1 Jan 2008

index | Colin’s home page | books 2002–2004->

Currently reading: Les origines intellectuelles de la Révolution Française by Daniel Mornet

When I received it I was alarmed to find it 500 large pages, and also to find it belonging to a series under the direction of Albert Mathiez and Georges Lefebvre. But I needn’t have worried, since the author’s introduction was enough to gain my confidence – at least in respect of tenor, since nothing will make the pages smaller.

Mornet is erudite and has an instinctive sympathy for the currents of the period. He is not without wit:

D’Argenson tend vers une sorte de socialisme imposé et surviellé par une aristocratie qui n’en prendrait que ce qu’elle voulait.

I was beginning to anticipate the pleasures offered by the works of Lecky and Sir Leslie Stephen in our own country. Unfortunately Mornet belonged to a later century and worked in a university, so every now and then he looks over his shoulder and sees a colleague accusing him of an elementary methodological blunder, and for his own protection he throws in a boring formulaic disclaimer: “we mustn’t imagine, of course, that the opinions of prominent writers are a sure guide to the views of the bulk of society”. Groan.

He uses the lame metaphor “faire le procès de” with irritating frequency.

Recently finished: La Petite Bijou by Patrick Modiano
Pages of French
2007 5770
2006 4500
2005 6530
2004 6300
2003 5400

Audiobook listened to with help from the text. Pleasantly spoken. Left me cold.

Le joueur d’échecs by Stefan Zweig

Audiobook and short story. Good.

Ferrante Pallavicino ou l’Arétin manqué by Jean Lucas-Dubreton

A pamphlet rather than a book, written early in JLB’s life and lacking the assurance of his better-known works. It has the air of being written to circulate among friends rather than for publication.

The author seems to have started out as a Macchiavellianist before becoming an Orleanist. Pallavicino is not without interest, yet it’s easy to turn the pages without caring very much. Perhaps Pallavicino’s discussion of taboo sexual subjects and sympathy for ‘non-conformism’ (ie. homosexuality) struck a chord with JLB. A book about ‘Laurent Valla’ would have been of much deeper interest.

But I’ve lived up to my promise to read more of JLB, which is especially meritorious since this pamphlet bore a price more appropriate to a multi-volume book.

Au piano by Jean Echenoz

A book in 3 parts: the first teasing and colloquial, creating a picture of Max and his life; the last 2 spinning out a plot not too far from Iain Banks, and honestly not of great interest.

It’s noticeable how much more slowly I read the first part, which I liked, than the others, which were so-so. It’s not that I was savouring the first, nor that I was hurrying through the less interesting parts: it’s that any novel portraying a life and its vicissitudes is a reminder of pains and troubles, and so touches raw nerves.

Le siècle de Louis XV by Pierre Gaxotte

A little sentimentalising, and not short of special pleading: at times I found it hard to keep going – Gaxotte’s a dull dog – but I toughed it out.

One of the tensions which worked itself out in French and English history in the modern period is that between the constitutional power granted to the monarch and the constraints on his revenue. The theory was that the king had almost complete control of the organs of government, but that his subjects’ wealth was not his to command.

He had his own sources of income, such as his estate, attainder, and excise duties, and these sufficed to certain needs. In the feudal era the army needed no salary. The gaps were met by makeshifts, some barbaric such as the press-gang and corvées. In times of crisis parliament would grant extra funds. The medieval equivalent of social services was provided through the church.

But as society became more complex and the role of central funding more important, a contradiction arose between the theoretical right of the king to govern on his own, and the constitutional bar to his raising the necessary revenues. This led to conflicts with the ‘popular’ element in the constitution, itself largely bourgeois or aristocratic. Each side condemned the usurpations of the other: parliaments damned the kings for trying to appropriate funding; monarchs admonished parliaments for seeking, by releasing funds conditionally, to gain an influence on policy. Both sides were right because the division of powers had become unworkable, and a resolution required a departure from precedent. Neither side was pure: parliaments were chiefly interested in serving the financial interests of the upper classes, and kings were tempted to spend their revenues on châteaux for their mistresses.

