Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914

By Robert Gildea

(Harvard University Press, 540 pp., $35)

 The history of France in the "long nineteenth century" is bookended by slaughter. At one end stand the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and at the other, World War I, both of which left the country traumatized, exhausted, and grieving for a lost generation. Remarkably, though, these two exercises in exsanguination have failed to overshadow the years in between as heavily as one might expect. France between 1815 and 1914 seems almost to belong to a different, and considerably happier, dimension of history.

Seen from the outside, the reason lies mainly in literature and the arts. The names suffice to tell the story: Stendhal, Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Zola, Proust, Ingres, Delacroix, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Monet, Rodin, Berlioz, to cite only the most obvious. Rarely, if ever, has a century in the life of a nation seen such a dazzlingly intense series of artistic achievements. The French are all too painfully aware that in the ninety years since World War I they have achieved nothing comparable; and the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to J.M.G. Le Clezio did nothing to change this fact.

In other respects as well, nineteenth-century France can be seen as something of a success story. In politics, it is certainly true that the years from 1800 to 1871 saw the country lurch back and forth between empire, monarchy, and republic, the transitions punctuated by vicious civil unrest--but the unrest was mostly short-lived (even the bloody Paris Commune of 1871 lasted only a few months), and had correspondingly small death tolls, at least in comparison with the earlier bloodletting of the French Revolution. And after 1870, France managed to transform itself into a relatively stable republic that arguably did a better job than any other nineteenth-century democracy in securing the rights and the liberties of its citizens (certainly better than the segregated, post-Reconstruction United States, or Great Britain dominated by wealthy landed and industrial interests).

Economically, the country remained relatively undeveloped. At the end of the nineteenth century, 41 percent of the French labor force still worked on the land, compared to just 9 percent of the British, and a large majority of the population lived in villages or small towns. The lives of French peasants were hard, sometimes brutally hard, but probably less so than those of industrial workers in a Manchester factory or a Pennsylvania coal mine. Moreover, most French peasants owned their own farms, and their children had increasingly good chances of social mobility, regularly moving from the land into teaching and the civil service. All in all, France probably weathered the century's industrial revolutions as well as any major Western nation.

In foreign affairs, the French avoided repeating the epochal disasters of Napoleon's First Empire for an entire century. True, Napoleon's nephew Louis-Napoleon, who ruled from 1848 to 1870 (first as president, then as emperor), had a weakness for ill-advised military adventures in such far-flung places as the Crimea, Mexico, China, and Italy. His brainless decision to go to war with Prussia in 1870 cost him his throne, and led to a German occupation of northern France, and deprived the country of Alsace-Lorraine. Still, by the bloody standards of modernity, the mercifully short Franco-Prussian War remains a relatively minor conflict.

The country's most dubious collective enterprise during this period is the one the French themselves took the greatest pride in: the acquisition of a vast colonial empire. By 1914, the tricolor flag flew across most of Western and North-Western Africa, Indochina, and a score of islands and enclaves across the world. In the twentieth century, France would pay for the conquests, the expropriation of resources, and the violent disruption of indigenous societies with its agonizing defeats in Vietnam and Algeria, and the dangerous social tensions connected with immigration from former colonies. But in 1914, few people could yet glimpse this imperial tragedy in the making.

The art of reducing a long and varied history of this sort to a book-length narrative is not an easy one. All too often, historians boil away the complexity and the flavor, leaving nothing but an insipid textbook broth of familiar facts. Yet occasionally a talented and seasoned historian can undertake the exercise in such a way as to shape understandings of a subject well beyond the academy. Nineteenth-century France has attracted more than its share of such historians. In France in Modern Times, which covered the Revolution and the twentieth century as well, the liberal American Gordon Wright called attention above all to ideological conflict, and lucidly showed how ideology shaped the memory and interpretation of events, as well as the events themselves. The brilliantly eccentric Briton Theodore Zeldin, who wrote many volumes on the period 1848-1945, developed what he called a "pointilliste" method, which rejected traditional chronologies and built a larger picture out of thousands of tiny snapshots of lives and events, grouped under such idiosyncratic headings as "happiness and humor," or "logic and verbalism." The great French neo-liberal Francois Furet kept the focus relentlessly on politics and political philosophy, casting the period 1770-1880 as one in which France first succumbed to, and then slowly freed itself from, the great pathologies of modern politics, as expressed especially in the revolutionary Reign of Terror.

