Robert Stewart

A country of ruins

Robert Stewart reviews Robert Gildea's history of France

Contributers to multi-volume national histories are usually straitjacketed, expected to keep to well-trodden paths. But Robert Gildea’s subtitle is ‘the French’, not France, and in the third volume of the New Penguin History of France to be published he wanders freely. Foreign policy, for example, gets short shrift. Instead, a chapter is devoted to the French view of foreigners. Mathematics, science and medicine are sidelined, but the treatment of women is spacious. The political chapters are there and so are the socio-economic ones. The political narrative down to 1870, awash with names, is a bit helter-skelter. Of little interest to the initiated, it may have green undergraduates reeling. The handling of economic and social matters is livelier, partly because Gildea makes no attempt to be exhaustive: no discussion, beloved of English historians of the period, of rising or falling standards of living, no mention of birth and death rates. The poverty of statistics has always made conclusions about such things tentative, to say the least, and Gildea relies instead, as he does elsewhere in the book, on brief lives, thumbnail sketches offered as exemplary. Some readers may think there are too many of them, but that is a matter of taste.

Echoes of British history abound. Secret trade unions were banned in France in 1834, the very year that the Tolpuddle martyrs were transported to Australia for swearing secret oaths. An 1833 law requiring every commune to provide primary education coincided with the first Education Act to be passed in England. (The slow pace of educational advance thereafter put paid to Napoleon’s professed interest in ‘careers open to talent’: rising in the civil service and the army continued to depend more upon good connexions than anything else, in which regard the 19th-century administrative elite differed little from the noblesse de robe of the ancien régime).

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