It is very easy for historians to paint the usurpations of one side in glowing colours, asking rhetorically how the other side was supposed to perform its constitutional role other than through the innovations it was pursuing, and to provide spicy anecdotes of the selfish motives actuating the usurpers. The philosophical historian should look deeper. There was an unavoidable conflict, and it would be unreasonable to expect any serious attempt from either side to resolve it rationally. Even so, some behaviours may be more blamable than others. If a parliament goaded a monarch into a war and then witheld the funding, it was behaving unreasonably; if a king loaded his subjects with new taxes while spending money frivolously, he was acting inequitably.

Internal contradictions are resolved by throwing the cards in the air and starting again.

A pile of holiday reading

Aspects de M. Thiers, by Jean Lucas-Dubreton. At 400 pages, rather long for a knocking biography, but the twinkle in the author’s eye makes it enjoyable. JLB wrote very well and judged things clearly: it’s a shame he didn’t write on the revolutionary period, whose historiography has been muddied by less lucid practitioners. I had doubts on JLB’s politics – the word ‘order’ flows too smoothly from his pen – but he seems reasonable. I shall seek to read more of his books, though the narrowness of his interests may prove a barrier.

The darkness of Wallis Simpson by Rose Tremain. A book of short stories. I don’t rate Miss Tremain’s short stories anything like as highly as her novels, and wonder whether the form suits conventional novelists at all. It suits authors – such as Borges, Kafka or SF-writers – whose essence is plot, and others – such as the early Hesse – who are purely lyrical, but does not allow breathing space for the virtues of novelists.

The hill station by J. G. Farrell. Weaker than the other books I’d read by him. The liturgical squabbles would probably have become tedious if developed.

I’m not scared by Niccolò Ammaniti. A gripping story, true to the child protagonist’s outlook and convincing in its portrayal of a south Italian village.

The next 3 were Tracey’s choices.

Pleasures and days by Marcel Proust. I found this rather precious: not my cup of tea at all.

In a summer season by Elizabeth Taylor. Effective, well observed, and sometimes amusing; but a little less concentrated than Jane Austen.

Cochineal red by Hugh Thompson. Interesting enough.

Les champs d’honneur by Jean Ruaud

Anecdotes of the author’s relatives, stylishly written but again without drawing me in. Vocab quite hard.

Le testament Français by Andreï Makine

I read this through without engaging with it.

Je m’en vais by Jean Echenoz

A novel with an interesting twisty plot, not far from a detective story, a little dry but teasingly and engagingly written.

Rouge Brésil by Jean-Christophe Rufin

This won the Prix Goncourt but seems to me rather a pot-boiler. The style is nothing special and the plot a little corny: high-born children swindled of their inheritance by corrupt guardians; that sort of thing.

I wouldn’t say it improved much as I made my way through it, but the character of Villegagnon, based closely on fact, is illuminating on attitudes to the new ideas in religion.

Vocab middling.

Mémoires of the the Marquis d’Argenson

(5 vols; not cheap.) The mémoires proper begin after the biographic notice. Only the first 140 pages of my copy had been cut. I interspersed the mémoires with novels. I’m afraid they were fearfully dull. They concern an exciting period in France’s history, and contain the private knowledge of a literate, well-connected and thoughtful judge, yet they are short on gossip and spite, and rather blinkered in the author’s obsession with courtly string-pulling. I couldn’t be bothered with the correspondence which follows. Vocabulary very easy.

A pile of holiday reading

The birds fall down by Rebecca West. A disappointment. I admire her non-fiction, which has something of the air of an old-testament prophet, but imagined that its dogmatic tone and strong personal voice were incompatible with the virtues of a novelist. I likened her in my own mind to Dr. Johnson, whose Rasselas exhibits similar failings: the characters are mere port-paroles who all talk like Dr. Johnson.

