OMETIMES books announce their theme to perfection in the very first sentence.
Ian Davidson pulls off this trick in his new history of the French Revolution: “The story of the French Revolution is the story of how a group of educated Frenchmen, many of them lawyers, set about building a new state in France, on new principles based on the rule of law; of how, for a while, they succeeded; and how, after a while, they failed.”
All that follows over the ensuing 250 pages is an unfolding of that opening statement.
And what a tale it is to unfold once again. For someone like me, who had not read or thought very much about the French Revolution for a long time, Ian Davidson’s book makes for a bit of a pummelling.
On page after page, there are jolts and surprises, reminders and revelations. So, while we might all agree that the revolutionaries of 1789 changed the history of the world forever, how many of us would remember them for inventing mass warfare?
How many of us would picture them not taking charge, but simply finding themselves left in charge, after the ancien régime collapsed under the weight of its own bankruptcy?
Also, how many of us would have said that the original driving force behind the revolution was obstacles to career advancement among the bourgeoisie? In late eighteenth century France, about the only option for an ambitious young man without a family business to go into was the law.
The upshot was a new political class steeped in the ideas of the Enlightenment and trained to exercise a political role. When the revolutionaries arrived on the scene, “they did not come to overthrow anything: they came to discuss, to argue and to make political speeches.”
The first confrontation came over how deputies to the estates general, convened for the first time in 175 years, should be registered and then meet: All together or in their separate constituent groups of the nobility, clergy, and the the commoners (all bourgeois to a man). The third estate won.
They refused to meet separately and Louis XVI (“overweight, pious, indecisive, full of goodwill”) gave in meekly to their defiance. Thus, Davidson reminds us, the revolution happened not because of stormings and burnings, but because the king surrendered in a debating chamber. The absolute monarchy “simply fell over like a dead tree”.
From this point on, however, following the story of the revolution becomes like following a hurtling train, watching various characters clambering into the cab, each grappling with the previous occupant for a share of control or ousting them entirely.
This was a train with only two speeds — fast and faster — on a single track, with no reverse and one destination: The Terror.
So, for example, when Louis tried to regain mastery by sacking Necker, his liberal-minded chief minister, he increased the agitation on the streets of Paris (itself the product of both food shortages and the unprecedented goings-on at Versailles). The Bastille fell, Necker was recalled and Paris now had its own commune and mayor.
Bourgeois revolutionaries would still largely determine what happened over the next three years through political and parliamentary proceedings, but the lynchings and beheadings had also begun and more “days of wild improvisation” were to come.
Davidson favours shortish chapters, which help to convey something of the pace and tumult. He has a lively, engaging style that probably owes much to his background in journalism, having been Paris correspondent for the Financial Times.
Sometimes, the suddenness of events is breathtaking, as with, for example, the final dismantling of feudalism where the law of unintended consequences kicked in (as it must do with extra force at times of revolution).
The people assumed that all the old dues had been abandoned more or less overnight, while the new National Assembly had actually envisaged something more gradual. With the population at large now emboldened to be much more resistant to taxation,
the dire fiscal crisis of the French state, originally caused by aristocratic greed and stupidity, grew even worse.
The first great fault line within the revolution itself concerned the fate of the king, with believers in some form of constitutional monarchy pitted against full-blown republicans.
Again, the law of unintended consequences came into force: The flight of officers and aristocrats out of a country on the brink of abandoning its king compounded poverty and unemployment, as many artisans lost their best customers as a result.
Surprisingly, turnouts at numerous elections and referendums held during the revolutionary years were pitiful. Most of the electorate showed complete indifference. They were no longer excited by political theories. They just wanted reliable supplies of affordable food.
Also, striking is the extent to which the French Revolution was a Parisian revolution. Much of France looked on dismayed at the hostility of the rebels in the capital towards the Catholic Church and at the claims to national sovereignty made by the Paris commune.
However, it is the violence of those years that deals the biggest shocks, as Davidson leads us from one phase to the next.
The revolution that sprung from the Enlightenment quickly produced a hysterical, mob-heavy police state, practising summary justice and vicious persecution against more or less anyone it didn’t like the look of, especially priests. September 1792 was a month of dreadful slaughter, even though the Terror itself was still a year off.
(One priest who did manage to escape with his life, though, was Henry Edgeworth, a Jesuit born in Co Longford, who accompanied King Louis to the scaffold.) The French army became an instrument of foreign conquest and theft on a gigantic scale. There was virtual genocide in the Vendée.
During the civil wars of 1793, cannon filled with shot were fired point blank into huge crowds of people in Lyon as a form of political execution. In Nantes, men and women were tied together naked, in so-called, and placed in barges which were towed into the middle of the Loire and scuttled. More than 2,000 people were killed in these mass drownings.
When the Terror did begin, France already had 20,000 police committees, “completely untrained, undisciplined, unorganised and uncontrolled”. These committees would implement the Law of Suspects.
“Public notoriety accuses a citizen of crimes of which no written proofs exist, but whose proof is in the heart of all indignant citizens,” declared Robespierre.
Farewell then to the rule of law. People were tried and executed on suspicion of having pictures of a crucifix or “hatred of Paris”. It was a time of ceaseless political suicides as the suspected, the accused, and the condemned rushed to finish themselves off before the guillotine could.
How did it turn out like this? My guess is that the revolutionaries were mesmerised by the idea of a completely clean break with the past. The chance would not come again.
Reaching L’An Un — Year One — was the glittering prize and the gore it came dripping in could be wiped clean in time. Then, who knows? There remains something deeply mysterious about the whole thing.
Ian Davidson glides too quickly through certain episodes and at other times tries to cram too much in.
In the midst of the fray, he sometimes repeats himself within the space of a couple of pages, but these are minor quibbles. He has produced a compelling single- volume history for the general reader. Recommended.