Robert Gildea has aimed to produce another work of this caliber, as part of a high-level new series. He does not match these illustrious predecessors, but he has produced a stimulating and highly readable, if somewhat uneven, volume. Despite its title, its story really begins in 1815, with only cursory treatment given to Napoleon I and his Empire. (The catastrophic Russian campaign of 1812, for instance, gets one-quarter of the space devoted to a trip to the Middle East by the poet Gerard de Nerval.)

With Zeldin as a large exception, nearly all previous students of the subject have seen their job as a kind of historical seismology, tracing out the profound and complex effects that the earthquake of the French Revolution wrought on France's political and social terrain. This is understandable enough. The French themselves remained obsessed with the Revolution, and defined their politics in relation to it until well after 1914. Furet went so far as to call his volume La Revolution: 1770-1880. Yet this choice of frame is also a pity, for it risks reducing some of the most interesting and original aspects of the story to little more than echoes of, and reactions to, the primal event. Most obviously, it is utterly inadequate as explanatory background for the stunning literary and artistic achievements. Yes, Stendhal and Victor Hugo were obsessed by Napoleon, and yes, the arts attracted brilliant and ambitious young men who might earlier have ventured into politics, but these facts tell us nothing about the character or quality of what was created. And while a longing for lost Napoleonic grandeur surely lay behind France's launching itself into the race for empire, this point explains little about the nature of the empire, or its future trajectory. Even in politics, historians run the risk of reducing a complex and continually evolving series of conflicts to an endless replaying of the same original revolutionary scenario.

Gildea's title would suggest that he has fallen into this same familiar pattern, and in fact the book begins with a rousing salvo of cliches on the subject: "On every generation to which it gave birth the French Revolution left its mark.... The Revolution divided the French into two irreconcilable camps." The introduction then continues with a reductionist survey of the nineteenth century as the story of five generations, each of which supposedly struggled with the revolutionary legacy in its own lockstep way. The "generation of 1800" was "intensely self-aware." The "generation of 1830" was "a generation of builders rather than dreamers." The generation of 1890 tended toward ideological extremes and had a "taste for action." Like cliches about "the greatest generation" and the "baby boomers" (perhaps not coincidentally, Gildea, born in 1952, belongs to the most talked-about generation in history), such generalizations are far too broad and shallow to tell us anything serious about the periods in question.

Fortunately Gildea is too good a historian to rest his work on such a flimsy scaffolding, and after the introduction the five generations vanish from the book almost entirely. More conventionally, but also more sensibly, Children of the Revolution actually divides the century into two broad parts, with the dividing line at 1870-1871, when a stable republic came into being following the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War. Moreover, despite occasional references to the marks, scars, wounds, traumas, etc. of 1789, the Revolution looms over the book much less than the title would suggest. Somewhat like Zeldin, Gildea has chosen to move away from any overarching narrative at all, by dividing each of his two parts into seven chapters that look, in turn, at politics, the provinces, class structure, religion, women, the arts, and the relation between France and the wider world (an additional chapter at the start of Part II tells the story of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune). At its best, this strategy works like a narrative son et lumieres to illuminate different facets of the subject.

Like many British historians of France today, Gildea writes under the shadow not only of Zeldin, but of another great Oxford predecessor, Richard Cobb. Cobb devoted his career to the French Revolution, and told the story at street level, through the experiences of ordinary, often eccentric men and women struggling to survive in the political maelstrom, whom he adamantly refused to collapse into anonymous "masses" acting at the behest of abstract historical "forces." Writing from the perspective of the cynical, hard-bitten working class Parisians among whom he lived for many years, Cobb had particular scorn for ideology and high-flown rhetoric, dismissing the pretensions of the Jacobins as "Saint-Just's hideous cardboard Sparta." Gildea leaned particularly toward Cobb in his recent book Marianne in Chains, which examined the experience of ordinary French people under Vichy. Controversially, he reached the conclusion that collaboration with the Germans was not only more common, but also more defensible, than earlier historians had maintained.