I’d imagined that Rebecca West’s characters would all talk like Rebecca West, but the truth is worse: they too all talk like Dr. Johnson. Kamensky says:

I’ve taken degrees at the Universities of Moscow and Berlin, and I’ve build hydro-electric installations at which nobody dared to look down their nose.

And this is from an author who uses the word ‘chuckleheadedness’ in one of her non-fiction books. The heavy-handed style spoils the humour and weighs down the narrative. The characters are all windbags, and although there are passages of interest, the reader wishes everyone would shut their mouths and do something to advance the plot.

An equal music by Vikram Seth (Tracey’s choice). A sad, lyrical, cultured book.

The Singapore Grip by J. G. Farrell (Tracey’s choice). Much of this has the same faintly patrician tone as the ‘siege of Krishnapur’, though this time the British colonialists receive very short shrift. I found it rather too long because the element of caricature deprives the characters of any claim to sympathy. The muted, ambiguous ending (modelled I suspect on Villette) is superbly accomplished.

Les filles du Calvaire (Part I) by Pierre Combescot

500 pages of very dense text: a virtuoso exercise in stylish slang. This causes problems. Eg.

Les riverains ... avaient d’eux-mêmes relancé la partie par des ragots de la plus fine crème, tout un flan de dégrainage qui n’était pas que de la simple débine mais des potins où chacun y allait de ses impressions personnelles et d’où il ressortait que la môme avait été la bousine d’un Poignardeur avant de se fricoter avec Max le dompteur.

Make sense of that!

I bailed out at the end of Part I. I don’t think I’ll return, because I can’t imagine my French will ever be up to it. This book isn’t worth attempting unless you’ve spent a long lifetime in the Parisian underworld.

Le soleil des Scorta by Laurence Gaudé

A good read, but one which left me rather uninvolved. Vocab pretty easy.

Creezy by Félicien Marceau

A touching love story. Creezy herself is a delightful creation.

Le petit Robert

This has been my French companion since about 2002. It’s about half as large again as Chambers English dictionary. No doubt it’s a fine piece of lexicography, but for the foreign reader at any rate it is let down by typography. Chambers uses bold type to emphasise idioms: eg.

cut vt to penetrate with a sharp edge... cutaway a coat with the skirt cut away... cutback a reduction or decrease...

Harrap’s French-English dictionary has the same layout:

couper, v.tr. To cut... C. dans le vif, to cut to the quick... C. les cartes, to cut...

But the petit Robert uses italics for this purpose, while bold type points to related entries:

couper, v.tr. 1. Diviser avec un instrument tranchant (=> fendre, scier)... Couper un chat, le châtrer... Bise qui coupe le visage. => 2. cingler...

This makes it quite painful to scan through the many senses of a word.

La théorie des nuages by Stéphane Audeguy

I ordered this on the strength of having enjoyed the first few pages of the same author’s detestable Fils unique. La théorie des nuages is a vastly better book, and everything that relates to clouds and Japanese history is well written, interesting and illuminating. A shame that the author’s unhealthy preoccupations cast an unpleasant pall now and then. Vocab. quite easy.

Le rocher de Tanios by Amin Maalouf

A pleasing story set in Maalouf’s Lebanese mountains. Easy to read. Maalouf is rather a water-colourist.

Un aller simple (ie. ‘one way ticket’) by Didier van Cauewelaert

As it says on the blurb, poignant and amusing. Also slangy, humane, and surprising. Van Cauwelaert is not far from Julian Barnes in his outlook.

2007: La bataille by Patrick Rambaud

A semi-fictional account of the battle of Essling. Authoritative and convincing. A good read, vocab fairly hard, but only moderately rewarding. The virtue of historical fiction is the light it may shed on the motives of the actors; but soldiers merely kill each other, which is neither interesting nor pleasant. The portrait of Napoleon, peevish and self-deluding, is the best thing in the book.

