La Belle France: a Short History
© 2005 Alistair Horne
I have rarely enjoyed any book as much as La Belle France, a quick sprint through French history that begins in the Roman era. Initially focusing on a small town named Paris on an island in the middle of the Seine, Horne moves swiftly through hundreds of years of kings, riots, and wars to end in the early 1990s with the election of Jacques Chiraq. Horne is obviously affectionate toward his subject, at the beginning musings on his native England and France’s conjoined destinies. I’ve not encountered a general survey of French history since my freshman days, and this thoroughly delighted me. Horne’s narrative is a genuine story, one that grows increasingly detailed as he approaches the modern era. Horne is ever-present, and frequently employs anecdotes about France during his periods of visiting it. His voice betrays a slight bias toward strong leaders and orderly reform, wringing his hands regarding mass action like revolutions, prolonged strikes, and student protests. This bias doesn’t show up until the book hits the 19th century. His focus is also only on France proper: Canada, Algeria, and France’s problems in Vietnam get scant attention.
Horne covers thousands of years in only a little over four hundred pages, moving quickly through the centuries. From time to time he pauses to reflect on France’s course, making the book an efficient read for someone who needs a “big picture” approach. I checked this book out for such an approach, thinking it would help me during what was intended to be a French-themed week (the week of 14 June). It still informed my reading of Citizens, Horne’s general story allowing me to bring Schama’s many details into focus. Overall I think the book a solid hit: easily one of the most readable and entertaining general histories I’ve yet read. I want to read more of the author, and was particularly interested in his book on the Commune of Paris until I saw in here that he focused chiefly on its bloodshed. The Seven Ages of Paris will probably be my next Horne read.