Children of the Revolution is a more conventional book than Cobb or Zeldin would have written, but it bears their influence. Except for the two political survey chapters, which cram a century's worth of events into clear but rushed narratives, the book makes its points mostly through snapshots of individual lives. To illustrate the religious revival of the early nineteenth century, Gildea uses the tireless peasant-born priest Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney, cure of Ars (later canonized), whose confessional had an eight-day waiting list by 1845, even though he sometimes spent fifteen hours a day hearing confessions. Female work in the 1870s is personified by Jeanne Bouvier, who started in a silk-mill at age eleven, went on to a dizzying series of positions in domestic service, and then successively made her living as a hat-, corset-and dressmaker, earning anywhere from ten to forty-five francs a week, at the mercy of the economy and the season. As for literary figures, Gildea fails to resist the irresistible Germaine de Stael, daughter of the last chief minister of the Old Regime, lover of Benjamin Constant, eloquent novelist and penetrating liberal thinker. He also makes excellent use of the aristocratic salon hostess and feminist Marie d'Agoult, the lover of Liszt and romantic rival of George Sand.

In keeping with his delight in quirkily human exceptions to grand narratives, Gildea artfully deploys the sort of ironic quotations that quietly disrupt the expected story line. In retrospect, Emperor Louis-Napoleon may well appear reckless, erratic, and not overly bright, but just four months before he fell, Leon Gambetta, the future founder of the Third Republic, could declare that "the Empire is stronger than ever." Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir may now stand as one of the greatest triumphs of French fiction, but at the time of its publication the public and the critics alike considered it a disaster, and in its first year it sold barely 1500 copies. On learning in 1831 that Simon Bolivar had died, Stendhal wrote to a friend: "Do you know from what? From envy at the success of the Rouge." The playwright Sylvain Marichal has a reputation as one of the most radical defenders of Revolutionary republicanism, but in 1801 he could still publish a pamphlet entitled Bill to Prohibit Teaching Women to Read. And who was it that attacked Russian Jewish immigrants in 1890 as "these despicable people [coming] into a country that is not theirs"? None other than the wealthy, assimilated Sephardic Jewish literary critic Bernard Lazare.

Gildea's methods work well for the themes that he has identified as central. The chapters on the provinces show brilliantly how a generation of Romantic writers began to identify particular personalities for the different regions of France, rooted in a combination of geography, language, folklore, and custom. Gildea traces the growing tension between this vision and the demands of the rigidly centralized state apparatus inherited from Napoleon. "Everything moves towards Paris," he quotes the Second Empire's great urban planner Baron Haussmann, in 1859: "main roads, railways, telegraphs. Everything moves out from it: laws, decrees, decisions, orders, officials." Gildea particularly shows how state officials started to see the profusion of dialects and local languages (Breton, Basque, Gascon, Proven?al) as a threat to national unity, and made instruction in standard French a priority for the school system. Yet the state did not attempt to eradicate these languages and provincial identities altogether, recognizing the need for provincials to identify with a folkloric "petite patrie" as well as the big national one.

Gildea's chapters on religion likewise manage the difficult feat of treating French Catholicism and anti-clericalism alike with sensitivity and understanding, while explicating the long, bitter quarrels between the two and also giving a full picture of French Jewry and French anti-Semitism. Gildea does not neglect the ferocity with which the French right attacked Jews in the last two decades of the century (culminating in the Dreyfus Affair), but he also shows the remarkable success achieved by French-born Jews at a time when most other Western countries still threw up far higher barriers to their social advancement.