Dec 31 2006. A paltry 4500 pages of French (including the first vol of d’Argenson). Some of this in fairness has been quite hard. I have the bit between my teeth for French novels – I get a thrill from each new word.

Fils unique by Stéphane Audeguy

Begins well but sinks into puerility. Ne vaut pas lire.

L’ombre du vent by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

A novel in French set in Barcelona about a Barcelonan novelist writing in Paris. Spooky. A good page-turner. Vocabulary quite hard.

Biographic notice of the Marquis d’Argenson prefixed to his memoirs

Reasonably interesting. I’m reading it to fill time, having ordered but not yet received L’ombre du vent. I will read the memoirs themselves some other time.

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

This filled me with admiration for the author: wonderfully accomplished and full of meaning and insight. Why are her other books so little known? Are they much inferior?

The human race doesn’t emerge with much credit from Suite Française, yet the book has some humour and its detachment is astonishing. The Germans appear in no worse a light than the French, who are mostly petty and contemptible rather than altogether bad.

But it is not a good book to read for anyone less than fluent in the language: she dredges up all sorts of uncommon words.

L’esprit révolutionnaire avant la Révolution by Félix Rocquain

This is an excellent book. The first chapter or two are slow to warm up. The many tussles between court, parliament, dévots and freethinkers make an entertaining and interesting read as Louis XV takes control. But most illuminating for me is the discussion of the Assembly of Notables. Necker – M. Boursoufflé according to Turgot – gets a fairly sympathetic treatment as a well-intentioned reformer, even if less thorough-going than Turgot himself. But Calonne, who I think comes off well from Schama’s account, is dragged through the mud as a corrupt and fraudulent pecculator who buys favour by showing a blind eye to Louis and his queen’s extravagance. The notables are only interested in preserving their own privileges, yet look blameless when the alternative is to have their revenues appropriated by the crown to service gambling debts represented as national expenditure in Calonne’s accounts. I find this the most convincing account I have read of the antecedents of the Revolution; also the most damning of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.

If it has a fault, it is that it concentrates too much on the surface of society. The Revolution brought up a whole new class, who were presumably thinking revolutionary thoughts throughout Louis XVI’s reign, but whose spirit is not captured by Rocquain.

Published 1878. Is it altogether arrieré? If so, why do more recent books – such as Schama’s – carry so much less conviction? Unfortunately it has no index.

Rocquain points me at d’Argenson’s mémoires, which I have ordered; Barbier’s Historical and Anecdotal Journal which I shall perhaps sometime buy; Grimm’s Literary Correspondence and Bachaumont’s mémoires which are prohibitively expensive; and Hardy’s loisirs, which seem to be the most important diary of the revolutionary period and never to have emerged from manuscript.

Eugénie Grandet by Balzac

An audio book in French (I read it as a paper book a little while ago). It sends me to sleep if there is an iota of tiredness anywhere in my brain.

Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Quite thought-provoking in spite of its popular tone.

The conquest of the Incas by John Hemming

Bought in Lima for the flight home; a fascinating but sad story.

A small pile of holiday reading

The cupboard by Rose Tremain. An author I greatly admire, I thought this her best book. Erica is a very sympathetic and believable character, and there is pleasure in the wry digs at American culture.

Ignorance by Milan Kundera. This confirmed my feeling that he has lost his creative spark. His novels always border on the brink of being essays, and the fictional component has been becoming less and less compelling.

The siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell (Tracey’s choice). A very entertaining and interesting read. I was astonished by its rosy outlook and Bigglesy adventure tone, quite remote from the angst and introspection which I imagined to be de rigeur for the contemporary novellist. I have also been astonished by the pseudishness of some of the comments which can be seen on the internet. I imagine it influenced Philip Hensher’s Mulberry Empire, a much darker novel. The different fates of the fallen women in the two books say a lot about their authors’ views of victorian society. I would like to believe Farrell’s the truer, though I don’t think I can; even so, I think that Farrell was the more naturally gifted writer.

