even-handed step-by-step account of the events from August 2, 1788, when Louis XVI called a meeting of the États Généraux in the hopes of getting financial help through the execution of Maximilien Robespierre on July 28, 1794. He assumes his reader is familiar with the catchwords and names associated with the French Revolution, but not with the details of its development. He begins with a careful description of the economic and social conditions in France in the years before the war. He identifies possible points of confusion for a modern reader: the Parlement for example was a law court, not a parliament. He gives brief biographies of each of the players, bringing even the most familiar names into clearer focus. Most importantly, he makes it clear that the Revolution began as a peaceful attempt at peaceful social change, with leaders who were dedicated to the rule of law, and that it remained largely peaceful for three years.
Davidson’s The French Revolution is not a scholar’s account of the French Revolution, and makes no claim to be. it is instead a serious work of popular history, challenging enough to intrigue those already familiar with the revolution and accessible enough to engage those who are not.
*My Inner Reference Librarian is always happy to help.
**Yes. There was more than one French Revolution. This was the source of great confusion to me my first year in college.
***That’s intended as a compliment. The best journalists are able to bring clarity to complicated issues.
The heart of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.