Citizens: a Chronicle of the French Revolution
© 1989 Simon Schama
Mon dieu, this was a read. My first mentor and first college-level history professor recommended this to me back in 2004, although its girth has intimidated me for years. (I’ve not yet read Gibbon for the same reason.) Out of persistent affection for my instructor and my newfound interest in popular movements and revolts, I braved Citizens and found it an engaging read which not only made good my ignorance of the Revolution, but forced me to reconsider what little I knew of it. Although it has loomed large over my imagination, enjoying it was only a matter of sitting down, opening it up, and reading the first few sentences.
The author purposely returns to a style of historical narrative that hinges on the actions of individuals and the importance of dramatic events, eschewing the more detached and analytical style of Marxist historians who see revolutions of the middle class against feudal orders as historical inevitabilities. I’m fairly comfortable with historical materialism, although not so devout a materialist that Schama’s focus on France’s individual situation, culture, and the effect of charismatic persons perturbed me. Schama frequently appears in the text as an individual (“I do not mean to say…”) when explaining the significant of an event to the reader. While I’ve been told this is unprofessional for a historian, it does have the effect of reminding the reader that this is an individual opinion: opinions can sound like absolute facts when stated in the objective, authorial voice that is encouraged among historians.
Schama’s broad treatment of the Revolution reevaluates traditional accounts of the shakeup that place emphasis on France’s economic woes and see the outbreak of violence as unnecessary and tragic. He sees the failure of France’s monarchy as virtual suicide, while the opening moves for reform practically institutionalized violence against the old regime. Schama’s most interesting observation for me was that far from being a government mired in the past, Louis XVI’s government was obsessed with modernity, and those who desired the government to change had opposing interests even when working together. Relatedly, Schama’s idea that the Parlements found so much power in agitating against the government that even when the king and his ministers attempt to repair the ship of state, they blocked his attempts and forced failure fascinated me. Citizens shows well a nation’s descent into chaos, although two-thirds in the emphasis on individuals and particular events made it difficult for me to grasp the general story.
For a student of France and the Revolution, Citizens is a worthy read.