Eugénie Grandet by Balzac. Read in French without a dictionary. Melodramatic and vulgar, but perhaps at the right level for my modest understanding of the language.

L’ancien régime by Tocqueville

I’d started this once before and made little progress. The second time round I found it interesting but curiously lopsided. It discusses the French revolution as if it was a peasant revolt, and so makes it seem reasonable and almost inevitable. Yet nearly everything was initiated from Paris, and the peasant grievances provided a pretext rather than a cause (in which the French was not unlike some later revolutions).

Diderot et la société du baron d’Holbach by C. Avezac-Lavigne

The title is misleading: the salon society of the enlightenment is what I’d have liked to read about, but the book is a brief biography of Diderot. The author sees everything through comtian spectacles.

Origins of the French revolution (first chapter) by William Doyle

I reread the bibliographic survey which introduces Doyle’s noted book. I was heartened to see that Doyle’s view of Cobban’s account of the Revolution is not far from my own view of his account of the the nineteenth century. There was a period in which marxist orthodoxy was challenged by ‘maverick’ historians who swallowed the whole thesis of economic determinism, and then propounded non-marxist analyses of the economic factors. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s view of the Civil War seems to be in this vein.

It would indeed be astonishing if there was much truth in the economic analyses of anyone as blinkered as marxists; but then it would be remarkable if there was much truth in anything they said.

Mémoires du comte de Ségur

(3 vols.) The author lived through interesting times but unfortunately didn’t record them. He took part in the American rebellion, and his enthusiastic participation, generous but a little hypocritical, is the most interesting part of the story. He spent the exciting years 1786-1789 as ambassador to Russia, departing on the outbreak of the revolution. The third volume ends with his return to France. He promises insight into the revolutionary turmoil in subsequent volumes, but I suppose he died before he could write them. An eye-witness account from such an intelligent, literate, and well-connected author would be a treasure-trove.

2006: The romance languages by Rebecca Posner

This book is not intended for the lay reader, and is heavy going. I wouldn’t call it well written, and the vocabulary is bound to strike the unversed reader as barbaric:

... the old tonic pronoun forms started to be used to replace disjunctive subject pronouns, while the atonic subject pronouns cliticized to the verb... [p 172].

I nonetheless read it with interest. Prof. Posner is proficient at sitting on fences, and her views sometimes not clear; she possibly wishes to deny the existence of a neuter gender in Italian. Her tendency is to resist facile explanations (such as the disappearance of ‘f’ from Spanish under proto-Iberian influence) while putting nothing in their place. 100 years ago linguistics was very mechanistic, but perhaps the truth is that linguistic change is largely capricious, and perhaps that’s Prof. Posner’s view too.

Morellet’s Mémoires

(Two vols, rebound at vast expense.) The first volume comprises memoirs of the eighteenth century, and I found it less interesting than I’d expected. The second contains memoirs of the Revolution and is much better. Morellet’s reasoning is sometimes rather naive, but there were both liberalism and humanity in his outlook, giving value to his comments.

His main interest, which was almost an obsession, was freedom of trade, which he was inclined to justify on a priori grounds rather than expediency. In 1775 a certain Linguet published an attack on Turgot’s free trade policies, and Morellet wrote a satirical reply, the Theory of Paradox, in which he carried Linguet’s statements to extremes.

Eighteen years later Morellet needed a certificate of citizenship from the revolutionary authorities in order to be able to draw his pension. He approached the commissaires of his commune, and one of them, a former hairdresser, recognised him, saying “I know you – you’re the person who wrote a shameless apology for despotism calling itself a theory of paradox”. Morellet never got his certificate, but all three commissaires lost their heads as the revolution consumed itself.

Dec 31 2005. My French reading stalled in the last quarter of the year, due to other claims on my time and to some poorly chosen books; Morellet’s first volume nonetheless takes me to 6530 pages.

In the coming year I hope to get through some more audio books, and to start a second pass through French history, though I have no particular books in mind.