The discussion of literature and the arts is less successful. Gildea does his best to fit them into a broad social and cultural context, but the pressure of covering so much greatness--not to mention such broad topics as "mass culture"--in fifty-odd pages leaves little room. He provides telling statistics, for instance, on increases in the reading public and book publishing (the first more than doubled between 1801 and 1871, while the second increased more than fivefold just between 1814 and 1866); but he fails to provide a key part of the explanation, which is that the replacement of expensive rag paper by cheap wood pulp allowed publishers to slash their production costs. In general, the treatment of modernism suffers from being kept separate from discussions of technological change, and the industrialized "modern life" that it struggled to represent. Here the dividing line of 1870 also becomes overly rigid, because it separates Baudelaire (pre-1870) from the Symbolist poets that he did so much to influence. And then there are odd omissions: Renoir, Rodin, and the entire subject of photography, which the nineteenth-century French largely created and then turned into an art form.

Most egregious is the way Gildea neglects the many things that do not fit into his chosen themes. He has no chapters on science or social science, so that major figures such as Comte and Pasteur go unmentioned. Marie Curie wins a brief mention only because of her gender, and Durkheim an even briefer one only because of his Judaism (something that would have distressed to no end this proud republican Frenchman). Material on technological change and the rise of industrial capitalism gets into Gildea's book only when relevant to class conflict, so that such large topics as the rise of the factory system pass essentially undiscussed. In his brief, rather scattershot treatment of international relations, Gildea neglects to mention most of Louis-Napoleon's adventures, including the interventions in China and Mexico, and the Crimean War.

Strangest of all, Gildea has little to say on the French colonial empire, particularly before 1870. In one of the two lengthy and informative chapters on women, he quotes the feminist Flora Tristan, in 1843, calling women "the last slaves who still remain in French society." Left painfully unmentioned is the fact that in 1843 French plantation owners in Guadeloupe and Martinique still kept enslaved hundreds of thousands of blacks, who had been freed during the Revolution, only to be re-enslaved by Napoleon. (The Second Republic, as readers will not learn from this book, finally abolished slavery for good in 1848.) Nor does Gildea give more than passing mention to the fact that by 1914 Algiers and other areas of North Africa had become in large part French, with considerable European settler populations, impressive French architecture, and the legal status of French departments. By 1914, few people in France actually thought of Algeria as a "colony" at all, preferring to see it the way Americans today see Hawaii. In practice, the French denied citizenship to those living under "Koranic law," and equally managed to keep the indigenous populations of West Africa in a subservient position, even while touting France's "mission to civilize" these supposedly benighted areas of the globe. Yet the rhetoric of "civilization" cut both ways, leading the French to invest considerable amounts in schooling, language instruction and physical infrastructure in the empire, and providing paths to full citizenship for a "meritorious" minority of the conquered (notably North African Jews). These policies would all have huge consequences for the history of France and its empire after 1914.

Until relatively recently, historians tended to play down this imperial history. Following the decolonization of the 1950s and 1960s, French commentators and historians tended, defensively, to redefine France's imperial ventures as a temporary phase in the country's history, whose natural arc led to the independence of the now "mature" colonies. But these ideas obscure the very different, and very central, place that the colonies held in French visions of their country in the previous century, and also the very real inter-penetration of colonial and metropolitan life, in economics, politics, and culture. It is too bad that Gildea reinforces the prevailing post-colonization views rather than challenging them, as so many historians have recently done. (Today roughly half of all dissertations on French history in North American universities focus on the empire.)

Still, no general survey can hope to treat all subjects equally. Furet, for instance, neglected far broader areas of the French experience in the nineteenth century (including imperialism), so as to focus intently on the alleged pathologies of French democracy. Robert Gildea has drawn very effectively on recent research in the areas he chooses to explore, and he presents his material in admirably lucid and entertaining prose. And, above all, he succeeds in one central task: showing just how surprisingly livable and creative France was during this golden century-long interval between two moments of horror. No wonder that so many remain nostalgic for it, and not just within the country's borders.

David A. Bell is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

By David A. Bell