Cinq Mars by Alfred de Vigny

I found this rather dull.

The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser

Having found this book irresistable to browse in a friend’s house, I found it slightly less satisfying to read. The anecdotes and information are fascinating, but the sociological theorising lets it down.

A small pile of holiday reading

Namely Instructions to servants by Swift; Dr. Johnson’s London by Liza Piccard; Nanda Devi: a journey to the last sanctuary by Hugh Thomson; Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson; and The man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag by Jim Corbett. The Swift is amusing but the idea behind it tires quickly; the London book is interestingly anecdotal; the Fernet Branca hilarious; and the Indian books are good reads.

Histoire de la langue française by Mireille Huchon

Although not quite popular in style I found this book pleasant to read; Mme. Huchon is not as dry as might be feared from a teacher at the Sorbonne.

Continuation of Chastenet’s Troisième

(2 vols.: De Pétain à de Gaulle and Un monde nouveau). I found the volume on the second world war less convincing than earlier ones: it makes too many excuses for Pétain. But coming to the end of the contemporary volume (which reaches 1970) I feel more sympathy for the author, who shows distaste for certain aspects of modern society, though as always his view is nuanced.

This takes my French total to 5295 pages. I also completed Cobban’s History of modern France.

The theory of history. History is falsified by being aligned with the centuries; its true rhythm is syncopated.

False history

True history


Reformation and
wars of religion




Wars of



The rise of
absolute monarchies









Reform and









World wars


Les dieux ont soif by Anatole France

This was okay. It scandalised France’s leftist friends by being critical of the Revolution. For my part I regard the moral status of the Revolution as not needing comment, and prefer books which explain to those which judge. I greatly admire Hilary Mantel’s Place of greater safety.

Rue des boutiques obscures by Patrick Modiano

(Book and audiobook.) Interesting.

Histoire de la troisième république by Jacques Chastenet

(7 vols.) Snappier than la Gorce, I found it more readable, though I was unaccustomed to having events dispatched so quickly. The political animus in Chastenet’s account is barely discernible (I don’t regret its absence). I think he’s a conservative.

Comparing him with Cobban I find the latter quite leftish; his account of the commune and its suppression cannot quite be trusted because of its selectiveness. Cobban shows unmerited sympathy for Gambetta’s stupid guerre à outrance.

The third republic never seems worth admiration, and at the end falls into contempt. It seems to be a succession of politicians who show themselves radical in the criticism of the rule of others, conservative in the use of power, and adept at concealing their vacuity by alternately attacking the church and singing panegyrics for the revolution of 1789. In the final decade they abdicate in favour of the trade unions.

But in spite of this they accomplished useful reforms without having to worry about the sucseptibilities of a crowned head.

If the governments were bad the oppositions were worse. Boulangism is almost benign seen against the fascist leagues of the twenties and thirties. This seems to be the curse of French politics. When I read the history of earlier periods I saw it as a defect of the left, but when a peaceful government of the left is established the oppositions of the right are no better.

For style I found Chastenet quite pleasant. He is mannered, but he is none the less for that readable. He was well versed in English history, and scraps of Franglais keep on slipping through: ‘le « dumping »’; « last but no least » (presumably a typographer’s error).

There is a continuation; I shall read it. The troisième takes my total of French to 4035 pages for 6 months.

A small pile of holiday reading

Antic Hay (rather cheap), Rose Tremain’s The Colour, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Rob MacFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind.

Dec 31. My French total for the year has reached 6300 pages, much to my surprise. I’ve become fluent in la Gorce’s idiolect but still struggle with the rest of the language. But I shan’t set a target for 2005 because I no longer need to be goaded into reading French, which seems the natural thing to do, while the pressure to get more pages in can make it a grind.

In the coming year I plan to read Morellet’s memoirs and Chastenet’s 7 volume history of the 3rd republic.

2005: Histoire du Second Empire by Pierre de la Gorce

(7 vols.) I started to become fed up with la Gorce in his previous book, but derived pleasure from the present one. His politics don’t jar in the way they sometimes do, and this is for the reason I predicted, namely the lack of characters for whom he feels much approval. The advantage of Napoleon is his adventurous (and no doubt foolhardy) foreign policy, which is exactly in the true spirit of history as identified eg. by Gibbon. The domestic affairs in the first half of the reign are unspeakably dull though.

I dip into Cobban’s history occasionally for a more modern interpretation. Really I don’t know how to read a book such as Cobban’s. On its own it’s so concise that the reader has to take the author’s judgements on trust. Read as a commentary on a fuller account such as la Gorce’s it’s very useful. Presumably it’s meant to be read as a commentary on the primary sources which the diligent reader has already studied.

Perhaps I’m beginning to find some stylistic interest in la Gorce, though this may not amount to much more than becoming attuned to his mannerisms. Mannered he is, but readable nonetheless. His account of the 1867 exposition has a lyrical tone – I assume he experienced it himself – but I end the book as I began it, feeling it to be serviceable rather than truly eloquent. La Gorce becomes a little too sympathetic to Badinguet.

I apologise sincerely for taking so long over la Gorce. In my defence they are 7 large volumes.

The final section (Plus ça change) in volume 2 of Cobban’ History of Modern France is an interesting commentary on the events that have been narrated. He points out the paradox that in spite of 3 revolutions France changed less in the course of a century than the seemingly stable England. He puts this down to the increased economic power which the 1789 revolution gave to property-owners, though the propertied interest was hardly weak in England. (He adds the observation that ‘in nineteenth century France political life was the expression of the most blatant materialism’.)

He mentions that French society was ‘also torn by periodic gusts of violent and political disturbance’ which is ‘also evidence of the conservatism of a society’ which ‘seemed under the compulsion to re-enact periodically’ its first attempt at revolution. He finds the political effect of these uprisings in the changes of administrative personnel they brought about.

Cobban’s belief in the primacy of economic forces shows itself in an aside: “the raison d’être of the July Monarchy was to protect the interests of property, and when Louis-Philippe was no longer able to do so... Louis-Napoleon took up the task.” This implies that the transfer of power from one to the other through the intermediaries of a radical and then a conservative republic was a sort of bankers’ conspiracy. Neither Lucas Dubreton nor la Gorce breathe a hint of such an influence, and Cobban himself, when describing the 1848 revolution, calls it first a ‘revolution by accident’ and then a ‘quarrel between the Ins and the Outs’ which unintentionally set fire to an ‘inflammable social situation’.

What seems to me unaccountable in this period of French history is not how the country was governed but how the government was opposed. It is hard to imagine anything more self-defeating than to be a doctrinaire republican democrat in a society in which nearly everyone has strong feelings of dynastic loyalty; yet that and even more extreme measures were the main aims of the opposition groupings. If we compare the conservative parties in the 2 countries – stretching say from Wellington to Peel and from Poligny to Guizot – things don’t seem all that different; but if we compare the oppositions, we see on the one side a persistent agitation for useful progressive measures, and on the other an attempt to impose bizarre utopian schemes by bloodthirsty means. In Britain the liberals pushed the government towards reform while in France the revolutionaries brought on nothing but repression and complacency. It seems that something nasty got into the French political bloodstream in 1789 and lodged there for a century. Perhaps it came from Rousseau.

Cobban attributes French conservatism to economic forces, and the stupidity of the opposition to its marginalisation, whereas I don’t see that he has made a case for economic forces acting differently in France than in England, and feel that the lack of a constructive progressive opposition did much to entrench the conservatives. The speculative and violent character of French opposition politics, whatever its cause, predates the economic changes which Cobban sees as the determining factor.

I think that Cobban was seen as dangerously conservative in the days when marxism held more sway; but now that it’s possible to step back a little it can be seen that when his objectivity is compromised it’s always with a leftward bias.

index | Colin’s home page | books 2002–2004->